Assigning Responsibility for Sin: Calvinism and the Theory of Secondary Causes

, posted by Rebekah Reinagel


The Reformed Assertion:
“God can determine a specific outcome, a person can have no other option but to do the outcome, and that person can be held up to moral judgment while God is blameless.”

Now, one objection to Calvinism that keeps coming up consistently over the years is the objection that it makes God the author of sin. Now, when it comes right down to it, Calvinists will generally teach that God did, in fact, decree sin before ever there was sin, and makes sin happen.

Generally, however, they seem to object to the term “Author” of sin, because it implies that God would be culpable for sin:

“The term authors is almost universally condemned in the theological literature. It is rarely defined, but it seems to mean both that God is the efficient cause of evil and that by causing evil he actually does something wrong.1 So the [Westminster Confession] says that God “neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (5:4). Despite this denial in a major Reformed confession, Arminians regularly charge that Reformed theology makes God the author of sin. They assume that if God brings about evil in any sense, he must therefore approve it and deserve the blame.” – David Mathis

The Calvinist view is that God causally determines the desires and actions of men, but that men are held responsible for what God caused them to do.

They do teach that God decrees sin, and causally determines that it happens:

” So here I see that God’s command is that the sons of Eli ought to listen to and obey their father, yet the will of God was that they would not listen so that He would put them to death.” – Peter Pike

“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” – Westminster Confession of Faith

“Nothing has ever come to pass, or ever will, merely because God knew it. The cause of all things is the will of God.” – Arthur Pink

“The question, though, is whether God merely permits evil, or whether in addition he actually brings evil about in some sense. I think the latter is true. Scripture often says that God brings about sinful decisions of human beings… If evil comes from some source other than God, that would be pretty scary.” – Andre Rook

“That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss or deliberate on anything but what he has previously decreed with himself, and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless passages of Scripture.” – John Calvin

“But where it is a matter of men’s counsels, wills, endeavours, and exertions, there is greater difficulty in seeing how the providence of God rules here too, so that nothing happens but by His assent and that men can deliberately do nothing unless He inspire it.” – John Calvin



But they all maintain that God is righteous, holy, and pure. He is not culpable for the evil
that He makes happen:

“Thus, even if God is ‘the instigator of all sin’ that would not necessitate that God is culpable for sin.” – Peter Pike

“…yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” – Westminster Confession of Faith

“And while it is not ours to explain how God in His secret counsel rules and overrules the sinful acts of men, it is ours to know that whatever God does He never deviates from His own perfect justice. In all the manifestations of His character He shows Himself pre-eminently the Holy One. These deep workings of God are mysteries which are to be adored, but not to be inquired into; and were it not for the fact that some persons persist in declaring that the doctrine of Predestination makes God the author of sin, we could let the matter rest here.” – Loraine Boettner


____________________________________________
How can this be?
To the untrained mind, it may seem patently obvious that if God causes people to sin, then He
is culpable for the sin. What is the Reformed answer to this?

 

1) Calvinist doctrine absolutely relies on the idea that only the direct cause is responsible for sin. They belabor this point to no end. We cannot hold God culpable for sin because He is not the agent of sin, the actor of sin. He merely causes it. But though He causes it, He is not culpable, because the secondary causes are culpable.

2) Now, if one argues that the cause of sin, directly or indirectly, is culpable, they will usually respond that even in Non-Calvinism, God is first cause of everything. So the other system solves it no better than theirs. But here is the difference: We admit that God is the first cause of every thing in the sense that without Him, nothing could happen. However, we do not see God as determining that we will sin in a causal way. In other words, we see that God allows sin, but they think that God causally determines sin – like pushing one domino causes, in a determining way, all the unsupported dominoes behind it to fall.

I use the phrase causally determine because if I say “cause,” then they insist that God is the first cause of everything even in our system, and if I say “determine,” then they say that determine can also include allowing. Because of the slippery nature of these words, I try to clearly and habitually use the term “causally determine” which does not allow for ambiguity.

Now, Calvinists are slow to accept that idea that the cause, or the One who causally determines sin is responsible or culpable for it. Why? Because if one could show them that the Being who causally determines something is culpable for it, then they would see that their system makes God culpable for all of sin.

3) Calvinists often argue that man is culpable for sin while God is not, because God decrees the sin with good intentions, while man has evil motives. According to John Calvin, “we must hold that while by means of the wicked God performs what he had secretly decreed, they are not excusable as if they were obeying his precept, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust.”

In this defense, they seem to imply that God decreed the action for a good reason with righteous motives, but the secondary cause carries out the action with bad motives – and therefore it is sin for the one with the bad motives, but not sin for God.

____________________________________________________
My short answers to those propositions:

1) So, I will try to show that whoever causes sin to happen, intentional and in a determining way, is responsible and culpable for sin, even if it was caused indirectly.

