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Devotions on the Book of Job (Tuesday, Week 14)

July 26, 2016 | by: Ben O'Donoghue | 0 Comments

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Devotions |

God has spoken (Job 38-41), and Job is accepting of what he has heard (Job 42:2). But clearly not everyone is satisfied. I mentioned Virginia Woolf’s reaction: “I read the Book of Job the other day and I don’t think God comes out well in it!”. Such a view is articulated more academically by some commentators, such as this from Norman Habel:

“For God to intervene and erase all of Job's successes without any provocation by Job himself seems not only arbitrary but totally out of character with God. God contravenes the moral laws of divine behaviour upon which the traditional way of wisdom was founded. This God does not appear to be God the sage but a version of God the jealous king, who is apparently willing to violate human life to gratify personal ends”.

Clearly one of the main themes of the Book of Job is its expression of the limitations of human wisdom in response to the mysteries of the ways of God. Nevertheless, it is surely helpful to engage in deep thought when it comes to thinking about God and the existence of sin, suffering and evil in the world. We may not be able to explain it fully, but we can think biblically.

For those willing to work through it, I offer below some of my thoughts from an essay I wrote some months ago on the question: “Respond to the claim that God is ultimately responsible for human sin because he determines all things which happen”. We have already established God’s total sovereignty in this series (see the introductory message). So what follows is an excerpt engaging with some of the broader thinking on this apparent problem (I hinted at some of this in the conclusion to the message last Sunday). I apologise in advance for the length and more academic tone of this writing (be thankful I haven’t posted the whole thing, nor all of the footnotes!!)


Some have attempted to reconcile notions of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility by suggesting that God in his freedom, chooses to limit the extent of his own sovereign control to allow human free will. Indeed, it is maintained that God cannot be deemed just and humanity held genuinely responsible if our actions and decisions are the result of anything other than libertarian free will. While such a position might satisfy in the logical, philosophical and ethical domains, it cannot ultimately stand the avalanche of Biblical material which crushes any concept of God’s limited sovereignty and radical human freedom under its glorious weight.

From the evil decisions of Joseph’s brothers, to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, to the rebellion of the Assyrians, to David’s conducting of a census, to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, there are countless Scriptural examples of God’s control even over sinful actions. It is surely significant that this interweaving of human responsibility and overarching divine sovereignty culminates in what John Murray calls “the arch crime of history”- the murder of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The sinful actions of all involved in the death of Jesus were all due to “God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23). These people did what God’s “power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:28).

It is clear then, that neither a hard, fatalistic, determinism on God’s part, nor a total libertarian free will on humanity’s side satisfactorily engages with all of Scripture. This of course brings a tension which is ultimately unresolved. There remains a proper concern to ensure that God is free from the charge of guilt with regard to sin, as his “eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Hab 1:13). Furthermore, James tells us that “"When tempted, no-one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed" (Jas 1:13–14).

It is with this tension in mind that the Westminster Confession of Faith states:

“God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established”.

This suggestion of the role of “second causes” shows that the process of allocating responsibility for a particular action or occurrence is complex. Can God be counted as a cause of sin without being implicated or held responsible? The concept of responsibility can be generally defined as being “liable to be called to account as the primary cause, motive, or agent”. Such notions of primary and secondary causes, or remote and proximal causes can be helpful to a point. It cannot be avoided that God be considered as part of the causal framework even of human sin, insofar as his sovereignty is maintained.

Yet, as Calvin recognises, such a distinction where God is seen as the remote cause does little to solve the attendant philosophical problems:

“But HOW it was, that God, by his foreknowledge and decree, ordained what should take place in man; and yet, so ordained it, without his being himself, in the least, a participator of the fault, or being at all the author or the approver of the transgression… is a secret, manifestly far too deep to be penetrated by any stretch of human intellect. Herein, therefore, I am not ashamed to confess my utter ignorance”.

Similarly, the language of God being the ultimate cause, while maintaining a further distinction between positive and negative causes sheds some light on the matter. In such a framework, it must be established that God is foundationally in control and that nothing occurs apart from his sovereign will, lest his purposes be compromised. Yet to charge God as the positive cause of sin would render him morally accountable. From this, it seems reasonable to posit that while God is the ultimate cause, he cannot be the positive cause. Rather, God allows for sin by withholding goodness, not by implanting evil. Sin is not produced by God, but overflows naturally from human hearts in the absence of restraining grace.

While such an appeal to secondary causes might be seen as a convenient buffer to protect God from guilt, Scripture demands such an explanation. Jonathan Edwards gives a helpful illustration using the image of sun being the positive cause of light on the earth. Yet, in the absence of the sunlight we cannot say that the sun is likewise the positive cause of darkness. The darkness is the result of the earth, in a sense, being left to its own nature apart from the external influence of the sun. Edwards reflects:

"It would be strange arguing, indeed, because men never commit sin, but only when God leaves them to themselves, and necessarily sin when he does so, that therefore their sin is not from themselves, but from God; and so, that God must be a sinful being: as strange as it would be to argue, because it is always dark when the sun is gone, and never dark when the sun is present, that therefore all darkness is from the sun, and that his disk and beams must needs be black".

So while God does not directly produce human sin, we can say that he allows sin or that he gives divine permission for sin to occur. This is not to say that God hands over all control to the human will and is no longer involved in any way. Divine permission suggests that while God’s hands are never tied in the face of human sin, he purposefully withholds the grace that would prevent it. Thus, we must recognise God's permission is a directive permission and that it is the means he uses to ensure that which he has ordained will necessarily occur.

If we are to hold to divine permission and presume the ordination of sin, we must consider the purposes of God in such a design. As Bavinck helpfully posits, we cannot speak of “mere permission [when] speaking of God’s government over sin”. Indeed a distinction needs to be made such that “though in a sense it can be said that God willed sin, that is, he willed that there would be sin, he willed evil in a totally different sense than good. He takes delight in the good but hates evil with a divine hatred”.

Bavinck continues:

“Precisely because God is the absolutely Holy and Almighty One, he can use sin as a means in his hand. Creatures cannot do that; with the least contact, they themselves become polluted and impure. But God is so infinitely far removed from wickedness that he can make sin, as an unresisting instrument, subservient to his glorification… He would not have tolerated it had he not been able to govern it in an absolute holy and sovereign manner…. But being God, he did not fear its existence and its power. He willed it so that in it and against it he might bring to light his divine attributes”.

Thus we can claim that it is ultimately for the praise of His glorious grace, that God ordains sin. In the Lord’s eternal and divine purposes, sin is used to serve the Christ-exalting glory of the gospel. It is at the cross of Jesus Christ that divine justice and mercy meet. As John Piper puts it “At the all-important pivot of human history, the worst sin ever committed served to show the greatest glory of Christ and obtain the sin-conquering gift of God’s grace”. Indeed, "just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous" (Rom 5:19).

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