– Jonathan Edwards on the Divine Decrees –
Desiring God by John Piper
Fourteen years ago, Charles Colson wrote, “The western church—much of
it drifting, enculturated, and infected with cheap grace—desperately
needs to hear Edwards’ challenge.… It is my belief that the prayers and
work of those who love and obey Christ in our world may yet prevail as they
keep the message of such a man as Jonathan Edwards.”2 That conviction lies
behind my life, my ministry, and this book. And I certainly believe it.
Most of us, having only been exposed to one of Edwards’s sermons,
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” do not know the real Jonathan
Edwards. We don’t know that he knew his heaven even better than his hell and that his vision of the glory of God was just as ravishing as his vision of hell was repulsive—as it should be.
1. A previous version of this essay was read at the 1998 conference of The Jonathan Edwards Institute.
2. Charles Colson, “Introduction,” in Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 1984), xxiii, xxxiv.
Most of us don’t know
•that he is considered now, by secular and evangelical historians alike,
the greatest religious thinker America has ever produced
• that he was not only God’s kindling for the Great Awakening in the
1730s and 1740s, but also its most penetrating analyst and critic
• that he was driven by a great longing to see the missionary task of the
church completed and that his influence on the modern missionary
movement is immense because of his Life of David Brainerd
• that he was a rural pastor for twenty-three years in a church of six hundred
• that he was a missionary to native Americans for seven years after being
asked to leave his church
• that together with Sarah he reared eleven faithful children
• that he lived only to fifty-four
• and died with a library of only three hundred books
• that his own books are still ministering mightily after 250 years—but
not as mightily as they should.
Mark Noll, who teaches history at Wheaton College and has thought much
about the work of Edwards, has written:
Since Edwards, American evangelicals have not thought about life from
the ground up as Christians because their entire culture has ceased to do
3. Mark Noll, “Jonathan Edwards’ Moral Philosophy, and the Secularization of American Christian Thought,” Reformed Journal (February 1983): 26, emphasis added. Noll summarized Edwards’s unusual juxtapositions in another place:
Although his biography presents many dramatic contrasts, these were in reality only different facets of a common allegiance to a sovereign God. Thus, Edwards both preached ferocious hellfire sermons and expressed lyrical appreciations of nature because the God who created the world in all its beauty was also perfect in holiness. Edwards combined herculean intellectual labors with child-like piety because he perceived God as both infinitely complex and blissfully simple. In his Northampton church his consistent exaltation of divine majesty led to very different results—he was first lionized as a great leader and then dismissed from his pulpit. Edwards held that the omnipotent deity required repentance and faith from his human creatures so he proclaimed both the absolute sovereignty of God and the urgent responsibilities of men.
(Caption under Edwards’s portrait in Christian History 4, no. 4, p. 3).
so. Edwards’s piety continued on in the revivalist tradition, his theology
continued on in academic Calvinism, but there were no successors to
his God-entranced world-view or his profoundly theological philosophy.
The disappearance of Edwards’s perspective in American Christian history
has been a tragedy.3
One of the burdens of this book, and certainly one of the burdens of my
life, is the recovery of a “God-entranced world-view.” But what I have seen in more than twenty years of pastoral ministry and six years of teaching experience before that is that people who waver with uncertainty over the problem of God’s sovereignty in the matter of evil usually do not have a God-entranced worldview. For them, now God is sovereign, and now He is not. Now He is in control, and now He is not. Now, when things are going well, He is good and reliable, and when they go bad, well, maybe He’s not. Now He’s the supreme authority of the universe, and now He is in the dock with human prosecutors peppering Him with demands that He give an account of Himself.
But when a person settles it biblically, intellectually, and emotionally—
that God has ultimate control of all things, including evil, and that this is
gracious and precious beyond words—then a marvelous stability and depth
come into that person’s life, and he develops a “God-entranced world-view.”
When a person believes, with the Heidelberg Catechism (Question 27), that
“the almighty and everywhere present power of God…upholds heaven and
earth, with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and
drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness,
riches and poverty, yea, all things, come not by chance, but by his fatherly
hand”—when a person believes and cherishes that truth, he has the key to a
So my aim in this appendix is to commend to you this absolute sovereign
control of God over all things, including evil, because it is biblical and because it will help you become stable and deep and God-entranced and God-glorifying in all you think and feel and do.