2) Again, I will be arguing not that just any cause is culpable, but that the determining cause of sin is responsible, and if the determining cause was intentional, then that person is also culpable for it.

3) There I would remind them that their system does not only charge God with decreeing actions, but also decreeing motives. If the motives, and not the actions are truly the sin which one can be held culpable for, then God is culpable for intentionally causing those specific evil motives in a way that determined that they would happen.

__________________________________________
What Does the Bible Say?

Case A: Nathan confronts David

2 Samuel 12:9b
“You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.”

Now, David here, if he subscribed to theory that indirect causes were not responsible or culpable for sin, could have justly replied: “Now, now, Nathan. You forget about the liberty and contingency of secondary causes here. I was not the one to strike down Uriah. I didn’t kill him. Those bloodly Ammonites did, and you know that they had bad motives!” Rather, the Bible seems to equate the culpability of doing the act of killing and causally determining that it would happen.

David here caused sin to happen, intentional and in a determining way, and is Biblically held responsible and culpable for that sin.

I could give many other examples of mob bosses causing crimes, and then washing their hands of the deed and claiming that “hey – all my money is clean. I didn’t kill nobody.” The intentional, but indirect, cause of sin is not innocent, but merely has others do their dirty work. Speaking of “washing hands,” though, Pilate didn’t kill Jesus. He merely intentionally causally determined that it would happen. He didn’t directly kill Jesus, so he’s innocent, right? According to the Bible, wrong.

Anyone who causes sin to happen, intentional and in a determining way, is justly held responsible and culpable for that sin. Anyone. No special pleading.

If God caused sin to happen, intentional and in a determining way, He would justly be responsible and culpable for that sin. Why? Because it is wrong for anyone, even God, to cause someone to sin! Yes, I just said it would be wrong for God to do something. God is not above morality – He is morality. He is always true to His righteous nature, and it would be wrong of Him to deviate from it. It would be wrong of Him to lie, for example.

————————– ————————–————————–—-
Case B: Causing sin to happen is wrong

Malachi 2:8
“But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts,”

See, in this verse, it seems pretty clear that causing people to sin is, in and of itself, a sin. Okay, sure, but what if you cause people to sin for a good reason? To that, I would quote this verse:

Romans 3:8
“And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.”

There is no excuse for causing evil to happen. The good omelette is not an excuse for breaking the “eggs” to achieve that result.

Leviticus 22:15-17
“They shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, which they contribute to the LORD, and so cause them to bear iniquity and guilt, by eating their holy things: for I am the LORD who sanctifies them.”

We are not just commanded not to sin ourselves, but also are commanded not to cause others to sin or to bear more iniquity and guilt. To cause others to sin is a sin. It’s wrong. Period.

————————– ————————–————————–—-
Case C: The cause of sin is bad

Matthew 5:29
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.”

Matthew 5:30
“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

Matthew 18:8
“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.”


Now, you’ll notice that the concept about cutting off body part, if they cause you to sin, is a recurring theme here. Maybe it’s important. Some think that these verses are hyperboles to make a point, and are not meant literally. I disagree. It is, indeed, better to lose a body part than to go to hell! Does Jesus want us to cut off our limbs? Of course not. Why? Well, notice the key word here: If. If your hand causes you to sin… If your foot causes you to sin… If your eye causes you to sin… The reason we do not cut off our limbs is that our body parts do not actually cause us to sin. If I were to pluck out one eye, I would sin with the other one! If I had neither eye, I would sin in my mind. The key concept here is that the cause of sin is a bad thing, and ought to be thrown away – no matter what the cost.

Wait – hold on. The cause of sin, Biblically, is a bad thing, and ought to be thrown away. If God is the ultimate intentional and determining cause of all sin… then… how exactly would that work? Would He command us to love and serve Him as Good, and then declare Himself evil and say that we should distance ourselves from Him? That would be contradictory!

i – The cause of sin is bad and we ought to get rid of it
ii – God is not bad, and we ought not to try to get rid of God
iii – Therefore, God is not the cause of sin

—————————-————————–————————–—-
Case D: It would be better…

And now we come to perhaps the harshest words about how wrong it is to cause others to sin:

Matthew 18:6
“…but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Mark 9:42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

Oh snap. And, according to Calvinism, who causally determines that little ones who believe in him will sin?

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain that they would sin.

No sin of little kids has ever come to pass, or ever will, merely because God knew it. The cause of that sin is the will of God.

Little kids do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss or deliberate on anything but what he has previously decreed with himself, and brings to pass by his secret direction…

According to Calvin himself, little kids can deliberately do nothing unless God Himself inspires it.

Enough said.

————————– ————————–————————–—-
Case E: A couple of interesting verses about the cause of sin

Jeremiah 32:35
“They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.”

Point being, God didn’t cause that to happen.

James 4:1
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”

Point being, we are the determining cause of our own sin, and therefore we are responsible and culpable for it.


*All verses are quoted from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted