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Benedict Pictet on God’s Governance of Sin

October 5, 2007

With regard to the beginning of sin, God is concerned with it in various ways, first, by permitting it. This. the scripture teaches us–I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust, and they walked in their awn counsels,” (Psalm lxxxi. 12.)” Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways,” (Acts xiv. 16.) But here we must carefully observe, that permission does not imply approbation; far be it from us to say this of God. Again, we must not imagine that it is a mere cessation of the divine will, as though God either ignorantly, or unwillingly, or even indifferently, permitted what he does permit; for this is contrary both to his wisdom and to his power, since there is nothing more unworthy of God, than to suffer any thing to take place, and at the same time to wink at it, or to behold any thing taking place, while he himself (if we may so speak) remains an inactive spectator of it. Further, to permit is not simply not-to-prevent, as is evident from this one argument-If God permits sin by not preventing it, he either wills not-to-prevent it, or he put forth no act of volition at all; if the latter, then the event takes place, either against God’s will, and without any regard on his part, which it were impious to assert; if the former, then that permission will not be a simple non-prevention, but an effectual volition on the part of God, whereby he suffers man to use his own liberty, and puts no hindrance in the way of sin. This permission also includes the preservation of man’s life and faculties, which God could take away, if he wished to prevent sin, as he took away life from Pharaoh, Sennacherib, and Ahaz’s soldiers (Exod. xiv; 2 Kings xix. 37; i.10,12); and as he took away strength and power from the Sodomite~, from Balaam, from Jeroboam, from the Syrian hosts (Gen. six. 10; Numb. xxiii.12, 26; xxiv.13; 1 Kings xiii. 4; 2 Kings vi.18,19.) It implies also the not opposing a superior strength and power by way of hindrance. This then is the jr6t act of God in reference to sin. Do not ask why God hath permitted it; for it is not for us to pry into these secrets: we are sure he has permitted, the reason why is unknown; this only we know, that God brings forth out of the darkness of sin the light of his own glory.

The second act, by which God is concerned with sin, is that by which he forsakes the sinner, giving him up to himself, taking away from him the light which he has abused, and the Spirit which restrained him, so that, all barriers being removed, he rushes headlong, the reins being as it were thrown loosely on his neck. Thus God is said to have ” given up the Gentiles to vile affections, to their own lusts, and to a reprobate mind,” (Rom. i. 24, 26, 28); and so Zachariah the son of Jehoiada, said to the people,  “Because ye have forsaken the Lord, he hath also forsaken you,” (2 Chron. xxiv. 20.) Thus we read of God’s smiting men with mudne68, blindness, and hardness of heart, making heavy or stopping their ears, &c.

The third act is that by which God presents opportunities in objects not evil in themselves, but which by corrupt man are turned into evil; now these objects God proposes, either by not preventing the things which offer themselves to man voluntarily and in a natural order, or else by some particular influence on them; and that these opportunities and objects do not of their own nature force to evil is evident from this, that very often the same objects produce different effects in different subjects, as one and the same food is sweet to one, and tasteless to another–healthful to this man, but injurious to that, on account of the different constitution of their bodies. Thus we see that David was tempted to adultery by only looking at Bathsheba; while Joseph could not be drawn to the same sin, even by the repeated solicitations of his mistress.

Under this head comes that also, by which God does not remove the occasions of sin, and those objects in reference to which men feel inclined to commit sin, as he prevented Saul from killing David, Ahab and Jezebel from killing the prophets, and the forty Jews from killing Paul, (I Sam. six.11,12; 1 Kings xviii. 4; Acts xxiii.12.)

The fourth act is that, by which Hod, being angry with the sinner, gives the reins to Satan, who being thus free to act, “worketh in the children of disobedience,” (Eph. x. 2.)

And the fifth act is that, which God stirs up in the mind some thoughts, which are good in themselves, but which sinful man can abuse; thus he willed that Joseph’s brethren should think that he was specially beloved by their father, which thought consumed them with envy, and urged them on to wicked and murderous designs. These points can be very plainly proved from scripture; but the question is, Whether God does any thing more in respect to sin, than what we have already laid down? Now many parts of scripture appear to intimate that he does something more; for instance, he is said to have “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,”–to have given David’s wives to Absalom,–to have commanded Shimei to curse David,–and to send a lying spirit,” &c.. What is the exact meaning of such expressions, I will honestly confess I am ignorant. Most divines attempt to explain it by saying, that God is the author of the essence of human actions, by virtue of his concurrence in producing them, but not the author of their sinfulness. To prove this, they observe that it is not an unusual thing for one and the same action to have two causes; for instance, the soul of a lame man is the principle or cause of that man’s motion, when be walks, inasmuch as it sends out of the brain, where it is situated, animal spirits into the nerves and muscles of the man’s legs; but if the man is lame, the soul is not the cause of that lameness, although the cause of the walking, but the bad affection either of the leg, or of the man himself: and in the same manner a king is the cause of the death which ir inflicted on a criminal by the executioner, yet he is not the cause of any cruelty which may be shewn in that death, or of the hatred under the influence of which the executioner may put the man to death, h~ having been previously his enemy.

