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Is God in control of suffering and evil?

Dr Mark R. Talbot, PhD, is Associate Professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, Illinois. He obtained his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. His parents became Christians when he was seven, and he became a Christian at a weekend retreat right before seventh grade. He had a recreational accident when he was 17 that left him partly paraplegic – which he considers one of God’s greatest blessings to him because it keeps him close to God.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. ROMANS 8:28 (NASB)

In Night, his memoir of life in the death camps of Birkenau and Auschwitz, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel struggles to convey the experiences that consumed the devout faith of an earnestly pious Jewish boy in the fires of the incomprehensible horrors of Nazi inhumanity.[1] Starting from the unsuspecting innocence of his early adolescence, Wiesel chronicles the pathway from its sunny security to the spiritual night that provoked him to write words like these:

[A]s the train stopped, . . . we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. . . . We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our [cattle car’s] doors opened.

“Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”
We jumped out. . . . In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau...
The SS officers gave the order.
“Form ranks of fives!” . . . [We began] to walk until we came to a crossroads. . . . Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes. . . children thrown into the flames.. . . A little farther on, there was another, larger pit for adults.
I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps
…Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books…
NEVER SHALL I FORGET that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Language, as Wiesel declares, proves helpless to convey such realities. It became clear as he wrote “that it would be necessary to invent a new language” to convey these horrors adequately. For

how was one to rehabilitate... words betrayed and perverted by the enemy? Hunger-thirst-fear-transport-selection-fire-chimney:  these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else. Writing in my mother tongue... I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again... All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless. Was there a way to describe the last journey in sealed cattle cars, the last voyage toward the unknown? Or the discovery of a demented and glacial universe where to be inhuman was human, where disciplined, educated men in uniform came to kill, and innocent children and wary old men came to die? Or the countless separations on a single fiery night, the tearing apart of entire families, entire communities? . . . How was one to speak [of things like these] without trembling and a heart broken for all eternity?[3]

These unspeakable horrors, piled on each other, disoriented Wiesel and led him to throw off his faith. One incident stands out. Wiesel’s Oberkapo was a Dutchman with over seven hundred prisoners under his command. He was kind to them all. “In his ‘service,” Wiesel writes,

was a young boy, a pipel, as they were called. This one had a delicate and beautiful face—an incredible sight in this camp…
One day the power failed at the central electric plant in Buna. The Gestapo, summoned to inspect the damage, concluded that it was sabotage. They found a trail. It led to the block of the... Oberkapo. And after a search, they found a significant quantity of weapons.

The Oberkapo and his pipel were tortured, although they named no names. The Oberkapo disappeared, but his pipel was condemned to die along with two other inmates who were found with arms.

One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows. . . . Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains—and, among them, the little pipel….
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows....
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.
“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.
But the boy was silent.
“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.
At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over….
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing.
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows….[4]

Rosh Hashanah came, and ten thousand gathered in the camp to bless God’s name. The officiating inmate’s voice rose “powerful yet broken, amid the weeping, the sobbing, the sighing of the entire ‘congregation’:  ‘All the earth and universe are God’s!’ . . . ‘And I,” Wiesel writes,

I, the former mystic, was thinking: Yes, man is stronger, greater than God.. . . [L]ook at these men whom You have betrayed, allowing them to be tortured, slaughtered, gassed, and burned, what do they do? They pray before You! They praise Your name!
“All of creation bears witness to the Greatness of God!”
In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Almighty and so I pleaded for forgiveness. In those days, I fully believed that the salvation of the world depended on every one of my deeds, on every one of my prayers.
But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger.[5]

Human brutality to other humans had shattered Wiesel’s faith:

In the beginning there was faith—which was childish; trust—which is vain; and illusion—which is dangerous.
We believed in God, trusted in man, and lived with the illusion that every one of us has been entrusted with a sacred spark from the Shekhinah’s flame; that every one of us carries in his eyes and in his soul a reflection of God’s image.

That,” Wiesel concluded, “was the source if not the cause of all our ordeals.”(6)[6]

You and I did not go through the Holocaust. We have, at most, only the dimmest notions of the horrors Wiesel experienced. Yet we may know all too well something about the multitudinous ways in which human beings hurt each other, both intentionally and unintentionally; and we may find this knowledge disorienting and shattering to our own faith. Dennis Rader, the Wichita BTK killer—”BTK” was Rader’s acronym for “bind, torture, kill”—was in the news in the summer of 2005, and that fall there was a made-for-television movie of his life and terrible crimes. Why does God allow such things to happen?[7] Most of us know couples where a spouse has been unfaithful, causing immense grief to the other spouse and to their children. We know of situations where drunken drivers have veered into the wrong lanes and killed or maimed innocent people. In any large crowd, there are bound to be some people who were sexually abused as children or who have been raped. Some of us may know someone who was tortured. Indeed, things like these may have happened to us, while we were Christians, and while we were begging God to make them stop. So why didn’t he?

Some of you may sometimes consider your childhoods and wish your parents had been more careful to help you to grow up as godly Christians. You are perplexed about why they didn’t seem to care more about doing that. Why didn’t they talk to you about how much you would regret doing some of the things you did? Some of you may be thinking right now about distressing coworkers. Perhaps your supervisor really dislikes you, treats you unfairly, and even lies to his superiors about you, but you can’t stop him. Or perhaps you are part of a Christian organization that has some employees who teach or live in clearly unbiblical ways, and this distresses you day after day. In that situation, you may find yourself wondering why God doesn’t just move those people out and make the organization more like what, it seems, he must want it to be.

Then, again, some of us may be thinking about our own choices. We may be regretting something we have said or done. And we may realize that if our circumstances had been just a little different, then everything, it seems, would be fine right now—if you hadn’t had that porn site pop up unexpectedly on your computer screen, then you might never have gotten hooked on Internet porn; or if you hadn’t bumped into that co-worker when you were already so upset, then you wouldn’t have said those things that have now cost you your job; or if you hadn’t met that man, there would have been no chance of your having cheated on your husband with him. So why did God allow things to go the way they did? You may not doubt or deny your responsibility and guilt, but it still seems that God could have kept you from falling into sin.

These are the sorts of situations that I want to consider. As my examples suggest, we will not just consider the ways that we hurt each other; we will also consider the ways that we hurt ourselves. How does God’s will relate to our wills when we hurt each other and ourselves? Where is God when human beings cause themselves and others such hurt? Why doesn’t God stop such things?

Open Theism

There is one answer to these kinds of situations that I want to challenge right away.

Many of us have heard about “open theism.” Open theism was developed to deal with these very situations. It does so by addressing how our free wills and our responsibility are related to God’s will and the evils that we suffer and see. Open theists want to take God off the hook for the kinds of evil that we do. They explain these evils by claiming that God can’t prevent them without restricting or destroying our freedom. But, they claim, God doesn’t do that because he takes our freedom to be so valuable. He takes our freedom to be so valuable that he is willing to pay the price of there being all sorts of human suffering that is caused by our misuse of it.

Gregory Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is an open theist, and he tells this sad story in his God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God to drive home why:

Several years ago after preaching a sermon on how God directs our paths, I was approached by an angry young woman (I’ll call her Suzanne). Once I was able to get past the initial raging words— directed more against God than they were against me—Suzanne told me her tragic story.
Suzanne had been raised in a wonderful Christian home and had from a very young age been a passionate, godly disciple of Jesus Christ. Indeed, since her early teen years, her only aspirations in life were to be a missionary to Taiwan and to marry a godly man with a similar vision with whom she could raise a godly, missionary-minded family. She had accepted the common evangelical myth that God had one right man picked out for her and so had committed herself to praying daily for this future husband. She prayed that he would acquire a similar vision to evangelize Taiwan, that he would remain faithful to the Lord and remain pure in heart, and so on.
Suzanne eventually went to a Christian college and, quite miraculously, quickly met a young man who shared her vision for Taiwan. Indeed, the commonalities between them as well as all the “coincidences” that had individually led them to just that college at just that time were truly astounding. For three and a half years they courted one another, prayed together, attended church together, prepared themselves for the mission field, and fell deeply in love with one another. During their senior year, this man proposed to Suzanne; surprisingly, she did not immediately say yes to his proposal. Even though so many pieces had miraculously fallen into place, she needed to have an unequivocal confirmation in her heart that this was the man she was to marry.
For several months, Suzanne and her boyfriend fasted and prayed over the matter. They consulted with their parents, their pastor, and their friends, who agreed to give the matter prayerful attention. Everyone concluded that this marriage was indeed God’s will. Before too long, God gave Suzanne the confirmation she needed. While in prayer, she was overwhelmed by a supernatural sense of joy and peace wrapped up with a very clear confirmation that this marriage was, in fact, God’s design for her life.
Shortly after college, the newly married couple went away to a missionary school to prepare for their missionary career. Two years into their training, Suzanne learned to her horror that her husband was involved in an adulterous relationship with a fellow student. Her husband repented, but within several months returned to the affair. Despite intensive Christian counseling, this pattern repeated itself several times over the next three years.
During these three years, Suzanne’s husband’s spiritual convictions altogether disappeared. . . . He grew increasingly argumentative, hostile, and even verbally and physically abusive. In one argument toward the end of their marriage, he actually fractured Suzanne’s cheekbone in a fit of rage. Soon after . . . [he filed for divorce and moved in with his lover. Two weeks later, Suzanne discovered she was pregnant.
The whole sad ordeal left Suzanne emotionally destroyed and spiritually bankrupt. All of her dreams had crashed down on her. She felt that her life was basically over. The worst part of it, however, was not the pain her husband had inflicted on her. The worst part was how profoundly the ordeal had damaged her previously vibrant relationship with the Lord.
Understandably, Suzanne could not fathom how the Lord could respond to her lifelong prayers by setting her up with a man he knew would do this to her and her child. Some Christian friends had suggested that perhaps she hadn’t heard God correctly. But if it wasn’t God’s voice that she and everyone else had heard regarding this marriage, she concluded, then no one could ever be sure they heard God’s voice. This was as clear as it could ever get. She had a very good point.
Other friends, reminiscent of Job’s friends, suggested that her marriage had indeed been God’s will. Knowing its outcome, the Lord had led her into it because he loves her so much and was trying to humble her, build her character, or perhaps punish her for previous sin. If a lesson was the point of it all, Suzanne remarked, then God is a very poor teacher. The ordeal didn’t teach her anything; it simply left her bitter.
Initially, I tried to help Suzanne understand that this was her ex-husband’s fault, not God’s, but her reply was more than adequate to invalidate my encouragement: If God knew exactly what her husband would do, then he bears all the responsibility for setting her up the way be did. I could not argue against her point, but I could offer an alternative way of understanding the situation.
I suggested to her that God felt as much regret over the confirmation he had given Suzanne as he did about his decision to make Saul king of Israel. . . . Not that it was a bad decision—at the time, her ex-husband was a good man with a godly character. The prospects that be and Suzanne would have a happy marriage and fruitful ministry, were, at the time, very good. Indeed, I strongly suspect that he had influenced Suzanne and her ex-husband toward this college with their marriage in mind.
Because her ex-husband was a free agent, however, even the best decisions can have sad results. Over time, and through a series of choices, Suzanne’s ex-husband had opened himself up to the enemy’s influence and became involved in an immoral relationship. Initially, all was not lost, and God and others tried to restore him, but he chose to resist the promptings of the Spirit, and consequently his heart grew darker. Suzanne’s ex-husband had become a very different person from the man God had confirmed to Suzanne to be a good candidate for marriage. This, I assured Suzanne, grieved God’s heart at least as deeply as it grieved hers.
By framing the ordeal with the context of an open future [in other words, within the context of human free choices which even God cannot know in advance of our making them], Suzanne was able to understand the tragedy of her life in a new way. She didn’t have to abandon all confidence in her ability to hear God and didn’t have to accept that somehow God intended this ordeal “for her own good.” Her faith in God’s character and her love toward God were eventually restored and she was finally able to move on with her life.
Understandably, Taiwan was no longer on her heart, but fortunately, the “God of the possible” always has a plan B and a plan C. He’s also wise enough to know how to weave our failed plan A’s into these alternative plans so beautifully that looking back, it may look like B or C was his original plan all along. This isn’t a testimony to his exhaustive definite foreknowledge; it’s a testimony to his unfathomable wisdom.
Without having the open view to offer, I don’t know how one could effectively minister to a person in Suzanne’s dilemma.[8]

When I first started thinking about the relationship between God and evil many years ago—in fact, very shortly after having had a paralyzing accident when I was seventeen—a fair amount of this way of explaining why we suffer struck me as exactly right.[9] After a couple of years of thinking intensely about this issue, I concluded that God had to put up with all kinds of things that he did not like in order to preserve our freedom. This still strikes me as a natural way to think about this issue because it fits in with our own experience. For sometimes we have to put up with what we don’t like in order to leave other people their freedom. So, “Of course,” we think, “it must be the same for God.” What I want to show is why we shouldn’t think this way, as natural as it is.

