Evil and God’s Sovereignty (Blocher)

 Some of the more difficult texts in Scripture include those verses that seem to say God is involved in evil.  For example, in 1 Samuel 16:14 we read, “Now the Spirit of the Lord had turned away from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him” (NET).  Of Eli’s wicked sons we read that they “would not listen to their father, for the LORD had decided to kill them” (1 Sam. 2:25 NET).

What are we to make of these kinds of texts in light of Scripture’s clear teaching that God hates evil, is perfectly and perpetually good, and is too pure to look on sin (cf Prov. 6:16-19; Mk. 10:18; Hab. 1:13, etc.)??  I appreciate how Henri Blocher explained this based on God’s sovereignty, which Scripture also teaches:

The Augustinian and Reformed tradition maintains that in one sense God ‘wills’ evil, he decides that evil shall occur.  Calvin, though he at times uses it, objects to the term permission; he considers it to weak, suggesting a God who is a mere spectator.  In reality, he declares, God goes so far as to move the will of those who do evil.  Many are scandalized at this.  Journet blames Calvin bitterly for speaking of ‘willing.’ He can tolerate only the language of ‘permission.’  Berkouwer criticizes his own tradition on the same points: even Bavinck, he argues, ought not to have stated that God in a certain manner ‘wills’ evil.

We are obliged to refute the accusation: first of all because the audacity of writers of Scripture, such as Paul or Ezekiel, puts the boldest of Calvin’s expressions in the shade; our quotations above [from Scripture] bear that out.  And then why should we argue about words?  ‘Having the authority to prevent, and the power, when God allows it, is that not as good as if he did it?’ (Calvin).  There is little to gain in rejecting the verb ‘to will’ so long as you do not deny divine sovereignty.  Berkouwer is obliged to concede that sin is never committed ‘outside (praeter) the will of God’; is that not the admission of a certain will?  In vain does Journet attempt to pit Calvin against Augustine on this point.  One may as well take one’s position from the stern candor of Scripture: if evil occurs under the rule of God, then his will is involved.

The assurance of the absolute sovereignty of God contributed to ‘the fear of the LORD,’ which is so rare amongst people, even Christians, in our day.  It fostered humble faith, it poured the balm of consolation. Racked with illness, Calvin repeated, ‘You are crushing me, Lord, but I am content that it comes from your hand.’  It [the fear of the Lord] alone can bring peace, beyond that of forgiveness, for having done irreversible wrongs, for even that is in the hand of God, etiam peccata (‘including sins’).  By including that in his plan, he relieves us of the intolerable care of having the final responsibility (cf Gen. 45:8).  He is the First and the Last. Our God reigns.

Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, p. 95-96.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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He Inclines Their Wills (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.5: Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings In 1 Kings 12 Solomon’s son Rehoboam had just become Israel’s new king.  Israel begged him to lighten the yoke of hard service.  To make a longer story short, Rehoboam flatly refused and told them that he’d instead add to the hard service (1 Ki 12:11, 14).  Scripture gives us this insight in the middle of the story: So the king did not listen to the people; for it was a turn of events from the Lord, that He might establish His word, which the Lord spoke through Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. (1 Ki 12:15 NASB).

While reflecting on this passage and others like it, Augustine (d. 430) wrote some helpful comments concerning God’s sovereign will, man’s actions, and divine grace:

Who can help trembling at those judgments of God by which He does in the hearts of even wicked men whatsoever He wills, at the same time rendering to them according to their deeds? Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, rejected the salutary counsel of the old men, not to deal harshly with the people, and preferred listening to the words of the young men of his own age, by returning a rough answer to those to whom he should have spoken gently. Now whence arose such conduct, except from his own will? Upon this, however, the ten tribes of Israel revolted from him, and chose for themselves another king, even Jeroboam, that the will of God in His anger might be accomplished which He had predicted would come to pass. For what says the Scripture? “The king hearkened not unto the people; for the turning was from the Lord, that He might perform His saying, which the Lord spake to Ahijah the Shilonite concerning Jeroboam the son of Nebat.” All this, indeed, was done by the will of man, although the turning was from the Lord.

