“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways”, declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
– Isaiah 55:8-9 (NASB)
For many within the evangelical church, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God is a difficult one to accept.
Fundamental to this tension is the issue of theodicy. Theodicy is that aspect of systematic theology that deals with the problem of evil in light of the existence of God.
The “Prince of Preachers”, Charles H. Spurgeon, has said that,
“No doctrine in the whole Word of God has more excited the hatred of mankind than the truth of the absolute sovereignty of God.”
Spurgeon is right.
That you and I struggle at times with the notion that a loving, kind, and merciful God would allow evil to exist, is interesting if not ironic. For rarely, if ever, do we consider our own sinfulness as contributing to the evil which God, to our bewilderment, seems to us to tolerate (Romans 3:23; 2 Peter 3:9).
It is in the context of this mindset that I concur with theologian Millard J. Erickson, who states that:
“…the problem of evil occurs when some particular aspect of one’s [personal] experience calls into question the greatness or goodness of God, and hence threatens the relationship between the believer and God.” – Christian Theology, Third Edition, Evil and God’s World: A Special Problem, p. 385
Our nature is such that the sovereignty of God is usually broached only in situations in which we have personally experienced some degree of grief, disappointment, or discouragement. It is in those instances that we are quick to remind ourselves that “God is in control”.
We are less inclined, however, to give God the benefit of the doubt in situations that are somewhat removed from any personal point of reference we might assign to them. In other words, unless “it” happens to us – whatever it is – or to someone in whose well-being we have a vested interest, the sovereignty of God is a distant consideration (if it is considered at all).
Sin has so affected our earthly existence that there are any number of situations that would prompt us to question the notion of a sovereign God (Romans 8:22-23). Who of us has not experienced a circumstance in our life, that caused us to doubt whether there actually is a God “up there somewhere” who is aware of the evil that occurs in the world (Proverbs 15:3)?
It is in moments of our deepest pain and perplexity that we seek answers to the question “Where was God (Malachi 2:17)?” This inquiry is borne out of a preconceived notion that the nature of God consists primarily of one attribute: love. As such, we assume that a “God of love” would never abide evil in any form or under any circumstances (Psalm 5:4).
“In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity consider – God has made the one as well as the other.” – Ecclesiastes 7:14a (NASB)
One such evil that is often debated in the context of the sovereignty of God is that of abortion, particularly in cases of rape.
Many people today, including Christians, who otherwise would be opposed to abortion – save perhaps for the sake of the life of the mother – are comfortable with making an exception in instances where a child is conceived under such odious circumstances.
On the one hand, this mindset seems perfectly understandable. Practically every religion that exists today proffers a deity who is loving, merciful, and who abhors and punishes evil. On the other hand, however, one should guard against contextualizing an attribute of the biblical God solely on the basis of religious tradition or personal experience.
It is with this thought in mind that I find the words of the Puritan reformer John Calvin to be particularly noteworthy:
“There is a great difference between what is fitting for man to will and what is fitting for God…for through the bad wills of evil men God fulfills what He righteously wills.” – Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:234 (1.18.3)
Augustine of Hippo, whom Calvin quoted more than any other theologian, expressed similar thoughts in that:
“Man sometimes with a good will wishes something which God does not will, as when a good son wishes his father to live, while God wishes him to die. Again it may happen that man with a bad will wishes what God wills righteously, as when a bad son wishes his father to die, and God also wills it …For the things which God rightly wills, He accomplishes by the evil wills of bad men.”
Both Calvin and Augustine touch on what is an unarguable yet often misunderstood aspect of God’s sovereignty, one that most people fail to consider when contemplating what the sovereignty of God actually means: that even our unrighteous deeds are ordained by God for His righteous purposes.
Consider the words of theologian Wayne Grudem, who writes that:
“All things come to pass by God’s wise providence. This means that we should adopt a more “personal” understanding of the universe and the events in it. The universe is not governed by impersonal fate or luck, but by a personal God. Nothing “just happens” – we should see God’s hand in events throughout the day, causing all things to work together for good for those who love Him.” – Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Chapter 16: God’s Providence, p. 337
In speaking on the matter of theodicy, and God’s sovereignty over evil, a key text of Scripture is Exodus 21:12-13, one of the many ordinances against personal injury that God established for the nation of Israel:
“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee.” (NASB)
Admittedly, the aforementioned text in Exodus is a difficult one to digest. Nevertheless, it is unambiguous in declaring that not only is God aware of the evil that occurs in the world, He also ordains that evil to occur.
“If the Lord hath done it, questions are out of the question; and truly the Lord has done it. There may be a secondary agent, there probably is; the devil himself may be that secondary agent, yet the Lord hath done it.” – C.H. Spurgeon
The very word rape – let alone the act itself – engenders within us feelings of anger, outrage, and indignation – and rightly so (John 7:24).
