The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Thursday, November 3, 2011

God Gives Permission? The Error of Permissive Will

The final draft. Enjoy.

              Reformation Bible College

God Gives Permission? The Error of Permissive Will

Theological Prolegomena


Thomas Booher

Sanford, Florida
December, 2011
Where is God when natural disasters occur, taking so many lives? What about when seemingly innocent people are robbed or raped or murdered? Does God permit or plan that? The permissive will of God is a doctrine to which many Reformed theologians adhere. Reformed theologians believe that God is not under any obligation to give man freedom to act apart from His plan, and thus permits sin for His own good purposes. This permission falls within His sovereignty, since God could choose to stop man from sinning, but instead chooses to not restrain the sinfulness of man, leaving man to his own devices. The permissive will exposited by many Reformed theologians, however, undermines rather than affirms God’s sovereignty.
                It is easier to argue for the permissive will of God after the fall of man. Since man, dead in trespasses and sins, cannot but do the evil he desires, God can remove His restraints, common grace, and conviction from the sinner and leave him to his own hardened heart. One could speak of the permissive will in this sense. It is still not desirable, however, since it does not take into account where and how man got this sinful heart in the first place. Anthony A. Hoekema, alluding to Herman Bavinck, says that the origin of evil is one of the greatest riddles of life.[1] Hoekema opines about the mystery of the fall of man, saying:
Every effort to view man’s sin as part of a rational system must be repudiated. One cannot make sense out of the senseless. Sin is simply inexplicable, and we must leave it at that…God did not cause man’s fall-but he did permit it. This raises the difficult question of how God can permit things to happen that are against his will.[2]
                First Hoekema says that we should not try to explain the riddle of sin, then continues to offer an explanation that by his own admission is problematic- namely, that God somehow permits something contrary to His will. If God decreed the fall of man, then it was His will. If He did not decree the fall of man, then it was not His will. There is no in between, God cannot both desire and not desire man to fall into sin. If the fall was predestined, God planned and desired it from the beginning. If God merely foresaw that Adam would fall, the question becomes where Adam received the desire to sin, given He was created sinless. How could God foresee Adam falling if He made Adam unfallen and altogether good? Hoekema speaks out of both sides of his mouth on this issue.
                R.C. Sproul speaks about the providence of God, saying “He [God] governs everything that comes to pass, from the greatest to the least. Nothing ever happens beyond the scope of His sovereign providential government…all is brought to pass by the invisible hand of Providence.”[3] Regarding the will of man in light of the sovereignty of God, Sproul continues, saying,
God ordained that Jesus be betrayed by the instrument of Judas’s treachery. Yet this makes Judas’s sin no less evil or treacherous. When God “permits” us to break His perceptive will, it is not to be understood as permission in the moral sense of His granting us a moral right. His permission gives us the power, but not the right to sin.[4]
                This begs the question, how can God’s hand of Providence be involved when He is deciding to permit the sins of man by not exercising His hand of Providence? Consider Acts 4:27-28:
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.
                The verses here seem to indicate that God not only foreknew, not only passively permitted Herod, Pontius Pilate, and all the people to take Jesus to the cross, but actively directed them towards that which His hand had predestined to occur. If this was not the case, and God merely permitted Herod and Pilate and the people to take Jesus and crucify Him, how could God guarantee that they would do so? While God may remove His restraining graces from them, that would not ensure their specific actions of crucifying Christ. What if instead, in their wickedness, they decided to burn Him at the stake, or stone Him to death? Further, if God merely permitted Judas to betray Jesus and Pilate to turn Jesus over and have Him crucified, how could God foreknow this? If He truly maintained a freedom of the will, then that freedom cannot be foreknown, since by definition freedom requires the ability to do as one pleases, which could change at any moment. The question goes back to before the fall of man, to how man fell in the first place, since Adam’s fall was the fall of all mankind.
                There is no mechanism for the fall of man to occur within the permissive will schema. If God is said to foreknow what Adam would choose when tempted by the devil, and God does nothing more than allow Adam to act on his own inclinations, then it is made manifest that Adam was created defective, and therefore, God’s creative power and omnipotence is thrown into question. If God cannot, or chooses not, to create a perfect being, then holds an imperfectly created being responsible for not being perfect, is not God at fault for the creature’s sin? Thus, the permissive will of God, while not only undermining His sovereignty, also brings into question His character. If God created Adam faultless and then remained passive, all God would foresee is Adam and Eve resisting the devil and remaining obedient. Thus the permissive will has no legs to start with, and therefore is not applicable even after the fall of man.
