The relationship between Sovereign God and evil is not an easy one to grapple with. On the one hand, Scripture seems to imply that God is in ultimate control over everything that happens, that it all unfolds exactly according to His sovereign plan and will, so that nothing happens apart from His ordaining it. This idea is illustrated in the following verses, for example:
Psalm 135:6 - “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does....”
Psalm 139:16 - “...in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.”
Proverbs 16:33 - “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”
Isaiah 46:10 - “...My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.”
Acts 17:26 - “...[God] determined their [all nations’] appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation.”
Romans 8:28 - “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God....”
Ephesians 1:11 - “...[God] works all things after the counsel of His will.”
On the other hand, the fact that evil exists may seem to imply a distinct limitation in God’s sovereign ordering of His creation, for if His sovereignty were such that He ultimately plans and controls everything that happens, then there would also be a very real sense in which He actually ordains evil. The question is whether or not this is true.
Admittedly, we need to tread cautiously and reverently when considering this idea that God might rightly be conceived of as sovereignly ordaining evil. We do not want to be guilty of misrepresenting a holy God. But caution and reverence demand not that we simply shrink in indignation and horror from such an idea, but rather that our reaction be shaped by a careful examination of Scripture. Though some have gone to great lengths to avoid the conclusion that there is any sense whatsoever in which God ordains evil, it seems to me that Scripture does not give us that option. God is by no means evil Himself, but He is consistently and unapologetically portrayed in His Word as not just passively permitting Satan and man to do evil things, but rather as actively ordaining that those evil things come to pass, for His good purposes. Following is a sampling of verses to illustrate this truth:
Genesis 50:20 - “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result....”(If the evil that Joseph’s brothers committed against him was meant by God for good, how can we escape the conclusion that God in some sense ordained it to happen?)
Exodus 7:3 - “But I will harden Pharoah’s heart that I may multiply my signs and wonders against Egypt.”(See also Exodus 4:21 and 14:4, 8, and 17, which also speak of God hardening Pharoah’s heart, as well as the hearts of all the Egyptians. It is true that in some verses Pharoah is said to have hardened his own heart, but that does not negate the fact that God is explicitly said to have done it here. Thus the evil that Pharoah’s hard heart induced him to commit was in some sense ordained by God.)
Deuteronomy 2:30 - “But Sihon king of Heshbon was not willing for us to pass through his land; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, in order to deliver him into your hand, as he is today.”
Joshua 11:20 - “For it was of the Lord to harden their [various peoples of the promised land’s] hearts, to meet Israel in battle in order that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy.”
Judges 9:23 - “Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimilech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimilech.”
Judges 14:4 - “However, his father and mother did not know that it [Samson’s sinful intent to marry a Philistine woman, contrary to the Law] was of the Lord, for He was seeking an occasion against the Philistines.”
1 Samuel 2:25 - “...But they [Eli’s sons] would not listen to the voice of their father, for the Lord desired to put them to death.”
1 Samuel 16:14 - “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him.”(See also 1 Samuel 18:10-11, which gives an example of how this provoked an evil reaction from Saul. Although the fact that God sent the evil spirit does not necessarily prove that Saul’s evil reaction was actually ordained by God, it does show that it was at least in some sense intentionally provoked by God.)
2 Samuel 12:11 - “Thus says the Lord, ‘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.’”
2 Samuel 16:11 - “...Let him [Shimei] alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him.”(Note that Shimei’s cursing of David was indeed a evil act, as he later acknowledged in 2 Samuel 19:20, and yet David said God had in some sense sent him to do it.)
2 Samuel 24:1 - “Now again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and it incited David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’”(Note that the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 21:1 says that Satan was the one who moved David to do this. This apparent discrepancy can be explained by the realization that God was the ultimate cause even though Satan was the means or the immediate cause.)
1 Kings 12:15 - “So the king [Rehoboam] did not listen to the people; for it was a turn of events from the Lord, that He might establish His word, which the Lord spoke through Ahijah the Shilonite to Jereboam the son of Nebat.”
1 Kings 22:23 - “Now therefore, behold, the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets....”(See also verses 20-22, and the parallel account in 2 Chronicles 18:18-22, which tell of God sending this deceiving spirit, for the purpose of enticing Ahab to go up to war at Ramoth-Gilead and fall.)
2 Kings 24:19-20 - “He [Zedekiah] did evil in the sight of the Lord.... For through the anger of the Lord this came about....”(See also Jeremiah 52:2-3.)
