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Part IV: The Omnipotence of God in
the Affairs of Men
The Omnipotence of God and Human Responsibility
O Assyrian, the rod of Mine
anger, and the staff in their hand is Mine indignation.
I will send him against an hypocritical nation and against the
people of My wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil,
and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of
Howbeit he meaneth not so, neither
doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and
cut off nations not a few. For he saith, Are not my princes
altogether kings?. . . .
Wherefore it shall come to pass,
that when the Lord hath performed His whole work upon mount Zion
and on Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit of the stout heart
of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks. For
he saith, By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my
wisdom; for I am prudent. . . .
Shall the axe boast itself against
him that heweth therewith?. . . . As if the rod should shake
itself against them that lift it up. . . . Therefore shall
the Lord. . . consume the glory.
IS a beautiful illustration of how God uses wicked men to perform
an evil work for the ultimate good of His people, yet for which
the performer is justifiably punished.
1 of 12
Consider a few of the phrases in
this passage that are significant in this respect. In verse 5
Assyria is God's rod, the instrument by which in His anger He
will chasten Israel. Thus in verse 6 it is the Lord who sends
him and the Lord who gives him the appointed duty of despoiling
and humiliating Israel. However, in verse 8 it is pointed out
very clearly that the Assyrian monarch had no idea that he was
being used as the rod of God; in his own mind he was a triumphant
king acting as an entirely free agent -- though paradoxically
he could have done nothing else! But because he chose to do what
he did with complete willingness, indeed with vast enjoyment,
he was acting as a free agent. As such, he was entirely culpable.
So what was
punishable in the man?
His deeds? Or his motives? Verse 12 shows that it was his motive;
the choice of words to make this clear is important: "I
will punish the fruit of the proud heart of the king."
The importance of the distinction
between actions and motives cannot be overemphasized. David,
who longed to build a Temple for the Lord, was not permitted
to because he had been a man of war (1 Chronicles 28:3), yet
he received credit because it was in his heart to do so (2 Chronicles
6:8). Jonah by contrast refused to go to Nineveh to "build
a Temple of the Lord" there; but he ended up in Nineveh.
And though he was responsible under God for what must have been
the most successful evangelistic campaign ever completed in the
Old World, Jonah was afterward reproved as a most unworthy individual.
Jonah's experience exactly illustrates
a statement made by Paul regarding his own ministry. In 1 Corinthians
9:16,17 Paul pointed out that though he did preach the gospel
so successfully, he had nothing to glory of: necessity was laid
upon him. Then he said, "If I do this thing willingly, I
have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the
gospel is committed unto me." By this I take it he meant
us to understand that preaching the gospel was a responsibility
committed unto him, and he could not avoid it -- whether he did
it willingly or unwillingly. But if it was done willingly, then
this necessity became voluntary and, as a free-will act, it was
rewardable. He found himself in much the same position as Balaam
who, in Numbers 23:19ff., simply stated the fact that what God
had told him to say, that he must say (verse 26). This incident
illustrates a further point, namely, that wherever He sees fit,
God overrules not merely the actions of men but even their words.
Thus Caiaphas spoke the word of God (John 11:51) because of his
position as high priest that year, though judging by his enthusiastic
support of those who sought to destroy His Son, he certainly
was no friend of God.
This brings us to still a further
point, which is that the servant may do the will of God without
understanding it, but a friend of God may go one step beyond
and choose His will. But he chooses it only because as a friend
he is permitted to know it. This is the import of John 15:15:
"Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth
not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends."
The point is beautifully illustrated in the case of Abraham,
of whom God said, "Shall I hide from Abraham that thing
which I do?" (Genesis 18:17) -- which is in perfect keeping
with the fact that, according to James 2:23, Abraham was called
the Friend of God.
The same essential distinction
between servants and friends is
to be found also in Psalm
103:7, where it is written, "The Lord made known His ways
unto Moses, His acts unto the children of Israel." This
is not merely a play on words; in Hebrews 3:9,10 the fact is
reaffirmed, for it is written that the Israelites of old saw
His works for forty years but they did not know His ways.
