The Sovereignty of God: Are We Robots? Is God the Author of Evil?

If God is sovereign and in control of all things, how are we not just a bunch of robots?  If providence is true, how does God not become the author of evil?  These are just a couple questions I have been asked time and time again from students in my brief time in ministry.  Most of the time, the question is asked in a large group setting where time has run out for the evening, and I am left giving the lame response of, “We can talk about this next time.”  This is not a satisfactory answer for either party.  The truth is that understanding God’s providence is foundational in interpreting other aspects of God and theology.  How can you understand texts found in Ephesians that talk about election and adoption if you are struggling with the thought that God is the author of evil?  You cannot fully grasp the beautiful grace, mercy, and justice of God without first understanding His providence.  It is my hope then that what follows is of encouragement, clarity, and help, so that you may better grasp the profound doctrine of providence and use it to share the glorious message of the Gospel.

Providence: What Is It?

We can define providence as God’s sovereign control and direction of events in the world.  Note what word is found in the term providence: provide.  Providence is focused on the provision of God throughout history.  All events in history, past, present, and future are under God’s control and part of an overarching plan of God for His creation.  Because God’s providence comes from God Himself, it shares in the attributes and characteristics.  This means that His providence is wise, holy and just.  This also means that God is the first cause of all things, and what He decrees must come to pass.  

Here is where we run into the first of many issues, this issue being the question, “If God is the first cause of all things, does this make God the author of evil?”  The benefits of being a confessional presbyterian are very helpful here, because I can point to the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Here is what it says on the issue of God being the first cause of all things:

Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. (5.2)

This section is clear that God is the first cause of all things by His decree, and what He decrees must come to pass.  This flows from His immutability and infallibility.  Yet, this points out that there are second causes, which are the means by which His causes are fulfilled throughout history.  An example of a second cause is the sea drowning pharaoh when he attempted to cross the Red Sea.  The secondary causes are meant to cover all causes within nature itself.

God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure. (5.3)

This section simply states that God’s providential control includes means, but that God does not have to use means.  Sometimes God directly intervenes, such as when Uzzah touches the Ark of the Covenant and falls down dead.

The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin. (5.4)

Here we see that God’s providence extends beyond just His covenant people, but even to the sinful actions of creatures, including the first sin of Adam.. But it does not follow from this that God Himself is sinful, guilty of sin, or approves of sin.  He does not compromise His holiness.  

Providence: What Does It Mean For Me?

The first implication we must accept is that if God is God, Ephesians 1:11 (“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,”) has to be true.  Therefore God has a good, perfect, and wise plan for all creation.  He is not letting random events happen with no action or purpose.  In fact, His plan was made in eternity, prior to creation, and history is the unfolding of God’s plan for His creation.  The plan is not being made up as we go along.  

This providential plan of God shares the attributes of God.  This means that His providence is perfect, wise, holy, good, eternal, and unchangeable.  It was said in the first point but we can say it again, God is not flying by the seat of His celestial pants, but rather, His perfect and immutable plan is unfolding as history progresses.  There is no other option or Plan B.  His providence is infallible and perfectly effectual.

The perfect, effectual, wise, and good providence of God is also not just a rough sketch of the way things out to go.  His providence is comprehensive.  This means that God’s providence is involved in every aspect of His creation.  We saw above in WCF 5.4 that God is involved in more than just “HIs” people, but also with those who reject Him.  This means that God’s providence includes the free choices of his creatures, whether they are believers or not.  

If God’s providence includes the free choices of everyone, it must be that His plan includes the sins of His creatures.  However, this does not mean that God is sinful.  How is that possible?  If we break this implication up into two parts, we see that the first part comes from the sovereignty of God and the second part follows from God’s holiness and goodness.  

Providence is not fatalistic.  Implications of God’s sovereignty include that both the ends and means to those ends are included.  However difficult it is to comprehend, this is not fatalistic.  How?  This is not just a plan on how things will turn out in the end.  It is a plan that knows every step.  To say that God foreordains the means and ends does not take away the fact that ends still depend on the means.  

Finally, we must accept that we are not God.  The Confession is very clear that this doctrine is a high mystery and is extremely difficult to comprehend.  The Bible speaks of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, so combining the two is challenging.  Yet we must remember that this plan is directed towards one goal: his own glory.  Soli Deo Gloria

Providence: What Isn’t It?

