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Reforming Sin

Reforming Sin

One of the most important things that Reformed people face in their enunciation of God's sovereignty is the origin of sin and evil. We are constantly bombarded with the theodicy issue and frankly, do not always handle our answers very well.

I don't want to try and solve the theodicy issue in a single blog or series. However, I do want to address the Reformed confessions and repute poor answers that stem from Reformed individuals. There are a number of reasons to stress the sovereignty of God in our answers, but it should never infringe upon the clarity of our belief.

Westminster Confession of Faith

It stands without comment that the Westminster standards affirm that "God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass" (WCF III.I). Thus it is confessional to say that God has ordained all things that will ever happen. Many with certain philosophical convictions will think the conversation ends right there. It seems to follow that God must be the author and originator of sin.

However, the confession speaks in this manner while also affirming a couple other philosophical categories. It is important to permit the Westminster Divines to fully flesh out their philosophy of sovereignty and responsibility:

"Yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established." (WCF III.I)
"Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently." (WCF VI.II)

All of this philosophical jargon is important when we look at the issue of sin. Westminster completely affirms the primary causation attributed to God. But it fully affirms that this primary causation is the foundation of real secondary will, liberty, and contingency. This is high-level talk for a 100% sovereignty and 100% human responsibility equation. While some might not accept this equation, it is the principled theology of Westminster.

This is incredibly crucial because while God can choose to work apart from means, the Confession does not attribute many actions to such a method stating. God's "ordinary providence" is facilitated through means. They acknowledged God's freedom "above" and even "against" His creatures, but were slow to describe cases of such behavior:

"God, in His ordinary providence, makes use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure." (WCF V.III)

So whenever the Westminster Divines affirm God's "ordaining work," we must understand that they do so in a manner that affirms people's responsibilities in decisions and choices. This is not a philosophical or theological determinism, God is not working "without, above, [or] against" means. But sometimes, Reformed individuals seem to almost say the opposite while enumerating the great sovereignty of God. Some even refuse to speak as the confession does of God permitting things amongst His ordained will:

"This their [Adam and Eve] sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory." (WCF VI.I)

So is it wrong to speak of God "permitting" an event? Apparently not to the Divines. Nor does such language contradict the affirmation of God's sovereign ordaining of all things. Because in God's act of ordaining all things, He grounds, founds, and establishes the use of means in man's will both in the scope of "liberty" and "contingency."

Source of Sin

"The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin." (WCF V.IV)

This is potentially the most important quote in the WCF concerning sin. It is important to read the section in light of the philosophical distinctions previously mentioned. God's will and counsel establishes secondary means. But the greater concern here (and one echoed in other Reformed confessions) is the prevailing idea that all activities (and particularly sins) occur completely outside of God's will and plan. Does sin occur so apart from God that He is merely left juggling potential resolution that brings Him glory? The Divines say "no" stating that sin occurs "not by a bare permission."

This means that God's will is not absent from sin, but instead, it is "joined" (not the uniqueness of this word) to accomplish His "holy ends." The Divines could have forcefully pushed a determinism here. Instead, they show restraint emphasizing the full responsibility of man's responsibility in sin and profound resolution in their language choices. In regards to sinful activity, God's will is consigned to a "powerful bounding" to bring about glory from grief. This removes God from being "author or approver of sin." Thus, God's ordaining is not "author[ship]," He is the "primary cause" of all that happens but not the origin of sin. Sin occurs in God's ordaining through the liberty of man and fall nature. It is God's sovereign will[ingness], through grace, to make from sin a path for His holy ends.

Other Confessions

At this point, it is helpful to look at other Reformed confessions and the way that they speak. In particular, the Belgic Confession and Second Helvetic both intentional call out the Epicureans in their depictions of God's sovereignty. This wholesale rejection of a God who created but now stand far off should be shared by those outside of the Reformed faith.

The Belgic Confession takes a very tempered approach in how it articulates this issues:

"We believe that this good God, after creating all things, did not abandon them to chance or fortune but leads and governs them according to his holy will, in such a way that nothing happens in this world without God’s orderly arrangement. Yet God is not the author of, and cannot be charged with, the sin that occurs
We do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what God does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend.
For that reason we reject the damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God does not get involved in anything and leaves everything to chance." (Article 13)

One can see that the Reformed position specifically calls out leaving anything to chance. God is engaged, but not in such a way that the origin or authorship of sin can be attributed to Him. As we saw in the WCF, even sin itself is not just left to chance such that it is outside of God's ordaining control. The Second Helvetic states the same concern:

"We therefore condemn the Epicureans who deny the providence of God, and all those who blasphemously say that God is busy with the heavens and neither sees nor cares about us and our affairs.
Nevertheless, we do not spurn as useless the means by which divine providence works, but we teach that we are to adapt ourselves to them in so far as they are recommended to us in the Word of God. Wherefore we disapprove of the rash statements of those who say that if all things are managed by the providence of God, then our efforts and endeavors are in vain." (Chapter VI)


The Reformed position on sin and its origin is simple. Nothing occurs outside of the ordaining of God. He has joined His will to the second causes and liberty of man to work things for His glory. In this, even as the primary cause of all things, He is neither the originator or author of sin. Instead, man in his nature—so also the fallenness of the world—is the source of sin in the world.

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