Moses, because of his nearness to the Lord, was able to see
not merely what God was doing, but why He was doing it; with
this deeper insight he could enter willingly into God's plans
and participate in a way that was entirely different.
So often we suppose that it is
enough to have done the Lord's will, but it is rather a sobering
thought to discover that those who with apparently complete justification
could say, "We have done all that we were commanded"
(Luke 17:10), still had to admit that they were "unprofitable
servants." It is even more sobering to find out what may
happen to servants so described (as shown in Matthew 25:30):
"Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness. .
. ." It is evident from Matthew that strict fulfillment
of the Lord's will according to the letter, may not be enough
to earn His commendation.
As I understand the Word of God,
in all that concerns the Master Plan, man's freedom is not a
freedom of action. He cannot decide to do or not to do.
The sin of the world is not that it fails to do the will of God;
the sin of the world is that man does not choose the will
of God -- except where it happens to suit the individual's own
selfish desires. In such cases, the fact that it is the will
of God is completely incidental. In Isaiah 10 the king of Assyria
was glad to do what he did because it suited his own purposes,
and in this sense he was choosing to do the will of God
-- which was to punish the people of Israel. But it is not in
this sense that "choosing" brings any reward. It is
only when the choice is deliberately made with the full realization
that it is God's will, that any reward would be appropriate.
There is no prayer in Scripture that the Lord's will may be done;
it is done. There is only a prayer that His will may be done
as it is in heaven, i.e., with all the same expedience and complete
Some parts of God's will involve
the performance of deeds which can only be described as evil.
Such deeds are just as much a part of God's plan as the good
deeds. The Crucifixion was one of these. What men were condemned
for was not the deed itself, but the motives which prompted it.
They had no intention of deliberately fulfilling the will of
God: they sought only to give expression to their enmity against
Him. This was their motive. The wickedness of a deed is always
in the motive, not in the deed itself. The deed itself
may be either evil or
good, depending upon the effect it has on others. It is wicked
or righteous, depending entirely upon the motive which prompts
it and, therefore, its effect upon the doer himself. Motives
reveal the state of the soul, and in Scripture they are sometimes
referred to as the fruits of our doings.
There is a very essential difference
between a deed itself and the motive behind it. The centurion
who was ultimately responsible for carrying out the Lord's crucifixion
performed an evil thing. But judging by his subsequent acknowledgment
of the Lord's true identity, one might assume that he took no
delight in what he was called upon to do. The evil act which
he performed was not, therefore, a sinful one, though it was
certainly an evil one. Nor, incidentally, is a good deed necessarily
a righteous one. It is for this reason that evil deeds will no
more keep men out of heaven than good deeds will take them in.
It is highly important to recognize
the difference between evil and sin, and between goodness and
righteousness; and it is equally important to recognize the difference
between a good man and a righteous man, a distinction which Scripture
is careful to observe. When Paul was writing to the Romans he
said, "Scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet peradventure
for a good man some would even dare to die" (Romans 5:7).
And in this judgment I think we would concur, for experience
tells us that most people are much more kindly disposed toward
a good man than toward a righteous man. A good man can shield
a friend by telling a lie, and though we may know it is a lie,
we still think of the man as good. But a completely righteous
man would be forced to tell the truth whatever the cost, either
to himself or his friend.
In the Lord Jesus, goodness and
righteousness blended perfectly so that everything that was good
in Him was also perfectly righteous. But this is not so with
us at all. What appears to be a good deed may be no reflection
of righteousness whatever, for such deeds are frequently done
with ulterior motives. By the same token we cannot judge evil
deeds either, for sometimes the motives which prompt them are
righteous. Consequently the Lord continually distinguished between
deeds and motives, commending what the Pharisees condemned, and
condemning what they thought was righteous. They could not understand
the basis of His forgiveness, because they supposed He was thinking
in terms of actions. He would forgive an act which to them was
unforgivable. In reality He was not forgiving the act at all
but the doer, and what He was forgiving was the motive which
had made the act a sinful one. This is
always what condemns
and this is always what needs forgiveness.
