I spent some significant time this morning reading through more of John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” I found myself in Book 2, chapter 2, titled “Man Now Deprived of Freedom of Will, and Miserably Enslaved.” Once I finished reading that, I traveled to chapter 4, regarding “How God Works in the Hearts of Men.” Calvin claimed in the chapter that he had proven how God causes evil in Book One, so I went there next. I read Book 1, Chapter 18, titled “The Instrumentality of the Wicked Employed by God, While He Continues Free from Every Taint.”
It is in this chapter that Calvin tackles the problem of evil. After his discussion of various texts involving God using evil, Calvin writes:
“In the same way is solved, or rather spontaneously vanishes, another objection, i.e., IF GOD NOT ONLY USES THE AGENCY OF THE WICKED, BUT ALSO GOVERNS THEIR COUNSELS AND AFFECTIONS, HE IS THE AUTHOR OF ALL THEIR SINS; and therefore men, in executing what God has decreed, are UNJUSTLY CONDEMNED, because they are obeying his will” (Book I, Chap. 18, sec. IV, pg. 139).
This is the response of many people to the idea of labeling God as the primary cause or reason of evil. But Calvin writes to calm those who disagree:
“Here [above] ‘will’ is improperly confounded with precept, though it is obvious, from innumerable examples, that there is the greatest difference between them. When Absalom defiled his father’s bed, though God was pleased thus to avenge the adultery of David, he did not therefore enjoin an abandoned son to commit incest, unless, perhaps, in respect of David, as David himself says of Shimei’s curses. For, while he confesses that Shimei acts by the order of God, he by no means commends the obedience, as if that petulant dog had been yielding obedience to a divine command; but, recognizing in his tongue the scourge of God, he submits patiently to be chastised. Thus we must hold, that while by no means of the wicked God performs what he had SECRETLY DECREED, THEY ARE NOT EXCUSABLE AS IF THEY WERE OBEYING HIS PRECEPT, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust” (139).
Calvin writes here that God uses the wicked to perform His “secret decree,” but what secret decree is Calvin discussing? I don’t read anywhere in God’s word of a secret decree for the wicked, and a public decree for the righteous!
Look at the case of David’s son Absalom; God decrees that one of David’s sons would commit incest because of David’s “secret” sin with Bathsheba (because David did not respect the marriage of his soldier, Uriah the Hittite). In this case, however, God decrees this to be because of His righteousness. In His just character, the Lord CANNOT allow sin to go unpunished.
So what does the Lord do in righteous judgment? He punishes sin by pronouncing tragedies of His own. But God here is not “causing” sin by pronouncing judgment: He is simply allowing the free will choice of the person (choice of sin) to have its proper effect—the person who “caused” the sin has to experience its effects, which are negative in nature.
This is the same with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve sinned, God pronounced judgment. For Adam, the punishments were intensive work and physical death (“you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” Gen.3). In addition, the ground was cursed because of Adam’s sin. The Lord allowed Adam and Eve’s sin to stand, for only sin comes from sin. Sin cannot lead to righteousness, and righteousness cannot lead to sin. But if sin is caused by human agents, then the only result is sin.
Because Adam and Eve chose sin, the only effects that could come from their sin were SINFUL in nature. The only good that came out of the Fall was the promise of God regarding His Son in Genesis 3:
15 I will put hostility between you and the woman,
and between your seed and her seed.
He will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15, Holman Christian Standard Bible)
This has been called “protoevangelium,” meaning “the first Gospel.” The seed of the woman (from the line of Eve would come forth the Messiah) would “strike” the head of the serpent (the serpent being called “The Devil” in Revelation 20:2—
2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan…” (Rev. 20:2, HCSB)
We see the protoevangelium reappear with Paul’s words to the Romans at the end of his letter:
19 The report of your obedience has reached everyone. (U) Therefore I rejoice over you. But I want you to be wise about what is good, yet innocent about what is evil.20 The God of peace (W) will soon crush Satan (X) under your feet. (Romans 16:19-20a, HCSB)
Notice that in Genesis 3, the seed of the woman would strike the head of the serpent; in Romans 16, “The God of peace” would crush “Satan.” We see the connection here between Genesis 3 and Romans 16. Out of all the tragedy that day in the Garden, would come forth the Lord Jesus, who would come to save the world from their sins (John 3:16).
