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:
“God and the Naughty Assyrians, 22 October 2018.
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.”
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”).
Here’s a short video of me presenting this during class:
We have a bi-monthly theology class with interested folks from my congregation. Right now, we’re considering the doctrine of sin. This might seem dry as dust, but it’s not. If you read the notes, below, perhaps you’ll see why. I’ve included short-ish excerpts from the teaching session if you want the Cliff Notes version in the meantime!
Kind of a big deal …
This question “what is sin” answers one of the “big questions” of life. Everybody has these big questions, and they’re usually variations on these five:
Origins: How did we get here? How did the world get here? What are we as human beings? How can we be sure we know anything about reality at all? What’s the purpose of life? Is there a Creator and Sustainer, or is life just random chance and accident?
Suffering: What’s wrong with the world and with us? What are good and evil? Who defines these terms? Why does the world hurt people? Why do we hurt each other? What happens when we die? Why do we die?
Hope: Is there a solution to suffering? Will there be justice? What is justice? What basis do we have to look forward to some “better day?”
Rescue: How is this hope, whatever it is, achieved? What are its effects? Does it bring justice? Is this redemption individual, corporate, or both?
The End: How will everything end? What will it be like? When will it happen? What will happen?
So, this isn’t an academic consideration—it shapes and defines how we understand the world, ourselves and God in many ways:
God: If sin isn’t so serious, then we’ll tend to think of God as the smiling, perhaps senile grandfather. He’s indulgent. He forgives. He forgets. But, if sin is indeed quite serious, then we’re more likely to see God as pure, righteous, and holy.
Ourselves: If sin is a matter of grading on a curve, then “goodness” is about how we compare ourselves to each other. We aren’t so bad, after all! None of us is Ted Bundy! But, if there is no curve, but a moral standard set by God, then we’re supposed to reflect God’s image and are held to His standard. This means we’re all in serious trouble.
Salvation: What we think about sin shapes how much “trouble” we’re in. If we’re basically good, then we don’t need much supernatural intervention. Maybe just a push, now and then. But, if we’re criminals without hope, then we do need a divine intervention!
The Church: What we think about sin shapes what we think the Church is here to do. If we’re basically “good people” in our natural state, then the Church exists to be positive, to be caring, to show love via mercy ministries (e.g. In His Steps). But, if we do need that divine intervention, then the Church is here to show and tell the Gospel and bridge-build towards the Gospel as we interact with our communities.
Society: What we think about sin shapes how we understand politics, and our society. If we’re basically good, then we solve problems in our world by fixing unwholesome environments. If we need a divine intervention, then we see that nothing will really be solved until people’s hearts are changed by the Gospel. The ultimate hope is then in Jesus’ second coming and His establishment of the new community.
What is sin?
I’ll start with a brief survey of how some folks in the Church have answered that question.
The text we’re using for theology class, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, offers this: “sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” This is a standard definition, no doubt derived from the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith. Notice that Grudem captures three categories; actions, thoughts, and nature.
Here’s the Belgic Confession, Art. 15:
We believe that, through the disobedience of Adam, original sin is extended to all mankind; which is a corruption of the whole nature, and an hereditary disease, wherewith infants themselves are infected even in their mother’s womb, and which produceth in man all sorts of sin, being in him as a root thereof; and therefore is so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn all mankind. Nor is it by any means abolished or done away by baptism; since sin always issues forth from this woeful source, as water from a fountain: notwithstanding it is not imputed to the children of God unto condemnation, but by his grace and mercy is forgiven them. Not that they should rest securely in sin, but that a sense of this corruption should make believers often to sigh, desiring to be delivered from this body of death.”
Note the emphasis on sin as a status, an infection that has spread to all people.
Here is the Church of England’s 39 Articles, Art. 9:
Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is ingendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in the Greek, “Phronema Sarkos”, which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh, is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized, yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.
Now, we turn to the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, Art. 6, which explains sin is a “corruption of nature” (6.5):
By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation (6.2-3).
