“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will...” (Ephesians 1:11).
We as Christians often have an incredible tendency to try to get God off the hook. We see the scriptures make incredible claims about his involvement in the world and we feel compelled to soften their impact. We read a passage where God challenges Job and boasts of his sovereignty over creation saying,
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? What is the way to the place where the light is distributed or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth? Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no man is, on the desert in which there is no man, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground sprout with grass?”(Job 38:22-27).
And after we read this passage, we turn around and say that God has merely set up a world where natural disasters and tragedies are out of his hands. This of course causes us to gloss over the end of Job where the inspired narrater summarizes the story by saying,
“Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11)
Whether the word evil should be translated “evil” or “disaster,” there is no doubt that God's plans brought Job through deeply evil circumstances—circumstances that included the sinful actions of murderous men who robbed him of his family—all under the malicious inspiration of satan himself.
Such deeply provocative language concerning God's activity in all events is littered throughout scripture. For a long time, I myself ignored it and would always point out that God clearly forbid sinful actions and would express his desire to give life. How then could I turn around and affirm these texts that clearly communicated God was not only working in spite of evil circumstances, but in and through them?
What was I to do with the fact that God spoke to Assyria, a sinful nation that attacked God's people, and called them “the rod of my anger” and described them saying, “the staff in their hands is my fury! 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” (Isaiah 10:5-6)?
Yet, at the same time, God turned around and condemned this rod of his anger saying, “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” (Isaiah 10:7). In the very next verse after God speaks of his sovereignty over the sinful actions of a nation, he condemns that nation for their sinful hearts, and promises judgment for their evil motives—motives without which God's judgment would not have been accomplished.
What was I to do with the story of Joseph where his brothers, who were overcome with sinful jealousy, threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery? Yet, when all this evil played itself out in Joseph's life, he said to his brothers after saving their lives as the ruler of Egypt “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” (Genesis 50:20).
Joseph holds his brothers accountable for their sin, and yet acknowledges that their sin did not provoke a plan B on God's part. Their sinful behavior was the very means that God used to bring about his original plan of salvation. To the same extent that Joseph's brothers intended him to be sold into slavery, God intended it as well—yet with completely different motives.
These passages made it clear to me that in every event in the lives of God's people, there are always multiple motives at work. There is the motive of satan in every calamity to cause us to curse God's name. In the same event, God is infallibly working to conform us to Christ. In every time of blessing, satan is working to make us idolators—a people who love the gift rather than the giver. In the same event, God is showing his generous heart and making us worshipers of him as the giver of all good things. In the words of Job, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10).
At no time in scripture does satan take a step without God's say so. At no time in scripture is God taken off guard or forced to reconsider his plans. In the words of John Calvin, there are times when God “lisps” for our benefit. He has chosen, in his sovereignty, to reveal himself in an interactive way. He chose to respond to Moses' intercession for sinful Israel with mercy—intercession God had certainly purposed to occur. He chose to respond to Abraham's willingness to offer Isaac—a faith God had certainly already known Abraham had. No interaction causes God to change his purpose in working all things to the praise of his glorious grace—a purpose and plan decreed before the foundation of the world.
While many of us may feel a certain resistance to such a high view of God's sovereign control, I submit to you that it is this sovereignty that makes God the kind of savior that could ordain the very gospel itself.
Hundreds of years before Christ, God spoke through Isaiah concerning the coming of his Son saying, “it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt” (Isaiah 53:10).
Peter echos this idea when he recounts the glory of Christ crucified saying, “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, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).
God not only worked around or in spite of the sinful actions of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the peoples of Israel, but their evil in murdering the sinless son of God was the very tool in God's hands without which the most glorious salvation would not be available to us.
We are sinners. Satan is a liar. God is good. God is sovereign. God is working.
Sin itself, when it entered the world, did not provoke a contingency plan in God's eternal decree. In the words of Paul, God's eternal plan was to bring about the praise of his glorious grace (Ephesians 1:3-6). Grace, which is a response to sin, is the apex of God's glory in the mind of Paul. For God to reveal every aspect of his glory, sin must be a part of the plan.
It is the profoundest of mysteries to wonder how God could remain sinless and yet bring such a perfect plan into existence. Yet, out of love for the glory of God, I now embrace this mystery and attribute no evil to the nature of God.
It is these truths that led me to gladly embrace the words that I would have so easily scoffed at only a few years ago:
“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (The Westminster Confession of Faith)
I am sinful.
Satan is a liar.
God is good.
God is sovereign.
God is working.