Home > Systematic Theology > Works of God- Providence: Providence over Sin- Book Third- Chapter 3- Section 8

Works of God- Providence: Providence over Sin- Book Third- Chapter 3- Section 8

Book Third



Providence has been explained to be the care which God exercises over the world. Though this care is watchful and kind, sin has entered, bringing innumerable evils in its train, and is now mingling in the whole current of human enjoyment, and spreading havoc and death, where peace, order, life, and happiness, would have reigned undisturbed. How all this comes to pass, under the government of a God, infinitely wise, powerful, and good, is a question of great difficulty. The observations which follow, will not clear away the darkness in which the subject is involved; but they may suffice to assist our faith, and guard our hearts from unworthy thoughts of the deity.

1. The fact of God’s providence over sin, is incontrovertible, whatever difficulties attend its explanation. If there were anything from which he would stand aloof, it would be sin, the abominable thing which he hates; but nothing so clearly shows his providence to be universal as the abundant proof which is furnished, that it extends over sin. Indeed, if it kept at a distance from everything sinful, it would abandon all human affairs, which are thoroughly mixed with sin. The Scriptures speak, in very clear and strong terms, of God’s control over sinful agents. He brought the Chaldeans against Jerusalem,[22] and stirred up the Medes against Babylon.[23] These were nations composed of wicked men, and could not have been moved by the providence of God, if wicked agents were not under his control. Wicked men are called the rod, the staff, the ax, the saw, in his hand;[24] and are therefore moved by him as these instruments are, by the hand of him who uses them. The Scriptures descend with still greater particularity to the very acts of wicked agents in which their wickedness is exhibited, and attributes these to God. So Shimei’s cursing of David[25] and Absalom’s lying with his father’s wives;[26] wicked as these acts were, are, in the words of inspiration, ascribed to the God of holiness. Why is this, if it be not designed to teach us that the providence of God extends over sinful actions. So strong are some of the representations contained in the holy word, that, like the ascribing of repentance to God, they need to be explained by the general tenor of the sacred teachings. He blinds the eyes,[27] and hardens the hearts[28] of sinful men; and sends them strong delusions,[29] that they should believe a lie, and be damned; and raised up[30] Pharoah , and hardened his heart,[31] that he might show his power in him. Such language was certainly designed to make a strong impression on our minds, that God exercises a perfect control over every sinful agent in all his acts; and it is not more clearly revealed, that God hates the wicked acts of wicked men, than that he controls and directs them to the accomplishment of his purpose. All this we are bound to believe, whatever mystery may attend it; and what we know concerning any subject, is not the less true, or the less firmly to be believed, because there are other things involved in it which we know not.

2. What we know not concerning God’s providence over sin, respects him rather than ourselves; and we may, therefore, safely leave it for him to interpret. How to govern a world of sinful agents, is a problem which it is not necessary for us to solve, as the task has not been assigned us. Had God imposed the duty on us, he would doubtless have taught us how to perform it. But he has reserved it to himself; and he giveth no account of his matters. Instead, therefore, of being surprised that there are things in God’s government which are inscrutable to us, we should have reason for surprise if it were otherwise. Earthly governments have their secrets, and these may especially relate to the management of the hostile. We must, without taking offence, permit the Sovereign Ruler of all to have his secrets, and to make known his ways only so far as he pleases. We are often, in appearance at least, exceedingly anxious to relieve the character of God from foul aspersions; but we may safely leave him to vindicate himself. We shall do well to look to it, that our very officiousness does not betray an unwillingness to repose entire confidence in the wisdom and goodness of his ways, when they are past our comprehension. Let the very darkness in which he leaves them be improved by us to the trial and strengthening of our faith.

3. The distinction between God’s permission of sin, and his being the efficient cause of it, is one which we appear authorized to use to free our thoughts from embarrassment when we contemplate this subject. More than mere permission is implied in many of the expressions found in Scripture, that refer to the influence by which the current of sinful propensities directed into this channel rather than that. But the notion that God is the efficient agent in producing the sinful propensity, we are unable to reconcile with our ideas of his character; and it does not appear to be taught in the sacred volume. God is a sun, and moral darkness arises from the absence, rather than from the presence of his beams. We dare not doubt that, had it been his pleasure, he might have poured forth such a flood of holy influence from himself as would have effectually preserved the human race from all possibility of defilement; and, that he did not do so, is his permission of sin. But every one readily conceives of this as very different from a positive efficiency in the production of moral evil. It is a good maxim, to consider all our good as coming from God, and give him the praise of it; and all our evil as our own, and give ourselves the blame of it. In like manner, when we see sin in others, and know that God is overruling it for good, we can blame them for the evil, and praise God for the good which he educes from it.