I think it is important to say that I never went as far as Boyd does— and I don’t think that most Christians do. It is not natural to think that God makes mistakes—and yet that is what Boyd seems to imply when he says that God must regret the way he guided Suzanne, including having influenced her and her future husband to attend the college they did.[10] According to Boyd, God made a good—indeed, the “best”—decision but it had really bad results. God, in Boyd’s way of looking at things, can be as mistaken as we may be about what someone will actually choose to do. And so I don’t think it is unfair to say that Boyd’s God is one who sometimes just rolls the dice. He is better at mopping up any messes afterwards than we would be, but he still can be caught out and be more or less helpless to prevent our doing and suffering bad things.

I hope this part of Boyd’s thinking strikes you as badly as it strikes me. For, as Twill now try to show, it challenges God’s glory, and it threatens our sense of assurance that, when things seem to be going really badly for us, the God who loves us remains fully in control.

Scripture’s General Perspective on God’s Relationship to Evil

What are the issues that we need to address in order to think biblically about this topic?

First, we need to know what Scripture says in general about God’s relationship to evil. Scripture declares that the Judge of all the earth will always do what is right (see Gen. 18:25). God is, as Moses sings, “the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just.” He is a “faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deut. 32:4, NIV). God never does evil.

Yet this is not to say that God does not create, send, permit, or even move others to do evil,[11] for Scripture is clear that nothing arises, exists, or endures independently of God’s will. Thus, when the writer of Hebrews states that Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (1:3), he is claiming that God the Son is providentially governing everything through sustaining all of the universe’s objects and events as he carries each of them to its appointed end by his all-powerful word.[12] This follows from the fact that the Greek word for “upholds” is phero, which means to bring or bear or produce or carry. As Wayne Grudem notes, phero “is commonly used in the New Testament for carrying something from one place to another, such as bringing a paralyzed man on a bed to Jesus (Luke 5:18), bringing wine to the steward of the feast (John 2:8), or bringing a cloak and books to Paul (2 Tim. 4:13).” Consequently, in our verse’s context it “does not mean simply ‘sustain,’ but has the sense of active, purposeful control over the thing being carried from one place to another,” especially since phero appears in our verse as a present participle, which “indicates that Jesus is ‘continually carrying along all things’ in the universe by his word of power.”[13] So here is the picture: God the Son holds each and every aspect of creation, including all of its evil aspects, in his “hands”—that is, within his all-powerful and ever-effectual word—and carries it by that word to where it accomplishes exactly what he wants it to do.

Ephesians 1:11 goes even further by declaring that God in Christ “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Here the Greek word for “works” is energeo, which indicates that God not merely carries all of the universe’s objects and events to their appointed ends but that he actually brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child: “The LORD has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov. 16:4, NASB ).[14]  “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other” (Eccl. 7:14, NIV).

As Thomas Goodwin noted, in this passage from Ephesians Paul wants to assure his Jewish Christian brothers and sisters that God has worked grace in their hearts as the consequence of his having predestined them before all time for salvation in Christ so that they will be confident of their eternal inheritance.[15] So how does Paul proceed? He argues from the general principle to the specific case. God “works all things after the counsel of his own will;’ he plotted every thing beforehand, therefore certainly this [particular thing].”[16] In thus arguing from the general to the specific, Paul is arguing from what would be obvious to his biblically literate Jewish brothers and sisters to what would be less obvious for them as relatively new converts to Christ. These Jewish Christians would know that God—the God of the Old Testament whom they now recognized as the Father of Jesus Christ—declares “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10)—and, by implication, knows and has ordered everything in-between, even down to foreseeing and ordering the words we will speak (see Ps. 139:4 with Prov. 16:1 ).[17] They would know that the One who said, My counsel shall stand, and Twill accomplish all my purpose,” is the One ho ensures this by bringing everything about, including, in the immediate context of Isaiah’s words, “calling a bird of prey from the east,. . . from a far country” (Isa. 46:10f.)—that is, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia from 559—530 B.C., who would conquer Babylon in 539 B.C. and then allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem so that they could rebuild the temple (see Ezra 1:1-4). God here calls the pagan, unbelieving Cyrus “a man to fulfill my purpose” (Isa. 46:11, NIV). From events as small as the fall of the tiniest sparrow (see Mart. 10:29) to the death, at the hands of lawless men, of his own dear Son (see Acts 2:23 with 4:28), God speaks and then brings his word to pass; he purposes and then does what he has planned (see Isa. 46:11). Nothing that exists or occurs falls outside God’s ordaining will.[18]

Nothing, including no evil person or thing or event or deed. God’s foreordination is the ultimate reason why everything comes about, including the existence of all evil persons and things and the occurrence of any evil acts or events. And so it is not inappropriate to take God to be the creator, the sender, the permitter, and sometimes even the instigator of evil. This is what Scripture explicitly claims. For instance, Isaiah 45:7 reports God to declare: “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Loim, who does all these things.” The word for “create” here is the Hebrew word bara’, which is the same word that is used for God’s creative work in Genesis 1; and the word for “calamity” is ra’, which is the word that is almost always translated “evil” in the Old Testament, as we find in places like Genesis 2—3; 6:5; 13:13; and 50:15, 20.[19] Again, Amos asks rhetorically; “When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?” (3:6, NIV).[20] Isaiah also says, “The LORD has mixed within [the leaders of the Egyptian cities of man and Memphis] a spirit of distortion,”[21] and they have then “led Egypt astray in all that it does” (19:14, NASB).

Nor is maintaining that God never does evil equivalent to claiming that he does not send evil, Sometimes he sends evil spirits—one to torment King Saul (see 1 Sam. 16:14-23), another which caused the leaders of Shechem to deal treacherously with King Abimelech (see Judg. 9:23), and a third to lie through King Ahab’s prophets and thus entice him to travel to Ramoth-gilead where he would be killed (see 1 Kings 22:13-40). And sometimes he sends delusions, as Paul affirms when he says that, because the perishing refuse “to love the truth and so be saved, …God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess. 2:1 if.).

In Genesis 19, God sent angels to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (see especially v. 13). In Exodus 7—12, he sent the ten plagues. In Numbers 21:6, he sent poisonous snakes to bite the grumbling Israelites. In 2 Samuel 24, he sent a pestilence on Israel that killed seventy thousand men. In 2 Kings 24:2-4, after having vowed earlier that because of Manasseh’ sins he would bring upon Jerusalem and Judah “such evil [ra’] that the ears of every one who hears of it will tingle” (21:12, RSV), God sent marauding bands of foreign peoples against Judah to destroy it because of King Manasseh’s sins. AU this came upon Judah by God’s word (see 24:3) [22]In Isaiah 10, God vows to send Assyria against godless Judah, but then he also vows to “punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria” (v. 12) by sending a plague among his warriors (v. 16). When the Lord’s angel fulfilled this vow, 185,000 Assyrian warriors died (see Isa. 37:36).[23]

Scripture also establishes that God permits others to do evil, as when he permitted Satan to destroy all of Job’s property and children, so that it would be clear that even then Job would not curse God (see Job 1:6-12), and when he allowed foreign nations in Old Testament times each to walk in its own sinful way (see Acts 14:16). The idea that no one ever does evil to someone else unless God at least permits or allows it is suggested by other passages, such as Genesis 31:7, where Jacob says to his wives that God did not allow their father Laban to do ra’ to him; and Exodus 12:23, where Moses states that God will not allow the destroyer to enter the Jewish homes and kill their firstborn; and Luke 22:3 1, where the use of the Greek exaiteo seems to imply that Satan had to ask God permission before he could sift Simon.[24]

Indeed, some biblical passages, such as Isaiah 19:2, portray God as moving others to do evil: “I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, each against another and each against his neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom” (see also 9:11). Second Samuel 24:1 states that “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel” and so “he incited David against them” by inciting David to count the Israelites.[25] Moreover, reading Job 1:6-12 prompts the conclusion that when God said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” in verse 8, he was actually putting Job in Satan’s gunsights.

I have belabored the Scriptures in order to drive home this point: as one of my students said rather wonderfully in responding to open theism, “Open theists are trying to let God off the hook for evil. But God doesn’t want to be let off the hook.” The verses that I have cited establish that Scripture repudiates the claim that God does evil while at the same time everywhere implying that God ordains any evil there is. To say that God “ordains” something is to say that he has planned and purposed and willed it from before the creation of the world—that is, from before time began.[26]           And whatever God has eternally planned and purposed and willed—whatever he has in that sense foreordained— inevitably takes place; to say that God has ordained (or foreordained) something is to say that he has determined that it will take place.[27] As Isaiah puts it, “The LORD of hosts has sworn, ‘As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand’. . . . For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it?” (14:24, 27). Nothing—no evil thing or person or event or deed—falls outside God’s ordaining will. Nothing arises, exists, or endures independently of God’s will. So when even the worst of evils befall us, they do not ultimately come from anywhere other than God’s hand.

Human Freedom and Responsibility

This is strong meat. It can be very hard for us to digest these truths. Yet even considering these claims raises other issues. For if these claims are true, then what becomes of human freedom? If everything that occurs happens because God has willed it to occur from before time began, then how can human acts be free? And if we are not free, then what happens to the crucial notion of human responsibility? How could it ever be right either to praise or blame or to reward or punish anyone?

This is the second set of issues that we must address. We need to investigate how Scripture represents the relationship between divine foreordination and human freedom. In other words, we need to think about how what God has willed relates to what we will. And we need to determine what Scripture claims about human responsibility.

Open theists are what philosophers call free-will libertarians.[28] Free-will libertarianism involves a claim about what must be true if human beings are to be truly free and thus capable of genuine responsibility. For free-will libertarians, true freedom involves more than just my doing whatever I choose to do. Such freedom of choice, Robert Kane argues, is just “surface freedom,”[29] because someone could manipulate me so that I always chose to do what that person wanted me to do.[30] True freedom, Kane and other free-will libertarians hold, requires that a person not only is able to make specific choices but also was able at the time she chose to choose differently than she actually did. So I have only freely chosen to eat chocolate ice cream if, as I chose it over run raisin ice cream, I could actually have chosen rum raisin instead. Again, you are only free in choosing to remain sitting right now if you can also choose to stand up. But if something would stop you from standing up (let’s say that someone is with you who would hold you down if you tried to stand up), then even (rather than fight that person) you choose to remain sitting, you are not really free. For Kane and other free-will libertarians, all of this means that we must possess what they call freedom of the will – that is, freedom to decide what we will want and thus to determine for ourselves who we will be and thus what we will choose – in addition to freedom of choice.[31]

Now here is the crucial point: for free-will libertarians, we cannot be held responsible for what we are and do if our wills aren’t free in this libertarian sense. If the ultimate explanation for my choosing as I do lies outside me, that I am not really free and I cannot be held responsible for how I choose. And if I cannot be held responsible, then I cannot justly be praised or blamed or rewarded or punished for how I choose. On the level of everyday life, this seems to make sense. We know that virtually all serial killers were sexually abused as children, and so it seems proper to place part of the blame for whom they have become on their abusers and not just on the killers themselves.[32] This is what makes it seem necessary to free-will libertarians that we must have freedom of the will if God is to be just in holding us responsible for what we do. And surely we should grant that in Scripture God does hold us responsible for what we do – just read, for example, Romans 1:18 – 3:20. So free-will libertarians conclude that we must possess freedom of the will, which means that God cannot foreordain what we do.