                It needs to be said that God is not the author of evil. God is not responsible for the sin that Adam and Eve committed when they rebelled against Him. Nor does God, from His preceptive will, approve their rebellion- He demonstrates His wrath and holiness when He punishes sinners. Yet God does approve the fall from His secret or sovereign will. God is glorified when His vessels of mercy see His righteous wrath executed on the vessels of wrath that were prepared, that were molded, for destruction by God Himself (Rom. 9:22-23).
                Francis Turretin proves most helpful in answering the riddle of original sin and how God can actively predestine the fall of man and yet be freed from the charge of owning the guilt of man’s sin. He argues that the origin of sin resides in the will of man, which is subject to the law of God, and that the will of man alone is capable of committing a moral wrong, a sin, and not God, who is free to do as He pleases with His creation and is not under the sovereignty of His own law (Rom. 9:19-21)!
Although the promotion of God is extended to evil actions, it does not on that account make God guilty of the fault or the author of sin. It only pertains to actions inasmuch as they are material and entitative, not however as they are moral, i.e., to the substance of the act, but not to its wickedness. Nor is it a new thing for one and the same action to be considered in different ways, either physically or morally….Nor is it an objection that the wickedness is necessarily and inseparably annexed to such action. Hence it would seem to follow that he who is the cause of the action must also be the cause of the wickedness because the created will is otherwise the moral cause of the wickedness, except inasmuch as it is the material cause of the act, to which the wickedness is necessarily bound. We answer that it is falsely supposed that the created will is not otherwise the cause of the wickedness than inasmuch as it is the cause of the act to which wickedness is annexed. The will, as a physical agent, is the physical cause of the act; but as a moral agent, the will is the moral cause of the wickedness, not simply because it produces the act, but because it produces such an act against the law to which man is subject. Therefore the reason why wickedness may be imputed to the human will is not simply because it produces the act in the genus of being (as a physical agent), but because it is man subject to the law who performs a forbidden act (as a moral agent).[5]    
                It would appear then that God can (and did) actively predestine the fall of man, and consequently all things, by His hand of Providence, yet without sinning. God gave Adam and Eve the desire to sin through the means of their will. Therefore, it is axiomatic that this was accomplished in such a way that Adam and Eve willingly chose to sin.
                If this is not enough, perhaps an analogy will help the reader see why active predestination of the fall does not make God the author of sin. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort, the antagonist, kills Harry Potter, the protagonist. This is depicted in the films based off the books. When watching the films, nobody claims that Lord Voldemort is innocent of Harry Potter’s murder, and instead the Creator of the story-world, J.K. Rowling, is guilty. Nobody thinks this, because we know that it is Lord Voldemort alone who was acting in the sinful deed that Rowling had predestined. Therefore, it is understandable that, since Lord Voldemort was acting of his own accord, Lord Voldemort alone was responsible for his actions, not his creator. Should we arrest and convict Rowling of murder for the murder of Harry Potter by Lord Voldemort since she scripted things that way? No, because Rowling didn’t enter her story-world and murder Harry Potter! Viewers understand that writing a script does not equate to murdering those in your script! God should get the same respect. 
                Now we see God aright- free to do as He pleases with His creation, including molding vessels of wrath for destruction through the means of human will. God is able to show us all His manifold glory by creating a world that He sovereignly scripted, both the good and the evil. Yet His created beings performed of their own accord, owning their own sin, and Jesus, entering His Father’s story-world, fulfilled all righteousness, then took His elect’s sin on Himself.  This is the beauty of God’s sovereignty, and sovereign plan, in full bloom.

[1]Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God's Image (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 131
[2] Ibid. 131-132
[3]R. C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Pub, 1992), 62
[4] Ibid. 68
[5]Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison and Jr (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub Co, 1992), 509-10 

1 comment:

  1. Permissive will of God seems to be like a mountain being God and the river that comes out of the mountain being man. Satan fights with God by diverting the water. God reigns the water back. Seeing the fall as such an analogy. God created man and directed him. Satan came and influenced God's created being(not perfect in sense of a being of perfect power but in a sense of physical perfection) fell to temptation. God provides a way of redemption. While Satan continues to fight for power. After all Satan is no fool and would not attempt to overthrow God is he did not feel that he could.