Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hands of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wishes.” In reference to this passage, Dr. John Piper, a notable Calvinistic pastor and author writes,
“What is apparent here is that God has the right and the power to restrain the sins of secular rulers. When he does, it is his will to do it. And when he does not, it is his will not to. Which is to say that sometimes God wills that their sins be restrained and sometimes he wills that they increase more than if he restrained them.” – John Piper
This is a common teaching among Calvinistic pastors and apologists. But, if God has indeed “brought all things to pass by His unchangeable decree,” as Calvinists often teach, then what is it in the heart of this ruler that God is restraining if not His own “unchangeable decree?” In other words, hasn’t God merely restrained the very intention He unchangeably decreed?
Suppose the ruler, referenced in Proverbs 21, wanted to rape his servant and God restrained him from this heinously evil intention. From where did this evil intention originate? Didn’t God “sovereignly bring about” the evil desire of this ruler to rape his servant by the same “sovereign control” that He restrained the ruler from acting upon that desire? How is God not merely restraining His own determinations in a world where there is no autonomously free creatures?
Affirming God’s power and ability to overrule the will of morally accountable creatures does not prove that God sovereignly brings to pass every intention and desire of their will. Just because I have the physical ability to force my child to eat her lunch or restrain her from eating her lunch does not prove that I use that ability every time my child eats or refrains from eating. And choosing not to use my physical ability to force or restrain my child does not prove I am weak and incapable of doing so. It only proves that I can do as I please with regard to my child. It does not prove that I am pleased to physically control my child’s every move.
Moreover, if my daughter doesn’t have a will distinctly separate from my own, then what am I restraining when I physically keep her from eating? There is nothing to restrain or compel if there is not an autonomous will with which to contend.
So too, affirming God’s ability to restrain or permit man’s will to do what God pleases does not negate the concept of man’s contra-causal free will, but in fact confirms it. For what is there for God to restrain or permit outside His own will if man’s will is not autonomously free from His own? It is non-sensical to suggest God is restraining a will that He has already been meticulously controlling.
Sovereignty must be understood as God’s ability to do whatsoever He is pleased to do (Ps. 115:3), even if He is pleased to give the world over to man’s dominion (Ps. 115:16).
“Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” (vs. 3)
“The highest heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth he has given to man.” (vs. 16)
Scripture never conveys the concept of “Divine Sovereignty” as God’s meticulous deterministic control over how His creatures choose to rule the world. In fact, Paul indicates quite the opposite when he instructs the church in Ephesus saying,
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12)
OTHER PASSAGES TO CONSIDER
In reference in Isaiah 10, Calvinistic apologist, Dr. James White argues:
“In one passage we have God’s holy intention of judging His people through the means of Assyria—yet God holds Assyria accountable for her sinful attitudes in being so used! God judges them on the basis of their intentions, and since they come against Israel with a haughty attitude that does not recognize God’s power and authority, they too are judged. This is compatibilism with clarity: God uses the sinful actions of the Assyrians for the good purpose of judging His people, and yet He judges the Assyrians for their sinful intentions. God’s action in His sovereignty is perfectly compatible with the responsible, and culpable, actions of sinful men.” -James White
Traditionalists, like myself, would agree that God used the evil intentions of the Assyrians to bring judgement on Israel. However, we do not believe that God “sovereignly brought about” those evil intentions. Thus, our view does not bring God’s Holiness into question or create issues with the concept of Divine culpability.
God’s wrath is often depicted in scripture as God’s permitting the natural consequences of moral evil, which is not a problem in a worldview where the moral evil is brought to pass by someone other than God. God’s wrath can literally be described as God separating Himself from us so that we experience the natural consequences of our free moral actions.
That is what we see happening in Isaiah 10. Instead of protecting Israel from Assyria (which He promised to do if they remained obedient), God removes His hand of protection and PERMITS the Assyrians to follow their own free and autonomous wills. God does not cause or bring about the evil intentions of the Assyrians, so He is perfectly just to judge them for their rebellious action despite the fact that God USED their rebellion to accomplish divine judgement on Israel for their disobedience.
Would Calvinists have us believe God “sovereignly brought about” the disobedience of the Israelites and the Assyrians so as to use the Assyrian’s disobedient actions to judge the Israelite’s disobedient actions? What would be the point in that?