And when we set our face in this direction, Jonathan Edwards becomes a
great help to us because he wrestled with the problems of God’s sovereignty
as deeply as anyone. And I want you to know how he resolved some of the
So my plan is to lay out for you some of the evidence for God’s control of
all things, including evil. Then I will deal with two problems:
1. Is God then the author of sin?
2. And why does He will that there be evil in the world?
I will close with an exhortation that you not waver before the truth of God’s
sovereignty, but embrace it for the day of your own calamity.
1. EVIDENCE OF GOD’S CONTROL
First, then, consider the evidence that God controls all things, including evil. When I speak of evil, I have two kinds in mind, natural and moral. Natural evil we usually refer to as calamities: hurricanes, floods, disease—all the natural ways that death and misery strike. Moral evil we usually refer to as sin: murder, lying, adultery, stealing—all the ways that people rebel against God and fail to love each other. So what we are considering here is that God rules the world in such a way that all calamities and all sin remain in His ultimate control and therefore within His ultimate design and purpose.
An increasingly popular movement afoot today is called “open theism,”
which denies that God has exhaustive, definite foreknowledge of the entire
future.4 The denial of God’s foreknowledge of human and demonic choices is a buttress to the view that God is not in control of evils in the world and therefore has no purpose in them. God’s uncertainty about what humans and demons are going to choose strengthens the case that He does not plan those choices and therefore does not control them or have particular purposes in
4. For responses to this dangerous theology, see Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000); John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2001); and Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, ed. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2003).
For example, Gregory Boyd, in his book God at War, says, “Divine goodness
does not completely control or in any sense will evil.”5
Neither Jesus nor his disciples seemed to understand God’s absolute
power as absolute control. They prayed for God’s will to be done on
earth, but this assumes that they understand that God’s will was not
yet being done on earth (Mt. 6:10). Hence neither Jesus nor his disciples
assumed that there had to be a divine purpose behind all
events in history. Rather, they understood the cosmos to be populated
by a myriad of free agents, some human, some angelic, and
many of them evil. The manner in which events unfold in history
was understood to be as much a factor of what these agents individually
and collectively will as it was a matter of what God himself
In other words: “The Bible does not assume that every particular evil has a
particular godly purpose behind it.”7 Or as John Sanders puts it:
God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence
of evil.… When a two-month-old child contracts a painful,
incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless
evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. The rape and dismemberment of a
young girl is pointless evil. The accident that caused the death of my
brother was a tragedy. God does not have a specific purpose in mind
for these occurrences.8
5. Gregory Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1997), 20, emphasis added.
6. Ibid., 53.
7. Ibid., 166.
8. John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1998),
9. Amazingly, Boyd thinks that Job’s theology is incorrect here, though his heart was in the right place. He
writes, “Yahweh commends Job for speaking truth from his heart.… But this is not the same as endorsing
Job’s theology.” Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2001), 404, emphasis added. But surely when God says that “in all this Job did not sin with his lips,” the point is not merely that his heart was in the right place, but rather that his words—from his lips—were pleasing to God.
This is diametrically opposed to what I believe the Bible teaches and what
this message is meant to commend to you for your earnest consideration.
1.1 EVIDENCE THAT GOD CONTROLS CALAMITY
Consider the evidence that God controls physical evil—that is, calamity. But
keep in mind that physical evil and moral evil almost always intersect. Many of our pains happen because human or demonic agents make choices that hurt us. So some of this evidence can serve under both headings: God’s control of calamities and God’s control of sins.
Life and Death
The Bible treats human life as something God has absolute rights over. He gives it and takes it according to His will. We do not own it or have any absolute rights to it. It is a trust for as long as the owner wills for us to have it. To have life is a gift and to lose it is never an injustice from God, whether He takes it at age five or at age ninety-five.
When Job lost his ten children at the instigation of Satan, he would not
give Satan the ultimate causality. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s
womb, and naked I shall return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). And, lest we think Job was mistaken, the author adds, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (v. 22). “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10).9
In Deuteronomy 32:39, God says, “There is no god beside me; I kill and I
make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my
hand.” When David made Bathsheba pregnant, the Lord rebuked him by taking the child: Second Samuel 12:15, 18 says, “The LORD afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick.… On the seventh day the child died.” Life belongs to God. He owes it to no one. He may give it and take it according to His infinite wisdom. James says, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring.… For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.… You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:14–15; see 1 Samuel 2:6–7).
