Saturday, June 23, 2007

Roundtable 20: The Cause of Sin

Our churches teach that although God creates and preserves nature, the cause of sin is located in the will of the wicked, that is, the devil and ungodly people. Without God's help, this will turns itself away from God, as Christ says, "When he lies, he speaks out of his own character" (John 8:44).

We stand here again and gaze on a mystery: evil. What is known about it is that evil and the sin that follows from it are very real. It would seem more likely that people would believe that there is such a thing as evil, even if they are uncertain about God. The 20th century was the bloodiest in human history, but yet there are still fools about who deny that there is such a thing as "evil" and "sin." But whence comes sin and evil? The Augsburg Confession simply attributes sin to the will of those who are wicked. Not much of an answer really, sin comes from the sinful. Speculations into the "why" of evil and the "why" of sin are futile and pointless, ultimately. What is revealed in God's Word is that there is no hope for the wicked, apart from Christ. Years after the AC was written, well-intentioned Lutherans came along who tried to assert that sin is of the very essence of what it is to be human, but to say this is to contradict this article, and to attribute to God the source of evil, since, if sin is of the essence of what it means to be human then God is the creator of evil.

The Roman Catholic confutation concurs with this article and states: "The nineteenth article is likewise approved and accepted. For God, the supremely good, is not the author of evils, but the rational and defectible will is the cause of sin; wherefore let no one impute his midsdeeds and crimes to God, but to himself, according to Jer. 2:19: "Thine own wickedness shall correct thee and thy backslidings shall reprove thee;" and Hos. 13:9: "O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thy help." And David in the spirit acknowledged that God is not one that hath pleasure in wickedness, Ps. 5:4."

What then do we say to those who are in the midst of a particularly severe struggle with evil? We are always struggling with evil, to be certain. But what of those times when is presses particularly hard on us? What of the times when the Devil is throwing in our face our sinfulness and failure to live as we should? What of the times when sin separates us from our loves ones? What of the dark moments in the night when we are all alone and at those times we see the sin that is ever before us? What of the struggles and testings that come when our bodies become sick and weak and when we finally recognize that we are in our last months, or days, or hours on earth? To whom do we turn? Where do we place our hope and confidence? The answer God gives is the comfort of the Savior and the Holy Spirit bring to mind once again His words: peace, be still. Do not let your heart be troubled. I have overcome the world. I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you also will be. I have called you friends. Today, you shall be with me in paradise. As the Apostle St. Paul declared: Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.


Pastor Kevin Jennings said...

While I don't often hear folks saying that sin is part of being human - I rarely hear folks acknowledging the existence of sin at all, unfortunately - I do hear folks saying that death is natural. If we were to push the mistaken idea that sin is part of being human, we'll wind up with the nonsense that death is natural to human beings, also. God would be author of death, even as He would be the creator of evil, as you so rightly state.

The point: If sin and death are natural to human beings (God-given), redemption becomes worthless and the whole idea of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5) is unneeded.

Following on your post, Paul, the comfort to the one who is being pressed hard by sin comes at the foot of the cross - the Savior who suffered because sinners are sinful. I would add one more to your list of Scripture quotes, which fairly complete: Be still and know that I am God.

jd meade said...

Paul -

What do Lutherans claim about God's relationship to evil? [This is a sincere question from a Calvinist]

The Bible does speak about God's relationship to evil. Allow me to list a few passages.

Genesis 50:19-21 says, "19 But Joseph said to them, Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 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. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones. Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them."

Isaiah 10:5-16 says, "5 Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! 6 Against a godless nation I send him,and against the people of my wrath I command him,to take spoil and seize plunder,and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. 7 But he does not so intend,and his heart does not so think;but it is in his heart to destroy,and to cut off nations not a few; 8 for he says:Are not my commanders all kings? 9 Is not Calno like Carchemish?Is not Hamath like Arpad?Is not Samaria like Damascus? 10 As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria, 11 shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idolsas I have done to Samaria and her images? 12 When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. 13 For he says: By the strength of my hand I have done it,and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;I remove the boundaries of peoples,and plunder their treasures;like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones. 14 My hand has found like a nestthe wealth of the peoples;and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,so I have gathered all the earth;and there was none that moved a wingor opened the mouth or chirped. 15 Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! 16 Therefore the Lord God of hostswill send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,and under his glory a burning will be kindled,like the burning of fire. . ."

Acts 2:22-23 says, "22 Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men."

Acts 4:26-28, "26 The kings of the earth set themselves,and the rulers were gathered together,against the Lord and against his Anointed— 27 for 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, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place."

Romans 9:20-24 says, "20 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? 21 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? 22 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, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?"

1 Peter 2:7-8 says, "7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, The stone that the builders rejectedhas become the cornerstone, 8 and A stone of stumbling,and a rock of offense.They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do."

What say you to these texts [or the issue in general]? I know these texts do not reference the origin of evil, but they certainly speak to our good sovereign God's relationship to existing evil and in particular the evil actions and final destinies of men.

With Best Wishes,

wm cwirla said...

These passages all illustrate the same underlying thought expressed by Joseph to his brothers: God uses evil to work good, particularly the ultimate good of salvation.

Since God has reconciled all things to Himself in the death of Christ, the death of Christ becomes the reconciling trump card laid on every evil. Even the rejection of the Messiah by His own people (the stone the builders rejected) is used to accomplish the salvation of the world. While God is not the source of evil, as this article states, He nonetheless is not overcome by evil but has and does overcome evil and use it to His salvific purposes through the death of Jesus Christ.

jd meade said...

wm cwirla -

Thanks for responding to my comment and question. For you raise some interesting points, which I would like to pursue with you.

