Does God cause sin? (part 2)

My comments interspersed.

Does God Cause Sin?

August 30, 2007 | By: David Mathis
Category: Commentary

This is part 2 of a 4-part series on how to talk about God’s sovereignty over sin.

Read Part 1, “Does God Author Sin? “

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The following is from The Doctrine of God, Chapter 9, “The Problem of Evil,” by John Frame. The headings are added; the paragraphs are Dr. Frame’s.
==2) Does God Cause Sin?

Causes is another term which has led to much wrestling by theologians. . . . Reformed writers have . . . denied that God is the cause of sin. Calvin teaches, “For the proper and genuine cause of sin is not God’s hidden counsel but the evident will of man,”1 though in context he also states that Adam’s Fall was “not without God’s knowledge and ordination.”2 Some other examples:

See that you make not God the author of sin, by charging his sacred decree with men’s miscarriages, as if that were the cause or occasion of them; which we are sure that it is not, nor can be, any more than the sun can be the cause of darkness.3

It is [God] who created, preserves, actuates and directs all things. But it by no means follows, from these premises, that God is therefore the cause of sin, for sin is nothing but anomia, illegality, want of conformity to the divine law (1 John iii. 4), a mere privation of rectitude; consequently, being itself a thing purely negative, it can have no positive or efficient cause, but only a negative or deficient one, as several learned men have observed.4

According to the Canons of Dort, “The cause or blame for this unbelief, as well as for all other sins, is not at all in God, but in man” (1.5).==

Chris: Elisha Coles (3) is quoted denying that God’s decree causes certain actions to come about. If Mr. Coles wants to use this analogy of sun and darkness, then I fail to see any substantial difference between him and either a dualist or deist. His analogy fails because God is the active cause of both the sun and the darkness as he himself would probably concede to. To actively cause the darkness of sin is not to commit the sin. Men like Coles are continually asserting this nefarious non sequitur by saying that to cause X (murder, let’s say) is to commit murder (X). Coles, Calvin, all the Dort men et al, would say if consistently honest that God murders. But of course, this would be ludicrous since God is not transgressing His law which says, “Thou shalt do no murder” when He actively causes a man to commit murder. It would be the same as when God actively causes a man to commit the sin of lying. To actively cause the lie is not to lie. It can be added further that a man is certainly in one sense the cause of his own sin. For it can be said that the man’s own lusts were the cause of his lie. But ultimately the man cannot be the utlimate metaphysical cause of his own sin since He is not God who is the great I AM.

==Cause and Ordain

In these quotations, cause seems to take on the connotations of the term author. For these writers, to say that God “causes” evil is to say, or perhaps imply, that he is to blame for it. Note the phrase “cause or blame” in the Canons of Dort, in which the terms seem to be treated as synonyms. But note above that although Calvin rejects cause he affirms ordination. God is not the “cause” of sin, but it is by his “ordination.” For the modern reader, the distinction is not evident. To ordain is to cause, and vice versa. If causality entails blame, then ordination would seem to entail it as well; if not, then neither entails it. But evidently in the vocabulary of Calvin and his successors there was a difference between the two terms==

Chris: Calvin affirms an alleged “ordination” or decree of sin apart from a causation of sin. This is where the Calvinist term, “efficacious permission” comes in. The Romans nine objector and many a Calvinist say with one presumptuous voice: Why does He yet find fault? For who can resist His will? For them, efficient and active causality in God entails blame for God. And then comes the rebuke by the Apostle to these fashionable Calvinists.

==We May Say That God Causes Sin

For us, the question arises as to whether God can be the efficient cause of sin, without being to blame for it. The older theologians denied that God was the efficient cause of sin . . . [in part] because they identified cause with authorship. But if . . . the connection between cause and blame in modern language is no stronger than the connection between ordination and blame, then it seems to me that it is not wrong to say that God causes evil and sin. Certainly we should employ such language cautiously, however, in view of the long history of its rejection in the tradition.==

Chris: Sure. Many a Calvinist can say that God causes sin. But they do not mean what the Bible means. For they speak of God as a “remote cause,” which I think is synonymous with saying that God is the efficacious permitter. Thus, by “cause” they do not mean active, but passive.

