September 11, 2015

God Meant it for Good: Evaluating Divine Permission

by Mike Riccardi

No PermissionIn my last post, I outlined some foundational biblical/theological teaching on the decree of God. We looked at passages of Scripture that speak of God’s decree as eternal, unconditional, unchangeable, and exhaustive. As a result, we concluded that God is properly said to be the ultimate cause of all things.

Immediately, this raises the question: How can God be the cause of actions and events that are evil and sinful—things which God Himself prescribes against—and yet not be rightly charged with unrighteousness? Some people answer this question by appealing to the notion of divine “permission.” In other words, though God is ultimately in control, He doesn’t ordain evil; He merely allows it. I don’t find this kind of explanation convincing for two reasons.

God’s Decree and Divine “Permission”

The first is: I find the concept of divine permission to be inconsistent with the biblical teaching of God’s decree outlined in the previous post. The fundamental meaning of “permission” is “not to hinder what has, or appears to have, a tendency to take place” (Edwards, Concerning the Divine Decrees). The concept of permission is used this way in Scripture (e.g., Mark 10:14), and even the etymology of the English word testifies that it has the idea of “to allow to pass through.” In fact, Arminian theologians treat the concept of permission according to its actual definition. Jack Cottrell, an Arminian, puts it this way: “God simply allows these agents to produce what they will. This is true permission, i.e., not efficaciousness but noninterference.” Cottrell is actually using the concept of permission according to its true sense: a response to a future plan or intention known in advance.

But the idea of noninterference, or not hindering what has a tendency to take place, makes no sense in light of God’s eternal and unconditional decree, because in eternity past at the moment of God’s decree there was nothing external to Him. There was no antecedent tendency for anything, no agent on a trajectory asking permission to pass through to its desired end. In eternity past, there wasn’t any evil agent that made an appeal to the divine will to be included in His decree, at which point God, though recognizing it was contrary to His nature, nevertheless granted permission. To put it simply, there was nothing for God to refrain from interfering with, nothing outside of Himself to which to “acquiesce,” as one theologian put it. Indeed, as Gordon Clark says,

The idea of permission is possible only where there is an independent force. . . . But this is not the situation in the case of the God of the universe. Nothing in the universe can be independent of the Omnipotent Creator, for in him we live and move and have our being. Therefore, the idea of permission makes no sense when applied to God. (Religion Reason, and Revelation [P&R, 1961], 205)

Such reasoning has led many to conclude that the distinction between a permissive will and a decretive will is “desperately artificial” (Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility [Wipf & Stock, 2002], 214). At the very least, those who hold to a Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty have no desire to communicate what’s actually implied by the use of permissive language (as outlined above). In fact, John Frame goes so far as to say, “we should not assume . . . that divine permission is anything less than sovereign ordination” (Doctrine of God, 178). And I agree. But if we don’t intend to communicate what is actually denoted by “permission,” yet we do intend to communicate nothing less than sovereign ordination, of what meaningful use is permissive language? Why not simply speak of God’s “ordaining” or “decreeing” or “bringing about” all things?

Biblical Examples of God’s Agency in Evil

Well, the answer to that is because it seems to suggest that God is somehow the author of sin, and thus the chargeable cause of evil. We want to avoid speaking of God’s involvement in ordaining evil or sinful events, because we don’t want people to think that we’re saying sin is God’s fault. And of course, that is a noble desire. But I don’t think that permissive language accomplishes that end, because Scripture itself doesn’t mind speaking of God’s agency in evil in very active terms.

Biblical AuthorityIn fact, Scripture plainly teaches both (a) that God is unquestionably righteous and (b) that He indeed ordains sinful events and actions. And if that’s what Scripture teaches (and it is), it is not our place to sit in judgment upon and question the consistency of those declarations. Rather it falls to us to receive both as true on the authority of God’s infallible and inerrant Word. That brings me to my second reason for rejecting the concept of divine permission: Scripture.

Consider the overwhelming amount of Scripture that speaks of God’s role in bringing about evil in ways much more positively and actively than we are often comfortable with.

In Amos’s prophecy of punishment to Israel, God asks, “If a calamity occurs in a city has not Yahweh done it?” (Amos 3:6). He does not ask who has allowed the calamity, but who has actively done it (Heb. ‘assah).

Similarly, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, in his lamentations Jeremiah nevertheless understands from whom such destruction comes. He asks, “Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it (Heb. tsawah)? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill (ra‘ah & tov) go forth?” (Lam 3:37–38).