The difficulty of judging the true
significance of any deed in the light of eternity is so great
that Paul was prompted to write, "Judge nothing before the
time" (1 Corinthians 4:5). The fact is that an evil can
become a good and yet the person responsible can be punished.
If an example from a secular situation is allowed, the problem
can be illustrated as follows: Suppose that in some small community
in the Northwest Territories of Canada there exists only one
small hospital with very limited resources and only one qualified
surgeon. A man is brought into the hospital suffering from severe
exposure and with a gangrene foot. The attending physician decides
that the foot must be amputated if the man's life is to be saved.
The surgeon is called in and, after examining the patient, recommends
to the doctor that it would be wiser to amputate mid-thigh and
not just the foot, since circulation of the lower limb seemed
badly impaired. The physician concurs and the operation is performed.
The patient recovers completely, and an artificial limb restores
him to an almost normal activity. As far as the community is
concerned, and as far as the subject himself is concerned, a
man who might have lost his life remains a useful citizen. The
saving of his life was a good thing, but the loss of a leg was
an evil thing, yet the evil was necessary that the good might
Some years later, the surgeon mentions
to a friend, quite casually, that in looking back upon this particular
operation he came to the conclusion that the amputation of the
foot might very well have been sufficient to save the man's life.
But at the time he was a young man and had already amputated
toes and even feet of men suffering the same affliction, this
being not uncommon in northern latitudes. He admits to his friend
that he was in a way seeking justification for trying out his
skill as a surgeon by performing an operation which was a little
more difficult and dangerous than those he had already performed.
In a way he had persuaded himself at the time it was a safer
thing to do: but looking back upon it, he realizes now that there
was an element of pride and a desire to strengthen his reputation
as a surgeon.
The operation itself was successful,
which was unquestionably a good thing for the patient. Nevertheless,
the operation was made more evil than it probably needed to have
been because of a young surgeon's pride. An evil which was necessary
that good might result became, therefore, also a sinful act,
which it might not have been if only the motives had been right.
And this aspect of the operation would never have come to light,
except in eternity, but for the
confession of this surgeon
in his later years. How difficult it would have been to judge
according to appearances.
The amputation of a limb is an
evil which may be justified by circumstance, but I do not think
that a wrong motive can ever be justified. The only thing
that can be applied here is forgiveness. It seems to me that
in the New Testament, justification is applied only to deeds
and forgiveness is applied only to motives. Thus the selling
of Joseph was justified in the end because it brought salvation
to those who had done it. For all that, this act was justified
only because of the suffering of one who was innocent, who thereby
paid the price. The crucifixion of the Lord was also justified
because of the end result; but this result was achieved only
because of the suffering of One who was innocent. We who crucified
the Lord need forgiveness; but the deed itself was justified.
It goes without saying that God never needs forgiveness: but
Scripture plainly tells us that He may be justified (Romans 3:4).
There are many illustrations in
Scripture of this principle of justification. It should be mentioned
in passing, however, that while the Old Testament Scriptures
laid the foundations for the New, it is in the New Testament
that we find the real presentation of theological doctrine. In
the Old Testament many words do not have the precision which
they are given in the New Testament. In the Old we find principles
are established; in the New these principles become the basis
of clearly formulated doctrines. It is in the New Testament
that we find the word justification implicitly defined.
One of the most beautiful illustrations
is given in Paul's letter to Philemon. A runaway slave believed
Paul's word in Rome and was wonderfully saved. Paul insisted
that he return to Philemon who was his rightful master, but he
was careful to make strong recommendation that Philemon should
not penalize Onesimus even though he had the right to do so.
The apostle underscores this plea by pointing out to Philemon
that Onesimus is now not merely a servant, but above a servant,
"a brother beloved." He then significantly suggests
that the slave's running away may really have been a blessing:
to Paul, to Onesimus, and not least to Philemon himself, "for
perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest
receive him for ever" (verse 15). I think it is not unimportant,
in view of what has been said of the unprofitable servants in
Matthew 25:30, that Onesimus, according to Paul, was in time
past "unprofitable, but now profitable" (verse 11).
