Best of JCM: Is God the Author of Sin in Calvinism?
I was shown that this is an error in Calvinist thought. I decided to leave it up anyway, and it proved to be a fairly popular post. It serves as a thought experiment: even if we are cosmic puppets and God pulls our strings, he still isn’t the reason for sin.
Frequently, we hear the charge leveled against Calvinism and its insistence on meticulous divine sovereignty that makes God the author of sin. The typical argument goes something like this:
- God foreordained all that happens in the world.
- Sin is part of this foreordained world.
- Therefore, God foreordained sin.
- Therefore, God is the author of sin.
Does this argument hold? I don’t think so.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul anticipated this objection to his position that God foreordained all things. He stated it thus:
Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (Rom 9:14-19)
Why does God make some people for sin, and others for glory? Is it not his will that the vessel do something–either sinning or glorifying God? Why does he then find fault with us if we sin? We are only doing his will!
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom 9:20-24)
But this is hardly a satisfying answer, no offense to the great apostle and philosopher. It is a good answer, but it is not a very satisfying one. God has every right over his clay (that is, us) to make some for honor and some for dishonor. You’ll get no arguments from me. But why does he still find fault with us?
The answer lies in the book of Proverbs. Proverbs 16:9 says “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” What this says to me is that thoughts are actually independent of God’s sovereign plan. This means that the one thing that we actually control in this scheme is not our actions, but our thoughts. God has control of our actions, either positively decreeing our steps or negatively allowing our steps to take place. Whatever we do, we are only doing his will.
Chapter IX, paragraph 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith agrees with me on that. We are endowed with a free will that is not forced. See also Chapter III, paragraph 1: “. . . nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures . . . .”
So what? We know that God has control of our steps, and we know that we have control of our thoughts. Where does this get us? Nowhere, until we define sin.
Is sin merely an action, or is it an attitude? C. Michael Patton expands on that here, but I’d like to chime in some biblical evidence for sin being not just an action but a state of mind.
Consider the Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord says:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. (Mt 5:21-22)
Note that the sin comes with the anger: an emotion, not the action of murder. But that isn’t the only example. Jesus also said:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mt 5:27-28)
Again, the sexual thoughts of another woman (other than your wife) are what make the sin, not the act of having relations with her.These passages highlight the fact that sin begins with the intention of the heart. It sounds a little like our Lord was drawing from Proverbs 21:2: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart.” What counts is the intent with which the action was performed, not the action itself. You have already committed the sin long before you perform any action.
We have made three points. First, that God determines every step you take. Second, you control your thoughts, not God. Third, stemming from the first and the second point, you commit sin by your thoughts long before you ever perform the action. This is a more satisfying answer to the dilemma of how God can decree a sin, but not be the author of it.
What can be done about this? Take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:5) by thinking on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil 4:8).