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D.A. Carson on Providence

An excerpt from D.A. Carson’s sermon, “How Could God Allow Suffering?”

Here is the link.


I want to make two statements which I insist the Bible backs up again and again and again and again. I’m not saying that they are easy. But the Bible holds two propositions simultaneously all the time. They surface again and again and again. They surface in books of the Old Testament, that is the things written before the coming of Jesus, in the New Testament written in the time of Jesus for about a hundred years, these two propositions surface again and again and again.

Number 1
God is absolutely sovereign but his sovereignty never mitigates human responsibility.

Number 2
According to the Bible human beings are morally responsible creatures. (By that I mean we believe and disbelieve, we obey and disobey, we chose and so on, and we are held accountable for all of these things. Of course there may be many many things that go into it in terms of our background and our genes or how tired we are and whether we had a night’s sleep, and all the rest, but nevertheless, creatures who believe, disbelieve, chose, disobey, do good things, bad things). But all such moral accountability, all such moral responsibility never, ever makes God absolutely contingent. That is, it never relegates God to the place where he is merely a reactor.

Now the Bible holds that those two things, those two propositions are simultaneously true again and again and again. It doesn’t enter into long dispositions to defend them. Many Christians have done that in the centuries since the Bible was written. But nevertheless the Bible presupposes them.

Let me just give a couple of examples and you will see what I mean.

In the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, in the very last chapter, chapter 50, you come to a part of the history of Joseph, Joseph had been badly abused by his brothers. They were going to kill him at one point, then they sold him down into slavery, and in the mysteries of God’s outworking, eventually, though he was horribly abused down in Egypt, nevertheless the time came when he became the equivalent of prime minister of Egypt and helped to save his own family from starvation.

Now the father of Joseph and of the brothers who abused him has died. And the brothers are afraid that now that the old man is dead, Joseph is gonna take it out on them. He’s got power, he’s prime minister for goodness sake. So they go to him with this song and dance routine about how their father wanted him to be a nice chap and all of that, and Joseph says

“Who am I to stand in the place of God? Listen, when you sold me into captivity you meant it to me for evil, you intended it for evil. But God intended it for good to bring about this result at this time, namely saving many people’s lives.” Now notice what the text does not say: it does not say “God had intended to get me down to Egypt in a chauffeur-driven, air conditioned limousine, but unfortunately you guys mucked it up and as a result I went down there as a slave instead.”

Nor does it say “you sold me as a slave into Egypt while God was on holiday, he was taking a small break, he wasn’t watching at that point, but nevertheless he came back later. He was such a magnificent chess player that he moved some pieces around and eventually it came out to have a happy ending anyway.”

But rather in one and the save event, you intended it for evil but God intended it for good. That is, God is sovereignly working in this event but their human accountability is not thereby mitigated. They are morally responsible creatures but that doesn’t make God absolutely contingent, coming in on his white charger at the last moment, you know, singing triumphalist songs as he sorts it all out as the sun goes down on the west and the credits go up the screen.

That sort of thing is found again and again in the Bible.

[You know what, the apostle Paul never had to worry about these microphones.]

Perhaps the best known example in the New Testament, that is, the bits written in connection with Jesus’s life, is found in Acts chapter 4. In Acts chapter 4 the Christians are beginning to face their first whiff of persecution and they gather together and they pray. And in their prayer they go over the events that brought Jesus’s death to pass. And they say Acts 4:27 “indeed Pontious Pilate and the leaders of the Jews and the Herodians and so on, they conspired together against your holy servant Jesus and put him to death on the cross.” Verse 28 “They did what your hand had determined beforehand should be done.”

So on the one hand, the political factors that got Jesus into a kangaroo court and got him butchered was the result of quite frankly a conspiracy, a political conspiracy, human expediency, it was nasty human machination and the people are responsible for it. On the other hand you can’t really be a Christian and not see how central the cross is to all of God’s purposes right from the predictions of the Old Testament right through the events themselves and into the events that follow, that God designed the whole thing so that Jesus would die on a cross. You’ve got to see that the death of Jesus was not just a political accident, a minor mishap in a two bit nation on the eastern end of Mediterranean in the first century. It was something designed by God himself.

Yet even thought it was designed by God himself, that does not mitigate the responsibility of the conspirators who actually put him on the cross. In other words, although the Bible does not explain the mystery of providence (there are huge questions about how God’s sovereignty works with human will, and the relationship between time and eternity, and if this was another sort of lecture in another sort of venue in a PhD. seminar we could usefully explore some of those discussions together). But at the end of the day, what the Bible does do is insist that those two propositions I gave you stand at the very heart of any faithful Christian understanding of the mystery of providence. God is sovereign, but his sovereignty doesn’t mitigate human responsibility. We human beings are morally responsible creatures but that doesn’t mean God is contingent. And we live with those tensions and all the mysteries of how God in his eternity relates to us in our time. We live with those tensions until the very end.

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