There is another somewhat similar
illustration of this principle in the story of the prodigal son
in Luke 15. As a matter of fact, I
suspect that there is
somewhat more to this story than is usually recognized: at least,
I should like to suggest the following thoughts. The prodigal
son went away from his father and ultimately became lost. In
due time, having come to the end of his own resources, he determined
to go back to his father and confess his sin. The story of his
reception at home is familiar to everyone, but it should be noted
in verse 24 that something began that day which by implication
had not been known before in the household: they began to be
Meanwhile the older son, when he
had discovered what was going on, was angry and would not join
in the family's happiness. He said to his father (verse 29),
"Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed
I at any time thy commandment; yet thou never gavest me a kid
that I might make merry with my friends." It is apparent
from verse 31 that the father did not dispute his son's claims.
Now, this may be reading too much
into the text, but it looks to me as though the Lord was trying
to show what would be the attitude of a man who had never been
lost and, therefore, never needed to be redeemed. This could
mean that the prodigal son was ultimately in a far happier position,
and his flight from home an evil which turned out to be a good.
But he still needed forgiveness, and the cost of his squandering
had to be made up in the end by his father. This is another case,
then, in which a deed is justified and the doer is forgiven,
and the experience is a great gain. If man had never fallen,
he might have been almost as unappreciative as that son who stayed
at home. There are some who have believed that the real meaning
of Romans 8:20 is this: that the creation was made subject
to all that was entailed in the fall, not willingly -- i.e.,
not because this was entirely man's free choice -- but "by
reason of Him who hath subjected the same in hope."
Evils do not always result directly
from sin. When the disciples came upon a man who was born blind,
they were in a quandary. God had stated as a simple fact that
the sins of the fathers would be visited on the children (Deuteronomy
5:9 and Exodus 20:5). At one time this was thought to be a very
barbarous concept, but we know now that a child's character can
be influenced to a surprising extent by parental behaviour. However,
the children of Israel came in time to believe that this meant
that whenever a person suffered, they should blame it not on
themselves but on their fathers! Jeremiah was instructed to correct
this, and he said, in effect, "It used to be held that the
fathers had eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth were set
on edge. But now you must realize that when a man's teeth are
set on edge, it is his own fault" (Jeremiah 31:29).
sounds reasonable enough, but once again the simple truth was
distorted. It came to be believed that whenever a man suffered
a misfortune, he could blame nobody but himself, he himself had
eaten sour grapes. The result was that nobody had any sympathy
whatever for the sufferer unless the sufferer happened to be
a loved one. This explains the callousness that lies in the background
of some conversations recorded in the New Testament. It also
explains why the disciples were so perplexed: a man who was born
blind obviously had not done something wrong himself to merit
the condition, and Jeremiah had said that his parents were not
to be blamed either. So who did sin? Who was responsible? The
surprising answer which the Lord gave is recorded simply and
without apology: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his
parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in
him" (John 9:1-3).
It is difficult for us to conceive
of God imposing upon men any kind of affliction when they do
not deserve it. And yet Scripture is full of illustrations of
it. For example, some might be disposed to argue that Job's afflictions
were, in a way, a punishment for a certain measure of self-righteousness.
But I think Scripture has gone out of its way to show that this
is not so. With remarkable insight, the afflicted man refused
to accuse God of any injustice even while insisting upon his
own innocence. In reply to his wife who encouraged bitterness,
he said, "What? shall we receive good at the hand of God,
and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10). This might be
thought to have been the misguided apology of an exceedingly
discouraged man for his stubborn faith in God. But Scripture
adds this comment, "In all this did not Job sin with his
Does God really do evil, then?
Consider Amos 3:6: "Shall there be evil in a city, and the
LORD hath not appointed
it?" Some Bibles suggest this should be translated, "And
shall not the LORD
do somewhat [i.e., do something about it]?" This is possible,
but the Hebrew does not require it; there are plenty of other
Scriptures to justify the text as I have rendered it. The verb
is 'asah, "to appoint."
