May 17, 2013

John Owen on Why God Decreed the Fall

by Eric Davis

handwriting (fountain pen)It’s a question that every Christian eventually asks. “Why did God allow the world to go the way it did?” For believers, and often unbelievers, it doesn’t take much to see that God did not have to create a human race destined to fall. He was not obligated to create that tree in the garden, nor was he obliged to allow Satan’s fall, the subsequent deception, Eve’s taking of the fruit, Adam’s sin, and subsequent billions of his image-bearers birthed in high-handed rebellion. Why did he create a world upon which he would pronounce a curse that leaves no corner of the creation, image-bearing or not, without carnage, spiritual and physical?

Sometimes the whole opening scene of our world—the tree, serpent, the innocent pair—on  the surface, it appears as an ominous arrangement. It almost seems scripted for failure.

Why would God seemingly stack up the odds against them? Why couldn’t he have just left the sterilized utopia without the tree, the snake, and the command? Why the curse?

Eventually our inquiry arrives at that sobering point: God is sovereign. He is sovereign over it all. And “sovereign” means more than mere permission. God is not the author of sin, but neither is “allow” the best explanation for it all. “In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity consider— God has made the one as well as the other so that man will not discover anything that will be after him” (Eccl 7:14). That tree, that serpent; the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life culminating in taking the scrumptious fruit—it was all decreed.

Why would God do such a thing?

communion with godThough brief, one of the better explanations I’ve come across is from John Owen in his book, Communion With God. In it, he expounds the glory of God in the Fall. His section on the topic could be partitioned into four sections: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation:

1. Creation

Owen begins with the wisdom and glory of God displayed in creation:

God in the beginning made all things good, glorious, and beautiful. When all things had an innocence and beauty, the clear impress of his wisdom and goodness upon them, they were very glorious; especially man, who was made for his special glory.

2. Fall

However, all things are swiftly plunged into ruin:

Now, all this beauty was defaced by sin, and the whole creation rolled up in darkness, wrath, curses, confusion, and the great praise of God buried in the heaps of it. Man especially, was utterly lost, and came short of the glory of God, for which he was created.

TheGardenOfEdenSo God curses his creation such that the Fall has an incalculable ripple effect. As Derek Kidner wrote, “so simple the act, so hard its undoing” (Genesis, 68). But, in the decree of all things, we’re not left there. Owen writes:

Here, now, does the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God open itself. A design in Christ shines out from the bosom, that was lodged there from eternity…

Owen recognizes both the ordination of the Fall by declaring it as “design” and recognizing it as [God’s] “wisdom.” So what is that design?

3. Redemption

Through the finished work of Christ, submitting to his Father’s will and taking the wrath due his people, Owen writes that God’s design is:

…to recover things to such an estate as shall be exceedingly to the advantage of his glory, infinitely above what at first appeared, and for the putting of sinners into inconceivably a better condition than they were in before the entrance of sin.

redemption-allNotice that surprising truth: as much as we may dream about having Eden again, as great as we might imagine our pre-fall conditions to have been, Owen observes that through God’s decree in the Fall, we, though sinners, will be put “into an inconceivably better condition” through the Person and work of Christ.

He continues on about God’s plan:

He appears now glorious; he is known to be a God pardoning iniquity and sin, and advances the riches of his grace: which was his design (Eph 1:6).

How does God appear so glorious in decreeing such a devastating fallen world? And how is our condition better than pre-fall?

4. Consummation

He has infinitely vindicated his justice also, in the face of men, angels, and devils, in setting forth his Son for a propitiation. It is also to our advantage; we are more fully established in his favour, and are carried on towards a more exceeding weight of glory than formerly was revealed…

The Fall, then, and all the consequences, was actually to “our advantage,” since, through Christ and his substitutionary work, we are more “fully established in [God’s] favour.”

We receive ‘grace for grace’—for that grace lost in Adam, better grace in Christ. Confessedly, this is a depth of wisdom indeed. And of the love of Christ to his church, and his union with it, to carry on this business, ‘This is a great mystery’ (Eph 5:32), says the apostle; great wisdom lies in this.

Rising Sun With Healing in Its WingsNotice the consummate reasons Owen observes for God’s decree: the glory of God in upholding his justice and recreating humanity to a superior glory than Eden. He continues cataloguing the consummation achieved in God’s plan through Christ:

So, then, this also is hid in Christ—the great and unspeakable riches of the wisdom of God, in pardoning sin, saving sinners, satisfying justice, fulfilling the law, repairing his own honour, and providing for us a more exceeding weight of glory; and all this out of such a condition as wherein it was impossible that it should enter into the hearts of angels or men how ever the glory of God should be repaired, and one sinning creature delivered from everlasting ruin.

This great veil of tears, the atrocities committed, our grievous besetting sins, global suffering, and the thorns and thistles—its all been ordained by God and being moved by God through Christ to a very good end:

Hence it is said, that at the last day God ‘shall be glorified in his saints, and admired in all them that believe’ (2 Thess. 1:10). It shall be an admirable thing, and God shall be for ever glorious in it, even in the bringing of believers to himself. To save sinners through believing, shall be found to be a far more admirable work than to create the world of nothing.

Thus, it’s fittingly said, “To Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3:21).

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • kevin2184

    Great post, Eric. You’re church in Jackson is blessed to have you as their pastor.

    • Eric Davis

      Thanks for the encouragement, Kevin.

  • gerald

    The best answer to “why did God allow the fall?” in my mind comes from Luke 7.
    When we as humans experience mercy and forgiveness, we are able to love more, to have a more intimate union with God and this carries in to eternity.

    Luke 7
    [40] And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?”
    [41] “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
    [42] When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?”
    [43] Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
    [44] Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
    [45] You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.
    [46] You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
    [47] Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
    [48] And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

    • Eric Davis

      Gerald-

      Thanks for the comment. Certainly one of the wonderful outcomes of God redeeming his people from the fall is forgiveness of sin. We praise God for that now, and will into eternity. And one of the great consequences of God’s love towards us in Christ is that we are launched to love him and others since we have been first loved. But the ultimate “why” behind God’s plan in the fall goes even farther than that. As quoted above, Owen captures that ultimate “why” wonderfully:

      Hence it is said, that at the last day God ‘shall be glorified in his saints, and admired in all them that believe’ (2 Thess. 1:10). It shall be an admirable thing, and God shall be for ever glorious in it..

      God’s own glory and admiration, or worship, from the redeemed is that ultimate “why.” Paul says a similar thing in Ephesians 1:3-14. Though he is talking about the purpose of God in redemption, the reason for the fall can be implied since the fall is the backdrop for redemption. The ultimate “why” for God’s election of the redeemed, Christ’s redemption of the redeemed, and the Spirit’s regeneration of the redeemed is stated as being “to the praise of His glory” (vv. 12, 14) or “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (v. 6).

      So certainly a glorious consequence of redeeming sinners in the fall is that they are enabled to love God and people more. But even that rises up to the highest “why,” namely, to the praise of God’s glory.

      • “The highest ‘why’.” I love it. Thanks for this, Eric.

      • gerald

        Amen.

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  • busdriver4jesus

    Paul Washer has explained this even more succinctly: “The Fall was necessary because of the Cross… God’s desire to unveil His grace at Calvary requires guilty criminals to benefit from it.”

  • Cecilie

    Yes. How could God reveal the glory of His redemptive love without anyone in need of redemption? Redemptive love is unimaginably supremely amazing!