Did God Ordain Sin?

January 08, 2018

by J. Gresham Machen

If wicked actions of wicked men have a place in God’s plan, if they are foreordained of God, then is man responsible for them, and is not God the author of sin?

To each of these questions the Bible returns a very unequivocal answer. Yes, man is responsible for his wicked actions; and no, God is not the author of sin.

That man is responsible for his wicked actions is made so plain from the beginning of the Bible to the end that it is quite useless to cite individual proof texts. But it is equally clear in the Bible that God is not the author of sin. That is clear from the very nature of sin, as rebellion against God’s holy law. It is also expressly taught. “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’” says the Epistle of James, “for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13–14).

How, then, can we meet the difficulty? We have said that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. The sinful actions of sinful men are things that come to pass. Yet we deny that God is the author of them and we put the responsibility for them upon man.

How can we possibly do that? Are we not involving ourselves in hopeless contradiction?

Why No Contradiction?

The answer is found in the fact that although God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, he causes the bringing of those things to pass in widely different ways. He does not cause the bringing to pass of the actions of personal beings in the same way as the way in which he causes the bringing to pass of events in the physical world. That is true even of the good actions of men who are his children. Even when God causes those men to do certain things by the gracious influence of his Holy Spirit, he does not deal with them as with sticks or stones, but he deals with them as with men. He does not cause them to do those things against their will, but he determines their will, and their freedom as persons is fully preserved when they perform those acts. The acts remain their acts, even though they are led to do them by the Spirit of God.

When God causes the bringing to pass of the evil actions of men, he does that in still a different way. He does not tempt the men to sin; he does not influence them to sin. But he causes the bringing to pass of those deeds by the free and responsible choices of personal beings. He has created those beings with the awful gift of freedom of choice. The things that they do in exercise of that gift are their acts. They do not, indeed, surprise God by the doing of them; their doing of them is part of his eternal plan; yet in the doing of them they, and not the holy God, are responsible.

Yes, God has told us much. Is it surprising that he has not told us all?

What is the real difficulty here? Is it the difficulty of harmonizing the free will of the creature with the certainty of the creature’s actions as part of God’s eternal purpose? No, I do not think that is the real difficulty. The real difficulty is the difficulty of seeing how a good and all-powerful God ever could have allowed sin to enter the world that he had created. That difficulty faces not only the consistent and truly biblical view of the divine decree which we have tried to summarize this afternoon, but it also faces the inconsistent views that we have rejected. It can never be used, therefore, as an argument in favor of any one of those inconsistent views and against the consistent view.

For both, the problem remains. How could a holy God, if he is all-powerful, have permitted the existence of sin?

What shall we do with the problem? I am afraid we shall have to do with it something that is not very pleasing to our pride; I am afraid we shall just have to say that it is insoluble.

Is it so surprising that there are some things that we do not know? God has told us much. He has told us much even about sin. He has told us how at infinite cost, by the gift of his Son, he has provided a way of escape from it. Yes, God has told us much. Is it surprising that he has not told us all? I do not think so, my friends. After all, we are but finite creatures. Is it surprising that there are some mysteries which God in his infinite goodness and wisdom has hidden from our eyes? Is it surprising that there are some things in his counsels about which he has bidden us be content not to know but instead just to trust him who knows all?

This post is adapted from J. Gresham Machen, What is Predestination, (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2017), 39–42. Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On decree, predestination, sin

J. Gresham Machen

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