Finally, we have the Lutherans in the Augsburg Confession (1630), Art. 2:
… since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mother’s wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God. Moreover, this inborn sickness and hereditary sin is truly sin [that is, there is actual individual guilt] and condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”
Sin is actually three different things at the same time, like layers of the same onion. We’ll go from the most obvious example of sin to its most fundamental essence:
Sin as lawlessness
Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4)—failing to follow God’s laws. It means breaking God’s law by what you do or don’t do; e.g. “thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13) and “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (Jas 2:8-9). It also means breaking God’s law by what you think; Mt 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Sin as a controlling disease
But, as the survey of various confessions makes clear, sin is also a disease that owns, controls, and shapes people—“it infects our personal ‘control center’” and produces “guilt and pollution.” One excellent controlling passage is Romans 6:1 – 7:6, which you can read through and note at your leisure.
This means that, as a hereditary disease, sin controls us. We’re its slaves, and it corrupts all our affections. It’s a “total act” that involves all of our beings, because it springs from the heart (Prov 4:23; Mt 12:33-37). “The heart of man is evil … It is the Headquarters of the General Staff, not the office of some lesser official … the whole man rebels against God, ego totus, and in this rebellion all the individual powers of his body-mind economy are mobilized.”
It’s shape comes from our environmental and social nexus and is always evolving, mutating, expanding, shape-shifting—it can be “baked in” even to the level of the structural fabrics of our society (e.g. racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, religious hatred, ecological pollution, genocide).
Indeed, experience shows is daily how evil ‘infects’ society, spreading from one person to another, and perhaps involving them in it against their will. The power of the ‘infection’ is as great in the moral sphere as it is in physical epidemics. We ought to be aware of the fact—and remind others of it—that evil spreads to institutions and conditions, ‘infects’ them, and then breeds further evil, which, in turn, ‘re-infects’ the lives of human beings as individuals. Further, it is evident that the evil which is incorporated in asocial institutions, and the evil which becomes a mass phenomenon, waxes great and assumes demonic forms, which, as a rule, are not found in any individual evil. Evil which takes the shape of social wrong, or is incorporated in institutions, or as a mass phenomenon, is worse than evil in any individual form, in isolation.”
All this is why we must be “born again” (Jn 3:5-7), because we need a new mind and new heart (cf. Ezek 36:25-26)—the Spirit must “wash” us clean (Titus 3:5) and “cleanse” us from this disease. Union with Christ (pictured by the object lesson of believer’s baptism) breaks that metaphysical slavery and sets us free.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Sin as cheating on God and rejecting His community
Largely following Stanley Grenz, with an assist from Emil Brunner and Millard Erickson, I believe the most basic essence of sin is infidelity to God and His plan for community. Other suggestions are (1) rebellion and apostasy, (2) selfishness, (3) a privation or absence of goodness, or (4) displacement of God. These are good options. Still, infidelity and rejection of community seem to strike at the heart of “sin.”
God made us to be in community with Him and each other. By sinning, our first parents rejected His community (just as Satan had done), and so God had to expel them from Paradise (“he drove out the man,” Gen 3:24).
The bible’s story is God choosing and rescuing a community for His kingdom—we’ll only have peace and purpose in our lives when that relationship is fixed by pledging allegiance to Jesus. Sin is the great “problem” that stands in the way; lawlessness caused by a controlling force that has ruined our hearts and minds.
This isn’t an impersonal, legal crime, but a personal attack and rejection—infidelity, adultery (cf. Hosea 1-3), a hurtful treachery (Hos 6:7; Isa 48:8; Jer 3:1-2, 8-10, 20, 5:11; Ezek 16:15f). There’s a reason why God so often frame this treachery as “adultery.” It’s the ultimate betrayal, the most personal and hurtful betrayal imaginable. It’s why God chose to use it when He expressed His anger.
So, “sin” is fundamentally about saying “no” to God’s community; “cheating on Him” and thus destroying our relationship with Him (fear of Him; Gen 3:10), with each other (Gen 3:7, 16), and with the natural environment God gave us (Gen 3:17-19)—the world God gave us is no longer our friend.
