God Is Not Responsible For Sin
The problem of evil is one that every Christian has to face. For the vast majority of professing Christians the idea or belief in free will, at least on the surface, seems to solve the problem of evil. These Christians are historically known as Arminians, or less charitably, Pelagians, and their argument generally goes something like this; God made man with a free and undetermined will, therefore all men have the natural ability to chose to do either good or evil. God is said to “permit” men to do evil and it is on this basis of their natural ability toward good or evil that God is said to hold men responsible for their choices. If God could be said to determine man’s choices from Adam’s fall to the crucifixion and murder of the Father’s only Son, then man would not be responsible for their sinful actions. Apart from free will, men would be mere sinners and pawns in God’s hands and God himself would be responsible for their sin. But, what sort of loving “God” would permit men to sin when He has the power to prevent it? Wouldn’t a loving an omnipotent God prevent the Holocaust? And, even if He can’t control the choices of men and prevent them from doing evil, couldn’t He control the weather and at least see fit to prevent tsunami’s and tornados from wiping out entire villages and towns killing countless innocent men, women and children? So, while the “free will” argument at first appears to solve the solution of human responsibility, it would also appear to make God a culpable and admittedly impotent third party who has the power and ability to prevent evil but chooses not to. Hardly what many would consider the Lord God Almighty, much less a God worth worshiping.
Unlike the Arminian, those Christians who have continued in the tradition of the Reformation have historically denied that man’s will is free in the sense of being undetermined or that God somehow passively “permits” evil. Martin Luther argued that man’s will is born in bondage to sin and death. Calvin called sin a “contagion” which all men are infected with from the moment of conception and on account of Adam’s first sin imputed to them by ordinary generation. Men aren’t sinners because they sin, they sin because they’re sinners and are born that way. Further, Reformed men have always confessed that God not only determined Adam’s fall as part of His overall plan or eternal decree, but He also “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass” (see Westminster Confession chapter 3, Of God’s Eternal Decree). So far from being some impotent and anemic cosmic bystander, these Christians maintain that God has determined all things to include the Holocaust and killer tsunami’s and tornados. Yet, these Christians also confess that “neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (WCF III:1).
This raises the question; If God has determined all things including the sinful actions of men, wouldn’t that make God the responsible agent and author of sin, WCF III:1 notwithstanding? Or, to put it another way, How can men be held responsible for their thoughts, words and deeds if God has sovereignly determined them in accordance with his eternal decree? For generations Reformed Christians have seen this dilemma as a profound mystery. For theologians like John Frame this is where “faith” comes in as he explains:
[W]e are in a strange state of affairs: we have two propositions (“God is good” and “God foreordains evil”) which we can show to be logically interdependent in one sense; yet we cannot show them to be logically compatible except by an appeal to faith…This balance of interdependence and paradox is in the interest of thinking in submission to Scripture. Scripture must be followed both in its assertions of interdependence and in its refusal to reconcile all doctrines to our satisfaction.
Thus, a paradox remains for us, though by faith we are confident that there is no paradox for God. Faith is basic to the salvation of our knowledge as well as the salvation of our souls.
Tragically, Frame’s answer to this dilemma, or more precisely his non-answer, is all too common and in many Reformed circles this non-answer has even become a mark of Reformed orthodoxy. The reason for this sad state of affairs falls squarely on the late Cornelius Van Til who publicly excoriated Gordon Clark for even claiming to have solved this problem which “has baffled the greatest theologians in history.” According to Van Til,
Not even Holy Scripture offers a solution. But Dr. Clark asserts unblushingly that for his thinking the problem has ceased to be a problem. Here is something phenomenal. What accounts for it? The most charitable, and no doubt the correct, explanation is that Dr. Clark has come under the spell of rationalism. It is difficult indeed to escape the conclusion that by his refusal to permit the Scriptural teaching of divine sovereignty and the Scriptural teaching of human responsibility to stand alongside each other, and by his claim that he has fully reconciled them with each other before the bar of human reason, Dr. Clark has fallen into the error of rationalism [The Clark-Van Til Controversy, 23].