Traditionalists do affirm that God may use the free rebellious actions of some to bring about the discipline or judgement of others. But we vehemently reject the notion that our thrice Holy God “brings about” the rebellion of morally free creatures. This is not true of most Calvinistic scholars, as evidenced on John Piper’s web site:
“God . . . brings about all things in accordance with his will. In other words, it isn’t just that God manages to turn the evil aspects of our world to good for those who love him; it is rather that he himself brings about these evil aspects for his glory (see Ex. 9:13-16; John 9:3) and his people’s good (see Heb. 12:3-11; James 1:2-4). This includes—as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem—God’s having even brought about the Nazis’ brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child…” (Link)— Mark R. Talbot, “’All the Good That Is Ours in Christ’: Seeing God’s Gracious Hand in the Hurts Others Do to Us,” in John Piper and Justin Taylor (eds.), Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 31-77 (quote from p. 42).
So while the Traditionalist affirm’s God’s ability to merely permit or restrain moral evil, the consistent Calvinist cannot. This is why John Calvin argued,
“…how foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be, not by His will but by His permission…It is a quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely permits them, when Scripture shows Him not only willing, but the author of them…” (John Calvin, “Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God” tran. Reid, 10:ii) –also see quote at the bottom of this page
Yet, in his pastoral ministry, John Calvin did speak of divine permission when providing comfort to a grieving parishioner (as discussed in detail HERE). Other more “moderate” (some may prefer “inconsistent”) Calvinists also speak of divine permission as a way to lesson the blow of their system’s claims. But, one must wonder, what exactly is God permitting if not His own determinations?
How does one speak rationally of God’s permission and restraint of moral evil if there is nothing to permit or restrain but His own sovereign determinations?
Piper references some New Testament examples in support of his belief that “God brings about all things in accordance with his will,”
“The New Testament saints seemed to live in the calm light of an overarching sovereignty of God concerning all the details of their lives and ministry. Paul expressed himself like this with regard to his travel plans. On taking leave of the saints in Ephesus he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” (Acts 18:21). To the Corinthians he wrote, “I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills” (1 Corinthians 4:19). And again, “I do not want to see you now just in passing; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits” (1 Corinthians 16:7).” -John Piper
Is Paul’s admission that God might overrule his plans proof that Paul doesn’t believe he has an autonomous will of his own? If a child says to his neighborhood friend, “I will come over to your house later today, if my parents will let me,” does that in anyway suggest that his desire to come over is caused or controlled by the parents? Of course not. If anything, the statement establishes the clear distinction between the child’s will and the parent’s will.
Would Piper have us believe that God sovereignly decreed Paul’s desire to return to Ephesus only to sovereignly step in and thwart His own decree? These passages do not disprove that Paul has an autonomous free will, quite the opposite. Paul is contrasting his free will with God’s free will by showing that God’s will can always overrule his own. He is not suggesting his own will is somehow determined by Gods. If that were the case it would make no sense for God to intervene to thwart Paul’s will, for He would just be thwarting Himself.
Within the compatibilist’s framework there is no such thing as what the human really wants to do in a given situation, considered somehow apart from God’s desire in the matter (i.e., God’s desire as to what the human agent will desire). In the compatibilist scheme, human desire is wholly derived from and wholly bound to the divine desire. God’s decree encompasses everything, even the desires that underlie human choices.
This is a critical point, because it undercuts the plausibility of the compatibilist’s argument that desire can be considered the basis for human culpability. Ascribing culpability to humanity simply because they are ‘doing what they want to do,’ appears plausible only because it subtly evokes a sense of independence or ownership on the part of the human agent for his or her choices.
But once we recognize (as we must within the larger deterministic framework encompassing compatibilism) that those very desires of the agent are equally part of the environment that God causally determines, then the line between environment and agent becomes blurred if not completely lost. The human agent no longer can be seen as owning his own choices, for the desires determining those choices are in no significant sense independent of God’s decree.
For this reason, I feel human desire within the compatibilist framework forms an insufficient basis on which to establish the autonomy of human freedom and from this the legitimacy of human culpability for sin. Even John Calvin recognized this problem within the claims of his systematic:
“How it was ordained by the foreknowledge and decree of God what man’s future was without God being implicated as associate in the fault as the author or approver of transgression, is clearly a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind, that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance…. I daily so meditate on these mysteries of his judgments that curiosity to know anything more does not attract me.” – John Calvin
The story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers is often referenced by Calvinists as a proof text for God’s determination of evil choices (which we discuss more fully HERE).
