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Calvin and Calvinism » Divine Permission of Sin

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Synopsis Purioris Theologiae:

20 At this point we should see whether sins, too, fall under divine providence. We assert that it is wrong to say God provides sins in the sense that to provide means to attend and to care for. But we do not doubt that it may, and indeed should be said that God exercises providence concerning sins. For He foresees sins in advance, and wills to permit them; and as they are seen beforehand, He destines them to some universal or particular good, whether for a display of his mercy or justice, or for some other good. And so it is rightly said that He exercises providence regarding them, since He disposes to do well regarding them. But if one considers only that which is real in sin and ‘positive,’ as they say, what others call ‘the matter’ of sin, namely, as an entity or as an action, in this sense sins can be said even to be provided by God, but only in a relative sense and not in itself. That is because the formal structure of sin exists in the absence of being and of good, in a certain deformity and disorderliness, which does not come from God and so cannot have been provided for by Him.

21 Here is a place for a distinction in the ways God handles providence when He implements it—it is either effective, or permitting. The first is the one whereby God works effectually, and in all things generally and individually perfects his work (namely all things both general and specific in nature), not only the essential good—the substances, motions, actions and completions of things—but also the moral good, such as all civic and spiritual virtues. Because, as the highest good, He is also the author and source of all good.

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Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) on God’s Permissive Decree

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16. How does one designate God’s decree as it functions with respect to sin?

A permissive decree (decretum permissivum). This term has become accepted in Reformed dogmatics and is even found in most confessions. Our own [Belgic] Confession, on the doctrine of providence (Article 13), says, "[A]ll our enemies cannot harm us without His permission and will."

Here and there objection is made to this distinction. Beza states it is not difficult to show that it is completely misunderstood by some, in a way that removes the devils and evil men from God’s control except that He keeps their actions and the consequences of their actions within certain limits. Nevertheless, Beza also wishes to see the terms decernius and permissivum (decreeing and permitting will) maintained, provided that they are explained correctly.

Danaeus speaks more dismissively: "From this it follows that that sophistical distinction that one is accustomed to make between God’s permission and His decree ought to be abandoned, because what happens by God’s permission happens with His will and consequently by virtue of His decree."

a) First, it should be observed that by permissive decree the Lutherans understand something entirely negative. By it they mean that God does not decree to prevent or hinder sin by a positive act. Thus, sin itself is fully present in God’s decree as sure and certain. Concerning it God has nothing more to decide. His permissive decreeing, taken strictly, means to say that He does not decree rather than that He certainly decrees not, namely, to counter sin. This, of course, is a wrong and inadequate view. It teaches that sin has its reality and certainty from man. The former is true, as we have seen; the latter cannot be conceded. For, as for all things, so also for sin, certainty must lie in the decree of God. A permissive decree cannot be a bare budding in our spirit.

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Quest. How could God who is infinite in goodness willingly suffer sin to enter into the World, which is a thing so hateful to him?

Answ. He suffered it in his wisdom and goodness, not out of any pleasure, which he takes in sin, or any evil, or in the destruction of his creatures, but because by his omnipotency he can out of evil bring greater good, than any, which is lost and forfeited by sin. For by hating sin he shows his holiness, by punishing it his justice, by redeeming his elect from it, his mercy, free grace, and goodness, by the evils which his elect do undergo for their trial and correction, and the misery and torment which they see inflicted on reprobates, they are made more blessed in the fruition of God and his glory at last. And as a man who was never pinched with hunger, and pain of sickness cannot so fully know the goodness of health, nor so sweetly taste and relish his meat; so without sigh and sense of evil we cannot so fully know nor so sweetly enjoy our own happiness, nor so perfectly rejoice and glory in the fruition of God and all his goodness.

Quest. If sin comes to pass by the will and providence of God, how is God excused from being the author of sin?

Answ.. Very well, for the bare willing and permitting of a thing, makes not him who willingly permits it the author and cause thereof. To make God the author of sin, or any way guilty of it, there are three things required. First, that God do command, counsel, or persuade men to commit sin. Or secondly, that he move, incline, or stir them up to it. Or thirdly, that when he willingly permits and suffers it, and is able to hinder it, he be bound by some law or bond of duty (as men are) to hinder it to the utmost of his power, and in no case to will it. But God’s will has no law besides itself; as he is supreme Lord of all, so he may will or not will where he pleases. He is bound by no law to restrain men from sin. He may have mercy on whom he will, and whom he will, he may leave to be hardened. Neither does God command, counsel, or persuade any man to sin by his Word [Rom. 9:18.], but has given a law to the contrary, by which he forbids sin under pain of death. And never did he tempt, move, incline, or stir up any to sin. Therefore, he can neither be the cause or author of sin [Jam. 1:13.], n o any way partaker in the stain and guilt of it.

Quest. But does God’s providence meddle any more with sin, but only to permit it willingly and wittingly?

Answ.. Yes certainly, God by his providence does hinder and limit sin, that it does not break forth in all wicked men, nor prevail to the utmost extremity. He does also order and dispose the sins of the wicked to his own glory, and the good of his elect. He made the fierceness of Pharaoh and Sennacherib turn to his honor, fame, and praise, and the treachery of Judas in betraying, and the cruelty and malice of the Jews, in murdering Christ, he turned the redemption of the world, and the salvation of elect in Christ, by his overruling power and goodness. George Walker, The Key of Saving Knowledge, Opening out of the holy Scripture, the right way, and straight passage to Eternal life (London: Printed by Tho. Badger. 1641), 27-30. [Some spelling modernized; marginal references cited inline; and italics original.]


Hermann Rennecher (1550 b.) on God’s Willing Permission of Sin

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism


To Predestinate therefore is, to purpose and determine something with ones self, that it should have a being, before such time that it be, or do anything: and withal, it is the setting apart, and ordaining of that thing unto some certain end. This belongs not peculiarly only to God himself, but also ought to have relation to every wise and prudent man, which before he take in hand to bring to pass any thing, is wont seriously and advisedly to have some consultation, concerning the end for which he will bring that thing to pass. But when this is attributed unto God, it is also very large, and is extended generally unto all creatures, which God from everlasting by his certain decree has ordained and disposed to this or that use and end before they were created. But here, when we speak of mankind, and their end, this word of predestination is to be referred unto that deep and hidden counsel of God, by which he has from everlasting, before the foundations of the world were laid, decreed to create mankind in true holiness and righteousness according to his own image. And that this is so, that Scripture witnesses in many places, and the event itself confirmed it by experience of the deed done. The second degree of predestination is, whereby God in his most just and most wise judgment determined to permit and suffer that mankind should be tempted of the devil, and should also fall into sin and eternal destruction.

Here it is inserted a certain digression of the fall of our first parents, which, although they consented unto the serpents persuasion by their own proper and voluntary will, and so fell from God, yet this their falling away, was not altogether without God’s eternal purpose. Chap. 6.

As God from everlasting did foresee and ordain all other things, so among these, this fall of mankind, in the person of our first parents, and all other evils which followed and flowed from thence. So that he was willing to suffer, and not to hinder this fall, that it might be done by others, and not by himself: otherwise, it had been even as easy for him to have kept our first parents from falling, as it was to create them. For look how easy it is for him to do that which he wills, so easy likewise is it for him to hinder that which he wills not, as Saint Augustine says [lib. Corrupt., & grat. ca. 56.]. Neither was it any injustice in him, but altogether just, in that he did not keep them from falling, but suffered them to be overcome by the serpent’s persuasion, and so to fall into eternal death.  For God was not bound unto them that he should preserve them and keep them from falling, because he did not promise it. Nay, God was not bound unto them, to create them according unto his own image, because he is a most free agent, therefore, much less was he bound unto them, to save them from falling. Yea, our first parents of their own voluntary and free-will, without any constraint, did treacherously fall away from God, and so falling away, did infect both themselves, and all their posterity with sin, and made them liable unto eternal destruction.