Now, if you examine Clark’s solution to this problem that “has baffled the greatest theologians in history,” you’ll see that it hinges on how we define responsibility. According to Clark:
Let us call a man responsible, then, when he may be justly rewarded or punished for his deeds. That is, the man must be answerable to someone, to God, for responsibility implies a superior authority who punishes or rewards.
The first thing to notice is that absent from this definition is any notion of man’s presumed natural ability toward either good or bad. Not only is a free and undetermined will absent from his definition, but any will at all, God’s or man’s, is eliminated too. Clark simply avoids the question of man’s will entirely in his definition of responsibility. Similarly, while God can be said to the ultimate cause of whatsoever comes to pass, even the sins of men, God cannot be said to be responsible for those sins simply because there is no higher authority to whom He must give an answer.
Interestingly, and something that eluded Van Til and his many followers over the years, is that Clark’s answer to this theological dilemma is the same form of argument Paul uses in Romans 9 starting in verse 29:
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
Notice, Paul’s hypothetical interlocutor argues in effect: How can I be held responsible for that which God has eternally determined should come to pass according to His sovereign will? I mean, if I can’t resist his will then I can’t be held responsible for my thoughts and actions, right? It is presumed that for a man to be held responsible requires the freedom, at least to some extent, to have done otherwise. Yet, implied in Paul’s response is that the only thing required for man to be responsible is a superior authority and that authority is God who alone can justly demand a response from his subordinate and sinful creatures. Conversely, and as we can see from Paul’s “O man who art thou,” man has no authority to demand any response from God for what He has decreed. God is the potter and man is His clay to do with what He wills. He hardens the one and has mercy on the other all according to His good pleasure. Or, as the prophet Daniel explains; ”All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven And among the inhabitants of the earth. No one can restrain His hand Or say to Him, “What have You done?’”
Interestingly, Clark’s answer to the problem of human responsibility and God’s sovereignty rests squarely on the Creator/creature distinction, a distinction that Van Til claimed was central to all theology. Interesting too, and despite Van Til’s protests to the contrary above, Holy Scripture does indeed offer a solution to this problem that “has baffled the greatest theologians in history” and it is a necessary inference drawn from Romans 9.
While I would certainly encourage readers of this blog to study Clark’s answer as he first proposed it in 1932 in his piece, “Determinism and Responsibility,” or as he develops it in chapter five of his book, Religion, Reason, and Revelation (also found in God and Evil: Problem Solved), I would also like to recommend Robert Reymond’s fleshing out of Clark’s solution found in his systematic theology and presented here below.
Why God Is Not the Author or Chargeable Cause of Sin
If God has decreed all that comes to pass, and if God, by his most holy, wise, and powerful providence, governs all his creatures and all their actions in order to accomplish his own holy ends, how is one to understand all this so that God is not made the author of sin and man is left responsible?That anything-good or evil-occurs in God’s universe finds its account… in His positive ordering and active concurrence; while the moral quality of the deed, considered in itself, is rooted in the moral character of the subordinate agent, acting in the circumstances and under the motives operative in each instance . . . Thus all things find their unity in His eternal plan; and not their unity merely; but their justification as well; even the evil, though retaining its quality as evil and hateful to the holy God, and certain to be dealt with as hateful, yet does not occur apart from His provision or against His will, but appears in the world which He has made only as the instrument by which He works the higher good.
Far from God’s decree violating the will of the creature or taking away his liberty or contingency; God’s decree established that what they would do they would (normally) do freely (Westminster Confession of Faith, III/i; V/ii,iv). The occurrence of the word “freely” here may surprise some readers. How can the Reformed Christian speak of man’s “freedom” if God has decreed his every thought and action? The solution is to be found in the meaning of the word. Reformed theology does not deny that men have wills (that is, choosing minds) or that men exercise their wills countless times a day. To the contrary, Reformed theology happily affirms both of these propositions. What Reformed theology denies is that a man’s will is ever free from God’s decree, his own intellection, limitations, parental training, habits, and (in this life) the power of sin. In sum, there is no such thing as the liberty of indifference; that is, no one’s will is an island unto itself, undetermined or unaffected by anything.