One of the calamities that threatens life is disease. When Moses was fearful
about speaking, God said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes
him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Exodus 4:11). In other words, behind all disease and disability is the ultimate will of God. Not that Satan is not involved—he is probably always involved in one way or another with destructive purposes (Acts 10:38). But his power is not decisive. He cannot act without God’s permission.
That is one of the points of Job’s sickness. The text makes it plain that when
disease came upon Job, “Satan…struck Job with loathsome sores” (Job 2:7). His wife urged him to curse God. But Job said, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (v. 10). And again the author of the book commends Job by saying, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” In other words: This is a right view of God’s sovereignty over Satan. Satan is real and may have a hand in our calamities, but not the final hand, and not the decisive hand. James makes clear that God had a good purpose in all Job’s afflictions: “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose (telos) of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). So Satan may have been involved, but the ultimate purpose was God’s, and it was “compassionate and merciful.”
This is the same lesson we learn from 2 Corinthians 12:7, where Paul says
that his thorn in the flesh was a messenger of Satan and yet was given for the
purpose of his own holiness: “To keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!” (NASB). Now, humility is not Satan’s purpose in this affliction. Therefore, the purpose is God’s. Which means that here Satan is being used by God to accomplish His good purposes in Paul’s life.
There is no reason to believe that Satan is ever out of God’s ultimate control.
Mark 1:27 says of Jesus, “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they
obey him.” And Luke 4:36 says, “With authority and power he commands the
10. Isaac Watts, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” verse 3.
unclean spirits, and they come out!” In other words, no matter how real and
terrible Satan and his demons are in this world, they remain subordinate to the ultimate will of God.
Another kind of calamity that threatens life and health is violent weather and conditions of the earth, like earthquakes and floods and monsoons and hurricanes and tornadoes and droughts. These calamities kill hundreds of thousands of people. The testimony of the Scriptures is that God controls the winds and the weather. “He summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread” (Psalm 105:16). We see this same authority in Jesus. He rebukes the threatening wind and the sea, and the disciples say, “Even wind and the sea obey him” (Mark 4:41).
Repeatedly in the Psalms, God is praised as the One who rules the wind and
the lightening. “He makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire”
(104:4). He “makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his
storehouses” (135:7). “He makes his wind blow and the waters flow.… Fire and hail, snow and mist; stormy wind fulfilling his word!” (147:18; 148:8; cf. 78:26). Isaac Watts was right: “There’s not a plant or flower below but makes your glories known; and clouds arise and tempests blow by order from your throne.”10 Which means that all the calamities of wind and rain and flood and storm are owing to God’s ultimate decree. One word from Him and the wind and the seas obey.
Another kind of calamity that threatens life is the action of destructive animals. When the Assyrians populated Samaria with foreigners, 2 Kings 17:25 says, “Therefore the LORD sent lions among them, which killed some of them.” And in Daniel 6:22, Daniel says to the king, “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths.” Other Scriptures speak of God commanding birds and bears and
11. See R. C. Sproul, Not a Chance: The Myth of Chance in Modern Science and Cosmology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1994). As he says, “If chance is, God is not. If God is, chance is not. The two cannot coexist by reason of the impossibility of the contrary” (p. 3).
donkeys and large fish to do His bidding. Which means that all calamities owing to animal life are ultimately in the control of God. He can see a pit bull break loose from his chain and attack a child; and He could, with one word, command that its mouth be shut. Similarly, He controls the invisible animal and plant life that wreaks havoc in the world: bacteria and viruses and parasites and thousands of microscopic beings that destroy health and life. If God can shut the mouth of a ravenous lion, then He can shut the mouth of a malaria-carrying mosquito and nullify the harmful effects of every other animal that kills.
