God’s Sovereignty in the Crucifixion of Jesus

, posted by

by Roger E. Olson

One critic has argued against my maxim that, “God is in charge but not in control” by pointing to Acts 2:23, which says that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” (RSV) The critic argues that this verse proves that God controlled the crucifixion of Jesus such that, although wicked men did it, God is its ultimate cause. I take it what the gentleman means is that God foreordained and rendered it certain. This is supposed to be a test case to prove that God controls all events including the decisions and actions of wicked people.

Let’s take a closer look to see if it actually does prove that.

First, notice that this is said by Peter in a sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Even if it does say that God actually caused wicked men to do their wicked deeds, that is not necessarily God saying it. In other words, according to most evangelical inerrantists, biblical inerrancy only means that biblical authors recorded the words of others accurately; it does not mean that every statement recorded in Scripture is accurate.

Evangelical belief in biblical inerrancy is compatible with errors in recorded sermons just as much as it is compatible with errors in sources used by biblical writers (e.g., Old Testament writers used errant sources inerrantly). So, just because Peter said it does not make it God’s authoritative Word; that he said it is God’s authoritative Word. (I’m just saying what most evangelical inerrantists say, or at least what is implied by their qualifications for inerrancy.)

Second, let’s suppose, just for the sake of argument, that God did plan and render certain (as its ultimate cause but through secondary causes) the specific acts of the men who crucified Jesus. That in no way implies that every wicked act is planned and rendered certain by God. There’s nothing illogical about believing that the God who allows people to go against his will occasionally “steps in,” as it were, to manipulate people to do wicked things for the sake of salvation history.

God hardened Pharoah’s heart, for example. But nothing says God hardens every sinner’s heart (to cause them to sin). (And, of course, that God hardened Pharoah’s heart does not mean that God caused a good man to do something bad against his own character and the direction of his will generally.) Why couldn’t it be that God occasionally plans and renders certain that someone sins in order that an event necessary for salvation history occurs? Joseph’s brothers’ selling him into slavery could be used as another example. But to infer from these examples that every sin is planned and rendered certain by God as its ultimate cause is not warranted by such examples.

Notice something about both the crucifixion event and the Joseph event: In both cases we are led to believe that God forgave the perpetrators for doing what he (according to the Calvinist view, anyway) planned and rendered certain that they would do. (I don’t supposed anyone is going to argue that the Father did not answer the dying Jesus’ plea to forgive his executioners! And surely if Joseph forgave his brothers, God did.) In other words, it’s perfectly logical to believe that the God who normally merely allows sin and evil occasionally causes it by rendering it certain so long as one also believes (as Scripture seems to say in the only two cases recorded where God seems to have done this) that God forgives them.

Third, is it necessarily the case that in order for God to have planned and rendered certain the crucifixion, God had to actually cause certain men to crucify Jesus? That’s a false assumption. Let me illustrate.

As a professor I’m in charge of my classes but not in control of them. But I know without any doubt (after almost 30 years of teaching similar students the same subjects) that if I say a certain sentence someone in a class of 30 students will respond with a certain question or comment. It’s like putting coins into a vending machine and getting the product. It always happens. I know my students so well that I know what at least one of them will say immediately after I say such-and-such. Does that mean I’m causing the student to say it? Am I even rendering it certain? I think not. At least not that particular student. I may be rendering it certain that some student will say it, but not that any particular student will say it.

Suppose God wanted Jesus to be crucified in a particular place and at a particular time. Actually, that does seem to be the case! Was his only recourse to pick certain individuals and cause them to crucify Jesus? Not at all! The triumphal entry into Jerusalem guaranteed that someone would crucify Jesus. But God did not have to inspire or manipulate or coerce any particular individuals to do it.

My point is that there are many ways around interpreting Acts 2:23 in the traditional Calvinist manner. And I find it instructive that no Church father of the first three centuries interpreted it that way (so far as I know). I wonder what Calvinists think about Church fathers like Irenaeus who clearly did not believe what Calvinists believe about God’s sovereignty. And yet he is a third generation Christian, taught the Christian faith by Polycarp, who was taught it by John — who forgot all about God’s absolute, determinative sovereignty between John and Irenaeus? It just slipped Polycarp’s mind? That’s hard to believe.