For fun, I’ll also throw in a video of the free-ranging discussion we began during our last class on the question “why did God allow Adam and Eve to sin? This is one of the trickiest questions of the Christian faith. It all comes down to providence, and HOW God controls this world. In this video, the other pastor in my congregation lays out some options, we look at scripture, and then have a free-ranging discussion about the topic. If you want to know the answer to this question, read Article 13 from the 1619 Belgic Confession of Faith:
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, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment; nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.
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. And as to what he doth surpassing human understanding we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God which are hid from us, 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.
This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father, 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; being persuaded that he so restrains the devil and all our enemies that, without his will and permission, they can not hurt us.
Here is our free-flowing discussion on the topic. Next time, we’ll narrow things down and see what the Church has taught and believed about this difficult subject.
 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 96.
 I am following Grenz’s excellent work, here (Theology, pp. 187-188).
 Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 90-93. For rebellion alone, see Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 6 (Waco: Word, 1984), pp. 246f.
 Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), pp. 246-247. “… all the forms of sin can be traced to selfishness as their source.”
 John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith 2.4, in NPNF 2.9. “For evil is nothing else than absence of goodness, just as darkness also is absence of light,” (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1899), p. 20. See also Augustine, where he explains trying to discern the cause of evil is like trying to “see darkness” or “hear silence.” We don’t know it by perception, “but by absence of perception,” (City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson [reprint; New York: Penguin, 2003], 12.7, p. 480.
 Calvin, Institutes, 2.1.4; “hence infidelity was the root of the revolt.”
 “The sinful destruction of community has been the human predicament from the beginning. The transgression of our first parents led to the unmistakable disruption of community. Their act brought alienation or estrangement where once had been only fellowship. The innocent transparency in the presence of each other they had once known gave way to shame (Gen 3:7). In addition, Adam and Eve now feared the face of God who had lovingly created them (v. 10). And they now experience the bitter reality that the world around them was no longer their friend (vv. 15, 17, 19),” (Grenz, Theology, p. 188).
Christians can get tangled up when they consider the knotty conundrums of God’s divine sovereignty and man’s free will. How do these things go together? Well, we’re not quite sure, because our perspective is a bit limited. But, both are true.
God is in charge. He does what He wants, and everything He does flows from His character, which means it’s all holy, righteous and good, and nothing can happen without His permission and consent. People do make their own decisions and do what they want to do, and are rightly held accountable for them.
So, where does that leave us? It leaves us with the concept of compatibilism, which simply means that God uses means (like you and I) to do what He wants, and works in and through our own innate desires to accomplish His will. We see this in Scripture over and over again, if we look for it:
Why did Satan torture Job? Well, because Satan wanted to do it. But, Satan could only act because God gave him permission (Job 1:6-12). In fact, Job’s author bluntly stated Yahweh had brought all this upon Job (Job 42:11). That is, Satan was only the secondary agent.
Why was Jesus killed? Because the apostate Israelite leaders wanted Him dead, and they pressured a weak Roman governor into ordering the execution. But, Luke tells us Jesus was “delivered up by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” (Acts 2:23).
Why did the Babylonians destroy the Kingdom of Judah? Well, because they wanted to! But, over and above even their own conscious understanding, God was directing and channeling their wickedness for His own purposes (see Habakkuk 1-2). God said He was raising up the Chaldeans, not the other way around (Hab 1:6). He did this work, not them (Hab 1:5).
Why do false teachers come? Moses says God sent them; “for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul,” (Deut 13:3). Yet, God still decrees that a false teacher dies “because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God,” (Deut 13:5). These false teachers did what they wanted to do, but over and above their own consciousness God had sent them to test and sift the people. Yet, they were still held morally personally responsible for their actions.
Many examples of compatibilism are not didactic; they’re often stated matter-of-factly, without fanfare. Consider what Moses wrote about an Amorite King, Sihon. Why wouldn’t Sihon let the Israelites pass through his land?
Well, Moses tells us why. The Lord had “hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate,” (Deut 2:30). God made it so Sihon wouldn’t listen. Why did God do this? Well, Moses wrote that God did this so “that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day,” (Deut 2:30). God made Sihon not listen, because God wanted the Israelites to destroy him. Simple.