For open theists, there is an additional rub, given what they think are the requirements for our possessing libertarian freedom. Open theists comprise just a subset of free-will theists because they hold, as some freewill theists do not, that if God knows what we are going to choose, say, next week, then what we are going to choose must already be determined in some way. They maintain that if God knows right now that I am going to choose chocolate ice cream instead of rum raisin ice cream next week, then that means that the claim, “Mark is going to choose chocolate ice cream instead of rum raisin ice cream next week,” is true right now; and this means that my choosing that way next week is already set. When the time comes, it may seem as if I am freely choosing to act as I do, but in fact that cannot be. So open theists insist that God cannot foreknow the future, if humans are to be free and responsible beings.[33]

All of this seems like pretty good reasoning, although there are actually all sorts of possible answers to it.[34] Yet I am not interested in arguing philosophically against either free-will libertarianism or open theism right now; I want to see what Scripture says. And what we find in Scripture is this: Scripture holds human beings to be acting responsibly when God foreknows what they will choose, and even when it says or implies that God has predestined or foreordained what they will choose.

In addition to some of the verses that I have already cited in the previous section,[35] I am thinking here in particular about what happened during Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. At one point in it he declared, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless”—that is, wicked and yet responsible “men” (Acts 2:22-23). What, then, was the reaction of the Israelites to Peter’s accusation that they had been party to God’s will in crucifying the Christ? Did they claim that they were not responsible just because their actions were foreknown by God and a part of his predetermined plan—in other words, because Christ’s death, including their own choice to crucify him at the hands of lawless men, was part of God’s working all things according to the counsel of his will?[36] Did they claim that they could not be blamed because God knew ahead of time what dey would choose to do? No! Luke tells us, a few verses later that “when they heard [that God had made the Jesus whom they had crucified both Lord and Christ] they were cut to the heart” —in other words, they acknowledged the depth of their wrongdoing regarding God’s Christ—” and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:37-38a). We only need to ask forgiveness for what we are responsible for.[37] So divine foreknowledge and human responsibility are taken be compatible in Scripture.

Next, let us consider our Lord’s words at the Last Supper. As his disciples participated with him in his final Passover feast, Jesus told them that one of them would betray him. This made them very sorrowful, and they began to say to him “one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord?’” Jesus answered like this: “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written”—that is, as it was previously predicted—” of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:22-24). Does this sound as if the disciple who was to betray Jesus was not to be blamed for what he was about to do? Of course not! Acts 1:18 labels Judas’s choice to betray Jesus an act of wickedness; and the phrase “it would have been better for that man if he had not been born” is meant to convey that he is going to face very fearful judgment for what he has done. Moreover, we are told at John 6:64 that “Jesus knew from the beginning. . . who it was who would betray him.” Yet Judas was responsible for the wickedness he chose to do, as he himself recognized (see Matt. 27:4).[38]

Finally, consider Acts 4:24-2 8, where the believers are praying after Peter and John had been released from custody after they had been arrested for proclaiming the gospel. You may remember that prayer:

“Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea
and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
    ‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
        and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers were gathered together,
        against the Lord and against his Anointed’—
for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”

Plotting is something that people choose to do, and setting oneself against someone is another thing that a human being chooses either to 4o or not to do. Here Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Gentiles and the Israelites were all gathered together in setting themselves against God and Christ—and there really is no doubt that they are all being blamed for what they had chosen to do; in other words, they are being held responsible for the choices they made, even though what they have plotted and set themselves to do is what God’s hand and his plan had predestined would take place.[39] Thus it seems that, in Scripture, God’s having foreordained that some human choices will be made is not incompatible with holding those human beings responsible for those choices.

So according to the Scriptures, no matter what free-will libertarians and open theists say, neither God’s foreknowledge nor his foreordination of all things, including all human choices and acts, preclude human responsibility.

Choosing and Willing

Scripture emphasizes that we possess what free-will libertarians call freedom of choice. This comes out in the many passages where our choices and their consequences are stressed, passages such as Deuteronomy 30:19, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live”; and Joshua 24:14f., “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve.” Then there is Proverbs 1:29, “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way, and have their fill of their own devices”; and Proverbs 3:3 1, “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways.” Again, we have Proverbs 16:16, “How much better to get wisdom than gold! To get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver”; and Isaiah 56:4f.:

For thus says the LORD:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.”

Finally, there is Luke 10:41f., “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Many other passages do not mention choice explicitly but presuppose our freedom to choose, such as the command at Leviticus 19:4, “Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the LORD your God”; and the four times the Israelites are exhorted in the first chapter of Joshua to be strong and courageous as they cross the river Jordan to take possession of the Promised Land. There are exhortations such as those found in Psalm 85:8, “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to folly”; and Proverbs 4:20, 22-24, 26f.,

My son, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings....
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
Put away from you crooked speech,
and put devious talk far from you.
Ponder the path of your feet;
then all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left;
turn your foot away from evil.

Then there are the counsels and exhortations for Christians to walk in the light (see John 12:35f. and 1 John 1:5-7) and by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16- 25; 1 Thess. 2:12; 4:1-7), because this is what Christ has set us free to do (see Gal. 5:1, 13; cf. Eph. 2:10). There are also warnings such as those found at Proverbs 3:7, “Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil”; and Proverbs 4:14f.: “Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of the evil. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on”; and Ephesians 5:3-21 and Hebrews 2:1- 3,4:11, and 12:25, as well as the combination of warnings and promises found in Ezekiel 3:16-21 and 18:19-32. At Ezekiel 33:11, God pleads with the Israelites to turn back from their evil ways so that they may live. In Acts 14:15-17, Paul and Barnabas plead with the people of Lystra not to perform the blasphemy of offering sacrifice to them. In Acts 26, Paul tells King Agrippa of his conversion and how God has sent him to the Gentiles “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Christ]” (v. 18). At 2 Timothy 3:5 and Titus 3:9, Paul commands his readers to avoid specific sorts of people and controversies.

So our freedom to choose, along with our responsibility, is affirmed throughout Scripture. In fact, our ability to listen and to choose and to act in the light of instruction and teaching and counseling is part of what differentiates us from the beasts: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you” (Ps. 32:8f.).

But does Scripture corroborate the claim of free-will libertarians that humans are responsible for their choices and their acts because they possess freedom of the will? In other words, does Scripture endorse Kane’s claim that true freedom—the freedom really worth having, without which (he claims) we are not truly responsible nor truly deserving of praise or blame or reward or punishment—requires us to be free in the sense that we are able to choose not merely which of our wants and desires we will satisfy but are also able to choose what we will want and desire and thus are the ultimate sources or origins of our actions? Does Scripture represent the final shaping of our lives as right now “up to us” and “in us” rather than up to or in something else?

It does not. Indeed, it emphatically denies that we now possess the freedom to shape ourselves in the most fundamentally important way— that is, with regard to whether we will remain slaves to sin or become bondservants to righteousness (see Rom. 6:16-19; 2 Pet. 2:19). Scripture everywhere asserts or assumes that in this post-fall world each and every one of us is by nature spiritually dead (see Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 2:13) and thus helpless to determine for ourselves at the deepest and most crucial level of our existence who we will be.[40] As Paul says, “the sinful mind”— that is, the mind that is spiritually dead and thus enslaved to sin—”is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Rom. 8:7, NIV). To be spiritually dead means to lack the power to choose godliness and thus escape the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (see 2 Pet. 1:3f.). Yet the spiritually dead are not inactive-indeed, their sinful natures control and even drive them (see Born. 8:8, MV), for their minds are set on and enslaved to what that nature desires (see Rom. 8:5, NIV).[41] In this state, as Peter O’Brien observes, we “cannot respond to life’s decisions neutrally,” for we “are deeply affected by evil, determining influences” that “may be described In terms of the environment (‘the age of this world’), a supernaturally powerful opponent (‘the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient’ [cf. John 8:44]), and an inner inclination towards evil (‘the flesh’).”[42]

Scripture—and especially the New Testament—drives home the fact that each and every one of us is either still dominated by sin—as Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34)—or has been set free by God to live a life of righteousness—”if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:3 6; cf. 2 Cor. 3:17). Either we are for the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ or we are against him (see Mark 9:40); there is no middle state (see Tit. 1:1 Sf.), for, to put it somewhat differently, each of us is either a creature of the light or a creature of darkness (see 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 John 1:5f.).[43] Every human being in this post-fall world starts out as a slave to sin (see Rom. 6:17; Eph. 2:3f.; Col. 2:7), for this is our inescapable legacy from Adam (see Rom. 5:12, 19). Adam’s disobedience has made us all Sons and daughters of disobedience (see Rom. 5:19 with Eph. 2:2). As God himself said when looking down upon human beings after the flood, every inclination of the unredeemed human heart is ra from childhood (see Gen. 8:2 1). So David declares, and Paul reiterates:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
there is none who does good.
The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good,
not even one. (Ps. 14:1-3; cf. Rom. 3:9-20)

“The wicked”—that is, what each of us is naturally, in our “flesh,” as long as we have not been spiritually reborn of God’s Spirit (see John 3:1- 8 with Jer 25:30f. and Rom. 7:5 and 8:1-14)—”are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies” (Ps. 58:3). We are all sinful from the moment we are conceived and then we are birthed as iniquitous; this is the truth that adulterous, murderous King David came to realize in his “inner parts” (Ps. 51 :Sf., NIV). The whole world lies under the evil one’s control (see 1 John 5:19, NIV; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2) and would remain so forever if it were not for the rich—indeed, immeasurable-grace and mercy of God in Christ (see Eph. 2:1-10).

Consequently, it is neither “up to us” nor is it “in us” to choose whether we will remain slaves to sin or become bondservants to righteousness. As it was for the Israelites who were born enslaved under pharaoh, divine deliverance is our only hope (see Eph. 2:1-10 and Col. 2:134 with Ex. 13:3). As Jesus told Nicodemus, we must be born again of God’s Spirit if we are to see his kingdom (see John 3:1-8). But such a birth comes “not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will”; we must be “born of God” (John 1:13, NIV). “No one can come to me,” Jesus said to the grumbling Jews, “unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44); “no one can come to me,” he reiterated to his disciples moments later, “unless the Father enables him” (6:65, NIV). God must put his Spirit within us and thus cause us—yes, cause us[44]—to walk in his righteousness (see Ezek. 36:27). “By his own choice,” James declares to his Christian brothers and sisters, “he gave birth to us by the message of the truth” (James 1:18, New Jerusalem Bible). The Spirit runs along the pathway of God’s holy Word (see John 6:63), but our hearts will open to receive him as the supernatural source of spiritual life only if God enables us to hear the word of the gospel with faith (see Gal. 3:2 with Eph. 2:8-10 and Acts 16:14). And so it is with all of us as it was with the Gentiles in Antioch of Pisidia: as we hear the gospel preached, just as many of us as God has ordained to eternal life will believe (see Acts 13:48 with Rom. 10:14-17).[45]

True freedom, then, is ours only if God has brought us to spiritual life by birth through his Spirit. It is only then that we are set free in a way that makes us able to choose to be bondservants to righteousness (see Rom. 6; 8:2-8; Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 2:16). Perhaps it is not too much to say that it is only after God has regenerated us that we possess true freedom of the will, for it is only after our spiritual rebirth that we are able through the power of God’s Spirit living within us to choose anything other than sin. Yet, contrary to what free-will libertarians say, even before this, even while we were still unable to help ourselves and still hapless slaves to sin, we were properly liable to punishment (see Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:5-10).[46] Indeed, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:3, as long as we are unregenerate and precisely because we are unregenerate, we are “by nature children of wrath.” According to Scripture, then, neither praise nor blame nor reward nor punishment depend on our possessing freedom of the will, as free-will libertarians define it.