Misconception: Providence makes God the author of evil.  

This is a common accusation because it appears implied that if God foreordained evil (and if He is the first cause of all things, even evil), then He must be guilty of evil.  There are three important distinctions that must be made if there is any hope in clearing up this misconception.

Primary (Ultimate) Causes and Secondary Causes

When we say God foreordains everything, we are saying that He is the ultimate cause of all things.  But what we are not saying is that God is the secondary cause of evil.  God has the power to providentially direct actions, but it is the persons themselves who are the ones who cause the evil and commit sins.  

Divine Intentions and Human Intentions

When God’s creatures act sinfully, they intend their actions for evil.  Yet (remember Ephesians 1:11 and the implication it brings), God intends their actions ultimately for good.  We see this in Genesis 50:20, where Joseph says to his brothers who had sold him into slavery out of jealousy, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”  We should also consider Romans 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  This passage tells us that God has an intention, which is good, for those who love Him.  Yet, while God’s intentions are for good and ultimately His glory, man’s intentions are corrupted and are evil.  With these evil actions comes the penalty of deserving eternal moral damnation.  We see a glimpse of this in Isaiah 10, as God will use Assyria to judge Israel, and then will later judge Assyria for what they did to His people.  

Responsibility and Culpability

There is no getting around the fact that God is responsible for evil in that He is in ultimate control.  But we need to make a distinction between responsibility and culpability.  Just because God is responsible does not mean he is culpable (deserving blame), morally guilty, or deserving of condemnation.  This is where the mystery of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility come into play.  How can this be?  Even the most renowned scholars have to admit that there are some points where we can only say, “I do not know entirely.”

Despite the issues one might have with the calvinistic perspective of providence, we must realize that the apparent contrast of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility is not just a “calvinist problem.”  Even if you are not a calvinist, you still have to answer this question of how God is sovereignty and man’s sinful/evil actions.  The argument is something along the lines of, “How (or why) could God knowingly create a world that He knew would contain evil (or He knew it might contain evil and took a risk).”  Everyone ends up with the question of God’s sovereignty and the question of evil; denying calvinism does not get you out of the dilemma.  In fact, I would argue that denying calvinism takes away sovereignty from God and instead makes him dependent upon man’s actions.  The bottom line is that we must stick to what the Scriptures clearly teach, and that is that God is sovereign and man is responsible for sin.  

Misconception: The Providence of God makes man into robots:

This misconception usually laid out like this: If God is sovereign, in control of all things, unchangeable, foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, and all knowing, then He knows what I am going to do.  If He knows what I am going to do and it has been predetermined before all eternity, then I really have no control over my actions.  I am just like a robot or a puppet.  I am not a robot, therefore providence (in the reformed perspective) is false.  This understanding amounts the reformed view of providence to simple and bland determinism, which is hardly the case.  While the reformed view is a form of determinism, it is not simple or bland.  I would call it a “theological determinism” that takes on a compatibilist view of human freedom and responsibility.  

The compatibilist view would say that freedom and responsibility are compatible with determinism.  The logical progression for this view starts with understanding we are conscious, volitional creatures that have desires and intentions.  This is not to say that these desires and intentions are pure.  In fact, if someone is not a Christian, they would have no pure desires or intentions whatsoever, but they have these things nonetheless.  Because man has free will, he is free to act in accordance with those desires and intentions.  This means that actions are not forced against a person’s will.  People will always act according to their desires or intentions.  So are we robots?  No, we act in whatever way we want to act, following our desires and intentions.  What the reformed view would say is that you are only able to “choose” to believe in the Gospel if the Holy Spirit works inside of you, effectually calling and regenerating your soul.  No one is coerced into their actions or beliefs, the choice is free.  The only difference in someone choosing God over their idols is that their will has been changed to the point where they freely decide to follow Jesus.  

Providence: Where Is It In The Bible?

Prov 16:4; The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble. 

Prov 19:21; Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. 

Is 46:8-11; “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it. 

Rom 8:28; And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 

Eph 1:11; In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,  

Psalms 147:15–18; He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold? He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow.   

Jonah 1:4; But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.

Ex 4:11; Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?  

Ezra 1:1; In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: 

Acts 4:27-28; for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,  to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.  

Phil 2:13; for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

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