Does God’s Sovereignty Mean He Makes People Evil? (Part 1)

This was originally sent on 10/14/07 to a discussion group consisting of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I had posted this in response to an article written by Phil Johnson (of Pyromaniac fame) entitled, “Does God’s Sovereignty Mean He Makes People Evil?” (I may edit my writing from what it was in the original post):

I post this for a few reasons:

1) Phil Johnson is a very popular heretic Calvinist blogger. 2) This is a recent post by him (October 8, 2007). 3) To answer the question posed by Johnson is his article: Yes. For Scripture’s use of an unbelieving objector who asks “Why did you make me like this?” The apostle Paul does NOT answer the question like Johnson does. Johnson–and many, many Calvinists before him throughout history–says, “no, no you got it all wrong. He didn’t make you like this.” But the Apostle Paul does not disagree with the objector making him like this–for Paul says that God has the right and authority to make you a vessel of wrath or a vessel of mercy.

Also, in stark contrast to what Phil Johnson articulates below, is how Marc articulates the Potter and clay passage at the end of this post. Here is Phil Johnson’s article:

Does God’s Sovereignty Mean He Makes People Evil? (by Phil Johnson)

A fellow who espouses hypercalvinism wrote me to argue that there is no such thing as “common grace.” He insisted that God’s “apparent goodness” to the reprobate has no other purpose than to increase their condemnation. He was convinced that God is as active in making the reprobate wicked as He is in conforming the elect to the image of Christ. And for “proof,” he cited Romans 5:20: “The law entered that the offense might abound.”

My view, of course, is different from his.

So let’s think through some of these issues carefully. Consider, first of all, that the law has the effect of provoking sin in the elect as well as the reprobate. Even the apostle Paul testified that the tenth commandment stirred up all manner of coveting in his heart (Romans 7:8). He went on to explain in verse 13 that this is because the law was given to make sin appear exceedingly sinful. In other words, the law makes sin abound in order to confront us with the reality and magnitude of our sin. But that is ultimately a gracious purpose, and the second half of Romans 5:20 makes that point inescapable:

“The law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.” So the exacerbating of sin is not an end in itself. God’s ultimate purpose, and that which He delights in, is not the sin, but the superabounding grace.

Moreover, even while the law is provoking us to rebellion, the Lord through common grace usually restrains sinners–including the reprobate–from giving full expression to their sin (cf. Genesis 20:6; Romans 2:14-15).

So it is my conviction that the overall effect of common grace on the reprobate will be to decrease their condemnation, not increase it. But what about the potter-clay analogy in Romans 9? my hypercalvinist correspondent wondered.

We need to think that through carefully, too. The potter starts with a lump of clay–something inherently filthy and base, with hardening properties already defining its very nature. So the clay is analogous to fallen humanity–useless for anything at all except in the hands of the heavenly Potter.

Left alone, clay will harden into something permanently worthless. But when a skilled potter applies His work to that amorphous lump of filthy clay, he always makes it useful. He improves the clay lump into something that can be employed for good purposes.

The end-products are of varying quality, of course, because they are made for different purposes. Sometimes the potter makes fine pottery that may include veritable works of art; other times he makes ash trays. But he starts with the same glob of clay, and all his finished products are superior to the worthless lumps they would have been apart from His work.

That’s exactly what Paul meant when he spoke of vessels of honor and dishonor. “Dishonorable” vessels in Paul’s analogy would be things like diaper pails, chamber pots, spittoons, garbage containers, and whatnot. The vessel used in such a way is “dishonorable” in the sense that you don’t put it on display for honored guests, or use it to serve your Thanksgiving Turducken (Or pizza, as the case may be). But the potter who makes such dishonorable vessels isn’t himself dishonorable. Nor are his purposes dishonorable. On the contrary, they are good (Imagine a world without garbage containers).

So the potter imagery does not suggest that God works to make the reprobate worse or worse off than they would have been without His work, nor does it suggest that He delights in increasing their condemnation. In fact, if their damnation is ultimately exacerbated in any sense because of His work, it is precisely because they have despised and spurned His goodness, which ought to lead them to repentance (Romans 2:4)-not because He deliberately made them into something worse than they would have been otherwise. If they are worse off because of His goodness to them, it is their own fault. His goodness is not a mask for some hideous secret delight over their damnation.

The example of Pharaoh, cited by Paul in Romans 9, is a case in point. We are not to imagine that the potter-clay imagery suggests God made Pharaoh evil. The proclivity of Pharaoh’s heart was already evil. Pharaoh’s hatred for God and the things of God was Pharaoh’s own character flaw, certainly not something God was responsible for.

Let me give you an illustration. When I was in high school, I had an old car, a beautiful 1954 Chevrolet Bel Aire (I wish I still had it). But in those days it was not quite the antique it would be today, and far from being a classic, it had some rather severe mechanical problems. One was that it steered left all the time. If I wanted to make it go straight down the road, I had to exert a steady pull to the right. But if I wanted to change to the left lane, I simply had to release that pressure, and the car would automatically veer left.

God exercises His sovereignty over an evil heart very much like that. The heart of Pharaoh was in God’s hands so that He could turn it whithersoever He willed (Proverbs 21:1). But when it served God’s sovereign plan for Pharaoh to turn stubborn, God did not have to exert force to pull him in an evil direction. God did not need to infuse an evil intention into Pharaoh’s heart. God simply withdrew His influence and Pharaoh’s own evil inclination steered him into the left lane, fulfilling God’s plan.