2 Chronicles 25:20 - “But Amaziah would not listen, for it was from God, that He might deliver them into the hand of Joash because they had sought the gods of Edom.”
Job 2:3 - “...you [Satan] incited Me [God] against him [Job] to ruin him without cause.”(Note from the first chapter of Job that the ruin inflicted upon him consisted at least partly in evil actions by Satan and various men, notably the Sabeans and Chaldeans. Yet Job accepted all this as from the hand of the Lord in Job 1:21 and 2:10, in keeping with God’s own assessment of it here and in Job 42:11.)
Job 42:11 - “...they consoled and comforted him for all the adversities that the Lord had brought on him....”
Psalm 76:10 - “For the wrath of man shall praise You....”(Though this does not directly attribute man’s evil wrath to God’s sovereign plan, it does so indirectly by showing that even this is ultimately to His praise.)
Psalm 105:25 - “He [God] turned their [the Egyptians’] heart to hate His people, to deal craftily with His servants.”
Proverbs 16:4 - “The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil.”
Isaiah 6:10 - “Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.”(See also John 12:40, where this is paraphrased with an even stronger attribution of the people’s sinful blindness to God Himself.)
Isaiah 63:17 - “Why, O Lord, do you cause us to stray away from Your ways and harden our heart from fearing You?”
Jeremiah 6:21 - “Therefore, thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I am laying stumbling blocks before this people....’”
Lamentations 3:37-38 - “Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both good and ill go forth?”
Ezekiel 38:10,16 - “Thus says the Lord God, ‘It will come about on that day, that thoughts will come into your mind and you will devise an evil plan...and you will come up against My people...I will bring you against My land, so that the nations may know Me when I am sanctified through you before their eyes, O Gog.’”
Amos 3:6 - “...If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?”(Note that the context of this verse shows it refers to calamity caused by another nation’s attack, not simply a natural disaster or accident—see Amos 3:11.)
Matthew 11:25 - “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’”
John 12:39-40 - “For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, ‘He has blinded their eyes and He has hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their ear, and be converted and I heal them.’”
John 15:25 - “But they have done this [hated Jesus and the Father] to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘They hated Me without a cause.’”
Acts 2:23 - “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”
Acts 4:27-28 - “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.”
Romans 9:18 - “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”
Romans 9:32-33 - “...They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense....’”
Romans 11:8 - “...God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes to see not and ears to hear not, down to this very day.”
Romans 11:32 - “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.”
1 Corinthians 5:5 - “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh....”(This shows an example of the evil work of Satan being ordained by God for a good purpose, namely the destruction of the flesh of the sinning believer.)
2 Corinthians 12:7 - “...for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!”(If Paul’s thorn could be described as a messenger of Satan, it certainly seems reasonable to see Satan’s evil activity behind it. Yet it was ultimately given to Paul by God, so He apparently ordained this harassment of Paul by Satan.)
2 Thessalonians 2:11 - “For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false.”
1 Peter 2:8 - “...they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed.”
Revelation 17:17 - “For God has put it in their hearts to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled.”
In summary, then, the pattern of Scripture is quite consistent and shows beyond all doubt that there are at least occasions on which God in some real sense ordains the evil choices of His creatures. These evil actions do not happen outside of His sovereign control, but in fact occur exactly as He has planned. Furthermore, the pervasiveness of this pattern argues against these being mere isolated incidents. It is more reasonable to take them as examples of the way His sovereignty always works, as implied by the more general Scriptures referring to the unfolding of His sovereign plan. He ordains everything that comes to pass, including the evil as well as the good. This is the God with whom we have to do.
It is interesting to consider how this conclusion that God ordains the evil as well as the good also results logically from the idea that God is accomplishing exactly what He desires (as stated above in Psalm 135:6 and Isaiah 46:10), with His sovereign plan working all things together for good to those who love Him (Romans 8:28). The good that God ultimately ordains and is working all things together for is not a relative good or something that is merely the best possible good within the constraints of other factors that may unfold apart from His plan. If that were the case, a different and potentially better good might be possible if things unfolded differently, and so the promise would not be of any real comfort at all. Rather, the good that is promised is an absolute good, the exact thing that God desires and has wisely planned from the beginning. In other words, the good that God ordains, He ordains absolutely and unconditionally, not dependent on circumstances or any other thing outside of Himself.