All Other Kinds of Calamities
Other kinds of calamities could be mentioned, but perhaps we should simply
hear the texts that speak in sweeping inclusiveness about God’s control covering them all. In Isaiah 45:7 God says, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these.” Amos 3:6 says, “Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?” In Job 42:2, Job confesses, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” Nebuchadnezzar says (in Daniel 4:35), “[God] 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?’” And Paul
12. Commenting on Proverbs 16:33, Charles Bridges writes:
The instructive lesson to learn is that there is no blank in the most minute circumstances. Things, not only apparently contingent, but depending upon a whole train of contingencies, are exactly fulfilled. The name of a King (1 Kings 13:2), or of a deliverer (Isaiah 44:28), is declared many hundred years before their existence—before therefore it could be known to any—save the Omniscient Governor of the universe—whether such persons would exist. The falling of a hair or a sparrow is directed, no less than the birth and death of princes, or the revolutions of empires (Matthew 10: 29–30). Everything is a wheel of Providence. Who directed the Ishmaelites on their journey to Egypt at the very moment that Joseph was cast into the pit (Genesis 37:25)? Who guided Pharaoh’s daughter to the stream, just when the ark, with its precious deposit, was committed to the water (Exodus 2:3–5)? What gave Ahasuerus a sleepless night, that he might be amused with the records of his Kingdom (Esther 6:1)? Who prepared the whale at the very time and place that Jonah’s lot was cast (Jonah 1:17)? Who can fail to see the hand of God, most wonderful in the most apparently casual contingencies, overruling all second causes to fulfil his will, while they work their own? “When kingdoms are tossed up and down like a tennis-ball (Isaiah 22:18); not one event can fly out of the bounds of his Providence. The smallest are not below it. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without it. Nor a hair, but it is numbered by it.”
Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Proverbs (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974, orig. 1846), 253.
13. Charles Spurgeon, “God’s Providence,” sermon on Ezekiel 1:15–19 in 1908, in Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Banner of Truth), 493.
says, in Ephesians 1:11, that God is the One “who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
And if someone should raise the question of sheer chance and the kinds of
things that just seem to happen with no more meaning than the role of the dice, Proverbs 16:33 answers: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” In other words, from God’s perspective, there is no such thing as “chance.”11 He has His purposes for every roll of the dice in Las Vegas and every seemingly absurd turn of events in the universe.12
This is why Charles Spurgeon, the London pastor from one hundred years
I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not
move an atom more or less than God wishes—that every particle of spray
that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit, as well as the sun in the
heavens—that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the
stars in their courses. The creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as
much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence—the fall of…leaves
from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche.13
When Spurgeon was challenged that this is nothing but fatalism and stoicism, he replied:
What is fate? Fate is this—Whatever is, must be. But there is a difference
between that and Providence. Providence says, Whatever God ordains,
14. Ibid., 201–2.
15. “God can’t foreknow the good or bad decisions of the people He creates until He creates these people and they, in turn, create their decisions.” Gregory Boyd, Letters from A Skeptic (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Chariot Victor, 1994), 30. In God of the Possible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2000), Boyd writes that “future free decisions do not exist (except as possibilities) for God to know until free agents make them” (120).
16. “As the Lord did with Joseph’s evil brothers, and as Christ did with Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ that originated from Satan, God can sometimes use the evil wills of personal beings, human or divine, to his own ends (Genesis 50:20; 2 Corinthians 12:7–10). This by no means entails that there is a divine will behind every activity of an evil spirit—for usually we find that God and evil spirits (whether called angels, gods or demons) are in real conflict with each other.” Gregory Boyd, God at War, 154. I would observe that “real conflict” does not rule out the ultimate control of God or God having good purposes in all events. Satan’s purposes in Paul’s “thorn” and in the betrayal and death of Jesus were diametrically opposed to God’s purposes.
must be; but the wisdom of God never ordains anything without a purpose.
Everything in this world is working for some great end. Fate does
not say that.… There is all the difference between fate and Providence
that there is between a man with good eyes and a blind man.14
1.2 GOD’S CONTROL OVER MORAL EVIL
Now consider the evidence for God’s control over moral evil—the evil choices that are made in the world. Again, there are specific instances and texts that make sweeping statements of God’s control.