Joseph’s Story

How can this be? The reasoning of free-will libertarians seems quite plausible: the kind of freedom that we must possess if we are to be held responsible and thus liable to praise or blame and reward or punishment must involve our ability to shape ourselves at the most fundamental level of our personalities—the level of choosing who we will be by being able to choose what our wants and desires are. For if we possess no more than the ability to choose which of our wants and desires we will satisfy, then it seems that the ultimate responsibility for who we are depends on God or fate or physical or psychological necessity or whatever it is that has ultimately determined what are our wants and desires.[47]

In fact, however, the biblical position seems clearly to be both that God has ordained everything that happens in our world of time and space and that it is not now “up to us” nor is it “in us” to choose whether we will remain slaves to sin or become bondservants to righteousness.[48] Those who love evil hate good (see Mic. 3:2; Ps. 52:3; cf. Ps. 45:7; 101). Light can have no fellowship with darkness (see 2 Cot 6:14). No one can serve two masters; and so we are either inclined to sin or to righteousness (see Mart. 6:19-24). Yet, as we have seen, to which of these two we are inclined is not ultimately “up to us.” And yet Scripture maintains that we still choose freely and responsibly and thus remain properly punishable for our own wrongdoing.

Short of the accounts of our Lord’s crucifixion in Acts that we examined earlier, Genesis provides us with Scripture’s clearest example of this.[49] This is the point of the story of Joseph, who was born as the first of the two sons of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, who then died while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. All told, Jacob had twelve sons, six by his less-loved wife, Leah, two by Rachel, two by Rachel’s maid- servant, Bilhah, and two by Leah’s maidservant, Zilpah. If any family has ever been destined to have family rivalries, it was this one.

Joseph’s story really starts in Genesis 37, where we read of him being his father’s pet. Jacob foolishly lavished things on Joseph, like a many-colored robe. This led Joseph’s brothers to realize that their father loved Joseph more than he loved them and so, we are told, “they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him” (37:4). To make matters worse, when Joseph was seventeen he had two dreams predicting that he would rule over his entire family, and he foolishly told his brothers about them.

These things prompted Joseph’s brothers to plot to kill him, but then, just because the opportunity arose, they sold him into slavery instead. He wound up in Egypt. There he went through a series of ups and downs, including being imprisoned for two years on the false charge that he had tried to seduce his master’s wife. Yet finally he rose to become Pharaoh’s second-in-command. And then Jacob sent Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to buy food because there was a famine in Canaan. Of course, Joseph recognized them, but he didn’t tell them who he was. Instead, he forced them to return home to fetch his full brother, Benjamin, while he held Simeon in prison until they returned. He then tested them to see how they would react to the idea of his keeping Benjamin as his servant and finally, as he watched their grief-stricken reactions to that possibility, he revealed to them who he was.

And here is the crucial point: when he finally revealed to his brothers who he was, he did not deny that it was their sinful actions of many years before that accounted for his being in Egypt. At Genesis 45:4, we find him saying, “Come near to me, please... I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” Yet he tries to keep them from getting too dismayed or fearful upon seeing him again in these circumstances—where he really is ruling over them, just as he dreamed—by stating that what they did was ultimately God’s doing: “And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5). God sent Joseph to Egypt through his brothers selling him into slavery. Joseph then reiterates, without again mentioning his brothers’ part in it, that God sent him to Egypt: “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (45:7, NIV). Then he finally concludes, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:8). Reading the whole story carefully clarifies that Joseph appeals to God’s will as the final explanation of everything that happened to him, and ultimately God gets the credit for all the good that resulted.

Of course, this is not to deny Joseph’s brothers’ part in the whole story, nor the evil of what they did, nor their responsibility, nor their guilt. All of that, it is clear, Scripture considers compatible with the claim that God ordained their choosing to do what they did. Indeed, that very point is made at the very end of the story, in the last few lines of Genesis. After Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers, still haunted by what they themselves call “all the evil that we did to him” (50:15), made up a story and sent it by messenger to Joseph, no doubt because they were afraid to show their faces, for fear he would now exact vengeance on them. Their story went: “Dad commanded us right before he died to tell you, ‘Please forgive your brothers for their transgression and their sin against you, because they did in fact do evil to you.’ So please forgive us for what we’ve done” (see 50:15-17). So how did Joseph respond when he finally saw them face to face? He said, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (50:19-20).

Now understanding the construction of this claim—”As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good”—is absolutely crucial if we are to understand the relationship between God’s will and our wills, between God’s ordaining that someone will do some evil act and some human being’s actually doing it. The word for “evil” here is, once again, the Hebrew word ra’. Ra’ is in the feminine singular case. In languages like Hebrew and Greek, the case of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives indicates the grammatical relations among various words. And the “it” in this claim—”God meant it for good”—is also in the feminine singular. So by the rules of grammar, “it” clearly takes as its antecedent the previous ra’. In other words, the pronoun “it” refers to the noun “evil,” just like “it” would refer to the word “book” if I were to say, “Would you please bring me my book? It is on the table.” But, then, Joseph’s claim is most accurately and clearly translated (with a lit- tie expansion to make it clear what is being talked about) like this: “As for you, my brothers, in selling me into slavery you meant evil against me, but God meant that evil event for good.”

In other words, Joseph here referred to just one specific event, namely, his brothers selling him to the Ishmaelites, who then took him to Egypt. Yet he explained the occurrence of that one event in two different ways: his brothers intended to do him harm by selling him into slavery—remember, they hated him and even were plotting to kill him— even as God intended that sale for Joseph’s and many others’ (including his brothers’) good. In the light of what we have concluded thus far, this amounts to God’s having ordained Joseph’s brothers’ evil willing, but as part of a greater good.

Dual explanations like this are scattered throughout the Scriptures. There is one at the very beginning of the book of Job, right after God put Job in Satan’s gunsights and then gave Satan permission to do anything other than lay a hand directly on Job himself. So Satan sent the Sabeans to steal Job’s oxen and donkeys and kill their herdsmen, and then caused lightning to electrocute Job’s sheep and the servants attending them, and then sent the Chaldeans to raid his camels and slaughter their keepers, and then caused a great wind that killed all of his children. ‘When Job learned of all of these evils, he ripped his clothes, shaved his head, “and fell on the ground and worshiped,” saying, “Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the Loiw” (1:20f.). In other words, Job took God’s will to be the ultimate explanation of all of this evil. And the author of the book of Job then makes sure that we understand that this is right, for he adds, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (1:22). In other words, it was not sinful or wrong for Job to claim that God had a sovereign, ordaining hand in these evils. God did not do them; Satan did. But the evils that Satan did, he did only with God’s permission, which the Scriptures themselves imply amounts to God’s foreordination. Satan did these things to harm Job, but God ordained them for his own glory and ultimately for Job’s good.

The story of Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27 involves the same sort of dual explanation. In verses 22-25, God promised categorically through Paul that no one on the ship was going to be lost. Yet later when some of the sailors were secretly trying to jump ship, Paul declared to his centurion guard and his soldiers, “Unless these [sailors] stay in the ship, you cannot be saved” (see vv. 30-32). This led the soldiers to act in a way that kept the sailors aboard. And thus everyone was saved, as God had ordained. Since God had previously promised that no one would be lost, we can conclude that the soldiers’ acting to keep the sailors on board was among the events that God had foreordained.

Again, in the book of Jonah we are first told that, at his urging, the sailors on Jonah’s ship hurled him into the sea (see 1: 14f.) and then, when he is in the belly of the great fish, Jonah says to God, “you cast me into the deep” (2:3). In addition, verses like Proverbs 21:1—”The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will”—clarify that, even with kings, whose wills are most sovereign on earth, what they will is what God wills them to will because God governs their hearts. One striking instance of this involves King Saul’s suicide, which the Chronicler describes as a matter of God’s having put Saul to death for his breach of faith in not obeying God’s command to him through Samuel and in Saul’s having consulted with a medium at Endor (see 1 Chron. 10:1-14 with 1 Sam. 10:8, 13:7-14, and 28:1-19).[50]

So it seems that we can appropriately conclude, with the great theologian Charles Hodge, that “[w]hat is true of the history of Joseph, is true of all history.”[51] All of history is composed of this sort of dual explanation: God foreordains what humans choose. He is never absent or inactive when human beings hurt each other or themselves. In the person of his Son, he is always in our midst, as the one who holds each and every aspect of creation, including all of its evil aspects, in his hands so that he may carry it to where it accomplishes exactly what he wants. Scripture includes verses that, at least on a first reading, and perhaps even on a second or third reading, may seem to imply something else.[52] But as we have already seen, this is the perspective that is central to Scripture’s interpretation of our Lord’s crucifixion; and it is the perspective of verses like Hebrews 1:3 and Ephesians 1:11, which are clearly intended to cover everything that happens in our world. Of course, our Lord’s crucifixion is the supreme instance of how God ordains real evil for his own glory and his children’s good: in that case, the most awful act ever done—the crucifixion by wicked yet responsible men of God’s only Son, “the Holy and Righteous One” who is the very “Author of life” (Acts 2:23 and 3:14f.)—was and is also the most wonderful event that has ever occurred because it was through Christ’s utterly unjust and undeserved crucifixion and death that God was reconciling the world to himself (see 2 Cor. 5:18-21).

God’s Will and Our Wills

It is not accidental that very early in Genesis, long before we get to Joseph’s story, we are told that “every inclination of [the unredeemed human heart] is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21, NIV; cf. 6:5). We now know what that means: it means that each of us enters this post-fall world as a slave to sin. Sin, Paul declares, “came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Sin reigns among all of Adam’s descendants because he sinned. By his disobedience, he brought evil into the heart of the human race. Except by God’s redeeming grace, it now runs through all of us as our primary inclination. Every son and daughter of Adam and Eve is now naturally dominated by sin. We know, then, what motivated Joseph’s brothers. We know what they brought to Joseph’s situation. God, as the One who actively sustains all things (see again Heb. 1:3 with Col. 1:17), was the source of their being. But they, as Adam’s descendants, were the sole source of their sin. Their sinful inclinations made them the authors of their own sin. And, consequently, they did evil while God did not, for while God sustained them in their sin, he was not its source. This is why Scripture states that God creates, sends, permits, and even moves others to do evil while never doing evil himself. He creates and sustains sinful persons without himself being the source of their sin.

God ordains evil by willing that evil persons and things and events and deeds exist and persist. Joseph’s brothers would never have existed if God had not willed their being. He formed their inward parts and knitted them together in their mothers’ wombs (see Ps. 139:13).[53] They would have had no power to choose or to act if God had not moment- by-moment sustained them. God wrote each of their days in his book before time began (see Ps. 139:16). He hemmed them in, “behind and before” (Ps. 139:5; cf. Job 13:27). Nothing about them or their choices or acts surprised him.[54] God has never fallen prey to a vain trust in the goodness of human beings, as Wiesel did.

Yet, as the guilty reactions of Joseph’s brothers suggest (see Gen. 42:21f. with 44:16; 45:3, 5; 50:15-17), we should know that the fact that God has ordained everything, including our free choices, does not remove or lessen our responsibility, our guilt, or our liability to be punished for our sins (see Gal. 6:7).