Indeed, it’s worth noting the active language used throughout the entire book of Lamentations: God has “caused [Judah] grief” (1:5), “inflicted” this pain (1:12); knit together this yoke and given her into the hands of her enemies (1:14); and trodden her as in a winepress (1:15). God is actively accomplishing that which He had purposed to do (2:17; 3:43–44; 4:11).

In Isaiah’s prophecy, God declares that it is He who forms light and creates darkness, and it is He who brings about peace and creates calamity (Isa 45:5–7; Heb. bara’ ra‘; literally, “creates evil”). Such statements do not discriminate. God does not distance Himself from evil in distinction to good; rather, He sharply makes the point that He is the one, and not another, who accomplishes (bara’)—and not merely permits—all things (Isa 45:7).

This kind of language that speaks of God’s active involvement is not limited to general evils. His positive agency in sin and evil extends to personal situations.

Perhaps the classic illustration for this is the story of Joseph. Some theologians actually appeal to God’s dealings with Joseph to support permissive language, saying that God “permits some sins to occur [but] nonetheless directs them in such a way that good comes out of them” (Erickson, 425). But this plainly misses the mark of the text. The narrative makes plain that God didn’t just make the best out of a bad situation, as if Joseph had merely said, “You meant evil against me, but God worked it out for good.” You know, Joseph’s brothers had dealt God a rather bad hand, but He did with it what He could and worked it out for good. No, the text says that God meant it for good (Gen 50:20). God’s intentions in Joseph being unjustly sold into slavery were just as active as Joseph’s brothers’ were. He was as sovereignly involved on the front end of Joseph’s trials as He was on the back end of his prosperity. In fact, the text says that God actively sent Joseph to Egypt with His own purpose to preserve life (Gen 45:5, 7). Joseph even says that it is not his brothers who sent him there, but God (Gen 45:8). Neither the language nor the idea of permission is anywhere to be found in this narrative.

Other examples can be multiplied:

Isa 45;6-7The obstinacy and disobedience of Eli’s sons is attributed to God’s desire to put them to death. 1 Samuel 2:25 says, “But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for Yahweh desired to put them to death.” Scripture causally links Hophni’s and Phineas’ disobedience to God’s desire to put them to death. As difficult as it is for our theology, Scripture seems to inescapably declare that God ordained their disobedience in order that He might justly carry out a death sentence upon them.

Later, Yahweh sends an evil spirit upon Saul to torment him. 1 Samuel 16:14 says, “Now the Spirit of Yahweh departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from Yahweh terrorized him.” An evil spirit. From Yahweh. It blows my theological circuits too, but it’s in the text. It’s not an option for me to accuse the author of 1 Samuel of making God to be the author of sin!

Though Absalom’s incest is an abomination before Yahweh (2 Sam 16:21–23), Yahweh Himself had already declared to David that He will bring such abominations about as punishment for David’s sin: “Thus says Yahweh, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before your eyes and give them to your companion, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. Indeed you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and under the sun’” (2 Sam 12:11–12).

Paul tells us that in the great eschatological apostasy, “God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false” (2 Thessalonians 2:11).

And of course, the chief of these examples is God’s agency in the greatest of all evils: the crucifixion of Christ. Can anyone dispute that the sham trial, unjust condemnation, and murder of the innocent Son of God was the greatest evil ever accomplished in history? And yet, the Apostle Peter says Christ was “delivered over by the predetermined plan . . . of God” (Acts 2:23). And again: “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 purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27–28). There can be no more explicit affirmation of God’s sovereign ordination and of the cross—the greatest evil in history.

Considering the weight of this Scriptural testimony, we must conclude along with Calvin:

The modesty of those who are thus alarmed at the appearance of absurdity might perhaps be excused, did they not endeavour to vindicate the justice of God from every semblance of stigma by defending an untruth. . . . Recourse is had to the evasion that [evil] is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that he does this, repudiates the evasion. (Institutes, I.18.1)

And with Frame:

God does bring about sinful human actions. To deny this, or to charge God with wickedness on account of it, is not open to a Bible-believing Christian. Somehow, we must confess both that God has a role in bringing evil about, and that in doing so he is holy and blameless. (Doctrine of God, 175)

And we don’t need permissive language to make this confession.

But is there any way to understand how it can be that God is not the chargeable cause of sin, even though He ordains that it be? I’ll try to address that in the next post.

