B. How God Lays the Crook
In this section, Boston considers the nature of God’s agency as it relates to the placing of a crook in the lot:
Secondly, That we may see how the crook in the lot is of God’s making, we must distinguish between pure sinless crooks, and impure sinful ones.
1. Those troubles which do not entail “defilement”
Some troubles are a matter of pain, but do not include any sinful action (as opposed to those troubles which are inherently sinful and cause pain):
First, There are pure and sinless crooks: the which are mere afflictions, cleanly crosses; grievous indeed, but not defiling.
These are the sort of things which by their presence make life difficult, illness, poverty. God can cause these things directly to be present without God being the author of sin:
Such were Lazarus’s poverty, Rachel’s barrenness, Leah’s tender eyes, the blindness of the man who had been so from his birth, John 9:1. Now the crooks of this kind, are of God’s making by the efficacy of his power directly bringing them to pass, and causing them to be.
To prove God’s more direct agency in this things he cites passages which God claims responsibility for poverty:
And physical trouble:
It is he that hath the key of the womb, and, as he sees meet, shuts it, (1 Sam. 1:5.) or opens it, Gen. 39:21. And it is he that formed the eye, Psal. 94:9. And the man was born blind, that the works of God should be made manifest in him, John 9:3. Therefore he saith to Moses, Exod. 4:11. “Who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? Have not I the Lord?”
While God does use secondary agents, a blind person has eyes that do not function correctly; and there will be an actual physical loss whether through injury or malformation; God does not work through an inherently sinful agent:
Such crooks in the lot are of God’s making, in the most ample sense, and in their full comprehension, being the direct effects of his agency, as well as the heavens and the earth are.
2. Those Crooks Which Entail Sin
There are other troubles which are the direct result of sinful action. A baby can be born with a physical abnormality and no human being’s sin directly caused the problem. But there are other troubles are the direct result of sin, like one who suffers through the criminal actions of another:
Secondly, There are impure sinful crooks, which, in their own nature, are sins as well as afflictions, defiling as well as grievous. Such was the crook made in David’s lot, through his family disorders, the defiling of Tamar, the murder of Amnon, the rebellion of Absalom, all of them unnatural. Of the same kind was that made in Job’s lot, by the Sabeans and Chaldeans taking away his substance, and slaying his servants.
This class of trouble presents a serious problem, because it appears that God caused the evil to take place:
As these were the afflictions of David and Job, respectively, so they were the sins of the actors, the unhappy instruments thereof. Thus one and the same thing may be, to one a heinous sin, defiling and laying him under guilt: and to another an affliction, laying him under suffering only. Now, the crooks of this kind are not of God’s making, in the same latitude as those of the former; for he neither puts evil in the hearts of any, nor stirreth up to it; “He cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempeth he any man, Jam. 1:13. But they are of his making, by his holy permission of them, powerful bounding of them, and wise over-ruling of them to some good end.
As we look to how Boston solves this problem, I will reference John Frame’s note on the difficulty of this issue:
We have seen that natural evil is a curse that God placed on the world in response to man’s sin. We also saw earlier, in chapter 8, that God does harden hearts, and through his prophets he predicts sinful human actions long in advance, indicating that he is in control of human free decisions. Now, theologians have found it difficult to formulate in general terms how God acts to bring about those sinful actions. Earlier in the chapter, we saw Gilson arguing that God is not the cause of sin and evil because evil is nonbeing and therefore has no cause. Gilson is willing to say that God is the deficient cause (which sounds like a contrast to efficient cause), meaning that God creates mutable beings, but does not determine the specific defects that constitute sin. I found his privation theory, and his view of libertarian freedom, inadequate. But the discussion brings out an issue that we all must think about. Do we want to say that God is the “cause” of evil? That language is certainly problematic, since we usually associate cause with blame. Consider Mike, who made Billy put graffiti on the school door. Billy, of course, made the marks, but Mike caused him to do it. And so, most of us would agree, Mike deserves the blame. So it seems that if God causes sin and evil, he must be to blame for it. Therefore, there has been much discussion among theologians as to what verb best describes God’s agency in regard to evil. Some initial possibilities: authors, brings about, causes, controls, creates, decrees, foreordains, incites, includes within his plan, makes happen, ordains, permits, plans, predestines, predetermines, produces, stands behind, wills. Many of these are extrascriptural terms; none of them are perfectly easy to define in this context. So theologians need to give some careful thought to which of these terms, if any, should be affirmed, and in what sense.
