Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 5 - Nothing Outside God's Providence
In Section 4, the Confession comes to deal with one of the more difficult aspects of the doctrine of God's governance of the world: the relationship between Providence and sin. The subject is a crucial one for theology. If it is true that God's rule is co-extensive with the whole of his creation on a daily basis, what is his relation to the sin of our first parents and to our own personal sins from day to day? On the other hand, does the presence of sin in the world not suggest that God does not have overall control, and if he does, why does he allow sin to take place at all?
These and other related questions have caused difficulties for many believers; while many unbelievers have used them as an argument against Christian theism. The Confession of Faith tackles the difficulties with its usual care and deliberateness.
Nothing Outside God's Providence
The first point that we note is that there is nothing that lies outside of the government and the Providence of God. His rule over the cosmos is characterised by power, wisdom and goodness, and the rule of God over his world, at any given moment of the world's history, is always marked by these attributes. Whatever logical difficulties it may produce, we must assert that even in the question of sin, from the first fall to "all other sins of angels and men", there is no question but that the rule of God is manifest over these things.
Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that sin is itself a rebellion against the rule of God. Sin was a thing that ought not to have been, and that ought never to be. Instead of acknowledging the sovereign rule and control of God, man(kind) and some of the angels asserted their own independence against God. From one point of view, sin is a revolt against God's rule.
Following from this, we have to say that sin is the direct contradiction of the revealed will of God. God said one thing – the original covenant of works was written in terms of a prohibition not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – but man, even knowing what God required and forbade, acted contrary to the will of God.
Yet the doctrine of Providence tells us that every act of rebellion against the divine ruler is subject to the divine rule. And every act that is contrary to God's revealed will is nonetheless embraced within that all-encompassing will that causes all things to happen, and that overrules them when it does. The position of the Confession is the logical deduction from the Bible's assertion of universal divine sovereignty – that God rules over even the sins of man.
"A Powerful Bounding"
At one level, the Confession teaches, this will is permissive. God allows things to happen. Although from one perspective no sin is permissible, yet from another all sin is permitted. God allows man to act willingly and freely. He ordains whatever occurs, but coerces no-one to act against his or her will. When we sin we do the very thing God does not allow; yet our doing it is allowed by Him.
Yet this is not the whole answer. Providence means that there is a "most wise and powerful bounding" between God and human (sinful) actions. God orders these events and he overrules these events "to his own holy ends".
For example, in Genesis 45, Joseph made it clear to his brothers that although it was a wicked thing that they did in selling him as a slave to Egypt, God had been in the thing from the beginning. He sent Joseph before them, to preserve their live, and to preserve for himself a church. In this way it became evident that Providence's "law of reversal" was at work, channeling the wicked, by a manifold dispensation, into the good.
More clear still is the illustration of the cross itself. Peter made it clear in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 that the crucifixion was an act of consummate wickedness. The Jews had crucified Jesus and had slain him with wicked hands. Pilate had perpetrated a gross miscarriage of justice; the people had exercised an abuse of power. It was all wrong. And yet the crucifixion occurred by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. The plan and its execution stemmed from the love of God for a lost world. The acts of wickedness which were evident were encompassed within God's plan not simply by bare permission, but through a 'wise and powerful bounding' which ordered and governed these events so that good might issue.
Who is Responsible?
Does all of this, then, not make God the reason why sin exists? NOT AT ALL!
God, says the Confession, is not the author or approver of sin. Habakkuk reminds us that God is of purer eye than to look on sin (Habakkuk 1:13), and Isaiah tells us that He is 'holy, holy, holy' (Isaiah 6:3). He cannot do what is wrong. He cannot contradict himself. Sin is no part of the life of the Godhead. God is what he is in Christ. There was no sin, and no guile. Everything was justifiable and necessary.
The sinfulness of wicked acts proceeds only from those who perpetrate them and do them. The responsibility for sin in the world is wholly ours. It is not God's. Providence is no excuse for sin.
In other words, that a thing can be explained does not mean that it can be justified. Sin probably cannot be 'explained', because it is an anomaly. But it can be defined, and only God can define it. But only man can enact it, and the fact that sin is capable of definition, and capable of being so ordered by God that good will issue from it, is not a justification of it.
Only sinners can be justified. Sin can never be justified. But the doctrine of Providence does tell us that although sin and wickedness abound on every side, no matter where we look, grace abounds even more. And grace is ours in Jesus Christ.