Calvinistic apologist, Dr. James White, expounds:
“One sinful action (the betrayal and sale of Joseph into slavery) is in view: Joseph’s brothers meant their actions for evil. But in direct parallel, God meant the same action for good. Due to the intention of the hearts of Joseph’s brothers, the action in the human realm was evil. The very same action as part of God’s eternal decree was meant for good, for by it God brought about His purpose and plan. One action, two intentions, compatible in all things. Joseph’s brothers were accountable for their intentions; God is to be glorified for His.” -James White
White also argues in another work:
HERE we learned that many Calvinists do not believe things come to pass by bare permission. (God passively allowing for an autonomous creature to act freely)
Below is a quote from John Calvin discussing the “distinction has been invented between doing and permitting.”
“FROM other passages, in which God is said to draw or bend Satan himself, and all the reprobate, to his will, a more difficult question arises. For the carnal mind can scarcely comprehend how, when acting by their means, he contracts no taint from their impurity, nay, how, in a common operation, he is exempt from all guilt, and can justly condemn his own ministers. Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting, because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that he directs their malice to whatever end he pleases, and employs their iniquities to execute his judgments. The modesty of those who are thus alarmed at the appearance of absurdity might perhaps be excused, did they not endeavour to vindicate the justice of God from every semblance of stigma by defending an untruth. It seems absurd that man should be blinded by the will and command of God, and yet be forthwith punished for his blindness. Hence, recourse is had to the evasion that this is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that he does this, repudiates the evasion. That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on any thing but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture. What we formerly quoted from the Psalms, to the effect that he does whatever pleases him, certainly extends to all the actions of men. If God is the arbiter of peace and war, as is there said, and that without any exception, who will venture to say that men are borne along at random with a blind impulse, while He is unconscious or quiescent? But the matter will be made clearer by special examples. From the first chapter of Job we learn that Satan appears in the presence of God to receive his orders, just as do the angels who obey spontaneously. The manner and the end are different, but still the fact is, that he cannot attempt anything without the will of God. But though afterwards his power to afflict the saint seems to be only a bare permission, yet as the sentiment is true, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; as it pleased the Lord, so it hath been done,” we infer that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and wicked robbers were merely the instruments. Satan’s aim is to drive the saint to madness by despair. The Sabeans cruelly and wickedly make a sudden incursion to rob another of his goods. Job acknowledges that he was deprived of all his property, and brought to poverty, because such was the pleasure of God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself devise, God holds the helm, and makes all their efforts contribute to the execution of his judgments. God wills that the perfidious Ahab should be deceived; the devil offers his agency for that purpose, and is sent with a definite command to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets, (2 Kings 22:20) If the blinding and infatuation of Ahab is a judgment from God, the fiction of bare permission is at an end; for it would be ridiculous for a judge only to permit, and not also to decree, what he wishes to be done at the very time that he commits the execution of it to his ministers. The Jews purposed to destroy Christ. Pilate and the soldiers indulged them in their fury; yet the disciples confess in solemn prayer that all the wicked did nothing but what the hand and counsel of God had decreed, (Acts 4:28) just as Peter had previously said in his discourse, that Christ was delivered to death by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, (Acts 2:23) in other words, that God, to whom all things are known from the beginning, had determined what the Jews had executed. He repeats the same thing elsewhere, “Those things, which God before had showed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled,” (Acts 3:18.) Absalom incestuously defiling his father’s bed, perpetrates a detestable crime. God, however, declares that it was his work; for the words are, “Thou didst it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”1 The cruelties of the Chaldeans in Judea are declared by Jeremiah to be the work of God. For which reason, Nebuchadnezzar is called the servant of God. God frequently exclaims, that by his hiss, by the clang of his trumpet, by his authority and command, the wicked are excited to war. He calls the Assyrian the rod of his anger, and the axe which he wields in his hand. The overthrow of the city, and downfall of the temple, he calls his own work. David, not murmuring against God, but acknowledging him to be a just judge, confesses that the curses of Shimei are uttered by his orders. “The Lord,” says he, “has bidden him curse.” Often in sacred history whatever happens is said to proceed from the Lord, as the revolt of the ten tribes, the death of Eli’s sons, and very many others of a similar description. Those who have a tolerable acquaintance with the Scriptures see that, with a view to brevity, I am only producing a few out of many passages, from which it is perfectly clear that it is the merest trifling to substitute a bare permission for the providence of God, as if he sat in a watch-tower waiting for fortuitous events, his judgments meanwhile depending on the will of man.” (Institutes, Book 1, Chapter XVIII, Para. 1)