A podcast listener named Brandon writes in: “Pastor John, in your book Spectacular Sins, your main point is that God can and does ordain that sin happen in order to accomplish His glorious purposes, of which I agree. But it raised a question in my mind. Since God uses sin to accomplish His purposes, is it true to say then that there are some of God’s plans that only sin can fulfill? Does this mean that there is a need or necessity for sin in his ultimate plan?”
My answer is yes. In God’s ultimate plan, sin has a necessary place. And I will try to explain why from the Bible. But first let me say that the word “necessary” does not mean that God is somehow constrained or trapped by forces outside himself that necessitate that he include something in his plan which he doesn’t freely choose to include. Get that whole constellation of thoughts around the word “necessity” out of your head. Beware of picturing God as forced or necessitated to do what he doesn’t really choose to do. What we are saying is that God has planned the very best world for the accomplishment of his goal to magnify the fullness of his glory. And I say that is the ultimate goal of the creation of the world and the governance of the world, to magnify his glory, because of Romans 9:20–23, which I will let people look up. So why do I say that in God’s ultimate plan sin has a necessary place? I say it because of three passages of Scripture, for starters. And there are others.
1) Second Timothy 1:9, “[He] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works, but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” So grace is the disposition and action of God to treat guilty people better than we deserve. It can come to us only because of Jesus Christ and therefore Paul says that grace is given to us in Jesus Christ before the ages began. We were undeserving sinners in God’s mind before we were created. We were seen in relationship to a redeemer, Jesus Christ. And grace flowed to us in the mind of God before there was any creation. And therefore when the plan begins to unfold, guilt, sin, grace, redeemer are necessary.
2) Ephesians 1:4–7, “[God] chose us in him” — mark that — “before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ,” — so, predestined through Jesus Christ, chosen in Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world — “according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, with which he blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”
Again, the point is that before the foundation of the world, grace is operative. The grace of election, the grace of predestination, the grace of adoption all coming to us in him, through Jesus. So Christ is conceived of as a mediator and a redeemer before the foundation of the world, where grace is moving God to elect us and predestine us and adopt us sinners, though we be in need of grace and in need of a Savior before we were created. So the whole plan is conceived before he implements it and therefore it is a necessary part of the plan.
3) And the third text is Revelation 13:8, maybe the clearest of all. “All who dwell on earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” So there is a book where names are written before the foundation of the world and the book has a name and the name of the book is the life of the Lamb who was slaughtered. So Christ is slaughtered for his elect sinners before the foundation of the world. So from those three passages I conclude in God’s ultimate plan, which he conceived in his mind before he created the world, sin has a necessary place because grace and a redeemer are going to be exalted.
And at this point it is very important that we stress the holiness of God when we say this. God’s holiness is not the least compromised or impugned by the fact that God wills for unholy acts to take place. We can see this, for example, in the book of Isaiah. Few books lift up the holiness of God like Isaiah. You remember chapter 6. “One [angel] called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). That three-fold “holy” is one of the strongest biblical statements there is about the unimpeachable holiness, purity, sinlessness of God.
Yet it is Isaiah who in 63:17 says, “O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” So God is ordaining for whatever the rationale and reason here that there be a season in which this people not fear him. With a partial explanation, perhaps, given in the next chapter, where he says, “There is no one who calls on your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have handed us over to our iniquities” (Isaiah 64:7).
So Isaiah, on the one hand, gives the highest testimony of God’s holiness and spotlessness and sinlessness and, on the other hand, gives one of the clearest statements of how God wills that sin happen in certain situations.
So I would say on the basis of the Bible, three things that many people find hard to put together, but the Bible does, so I try:
1) God is absolutely sovereign and governs all things including the existence of sin.
2) The absolute, unimpeachable holiness and sinlessness and purity of God.
3) The complete responsibility and accountability of all human beings to believe and to do the things they know are right to believe and do.
But now I find it helpful — and I end here — I find it helpful to take Genesis 50:20, which Joseph spoke over his brothers who sold him into slavery, and to put it as a great banner over all evil — even the very first evil that was committed by Lucifer in heaven. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”