2. That actions cannot be said to be essentially good and evil, but that they are so according to their different circumstances (which indeed is the case with at least the most part); for instance, to kill may be a good or a bad action; good, if commanded by the magistrate; bad, if done by a private individual.

3. That most affections or passions are of themselves neither good nor bad, as love, desire, hatred, &c. they have nothing evil in themselves; and, consequently, God may excite these affections, without directing them to what is evil.

4. That there are many actions, which are good in regard to the essence of the action, but which become evil in reference, not to the action, but to the mode in which it is done, (which mode doer not necessarily go along with the action,) and which may, therefore, spoil an action otherwise good, and commanded by God, as in the cases of praying, fasting, or giving alms, to be seen of men, In these things it is easy to comprehend how the action is from God, but the evil of it from man.

5. That these two points may be distinguished even in sins of omission; for it is not true, that in such sins there is no action at all. Every omission has an act of the will, either preceding or accompanying it, which is the cause of that omission. These, then, are the consideration by which divines endeavor to illustrate the difficult question of the Providence of God over evil actions.

But there are certain actions which appear to be evil in their very nature, such as hatred of God, &. In these it is very difficult to distinguish the essence of the action from the wickedness of it. Now divines reply, that in these, as well as in those before treated of, the act itself may be distinguished f m the sinfulness of the act. But because I know that many cannot conceive this, it has sometimes occurred to me, that we may put it in this form: (God in these actions is the author of the motions which precede them; for instance, the motions which precede the hatred of God, but not the author of the act of hatred. And these are the arguments which bate occurred to me in proof of this position: first, in order that hatred of God may be stirred ap within the mind, certain motions must be previously stirred up in the body, and also certain thoughts in the said, by which it is inclined to bate any object which may be presented to it. These motions and thoughts are not at all evil of themselves, but that direction of them towards God, which takes place by our own will, is the greatest of all sins (hatred of God).

Secondly, there is no reason why God should not be said, by acting on the blood, or on the spirits, or on the mind, to excite thorn motions, nay, even that very affection which we call hatred. Bot because the affections always select some objects, and are very frequently directed towards those which are presented to them, it comes to pass, that corrupt man, in whom the affection of hatred has been excited, having his thoughts at the time about God, wickedly hates, or feels a hatred of him.

Thirdly, if any one cannot conceive how the affection of hatred can be excited, without any direction to an object, let it be observed, that we are very often in such a state, as that all things displease us, and we are prepared to hate whatever objects may be presented to us, although there is no object particularly before us at the time. Be it observed also, that no man can feel a hatred of God, except many things have before preceded in his mind, which it would be too tedious to detail. When I have been asked upon this subject, Why God should excite such an affection of hatred in man, as he knows will produce a great sin? I have asked in my turn, Why God has at any time permitted a sin, which he was able to . prevent? why he permits objects to he presented, which he knows will influence men to sin? why be preserves the faculties or powers of man, which he knows he will abuse? I replied further, That God ought in no wise to be blamed: because those affections, opportunities, and objects do not of themselves influence men to sin, but only through man’s corruption, of which God is not in any way the author; and because he by no means forces to sin, but on the contrary, forbids sin, and threatens punishment to the transgressor; it is man, who by his natural propensity freely commits sin. This is the way in which we have ventured to illustrate our opinion; perhaps it will satisfy some; if not, let them maintain other views, such as we have before given. So much for God’s providence in respect to the beginning of sin.

The acts of divine Providence in regard to the progress of sin, or sin while it is being committed, are three. The first consists in God’s directing sinners unconsciously to themselves, so that they sin in reference to one object rather than another, not that he inspires men with an evil inclination, but he overrules their natural propensities in such a manner, that they direct them to an object, which God hath determined to punish. This is exemplified in the king of Assyria, whom God designing to bend to the Jews in order to punish their impiety, so directed the oracles which he consulted, being doubtful whether he should make war upon the Ammonites, or upon the Jews, that having passed by the former, he marched against the latter. The record act consists in God’s causing the sin not to reach the end designed by the sinner, but another end designed by God long before; thus he so overruled the sin of Joseph’s brethren, that they contributed to accomplish his exaltation, which they designed b prevent The third is that, by which God sets limits or bounds to sin, so that it may not increase to a greater height, or spread to a greater extent, or last a longer time; and this he accomplishes in various ways, such as by enlightening the mind, restraining the desires, removing evil opportunities, &c. Thus God did not suffer the bones of Christ to be broken; (John xix. 36,) or Joseph to be destroyed by his brethren, Peter by Herod, Job by Satan. The act of divine Providence in regard to the end of sin, or sin when it k been committed, are various. One act is, the direction of the sin to a good end, as the selling of Joseph to the preservation of Jacob’s family, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ to the redemption of mankind. Just as a judge may make use of lions and other beasts for the punishment of criminal, or a physician leeches which will not let go the skin till they are full of blood; and also vipers, for the curing of sick persons. Another act is the punishing of sin, both in this life, and in the life to come, and also the forgiving and pardoning of it. Bat we have now said enough on this subject; only we must in the next chapter explain. some passages of scripture, which seem to make God the author or worker of sin.

Benedict Pictet, Christian Theology trans., by Frederick Reyroux, (Fleet Street London: R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1834), 171-177.

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