But if God ordains something absolutely and unconditionally, then He must also ordain whatever that something is conditioned on. For example, if He ordains my existence (not just as an arbitrary person, but as myself, who I in fact am), then He must also ordain the existence of my parents, as well as their coming together, since otherwise I would not be who I am. The suggestion that God only ordains the good and not the evil in His creation is thus a contradiction in terms, because it is quite evident that much of the good in God’s creation is in fact conditioned on evil. Returning to the example of human existence, it has been pointed out that from God’s perspective there are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate acts. The existence of every person in the genealogy of Christ from Solomon on would not have been possible without David’s sins of adultery and murder, which resulted in his marriage to Bathsheba. Since the existence of all these people (culminating in the birth of Christ Himself) was clearly ordained by God, then logically so was the sin that their existence was conditioned on, though of course that does not excuse David for that sin. The point is, we cannot exempt sin and evil from God’s sovereign plan and control. Neither Scripture nor logic allow us to take that view.
The doctrine that God sovereignly ordains everything that comes to pass, including evil things like the rebellion of the wicked, is admittedly not without its difficulties. In particular, its logical consequent doctrine of God’s reprobation of the lost may seem to be in conflict with the following Scriptures:
Ezekiel 33:11 - “‘...As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked should turn from his way and live....’”
1 Timothy 2:4 - “[God our Savior,] who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
2 Peter 3:9 - “The Lord is...not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
Briefly, this difficulty can be answered by the realization that there is more than one sense in which Scripture can speak of God desiring or willing something. Clearly these verses cannot be speaking of God’s desire or will in the sense of His ultimate sovereign choice, or else Scripture would contradict itself. Rather, it is apparently true that God can have a very real desire or will for things to go one way, even though His ultimate choice or will dictates they go another way.
Various terms have been used to help clarify the distinction between these two senses or aspects of God’s will. For example, some differentiate between God’s “secret will” versus His “revealed will,” others between His “will of decree” versus His “will of command,” and still others between His “sovereign will” versus His “moral will.” However we describe it, there can be little doubt that God’s will is complex and not just a one-dimensional concept. The fact that God sovereignly wills something to happen does not mean that He is pleased with it in the sense of His “revealed” or “moral” will. He can still have a very real displeasure with something even as He sovereignly wills it to happen. In particular, God is never pleased with sin in this sense of His revealed will even though He does ultimately will its existence in the sense of sovereignly ordaining it.
A more serious difficulty with this doctrine may be the following verse, which on the surface appears to deny that God ordains temptations:
James 1:13 - “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.”
If God ordains everything that comes to pass, then there is a sense in which He can be said to be doing the thing that comes to pass, even though He is not the direct or immediate agent of it. For example, from 1 Chronicles 10:4 we learn that Saul committed suicide and was thus the direct agent of his own death (or possibly it was an Amelekite who finished him off—see 2 Samuel 1:9-10), but 1 Chronicles 10:14 says that it was God who killed Him. By similar reckoning, it would seem that there is a very real sense in which God does in fact tempt man, despite the language of James 1:13. This is confirmed by the language of Genesis 22:1, which says God “tempted” or “tested” Abraham. (The word for “tempt” and “test” is the same in both the Hebrew and the Greek.) The sense in which this verse in James speaks of one agent tempting or testing another must therefore be understood in a qualified and limited, rather than absolute and universal, way.
This idea that James 1:13 must be understood in a limited (though still very real) sense is also clearly evident from its statement that God cannot be tempted by evil. This cannot be interpreted in the broadest possible sense, for then it would be denying the truth of Hebrews 4:15 and other Scriptures which assert that the divine Son of God was indeed tempted. If the statement of James 1:13 is compatible with the idea that there is a legitimate sense in which God the Son could be tempted, then it is also compatible with the idea that there is a legitimate sense in which God can be said to sovereignly ordain the temptations of man.
So what is James 1:13 actually saying? I do not pretend to have a complete grasp of the full meaning of this or any other Scripture, but it certainly seems clear that a mere acknowledgment of God’s sovereign ordaining of a temptation is not what is being warned against. Rather, one aspect of its warning, at least, is probably against the idea of blaming God for the presence of a temptation, as opposed to merely recognizing His sovereign hand in it. There is an important distinction to be made between ascribing something to God’s sovereign control versus blaming Him for it. This distinction is clearly shown in Job 1:21-22, where Job said, “The Lord has taken away,” and yet “through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.”
