Christians: How does God’s sovereignty relate to human sin?
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. Genesis 50:20
God is sovereign, powerful, and good. Evil exists and creatures bear moral responsibility for it. In trying to make sense of the undeniable presence of sin, along with the injustice and suffering it causes, many people deny one or more of these essential truths. People postulate that perhaps God is not truly in charge of the world and rendered finite by sin, that God is somehow limited in his ability to effect change in the world, or that perhaps God is both good and evil. Some try to deny the reality of evil, rendering it an illusion or a matter of perception. Others deny responsibility for their own sinfulness, shifting the blame to other people or a bad environment.
In response, philosophers have long sought to find a way to winsomely and persuasively reconcile the character of God with the reality of sin. Gottfried Leibniz first coined the term theodicy in 1710 to describe this quest for understanding. Theologian J. I. Packer says that the word theodicy comes from the Greek theos (“God”) and the root dik- (“just”) and seeks to “justify the ways of God to man” . . . showing that God is in the right and is glorious and worthy of praise despite contrary appearances. Theodicy asks how we can believe that God is both good and sovereign in face of the world’s evil—bad people; bad deeds, defying God and injuring people; harmful (bad) circumstances, events, experiences and states of mind, which waste, thwart, or destroy value, actual or potential, in and for humankind; in short, all facts, physical and moral, that prompt the feeling, “This ought not to be.”1
Christian philosophers and theologians have explored several approaches to the problem of theodicy. Christian philosopher C. Stephen Evans says:
Two of the more important theodicies are the “soul-making theodicy,” which argues that God allows evil so as to make it possible for humans to develop certain desirable virtues, and the “free will theodicy,” which argues that God had to allow for the possibility of evil if he wished to give humans (and angelic beings) free will. Theodicies are often distinguished from defenses, which argue that it is reasonable to believe that God has reasons for allowing evil even if we do not know what those reasons are.2
Specific forms of theodicy speculations vary wildly. Some teach a false universalism whereby everyone will be saved in the end. Others say that we will retain our freedom to sin even in our resurrected heavenly state, which leaves open the possibility of sin occurring again in the eternal state. Also, as J. I. Packer describes:
Some Calvinists envisage God permissively decreeing sin for the purpose of self-display in justly saving some from their sin and justly damning others for and in their sin. But none of this is biblically certain. The safest way in theodicy is to leave God’s permission of sin and moral evil as a mystery, and to reason from the good achieved in redemption.3
Some say God ordains all sin, using it for his greater glory, but Scriptures like Jeremiah 32:26-35 make it clear that some sins are against his will in every sense. There God says that his people have chosen to “provoke me to anger” by doing “nothing but evil in my sight from their youth.” As a result, they have aroused “anger and wrath”. God goes on to say, “They have turned to me their back and not their face. And though I have taught them persistently, they have not listened to receive instruction. They set up their abominations in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.” God is emphatically clear that when grotesque evil occurs, including the slaughter of one’s own child to a false pagan “god”, such sin is not anything that is in the will of the real God or emanates from his mind.
Others say God allows sin because he honors our free choice but stories like the judgments of Pharaoh and Jerusalem make it clear that there are limits to his patience. We can safely say that God is at war with sin and evil, overcoming it with good through his redemptive work as his promised Messiah crushes the Serpent (Gen. 3:15; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8)
In regard to the coexistence of God and sin, we are also wise to remember that a bit of humility is required, because we presently see and know only in part4 and because God has secrets he has chosen not to reveal to us.5
Nonetheless, a study of the Bible repeatedly declares that God is always, perfectly, and solely sovereign, powerful, and good. It is completely clear that God is angry because of sin and evil because creatures, not the Creator, are responsible for it. Sin never destroys his plan, never limits his power to act, and never stops him from doing good in the worst evil. From the appearance of Satan in the garden onward, sin and evil are not dealt with in a systematic fashion but in such a way as to compel us to continued faith in God, trusting in his ultimate providence that one day the presence and power of sin will be no more. To assume that God cannot (making him not sovereign and/or not powerful) or will not (making him not good) is to judge God before he judges evil, rendering the verdict prematurely. Since we are in the middle of history, until God is done with all of his work, we must not judge him but rather trust him until he is finished with sin and history as we know it.
In the meantime, evil is never outside the providential control of God. He is at work to do his good purposes in the context of evil. We see this in the story of Joseph in the final dozen chapters of Genesis. We read of Joseph’s betrayal at the hands of his brothers, his unjust suffering, and his eventual rise to power because the Lord was with him, whereby many lives were saved. When he confronted his brothers, the providence of God at work in the life of Joseph crescendos: “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.”6
Many years later, a descendant of Joseph named Jesus Christ suffered similarly. He too was betrayed by his “brothers,” suffered the worst injustice in history, and suffered and died in shame on a Roman cross. At that moment, it would have been tempting to ponder if God was not sovereign and had lost, was not good and had sinned against Jesus, or was not powerful enough to stop the injustice. However, three days later Jesus arose from his grave, atoning for the sins of the world, and God was vindicated as fully sovereign, good, and powerful.
God used the freely chosen evil of Judas, Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, and Jews to accomplish his perfect purpose7 in the same way he used the Chaldeans, a horribly evil nation, to punish the persistent sin of Judah and Jerusalem.8 This does not mean that their evil is his responsibility. They freely desire to kill and destroy. In a cosmic irony, the God of all providence uses evil to judge evil. Even as his hand brings punishment to Israel and death to Jesus, he also brings redemption and resurrection into the context of judgment and death.
A day is coming when we will also rise with and to Jesus. On that day, our faith will be sight and we will see God fully vindicated as we enter the best possible world after passing through this world that prepares us for it. Until that day, our answer to the question of how God’s sovereignty relates to sin is ultimately a prayerful, worshipful, humble, and continual meditation on Romans 8:28, which promises, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
How have you seen God take evil in your life and use it for good?