Furthermore, Reformed theology is not opposed to speaking of man’s “free will, freedom,” or “free agency” (the phrases may be found in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the writings, for example, of A. A. Hodge, John Murray, and Gordon Clark, whose Reformed convictions are unquestioned), provided the Arminian construction of free will as the liberty of indifference is not placed upon the phrases. According to Reformed theology, if an act is done voluntarily, that is, if it is done spontaneously with no violence being done to the man’s will, then that act is a free act. This is happily acknowledged in order to preclude the conclusions of a Hobbesian or a Skinnerian determinism that would insist that man’s will is mechanistically, genetically, or chemically forced or determined to good or evil by an absolute necessity of nature. What all of this means is this: If at the moment of willing, the man wanted to do the thing being considered for reasons sufficient to him, then Reformed theology declares that he acted freely. There is, Reformed theology would affirm in other words, a liberty of spontaneity. It is in this sense that I used the term “freely” earlier. To illustrate: Was Adam aware of God’s prohibition and warning respecting the tree of the knowledge of good and evil at the moment he ate its fruit? Reformed theology says yes. Did Adam have the capacity and power to do God’s preceptive will respecting the fruit? Reformed theology says yes. Did Adam, for reasons sufficient to him, come to the place cognitively where he wanted to eat the fruit? Reformed theology says yes again. (Reformed theology would also insist at this point, over against Arminianism, precisely because Adam had his reasons, that he was not exercising an indifferent will.) Was Adam forced to eat the fruit against his will? Reformed theology would say no. Therefore, because Adam acted knowingly, willingly, spontaneously, for reasons sufficient for him, with no violence being done to his will, Reformed theology insists that he was a free agent in his transgression. But if someone should ask: Was Adam totally free from God’s eternal decree, Reformed theology would say, of course not. Could Adam have done differently? Again, from the viewpoint of the divine decree, the answer is no. To answer these questions any other way is simply to nullify the Scripture’s teaching to the effect that God, who works everything in conformity with his eternal purpose (Eph. 1:11), purposed before the foundation of the world to save a multitude of sinners who would fall in Adam (see Westminster Confession of Faith, V/iv; VI/i; IX /ii). Henry Stob says this succinctly and superbly:
Calvinists are not Afree willists.” They assert indeed that man is free-that he is a moral agent not caught up in the wheel of things or determined by mere natural antecedents. But they apprehend that this is something else than freedom of the will. Man is free, i.e., he can under ordinary circumstances do what he wills to do. But the will is not free, i.e., there is no extra-volitional vantage point from which the will can determine itself. Man’s will responds to his nature, which is what it is by sin or by the sovereign grace of God. All of which leaves responsibility fully grounded, for nothing more is required for holding a man accountable than his acting with the consent of his will, however much this may be determined.
Thus because God decreed that all things would come to pass according to the nature of second causes, which means that in the case of men they would act freely and spontaneously whatever sin they commit proceeds from them and not from God. He does not sin, nor is he the author of sin. Only self-conscious, self-determining, rational second causes sin. For yet a third reason it is clear that God is not the chargeable cause of sin and that man alone is responsible for his sin. This may be shown by a careful analysis of the meaning of and necessary condition for responsibility, a word which every theologian uses but whose meaning very few bother to think much about.
As the main element of the word suggests, responsibility has reference to the obligation to give a response or an account of one’s actions to a lawgiver. To illustrate, when a judge hears a case concerning an auto accident involving two cars, he attempts to determine who is “responsible,” that is, which one of the two drivers bears the obligation arising from a traffic violation to give an account to the traffic court. In short, a man is a responsible moral agent if he can and will be required to give an account to a lawgiver for any and all infractions he commits against the law imposed upon him by the lawgiver. Whether or not he has free will in the Arminian sense of that term (the liberty of indifference) is irrelevant to the question of responsibility. To insist that without free will a man cannot lawfully be held responsible for his sin completely fails to appreciate the meaning of the word. Free will has nothing to do with the establishment of responsibility. What makes a person “responsible” is whether there is a lawgiver over him who has declared that he will require that person to give an account to him for his thoughts, words, and actions. Hence, if the divine Lawgiver determined that he would require every human being to give a personal account to him for his thoughts, words, and actions, then every human being is a “responsible” agent whether free in the Arminian sense or not. In other words, far from God’s sovereignty making human responsibility impossible, it is just because God is their absolute Sovereign that men are accountable to him. If the sovereign God has determined that men shall answer to him for their thoughts, words, and actions, then that determination makes them responsible to him for their thoughts, words, and actions.
A full biblical treatment of all of the grounds of human responsibility would also include treatments of (1) man’s innate knowledge of God’s law and (2) the doctrine of original sin. Men are chargeable causes of the sins they commit if they know to do the good but do not do it, even if they are unable to do it (Luke 12:47; Rom. 8:7). God has also determined that men are responsible for Adam’s sin by the principle of representative headship and legal imputation (Rom. 5:12-19). Clearly, free will is in no sense the precondition of responsibility for imputed sin, but accountable to God for Adam’s sin men are nonetheless, Paul teaches. Thus free will in the Arminian sense is not the necessary precondition of a man’s responsibility for his sin. A lawgiver is the necessary precondition of responsibility.
It should now be evident from the above analysis of the precondition of responsibility why God cannot be the chargeable or responsible cause of sin. Men are responsible for their thoughts, words, and actions because there is a Lawgiver over them who will call them to account (Rom. 4;12). But God is not “responsible” for his thoughts, words and actions because there is no lawgiver over him to whom he is accountable. Contrary to what some might think, he is not obligated to keep the Ten Commandments as the human creature is. The Ten Commandments are his revealed precepts for men. They do not apply to him as the ethical norm by which he is to live. He cannot worship another God because there is none. He cannot dishonor his father and his mother because he has no parents (we are not considering at this moment the Incarnation), he cannot murder because all life is his to do with as he pleases, he cannot steal because everything already belongs to him, he cannot lie because his nature disallows it, he cannot covet anything that does not belong to him because, again, everything is his already And because he is the absolute Sovereign over the universe, he cannot be called to account by a more ultimate lawgiver (there is no such being) for anything he does or ordains someone else to do. Because he is sovereign, whatever he decrees and whatever he does in accordance with his eternal decree are proper and right just because he is the absolute Sovereign. Did he decree the horrible crucifixion of Christ? The Bible says he did. Then it was proper and right that he did so. Did he predestine some men in Christ before the foundation of the world to be his sons while he foreordained others to dishonor and wrath for their sins? The Bible says he did. Then it was proper and right that he did so. Did he determine that he would call men to account for their transgressions against him. The Bible says he did. Then it is proper and right that God should regard us as the chargeable, responsible causes of our sin.
We have now elucidated the reasons why Reformed theologians believe they can unhesitatingly affirm God’s predestination of all things in general and his sovereignty in salvation in particular and yet deny at the same time that God is the Author of sin and that people have free wills in the Arminian sense of the term. The first is simply the clear biblical teaching (see the many illustrations cited) that God has in fact decreed and is in control of all things but does not sin in doing so. The second is that God ordained that all things would come to pass according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily freely or contingently with no violence being done to the will of the creature. The third is the meaning of responsibility and the clear Reformed perception that divine sovereignty far from being an impediment to human responsibility as the Arminian imagines, is ultimately the necessary precondition for it. – A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 372-376Explore posts in the same categories: Gordon Clark, Theology