So what has our examination of the Scriptures yielded? It has yielded this: we find, scattered throughout the Old and New Testaments, cases where human intentions, choices, and actions and God’s intention, choice, and action run parallel, cases where both the human intentions, choices, and actions and God’s intention, choice, and action are taken as referring to and each as fully explaining the same object or event. These intentions, choices, and actions are referred to under different descriptions—the human intentions, choices, and actions are sometimes wicked or evil, although God’s intention, choice, and action is always good, even when he is ordaining an evil event—and the human and divine intentions, choices, and actions are each taken to explain the same reality in different ways. For instance, by their evil act, Joseph’s brothers meant to do him harm; but by means of ordaining their evil act, God meant to do Joseph and many others good. But each choice—the one by sinful humans and the other by our perfectly good God—is taken as a full or complete explanation of the same object or event.

So the biblical view is this: God has ordained or willed or planned everything that happens in our world from before creation, from before time began. God is the primary agent—the primary cause, the final and ultimate explanation—of everything that happens, yet the causal relationship between God and his creatures is such that his having foreordained everything is compatible with—and indeed takes nothing away from—their creaturely power and efficacy. Unless we are dealing with a situation in which God has miraculously intervened and thus overridden mere creaturely causality, creaturely activity—as “secondary” or “proximate” causes considered simply on the created level—fully explains whatever happens in this world. And all of this is as true of the relationship between divine and free human agency as it is of the relationship between divine and natural—that is, physical and biological—agency.[55]

“But,” you ask, “how can this possibly be? How can Joseph’s brothers have acted freely and responsibly if what they did was what God had previously ordained? How can Pilate and Herod and Judas and the Jewish people be properly blamed for what God had predestined to take place? How can God govern the choices of human beings without that entailing that those choices are no longer free? How can the same event have two complete explanations?” My answer is this: We cannot understand how these things can possibly be. We cannot understand how some human act can be fully explained in terms of God’s having freely intended it without that explanation cancelling the freedom and responsibility of its human intenders. We cannot understand how divine and human agency are compatible in a way that allows the exercise of each kind of agency to be fully explanatory of some object or event. And yet—and this is the absolutely crucial point—we can understand why we cannot understand it. It is because our attempts to understand this involve our trying to understand the unique relationship between the Creator and his creatures in terms of our understanding of some creature-to-creature relationship. But these attempts, it should be obvious, involve us in a kind of “category mistake” that dooms our attempts from the start. A “category mistake” involves attempting to think about something under the wrong category. How the Creator’s agency relates to his creatures’ agency is to be categorized quite differently from how any creature’s agency relates to any other creature’s agency. This should be obvious merely by our remembering that God has created everything ex nihilo—out of nothing—while all creaturely creation involves some sort of limited action on some pre-existing “stuff,”

When Scripture reveals anything about the relationship between divine and human agency, it merely affirms what Joseph declared in Genesis 50:20—it affirms both divine and human agency, with both kinds of agency referring to and explaining the same event, but with each kind of agency explaining that event in its own way. Thus Scripture reveals that both human agency and divine agency are to be fully affirmed without attempting to tell us how this can be, because we have no way to understand it, no matter what Scripture would say: all of our analogies concerning different agents or different kinds of agency must be drawn from what holds between and among creatures, and so we necessarily lack the conceptual wherewithal to plumb how God’s foreordaining agency enables and yet governs our own free agency.[56] As David said, after confessing that God knew his every word even before it was on his own tongue, such knowledge is too wonderful for us; it is, quite literally, too lofty for us to attain (see Ps. 139:4-6).[57]

In summary, this means that we should affirm the age-old Christian doctrine of God’s complete providence over all. God has sovereignly ordained, from before the world began, everything that happens in our world, but in a way that does no violence to creation’s secondary causes and in a way that does not take away from human freedom or responsibility.[58]

Beyond All Doubt

If all of this is true, then what should we be sure of when we are hurt by others or when we hurt others or ourselves? When we are thinking about human suffering and its relationship to God’s will and our wills, what should be beyond all doubt?

It should be beyond all doubt that no one suffers anything at anyone else’s hand without God having ordained that suffering. During his first hour or so in Birkenau, Elie Wiesel saw the notorious Joseph Mengele, looking “like the typical SS officer: a cruel, though not unintelligent, face, complete with monocle.”[59] Mengele was asking the new arrivals a few questions and then, with a conductor’s baton, casually directing them either to his left, so that they went immediately to the gas chambers, or to his right to the forced-labor camp. In seeing Mengele, Wiesel was seeing a very evil man whom, nevertheless, God was actively sustaining and governing, nanosecond by nanosecond, through his evil existence. And we can be sure that, from before time began, God had ordained that at that place those moments would be filled with just those persons, doing and suffering exactly as they did. We can be sure, because of what God says in places like Hebrews 1:3 and Ephesians 1:11, that even those persons in those moments did not fall out of God’s “hands” but that he actually brought the whole situation about, guiding and governing and carrying it by his all-powerful and ever-effectual word to where it would accomplish exactly what he wanted it to do.

We can also be sure that when we hurt each other, the God who has made us in his image is watching and will call us to account (see Gen. 9:4-6). Even though he ordains all of our free sinful choices, those sinful choices still “count” and we are held responsible for them. Even though he ordained the acts of a Joseph Mengele, God will not allow the blood of his victims to cry out forever. He will bring Mengele and all wrongdoers to justice (see Deut. 32:35, quoted at Rom. 12:19; Ps. 94). He will avenge innocent blood by punishing those who have shed it (Joel 3:1721).[60]

We can also be sure that, whatever God is accomplishing as he actively carries along all things, it is just and right. As the Scriptures emphatically declare, God is indeed the Rock on which we, in even life’s most evil moments, can rest, the one whose works are perfect and all of whose ways are just. In ordaining the evil works of others, he himself does no wrong, “upright and just is he.”

Of course, this is not to say that we will always know what God is accomplishing through the evils that we suffer or do. We can be sure, as Scripture confirms, that God has made everything for its purpose, even evil persons like Joseph Mengele or Dennis Rader. We can be sure that God has made our lives’ most evil moments as well as their best. Yet why he has ordained that particular evil persons do particular evil things may be as unclear to us as his sufferings were to Job.

Yet if we are Christians, then we can be sure beyond all doubt that God is causing all things—including all of our suffering at the hands of evil persons—to work together for good because he has called us according to his purpose (see Rom. 8:28). We can be sure that even the worst of our suffering will someday be revealed to be an integral part of “all the good that is ours in Christ” (Philem. 6, RSV). For God has promised this. And God’s promises are as deeds already done. As the apostle Paul has written:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom. 8:29-30)

Our future glorification is so sure that it is viewed by Paul as having already taken place, and so he puts it in the past tense. And out of this assurance comes Paul’s great exclamations:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who am be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
    “For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[61]

As the New Living Translation renders verse 37, “No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ,” who has loved us with a timeless love and who will therefore be faithful to us forever (see Jer. 31:3).

Yet sometimes these great exclamations certainly don’t seem to be true. Sometimes it seems as if what is happening to us or to Christians whom we love or even to Christians, such as Boyd’s Suzanne, whom we just heard about—sometimes it seems that what is happening is so bad that it seems impossible that God could be ordaining them for our good.[62]

I myself find it very difficult to understand how this can be with some of the worst things that human beings do, like sexually abusing young children or raping or torturing someone mercilessly. And, of course, something much less horrible than these sorts of things can happen to us and still leave us wondering how God could be ordaining it for our good. I have seen marriages break apart after thirty-five years and felt to some degree the grief and utter discombobulation of the abandoned spouse. I have watched tragedies unfold that seem to remove all chance for any more earthly happiness.

But, of course, none of this is new. In Scripture, there is much sorrow and tragedy, with a great deal of it caused by other people. And, as we read the Scriptures, we can hear the moanings and groanings and roarings of God’s people:

I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes. (Ps. 6:6f.)
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
why art thou so far from helping me,
and from the words of my roaring?[63]

And then there are these utterly poignant words of Job, early in his book, after he has lost nearly everything, including his children:

Why is light given to him who is in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,
who long for death, but it comes not,
and dig for it more than for hidden treasures,
who rejoice exceedingly
and are glad when they find the grave?
Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden,
whom God has hedged in?
For my sighing comes instead of my bread,
and my [roarings][64] are poured out like water.
For the thing that I fear comes upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest, but trouble comes. (Job 3:20-26)

Could any words be more poignant than these?—Perhaps only those of our Lord as he was forsaken of his Father on the cross.

But it is of these sorts of things that the apostle Paul is writing when he cries, in Romans 8, that nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Paul was not speaking in the abstract here; he was speaking out of his own experience, as it is clear when he is defending his apostleship:

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman!—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger ftom Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? (2 Cor. 11:23-29)

Paul reports afflictions so severe that he and those with him “despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8; see vv. 8-11).

Many of us have tasted such grief. I have known afflictions far worse than my paralysis. I have had seasons of perplexity about God’s providence that have been so deep that night after night sleep has fled from me. Yet these griefs have been God’s gifts. For only by such severe suffering has my loving Father broken me free of some of my deeper idolatries. In the nights’ watches, while others sleep, my wakeful heart must find its rest in him or it will find no rest at all.

“Be gracious to me, 0 God,” David prayed when the Philistines seized him at Gath, “for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me; my enemies trample on me all day long, for many attack me proudly. When I am afraid,” he states,

I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can flesh do to me?

“All day long,” David continues, “they twist my words”;

all their thoughts are against me for ra’.
They stir up strife, they lurk;
they watch my steps,
as they have waited for my life. (Ps. 56:1-6)

But God, David knows, has kept count of his nightly tossings; he has numbered his futile wanderings; he has kept track of all of David’s sorrows. He has put David’s tears in a bottle and written all of his anguish in his book.[65] And David knows that the God who cares for him that much will never abandon him. “This I know,” he declares, “that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the Loiu, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps. 56:9b-11). David knows that God will keep his feet from sliding so that he may still walk before God “in the light of life” (Ps. 56:13).

I would not pretend to tell someone who has been sexually abused as a child how God means that evil for her good. But I know some men and women who have found their own abuse to be God’s gift. I would not tell an angry Suzanne that I can clearly see how God has meant her husband’s sin for her good. But I know some who trace God’s hand even through such sorrows. It would not be my place to tell Elie Wiesel that the ten thousand who sighed out their prayers of praise to God on that Rosh Hashanah now long ago took the better part than he did as he stood apart from their faith. But perhaps Corrie ten Boom could witness to him of God’s providence and loving goodness, even in such straits.

The mystery of why God has ordained the evils he has is as deep as the mystery of the evils in our hearts. And just as only God can plumb the depths of our hearts, so only God knows how the hurts we do to each other and to ourselves figure into his loving cure of us who shelter ourselves under the blood and righteousness of his Son. It is not always our place to attempt to give an answer to those who are questioning God’s goodness because of the evils that others have done to them or that they have done to themselves; sometimes we should just stand silently by their sides. Moreover, we will not always, right now, have these answers for ourselves. But in glory the answers will be clear, when we will see Jesus face to face. Then we will see that God has indeed done all that he pleased and has done it all perfectly, both for his glory and our good, for in the light of Jesus’ countenance—in that “light of life”— we will see that through our sufferings our loving Father has been conforming us to the likeness of his Son.

As David said, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy is coming in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).[66]


© Desiring God 2006

Source: ch2. Mark R. Talbot, “All the Good That Is Ours in Christ”: Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us, taken from John Piper & Justin Taylor (Eds.), Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, Crossway (2006) pp31-77. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton Il 60187, USA, No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior permission of the publisher.

[1] A word to my readers about how to approach this piece and others like it: We should never expect to understand important but difficult ideas in one reading. Understanding difficult ideas always requires perseverance and rereading. Good writers help you to ask new questions each time you read a piece that later readings should help you to answer. I have tried to write this piece so that you can understand it without reading the footnotes. So read it without reading them until it starts to make sense, and then go back through it reading the footnotes, too. They are intended to make additional points that fill in and support what I am saying in the body of the text. Above all, don’t get too discouraged! You don’t have to understand a text like this in a week or a month or even a year. So keep rereading, remembering these words from Scripture, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her…. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed” (Prov. 3:13-15, 18). You will understand if you keep on trying.