Mike Riccardi

Posts Facebook

Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Shimon

    ethymological argumentation based on the english language?

    very interesting post. thank you. I agree, even I find every theory based on english ethymology very questionable. Isn’t there any ethymological evidence in the hebrew text? thank you!

    • pearlbaker

      Shimon, perhaps you mean:

      etymology |ˌetəˈmäləjē| noun (pl.etymologies)

      the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.• the origin of a word and the historical development of its meaning.

    • The difficulty with asking for Hebrew etymology with regards to divine permission is: I’m arguing the Bible doesn’t present that category of divine permission to us. I can’t do exegesis on a concept that I don’t believe Scripture includes for us.

      My point is that we (English speakers) use the language of permission to represent certain theological realities, and my aim is to show why — if we’re respecting the definitions of words — we shouldn’t use permissive language when talking about God’s agency in evil, because, as I said, even the etymology of the English word (in addition to the biblical and theological argumentation in the rest of the two posts), shows that it means something other than we want to say.

      You’ll notice, though, that in the Scripture references given in the preceding phrase, there are biblical examples of the language of permission that support the definition that I gave. In Mark 10:14, Jesus says, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” So, to “permit” is to “not hinder” someone already on a trajectory. In eternity past, as God was formulating His decree (even here I’m speaking anthropomorphically), there was no one on any trajectory that might be “permitted” to do anything.

      Hope that clarifies.

  • Great post, thanks for tackling this often avoided subject. Looking forward to the next part.

  • Shimon

    a question to your first post.

    also here I can follow you. But how do you explain
    – God allowed Satan to attack Job
    – God says in the bible, “He regretted…” a few times
    – God can change his mind. Avraham asked ask him for Sodom, Hiskia asked for his life etc..
    Thank you

    • Kevin Jandt

      Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth… – Job 1:8

      Suwm (considered) means to put upon, place, set appoint, make.

    • God allowed Satan to attack Job

      Note a number of things in the text that show God’s role in the matter is more active than one might think.

      1. It’s notable that Satan, along with God’s angels, report before the presence of God to give an account and seemingly to receive orders from their superior (1:6).

      2. It’s not as though Satan comes to God with Job already in his mind, intending to request permission to harm him; rather, God instigates Satan to consider Job (1:6–8).

      3. Satan’s request is that God put forth His own hand against Job (1:10; 2:5), and it is that request to which God “concedes” in time. (But note, he “allows” this only from a temporal standpoint; because God’s decree is exhaustive (see the previous post), God Himself decreed from all eternity that Satan would make such a request and that He would grant it.

      4. Job’s immediate response to his trials is to acknowledge that God gave and so now God has—not “allowed,” but—taken away (1:21).

      5. God says that Satan had incited Him to ruin Job (2:3); He names Himself as the agent of the action.

      6. Job accepted as from God Himself what is clearly said to be accomplished through the intermediate agency of Satan, showing how God is the ultimate cause yet is not to be blamed because He was not the efficient cause (2:10; cf. 2:7).

      7. Lest one suppose that Job was merely mistaken in his evaluation of his
      circumstances, the narrator, writing the inspired Word of God, agrees that
      these adversities were brought upon Job by Yahweh Himself (42:11).

      Certainly, proponents of permissive language may not look to Job’s case to absolve God of involvement in evil and thus clear His righteousness.

      God says in the bible, “He regretted…” a few times . . . God can change his mind.

      These are what are called “anthropomorphic” expressions, in which the infinite God is accommodating His language to make sense to us finite human beings, who can only experience in time the acts of God which have been decreed from all eternity. As Calvin famously illustrated, just as parents use “baby talk” to interact with their children, so God “lisps” in speaking to us so that we can understand.

      For example, 1 Sam 15:11 says that God regretted (which is the Hebrew word nacham) that He made Saul king. And yet just a few verses later, in 1 Sam 15:29, Samuel states categorically that “the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind (also the Hebrew word nacham); for He is not a man that He should change is mind (nacham).” And then again in 15:34, just a few verses later, he says that the Lord regretted (nacham again) that He had made Saul king. So does God change His mind or doesn’t He? I think we have to understand the statements of regret as phenomenological in light of the categorical statement in verse 29. God, as He is in Himself, does not change His eternal decree. But, to us who are finite, and who only experience the acts of God in the outworking of time, it may seem to us that He changed His mind. So Scripture speaks as if from our perspective, so we can understand.

    • Jason

      The question of God changing His mind is understandable, but would contradict scripture such as Numbers 23:19.

