27 November, 2016


The Mystery of God’s Sovereignty, and Providence and its Moral Nature

In Book 1, chapter 18, of his Institutes, Calvin teaches that the thoughts and actions of all men, including the wicked, are determined by the secret counsel of God’s will. Scripture reveals that God ordains man’s disobedience for His own glory. He has nevertheless given to man the moral law as his rule of duty, and will at the last day, have him give an account of himself thereby. “And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom He is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22).

We have now to demonstrate that God does not transgress His own moral law or nature when in His sovereignty and providence He ordains that wicked men commit evil deeds in the accomplishment of His purposes. “Jesus of Nazareth, Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:22, 23).

Let us illustrate the truth of the matter from the story of Joseph and his brethren, which is recorded in the Book of Genesis from the thirty seventh chapter onwards. It is the teaching of that book that when Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave into Egypt, they deceived their father and brought him great sorrow; they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, in order to save much people alive.

In this God governed the thoughts and actions of Joseph’s brothers in that they did evil, but He was not the author of their sin. If bare permission is made to account for their thoughts and actions, then God is not sovereign, because He is made dependent on circumstance and second causes. Concerning the actions of men, elect and reprobate, we must hold with Martin Luther, that God works in every man according to his nature, for good or for evil, but is not the author of their sin.

The desire of God is always in His decree and the end which it achieves. His desire in the wicked actions of Joseph’s brothers was to save much people alive. This did not involve a desire in God that those men should act contrary to His own moral nature, any more than He desires or has pleasure in the death of the wicked.

Scripture teaches, “without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5), so that it must follow that God does not desire that wicked men without grace, obey His precepts. By His grace, God requires and desires the obedience of those whom He has effectually called by His Spirit. “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). When they who are His children grieve His Spirit by their disobedience, He forgives them their transgressions in and through the intercession and merits of His Son. The desire of God concerning the fulfilment of His moral law, is inseparable from its fulfilment by His grace. If such is not the case, then He is not the fountain of all goodness.

For God to desire that men shall act outside His grace in obedience to His precepts, would violate His own moral order. For God to desire the salvation of men and not grant them the means of grace, which is essential to save them would make Him a monster. For men to imagine that they can please God without grace, makes them Pelagians. The Scripture teaches that without faith it is impossible to please God, for faith is a gift of God.

While “God now commandeth all men everywhere to repent”­ (Acts 17:30), the wicked are not mocked by their inability to obey; for they possess no such desire. Rather, “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14). “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7). If wicked men desist from committing evil, it is because God in His providence governs and restrains them, not because they have acted out of obedience.

When God desires that men obey Him, He grants them repentance and faith. To all God’s entreaties and promises there is annexed a condition, which the sinner is commanded to obey, but only the Spirit of God can accomplish. While God’s entreaties and promises are addressed to all men, they are not an expression of a desire in Him for universal repentance and salvation. Rather as Calvin has expressed it:

He only means to give hope of pardon to those who repent. But experience shows that this [His] will, for the repentance of those whom He invites to Himself, is not such as to make Him touch all their hearts. The mercy of God therefore, will ever be ready to meet the penitent; but all the prophets, and apostles, and Ezekiel himself, clearly tell us who they are to whom repentance is given.

The lesson is this; Scripture does not teach, that God desires that wicked men, without grace, should obey His precepts.

God’s desire, delight and pleasure is in the redemption purchased by His Son, and in the application of it to all those whom He has chosen in Him from all eternity, by the work of His Spirit. In other words, God’s desire in repentance, faith, and redemption concerns the elect only, and does not extend, as modern modified Calvinists would have it, to the reprobate.

The mystery of divine sovereignty and providence may be stated in the following terms:

God, whose will is simple and undivided, without being the author of sin, ordains according to the secret counsel of His own will, all things whatsoever come to pass, and while holding all men and angels both good and evil accountable to His moral law, works in every man according to his nature, but is never the author of sin.

If it could be said that God’s will is complex, and He desires the fulfilment of that which He does not decree, then surely it is implied that unfulfilled desires have rendered God less than perfectly blessed, and that God could conceivably desire things that are contrary to His holy will.

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