[2] EIie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006; first published in French in 1958), 28-34. In a new preface, Wiesal says of these babies:

I did not say [in Night] that they were alive, but that was what I thought. But then I convinced myself; no, they were dead, otherwise I surely would have lost my mind. And yet fellow inmates also saw them; they were alive when they were thrown into the flames. Historians… confirmed it. (xiv)

[3]Ibid., ix. These words were written in 2006 as the preface to a new translation.

[4] Ibid., 63-65

[5] Ibid., 67f

[6] Ibid., xf. This passage is found in Wiesel’s new preface, where he tells us that “these cynical musings” were the way the original Yiddish version of his book opened before his editor cut them.

[7] As we will see, “allow” is a theologically loaded term in these contexts. I shall argue that God does not merely passively permit such things by standing by and not stopping them. Rather, he actively wills them by ordaining them and then bringing them about, yet without himself thereby becoming the author of sin. As the Reformers insisted, although God is not the author of sin, he is also no mere “idle spectator” to it. (I explain the concept of God’s ordaining something at the end of my second section.)

[8] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2000), 103-6.

[9] I wrote about my accident and the theological journey it initiated in “True Freedom: The Liberty that Scripture Portrays as Worth Having,” in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, ed. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003), 77-109. In that piece, I reflect on a wider range of evils than I do here and I interact more carefully with the specific claims of open theism.

[10] For a relatively forthright acknowledgement by an open theist that God can be and has been mistaken about some things, see John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 132. This case of Suzanne’s would clearly fit under one of Sander’s ways of characterizing a mistake. He says that “we might say that God would be mistaken if he believed that X would happen” – think here of God believing that Suzanne and her husband would have a happy marriage and a fruitful ministry – “and, in fact, X does not come about. In this sense,” Sanders claims, “the Bible does attribute some mistakes to God.”

[11] To move someone to do evil is not the same as tempting that person to do evil. Scripture tells us that God tempts no one (see James 1:13). For how moving someone to do evil and tempting that person to do evil differ, see the passages from W. G. T. Shedd cited in n.56, and especially 318-22.

[12] See William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47A (Dallas: Word, 1991), loc. cit.: “The… clause ascribes to the Son the providential government of all created existence, which is the function of God himself. As the pre-creational Wisdom of God, the Son not only embodies God’s glory but also reveals this to the universe as he sustains all things and bears them to their appointed end by his omnipotent word.”

[13] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 316.

[14] The Hebrew word for “evil” in this verse is ra’, as is the word for “bad” in Ecclesiastes 7:14. Ra’, as I point out below regarding Isaiah 45:7, is the primary Hebrew term for evil.

[15] Verses 11 and 12 read: “in him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” Verse 13 then starts with the words, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth.” Goodwin, F. F. Bruce, Gordon Fee, Peter O’Brien, and others argue from the “you also” that verses 11 and 12 are referring to the first Jewish Christians and that verse 13 then brings in the later Gentile Christians. This reading seems to be corroborated by Acts 18:24 – 19:20.

[16] Thomas Goodwin, An Exposition of the First Chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 1 (Eureka, Calif.: Tanski Publications, 1996), loc. cit.; my emphasis. Goodwin lived from 1600-1680. His Ephesians commentary was published the year after his death. Goodwin was one of the greatest of the English Puritans.

Ordinarily, if we were to say that someone did something according to the counsel of his own will, what we would mean is that the person first thought through on his own what he was going to do and then carried out what he had determined to do without having to take account of anything other than what he had determined to do. In other words, what he had determined to do was all that he took account of in acting as he did; he did not have to adjust what he did to anything beyond what he had determined to do. So if we interpret this part of Ephesians 1:11 according to is plain sense, then we will affirm with the Scriptures that “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” (Ps. 115:3; see also 135:6; Dan. 4:35; and Isa. 46:10, which is quoted below).

At this point, open theists may seem to have one more move available to them. It seems that they could retort that what God has been pleased to do is to give human beings the sort of freedom that involves our deciding what we will do rather than his determining what we will do. But this move is not really a biblical option, given the fact that God would not then be working all things “after the counsel of his own will.” For he would then be taking into account not only what he willed but what we will.

[17] In Isaiah 46:9, God declares that he is God “and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,” which is immediately followed by the words of verse 10: “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” The fact that verse 10 is preceded by this declaration of God’s that there is none like him suggests or implies that God’s exhaustive foreknowledge is what theologians call a differentium – that is, a distinguishing feature, or something that sets him apart and makes him different from every other being. Here the New Living Translation captures the intent of these two verses nicely: “And do not forget the things I have done throughout history. For I am God – I alone! I am God, and there is no one else like me. Only I can tell you what is going to happen even before it happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish.”

[18] It is crucial to recognize, as Goodwin did, that Paul’s argument would not work if he could not assume that his fellow Jewish Christians would agree that God works all things according to the counsel of his will. If anything whatsoever could fall outside God’s will, then why not their eternal inheritance? This implies that neither Paul himself nor any of the godly Jews of his day would have considered open theism a biblical possibility.

Open theists often claim that Scripture includes claims that can be taken to support their position as well as claims that support their opponents’ position. They then argue that the passages that seem to support their position ought to be taken to determine how we should interpret the passages that seem to oppose their position. But here we have an argument from Paul that clarifies what he and his Jewish brothers and sisters took to be beyond question: God works all things according to the counsel of his will. This establishes that we should not take the biblical texts that can be read as supporting open theism as determining our interpretation of the ones that cannot. We must take the biblical texts that contradict open theism as the determinative texts, and then interpret the supposedly “open” passages in their light, if we are to remain true to what God has intended us to understand from his word, given Paul’s argument. (In fact, one reason to interpret verses such as Psalm 139:4 and Proverbs 16:1 as I have in this argument, and thus we have reason to reject, e.g., David J. A. Clines’s interpretation of such verses in his “Predestination in the Old Testament” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1975), 116f.). It is curious that open theists like Boyd and John Sanders never even acknowledge Ephesians 1:11, much less grapple with Paul’s argument.

I explain the concepts of God’s ordaining will and his foreordination (as it is broached in the second sentence of the next paragraph) in the last paragraph of this section. What God ordains often differs from what he commands. For instance, God commands all human beings to worship his Son (see, e.g., Phil. 2:9-11), but he ordained that certain specific human beings would disobey that command and blaspheme against him instead (see, e.g., 2 Peter 2 and Jude, especially vv 4, 8, 13-15). Again, he commands that all people everywhere repent (see Acts 17:30) and yet he has ordained that some will not (see 2 Peter 2, especially vv.9 and 17). In Reformed circles, this distinction between what God ordains and what he commands is often marked as the distinction between his secret will – which is never frustrated – and his revealed will – which human beings violate regularly. For a nice summary of the distinction, see Grudem, op. cit., 213-16.

[19] God’s creative activity in Isaiah 45:7 is stated in terms of his forming or making or creating whole kinds or categories of things. He is not represented in this verse as creating a particular light or a particular calamity; he creates light as such and evil as such. So this verse cuts off the possibility that God sometimes creates evil and sometimes does not.

[20] The New International Version’s translation of the second half of this verse seems to me to be preferable over other translations, such as the English Standard Version’s (which reads: “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?”) because it avoids potentially confusing the reader with the possibility that God does evil. As Douglas Stuart notes in Hosea-Joel, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 31 (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1987), 324, the focus of verses 3-6 of chapter 3 is “on certain natural associations of a cause and effect variety” – and so rendering the Hebrew word ‘asah as “cause” rather than the much more common “do” is certainly not inappropriate.

As Grudem points out regarding the interpretation of Isaiah 45:7, while someone could try to restrict the kind of evil that God creates to nothing other than natural disaster, there is no reason why we should take it so restrictedly (see op. cit., 326, n. 7). In fact, the proper interpretation of Amos 3:6 implies that such a restriction is improper. For warning trumpets were blown in ancient times primarily to signal that those cities were facing or undergoing military attack (see Stuart, op. cit., 325: “Everyone knew the significance of blowing a [trumpet] in a city. It was the means of alarm (cf. Hos. 5:8) and usually warned of enemy attack.”). So Amos 3:6 affirms that God is the ultimate cause of even those disasters that can be attributed to human choice.

Grudem’s examination of the relationship between God and evil, as found on 322-30 of his book, is among the best.

[21] The translations of “confusion” and “dizziness” for the Hebew ‘av‘eh seem too weak.

[22] In order to avoid confusion with the distinction that I made in footnote 18 between what God ordains and what he commands, it is probably important to note that the phrase usually translated here as “at his command” is more literally translated as “from his mouth.” In other words, what this verse is claiming is that all of this came about because it was part of God’s all-powerful and ever-effectual word.

[23] In 2 Kings 17:23-25 we are told that God sent lions among the foreign peoples that the king of Assyria had sent to Samaria to replace the Israelites whom he had exiled. Many of us probably put ourselves in the place of the exiled Israelites instead of the foreigners and so we may not readily recognize that to the foreigners this was a real evil, even if it was an evil by which God was redressing the evil done to his people. The same point must be kept in mind when reading about, e.g., God’s sending hail against the Egyptians in the seventh plague (Ex. 9:23-26), which to the Egyptians was a very great evil, as is clear from the fact that Pharaoh then said, “This time I have sinned; the LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the LORD, for there has been enough of God’s thunder and hail” (v. 27f.). This is the only time that the Pharaoh was so affected by one of the plagues that he admitted that he had sinned. (At Deut. 6:22, Moses says, “And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes”.)

[24] This is the interpretation of Luke 22:31 in versions such as the NIV and the NASB. This claim can ultimately be expanded into the claim that no evil – whether or not it is perpetuated by another person – can befall God’s people without God’s permission. Thus Psalm 16:10 claims that God will not allow David to see corruption. Similarly, Psalm 55:22 claims that God “will never permit the righteous to be moved.” Psalms 66:9 and 121:3 and 1 Corinthians 10:13 further confirm the claim that God protects his people and will not allow any ultimate spiritual harm to befall them. In each of these cases the NASB gives what I think is the more felicitous translation by translating the appropriate terms as “allow” instead of the English Standard Version’s “let.” I leave it to my readers to work out from Scripture the implication that no evil befalls anyone – not even the wicked – without God’s permitting it.

[25] The parallel passage found at 1 Chronicles 21:1 tells us that it was Satan who incited David to commit this evil, which suggests that God incited David to this evil through permitting Satan to incite him.

[26] For the general concept of God’s ordaining things before time began and then bringing them to pass in history, see (e.g.) 1 Corinthians 2:7 with Ephesians 1:7-10. Even Boyd admits that God has predestined some events from before creation and then brought them about in time, including the incarnation and the crucifixion (see his God of the Possible, 45).

[27] This comes out clearly in comparing various translations of Isaiah 37:26. In the NIV it reads like this: “Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you [Sennacherib, king of Assyria] have turned fortified cities into piles of stone.” In the ESV it reads like this: “Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what I now bring to pass, that you should make fortified cities crash into heaps of ruins.” The Hebrew word that gets translated here as either “ordained” or “determined” is ‘asah, which means to make or do.

[28] In order to forestall some potential confusions, it may be important to note that free-will libertarianism and political libertarianism are very different. Moreover, as I note two paragraphs hence, not all free-will libertarians are open theists.

[29] See Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 2. As Harry Frankfurt has pointed out, even animals possess some freedom of choice because “an animal may be free to run in whatever direction it wants” (“Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” in Harry G. Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays [Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988], 20).

