We start the week with a question from a listener, Rob, who writes in to ask, “Pastor John, as someone who is Reformed/Calvinist, I highly appreciate Jonathan Edwards, who claims that (1) free will is doing what we desire, but that (2) God gives us the desire to do good. With that being said, and keeping James 1:13 in mind, I’m having trouble understanding where Lucifer received his first desire to sin.
“Norman Geisler says that ‘the unmistakable logical conclusion for the extreme Calvinist [is that] both Lucifer and Adam sinned because God gave them the desire to sin’ (Chosen But Free, 36). I would imagine that Adam received his desire to sin from Eve, who received it from the serpent/Satan, but if God is sovereign over all things — including our desires — would that make him the initial author of the first desire to sin?” How do you answer this mystery?
The Original Fall
For as many years as I can remember, I have said that this is among the mysteries in my theology for which I do not have an adequate answer. The specific question here is how — how is a key word here — did the first sin come about? By “the first sin,” I don’t mean Adam’s first sin. I mean Satan’s first sin, the very first sin in the universe.
“To say that Satan had free will is not an explanation for why he committed his first sin.”
The Bible opens not with the beginning of evil, but with the presence of unexplained evil. Man is created innocent, and the serpent is already there. The serpent is deceitful and manifestly opposed to the God of creation. That is where the Bible begins.
As far as I can see, no explanation is offered in the Bible for how Satan became evil. I know there are hints that he was a perfect angel created by God. Jude refers to angels who did not stay within their own position of authority but left their proper dwelling. He says that God has kept these angels in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day (Jude 6).
I don’t doubt that Satan was created good and fell from his proper place like Jude says, because I don’t think that evil and God are both eternal and ultimate realities. I am not a dualist: God and his goodness and wisdom and power are the only ultimate, eternal realities. Evil is somehow derivative. It is secondary, without God being a sinner. Concerning all of that, virtually all Christians agree on.
Answers Few and Futile
How did Satan become evil? I do not know. It is plain to me that those who believe in ultimate self-determination of God’s creatures (like angels and humans) don’t know either. To say that Satan had free will — that is, ultimate self-determination — is not an explanation for why he committed his first sin. It is a label. It is not an explanation.
It is a label of a mystery. How could a perfectly good being — with a perfectly good will and a perfectly good heart — ever experience any imperfect impulse that would cause the will to move in the direction of sin? The answer is that nobody knows, including those who say, “Oh, it is free will.” That is not an explanation. It is a name for a mystery.
We don’t know. The Bible doesn’t explain how. Rob quotes Norman Geisler, who says, “The unmistakable logical conclusion for the extreme Calvinist [is that] both Lucifer and Adam sinned because God gave them the desire to sin.” Now I am not sure whether I qualify as Geisler’s “extreme Calvinist,” but I strongly suspect that I do.
At this point I am disagreeing with that description of me, and I am saying, “No, I am not driven to say God gave Lucifer his first desire to sin. That is an oversimplification of virtually everybody’s viewpoint. I do not know how Lucifer came to feel his first inclination to rebel against God.”
Sovereign He Stands
Here is what I do know. God is sovereign. Nothing comes to pass apart from his plan, which includes things he more or less causes directly — things he more or less permits indirectly. There is no doubt in my mind that Satan’s fall and all the redemptive plan of God for the glory of his grace afterward were according to God’s eternal plan.
“The Bible opens not with the beginning of evil, but with the presence of unexplained evil.”
But it is precisely at this point that the how of the causality, how Satan’s first sin worked, that we do not know. I have a category in my thinking for the fact that God can see to it that something comes to pass which he hates.
This is what he did, for example, when he planned the crucifixion of Jesus, according to Acts 4:27–28. The murder of Jesus was sinful, and it was planned down to the detail by God. You can read it in the Psalms, and you can read it in the New Testament.
Precisely how God does that while maintaining his sinlessness and the sin of the things that come about and the moral accountability of those who do those sins — the how of that — I do not know. But I think the Bible leads us to believe that he is sovereign over all sin and that he never sins. That is what I believe the Bible teaches.
As to how he does it, there might be hints in the Bible. I am going to give you one pointer. I do not claim this is an explanation, but it is worth thinking about as a pointer toward a possible explanation that maybe we will understand someday.
In Isaiah 63:17 the prophet cries out to the people, “O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways?” Did you hear that? “O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.”
So, he ascribes to God the ultimate causality of our wandering — of Israel’s wandering into sin. How did God do that? The second half of the verse says, “Return for the sake of your servants,” suggesting, pointing, that somehow God’s absence did it.
Then he says in Isaiah 64:7, which is nine verses later, “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” So again, it is the hiding of his face that explains the sin.
Light and Shadow
I am not saying this is a foolproof explanation of sin, but somehow God cloaked his glory from Lucifer, and in the cloaking of his glory — somehow still inexplicable to me — there rises a preference in Lucifer’s heart for himself over God, who has cloaked his glory.
“What I am taught in the Bible is that God is sovereign over all things, including sin, and he himself is never a sinner.”
I don’t know how that happens, but this is a pointer that something like that might have been going on. I am simply saying this is worth pondering: that God may be able to govern the presence and absence of sin not by direct, active agency, but by concealing himself.
I think it was Edwards who said that there is a difference between the way light is caused at three o’clock in the afternoon by the shining of the sun and the way the shadows are caused by the blocking of that sun by the tree — though it is the light of the sun that is responsible for both the brightness of the day and the shadows under the tree.
But I end where I began, with how the very first sin in the universe came about is a mystery to me. I do not know how. What I am taught in the Bible is that God is sovereign over all things, including sin, and he himself is never a sinner.