For example, all the choices of Joseph’s brothers in getting rid of him and
selling him into slavery are seen as sin and yet also as the outworking of God’s good purpose. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph says to his brothers when they fear his vengeance, “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.” Gregory Boyd and others, who do not believe that God always has a specific purpose in the evil choices of people (especially since He does not know what those choices are going to be before they make them15), try to say that God can use the choices people make for His own purposes after they make them and He then knows what they are.16
But this will not fit what the text says or what Psalm 105:17 says. The text
says, “You meant evil against me.” Evil is a feminine singular noun. Then it says, “God meant it for good.” The word it is a feminine singular suffix that can only agree with the antecedent feminine singular noun evil. And the verb meant is
17. Jonathan Edwards, “Concerning the Divine Decrees,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 529.
18. Ibid., 534.
19. For example, Exodus 4:21; 7:3; Deuteronomy 2:30; Judges 9:22–24; 14:4; 1 Samuel 18:10–11; 2 Samuel 12:11; 1 Kings 12:15; 2 Kings 19:7, 37; Psalm 105:25; Jeremiah 52:1–3; John 15:24–26; Romans 9:18; 2 Corinthians 1:8–9; Hebrews 12:4–11; 1 Peter 3:17; 4:19; Revelation 17:17. Commenting on Deuteronomy 2:30 and the hardening of Sihon, Old Testament scholar R. K. Harrison said, “Because the Ancient Hebrews ascribed all causality to God as the author of all created things, it was both natural and proper for them to see the response of Sihon in the light of the larger activity of God.” R. K. Harrison, “Deuteronomy,” in New Bible Commentary, ed. D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970) 209–10. See Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), 399–403, where Edwards discusses texts showing God as the disposer and orderer of sin.
the same past tense in both cases. You meant evil against me in the past, as you were doing it. And God meant that very evil, not as evil, but as good in the past as you were doing it. And to make this perfectly clear, Psalm 105:17 says about Joseph’s coming to Egypt, “[God] had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.” God sent him. God did not find him there owing to evil choices, and then try to make something good come of it. Therefore, this text stands as a kind of paradigm for how to understand the evil will of man within the sovereign will of God.
The death of Jesus offers another example of how God’s sovereign will
ordains that a sinful act come to pass. Edwards says, “The crucifying of Christ was a great sin; and as man committed it, it was exceedingly hateful and highly provoking to God. Yet upon many great considerations it was the will of God that it should be done.”17 Then he refers to Acts 4:27–28: “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” (see also Isaiah 53:10). In other words, all the sinful acts of Herod, of Pilate, of Gentiles and Jews, were predestined to occur.
Edwards ponders that someone might say that only the sufferings of Christ
were planned by God, not the sins against Him, to which he responds, “I
answer, [the sufferings] could not come to pass but by sin. For contempt and disgrace was one thing he was to suffer. [Therefore] even the free actions of men are subject to God’s disposal.”18
These specific examples (which could be multiplied by many more
instances19) where God purposefully governs the sinful choices of people are generalized in several passages. For example, Romans 9:16: “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (NASB). Man’s will is not the ultimately decisive agent in the world; God’s is. Proverbs 20:24: “Man’s steps are ordained by the LORD, How then can
20. Edwards, “Concerning the Divine Decrees,” 534.
21. Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 399.
man understand his way?” (NASB). Proverbs 19:21: “Many plans are in a man’s heart, But the counsel of the LORD will stand” (NASB). Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” Jeremiah 10:23: “I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (RSV).
Therefore, I conclude with Jonathan Edwards: “God decrees all things, even
all sins.”20 Or, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:11, “[He] works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
2. TWO QUESTIONS
And I pose two questions as an evangelical who is seeking the glory of God and who longs for a biblical, God-entranced worldview: (1) Is God the author of sin? (2) Why does God ordain that evil exist? What answers did Jonathan Edwards give to each of these questions?
2.1 IS GOD THE AUTHOR OF SIN?
Edwards answers, “If by ‘the author of sin,’ be meant the sinner, the agent, or the actor of sin, or the doer of a wicked thing…it would be a reproach and blasphemy, to suppose God to be the author of sin. In this sense, I utterly deny God to be the author of sin.”21 But, he argues, willing that sin exist in the world is not the same as sinning. God does not commit sin in willing that there be sin. God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by His “positive agency.”
