Bible - General Questions

Is It Biblical to Say that God 'Permits' Man's Sinful Acts?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
The answer is Yes, but we must define the term "permit" Biblically.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

The answer is yes, but we must define the term "permit" Biblically. The key is to understand the Bible's teaching on God's sovereign permission of sinful acts within the scope of His eternal, unchangeable plan for all things.

November 2017 - The recent church shooting massacre in Texas raised a question among our readers that we have addressed before. I believe it is appropriate to discuss it again now. In the March 14-15, 2009 issue of The Profitable Word Weekend Edition, we published an article titled "Disturbing Initial Reaction to Church Shootings: 'We Thought It Was Part of a Skit' ". The article included the following statement: "To venture to say why God permitted these particular events to happen would be an indescribably sinful presumption."

We subsequently received an e-mail from a friend and supporter of this ministry who raises a very good question, and we can imagine that it may be on the minds of other readers as well:

I certainly agree with the hazard of second-guessing God, but I don't understand how "God" and "permitted" can be used in the same sentence. Although, to the eye of man, it would appear that we can orchestrate almost anything within our discovered capability (and we are fully responsible for those "bad tunes" that we orchestrate), the Scriptures seem to plainly indicate that God's sovereignty is 100 per cent active in all things. And, this is no veiled effort on my part to set up a "blame God" situation. No one in his right mind dare try to do that and expect to win.

Well said, and we could not agree more about God's sovereignty or its extent, or about man's responsibility for his sinful acts. And this is not just some esoteric detail of theology. This question goes to the very heart of what the Bible says about the nature of God - and how, and to what degree, He controls the universe He created.

2,400 Years of Discussion

Theologians have written thousands of pages on this question. The earliest record we have of such discussion is in the scribal commentaries on the Old Testament that developed in Israel beginning 2,400 years ago, after the return from the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. Debate and discussion have continued through the centuries.

In our day, the question of God's sovereignty is an area of theology where there is often more heat than light. Theological textbooks are full of terms such as "secondary causes" - "the liberty of indifference" - "contingency" - "determinism" - "necessary condition" - "concurrence" - "effectuation" - "ab extra influence" - and so on. Man (the theologian especially) is at his most inventive in creating terminology! Each new book adds words to the discussion, but rarely adds clarity. Even the best theology books (that is, the ones most faithful to Scripture) are often filled with such terms and their definitions. While theological terms can be useful when defined Biblically and employed judiciously, many times they can obscure Biblical truth.

Given all of this, attempting to answer our friend's excellent question within the space of a single article would seem an impossible task. But we believe we can and should make the attempt, by God's grace and by resorting to Scripture alone. We believe that brevity and clarity will be best served by letting Scripture speak for itself, and keeping the use of theological terminology to a minimum.

Approaching the Question

So, to summarize our friend's question: Is it Biblical to say that God "permits" man's sinful acts? Scripture makes three facts that bear upon this question abundantly clear.

First, the sovereign God of the universe has ordained in detail everything that has ever happened, is now happening, or will happen in the future, and that plan does not change in any manner or respect.

Second, our sovereign God is not in any sense the author of sin.

And third, God's sovereignty over all things extends even to the sinful acts of man and of Satan, for which man and Satan are nevertheless fully responsible.

Considering each of these points in turn from Scripture will lead us to the Biblical answer.

God Is Completely Sovereign

First, the sovereign God of the universe has ordained all things - everything that has ever happened, is now happening, or will happen in the future. And what God has ordained is unchangeable in any manner. Here are but a handful of the pertinent Scriptures:

In whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?...With Him are wisdom and strength, He has counsel and understanding. If He breaks a thing down, it cannot be rebuilt; if He imprisons a man, there can be no release. If He withholds the waters, they dry up; if He sends them out, they overwhelm the earth. With Him are strength and prudence. The deceived and the deceiver are His. He leads counselors away plundered, and makes fools of the judges. He loosens the bonds of kings, and binds their waist with a belt. He leads princes away plundered, and overthrows the mighty. He deprives the trusted ones of speech, and takes away the discernment of the elders. He pours contempt on princes, and disarms the mighty. He uncovers deep things out of darkness, and brings the shadow of death to light. He makes nations great, and destroys them; He enlarges nations, and guides them. (Job 12:10-23)

The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations. (Psalm 33:11)

There are many plans in a man's heart, nevertheless the Lord's counsel - that will stand. (Proverbs 19:21)

A man's steps are of the Lord; how then can a man understand his own way? (Proverbs 20:24)

There is no wisdom or understanding or counsel against the Lord. (Proverbs 21:30)

The Lord of hosts has sworn, saying, "Surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, and as I have purposed, so it shall stand." (Isaiah 14:24)

For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back? (Isaiah 14:27)

Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, "My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it." (Isaiah 46:10-11)

Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:29-30)

In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will. (Ephesians 1:11)

Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel [i.e., the fact that it is unchangeable], confirmed it by an oath. (Hebrews 6:17)

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. (James 1:17)

God Is Not the Author of Sin

However, God's sovereignty does not mean that He is in any sense the author of sin. Scripture also makes this clear, as we see once again from just a few of the pertinent passages:

For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, nor shall evil dwell with You. (Psalm 5:4)

Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. (James 1:13)

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)

God's Sovereignty Encompasses Man's Sinful Acts

Thirdly, God's sovereignty over all things extends even to the sinful acts of man and of Satan, for which man and Satan are nevertheless fully responsible. The prophet Habakkuk acknowledged this, even while asking a question that is often upon our hearts:

You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he? (Habakkuk 1:13)

Three familiar examples will suffice to show God's complete sovereignty over sinful acts.