But God not unwillingly, but willingly permitted them to fall; otherwise, if anything, though never so little, could be brought to pass, God not being willing thereunto, then God should not be God. Our first parents therefore in regard of themselves, did that which God would not have, but in respect of the omnipotence of God, they could by no means do it. Wherefore it is not to be doubted, but that God does righteously, in suffering those things which are done so wickedly, as Saint Augustine says [Lib. De corrupt. & grat. capit. 100.] And although God do suffer this or that evil action to be committed and not hinder it: yet for all that, he does not himself bring to pass that evil, nor allow of it. But good things which are conformable to his heavenly wisdom, those he foresaw from everlasting, and decreed to bring to pass and effect them. Therefore God by himself is the first cause, and the only effecter of these things, because that good things spring and flow forth out of the power of his divine providence, as out of the only fountain that is never dried up. But evil things, although God also foresaw them from everlasting, and knew that they would come to pass, yet he himself, neither approves them, nor furthers them, nor helps them, nor brings them to pass directly, but by his just judgment suffers them to be committed and done by others. Therefore God is not to be counted as the first cause and effecter of them, but Satan himself, and man’s free-will do begin them and end them. So that Satan and wicked men are the true and proper causes of evil. All things therefore whatsoever are done, although they be done by God’s providence, from which nothing can be exempted, yet some of them are done, his providence permitting, appointing and directing them to their proper ends.  Therefore all evil and wicked deeds whatsoever, are committed and done, God’s providence not effecting, but suffering them, because that God decreed not that he would himself effect them from everlasting, but because he decreed to suffer, and not to hinder them to be done by others. So that God not unwillingly, but willingly suffered our first parents to sin. They therefore which attribute unto God a permission, which should be contrary to his will, they deny him to be omnipotent. For he that permits anything to be done, which by no means he would have done, surely he is not of such power, as to let and hinder that which he would not have done. Therefore what things soever God suffers to be done, he suffers them willingly, for nothing can be possibly be done, if he be unwilling, or against it. Hence it follows not, that God allows and approves sins in themselves, as they are things simply evil and contrary unto his will, but rather he hates them with his whole will and nature, and (except he mercifully pardon them) he revenges and punishes them with eternal torments.

Herman Renecher, The Golden Chayne of Salvation (At London: Printed by Valentine Simmes for Thomas Man, dwelling in Paternost row at the Signe of the Tablot, 1604), 22- 25.   [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; marginal references cited inline; and underlining mine.] [Note: Rennecher’s continuing discussion on divine permission is also worth reading.]


Sin and Permission in the The Hungarian Confessio Catholica (1562)

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism


Concerning Hardening, Blindness; How God
Is Said to Deceive and Punish Sin with Sin

Hardening, blindness, and deceit is sin because of the cause for which they occur; that which hardens and blinds with regard to men and devils, however, is sin, as is said in Ephesians 4; at other times, however, it is the punishment for sin.

We say in three senses, however, that God hardens and blinds, i.e., punishes by means of evil things former offenses with later ones. First is when He deprives men of His own light, wisdom, grace, and heavenly gifts. When, however, God withdraws from men that which is His own, darkness of necessity follows light, and ignorance, blindness, and

hardening follows wisdom; when the sole cause of punishments remains, the guilt of punishment follows, as it is said in Job 12. He withdraws their hearts and mouths from princes (cf. vv. 20, 24).

Furthermore, He is said to harden when He does not soften; does not enlighten men, but leaves them in their darkness. Thus it is said in Isaiah 6 and 63 (Rom. 6, 7). And thus the Spirit of the Lord left Saul (Lombard, Book 2, Sentences).

Third, by leaving men to themselves, He gives them up to the devil, that author of every error and evil, and gives them into the hands of sin, subjects them to the Law of men (Amos 3; Isa. 45; Matt. 13). When afterwards, men are the slaves of sin, they are inclined only to evil and led by Satan. They are falsely in error, therefore, who say (with Pelagius) that God punishes and hardens permissively.

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