The Problem of EVIL and The Judgments of GOD
IN translating the ninth of Romans, verse nineteen, I felt almost as if the text before me was faulty. It should surely read "who hath resisted His will?" Yet the word is not will, but intention. There seemed so little difference, at the time, that I did not appreciate the concordant rendering myself. Since then I have been most thankful for it. It helps to solve one of the deepest difficulties and contradictions connected with the place and problem of evil. To the question, Who hath resisted His will? we may answer, Many, if not all. But to the query, Has anyone withstood His intention? The reply is the opposite, for no one can thwart Him. Even when withstanding His will we are fulfilling His intention.
There are not many passages in God's word like the ninth of Romans. Seldom are we taken behind the scenes into the realm of the absolute. Much in this chapter seems to contradict other portions of the Scriptures, because they deal with processes, as seen by man, while this is concerned with causes, known only to God. God has a goal. In order to reach it He must have had absolute control from the beginning. All the intervening process, no matter what it may appear to be to men, must be the working out of His original intention. He is the great Potter. His creatures are clay. This is true only in regard to God's intention. Viewed in relation to His will they are not at all the passive material suggested by the clay. "Ye will not" describes man's antagonistic attitude toward God's revealed will.
The case of Pharaoh is the classic example of the chasm between God's will and His intention. His revealed will was very plain. "Let My people go!" It seemed to be fulfilled in the liberation of Israel. But no one who reads the account and believes it can escape the conviction that God's intention included more than His revealed will and that it involved opposition to that will. This much might be easily inferred if Pharaoh had been hard-hearted enough to play his part. It is put beyond doubt by the action of God in hardening his heart.
God's revealed will was limited to the release of Israel. His intention was to display His own power and glorify His name in all the earth. This is given us as a specimen of His complete purpose and of the process by which He will attain it. Mankind does not comply with His will, His saints do not comprehend His intention. Yet He uses both the opposition and the ignorance to effect His object. No doubt many in Israel were fervently praying that Pharaoh's heart would soon soften, and he would let them go. God's answer to their prayer was to harden his heart. They sighed for salvation. He wrought with a view to His own glory.
It takes little imagination to picture this scene. Its continuous repetition during the first three eons makes it most important to our spiritual welfare. The same conflicting forces are at work today. It is quite conceivable how the saints would have managed the affair. They would have implored Jehovah to compel Pharaoh to let them go. Perhaps they would call a grand Prayer meeting for this purpose. Perhaps they would set aside a week of intercession. "We know not what to pray for" was as true of them as of us. Perhaps they would be "definite" in their petitions, and insist that He melt the heart of the king, and so remove his opposition.
How much there is of this today! The saints unite in great "world movements," seeking to soften the heart of mankind, trying to do away with sin, seeking to abolish the many evils that harass us, uniting against war and vice and corruption, for all of these are against the revealed will of God. These efforts, we are told, are practical. They are not mere theory, words without works. Of what use is such an article as this, for example, to stem the tide of iniquity? Using the same figure, I would advise all that the tide will be the highest in all history, and that no human effort will be able to stop it, for it is necessary to fulfill God's intention.
The Israelites hoped Jehovah would soften Pharaoh's heart. What they wished was to quietly slip out of Goshen into the promised land. They wanted none of the terrible signs. They did not ask for the passover. Surely they would not have entered the trap which threatened to destroy them. They did not ask for the miraculous passage through the Red Sea. The forty years in the wilderness was not of their choosing. The most illustrious epoch in their history was forced upon them. It was a continuous exhibition of disobedience to God's will. Yet who doubts for a moment that it was in line with His purpose?
Now that all is past and we can get a true perspective of these events, who would prefer to have Israel's prayer answered? It was not necessary to soften Pharaoh's heart. It was too soft already. If it had not been hardened the exodus would have been a flat, uninteresting story, with no outward manifestations of Jehovah's power or love. Its glory would be gone. Its God would be unknown. The wisdom and power of Egypt must be exposed by conflict with the wisdom and power of God. His attributes must be revealed by contrast with the mightiest and wisest of humankind.
The antitype of this marvelous period of Israel's history lies just before us, only the miraculous manifestations will be far more wonderful than of old. God is today hardening the world's heart in preparation for that epoch. Men are approaching the wisdom of ancient Egypt in their knowledge of nature, and are far surpassing it in power. Shall Jehovah weaken them before using them as a foil to display His might? Rather it is His wisdom to harden their hearts, so that, in opposing His will, they may fulfill His ultimate intention.
