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His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34–35)
HIS SOVEREIGNTY COVERS CALAMITIESThis was also Job’s final confession after God had spoken to him out of the whirlwind: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
This raises the question whether the evil and calamitous events in the world are also part of God’s sovereign design. Jeremiah looks over the carnage of
Jerusalem after its destruction and cries:
My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint in the streets of the city.
But when he looked to God, he could not deny the truth:
Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?
This was the reverent saying of God’s servant Job when he was afflicted with boils: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).
He said this even though the text says plainly that “Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores” (Job 2:7). Was Job wrong to attribute to God what came from Satan? No, because the writer tells us immediately after Job’s words: “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10).
The evil Satan causes is only by the permission of God. Therefore, Job is not wrong to see it as ultimately from the hand of God. It would be unbiblical and irreverent to attribute to Satan (or to sinful man) the power to frustrate the designs of God.
WHO PLANNED MURDER CHRIST?
THE OF The clearest example that even moral evil fits into the designs of God is the crucifixion of Christ. Who would deny that the betrayal of Jesus by Judas was a morally evil act?
Yet in Acts 2:23, Peter says, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” The betrayal was sin, but it was part of God’s ordained plan. Sin did not thwart His plan or stay His hand.
Or who would say that Herod’s contempt (Luke 23:11) or Pilate’s spineless expediency (Luke 23:24) or the Jews’ “Crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:21) or the Gentile soldiers’ mockery (Luke 23:36)—who would say that these were not
sin? Yet Luke, in Acts 4:27–28, records the prayer of the saints:
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.
People lift their hand to rebel against the Most High only to find that their rebellion is unwitting service in the wonderful designs of God. Even sin cannot frustrate the purposes of the Almighty. He Himself does not commit sin, but
He has decreed that there be acts that are sin,2 for the acts of Pilate and Herod were predestined by God’s plan.
GOD TURNS IT WHEREVER HE WILLSimilarly, when we come to the end of the New Testament and to the end of history in the Revelation of John, we find God in complete control of all the evil kings who wage war. In Revelation 17, John speaks of a harlot sitting on a beast with ten horns. The harlot is Rome, drunk with the blood of the saints; the beast is the Antichrist; and the ten horns are ten kings who “hand over their power and authority to the beast…[and] make war on the Lamb” (vv. 13–14).
But are these evil kings outside God’s control? Are they frustrating God’s designs? Far from it. They are unwittingly doing His bidding: “For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled” (Revelation 17:17). No one on earth can escape the sovereign control of God: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will” (Proverbs 21:1; cf. Ezra 6:22).
The evil intentions of men cannot frustrate the decrees of God. This is the point of the story of Joseph’s fall and rise in Egypt. His brothers sold him into slavery. Potiphar’s wife slandered him into the dungeon. Pharaoh’s butler forgot him in prison for two years. Where was God in all this sin and misery? Joseph answers in Genesis 50:20. He says to his guilty brothers, “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.” The hardened disobedience of men’s hearts leads not to the frustration of God’s plans, but to their fruition.
Consider the hardness of heart in Romans 11:25–26: “Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved.” Who is governing the coming and
2. For an explanation and defense of this statement, see appendix 3, “Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained That Evil Be? Jonathan Edwards on the Divine Decrees.”
THE HAPPINESS OF GOD
going of this hardness of heart so that it has a particular limit, and then gives way at the appointed time to the certain salvation of “all Israel”?
Or consider the disobedience in Romans 11:31. Paul speaks to his Gentile readers about Israel’s disobedience in rejecting their Messiah: “So they [Israel] too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they also may now receive mercy.” When Paul says that Israel was disobedient in order that Gentiles might get the benefits of the gospel, whose purpose does He have in mind?
It could only be God’s. For Israel certainly did not conceive of their disobedience as a way of blessing the Gentiles—or winning mercy for themselves in such a roundabout fashion! Is not then the point of Romans 11:31 that God rules over the disobedience of Israel and turns it precisely to the purposes He has planned?
THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS MERE COINCIDENCEGod’s sovereignty over men’s affairs is not compromised even by the reality of sin and evil in the world. It is not limited to the good acts of men or the pleasant events of nature. The wind belongs to God whether it comforts or whether it kills.
For I know that the LORD is great, and that our Lord is above all gods.
Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. (Psalm 135:5–7) In the end, one must finally come to see that if there is a God in heaven, there is no such thing as mere coincidence, not even in the smallest affairs of life: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33). Not one sparrow “will fall to the ground without your Father’s will” (Matthew 10:29, RSV).
they can cause upheavals of emotion and sleepless nights. This is far better than toying with academic ideas that never touch real life. The possibility at least exists that out of the upheavals will come a new era of calm and confidence.
It has happened for many of us the way it did for Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was a pastor and a profound theologian in New England in the early 1700s. He was a leader in the First Great Awakening. His major works still challenge great minds of our day. His extraordinary combination of logic and love make him a deeply moving writer. Again and again when I am dry and weak, I pull down my collection of Edwards’s works and stir myself up with one of his sermons.3
He recounts the struggle he had with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty:
From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.… It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God.… But never could I give an account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit in it;
but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections.
And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense.… I have often since had not only a conviction but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.4
3. The most accessible version of Edwards’s works is The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols., published both by Banner of Truth and Hendrickson. The complete works are being published in individual volumes by Yale University Press.
4. Jonathan Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” in Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, ed. C. H. Faust and T. H. Johnson (New York: Hill & Wang, 1962), 58–9.
THE HAPPINESS OF GOD
It is not surprising, then, that Jonathan Edwards struggled earnestly and deeply with the problem that stands before us now. How can we affirm the happiness of God on the basis of His sovereignty when much of what God permits in the world is contrary to His own commands in Scripture? How can we say God is happy when there is so much sin and misery in the world?
Edwards did not claim to exhaust the mystery here. But he does help us find a possible way of avoiding outright contradiction while being faithful to the Scriptures. To put it in my own words, he said that the infinite complexity of the divine mind is such that God has the capacity to look at the world through two lenses. He can look through a narrow lens or through a wideangle lens.
When God looks at a painful or wicked event through His narrow lens, He sees the tragedy of the sin for what it is in itself, and He is angered and grieved: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 18:32).
But when God looks at a painful or wicked event through His wide-angle lens, He sees the tragedy of the sin in relation to everything leading up to it and everything flowing out from it. He sees it in relation to all the connections and effects that form a pattern, or mosaic, stretching into eternity. This mosaic in all its parts—good and evil—brings Him delight.5
5. Edwards treats this problem by distinguishing two kinds of willing in God (which is implied in what I have said). God’s “will of command” (or revealed will) is what He commands in Scripture (Thou shalt not kill, etc.). His “will of decree” (or secret will, or sovereign will) is what He infallibly brings to pass in
the world. Edwards’s words are complex, but they are worth the effort if you love the deep things of God:
When a distinction is made between God’s revealed will and his secret will, or his will of command and decree, “will” is certainly in that distinction taken in two senses. His will of decree, is not his will in the same sense as his will of command is. Therefore, it is no difficulty at all to suppose, that the one may be otherwise than the other: his will in both senses is his inclination.
But when we say he wills virtue, or loves virtue, or the happiness of his creature; thereby is intended, that virtue, or the creature’s happiness, absolutely and simply considered, is agreeable to the inclination of his nature.
His will of decree is his inclination to a thing, not as to that thing absolutely and simply, but with respect to the universality of things, that have been, are, or shall be. So God, though he hates a thing as it is simply, may incline to it with reference to the universality of things. Though he hates sin in itself, yet he may will to permit it, for the greater promotion of holiness in this universality, including all things, and at all times. So, though he has no inclination to a creature’s misery, considered absolutely, yet he may will it, for the greater promotion of happiness in this universality.
Jonathan Edwards, “Concerning the Divine Decrees,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 527–8.
“IT WAS WILL LORD TO CRUSH HIM” THE OF THE For example, the death of Christ was the will and work of God the Father.
Isaiah writes, “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God.… It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (53:4, 10). Yet surely, as God the Father saw the agony of His beloved Son and the wickedness that brought Him to the cross, He did not delight in those things in themselves (viewed through the narrow lens). Sin in itself, and the suffering of the innocent, is abhorrent to God.
Nevertheless, according to Hebrews 2:10, God the Father thought it was fitting to perfect the Pioneer of our salvation through suffering. God willed what He abhorred. He abhorred it in the narrow-lens view, but not in the wide-angle view of eternity. When the universality of things was considered, the death of the Son of God was seen by the Father as a magnificent way to demonstrate His righteousness (Romans 3:25–26) and bring His people to glory (Hebrews 2:10) and keep the angels praising Him forever and ever (Revelation 5:9–13).