Consider Lamentations 3:38: "0ut
of the mouth of the Most High proceedeth not evil and good?"
Or Isaiah 45:7, where it is written, "I form the light and
create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the LORD do all these things."
Again and again in the Old Testament we read of evils which the
Lord brought upon Israel, or evils which He planned to do if
they continued in their wickedness but which their subsequent
repentance rendered unnecessary. The real difficulty in accepting
these statements at their face value results
from a confusion of
evil with sin. Evil is merely an event in its historical
perspective -- not in its moral perspective. When God does evil
in Scripture, it is evil in the sense only that it appears to
be an undesirable thing
This distinction between evil and
sin -- and between goodness and righteousness -- is interestingly
pointed up when we remember that while we are never to tempt
the Lord -- that is to say, we are never to test His righteousness
(Deuteronomy 6:16) -- we are invited to test for ourselves
His goodness (Malachi 3:10). Similarly it is important to realize
that it is good works and not righteous works which God foreordains
for us to do. They only become righteous works when we choose
them (Ephesians 2:10), and in precisely the same way it is evil
works and not wicked works that God foreordains shall be done
by the vessels of dishonour. These only become wicked when the
doers of them take delight in them.
Paul observes with proper insight
that though he gives all his substance to the poor (a "good"
indeed -- for them), yet unless this is done in love, "it
profiteth me nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:3). Such
an act is good whether done in love or not if it supplies a need:
but without love it cannot be a righteous act; without his really
wanting to do it, it is not a moral deed at all. Without love,
the fruits of the good work would not appear. Hebrews 10:36 is
careful to point out that doing the will of God itself is not
enough. Merely fulfilling His will does not guarantee any reward;
nor by the same token is there necessarily any punishment for
doing an evil thing when it is part of God's will.
The point of all these somewhat
cryptic statements is that there is nothing unjust on God's part
when He punishes men even though their punishment seems to be
associated directly with doing His will. The reason why this
is so must be clear from what has been said above. An evil act
in which a man takes delight becomes a wicked one. It is the
wickedness which is punished, not the act. This answers a question
put to Paul, "Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth He yet
find fault? For who hath resisted His will?" (Romans 9:19).
As a matter of fact, a man may even be condemned for having done
a good work. The children of Israel were told to destroy certain
of their enemies utterly. But in the "goodness" of
their heart and supposing themselves to be wiser than God, they
spared some of them. They did not spare them because God told
them to, but because they wanted to. Undoubtedly, from a human
point of view, we would judge such merciful action as good. But
it is sobering to read in Matthew 7:21-23 how there will be in
the final judgment those who come before God and expostulate,
"Lord, Lord, we have done many
good works in Thy name."
But Jesus will say, "Depart from Me, ye that work iniquity.
. . . I never knew you." Notice carefully that they were
not accused of doing evil, but of acting sinfully, i.e., working
Although it is probably true that
Christians are specifically called upon only for the performance
of those elements of God's plans which involve good deeds, there
is at least one incident in which this was not exactly the case.
The incident is a beautiful illustration of how God's judgment
In 2 Samuel 24:1, the Lord was
angry with Israel and had decided they must be chastened, so
He moved David to "number" them. This directive found
an immediate response in the pride of David's heart -- for he
was anxious to find out just how many subjects were really under
his domain, i.e., how great was his kingdom. It is not altogether
unlike our temptation to count "souls saved." The people
shared in the king's reflected glory and were equally keen to
know their own numerical strength.
In spite of a warning (verse 3),
the census was vigorously taken. But as soon as the returns were
all in, both the king and the people were punished severely (verse
15), and David's heart condemned him deeply as he realized what
had really prompted him to take pleasure in numbering the people.
When Paul had tried to make some
of these points clear to the Christians in Rome where law played
such an important part in the minds of thoughtful people, there
was considerable criticism. They said, in effect, "If good
comes out of evil because of the grace of God, then let us do
evil that good may come" (Romans 3:8). Paul also put it
in this way: "If the truth of God hath more abounded through
my lie unto His glory -- why then am I to be judged as a sinner?"