God is, Edwards says, “the permitter…of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted…will most certainly and infallibly follow.”22
23. Ibid., 404.
25. Ibid., 407–9.
He uses the analogy of the way the sun brings about light and warmth by
its essential nature, but brings about dark and cold by dropping below the horizon. “If the sun were the proper cause of cold and darkness,” he says, “it would be the fountain of these things, as it is the fountain of light and heat: and then something might be argued from the nature of cold and darkness, to a likeness of nature in the sun.”23 In other words, “sin is not the fruit of any positive agency or influence of the most High, but on the contrary, arises from the withholding of his action and energy, and under certain circumstances, necessarily follows on the want of his influence.”24
Thus, in one sense, God wills that what He hates comes to pass as well as
what He loves. Edwards says:
God may hate a thing as it is in itself, and considered simply as evil,
and yet…it may be his will it should come to pass, considering all consequences.… God doesn’t will sin as sin or for the sake of anything evil;
though it be his pleasure so to order things, that he permitting, sin will
come to pass; for the sake of the great good that by his disposal shall be
the consequence. His willing to order things so that evil should come
to pass, for the sake of the contrary good, is no argument that he
doesn’t hate evil, as evil: and if so, then it is no reason why he many not
reasonably forbid evil as evil, and punish it as such.25
This is a fundamental truth that helps explain some perplexing things in the
Bible; namely, that God often expresses His will to be one way and then acts to bring about another state of affairs. God opposes hatred toward His people, yet ordained that His people be hated in Egypt (Genesis 12:3; Psalm 105:25—“He turned their hearts to hate his people.”). He hardens Pharaoh’s heart, but commands him to let His people go (Exodus 4:21; 5:1; 8:1). He makes plain that it is sin for David to take a military census of His people, but ordains that he do it (2 Samuel 24:1, 10). He opposes adultery, but ordains that Absalom should lie
26. Edwards, “Concerning the Divine Decrees,” 528.
27. Ibid., 542.
with his father’s wives (Exodus 20:14; 2 Samuel 12:11). He forbids rebellion
and insubordination against the king, but ordains that Jeroboam and the ten
tribes rebel against Rehoboam (Romans 13:1; 1 Samuel 15:23; 1 Kings
12:15–16). He opposes murder, but ordains the murder of His Son (Exodus
20:13; Acts 4:28). He desires all men to be saved, but effectually calls only some (1 Timothy 2:4; 1 Corinthians 1:26–30; 2 Timothy 2:26).
What this means is that we must learn that God wills things in two different
senses. The Bible demands this by the way it speaks of God’s will in different
ways. Edwards uses the terms “will of decree” and “will of command.” Edwards explains:
[God’s] will of decree [or sovereign will] is not his will in the same sense
as his will of command [or moral will] is. Therefore it is not difficult 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 reference
to the universality of things. So God, though he hates a thing as it is
simply, may incline to it with reference to the universality of things.26
This brings us to the final question and already points to the answer.
2.2 Why Does God Ordain That There Be Evil?
It is evident from what has been said that it is not because He delights in evil as evil. Rather, He “wills that evil come to pass…that good may come of it.”27 What good? And how does the existence of evil serve this good end? Here is Edwards’s stunning answer:
28. Ibid., 528.
It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and
for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory
should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine
forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent, that the
beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one
glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all.…
Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and
dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this
could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the
shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because
these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and
also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without
them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.
If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish
sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin,
or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it.
There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if
there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How
much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so
much prized and admired.…
So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature,
and the completeness of that communication of God, for which
he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the
knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of
him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably
So the answer to the question in the title of this appendix, “Is God less glorious because He ordained that evil be?” is no, just the opposite. God is more glorious for having conceived and created and governed a world like this with all its evil. The effort to absolve Him by denying His foreknowledge of sin or by denying His control of sin is a fatal error and a great dishonor to His Word
and His wisdom. Evangelicals who are seeking the glory of God, look well to
the teaching of your churches and your schools. But most of all, look well to
If you would see God’s glory and savor His glory and magnify His glory in
this world, do not remain wavering before the sovereignty of God in the face of great evil. Take His Book in your hand, plead for His Spirit of illumination and humility and trust, and settle this matter so that you might be unshakable in the day of your own calamity. My prayer is that what I have written will sharpen and deepen your God-entranced worldview and that in the day of your loss you will be like Job, who, when he lost all his children, fell down and worshiped and said, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD.”