Consider the covenant blessings and cursings; how could God carry them out if compatibilism wasn’t true?
How could He scatter them among the nations (Deut 28:64)? The historical books tell us God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to do this, and they certainly weren’t conscious agents!
How could Yahweh bring some of them back to Israel as slaves (Deut 28:68; see also 28:32) without employing unwitting, intermediate agents?
How else could the Lord “cause you to be defeated before your enemies?” (Deut 28:25)? The Israelites surely fought as best they could, but God gave their enemies the victory.
Who will bring men to oppress and rob the Israelites continually (Deut 28:29)? Are these robbers remorseless robots; droids programmed by God to plunder the Israelites against their will? Hardly!
Why will engaged young ladies be ravished by evil men (Deut 28:30)? Dare we assume those who commit these crimes aren’t also morally responsible for their wicked actions? Dare we lurch into the opposite ditch and assume God sat in heaven above as a helpless bystander?
How can God bring a foreign nation to oppress and destroy them (Deut 28:33-34, 36-37)?
I could go on. If you just read the Old Testament, you’ll see this doctrine of compatibilism all over its pages. It’s there in a matter of fact way. It’s everywhere. As John Calvin remarked:
If we look at the administration of human affairs with the eye of sense, we will have no doubt that, so far, they are placed at man’s disposal; but if we lend an ear to the many passages of Scripture which proclaim that even in these matters the minds of men are ruled by God, they will compel us to place human choice in subordination to his special influence.
I agree. Look at what else Calvin says:
Who gave the Israelites such favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, that they lent them all their most valuable commodities? (Exod. 11:3.) They never would have been so inclined of their own accord. Their inclinations, therefore, were more overruled by God than regulated by themselves. And surely, had not Jacob been persuaded that God inspires men with divers affections as seemeth to him good, he would not have said of his son Joseph, (whom he thought to be some heathen Egyptian,) “God Almighty give you mercy before the man,” (Gen. 43:14.)
In like manner, the whole Church confesses that when the Lord was pleased to pity his people, he made them also to be pitied of all them that carried them captives, (Ps. 106:46.) In like manner, when his anger was kindled against Saul, so that he prepared himself for battle, the cause is stated to have been, that a spirit from God fell upon him, (1 Sam. 11:6.)
Who dissuaded Absalom from adopting the counsel of Ahithophel, which was wont to be regarded as an oracle? (2 Sam. 17:14.) Who disposed Rehoboam to adopt the counsel of the young men? (1 Kings 12:10.) Who caused the approach of the Israelites to strike terror into nations formerly distinguished for valour? Even the harlot Rahab recognised the hand of the Lord. Who, on the other hand, filled the hearts of the Israelites with fear and dread, (Lev. 26:36,) but He who threatened in the Law that he would give them a “trembling heart?” (Deut. 28:65.)
God works over and above our own personal will to accomplish what He wants. As the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith reads, “God, in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at his pleasure.” You make free choices. I make free choices. We all make free choices. Yet, above our own consciousness, our holy and righteous God is working all things according to the counsel of His own will. As Solomon said, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will,” (Prov 21:1).
Our God is sovereign. Our God is in control. Our God can even channel His enemies’ thoughts, intentions, wills and desires for His own holy purposes. “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble,” (Prov 16:4). This ought to comfort everyone who confesses the name of Christ. It means you aren’t a pawn in a world spinning out of control, on its own. It means things do happen for a reason, even if you don’t understand them. It means you’re an adopted child of a God who made, controls and upholds creation itself. The 1618 Belgic Confession says it best:
We believe that this good God, after he created all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without his orderly arrangement.
Yet God is not the author of, nor can he be charged with, the sin that occurs. For his power and goodness are so great and incomprehensible that he arranges and does his work very well and justly even when the devils and wicked men act unjustly.
We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what he does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what he shows us in his Word, without going beyond those limits.
This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father. He watches over us with fatherly care, keeping all creatures under his control, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father.
In this thought we rest, knowing that he holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without his permission and will.