(Romans 3:7). In other words, if when we do something evil God
turns it to good and acquires greater glory thereby, how could
one possibly be wrong in doing an evil thing? Well, if the judgment
of God hinged upon deeds, this might verily be true. And God
might be left without any basis for judging the world (verse
6). But God's judgment is not based upon deeds at all; it is
based upon motives, and therefore, whenever it is necessary for
the fulfillment of His own purposes for some evil deed to be
performed, in His omnipotence He can predetermine that it shall
be so without in the slightest degree surrendering His right
to condemn the doer if he should take pleasure in the evil.
As we have seen, on the other side
of the ledger there are many good deeds which are part of the
Master Plan. For the most part, I
think, the children
of God are foreordained to do only good deeds. These are the
"good works" of Ephesians 2:10. But God has a second
purpose here which is not in view in His dealings with the
unsaved: in the performance of these appointed good works, the
children of God should be made better in character -- should,
in short, "bring forth the fruits thereof." If we would
be strictly accurate, we ought rather to say that these fruits
will be brought forth by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22,23); but
the process by which the Holy Spirit achieves this in us is our
response to what God appoints for us to do for Him. However,
this is not the only way by which Christian character is perfected.
The evil things which we do are also used whenever God allows
the consequences of them to result for our edification. Then
such consequences are not to be thought of as punishments, but
as being permitted by God in His graciousness that we might be
made better. As F. L. Chapell put it so pointedly:
purpose in calling us to be labourers together with Him during
this present age is not simply that the apparent work which He
sets before us may be accomplished. It is, rather, that, in the
accomplishment of this work we may be prepared for our chief
and ultimate work in the age to come. For this reason the present
age is disciplinary rather than executive. We are disciples,
that is, students, more than we are workers at present.
God is engaged
not so much in making executives as in making saints.
Summing up the
essentials of my thesis in this paper, I would draw the following
1. God's will is done by the saved and the
2. God's will in this sense is His intention.
It is represented in the New Testament by the Greek noun thelema
as distinct from what He would like, which is represented
by the use of the Greek verb boulomai (contrast, for example,
Acts 22:14 and 2 Peter 3:9). His intention is always related
to His Master Plan.
3. On all occasions in which a man's actions
relate to any aspect of this Master Plan, such actions are overruled.
The freedom he does have lies only in the attitude he takes toward
what he does.
4. Wherever man's actions are not related
to this Master Plan, presumably man is a free agent.
5. Each individual has an appointed contribution
to make, and
this contribution will
be made. As Augustine rightly observed, "Man is immortal
till his work is done." This is reflected in such passages
as Job 14:6 and Acts 13:36.
6. In the purposes of God there are some good
things and some evil things that must be done. The good or the
evil nature of these things is determined by their historical
effect; the righteousness or sinfulness of these deeds is determined
by their motivation. The moral responsibility which attaches
to them hinges upon the condition of the heart when they are
done. Credit or blame are not determined by the acts themselves.
Whether a man is rewarded or punished is not dependent upon the
evil or the good which he is called upon to do.
7. While God works in the world to fulfill
His will, He works in the Christian to choose His will (Philippians
8. The sin of the world is not that it does
not do the will of God, but that it does not choose
the will of God.
9. A good deed done from the heart becomes
also a righteous one. Even the unsaved may be rewarded, though
such rewards are in this life (Matthew 10:42). An evil deed done
from the heart becomes also a sinful one.
10. When the wickedness of man no longer contributes
to the glory of God, it is restrained (Psalm 76:10).
works in His children not only to do His will but also, knowing
it, to choose it (Philippians 2:13). Our new relationship to
Him makes such knowledge possible (John 15:15) and when we
do choose what God has appointed by decree we act
freely in spite of the compulsion. The slave who
freely chooses slavery remains a free man (Deuteronomy 15:16,17).
Our bondage to the will of God in Christ becomes a new freedom,
for His will is perfect and perfect obedience to a perfect will
is perfect freedom.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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Nevertheless, we only see through
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