Read the books of the Chronicles, and you will find the following passage in the second book: “Moreover, the Lord stirred up against Jehoram the spirit of the Philistines, and of the Arabians, that were neighbours to the Ethiopians; and they came up to the land of Judah, and ravaged it, and carried away all the substance which was found in the king’s house.” Here it is shown that God stirs up enemies to devastate the countries which He adjudges deserving of such chastisement. Still, did these Philistines and Arabians invade the land of Judah to waste it with no will of their own? Or were their movements so directed by their own will that the Scripture lies which tells us that “the Lord stirred up their spirit” to do all this? Both statements to be sure are true, because they both came by their own will, and yet the Lord stirred up their spirit; and this may also with equal truth be stated the other way: The Lord both stirred up their spirit, and yet they came of their own will. For the Almighty sets in motion even in the innermost hearts of men the movement of their will, so that He does through their agency whatsoever He wishes to perform through them, even He who knows not how to will anything in unrighteousness. 

After listing other similar passages in Scripture, Augustine comments again:

From these statements of the inspired word, and from similar passages which it would take too long to quote in full, it is, I think, sufficiently clear that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills whithersoever He wills, whether to good deeds according to His mercy, or to evil after their own deserts; His own judgment being sometimes manifest, sometimes secret, but always righteous. This ought to be the fixed and immoveable conviction of your heart, that there is no unrighteousness with God. Therefore, whenever you read in the Scriptures of Truth, that men are led aside, or that their hearts are blunted and hardened by God, never doubt that some ill deserts of their own have first occurred, so that they justly suffer these things. Thus you will not run counter to that proverb of Solomon: “The foolishness of a man perverteth his ways, yet he blameth God in his heart.” Grace, however, is not bestowed according to men’s deserts; otherwise grace would be no longer grace.9 For grace is so designated because it is given gratuitously.

 Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on Grace and Free Will,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 462-3.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

God the Sculptor (Kuyper)

 As we well know, the Bible talks about God being a potter (Is. 64:8, Jer. 18:6, Rom. 9:21, etc.).  Abraham Kuyper built on this imagery in his devotional on Philippians 2:13: For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (NASB).  He started by saying this:

We ourselves will, not because of ourselves, but because God so worketh in us, that now we ourselves truly and actually will to do thus and not otherwise.

Kuyper later gave the illustration of God being the sculptor of his people and discussed it in terms of sanctification and a renewal of the image of God in us:

When God worketh in us he is the omnipresent One, who is both high in heaven and close at hand. Even “close at hand” is still too weak a statement, for God is in every one of us. There is no part in our being where God is not omnipresent. This is the case with all men. But when God deals with one of his children, this inward presence is much closer and more personal, for God dwells in such an one by his Holy Spirit, If we believe that the Holy Spirit is himself God, we understand that God himself tabernacles in his child, that he has his throne in the inmost recess of the child’s soul, and thus has fellowship with him, not from afar, but in the sanctuary of his own person. There God worketh upon us by day and by night, even when we are not conscious of it. He is our Sculptor, who carves in us the image of himself, and makes us more and more to resemble his own Being. Thus he transforms us, and also the willing in us. It is God who worketh in us, not only our emotions, but also our willing, by transforming “the self that wills.”

When we understand it this way, it is plain that there is a constant holy entering in of God’s will into our will, thanks to this purifying and refining and transposing of our inmost selves. This work goes on in us mostly unobserved and unperceived, so tenderly and gently does God’s hand direct the task. But not always just like this. Sometimes the sculptor must forcibly strike off a piece from the marble, so that it crashes and splinters as it falls. These are our times of violent inward struggles, when everything within us quakes with the reverberations of moral shocks. But whether it be gentle or whether it be violent, it is ever the process of sculpturing. And the sculptor works not after a model that stands before him, but is himself the model. He forms us after his own image.

 Kuyper, A. (1918). To Be Near unto God (pp. 168–169). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans-Sevensma Co.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

God’s Will, the Law, and the Gospel

True or False: the Law/gospel distinction was such an intrinsic part of Reformation and post-reformation Reformed theology that it was even discussed under the will of God (voluntas Dei) in Systematics? (Note: to get our “systematic bearings” in place, the “will of God” is frequently discussed under the communicable attributes of God.)

True. Under the ad extra distinctions (the outward or external, historical works of God), several Reformed scholastics listed voluntas legalis and voluntas evangelica.  In other words, one of the distinctions of God’s revealed will is that of law and gospel.

So Ussher: “The revealed will of God is two-fold: the one is that which is properly revealed in the Law, that is, what God requireth to be done of us: and therefore it is called the Law…. The other is the Gospel, which sheweth God’s will towards us, and what he hath decreed of us in his eternal counsel as touching our salvation” (Body of Divinity, p. 52).

Richard Muller also notes a similar emphasis of Zachini in De Natura Dei and Polanus in Syntagma.  See Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, III.444, 473.

shane lems

sunnyside wa