You Didn’t Just Ask That?!?! Addressing Difficult Theological Questions

God:  Old Man in the Sky, Dictator, or Distant Father?!

“He [God] is king, lord, sovereign, wise, good, and perfect in all his ways. The message of the Bible is that suffering has meaning, God is in control over it and over all else, and so life can be lived by faith in the infinitely wise and powerful God.” ~ Bruce Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, 216

I. Introduction

The sovereignty of God has been defined as “God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and painting the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 315). Such a definition raises several questions. Three particular questions we will address in this study pertain to humanity’s freewill, the existence of evil, and God’s providence. Philosophers and theologians have sought to explain this tension between these three categories by redefining God, freedom, and/or responsibility.

 

II. Key Questions

A. If God is sovereign, then does this not deny the reality of our ability to make choices and bring about real results?

Response: While God does cause all things to happen, He operates in such a manner that He upholds our ability to make willing, responsible choices—choices which are real and bear eternal implications.

    • There resides a mystery between the relationship of an infinite God with His creation. We need to be careful not to think of divine causation in much the same way as human causation (see I. H. Marshall in Grace Unliimited, 137-38).
    • Scripture affirms that God is involved in our lives prior to birth (Ps 139:16; Gal 1:15), our daily needs (Matt 6:11), our daily activities (Prov 20:24), our talents and abilities (1 Col 4:7), and our decision making processes (Prov 21:1).
    • We are still responsible for our actions. These actions have real results and can change the course of events (e.g., 2 Sam 10:12; James 4:2; John 16:24).
    • This tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility contains enough ambiguity to permit the conclusion that it is not necessarily logically contradictory (see D. A. Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility).

B. If God is sovereign, then why in Scripture does God seem to be unaware of future events/human choices? After all, aren’t God’s purposes more general and able to be
accomplished in a variety of ways?

Response: In God’s interaction with His creation, “God does not change in his essential nature, purposes, will, knowledge, or wisdom; but he does interact with his people in the experiences of their lives as these unfold in time. God actually enters into relationship with his people, while knowing from eternity all that they will face” (Ware, God’s Lesser Glory, 73).

    • Scripture often highlights a present and experiential reality that was already known fully and perfect by God previous to the action (e.g., Gen 22:12 in light of Gen 22:5; Rom 4:18-22; and Heb 11:19).
    • Scripture often utilizes anthropomorphic terminology (i.e., understood in common human ways of speaking that should be taken in a non-literalistic, manner) to describe the Lord (e.g., Gen 3:8-13).
    • Texts which suggest that God repents is not indicating that the Lord learned something new, but rather his awareness and choice to act accordingly may have been from eternity. One could also argue that the change is real only in a narrow sense as ultimately God carried out His broader purposes—plans designed from the outset (e.g., Exod 32).
    • Scripture clearly teaches that God does not change His mind (see 1 Sam 15:29 and Psalm 110:4). Texts which suggest the Lord alters His plans can be explained by the Hebrew grammar (e.g., decrees, such as Num 23:19; versus announcements, such as Jonah 3:4, 9-10). Old Testament scholar, Robert Chisholm, clearly demonstrates that if God has issued a decree, He will not change His mind. “However, the majority of God’s statements of intention are not decrees. And God can and often does deviate from such announcements” (“Does God Change His Mind?”, 388).
    • Scripture clearly teaches that God knows all the future, including all future contingencies and all future free choices and actions of His creatures (see Isa 41:21-29).
    • God’s providence ensures that He will carry out His plan in all things (e.g., Col 1:17; Eph 1:11). The fulfillment of various Old Testament prophecies only validates this claim.
    • No creature can thwart God’s plan. The Lord will perfectly and comprehensively perform His will (see Dan 4:34-35). His reputation is at stake!

 

C. If God is sovereign, then isn’t God ultimately responsible for evil in this world? Surely God’s will cannot include evil (e.g., eternal damnation).

Response: Scripture never indicates that God is directly doing anything evil or delights in evil. Rather, Scripture indicates that evil deeds result from willing actions of moral creatures; and that these creatures are without excuse.

    • The Lord can use evil actions for His purpose (see Gen 50:20; Exod 9:16; Rom 9:18). We must remember that the most evil act in history was for our salvation—the crucifixion of
      Christ (Acts 4:27)!

“A God who did not abolish suffering—worse, a God who abolished sin precisely by suffering—is a scandal to the modern mind.” ~ Peter Kreeft

Gen 50:20 – “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.”

    • The Lord brings evil and destruction on people in judgment upon their sins (e.g., Isa 10:5). As noted by one scholar, “God is glorified through the demonstration of his justice, holiness, and power (see Ex. 9:16; Rom 9:14-24)” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 326).
    • God is not the author of evil and is never to be blamed for it (James 1:13-14). Unbelievers will necessarily sin, but there is no compulsion forcing them to sin against their will.
    • God will ultimately judge evil. He is victorious (e.g., Book of Revelation).
    • Evil is never to be justified. “Sin must always be inexplicable. It is never the sensible, the rational, or the appropriate thing . . . we should not attempt to explain what God has not revealed to us” (R. Pyne, “Comfort within the Boundaries: Finding One’s Voice Regarding Evil,” www.Bible.org, 2001).

One scholar aptly concludes: “the problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 175).

III. Intersect

A.  No matter our situation, we needn’t be afraid. Rather, we need to trust in God. He is sovereign.

Matthew 10:29-31 –

“Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge . . . ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.” ~ John Calvin

B.  The terms “luck” or “chance” should be removed from our vocabulary. The universe is not governed by how the stars are aligned, karma, or fate, but rather, it is sovereignly governed by a personal God.

Romans 8:28 –

C.  The importance of prayer as a means to bring about definitive results should not be underestimated.

James 4:2 –

 

IV. Further Reading

Carson, D. A. Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002.
Chisholm, Jr., Robert, B. “Does God Change His Mind?” Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (October-December 1995): 367-99.
Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. Eds. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy. Glasgow: Paternoster
Press, 2002.
Feinberg, John A. No One Like Us: The Doctrine of God. Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.
Ware, Bruce A. God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism. Wheaton: Crossway, 2000.

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.” ~ William Cowper, 1774