John Calvin has an interesting section dealing with this very issue in his Institutes (II.4.3). He writes:

“God is very often said to blind and harden the reprobate. … There are two methods in which God may so act. [1] When his light is taken away, nothing remains but blindness and darkness: when his Spirit is taken away, our hearts become hard as stones: when his guidance is withdrawn, we immediately turn from the right path: and hence he is properly said to incline, harden, and blind those whom he deprives of the faculty of seeing, obeying, and rightly executing. [2] The second method…is when executing his judgements by Satan as the minister of his anger, God both directs men’s counsels, and excites their wills, and regulates their efforts as he pleases.”

So when Scripture says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, we are not to think God infused an evil desire into Pharaoh, or sovereignly steered him in a direction Pharaoh was himself not inclined to go. Pharaoh’s own will was already inclined toward evil; God simply permitted Pharaoh to fulfill the already-evil intentions of his own fallen heart and will. Or in other words, God sealed the will of Pharaoh in its own evil intention, and then used Pharaoh’s evil designs to accomplish God’s good purposes.

In fact, God’s agency in hardening Pharaoh’s heart is exactly like the agency of the sun in hardening clay. The sun is in no way tainted or influenced by its contact with the clay; but the clay is profoundly affected by the sun’s rays.

Furthermore, the property that gives clay its hardness is a property that belongs to the clay, not the sun. Want proof? Put a block of ice in the sun and see what happens to that. It will melt rather than harden. So the property that leads to the hardening of clay is something in the clay. Left to itself the clay will harden with or without exposure to the sun’s bright light. The sun merely accelerates the natural process.

And that is precisely the effect the Word of God had on Pharaoh. So while we may truly say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it is vital to remember that the sinful properties that caused the hardening lay in Pharaoh’s own heart. Pharaoh alone was responsible for his stubbornness. God, though sovereignly in control from beginning to end, bore no responsibility whatsoever for the evil that emanated from Pharaoh’s own will. [End of Phil Johnson article]

The following is part of a correspondence between Marc and an unbeliever. Again, please note the striking difference between the biblical view articulated below and Phil Johnson’s view quoted above:

You are saying that God did not unconditionally choose to damn certain people before the foundation of the world, that God does not actively harden people, and that man has a will that is independent of God’s active causation.

There is no such thing as “free will” in any sense of the word. God actively directs and causes all actions and events, including the sins of men and angels. I am not typing this e-mail to you out of my own “free will”; I am typing it because God is causing me to type it. Men do not sin of their own “free will”; they sin because God causes them to sin. He does not merely “permit” sin; He actively causes men to sin. This is especially seen in the crucifixion. A man from our assembly and I were just discussing this this past Sunday. Pilate told the Jews that he could find no fault in Jesus Christ. If the Jews had the “free will” to choose to crucify Christ or not, it is possible that they could have been convinced by Pilate either to let Jesus Christ go or to inflict some lesser punishment. Of course, this did not happen, because God caused them to do what God had determined beforehand would be done (Acts 4:27-28). God turns the king’s heart wherever He desires (Proverbs 21:1). God turns turns His people’s enemies’ hearts to hate His people and to deal craftily with His servants (Psalm 105:25). Everything is controlled by God. If there is even one action that is not controlled by God, then there is at least one will that is independent of God, and God is not God.

The Christian Confession of Faith states it like this (and take note of the Scripture proofs):

God absolutely controls all actions and events; nothing at all happens by chance or merely by His permission. All actions and events happen because of His sovereign decree, including the sins of men and angels. Contrary to the aspersions of the enemies of God, this doctrine does not attribute sin to God; instead, it provides great comfort for believers. [Gen 50:20; Exo 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; Deu 2:30; 32:39; Jos 11:20; 1Sa 2:6-8,25; 2Sa 17:14; 2Ch 10:15; 11:4; 25:20; 36:22; Job 12:14-25; 23:13-14; 26:7-12; Psa 105:25; 115:3; 135:5-7; Pro16:4,33; 21:1; Isa 40:23-26; 42:9; 43:13; 45:6-7; 46:9-11; Jer 18:6; 52:3; Eze 17:24; Hab 1:6,12; Joh 19:11; Act 2:23; 4:27-28; Eph 1:11; Rev 17:17]

Romans 9:19-21 refutes the lie that man’s “free will” is how a sinner is held accountable for the acts of sin he performs. The sinner asks, “Why does He yet find fault? For who has resisted His will?” In other words, why does God hold me accountable, since God controls what I do?

How does Paul answer this question? If he were a “free will” heretic, he would have said something like, “You know, you’re right. God really wouldn’t have a reason to find fault with you if He were the one controlling what you do. The only reason you’re accountable for the acts of sin you perform is because God does not actively cause you to sin; you sin of your own free will.”

But that’s not how Paul answers it, because Paul is a believer. Instead of saying that man has a “free will,” he says, “O man, WHO ARE YOU answering against God?” He says that man has absolutely no business shaking his fist at God for making him do certain things. And why does man have absolutely no business doing that? Is it because God didn’t make him do certain things? Yes, say the heretics. NO, says the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul: “Shall the thing formed say to the former, Why did you make me like this? Or does not the potter have authority over the clay, out of the one lump to make one vessel to honor, and one to dishonor?” In other words, God is saying that He has the right to make certain people for SALVATION and certain people for DAMNATION and to SHOW MERCY to whom He desires and to HARDEN whom He desires (v. 18). This clay is not “already dishonorable before God makes anyone,” as some heretics would like to say. This clay is unformed man. Some people are formed — created — for the purpose of hardening and damnation. Some people are formed — created — for the purpose of mercy and salvation.

If you do not believe this, then you might as well go back to your Arminian and tolerant Calvinist brothers and sisters, because you believe the same thing they do.