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Why God is Not the Author or Chargeable Cause of Sin 1

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?

If we are to be biblical, it is important at the outset to affirm with no equivocation that God has ordained whatever comes to pass. As the Westminster confession of Faith declares, God is the sole ultimate “First Cause” of all things (WCF 5.2). With John Calvin we must confess that God’s will “is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are.” 2  But God is neither the author of sin nor the chargeable cause of sin. And we must insist upon this for three reasons. The first is simply this: The Bible teaches that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1Jn 1.5) and that he tempts no one to sin (Jas 1.13). The second reason is this – while he certainly decreed all things, God decreed that all things would come to pass according to the nature of “second causes,” either (1) necessarily, as in the case of planets moving in their orbits, (2) freely, that is, voluntarily, with no violence being done to the will of the creature, or (3) contingently, that is, with due regard to the contingencies of future events, as in his informing David what Saul and the citizens of Keilah would do to him if David remained in the city of Keilah (1Sm 23.9-23). Therefore, whatever sinfulness ensues proceeds only from men and angels and not from God. Warfield observes in this connection:

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 as 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 for the higher good. 3

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 do freely (WCF 3.1; 5.2,5). 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 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 phrase. 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 is a free act. This is happily acknowledged in order to preclude the conclusions of a Hobbesian or Skinnerian determinism that would insist that man’s will is mechanistically, genetically, or chemically forced or determined to do good or evil by an absolute necessity of nature.

What all 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…. 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 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 (WCF 5.4; 6.1; 9.2). Henry Stob says this succinctly and superbly:

Calvinists are not “free willists.” They assert indeed that man is free–that he is a moral agent not caught up in the wheels of things or determined by metro natural antecedents. But they apprehend that this is something else than freedom of the will. Man is 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.  4

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 account to the traffic court. In short, a man is a responsible moral agent if he can and will be required to give 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 because 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 (Lk 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 14.12). 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 not parents, 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 (Ac 2.23). Then it was proper and right that he did so. Did he predestinate 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 (Eph 1.4; Rom 9.22-24). 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 (Heb 4.13). 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 predestination 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 that God hs 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.

Given the fact that God has decreed as part of his eternal plan that all  men would sin (Rom 11.32-36) and that only some men would be redeemed from the effects of Adam’s fall, why did he do it? And a second question might be, Is there any way we can justify his actions before men?

I would suggest the following as the only possible direction in which to look for a biblical and thus a defensible theodicy: The ultimate end which God decreed he regarded as great enough and glorious enough that it justified to himself both the divine plan itself and the ordained incidental evil arising along the foreordained path to his plan’s great and glorious end.

Category: Apologetics

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