The latest question I tackled during theology class with my congregation is “why did a good God allow Adam and Eve to choose sin, when He knew it would lead to so much pain?” This is really a question about the doctrine of providence. Christians have always affirmed that our first parents had a choice to make; a willing, intelligent, volitional choice. But, how does that work, then?
It works by a version of divine providence known as compatibalism or (depending on who you read) as a concursive operation by which God works through primary, secondary, and tertiary means. I wrote the following two articles on this topic a while back. They explain the approach I’ll take here:
As I said, the question about Adam and Eve and sin is really a question about providence―what is “providence?” Here it is: God ordering things to turn out like He decided. Thomas Watson has written, “God is not like the artificer that builds a house, and then leaves it, but like a pilot he steers the ship of the whole creation.” Have you ever considered that, if God is not deliberately steering this world in His own way, then all prophesy is a lie?
Here are the best resources for you to think through this issue (in order of priority):
- Discussion from Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity.
- 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Article 5 (esp. the scripture references which accompany the discussion).
- 1618 Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 13.
- Discussion from Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.
There are two basic models floating about in the Christian world:
- Divine chess: God is the grandmaster chess player, reacting to our moves, and He’ll always win. He “looks down the corridors of time … seeing the future.” This is popular, but unbiblical―scripture won’t support this view in any way, shape or form. It’s a philosophical construct that often avoids the implications of scripture. God sees the future, but He doesn’t determine or govern it. Does scripture show us God as a psychic who can tell the future, or the God who upholds and controls creation itself?
- God rules: He does what He wants, we do what we want, but His will is always done … somehow!
Here’s the basic case, in brief:
- God rules and governs as He sees fit,
- and so everything which happens is due to Him,
- and His decisions are always good, holy, wise and just,
- yet people make their own intelligent, willing decisions—we do what we want, when we want,
- and God operates in us and through us, and in and through other people and external circumstances,
- channeling our true desires (good or bad), their true desires (good or bad), and all circumstances (good or bad) for His purposes,
- often without us even being aware of it.
Perhaps the clearest, most beautiful expression of providence is from the 1618 Belgic Confession, Article 13. I’ve mentioned it before. Read what it says:
We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them, according to his holy will,
He is in charge, He governs, and His will shall be done.
so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment;
God doesn’t “look down the corridors of time.” He determines time itself.
nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.
The Church has always believed this, and God’s character demands this interpretation. We’ll talk more about this conundrum at a later date. The mental conundrum is due to our shortcoming―our perspective is too small to “get it”
For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible, that he orders and executes his work in the most excellent and just manner even when the devil and wicked men act unjustly.
God is at work, even when the devil and wicked men do what they want to do―and we don’t know how that works, except to say that it does work that way.
And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of;
The mystery card is valid, as long as it’s never played too soon. Here, it’s time to play it.
but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us,
We accept His will, even if we don’t understand it. We acknowledge we don’t understand, can’t understand, and may not ever understand.
contenting ourselves that we are disciples of Christ, to learn only those things which he has revealed to us in his Word without transgressing these limits.
We don’t have the full story, and we accept that.
This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation,
All this isn’t frightening, but comforting―why?
since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father,
He watches over us, cares about us, loves us, and no matter what happens, it isn’t a situation out of His control. The alternative is chaos. Little children who see their parents terrified become terrified themselves. God is never terrified, or caught off guard by events. He controls events. He determines events.
who watches over us with a paternal care, keeping all creatures so under his power that not a hair of our head (for they are all numbered), nor a sparrow, can fall to the ground, without the will of our Father, in whom we do entirely trust;
Will we trust, or will go beyond what He’s revealed?
being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us.
God commands Satan, who can only touch us if God allows it. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” (1 Cor 10:13).
Here are some (not all) controlling passages to “see” this version of providence from the scriptures. If you look them up, consider how our free decisions interplay with God’s decisions.
- Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
- Revelation 17:17.
- Jeremiah 25:8-11 (cf. 25:12-14); 27:1-11.
- Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; 12:13-25; 42:11 (“all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him”).
- Habakkuk 1.
- Dan 4:34-35.
Here’s a short video of me presenting this during class:
 Retrieved from https://eccentricfundamentalist.com/2018/09/03/a-guy-named-sihon/.
 Thomas Watson, A Complete Body of Divinity: Sermons Upon the Westminster Shorter Catechism (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1878; reprint; Vestivia Hills: SGCB, 2016), p. 84.
 Watson, Body of Divinity, pp. 83-89.
 Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), pp. 350-372.