The reason such a response is right(eous) is because there exists within each of us an innate awareness of God’s objective standard of right and wrong, particularly as it relates to how we who bear His image (Genesis 1:27) are to treat one another. We possess this awareness because God Himself placed it within us (Romans 1:18-19).
That God ordains evil should never be construed to mean He approves of it or receives some morbid sense of satisfaction from it.
God is not a masochist.
Unlike you or me, God is holy by nature (Numbers 23:19). As such, all that He sovereignly wills to happen – either to us or to the world in which we live – is inherently right and good (Psalm 145:17; James 1:13).
The words of theologian Dr. R.C. Sproul, Sr. prove helpful in that:
“To say that God “allows” or “permits” evil does not mean that He sanctions it in the sense that He approves of it. It is easy to discern that God never permits sin in the sense that He sanctions it in His creatures.”
Likewise, Wayne Grudem exhorts us that:
“In thinking about God using evil to fulfill His purposes, we should remember that there are things that are right for God to do but wrong for us to do; He requires others to worship Him, and He accepts worship from them. He seeks glory for Himself. He will execute final judgment on wrongdoers. He also uses evil to bring about good purposes, but He does not allow us to do so.” – Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Chapter 16: God’s Providence, p. 329
When a woman is raped, and conceives a child as a result, there are those who feel justified in devaluing the pregnancy on the basis of the circumstances in which it occurred. Their rationale being that because the attack was unprovoked, unwarranted, and undeserved, that it becomes not only the woman’s right but also her prerogative to abort the child.
But, as sensitive as I am to those who hold to that position, the truth is God does not value life on a curve.
To argue that a child who is conceived in rape should be aborted because of the rape, is to rob God of His sovereign authority in ordaining the rape – and the subsequent conception – to occur. Though rape is never God’s prescriptive will – neither is murder nor molestation nor any sin for that matter – such acts of evil are sometimes His permissive will for our lives.
When a woman is sinned against in such an egregious manner as to be raped, we must be mindful that, even in the midst of such heinous evil, God is sovereign and there is nothing that escapes His divine notice (Proverbs 15:3).
Consider, again, the words of C.H. Spurgeon, who encourages us that:
“God has a plan, depend upon it. It were an insult to the Supreme Intellect if we supposed that He worked at random, without a plan or method. To some of us it is a truth which we never doubt, that God has one boundless purpose which embraces all things, both things which He permits and things which He ordains. Without for a moment denying the freedom of the human will, we still believe that the Supreme Wisdom foresees also the curious twistings of human will, and overrules all for His own ends.”
To whatever extent the devil, as Spurgeon noted above, is in fact a “secondary agent” in God bringing to pass the evil He has ordained to occur in a person’s life, he is not autonomous in that capacity (Job 1:6-12).
Satan is not sovereign.
He is not omniscient.
He is not omnipresent.
He never has been any of those things.
Only God can claim to possess those attributes (Psalm 103:19; Isaiah 45:5-6).
The sin of rape is both horrific and inexcusable. It is so egregious, in fact, that the Old Testament records that a massive civil war ensued among the tribes of Israel over the rape of one concubine (Judges 19:22-20:48).
And yet the sovereignty of God is such that we must understand that the sin is in the act of the rape, not in the conception that resulted from it.
“I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God. The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these.” – Isaiah 45:6b-7 (NASB)
Sin – all sin – grieves the heart of God (Genesis 6:5-6; Psalm 78:40; Mark 3:5). And because we are made in the image of God, that which grieves the heart of God should grieve our hearts as well.
As followers of the only true God (John 17:3), we must resist the urge to construct for ourselves an emotionalized or compartmentalized theology of the sovereignty of God in that we trust that He is in control of certain events but not others (Roman 8:28).
“If a calamity occurs in a city has not the Lord done it?” – Amos 3:6b (NASB)
That the God of the Bible is a God who ordains evil is neither easy nor comfortable for our finite minds to comprehend. Nevertheless, as Christians, we are called to trust that even in situations of the most nefarious and intolerable wrongdoing, we serve a good and just God whose ways we will not always understand (Proverbs 3:5-6).
God does not value life on a curve.
He is the sovereign God of all the universe and, as such, remains the Author of all life regardless the circumstances under which that life is created.
Humbly in Christ,
The Problem of Evil (audio message) – Dr. John MacArthur
God’s Sovereignty (audio message) – Dr. R.C. Sproul, Sr.
Ten Aspects of God’s Sovereignty Over Suffering and Satan’s Hand In It (audio message) – Dr. John Piper
The Sovereignty of God – John Murray (as published at opc.org)