Our first example is the account of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis chapters 37 through 50. Out of envy Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, and they established a cover-up that would deceive their father Jacob into thinking that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. But God preserved Joseph through severe trials and raised him up to be governor of Egypt. God did this so that the fledgling nation of Israel might be saved from famine, and so that the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham concerning Israel's captivity and subsequent deliverance (Genesis 15:13-16) could be set into motion. Joseph himself understood that the sovereign God had used even the sin of his brothers for His glorious purpose: "But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive." (Genesis 50:20).

A second example is the account of God's dealings with Job. God first gave Satan permission to destroy Job's possessions but not to touch Job himself (Job 1:6-18) and then later to destroy his health but not to take his life (Job 2:1-8). Likewise, when the legion of demons possessing the man of Gadara "begged [Jesus] earnestly that He would not send them out of the country" and said, "Send us to the swine, that we may enter them," the sovereign Lord "gave them permission" (Mark 5:10-13).

In a similar vein, the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian church to "deliver to Satan" the one among them who is engaging in deep sexual immorality "for the destruction of the flesh, in order that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians 5:4 - and we find in 2 Corinthians 2:1-11 that this individual did subsequently repent and was to be restored to the fellowship). And in his letter to Timothy Paul spoke similarly of "Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:20). God uses even the consummately evil workings of Satan to accomplish His sovereign purposes.

A third example is the death of the Son of God for sin. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter declares: "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know - Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it" (Acts 2:22-24).

The Jews and Romans committed the most heinous sin in the history of the universe - and it was part of God's determined and foreordained plan. And as the early believers prayed for boldness in the face of persecution, they prayed with the understanding that the evil being done to them was part of God's sovereign plan, just as the evil done to Christ Himself had been: "For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done" (Acts 4:27-28).

Yet Scripture declares that man is fully responsible for his sin. The passage we quoted from James above is followed by a telling statement: "Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed" (James 1:13-14).

Other Scriptures affirm this:

They conceive trouble and bring forth futility; their womb prepares deceit. (Job 15:35)

Behold, the wicked brings forth iniquity; yes, he conceives trouble and brings forth falsehood. He made a pit and dug it out, and has fallen into the ditch which he made. His trouble shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down on his own crown. (Psalm 7:14-16)

Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue has muttered perversity. No one calls for justice, nor does any plead for truth. They trust in empty words and speak lies; they conceive evil and bring forth iniquity. (Isaiah 59:1-4)

In What Sense Does God "Permit"?

In what sense, then, may we say that the sovereign God "permitted" such evil acts as we find in the pages of Scripture, or acts such as the church shootings in Texas and Illinois which we discussed in our article mentioned above?

First, we can say on sound Biblical grounds what it does not mean. Many well-meaning Bible teachers attempt to set up a supposed distinction between God's "perfect will" and God's "permissive will." The alleged difference is that God has a perfect plan, but He will permit men to make choices that are outside His perfect plan. But this is a false dichotomy - one that Scripture, as we have seen, does not support.

God has one detailed, perfect, and unchangeable plan for all things, the ultimate purpose of which is God's own eternal glory. Man's sin does not in any sense thwart or change the plan of God. It is part of that plan. This is a difficult concept for many Christians, to say nothing of unbelievers. The Fall of Adam did not cause God to adopt a "Plan B" for the salvation of man. The Fall of Adam and the human race's subsequent descent into sin was part of God's eternal plan from before the foundation of the world.

Since every thought and act of man is tainted with sin (Genesis 6:5, Genesis 8:21, Psalm 14:1-3), it is simply impossible to say that God is sovereign and has an unchangeable plan for all things, without saying that man's sin is integral to His eternal plan. Otherwise, we would have to say that no act of man is part of the perfect plan of God.

But this does not make God the author of sin. He sovereignly permits sinful man to do what sinful man by his fallen nature wills to do. Romans 1:18-32 bears this out. The Holy Spirit uses the same Greek word, paradidomi, three times. Paul tells us that because of what mankind is by nature because of the Fall, God "gave them up to uncleanness" (1:24); He "gave them up to vile passions" (1:26); and He "gave them over to a reprobate mind" (1:28).

But God's permission of man's sin is not a mere permission - one that allows man (or Satan) to do any thing, or make any choice, that is in any sense outside of God's sovereign and unchangeable decree. God's permission of man's sin is an efficacious permission - for the accomplishment of His eternal purpose. "The Lord hath made all things for Himself; yea, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Proverbs 16:4).

"Does This Offend You?"

When Jesus taught such things during His earthly ministry, "many of His disciples...said, 'This is a hard saying; who can understand it?' When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, 'Does this offend you?...The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe' " (John 6:60-61).

Our natural tendency is to be offended by these truths, and not to believe. They are indeed "hard sayings" to our finite minds. But when God confronts us with such hard sayings, may we bow the knee before the authority of the Word of God, which tells us clearly that these things are so. Believing these things does not mean embracing a "Biblical paradox" in any sense. God is not the author of paradox any more than He is the author of sin. Believing these things means believing the God who says them, who is absolutely consistent in everything He says and does. May we trust in the One whose wisdom and knowledge are deep and rich beyond measure, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose ways are past finding out (Romans 11:33).


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