Frame, John M.. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief . P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition. This is an extremely debated field. Frame does provide a fascinating way to consider the matter:
I should, however, say something more about the nature of God’s agency in regard to evil. Recall from earlier in this chapter the model of the author and his story: God’s relationship to free agents is like the relationship of an author to his characters. Let us consider to what extent God’s relationship to human sin is like that of Shakespeare to Macbeth, the murderer of Duncan. I borrowed the Shakespeare/Macbeth illustration from Wayne Grudem’s excellent GST. But I do disagree with Grudem on one point. He says that we could say that either Macbeth or Shakespeare “killed King Duncan.” I agree, of course, that both Macbeth and Shakespeare are responsible, at different levels of reality, for the death of Duncan. But as I analyze the language that we typically use in such contexts, it seems clear to me that we would not normally say that Shakespeare killed Duncan. Shakespeare wrote the murder into his play. But the murder took place in the world of the play, not the real world of the author. Macbeth did it, not Shakespeare. We sense the rightness of the poetic justice brought against Macbeth for his crime. But we would certainly consider it very unjust if Shakespeare were tried and put to death for killing Duncan. And no one suggests that there is any problem in reconciling Shakespeare’s benevolence with his omnipotence over the world of the drama. Indeed, there is reason for us to praise Shakespeare for raising up this character, Macbeth, to show us the consequences of sin.
Frame, John M.. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief . P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Boston does provide a three-part answer to the problem of God’s relationship to evil. However, not everyone will find his answers satisfactory; and indeed the question is quite difficult.
a. God grants human beings a measure of free-will, even to sin.
The first argument could be called the “freewill defense”. There is sin, because God permits human beings freewill; even to the point of hurting other human beings. The arugment is as follows: Human beings will sin given the chance. We are rebellious and perverse. Thus, unless God actively restrains a human being from sin, sin will happen.
If I am holding the leash on an angry dog, I do not make the dog bite anyone; but I could permit the dog to bite if I were to let go of the leash.
First, He holily permits them, suffering men to walk in their own ways, Acts 14:16. Though he is not the author of these sinful crooks, causing them to be by the efficacy of his power; yet, if he did not permit them, willing not to hinder them, they could not be at all; for he shutteth, and no man openeth, Rev. 3:7.
Since God has the power to control men, the decision to not exercise that control can result in a sinful action taking place:
But he justly with-holds his grace, which the sinner does not desire, takes off the restraint under which he is uneasy, and, since the sinner will be gone, lays the reigns on his neck, and leaves him to the swing of his lust. Hos. 4:17. “Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.” Psal. 81:11, 12. “Israel would none of me. So I gave them up to their own hearts’ lusts.” In which unhappy situation, the sinful crook doth, from the sinner’s own proper motion, natively and infallibly follow: even as water runs down a hill, wherever there is a gap left open before it. So, in these circumstances, “Israel walked in their own counsels,” ver. 12. And thus this kind of crook is of God’s making, as a just Judge, punishing the sufferer by it. The which view of the matter silenced David under Shimei’s cursings, 2 Sam. 16:10. “Let him alone, and let him curse: for the Lord hath bidden him.”
b. Even when God permits sin, God limits the scope of sin.
Secondly, He powerfully bounds them, Psal. 76:10. “The remainder of wrath” (namely, the creature’s wrath) “thou shalt restrain.”
This limitation on the scope of sin is a ground for hope, because without God’s limitation, sin would be to the uttermost always:
Did not God bound these crooks, howsoever sore they are in any one’s case, they would yet be sorer: but he says to the sinful instrument, as he said to the sea, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no farther: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed.” He lays a restraining band on him, that he cannot go one step farther, in the way his impetuous lust drives, than he sees meet to permit.
By limiting the scope for sin, God exercises control over our troubles:
Hence it comes to pass, that the crook of this kind is neither more nor less, but just as great as he by his powerful bounding makes it to be.