It is obvious that God could not reveal His intention. He could not tell Pharaoh that, while He asked him to let the people go, He really did not want him to comply, but desired to use him as a foil for the revelation of His power. This would actually make a mere machine of him. It was the ignorance of God's ultimate object which made the whole procedure real to the actors in it. They did not by any means feel or act as mere puppets, notwithstanding that each and every one was doing precisely what was needed to accomplish God's aim.
Too often we are told that, if man has no free will, he is a mere automaton. This is a mistake. The so-called "freedom" consists merely in the lack of conscious coercion. Being ignorant of the constraining or restraining influences which determine his conduct, and altogether unaware of ulterior forces, he subconsciously yields at the very time that he imagines he is most independent. His freedom of will is simply ignorant unconsciousness or submission to environment or heredity.
In relation to the will of God, men are consciously independent. They can accept it or reject it, and imagine that no other force but the divinity enthroned within them has anything to do with their decision. But when we find the niche assigned them in God's intention they are (thank God!) the most utterly dependent slaves of circumstance it is possible to imagine. It will be found that, throughout their lives, they were no more masters of their fate than they were of the date and details of their birth.
The doctrine of man's free will peoples the earth with a race of puny gods. We object to the dual gods of Persia or the many deities of the Greek and Roman pantheon, yet these ancient pagans never rose to the absurdity of making every man a god. The possession of a free, untrammeled, unconquerable will is the exclusive attribute of deity. Only One God can possess it. Our blessed Lord Himself did not claim it. He came, not to do His own will, but the will of Him Who had sent Him.
The failure to recognize both of these aspects of divine revelation has led to incalculable confusion and misunderstanding. Those who reject God's intention rob Him of His godhood and deify man. Those who confuse His intention with His revealed will make of Him a love-lacking tyrant, a hard-hearted monster. Others, who wish to believe all the Scriptures have to say, are not clear how to harmonize His character with the presence of sin, especially when it becomes evident that sin has a place in the attainment of His ultimate purpose.
It seems most reasonable, at first thought, that God's will must be fulfilled in order to reach God's goal. We imagine that any infringement of it forever forfeits any share in His ultimate purpose. But further reflection will show that God's intention must be attained, not only through submission to His will but also through opposition to its express commands. The highest expression of God's wisdom lies in His ability to transform every effort against Him into that which is not only favorable to His plans but essential to His purpose.
All evil and every sin reverses its character completely when we take it from the limited light of God's revealed will to the universal illumination of His intention. This is the reason that we do not hesitate to believe the Scriptures that all is of God. No sin remains such when completely illumined by His intention. It is a failure, a sin, and subject to dire penalties when man commits it, but it is no longer a mistake when it finds its place in God's purpose. The same act which brings shame and dishonor on the creature, when subjected to the divine alchemy, is transmuted into a source of glory and peace to God.
Such general observations are apt to be dismissed as bordering on blasphemy. But let anyone take the great sins in the Scriptures and ponder all their aspects. Each one is essential to God's plan. But it is better to be specific. Pharaoh is the great sinner in this scene. He is the one who opposes God's expressed desire. Make him willing or compliant with God's command, and what is left? In that case, God would have failed in His object. To avoid this He finds it necessary to stiffen the opposition. Jehovah hardens Pharaoh's heart in order that he may sin against Him! Some insist that God cannot have such a close connection with sin. They would prefer to fix the blame on Pharaoh, or on Satan. But, while Jehovah directly causes Pharaoh to sin, by doing so He Himself avoids failure or sin.
Any lack of discrimination when speaking on these themes is likely to cause confusion. The same statement may be both true and false. Two directly contradictory assertions may both be true or both be false, according as they are related to God's will or to His intention. A beloved brother, who had been meditating on these things, made the statement that Adam's "fall" was really a fall upward. I would strenuously object to such a suggestion, apart from an explanation. Adam's sin and transgression and offense were very bad and degrading when viewed as disobedience to God's will. When associated with the work of Christ and God's ultimate purpose it was the very best he could have done. Even its immediate effects were not all evil, for he obtained a knowledge of good, impossible in his previous condition.
So with sin as a whole. We almost dread to speak of it in relation to God's ultimate, for few, even of His beloved saints, have seen behind the scenes, and almost any assertion would be false if related to His revealed will. Is sin good? No! It is the worst thing in the world. No words can express our horror and detestation of it. Is sin good? Yes! Not, indeed, in itself, but its effect will be beneficent beyond anything else this world can give, when combined with the mediatorial work of Christ and the reconciliation of which it is the occasion.
Perhaps this is why some beloved brethren insist that I teach that God sins, or is the Author of sin. I have never said this or even thought it, so far as I am aware. If I have unwittingly done so, I humbly retract and recant. But I am informed that various passages in my writings on this subject imply it, though they do not express it in so many words. When I review these passages, I do not see the implication. I did not intend such a thought. I did not express it. To my own consciousness, I did not even imply it. Some inferred from the apostle Paul's teaching that they should do evil that good may come. If he, could be misunderstood, I count it an honor to be in the same condemnation.
But what is an implication? Is it not the result of combining what we think with another's statement? It is reasoning from two premises, one our own and one supplied by another. In its crudest form, the argument may be stated thus: I believe that all is of God. My inquisitors insist that sin is part of the "all." Therefore, I believe that God sins. It seems very logical to them. I may object and say that I do not concur in their conclusions. I may even say that my premise is not mine, but God's. But no. My scheme is simply an attempt to exonerate Satan and prepare people for the homage which he will demand at the time of the end! Away with such a fellow from the earth!
This places me in a strange position. I cannot but consider their deduction a mistake in logic, a transgression of morals, and even an offense. In short, it is a full-orbed sin. I am eager to acknowledge, however, that it is of God. But even my small mind, weakened by overwork, and dulled by distress, has not the slightest difficulty in discriminating between the human and the divine aspect of these acts. God is making no mistakes. His servants are. He will justify their injustice, not because they are in line with His will, but because they are carrying out His intentions. I have no hesitation in thanking God for this distressing antagonism, for I know that in His hands it is no error. Truth such as this needs opposition for its development and dissemination. It takes friction to rub off the rust of centuries.
I take it to be my duty never to insist on a deduction from another's words to which he does not assent. It may be impossible for me to see how he can escape it, but my infirmity is no valid ground for another's condemnation. I find the same mistake is often made in the study of the Scriptures. A deduction is made from some passage and held in opposition to the plain teaching of another portion. What am I, that I should escape this mishandling? I would take it very kindly of my inquisitors, however, if they would publicly acknowledge that I do not believe that God sins, or is the author of sin and that I see nothing in my writings to that effect, but I have always maintained, with my inquisitor, that this is unscriptural.
I would exhort my inquisitors concerning the form of their indictment. I have striven to avoid non-scriptural forms of expression when dealing with this theme. This is difficult to do when writing at length on a single subject. But it is easy to do when drawing up definite charges. The form of an indictment may condemn those who prefer it. It may be purposely ambiguous, so as to cloud the issue. Such is the phrase "Author of sin." The word author is unscriptural. It is an appeal to prejudice. It seems to smirch God with sin. It may or may not imply that God sins. Some do not think that it does. Others do. The lack of love that thinks evil injects it into the issue as a character witness, to fasten the odium of heresy and blasphemy on those who stand for the truth!
The difficulty seems to be that we cannot easily view an act apart from its moral character. We do not readily see that no act is sinful in itself, but in its relations. The act of plucking and eating fruit is not necessarily a sin. Yet it was humanity's primal error. The mistake lay in its relation to the God Who had forbidden it. If He had commanded it, it would have been commendable. Now that we know that it was essential to His intention, that He had provided for it before it occurred, that He arranged everything so that it should occur, we see that, though it was a sin in relation to His will, it was no mistake in view of His benevolent intention.
Who fortified Pharaoh's heart? Was it good or evil? Was it a sin or not? Straightforward answers to these simple questions should settle the matter. Until my judges suggest a more satisfactory solution I shall still believe and teach that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, that it was necessary to spread abroad His name and fame and therefore good and just, and also that Pharaoh withstood God's word, which was an evil and a sin. One act. Two aspects. Bad and good.
Perhaps the greatest example of the distinction between God's will and His intention is found in the law promulgated from Sinai. Jehovah made known His will in a complete code of laws, besides the condensed commandments which were carved in stone. The Jew, who was resting on law, is said to "know the will" (Rom.2:18). But if it was God's intention that the nation should keep the law, it certainly was a dismal failure on His part. They broke its greatest precept before it reached them. They dishonored God by its flagrant infringement.
But, though the failure of the law seems to be contrary to the will of God, it actually was a fulfillment of His intention. It was really given that "every mouth may be barred, and the entire world may be becoming subject to the just verdict of God, because by works of law, no flesh shall be justified before Him, for through law is the recognition of sin" (Rom.3:19,20). The law which, ostensibly, was to deter from sinning, actually was given for the detection of sin. It was given to prove that no one could keep it. Beneath the revelation of God's will in it was His intention that it should not be kept, but should accomplish its object through its infraction.
"Law crept in that the offense should be increasing" (Rom. 5:20). How differently did Israel, at Sinai, feel about it! They were quite sure that they would greatly lessen the distance between themselves and Jehovah by their obedience to His precepts. Why had He told them what He wanted them to do and to avoid unless it was His will to carry out His instructions? The will of Jehovah was clear. But His intention was quite concealed. He could not make known His intention at that time without frustrating it.
This should help us in considering the larger question of sin. Sin is always against the revealed will of God. No one can possibly find any excuse for sinning so far as His expressed precepts are concerned. Both conscience and nature add their voice to restrain us from wrong. But we do sin. How can we be justified unless the sin is, in some sense, justifiable? We know that it is God's intention to draw His creatures into loving intimacy with Himself through sin and a Saviour. We know that the temporary term of sin will leave the world infinitely richer in the knowledge and appreciation of God. It will bring God immeasurable treasures of love and adoration. As a whole, its results vindicate its presence for a time. What is true of all sin must be true of every sin.
This truth is the foundation of the doctrine of justification. Because it has been lost, justification has also disappeared or has been degraded to a pardon or an "imputed" fiction. Few believe that God actually justifies believers. They imagine He only alters the court records so that no one can legally prove their guilt. It is of the utmost comfort and satisfaction to know that all that we have done is vindicated by the part it plays in carrying out His intention. Do not let anyone sell you an imitation justification! God's is the actual, the genuine, the precious reality.
This is why we insist that all the world has not become "guilty" before God, as the Authorized Version mistranslates (Rom.3:19). The entire world is subject to the just verdict of God (C.V.). He withholds this verdict until the judgment, in the case of the unbeliever. The believer, however, is pronounced not guilty. He is acquitted, vindicated, justified, by faith. His sins, though contrary to God's will, were in line with His intention, in order that He might reveal Himself through them.
All that the usual theology has to offer us at the consummation, even in the saved, is a partial, patched, repaired, and repainted universe. The song of the saints will be in a minor key, "I was a guilty sinner." Their joy will be clouded by eternal regret and shame for their part in the tragedy of the eons. The eonian times will be the eyesore of eternity. Oh! if they only had not been! And so will God's wisdom and power be questioned, and His glory dimmed for He Himself must be the chief culprit in the collapse of His creation.
But away with such unworthy thoughts! The consummation will not reveal a patched, but a perfected universe. We will not be worrying about our past sins, but overwhelmed with God's wisdom and love in their vindication. Much as they distress us now, much as we fear them and avoid them and dread the very possibility of further sin, God will see to it that they will leave no stain, no blot to mar the bliss eternal, but will blend into His benign designs, and discover to a delighted universe the delicious depths of love which could not be displayed by any others device, or appreciated by any other plan.
This teaching is also the substructure for a mature experience in the things of God. It gives stability, a calm confidence in the face of the chaotic conditions which surround and engulf us. We are not worried, as once we were, by the awful opposition to God's will, nor do we fear for the fulfillment of His purpose. The flood tide of evil and sin, however contrary it may be to His will, is essential and indispensable to His ultimate intention. He is the great Alchemist Who will transmute everything into glorious gold by contact with the accursed tree.
It may not be easy to grasp the distinction between God's will and intention without, at the same time, revising our views on many related truths. We must have our eyes opened to the difference between evil and sin. Evil need not be wrong, while sin always is a mistake. We must determine the source of sin. We must see how God uses evil as a background to make good appear good. We must realize that sin is transmitted, not by a "sinful nature," but by inherited mortality. Then we will be able to understand how God justifies and repudiates sin. Above all, then will we revel in the discovery of a real God (a conception almost unknown today), not a magnified man, defeated and desperate amidst the ruins of His creation, but a Deity infinite in power, sublime in wisdom, limitless in His affections, Who is operating all in accord with the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11), in order to reveal Himself to our hearts as Light and Life and Love.
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