First, does God only "use" evil to work his good purposes? Is God's relationship to evil, one where he only uses the evil actions of men to accomplish his good purposes? I noticed that you did not employ the language of "turns evil to good." Was that intentional?

I would want to suggest to you that God's relationship to evil is more than simply using evil. Genesis 50 says that God intends and plans (chashab) the evil of the brothers for good. They planned evil (ra'ah) against Joseph, but God planned the same evil for good. The action is the same, but there is an asymetry in intentions. Men plan evil; God plans evil for good. Isaiah 45:7 says, "I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things." The word for disaster is ra' (evil) in the original.

Second, your appeal to Colossians 1:20 is very interesting to me. How exactly do you understand the "all things"? For example, I do not think you mean to suggest that hell and the devil are finally reconciled to God by the cross work of Christ. Therefore, any interpretation of this text desires nuance, I would think. However, I am interested in your point that the death of Christ always becomes the trump card over evil, especially as it relates to these texts. I would like a little more elaboration on this point.

You suggest that the rejection of the Messiah becomes the means God uses to accomplish the salvation of the world. Of course this is true, but again, I think it is more than God "using" evil men. The texts in Acts say that these things happened in accordance with God's forknowledge and predestination [I would argue that these two actions of God are one and the same based on the syntax of the original]. The question then becomes, what is God's relationship to these evil men themselves? These men acted and did what they wanted to do (thus their culpability is warranted), yet they acted in complete harmony with God's eternal predestination and foreknowledge.

I will cease for now, but I look forward to see where this discussion will go. Thanks for the dialogue.

Best Wishes,
John M

William Weedon said...

St Augustine once put it like this - and I think none have said it better - "God is the cause of all causes, but not the cause of all choices."

wm cwirla said...


I don’t think Paul, our esteemed webmaster, intends this to be a site for Lutheran/Calvinist debate and dialog, but I will give you my hopefully Lutheran take on things.

Re good vs evil. There is no such category of things as evil in itself. There is good used for evil purposes by the devil, the unbelieving world, and our own sinful flesh. Everything God has created, hence the entire created order, is good. Evil is not the opposite of good, but the use of the good against God. As long as we’re on the topic of “good and evil,” we ought to remember that the distinction of good and evil was the devil’s seductive ploy. “You can be like God, knowing good and evil.” We’ve been fascinated with the topic ever since, to our detriment. God never intended for us to deal with His cosmos in terms of “good and evil.” Life and death is God’s cup of tea.

Re Genesis 50:20 - The Hebrew verb chashab means “to think or account, to reckon.” Joseph’s brothers thought they were doing evil in selling their brother into slavery; God looked at the same scenario and saw good - both for Joseph and for his brothers and for the ultimate salvation of the world in preserving the Promise until the appointed time.
Re Isaiah 10:5-16 - The text says nothing more than God uses Assyria as an instrument of wrath to punish Israel for her rejection of His lordship, and then He punishes Assyria for boasting about it.

Re Acts 2:22-23 - It was the determined will and foreknowledge of God that His Son should die for the sins of the world at the hands of lawless men. We do not equate predestination and foreknowledge. Just because Gods knows, doesn’t mean He causes.

Re Acts 4:26-28 - As in Acts 2, it was the hand and will of God that foreordained (predestined) that the events of Jesus’ crucifixion should take place. As with Joseph, God reckons the event as good for the salvation of the world in the death of His Son, who, as Rev. 13:8 indicates, was “slain from the foundations of the world.”

Re Romans 9:20-24 - The “vessels of wrath” are prepared, equipped (katartizo) for destruction; the “vessels of mercy” are prepared beforehand (prohetoimazo) for glory. The text does not say that God prepares some for destruction, others for glory. The destruction of the vessels of wrath is a consequence of their rejection of God’s mercy (Paul is talking about unbelieving Israel). Only glory for the vessels of mercy is prepared beforehand.

Re 1 Peter 2:7-8 - those who disobey the Word, stumble, as they were appointed, set up (tithemi) to do. The text does not say they were appointed to disobey, but their stumbling is the result of their disobedience, ie refusal to believe, the Word. The stumbling is intrinsic to the disobedience.

None of these texts speak to the origins of evil.

Re Isaiah 45:7 - The Hebrew ra’ah need not be translated “evil,” and does not carry the philosophical connotations of evil as the opposite of good. Ra’ah usually means “trouble, disaster, hardship, calamity.” Certainly God gives and He takes away, and faith receives both as gift, as Job did.

Re Colossians 1:20 - yes, indeed, “all things” means all things not just some things, just as “world” means world not just chosen parts of the world. That the devil and his demons still wind up in the eternal lake of fire (Rev 20) is over and against the all-reconciling death of Jesus. Then again, there are people who apparently wind up in the same place, those whose names are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life, even though hell was not prepared for humanity (Matthew 25:41). (I note in passing that while there are several dire threats of blotting out one’s name from the Book of Life, there is nothing said about writing one’s name in. You can’t blot out something that isn’t previously in; or another way of putting it, damnation is the exclusion of the included (see parable of the bridesmaids, sheep and goats, dragnet, etc.).

Under the universal grace of God in Christ,

William Weedon said...

About "evil" (ra), I love John of Damascus' explanation:

Nay, even when He says that God creates evil things, and that there is no evil in a city that the Lord has not done, he does not mean by these words Amos 3:6 that the Lord is the cause of evil, but the word 'evil' is used in two ways, with two meanings. For sometimes it means what is evil by nature, and this is the opposite of virtue and the will of God: and sometimes it means that which is evil and oppressive to our sensation, that is to say, afflictions and calamities. Now these are seemingly evil because they are painful, but in reality are good.

On the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Chapter 19