This question may sound speculative. But it is not something on which Scripture is silent. It does involve deep mysteries. Yet, it is a practical question that concerns our own experience and understanding of Scripture. We live in a time when iniquity abounds. We need to know that God is not powerless and defeated by it but rather that He overrules it to a greater good and His greater glory.
The Bible does not give us a proof text that summarises teaching about this in just one place. Yet through comparing different parts of Scripture with each other we can understand its teaching. The Westminster Confession (6:1; see also Larger Catechism Q19) declares that God “permits” sin, but that it is not a “bare permission” (5:4). A “bare permission” would mean it was an involuntary decision whereas it was possible for God not to permit it.
It is an active permission. He has “joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is, nor can be, the author or approver of sin” (5:4 see also 3:1).
The Confession offers a range of proof texts that demonstrate how God uses the sinful actions of men as actions in His purposes. Yet God is not involved in the sinfulness of those actions. A clear example is in relation to the cross of Christ. Those who crucified Him certainly acted wickedly, but it was also part of God’s purpose (Acts 2:23; Acts 4:27-28).
Samuel Rutherford was not one to run away from such perplexing questions. In his Catechism he gives some concise answers to various perplexing questions.
Does God have any involvement in sin?
God does allow men to sin. He also punishes sin and directs it to His own glory. Yet He never approves, loves or commands sin.
But is God not the author of sin when He hardens men’s hearts?
Not at all. God, as the ruler and judge of the world, leaves men to harden their own heart. He punishes sin by sin (Psalm 81:11-12; Romans 1:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12) in such a way that no guilt attaches to Him.
But how can God be free from sin if He works in sin?
The Lord can touch a snake and not be stung. He is like a good painter that draws black lines in the image to make the white appear more beautiful. Or like the chemist extracts good oil out of poisonous herbs. A musician can make a pleasant sound from an out of tune harp. In the same way, God acts in a completely holy and just way as judge in hardening men’s hearts.
Reasons Why God Permitted Sin
Samuel Rutherford gives seven reasons as to why God permitted sin. These are stated in a sermon that he preached before the House of Commons. They are all based upon the sovereignty and greater glory of God. Often we hear about a “greater good defence” in relation to the existence of sin. The assertion is that greater good is accomplished by permitting sin than if it had not been permitted. Rutherford gives us a “greater glory defence”. The greater good achieved is greater glory to God.
If God had not permitted sin:
- The beauty of free grace and “pardoning grace” would never been made obvious.
- There would have been no employment for “the mercy of a soul-redeeming Jesus”.
- We would not have had occasion to exalt “the new psalm of the praise of a Redeemer”.
- Human self-dependence would be exalted rather than God.
- The broken and humble heart would not be required to kiss Christ by faith, who binds up the broken hearted.
- As poor scholars, we would not have maximum dependence on so kingly a tutor as Christ.
- There would not be such a clear display of justice against Satan. This is much greater when we as mere clay triumph over fallen angels and hell through the strength of Jesus Christ.
Anthony Burgess was one of Rutherford’s colleagues at the Westminster Assembly. He addresses the same question and similarly draws attention to the greater glory for God in permitting sin. He notes, however, that we would often be better to ask why sin is committed rather than why it is permitted.
- To exalt and magnify Christ. God works the greatest good (Christ our Mediator) from sin. If there had been no sin, there would have been no Christ (i.e. incarnation, the eternal Son always was and will be).
- To exalt God’s attributes. His justice in punishing sin, His mercy and grace in forgiving sin and His wisdom in overruling it. We must not therefore profanely cavil at the existence of sin. Rather we should adore from the heart all the glorious attributes of God that are exalted because of it. As sin has abounded, so God’s grace and mercy have abounded.
- To work for the very good of the person that commits it. As a blasphemer and a persecutor Paul was the chiefest sinner of all. He was, therefore, more humble than all.
- To glorify grace in the godly. Opposites illustrate one another. In rhetoric there is a device called antithesis which serves to add greater beauty. In the same way, Augustine says that there is an eloquence in things when good is praised by means of evil. Thus, the dark night sets out the day, the dark shadows in the picture adorn it, and the pause or silence in singing make the melody sweeter.
- To demonstrate excellent graces in the godly. These have been evident when God permitted wicked men to satisfy their intentions. The patience, zeal and strength of Christian martyrs were seen because of the wickedness of Nero and Diocletian’s persecutors. God makes the goodness of the godly more admired by contrast with the wickedness of the wicked.
This should make us to adore such great wisdom and power in God which overrules all the wickedness in the world to such wonderful good. The godly can even say that their sins, and even the sins of the Church’s enemies have been “happy” sins. A craftsman uses many crooked and toothed instruments to make curious and polished materials. This is what God does with all wicked men.
Robert Shaw has a valuable commentary on the Westminster Confession called The Reformed Faith. In it, he discusses the subject giving various helpful explanations and qualifications. He concludes by acknowledging our own limitations in fully penetrating such depths. “The full elucidation of this abstruse subject, so as to remove every difficulty, surpasses the human faculties. We are certain that God is concerned in all the actions of his creatures; we are equally certain that God cannot be the author of sin; and here we ought to rest”.
Ultimately, our task is not to explain God’s unsearchable ways or justify them. We are to submit to Him and give glory to Him in all His actions. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable [are] his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen” (Romans 11:33 and 36).
Postscript: A caution
These thoughts should not encourage us to have any smaller or weaker views of the exceeding sinfulness of sin. It is the greatest evil. Its true nature and our own responsibility for it are described in the following from the Larger Catechism:
Q. 152. What doth every sin deserve at the hands of God?
A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserveth his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.
Q. 153. What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law?
A. That we may escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law, he requireth of us repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and the diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.