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Divine Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and the Problem of Evil Part 1

This is the first of a three part series on Divine sovereignty, human responsibility and the problem of evil. The first two posts will function largely to prepare us for the final post where most of the conclusions to the more difficult and controversial issues will come. I want to keep this initial post largely devoid of those matters to give the Scriptural contours the emphasis that they deserve and lot them be overshadowed by the later debates of church history and philosophy.

Divine sovereignty is a linchpin of the entire Bible. God’s sovereignty is rooted in his identity as the creator of everything. The tie between God as creator and king is clearly made in Ps. 145 (the analysis below is largely drawn from Goldingay). Vv. 1-2, 10, and 21 express commitment to worship Yahweh. In vv. 1-2, the psalmist commits to worship ‘the king,’ thereby expressing God’s sovereignty over the whole world. In vv. 10 and 21 all of creation joins in the worship. Taking the two emphases together, this psalm neatly draws out that God’s sovereignty over everything as its king is rooted in the fact that he made everything. Ps. 145 also provides a good basis from which to further investigate the nature of God’s sovereignty. Vv. 3-9 and 11-20 provide the reasons why the king is worshiped. It is because of a coupling of greatness and goodness. His greatness is unfathomable (vs. 3), his acts are mighty (vs. 4), and his kingdom is everlasting (vs. 13). He is no despot, though. Echoing God’s self revelation of Ex. 34:6-7 the psalmist proclaims, ‘The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love’ (Ps. 145:8 NIV). The Lord also is good to all (vs. 9), righteous (vs. 17), and faithful (vs. 17). As we carry forward our study of divine sovereignty, especially as it relates to the problem of evil, it is critical that we remember that God’s rule is good and righteous, and benefits his creatures, and as God is the subject of our study, we must approach him with due reverence.

God’s rule is good and it is also extensive. In the Old Testament God creates the world (e.g., Gen. 1:1ff), rules over the nations (Ps. 22:27, 28), and moves the hearts of kings (e.g., Is. 44:24-28). History is determined by God, but he is not a distant king. God is actively involved in major events in history (e.g., Dan. 5:1ff) and in the lives of individuals (1 Sam. 1:1-20).
The biblical portrayal of God as the king greatly shapes the way it presents God’s sovereignty. He is the God who rules in favor of his loyal subjects (e.g., Rom. 8:28, Rev. 6:9-11) and punishes those who oppose him and his people (e.g., Exod. 6:3-8). Thus God’s judgment proceeds from his sovereignty and God exercises his sovereignty for his glory and our benefit.

The Bible closes in Revelation 20-22 with God’s exercise of his sovereign judgment reaching its apex in the defeat of Satan, the judgment of all of humanity, and new creation. In the moment when God’s sovereignty is most clearly on display, its purposes are to glorify Christ and vindicate God’s people. God’s sovereignty is that which makes sure the missio dei. This underscores what was mentioned earlier, that God’s sovereignty is presented in a positive light, and should draw us to worship. God is the sovereign king who rules and reigns over the whole earth. He is moving history towards the completion of his plan of redemption and reconciliation. The sovereign acts of God are for (at least) the twin goals of his glory and our benefit. Nothing in our lives is outside of his loving care.

How then do we deal with the fact that in the Old Testament it was common for God to bring judgment upon his people? This happened repeatedly during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness (e.g., Num. 11:1ff., 21:4-9), and again frequently in the time of the judges (e.g., Judg. 2:10-15, 6:1). Judgment was even more severe during the monarchy, ultimately leading up to the exile of both the northern and southern kingdoms (cf. 2 King. 17:7-23, 2 Chr. 36:15-21). This led the people of Israel to cry out to God asking how he could bring it to pass, especially through evil nations (e.g., Hab. 1:12-17). As their God, they expected him to be on their side. As we mentioned before, though, God’s sovereignty serves to bring him glory. He is glorified when he is truly revealed. His judgment of his people revealed his holiness. The people’s own actions and sin necessitated his punishment of them in accordance with his promise (cf. Lev. 26:14ff, Deut. 28:15ff). So, while God did judge his people, his judgment was just and he was faithful to his promise as he preserved a remnant. It also is not fair to think of God’s punishment of the people of Israel as being purely for punitive reasons. It was still out of love and was a means to bring them to repentance. This logic seems to lie beneath Ezek. 18.

In Ezek. 18, the people are complaining to God about the injustice of being in exile because of their parent’s sin (Ezek. 18:1-2). God responds with the claims that he is just, that he punishes those who deserve punishment, and that, above all, he desires repentance. It seems legitimate to draw that at the macro level that the text is not only vindicating God but also urging the people to repent. God sent the people into exile to draw them back to himself.

At this point I think it would be helpful to go a little deeper and ask how Israel going into exile related to God’s will. Here we will utilize the tradition to formulate our answer. For Aquinas, God’s will is the source of all things, though he does work through secondary causes. While God’s will is the source of all things, God does not will evil. How can that be? Moral evil happens but there is a sense in which it is not willed by God. What is willed by God is some specific good, but often good cannot happen without having an evil attached to it. God neither wills evil to be nor wills evil not to be. This is necessitated by God being perfectly holy and righteous. He cannot will evil. If Aquinas is correct about God not willing evil, then I believe that we can say that God both willed for his people to return to him and also willed that his holy justice be upheld. The fulfillment of this will necessitated the evil and atrocity of the exile, but God did not will it.

Our portrait of God’s sovereignty is becoming clearer, but we still have some additional issues to work through. We have not yet addressed whether God’s will imposes necessity on all things, and related, the exact nature of human freedom. We will look at the latter in our next post. The key take home for this section is that God's sovereignty stems from the fact that he is the perfect king. His rule is a rule that is good for his subjects and that brings himself glory.


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