God's Sovereignty & Human ChoiceA friend of mine was recently telling me about some discussions taking place in a small group that he leads. This summer his inquisitive small group participants have been asking questions related to how a good God could allow evil and suffering. The amazing thing is that my friend, Brian Cole, is a youth pastor! These questions are being asked by students living in the world of twerking, social media, and the iPad. Children, teenagers, and adults who follow Jesus will all face this issue, regardless of what church they are a part of or what denomination that church is affiliated with. It’s part of living in a fallen world. How can we believe God is good when 227,898 people die a day after Christmas in 2004’s deadly tsunami? How can we reconcile our belief in a loving God when there are upwards to 27 million human slaves? What do we say when we are faced with the reality of child sex trafficking? How is God sovereign over creation and human choice?

If we’re honest, theologians have offered a number of solutions to God’s sovereignty and the “problem” of evil. Before I make a proposal concerning how we should understand this antinomy, I want to remind our readers that Christians do not differ on this issue in the same way that we differ with atheists and agnostics. It is a common argument amongst skeptics to point to the existence of evil as one of the reasons to deny the existence of the good and loving God that Christians worship (cf. J. L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism). Able, Kenny, and myself all agree that God exists and that he is holy, good, and loving. We also all agree that God is sovereign. Therefore, what follows is simply how I reconcile what I read in Scripture in relation to the question, how is God sovereign over human choices, especially when people do stupid, evil acts?

I think C. Michael Patton has provided a helpful summary of various Christian perspectives regarding God’s sovereignty by providing four generalizations:

    1. Meticulous sovereignty: God causes evil for the greater good.
    2. Providential sovereignty: God wills evil for the greater good.
    3. Providential oversight: God uses evil for the greater good.
    4. Influential oversight: God allows evil for the greater good.

I’m inclined to say that each perspective has texts that appear to support their view, yet options two and three appear to me to be the best positions to hold, both biblically and theologically, but also in regards to missional engagement. While theologians spend hours and spill gallons of ink debating over the exact nature of God’s sovereignty, I think many people are left rolling their eyes because they simply want to know how to love God more or come to the place where they can be intellectually honest in their faith. Therefore, I want to briefly lay out my perspective on this subject in the hopes for a lot of good discussion in the comments!

Laying Cards on the Table: God Mysteriously both Wills and Uses Evil for the Greater Good and His Own Glory.

In holding to a perspective that looks like 2.5 in relation to Patton’s summary, I know I’m opening myself up to the criticism of being inconsistent. So be it. I like to think that it’s really me just embracing the paradoxes of the kingdom of God, but I’m a pastor and I’m thinking theologically about this subject through the lens of what a conversation looks like when a family in our church suffers the consequences of evil. Or on a more personal note, how I would process the horror of horrors were it to happen to me.

God's Sovereignty & Human ChoiceSo, depending upon the situation, I believe it is pastorally prudent and most glorifying to God if we acknowledge that God both wills and uses evil for the greater good and his own glory. This simply means that there are certain acts which God determined would happen before they happened and that God can and does use those acts for a greater good, ultimately his own glory. I say “depending upon the situation” because I would strongly advise my fellow pastors never to get into a theological debate with a family that has recently experienced a life-shattering loss. If parents have lost their child, do not pretend to know why this happened when they ask you why God did this. I think it best to just grieve with them and acknowledge our finiteness and expressing deep sorrow.

Yet on some level, God both wills and uses these losses for the greater good and for his own glory.

God’s Providence Neither Makes God Sinful or Human’s without Responsibility.

A common set of criticisms against a more “reformed” perspective regarding God’s sovereignty is that such a view makes God the author of evil and leaves humans irresponsible for their choices and/or actions. Yet in my reading of Reformed theologians from the past and present leaves me with the impression that God is both sovereign over the details of life and that human beings are responsible. For example, John Owen wrote:

“… that effectual working of his will, according to his eternal purpose, whereby, though some agents, as the wills of men, are causes most free and indefinite, or unlimited lords of their own actions, in respect of their internal principle of operation (that is, their own nature), [they] are yet all, in respect of his decree, and by his powerful working, determined to this or that effect in particular; not that they are compelled to do this, or hindered from doing that, but are inclined and disposed to do this or that, according to their proper manner of working, that is, most freely: for truly such testimonies are everywhere obvious in Scripture, of the stirring up of men’s wills and minds, of bending and inclining them to divers things, of the governing of the secret thoughts and motions of the heart, as cannot by any means be referred to a naked permission, with a government of external actions, or to a general influence, whereby they should have power to do this or that, or any thing else; wherein, as some suppose, his whole providence consisteth.” (John Owen, A Display of Arminianism, in Works, 10:36)

This is the same argument that J. I. Packer makes in his classic Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. The view that God’s sovereignty and human choice coexist is known as compatibilism. Yes, this is a paradox, but it seems to be the best way to account for what we read in Scripture. After all, the Scriptures explicitly state that God is holy (Lev. 19:2; Ps. 77:13; Heb. 12:10; 1 Pet. 1:16). We also observe that God holds human beings accountable for the things they believe and the things that they do.

Yet God, somewhat mysteriously, is able to still have providential sovereignty over sin. For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote,

“Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins?” (Lam. 3:37-39)

And to beat a dead horse to death once more, the example of Pharaoh still remains extremely convincing for me. We are initially told that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21; cf. 7:3) and then read of this occurring in multiple locations (9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8). While I acknowledge that the text states that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (8:15, 32; 9:34), this does not nullify the explicitly clear statement made by Yahweh in Exodus 4:21, prior to Pharaoh’s self-hardening.

The concept of human sin being a part of God’s sovereign plan is found throughout the OT (cf. 1 Sam. 2:12-15; 2 Sam. 16:5-10; 24:1; 1 Kings 22:21-28). The concept of God’s will and use of evil is also seen in the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ. The Spirit empowered apostle Peter preached this truth when he said:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know– this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:22-23)

It was through the hands of lawless men that God sovereignly predetermined how Jesus would die. I can see no other way to reconcile the biblical data. God mysteriously both wills and uses evil.

Embracing the Mystery of God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility.

Years ago, I read a great quote from D.A. Carson:

“One of the common ingredients in most of the attempts to overthrow compatibilism is the sacrifice of mystery. The problem looks neater when, say, God is not behind evil in any sense. But quite apart from the fact that the biblical texts will not allow so easy an escape, the result is a totally nonmysterious God. And somehow the god of this picture is domesticated, completely unpuzzling… The mystery of providence defies our attempt to tame it by reason. I do not mean it is illogical; I mean that we do not know enough to be able to unpack it and domesticate it.” (D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord?, 225-226).

The intellectually stimulated side of me wants to lay out a strong logical case as to why God is both sovereign and sin exists in his providential plans. I want to spend time noting exegetical and theological details related to how God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11) or the practical outworking of what Solomon means when he says that “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). I want to point out that God actually told Abimelech in Genesis 20:6 that he had kept him from sinning, which clearly seems to make libertarian free will untenable. Finally, I would want to spend more time talking about Joseph’s prophetic wisdom in acknowledging that while his brothers intended to sell him into slavery for the purpose of evil, “God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

But there’s another part of me that seems to balance this out. There’s a part of me that is far too pietistic to opt for a strictly intellectual focus in my theological reflection. I’m equally moved by the ethos of God’s self-revelation.

That part of me takes a step back and has to simply say,

“You know what, I can see that God wills and uses evil for a greater good and for his own glory, but I don’t really understand how that fits together. My best guess has to start by having a sense of wonder and awe at the mystery of God’s providence.”

Is God involved in the details of human decisions? Absolutely. And I think it’s pastorally sensitive and biblically sanctioned to talk about these concepts by using words like “foreordained” or “allowed” or “permitted” or “used” as the situation demands. Though God uses secondary causes, including evil, as a means to accomplish his will, this all happens in a mysterious way and we would be wise to embrace the mystery.  When Charles Spurgeon was asked how he reconciled these concepts, he replied, “I do not try to reconcile friends.” I’m content with embracing the divine mystery and will defend God’s sovereignty and human responsibility with equal passion and equal humility!

I invite you to read the other two contributions to this discussion here and here, and then jump in to the comment threads.