If I say that I will do this or that if God permits then knowing what I believe about God’s active control over all things, I would think that by my use of the word “permits” one would not think that I am necessarily denying God’s active causation and control over all actions and events by using the word “permit.”

==Remote and Proximate Causes

It is interesting that Calvin does use cause, referring to God’s agency in bringing evil about, when he distinguishes between God as the “remote cause” and human agency as the “proximate cause.” Arguing that God is not the “author of sin,” he says, “the proximate cause is one thing, the remote cause another.”5 ==

Chris: Take Isaiah 10:15. The proximate cause of the tree falling down is the axe; the axe was the proximate cause of the falling tree. The remote cause is the woodsman who swings the axe. And so the remote cause of the tree falling down is the woodsman. I have no problem with this proximate/ultimate distinction, as long as the incoherent and unbiblical phrase “sovereign permission” is left out of this distinction.

==Calvin points out that when wicked men steal Job’s goods, Job recognizes that “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” The thieves, proximate cause of the evil, are guilty; but Job doesn’t question the motives of the Lord, the remote cause. Calvin does not, however, believe that the proximate/ultimate distinction is sufficient to show us why God is guiltless:==

Chris: The WHY is laid out in Romans 9:20-24. But for Calvin, the issue of God’s efficient and absolute sovereignty and the Creator/creature distinction does not sufficiently solve the problem of why God is not a sharer in the sins of the thieves.

==But how it was ordained by the foreknowledge and decree of God what man’s future was without God being implicated as associate in the fault as the author and approver of transgression, is clearly a secret so much excelling the insight of the human mind, that I am not ashamed to confess ignorance.6==

Chris: God actively and efficiently caused/authored the transgression of thievery; therefore God approves of the transgression of thievery. Yeah, that follows. Calvin makes a confession of false piety by confessing ignorance. But this pseudo-piety of Calvin is just a cloak to vainly cover up the fact that he is Paul’s objector in the ninth chapter of the book of Romans.

==He uses the proximate/remote distinction merely to distinguish between the causality of God and that of creatures, and therefore to state that the former is always righteous. But he does not believe the distinction solves the problem of evil. . . .==

Chris: Of course not. And this is because Calvin refuses to jettison the fallacious reasoning that says that for God to actively cause sin is to be the one who commits and approves of the sin. Calvin pretends to defend the holiness of God while robbing Him of His Sovereignty.

==At least, the above discussion does indicate that Calvin is willing in some contexts to refer to God as a cause of sin and evil. Calvin also describes God as the sole cause of the hardening and reprobation of the wicked:

Therefore, if we cannot assign any reason for his bestowing mercy on his people, but just that it so pleases him, neither can we have any reason for his reprobating others but his will. When God is said to visit mercy or harden whom he will, men are reminded that they are not to seek for any cause beyond his will.7==

Chris: Of course, for Calvin, this is not Biblical active hardening, but unbiblical “permissive hardening.”


1 Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (London: James Clarke and Co., 1961), 122.

2 Ibid., 121.

3 Elisha Coles, A Practical Discourse on God’s Sovereignty (Marshallton, DE: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1968), 15. Reprint of a seventeenth-century work.

4 Jerome Zanchius, Observations On the Divine Attributes, in Absolute Predestination (Marshallton, DE: National Foundation for Christian Education, nd), 33. Compare the formulations of post-reformation dogmaticians Polan and Wolleb in RD, 143, and of Mastricht on 277. All of these base their arguments on the premise that evil is a mere privation.

5 Calvin, op. cit., 181.

6 Ibid., 124.

7 Calvin, ICR 3.22.11. Compare 3.23.1.