“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 a God who is holy and righteous.
The “Prince of Preachers”, Charles H. Spurgeon, 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.”
For what it’s worth, I concur with Spurgeon.
As sinners, that you and I struggle at times with the notion that a loving, kind, and merciful God would allow evil to exist in this world is interesting if not ironic. For rarely, if ever, do we consider our own sinfulness as contributing to that evil which God, in our finite minds, seems to openly 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 said,
“…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
As fallen and, therefore, fallible human beings, our nature is such that the sovereignty of God is usually considered only in those instances in which we have personally experienced some heightened level of grief, disappointment, or discouragement. In such situations, we are generally quick to remind ourselves that “God is in control”.
But we are less inclined, however, to give God the benefit of the doubt in those situations in which we are somewhat removed from any direct personal experience. In other words, unless “it” happens to us—whatever “it” is—or to someone whose well-being we happen to 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 that God is indeed sovereign (Romans 8:22-23). Think about it. Who among us has not experienced some adverse circumstance in our life that has caused us to question whether there actually is a God “up there somewhere” who is aware of the evil that is happening in the world (Proverbs 15:3)?
It is in our moments of deepest pain and perplexity that we seek answers to the question “Where is God?” (Malachi 2:17). Such an inquiry is borne out of a preconceived notion that the nature of God consists primarily of one attribute: love. Consequently, we assume that a “God of love” would never abide evil in any form or under any circumstance (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 and/or incest.
Many people today, including professing Christians, who otherwise would be opposed to the murder of unborn children—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 conditions.
On the one hand, that 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 misconstruing an attribute of the biblical God solely on the basis of religious tradition or personal experience. It is with that 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
Saint Augustine of Hippo expressed a similar sentiment as Calvin when he said,
“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 character; 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 that in light of these words from theologian and author Wayne Grudem, who said,
“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
When it comes to 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 its declaration that not only is God aware of the evil that occurs in the world, but He also ordains the evil that occurs in it. As Charles Haddon Spurgeon declared:
“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.”
The reason such a response is right or, perhaps better, righteous, 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 are to treat one another as image-bearers of God (Genesis 1:27). You and I possess such an awareness because God Himself has placed that awareness within each of us (Romans 1:18-19).
That God ordains evil should never be understood to mean that He approves of it or, conversely, that He receives some morbid sense of satisfaction from it. As the late Dr. R.C. Sproul has said:
“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 explains:
“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
In other words, God is not a divine masochist.
Unlike you and me, God is, by His very nature, holy and righteous (Numbers 23:19). As such, all that He providentially ordains to occur in the world—either to us or to someone else—is inherently right and good (Psalm 145:17; James 1:13).
When a woman is raped and pregnancy ensues 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 is that because the attack was unprovoked, unwarranted, and undeserved, it becomes not only the woman’s right but also her prerogative to abort the child, if she so chooses, under the mantra that “it’s my body.”
Nevertheless, as sensitive as I am to those who may hold to that position, the truth is that God is not like you and me. He does not value life on a curve (as we often do).
In his commentary on Exodus 21:22, the 16th-century French reformer, John Calvin, said, unambiguously,
“If men strive, and hurt a woman. This passage at first sight is ambiguous, for if the word death only applies to the pregnant woman, it would not have been a capital crime to put an end to the fetus, which would be a great absurdity; for the fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, (homo,) and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light. On these grounds I am led to conclude, without hesitation, that the words, “if death should follow,” must be applied to the fetus as well as to the mother. Besides, it would be by no means reasonable that a father should sell for a set sum the life of his son or daughter. Wherefore this, in my opinion, is the meaning of the law, that it would be a crime punishable with death, not only when the mother died from the effects of the abortion, but also if the infant should be killed; whether it should die from the wound abortively, or soon after its birth.”
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 that the rape—and the subsequent conception—happen. Though rape is never God’s prescriptive will—neither is murder nor child molestation nor any sin for that matter—in His infinite and inscrutable wisdom such acts of evil are always His permissive will for our lives.
“It is the Lord’s rule to bring good out of evil.” – Charles H. Spurgeon
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 and judgment (Proverbs 15:3; 1 Timothy 5:24; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
Consider, again, these encouraging words from Charles Haddon Spurgeon—a man who himself endured great physical and mental suffering during his earthly life—who said,
“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 notes above, is, in fact, a “secondary agent” in God bringing to pass the evil that 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 is not omnipotent.
Rape and incest are horrific and inexcusable sins that should be punished severely. In fact, rape is such an egregious sin that the Old Testament records that a massive civil war occurred among the tribes of Israel over the rape of one woman (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 and 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 us 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 consider and 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 of the circumstances through which that life is created.
“Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?” – Job 11:9-10 (NASB)
Humbly in Christ,
The Problem of Evil (audio message) – Dr. John MacArthur
What Is Molonism and Is It Biblical? – Got Questions?
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)