Why Would God Ordain Evil?

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So what I’m going to do is pick it up. I hope it doesn’t feel hurried. I want you to get the sense of what the unit is about and how each fits in. So we may leave out some details, but I hope you feel like, “Okay, I got the big picture of how this works.”

Responding to God’s Sovereignty

So here we are at Romans 9:19–23. “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault?’” (Romans 9:19). So he’s with us. He knows that what he’s saying. “He has mercy on whom he wills and he hardens whom he wills” (Romans 9:18).

And yet he’s going to find fault with Pharaoh? Yes, he is. And he asked why does he do that? “‘For who can resist his will?’” (Romans 9:19). And the answer to that is nobody. He’s just taught that very clearly. That is nobody can resist his will decisively, ultimately. You can say no to God all day long if he lets you. But if he wants to move into your life and overcome that “no” with a great “yes” of new birth, he will and can.

Romans 9:20: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Now is that response to the question he just asked a, “Shut up and don’t ask God questions?” Should we take it that way? “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” I don’t think so.

This word, “answer back” (antapokrinomai), it’s used one other time in the New Testament. It’s used in, I don’t know if I wrote down the actual text, it’s used in Luke somewhere. But what it means, is Jesus responded to the Jewish leaders, and it says they were not able to answer him. In other words, they couldn’t come up with a way to contradict him. They had nothing more to say. He had answered their objections and they couldn’t answer back (Luke 14:6).

So, I think “answer back” carries the connotation of “show to be wrong; contradict; get in God’s face.” How can you do that? Let me give you an illustration. Do you remember the angel comes to Zechariah and Mary, mother of Jesus, to Zechariah, the angel says, “You and your wife Elizabeth are going to have a child.” And of course, they’re beyond years and this is another miracle baby. And Zechariah says, “How can this be, for we’re old?”

And the angel, remember what he said, “I’m Gabriel! I told you!” That’s my tone of voice, but I think it’s right, because he said, “You’re not talking for nine months.” He was mad. That question was not acceptable. What was the question? “You just told me what’s going to happen, and I’m answering with a tone that says, ‘Can’t be.’” Now he comes to Mary and hers is even more amazing, “You, a virgin, are going to have a baby.”

And what does Mary say? She says, “How can this be for I’m a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). And I think she really means, “How?” Not, “It can’t be.” And so he answers her, “The power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[e] will be called holy — the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). He answers her, and she goes on her face and says, “I am the Lord’s handmaiden.” Totally different attitude.

So, my sense is that there are lots of questions God is just fine with, but not ones that call him into question, that is, doubt his word, or accuse him of wrong. God will suffer any “how” question almost. It’s just the question that says, “I don’t think so,” that question he will respond, “I’m God,” or “I’m Gabriel.”

The Potter and the Clay

So no, I don’t think that rules out all of our questions. I think good questions are in fact attractive to God. He wants to help us with them. And then I think he goes to give some more help. He says, “Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Romans 9:20).

Now what’s his argument there? Is that just a, “Shut up, you’re the pot,” answer? Or is he getting at something in the nature between potters and pots? I think he’s saying, “What is right for a potter to do?”

Potters are right to make the kinds of vessels that it is the fulfillment of their wise purposes to make. There are purposes that a potter has. And if the potter is a right and good purposing potter, then all those things fit into that purpose. And that’s right. That’s what potters should do. They make the range of pots that are in the fulfillment of their purpose. And the purpose would be here according to Romans 9:17, “To display my power and display my name. The full range of my attributes are on display in what I make.” And always keep in mind here the mystery.

I mean no pot is shattered or thrown away that doesn’t deserve to be thrown away. As strange as that is to us. We must keep that in mind.

The ‘What If’

Romans 9:22: “What if God” — now this is a sentence that in Greek is not finished. At the end of Romans 9:23, it just ends and it’s just an if-statement, “If God this,” and then there’s no then-clause. So to fix that in the English, to make it readable, they put, “What if?” And that’s okay, provided we know the right answer to the, “What if?” So what’s the right answer to the, “What if?” So we’re trying to figure out what’s the answer to that?

“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power” (Romans 9:22). Now what is that a reference back to? That’s a reference back to Pharaoh. Romans 9:17, “I desire to show my name and my power through you.” “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.”