      There is also many cases where the acts of others (Satan’s request in Job, righteous prayer, a person’s repentance) is said to make God do something other than what He had been “about to do” up to that point. At face value, those cases seem to show that God had intended to do one thing but then changed His mind.

      However, take the thought of agency one step further. Who ultimately per-ordained Satan to make that request, that the righteous lift their prayers exactly when they do, and that those who come to repentance do so?

      He doesn’t change His mind because even those events that were required to bring about His “change of plans” were part of the true plan from before the beginning of creation.

      He’s not lying when He informs people of how life would play out in their present circumstances. However, when people use that information to change the circumstances they do so exactly as He already intended.

      In one sense, the prayers of the righteous have much power (James 5:16). In another sense, the events that occur because of those prayers were the only thing that ever could have happened, because the prayers themselves are the only thing that could have happened.

  • Pingback: Shared from The Cripplegate | God Meant it for Good: Evaluating Divine Permission | Talmidimblogging()

  • Reece Howell

    Thank You Mike – This has been part of my evangelism. Thankfully I can now change my evangelism approach and present a proper biblical message.

    • pearlbaker

      What a humble and proper response to the recognition of the need to change one’s own understanding to align with the truth of God. May God richly bless your ministry and use you mightily in guiding souls to salvation in Jesus Christ!

  • Brian

    Interesting topic. Divine Permissiveness probably has more to do with Authority than it does with hindrance. Therefore, regardless of whether we want to call it “God’s Decree” or “Divine permissiveness”, as one who is has all authority, he is ultimately responsible for everything. To say otherwise would undermine his Sovereignty. As Christians as hard as it is to accept,

    “Somehow, we must confess both that God has a role in bringing evil about, and that in doing so he is holy and blameless.” (Doctrine of God, 175)

    I’m in total agreement.

  • tovlogos

    Absolutely, Mike — “Considering the weight of this Scriptural testimony,” the subject is not as cryptic as it may seem.
    Matthew 6:9-13, when our Lord taught us to pray, (the Our Father) It was a seemingly strange choice of words to say: “Do not lead us into temptation”. Yet we know God does not tempt people (James 1:13).
    The word for temptation is “peirasmos” (3986), and the verb, “Peirazo” (3985), “is made up of the basic word “Peira” experience.
    Zodhiates suggests: “When God is the One who leads who leads His people into temptation even as the Spirit led Jesus to be tempted (Matt. 4:1-11), it is for the purpose of proving to His child that when God leads to temptation, He does not abandon him, but He is with him to give him the victory to make him more experienced in the warfare against the devil.”
    God holds our hands through it all, if we are willing to be held.
    We know that we will never have to go through this cursed experience again, once it’s finally over, having served its ultimate purpose. Experience will have been a useful servant. Our first parents have my deepest respect, because they were naive in the beginning; and Jesus was the perfect example of the combination of perfect innocence and infinite wisdom, whom we emulate.

  • pearlbaker

    Thank you again, Mike. In my comment to your previous post, I had referred to God’s ability to work good from evil. True, but not complete. You expressed it much better and more completely by reminding us of God’s sovereign ordination of everything. He does not merely “clean up” evil deeds and rework them for a good purpose. As you said, He “meant it for good” all along, before the evil was ever committed.

  • Scott Christensen

    Excellent discussion Mike! Frame handles these issues really well in his “Doctrine of God.” Embracing a compatibilistic view of human freedom and responsibility handles the problem of evil in the most Biblical way I know. Again, read Frame, Carson, Paul Helm and the excellent book by Thaddeus Williams called, “Love, Freedom and Evil.” James Spiegel also has some excellent thoughts in his book, “The Benefits of Providence.”

  • Paul

    I read your article carefully. Thankyou. You established God’s role in bringing evil. Clear and precise. I am confused on the HOW – “that in doing so he is holy and blameless.” (Frame). Thoughts?

    • Hey Paul. I hope to answer that question in an upcoming post.

      For now, I think it’s just important that we understand that both of those realities are presented in Scripture (i.e., God ordains even evil and He is also perfectly blameless), and therefore are true, even if we can’t give an answer to the “how” question that satisfies all of our intellectual objections. If this doesn’t make sense to our sense of justice and morality, but it’s clearly taught in Scripture, then it’s our sense of justice and morality that needs to be changed.

      Nevertheless, I do think Scripture answers that question for us, and I hope to outline that answer soon.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Lyndon Unger

    Wonderful treatment as always.

  • Pingback: I Will Surely Tell of the Decree of the Lord | The Cripplegate()