4. We should restrain our philosophy within due bounds, and not give ourselves up to its deductions when they would disturb our faith. We have already shown that philosophy is compelled to rely on inductions which are incomplete, and that her inferences have not equal authority with the declarations of God. We are so constituted that we rely on the uniformity of nature’s laws, and therefore believe that they will operate in the future as they have operated in the past. This constitutional propensity is wisely given, fitting us to shape our course in the world; and, for all the purposes for which it was given, it does not deceive us; but there are limits within which the propensity must be restrained. A child asks the cause of something which he notices, and when we have answered, he asks, What is the cause of that? and when, in answering his successive inquiries, we have led his mind up to God as the First Cause, he asks, Who made God? We may very wisely tell him that God is self-existent; but this means nothing more than that his inquisitive philosophy must stop here, having reached its utmost bounds. Now, whether we can metaphysically account for it or not, there is a propensity in the human mind to regard each moral agent as a sort of original source of action, somewhat as we conceive of God. This propensity, perhaps as universal as the propensity to rely on the uniformity of nature’s laws, may have been given us for the very purpose of checking our philosophy when it would presume to explain the origin of evil in the heart of a moral agent. Accustomed, as it is, to contemplate the relation of cause and effect, operating in an established order of sequence, it does not submit to consider man an original source of action, but labors to account for the moral evil in him by causes operating from without, and ultimately traces it to God. It may be well to inquire whether philosophy, when it pushes the doctrine of necessity into the inmost arcana of this subject, does not assume in the premises from which it reasons, that there is a natural inertia in mind, as in matter; or, rather, a sort of natural immutability. Among the arguments in favor of moral necessity, it was stated that the volitions of a known individual under given influences, are often the subject of calculation; but, for successful calculation, the individual must be known; and in this, it is implied that he must possess some fixed character. A change in him, all the circumstances being the same, makes a change in the result. A chemical experiment now operates precisely as it would have done before the flood, because every atom of matter has precisely the same properties now that it had then. Matter has a natural immutability; but can this be predicated of mind? And does not philosophy assume it when it applies the doctrine of necessity to mental phenomena without any limitation, and boldly carries back the authorship of sin to God, as the First Cause. There is a tendency in human mind to a fixed state of virtue or vice, by the power of habit; but a natural immutability of the mind, anterior to the formation of habits, philosophy ought not to assume. Matter, in each atom, is immutable; and it is mutable only in its combinations. The mind of man, though an uncompounded essence, is not immutable. God has made matter immutable; or operates immutably in matter. But if he has not chosen to operate in the same manner in mind, but has made each mind, in some sort, an original source of action, philosophy must submit to push her orders of sequence with confidence only where she has firm ground to stand on.

To illustrate the distinction attempted in the last paragraph, let us suppose a metallic globe placed on the sharp point of a pyramid. No human art could so adjust it that it would not fall to one side. Mathematically we may demonstrate the possibility of such an adjustment that the power of gravity, operating equally on every side, would retain it for ever in the same position. But, in spite of mathematics, the globe would fall to one side; and philosophy will seek to account for its fall as arising from some failure in the adjustment, or some external cause, as a breath of air, operating from without, and not from any changableness in the globe itself. When once started in the descent, the globe has a tendency to motion in the direction taken, but it does not pass from rest to motion except from external influence. Now, if philosophy equally denies that motion can originate in the mind, and maintains that its doctrine of necessity is applicable to the mind, not only when acting under the influence of habit, but as existing before habits were formed, does not philosophy assume a natural immutability of mind, in attributing the first start in the wrong way to a failure in God’s adjustment, or to the operation of external causes, which have been brought into being and action by him? If philosophy assumes this in the premises from which it reasons, its conclusions are not to be trusted.

[22] Hab. i. 6.

[23] Isaiah xiii. 17; Jer. li. 11.

[24] Isaiah x. 5–15.

[25] 2 Sam. xvi. 11.

[26] 2 Sam. xii. 12.

[27] John xii. 40.

[28] Rom. ix. 18.

[29] 2 Thess. ii. 11.

[30] Ex. ix. 16.

[31] Ex. vii. 13.

John L. Dagg- Manual of Theology

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