To get a fuller grasp of the meaning of this verse in James, notice also that the next verse goes on to say that we are tempted when we are carried away and enticed by our own lust. That is, the sense in which James speaks of temptation is not the broad sense in which even Christ was tempted, but rather the narrower sense in which one is enticed to sin by his own desires. Thus, the flow of thought seems to indicate that it is not the temptation-situation that makes us desire the sin, but rather it is our own sinful desire that makes the situation a temptation to us (in this more limited sense of the word). In other words, when God sovereignly ordains a temptation in our lives that we end up succumbing to, we should not misconstrue the situation as though God were forcing us to do something sinful contrary to our wills. Rather, our failure is in accordance with our wills (more specifically, in accordance with our lusts), and thus we are blameworthy.
This is somewhat related to the previous discussion of the complexity of God’s will and the inescapable conclusion that Scripture can speak of God’s will in more than one way. When God ordains a temptation in our lives, it is clearly His sovereign will that we be subjected to that temptation. James does not deny this. The temptation-situation is ordained by God. On many occasions, it is even God’s sovereign will that we succumb to that temptation. That is, God often sovereignly ordains that we fall to a certain temptation, and we can be sure that He has His good purposes in this. (For example, His purpose is very often to teach us a valuable lesson about the weakness of our flesh and our need to abide in Him.) But it is never God’s “revealed will” that we succumb to that temptation. It never pleases God in the sense of His revealed will when we succumb.
This leads to what in my judgment is probably the main aspect of temptation that James 1:13 brings out, which is that when we succumb to temptation we must never think that we were following God’s revealed desire, as though it was His voice or direction that encouraged us into that sin. Temptation is always a matter of whether we will follow the voice of God or the voice of the flesh (and perhaps of the devil), or what James calls our own lust. Just as God’s revealed will is always that we resist the temptation, so we can be sure that His voice will always be one of encouragement to resist, not to succumb. He always has a true desire for us to resist, no matter what He sovereignly decrees will actually happen, and it is a comfort to know that He always provides the encouragement and strength to resist when we truly rely on Him (1 Corinthians 10:13). So when we fall, it is always because we failed to hear His voice and respond to His direction, never because we sought His guidance and heard it and obeyed it, and it turned out to lead us astray. This is true even though our sin was ultimately ordained by God in the sense of it being part of His sovereign plan, which He sovereignly wills for His own good purposes.
I close this paper by returning to the thought that we must tread cautiously and reverently when considering this subject. It is not cautious and reverent to deny God’s sovereign control over all things, including the idea that there is a real sense in which He ordains evil. But we also must not let the truth of His sovereignty over evil lead us into untrue or even blasphemous human conclusions that are not supported by Scripture. In particular, I would suggest we need to keep in mind the following three points which have already been touched on but are worth reiterating:
First, we must be careful not to charge God Himself with sin or evil in any form. Just because God sovereignly ordains that evil comes to pass does not mean that He Himself is evil. Again, the example of Job is ample proof for this point. Job recognized God’s sovereign plan behind the evil actions of Satan and the men who perpetrated evil against him, but he is still commended for not blaming God or charging Him with evil.
Second, we must be careful not to deny man’s moral responsibility for his own choices. Just because God ultimately ordains what choices man ends up making does not mean that man is absolved of moral responsibility for those choices. God’s sovereignty does not force man to make choices contrary to his will, but rather in some way that we probably cannot fully understand it actually controls what man is willing to choose in the first place. So man’s choices are made willingly, and he is justly held accountable for them, in spite of how counterintuitive this may seem to human philosophy, which does not genuinely seek to understand the true God.
Finally, we must be careful not to represent God as being equally pleased with all that He sovereignly ordains in exactly the same way. It is true that everything God sovereignly wills can be truly described as His pleasure (as stated in Isaiah 46:10, for example). But there is a different sense of God’s “will” or His “pleasure” which applies only to good and not to evil, even though both are ordained by Him. God is pleased in this sense when we follow His revealed will, and displeased when we do not. This is an important practical point that relates to our moral responsibility as discussed in the previous point. We are to seek to be in the will of God, but this is not a question of trying to guess His sovereign will or striving to live in accordance with it, as the fact is we and the entire universe are always in accord with His sovereign will (Ephesians 1:11). Rather, it is a matter of striving to live in accordance with His revealed will. So when we fail to live in accordance with His revealed will, we cannot use the fact that everything unfolds according to His sovereign will as an excuse for our sin, nor can we imagine that He is pleased with us for what we have done. But what we can and ought to do is confess our sin to Him in repentance and take comfort in the fact that even our failure is being used by Him in His sovereign plan, to His ultimate glory. To Him alone be all praise!
(Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 updated edition.)
This page copyright © 2007 Edward A. Morris. Created December 31, 2007. Last updated December 31, 2007.
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