Now, back to Calvin’s thought: God used tragedy in response to the evil choice of Adam and Eve; however, this was a fitting punishment: the punishment FIT the crime! So God cannot be said to “cause” evil here; if anyone is responsible for God wreaking havoc, it is those who choose to sin despite God’s warning. Since the crime has been done, God is acting as the Just Judge when He gives the sentence.
Calvin then gives the example of Shimei cursing David; and David tells his men to leave Shimei alone—because the LORD told Shimei to do it. I’ll publish the text of 2 Samuel 16 here:
5 When King David got to Bahurim, a man belonging to the family of the house of Saul was just coming out. His name was Shimei son of Gera, (C) and he was yelling curses as he approached. 6 He threw stones at David and at all the royal [c] servants, the people and the warriors on David's right and left. 7 Shimei said as he cursed: "Get out, get out, you worthless murderer! 8 The LORD has paid you back for all the blood of the house of Saul in whose place you rule, and the LORD has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. Look, you are in trouble because you're a murderer!" 9 Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said to the king, "Why should this dead dog (D) curse my lord the king? (E) Let me go over and cut his head off!" 10 The king replied, "Sons of Zeruiah, do we agree on anything? (F) He curses (G) [me] this way because the LORD [d] told him, 'Curse David!' Therefore, who can say, 'Why did you do that?' " 11 Then David said to Abishai and all his servants, "Look, my own son, my own flesh and blood, [e] intends to take my life (H) —how much more now this Benjaminite! Leave him alone and let him curse [me]; the LORD has told him to. 12 Perhaps the LORD will see my affliction [f] and restore goodness to me instead of Shimei's curses today." (2 Samuel 16:5-12, HCSB)
Now, first off, notice what Shimei is doing: he is cursing and throwing stones at David and his men. Notice that Shimei does this of his own free will; he is not forced to do it. However, let’s now look at what Shimei says:
“Get out, get out, you worthless MURDERER! THE LORD HAS PAID YOU BACK FOR ALL THE BLOOD OF THE HOUSE OF SAUL IN WHOSE PLACE YOU RULE, AND THE LORD HAS HANDED THE KINGDOM OVER TO YOUR SON ABSALOM. Look, you are in trouble because you’re a murderer!”
In other words, Shimei stated that David was suffering because he was a man who committed murder—someone who took the lives of others, innocent others. His slaughtering was the reason (according to Shimei) that he was suffering. David refuses to react because he knew it was true—and that truth comes from the Lord, REGARDLESS of what mouth (whether of a good or evil person) the truth comes from. Although the words are coming from the mouth of someone who is utterly disrespectful to the king (his authority) and shames him publicly, David realized that the Lord was declaring truth through this “wicked” vessel. Now, this does not absolve Shimei of his guilt: he still was wrong for cursing. However, David realized that God was using Shimei to “send him a message.” This is why David responded, “PERHAPS the Lord will see my affliction and RESTORE GOODNESS TO ME instead of Shimei’s curses today.”
With Shimei, the Lord operates according to Shimei’s will. We find him cursing, so we imagine that his character is not all that decent (cursing has NEVER been deemed a good thing!). However, the Lord doesn’t change Shimei’s disposition: Shimei is cursing because HE CHOOSES TO! Yet and still, God brings forth WORDS OF TRUTH (the Lord being “true”) from Shimei’s mouth.
Calvin wants to maintain that the individuals themselves are responsible; but this can ONLY be true IF God uses such wicked individuals ACCORDING TO THEIR WICKEDNESS (in other words, the individuals themselves REMAIN the PRIMARY CAUSE of their sin)!
And this brings back a definition that I have posted a couple of times here on the blog—the meaning of the word “RESPONSIBLE”:
b (1) : liable to be called to account as the primary cause, motive, or agent.
So someone who is responsible is the primary cause, the person who INITIATED or started the action or event. Humans who commit wicked acts, then, are RESPONSIBLE for them; God, then, affirms that person’s decision and brings about His purposes THROUGH THE DECISION OF THE INDIVIDUAL!
It is God who possesses ALL POWER! Nevertheless, God in His sovereignty gave man power over his decisions (free will). But think about it: God gave man only SOME power, a small amount compared to His own; but He did not give man ALL POWER! If God were to do so, then He would no longer be God. God did, however, grant man some small amount of power in the world. If God granted it to man, then man can NEVER possess more power than God…and man can NEVER possess power of such a magnitude that he could ever make a decision that DIDN’T fit under the umbrella of God’s sovereignty. As a result, even man’s evil choices fall WITHIN the providence of God. God can (and does) use them to bring glory to Himself.