[30] E.g., sometimes we see parents luring their children away from doing one thing by offering them something different that they want even more. As Kane points out, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World depicts a world where ordinary citizens are left free to choose as they want but where what they want is shaped and controlled by the state (see op. cit., 3f.). Kane’s own free-will libertarianism is most fully developed in his Significance of Free Will (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[31] As Kane puts it, freedom of choice is valuable because it allows us to satisfy our desires. When we have freedom of choice, we can choose to get what we want. But free will runs deeper than these ordinary freedoms. To see how, suppose we had maximal freedom to make choices of the kinds just noted to satisfy our desires, yet the choices we actually made were in fact manipulated by others, by the powers that be. In such a world we would have a great deal of everyday freedom to do whatever we wanted, yet our freedom of will would be severely limited. We would be free to act or to choose what we willed, but we would not have the ultimate power over what it is that we willed. (Contemporary Introduction, 2)

For free-will libertarians like Kane, we are only truly free if our wants and desires – the things we choose either to satisfy or not to satisfy – are “up to us,” where the ultimate “sources or origins of our actions would… be ‘in us’ [and not] in something else (such as the decrees of fate, the foreordaining acts of God, or antecedent causes and laws of nature) outside us and beyond our control” (6; my emphasis).

[32] See Kane’s Contemporary Introduction, 4f. For a fuller account of a real-life case where it seems that part of the blame for how a person has turned out needs to be placed on others, see Gary Watson’s retelling of the story of Robert Harris in Perspectives on Moral Responsibility, ed. John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza (Ithaca and London: Cornell, 1993), 131-37.

Only God knows the human heart, and so he alone can fairly assess how much blame each of us deserves for what we have done. Blame will always rest primarily on the actual perpetrators of a specific evil – in other words, serial killers are primarily responsible for their crimes – and therefore the actual perpetrators are primarily blameable and punishable for their own acts (see Deut. 24:!6; 2 Kings 14:1-6; Isa. 3:11; Jer. 31:30; Gal. 6:7). This is not to say, however, that the sins of others cannot have a negative effect on us (see Ex. 20:5; Num. 14:18). Indeed, the acts and omissions of others, insofar as they contribute to someone’s sin, can make them blameable and punishable, too (see Ezek. 3:16-21; Matt. 18:6f.).

[33] Strictly speaking, what they claim is that God cannot know our future choices, at least not with any certainty. They usually concede that God is pretty good at predicting what we are most likely to do. He could know for certain other truths, as long as his knowledge of those truths did not impinge on our ability to choose freely.

For a particularly clear statement of the main argument of open theists for this position, see Boyd’s God of the Possible, 121-23.

[34] For those who are willing to get a philosophical workout, see Brian Leftow’s Time and Eternity (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991) and Paul Helm’s Eternal God: A Study of God Without Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) for these answers.

[35] If we, following Jesus and his apostles, take God to be the primary author of Scripture, then we not only can but must read each part of it in the light of its other parts and seek to make consistent sense of it as a whole. We must, moreover, allow its clearer and more comprehensive affirmations to determine our interpretation of its less clear and less comprehensive affirmations. Hebrews 1:3 and Ephesians 1:11, properly interpreted, are clear and comprehensive affirmations of the fact that nothing that exists or occurs falls outside God’s ordaining will. And so on the basis of those two texts I shall assume that God foreknows and foreordains all human acts, including those that are reported in the passages from Acts and Matthew and John that I am about to discuss. Consequently, the only issue that I need to address right now is whether human beings are ever held responsible for such acts in Scripture.

For an excellent summary of what Scripture claims and assumes and implies about itself, see Grudem, op. cit., 47-138.

[36] The phrase “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” – or, as the NIV translates it, “handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge” – suggests that Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, Caiaphas’s willingness to sacrifice Jesus for the sake of the Jewish people (see John 18:14 with 11:45-50), and Pilate’s cowardice about standing up to the Jews after they handed Jesus over to him (see John 18:28 – 19:16) were all specific parts of God’s predetermined plan. Many years before, Sennacherib had been an unwitting instrument of God’s greater purposes, as we are told in Isaiah 19:6f.: “Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him,… to tread them down like the mire of the streets. But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is his heart to destroy.” And so it seems reasonable to conclude, against the kinds of arguments that I cite by open theists in footnotes 38 and 39, that these three men (along with Herod and others) spoke and acted exactly as God has ordained (see, e.g., John 11:51-53).

[37] While I might say, after it has happened, “Sorry!” I don’t really need to ask your forgiveness for my tripping and bumping into you unless my tripping was the result of something like my carelessness.

[38] Sanders does not comment on these passages from Matthew and John. Boyd provides a fairly lengthy interpretation of John 6:64 and other passages in that gospel in an attempt to show 1) that John 6:64 does not imply that Jesus knew from eternity that Judas would betray him; 2) that John 17:12 does not provide support for the position that “Judas was damned from the beginning of time”; and 3) that, while Judas was the one who fulfilled Scripture by betraying Jesus, he did not have to be the one who fulfilled that role (see 37-39).

If we grant from passages such as Isaiah 46:10-11 that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events, including all future human choices, then there is no reason why we should not read John 6:64 in the traditional way, since it is certainly possible that the incarnate Jesus, as God the Son, could and did know this during his incarnation, just as he predicted in Matthew 26:33-35 that before the cock would crow Peter would deny him three times. Boyd’s second and third points will not be granted by those who interpret passages such as Hebrews 1:3 and Ephesians 1:11 as I do.

The implausibility of Boyd’s explanation of Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times before the cock would crow in Matthew 26:33-35 shows how weak some of the arguments of the open theists are. Boyd argues that we can explain such a prediction “simply by supposing that the person’s character, combined with the Lord’s perfect knowledge of all future variables, makes the person’s future behavior certain” (35). He then says:

Contrary to the assumption of many, we do not need to believe that the future is exhaustively settled to explain this prediction. We only need to believe that God the Father knew and revealed to Jesus one very predictable aspect of Peter’s character. Anyone who knew Peter’s character perfectly could have predicted that under certain highly pressured circumstances (that God could easily orchestrate), he would act just the way he did. (35)

Yet in order for Jesus to risk making a prediction that Peter would deny him three times before dawn (remember: in the Old Testament, a prophet was discredited as God’s spokesman if all of his predictions did not come true [see Deut. 18:21f.]), the circumstances that God would have had to orchestrate would have included his ensuring that Peter would be confronted with questions about his relationship with Jesus exactly three times. And how could God ensure this without at least potentially overriding the freedom of the questioners to ensure that result?

[39] In general, open theists like Boyd and Sanders make a great effort to show how passages like this one and the one from Acts 2 can take an “open” interpretation and thus do not support the sorts of claims that I am making. It is surprising, therefore, how little attention open theists pay to these two passages. Boyd simply declare that while

Scripture portrays the crucifixion as a predestined event, it never suggests that the individuals who participated in this event were predestined to do so or foreknown as doing so. It was certain that Jesus would be crucified, but it was not certain from eternity that Pilot [sic], Herod, or Caiaphas would play the roles they played in the crucifixion. (God of the Possible, 45; my emphasis)

These are mere assertions that, moreover, seem not to acknowledge and grapple with the most natural interpretation of the text. For this claim, “truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus… both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place,” is most naturally interpreted as involving the sovereign God of the universe using those who were gathered against Jesus as instruments to carry out his will. This follows both from the fact that the natural subject of the final “to do” clause is Herod and Pontius Pilate and the Gentiles and Israelites and in the light of passages such as Hebrews 1:3 and Ephesians 1:11

Sanders also treats these two passages much too briefly, saying that “It was God’s definite purpose… to deliver the Son into the hands of those who had a long track record of resisting God’s work” (op. cit., 103). By this he seems to acknowledge that God intended to use Herod and Pilate and the Gentile and Jewish peoples as the instruments for carrying out his will. But then he quotes Luke 7:30 – “the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves” – as proof that human beings can resist the divine will. Yet here we may reply that the Pharisees and lawyers were resisting God’s revealed will and that neither they nor anyone else can resist his secret will. We see this distinction at work in, e.g., 1 Samuel 2:12-25, where Eli’s sons were treating God’s revealed will regarding sacrifice with contempt, but when Eli warned them about God’s judgment for their evil dealings, we are told that “they would not listen to the voice of their father” – who was, of course, proclaiming God’s revealed will to them – “for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death” (v. 25).

[40] Peter T. O’Brien says, in commenting on Ephesians 2:1, “here [Paul] employs the adjective ‘dead’ figuratively to describe the state of being lost or under the dominion of death… It is sometimes called spiritual death and denotes a state of alienation or separation from God” (The Letter to the Ephesians [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999]), loc. cit.

[41] Peter says that they are filled with “the lustful desires of sinful human nature” (2 Pet. 2:18, NIV), which John enumerates as “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he had and does” (1 John 2:16, NIV).

It may seem paradoxical that someone can be both spiritually dead and active, but think of sociopathic killers. Serial killers are not infrequently described by those who deal with them as seeming to have something dead within them and yet they deploy all their energies to do their horrors. Indeed, it is what is dead within them, that allows and even drives them to do what they do. For their consciences are dead, which makes them all the more dangerous because they no longer possess that inner monitor which should stop them from even contemplating doing such horrible deeds. More choices open up before them precisely because they feel so little compunction to do only what is right. In fact, Jude gives us a picture of how the spiritually dead can be very active in their wrongdoing when he condemns certain people who had crept into the church, whom he describes as blaspheming what they do not understand and being destroyed “by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively” (10). He calls these people “blemishes on your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, looking after themselves;… fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars” (12f.). Such people are freer than true Christians to do bad things. Likewise, Isaiah describes Sodom and Gomorrah in a way where it is clear that their inhabitants were dead to any feeling of shame regarding what they were doing (see Isa. 3:9). It is as human beings become spiritually blind, as they become alienated from God’s life, as their hearts harden, and as they become callous that they then have nothing to stop them from giving themselves up to all kinds of sensuality and may even become “greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Eph. 5:17-19).

[42] This is O’Brien’s summarizing comment on Paul’s claims in Ephesians 2:1-3 (see 163f.). As O’Brien points out, Paul’s claims are consistent with what we find elsewhere in the New Testament; see, e.g., James 3:15 and 1 John 2:15-17 and 3:7-10.

[43] John 12:46, Acts 26:18, Ephesians 5:8, and 1 Peter 2:9 all assume that we are all at first creatures of darkness who, if there is to be any hope for us, must be delivered from that domain and transferred to the kingdom of light (see Col. 1:13). 2 Corinthians 6:14f. assumes that there are only two classes of human beings, variously described as the righteous and the unrighteous or wicked (the Greek word is anomia, which means “lawlessness” and hence “unrighteousness” or “wickedness”), or those of the light and those of darkness, or those in Christ and those of Satan.

[44] In the ESV, Ezekiel 36:27 reads: “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” The Hebrew for “cause” is ‘asah, which, as we have already seen, means to do or make. Most English versions translate it here as “cause”; the NIV’s atypical “move” seems too weak because someone can move someone else to do something without actually causing the person to act in that way. Rendering ‘asah as “cause” harmonizes with the fact that Scripture always represents us as passive in the process of spirituals rebirth. Regeneration – which is the technical term, when it is used in its theologically narrower sense, for our being born again – is entirely God’s work.

[45] The Greek word that is translated as “appointed” in the ESV for Acts 13:48 is tasso, which can be translated as appoint or order or ordain. Thus, the RSV reads: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.”

The primacy of God in the entire process of our salvation is emphasized by Scripture’s assumption that he chooses those who come to faith. See, e.g., 1 Thessalonians 1:4f. – “we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” – and 2 Thessalonians 2:13 – “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” – as well as Psalm 65:4 – “Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts!”

F. F. Bruce emphasizes God’s sovereignty in this process in the way that he translates Ephesians 1:11 – “It was in Christ, too, that we were claimed by God as his portion, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” He comments:

The verb translated “we were claimed… as his portion” has been rendered more freely in a number of recent versions… But we are dealing with a passive form of the verb which means “appoint by lot,” “allot,” “assign,” and the passive sense should be brought out unless there is good reason to the contrary. The reason for the rendering “we were claimed by God as his portion” (rather than “we were assigned our portion”) is that it is in keeping with OT precedent [see, e.g., Deut. 32:8f.]…. [H]ere, believers in Christ are God’s chosen people, claimed by him as his portion or heritage….

