In 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.
In 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:
The 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.