He then provides the example from Job. The Satan (the Accuser) is given power in two successive rounds to afflict Job, but with strict limitation:
An eminent instance thereof, we have in the case of Job, whose lot was crooked through a peculiar agency of the devil: but, even to the grand sinner, God set a bound in the case. “The Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power, only upon himself put not forth thine hand,” Job 1:12. Now Satan went the full length of the bound, leaving nothing within the compass thereof untouched, which he saw could make for his purpose, ver. 18, 19. But he could by no means move one step beyond it, to carry his point which he could not gain within it. And therefore to make the trial greater, and crook sorer, nothing remained, but that the bound set should be removed, and the sphere of his agency enlarged; for which cause he saith, “But touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” chap. 2:5. And it being removed accordingly, but withal a new one set, ver. 6. “Behold he is in thine hand, but save his life;” the crook was carried to the utmost that the new bound would permit, in a consistency with his design of bringing Job to blaspheme; “Satan smote him with sore boils, from the sole of his foot unto his crown, ver. 7. And had it not been for this bound, securing Job’s life, he, after finding this attempt successless too, had doubtless dispatched him for good and all.
c. God’s sovereignty controls the outcome of even evil actions
When the wicked cause affliction, their goal is a bad end for the one hurt. And while God may permit the injury, God does not lose control over the outcome. God can use an evil action to obtain a good end.
Thirdly, He wisely over-rules them to some good purpose becoming the divine perfections. While the sinful instrument hath an ill design in the crook caused by him, God directs it to a holy and good end.
Thomas Watson in A Divine Cordial makes this point with a very useful image:
Do not mistake me, I do not say that of their own nature, the worst things are good, for they are a fruit of the curse. But though they are naturally evil—yet the wise overruling hand of God disposing and sanctifying them—they are morally good. As the elements, though of contrary qualities—yet God has so tempered them, that they all work in a harmonious manner for the good of the universe. Or as in a watch, the wheels seem to move contrary one to another—but all carry on the motions of the watch: so things that seem to move cross to the godly—yet by the wonderful providence of God, work for their good.
Boston then provides examples. First, God used sinful actions to correct David:
In the disorders of David’s family, Amnon’s design was to gratify a brutish lust, Absalom’s to glut himself with revenge, and to satisfy his pride and ambition: but God meant thereby to punish David for his sin in the matter of Uriah.
Second, the murderous actions of the Sabeans effectuate God’s end
In the crook made in Job’s lot, by Satan and the Sabeans and Chaldeans his instruments, Satan’s design was to cause Job blaspheme, and theirs to gratify their covetousness: but God had another design therein, becoming himself, namely, to manifest Job’s sincerity and uprightness. Did not he wisely and powerfully over-rule these crooks made in men’s lot, no good could come out of them: but he always over-rules them so, as to fulfil his own holy purposes thereby, bowbeit the sinner meaneth not so; for his designs cannot miscarry, his counsel shall stand, Isa. 46:10.
And this is as God has promised:
So the sinful crook is, by the over-ruling hand of God, turned about to his own glory, and his people’s good, in the end; according to the word, Prov. 16:4. “The Lord hath made all things for himself.” Rom. 8:28. “All things work together for good to them that love God.” Thus Haman’s plot, for the destruction of the Jews, was turned to the contrary, Esth. 9:1.
The final example is the case of Joseph’s brother’s selling him as a slave; an evil action which in the end saved the life of his entire family:
And the crook made in Joseph’s lot, by his own brethren selling him into Egypt, though it was on their part most sinful, and of a most mischievous design; yet, as it was of God’s making, by his holy permission, powerful bounding, and wise over-ruling of it, had an issue well becoming the divine wisdom and goodness: both which Joseph noticeth to them, Gen. 50:20. “As for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”
3. Reflecting on God’s Sovereignty
The promise that “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28) is premised ultimately upon the sovereignty of God in afflictions. God can promise that all things will end in good, because God is the one who is sovereign over all actions. If sinful actions lay beyond his power, if God simply does not know will occur; or, if God cannot or will not restrain and direct sin, then the promise of good is undependable.
We need not pretend that this is an easy doctrine. But we can see it illustrated on multiple occasions throughout Scripture. For instance, Habakkuk the prophet complains about moral bankruptcy of Judah. In response, God says that he will send the Chaldeans (Babylon) to bring judgment:
5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
Habakkuk 1:5–9 (ESV). Habakkuk cannot believe what he has heard from God. It is in this context that we come the famous line, “the righteous shall live by his faith.”