“Endured with much patience.” Have you ever asked why God suffered Pharaoh to resist him nine times, and then on the tenth one, it’s over? Because he planned for that. When he was coming into town, when Moses was coming into town, God said to Moses, “I will multiply my wonders before you, and I will harden his heart.” “I plan to patiently endure this man’s, ‘No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Yes.’ I plan to endure that.” So I think that’s partly what’s behind this “endured with much patience” here.

“Vessels of wrath.” He had planned for this, prepared for destruction. He drowned them in the Red Sea. “In order that,” and this is really, really important. “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath,” like that, “in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9:22–23).

What’s the answer? What if? I think the answer is, then, no legitimate fault against God can be raised. No legitimate objection to God can be raised, if God, what if? So leave off the, “What,” here. “If God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power” has done all that in order with his purpose, “to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy which he prepared beforehand for glory,” then there is no unrighteousness with God.

And he’s not wrong to find fault. Because he has acted in purposefulness for the display of the riches of his glory, for the vessels of mercy, which raises this crucial question. When you look at Romans 9:18, “He hardens whom he wills and he has mercy on whom he wills.” It looks like they’re coordinate and parallel, hardening and mercy. Are they? They’re not. They’re both sovereign. They’re both free. But mercy is ultimate, and hardening serves it. I see that in this word. “In order.”

The Ultimate Purpose fo Evil

God desiring to show his wrath and desiring to make known his power, to display his glory, “has done it in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9:23). Mercy is ultimate and wrath is not. Mercy is being served by wrath. If you were to ask me, “What is the ultimate biblical answer to why evil exists?” Is there anything in the Bible that gives an ultimate answer to why evil exists?” Remember I said I don’t have an answer to how it exists. I don’t know how Satan became evil. I don’t, but that’s not the question I’m asking. I’m asking, “Since God being God ordained that it happened without being a sinner in it, why does evil exist?”

My answer would be Romans 9:23. I don’t think there’s any more ultimate answer given in the Bible than this, “In order that,” here, “In order to make known the riches of his glory.” What is making known the riches of his glory? Showing wrath, making known power, enduring vessels of wrath are all for making known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy. Now think that through. Jonathan Edwards thought it through as profoundly as anybody I think. And I think I want to read two paragraphs from Edwards, and see what you think of this.

An ultimate reason for why God would ordain that there be such a thing as evil on which He then shows wrath and power. Why?

It is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably [radiant], that the beholder [might] have a proper notion of God.

So the point he’s just made is all the glories of God, all the attributes of God, all the excellencies of God should be completely revealed in proportion to their reality. Now,

Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed.

There it is. How could there be dreadful greatness, justice, holiness revealed, wrath revealed — “desiring to make known his wrath and his power” — how could this be if there were nothing? So let me finish it.

[Otherwise] the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.

One more. How does that relate to happiness?

As it is necessary that there should be evil, because the display of the glory of God could not but be imperfect and incomplete without it, so evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect.

So, he is making known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which they would not fully and perfectly see and enjoy if there were not such a thing as his wrath, his power, his holiness, his justice. And therefore, evil is decreed in order that God might be fully known in his holiness, his justice, and his wrath against it.

The Mystery of Election and Final Judgment

And he does all of that without being evil, without committing sin. One of the statements that, if it doesn’t exist as a category in your mind, you won’t be able to process this, is it is no sin in God to will that there be sin. It is no sin in God to will that there be sin.

Many people, even just simple, ordinary people, have come up with analogies like a tapestry with the tangles at the bottom. You turn it over, and it’s beautifully woven to the top. Or a canvas that a great artist is painting, and he starts by making the whole thing crimson or black, just, “What are you doing that for?” And then he adds his oranges and his yellows and his reds, and his greens, and his blues. And then there’s this magnificent, beautiful landscape. And you realize without all of that dark background, it wouldn’t work.

That’s what I see in Romans 9:22–23. “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, endured, with much patience, vessels of wrath,” in order that the yellows, and the blues, and greens would shine proportionately for the vessels of mercy which he has prepared beforehand for glory? And I must say it one more time, that will only work if you embrace the fact that in this mystery of election, God never punishes anybody who doesn’t deserve to be punished. Election is unconditional, and final judgment is never unconditional, but always deserved by sin.