The idea of the divine foreordination is repeated from verse 5. There God is said to have foreordained his people “according to the good pleasure of his will”; here this is said to be part of his eternal governance of the universe, for he “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” His will may be disobeyed, but his ultimate purpose cannot be frustrated, for he overrules the disobedience of his creatures in such a way that it subserves his purpose. (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984], 262-64)

The picture here is that the sovereign Lord of all the universe just points to those whom he wishes to save and says, “I will take those.” Of course, Bruce’s distinction between God’s will and his ultimate purpose is the same distinction that Reformed theology makes between God’s revealed and secret wills (see n. 18).

[46] “Properly” because we are in this state subject to God’s wrath – and the Judge of all the earth will always do what is just and right (see Gen. 18:25). As O’Brien notes:

The ‘wrath’ in view [in Eph. 2:3] is God’s holy anger against sin and the judgment that results (cf. Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:5-6). It is neither an impersonal process of cause and effect, nor God’s vindictive anger, nor unbridled and unrighteous revenge, nor an outburst of passion. Wrath describes neither some autonomous entity alongside God, nor some principle of retribution that is not to be associated closely with his personality. (163)

[47] While this reasoning initially seems quite plausible, it is actually wrong. For it assumes that our wants and desires are all that we consider in making choices, in which case it follows that the range of our choices would be restricted by the range of our wants and desires. Consequently, if God or fate or physical or psychological factors (or whatever) indirectly yet inevitably determine the range of our choices. Scripture, however, both assumes and asserts that we are to take more than our wants and desires into consideration in making our choices – namely, we are to take God and his law into consideration, with the understanding that if his law runs against our wants and desires, then we are to choose to follow his law rather than satisfy our wants and desires. And, according to Scripture, every human being knows this (see, e.g., Rom. 1:18 – 2:16). We do not need libertarian freedom of the will, then, in order to be responsible. All we need is freedom of choice plus an awareness that sometimes God is commanding us to follow his law rather than satisfy our wants and desires.

[48] In other words, according to Scripture, each one of us possesses a primary inclination either to sin or to righteousness. This primary inclination determines our wants and desires. So there is no such thing as freedom of the will at the most fundamental level of human being. As our Lord said, each of us is either for him or against him (see Luke 11:14-28). In the spiritual realm, as should be clear from our examination of Ephesians 2:1-3, neutrality is impossible.

With some careful thinking, we can see why there can be no such thing as freedom of the will at the most fundamental level of human being. Ultimately, even though we should be motivated to make our choices in terms of God’s law, our actual motivation to make a choice between any two possibilities – let’s designate them possibility A and possibility B – is that either A or B is more consistent with our primary inclination. (If by God’s regenerating grace my primary inclination is to righteousness, then I will in fact be motivated by what should motivate me.) Consequently, if we were to have no primary inclination, then we would not be moved to make any choices. Moreover, it is impossible to choose our primary inclination because we have nothing more primary than it to motivate that choice.

[49] From here through the end of my next section, I am relying somewhat on what I have already said in my earlier piece, “True Freedom,” in Beyond the Bounds, 88-100. That piece deals explicitly with some of the objections that open theists would make to my interpretation of Joseph’s story.

[50] The Chronicler’s account goes like this: Saul had been wounded by the Philistine archers and, fearing that he would be abused by them if he fell into their hands, he asked his armor-bearer to kill him. But his armor-bearer refused. So Saul took his own sword and killed himself by falling on it. So when the Chronicler observes, in verse 14, that “the LORD put [Saul] to death,” what he means is that God did this through moving Saul to choose, voluntarily and no doubt responsibly, to end his own life.

We are told that Saul’s armor-bearer refused to kill him because “he feared greatly” (1 Chron. 10:4). I think the most plausible interpretation of those words is that Saul’s armor-bearer understood that he would be held responsible if he chose to carry out Saul’s request. So the whole account seems to be saturated with human choice and responsibility, yet all of it exercised according to God’s secret will.

[51] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1986 [first published in 1871]), 1:544.

[52] For instance, 1 Timothy 2:4 states that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”; 2 Peter 3:9 says that he does not wish that any should perish; and Ezekiel 18:32 declares that he has “no pleasure in the death of anyone.” Such verses clearly appear to run counter to the claim that our Lord sustains the universe in such a way that everything within it accomplishes exactly what he wants. I cannot address such verses here. For careful exposition of verses like these, see, e.g., Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware, eds., The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will: Biblical and Practical Perspectives on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1995), two vols. and David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended and Documented (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&P, 2004 (second edition)).

[53] The words of Psalm 139 are David’s words, who is one of God’s chosen ones, but there is every reason to think that virtually all of those words through verse 16 apply equally well to all human beings.

[54] Sanders claims that God had “no reason to suspect” that Adam and Eve would sin. Their sin surprised God. See The God Who Risks, 45-49 and my response in “True Freedom,” 94ff.

[55] It is not hard to understand how God’s agency relates to natural agency: God makes physical and biological beings and the natural laws that they obey, and then sustains those beings so that they affect each other according to those laws. So when the wind blows, the cradle rocks because the wind is the “secondary” or “proximate” cause of the cradle’s rocking, given the physical laws that God has set for our universe. Again, I as a biological being get bruised when the wind blows so hard that a tree limb breaks loose and falls on me, because that is what happens when God sustains both me and that tree limb and the physical and biological laws that govern how falling tree limbs and animal bodies relate to each other. In both of these examples, God is the “primary” cause of what happens because, if he didn’t sustain these beings and the laws they obey, then they would have no existence and no power to affect anything. And there doesn’t seem to be any problem in claiming that God ordained or willed or planned these beings to interact with each other in these ways from before creation. God’s foreordination of these beings and events does not seem to violate in any way their “natural” interactions.

But it is much harder to understand how God can ordain or will or plan our free acts from before time began without his foreordination cancelling the freedom of those acts. In fact, as I argue in the text’s next paragraph, we simply cannot fully understand how this can be. And yet we have now seen that Scripture affirms both God’s primary agency, which involves the fact that his ordaining will is the final and ultimate explanation for our free acts, and the fact that we still do them freely and responsibly. Either we accept the witness of the Scriptures here or we do not. Footnotes 56 and 58 show that some great theologians have been willing to bite the bullet about this and just accept the fact that divine and free human agency do both exist in the sort of dual-explanation way that I explored in the previous section. Here is a little more from the Westminster Confession of Faith on the same topic:

God, the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things (see Dan. 4:34f.; Ps. 135:6; Acts 17:25-28; Job 38-41), from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence (see Prov. 15:3; Ps. 104:24; 145:17), according to his infallible foreknowledge (see Acts 15:17f.), and the free and immutable counsel of his own will (see Ps. 33:10f.), to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy (see Isa. 63:14; Ps. 145:7).

Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently (see Gen. 8:22; Ex. 21:12-14 with Deut. 19:4-6; 1 Kings 22:1-38; Isa. 10:5-7)….

The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God, so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men (see Rom. 11:32f.; 1 Chron. 10:4-14; 2 Sam. 16:5-11), and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding (see 2 Kings 19:28), and otherwise ordering and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends (see Isa. 10:6f.); yet so as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God; who being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin (see 1 John 2:16; PS. 50:21). (Westminster Confession of Faith, 5.1, 2, 4)

I have included some of the Confession’s biblical proofs for these claims, but only those which are the most important of those that I have not discussed elsewhere in this piece. Each one of these proof texts is worth reading.

[56] I don’t mean this to say that the ways that God governs both the godly and the ungodly are completely dark to us. In his Dogmatic Theology (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2003; third one-volume edition, ed. Alan Gomes [first published in three volumes in 1888 and 1894]), W. G. T. Shedd makes some very illuminating remarks in his sections on God’s efficacious and permissive decrees (318-322) and on election and reprobation (326-44). But both in the cases where we can gain some insight and in those where we cannot, we are to affirm with the Psalmist that God fashions the hearts of all  human beings (33:15).

Those who want to dismiss this position often label it as “Calvinism,” but Fergus Kerr, O. P., has emphasized that it is also the great medieval Catholic Thomas Aquinas’s position:

For Thomas, God is the cause that enables all agents to cause what they do…. There is no problem. He cites Isaiah 26:12 [“O LORD,… you have done for us all our works”]… together with John 15:5: ‘Without me, you can nothing’; and Philippians 2:13: ‘It is God who worketh in us to will and to accomplish according to his good will.’ For Thomas, evidently, Scripture settles it; there is no need for theoretical explanations of how divine freedom and human freedom do not, or need not be thought to, encroach on each other… Thomas only excludes certain tempting views: yes, God does everything, God is not a partner in the existence and activities of the world; God does everything, however, in such a way that the autonomy and reality of created agents is respected. Above all: the effect is not attributed to a human agent and to divine agency in such a way that it is partly done by God and partly by the human agent; rather, it is done wholly by both, according to a different way, just as the same effect is wholly attributed to the instrument and also wholly to the principal agent – but now Thomas is referring us to an analogy, and either we see it or we don’t. In the end, he excludes certain views and leaves us simply with the mystery of the relationship between divine creativity and human autonomy…. Thomas has nothing more basic to offer that these observations. (Fergus Kerr, O.P., After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism [Oxford: Blackwell, 2002], 44-46. My thanks to my former student, Michael Ajay Chandra, for bringing this passage to my attention.)

[57] As Justin Taylor has neatly put it to me, if we are biblical about these things, then we know that we will never be held accountable to explain how divine and human agency are compatible, but we will be held accountable for believing that they are.

[58] Here is the way that the Westminster Confession (3:1) makes this section’s point. Notice how closely it parallels Aquinas:

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass (see Eph. 1:11; Rom. 11:33; Heb. 6:17; Rom. 9:15, 18): yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin (see James 1:13, 17; 1 John 1:5), nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (see Acts 2:23; Matt. 17:12; Acts 4:27, 28; John 19:11; Prvo. 16:33).

[59] Night, 31. Mengele was a medical doctor who was nicknamed “The Angel of Death.” He carried out unspeakable experiments on some of his prisoners, including injecting chemicals into childrens’ eyes in an attempt to change their eye color from brown to the preferred Aryan blue. He would visit the children, acting kindly and bringing them candy and clothing in order to keep them calm and happy, and then transport them in what looked like a Red Cross truck or in his personal vehicle to his laboratory beside the crematoria where he would perform his horrible experiments and then burn their bodies. He specialized in experiments involving identical twins. He was intrigued to see if he could make them differ genetically by, among other horrors, performing sex-change operations on one of them or removing one twin’s limbs or organs in macabre surgical procedures that were performed without the use of anesthesia and that had no scientific basis or value.

[60] This is true even when Christians have done what is wrong, although our punishment may be wholly borne by Christ’s sacrifice.

[61] Romans 8:31f., 35-39. I have changed the punctuation at the beginning of verse 37 to make Paul’s “No” as emphatic as he means it.

[62] I am specifying Christians here, because God’s promise that all things work together for good is for them and not for all human beings. It is through our acceptance by faith of Christ’s reconciling work that we are given the right to be called children of God and thus to have the immeasurable comfort of knowing that God is our loving Father who, we are promised, is working out all things for our good.

[63] Psalm 22:1, KJV. This older translation of the Hebrew word sheagah as “roaring” is in some ways better than more recent translations like “groaning.” The word refers first and foremostly to the roaring of a lion, and so I think we have good reason to believe that David’s experience was like the experience of someone in such extremity in an emergency room that he literally roars like a lion in his pain.

[64] The Hebrew word is sheagah

[65] My previous two sentences compile various renderings of the difficult-to-translate words of Psalm 56:8. I have preferred the ESV’s marginal reading for v. 5a.

[66] Thanks to my students Rose Acquavella, John Higgins, Luke Damoff, Andrew Herther, Megan Ensor, and John Searle for helpful comments on an earlier draft.