Richard Coords, “Permission”

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Knowing that evil would come to pass, why didn’t God prevent it? Calvinists use that question to infer determinism, meaning that God must have secretly wanted evil, or else otherwise He could have stopped it, and hence if He didn’t stop evil because He wanted it, then He must have decreed for evil to come to pass. All of that is wrong. In permitting sin, it’s not that God wanted sin, but rather that people be free to choose between good and evil. There are other practical examples as well. The father of the prodigal son permitted his son to leave with his share of the inheritance. Do you think he wanted that? Of course not. But it’s also likely that a father in that situation wouldn’t want to hold their son against their will, if they were already set on leaving. In this way, Calvinists assume that divine permission can only mean one thing—determinism—and it’s shallow thinking.

What about the times when God wants evil? There is no such time. Just because God uses the evil intentions of others (Genesis 50:20), doesn’t mean that He caused it. God will achieve His objectives despite the evil of others, and never that He causes the evil intentions of evildoers. God specifically says that He would get more pleasure by the wicked turning from their evil: “‘Say to them, “As I live!” declares the Lord God, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?”’”

What is there for God to restrain or permit if there is no free-will? To allow something implies acquiescence. For instance, in the Book of Job, God allowed the devil to enter Heaven to issue a challenge against both God and Job. God allowed it, so that in Satan’s arrogance, he would be brought to shame, and that God and Job would be vindicated:

Job 2:3: “The LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man fearing God and turning away from evil. And he still holds fast his integrity, although you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause.’”

God took full responsibility for what He allowed, but clearly, He was displeased by what Satan goaded Him to permit. That leads to the following principles: (a) That which God allows to happen is not always what He wants to happen, and (b) while God may not always keep something bad from happening to you, He can always bring you through it.

According to Calvinists, if God “allows” or “permits” something, then it’s the same thing as if He “ordained” it.

What do Calvinists believe?

R.C. Sproul: “If He decides to allow something, then in a sense he is foreordaining it.”409

Our reply:

Calvinists create “senses” to conflate contradictory terms. In other words, if God allows something, then in some “sense” He has chosen to allow it, and if He chooses to allow it when He otherwise could have prevented it, then in some “sense” He wanted it (to be discussed), and if He wanted it and rendered it certain, then in some “sense” He has foreordained it or even decreed it.

Divine permission in Calvinism: God allows secondary agents to do what they do in the sense that He does not prevent them from doing what He causally determines for them to do via decree.

As an example, Calvinists say that Satan can only do what the sovereign God allows him to do. But by applying the Calvinist definition of divine permission, it means that God allows Satan to do what God causally determined for him to do.

Moreover, to decree, script or determine things are active terms, whereas to permit or allow something are passive terms. Naturally, then, Calvinists conflate that which is active with that which is passive, in order to arrive at their predetermined outcome of turning divine permission into evidence for divine determinism. However, real permission implies acquiescence to another party’s will. So, in divine permission, do Calvinists believe that God acquiesces to a human’s will on any matter? No, because Calvinists believe everything is fixed and determined from eternity past by an all-encompassing decree.

When God allows someone to perish, that doesn’t necessarily mean that He wanted or caused them to reject Him, as evident from Ezekiel 18:23: “‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?’” But, if you listen to a Calvinist, they’ll allege a “Secret Will,” saying God secretly ordains the choice of rebellion, rather than simply ordaining that a person should be free to make their own choice to either rebel or obey. So, when God allowed Satan to enter Heaven to blaspheme God and Job, God merely ordained that Satan should be free to exercise his rebellion, so that God could turn it around to humiliate Satan, and vindicate both God and Job.

Deterministic Calvinists, however, have an ulterior motive when citing Job 2:3, attempting to prove that God causes whatever He permits. While it’s true that God took full responsibility for what He allowed to take place, the text never states that God caused Satan’s arrogance, or caused Satan to enter Heaven to issue a challenge, or caused Satan to move forward with harming Job. God pointed the blame at Satan, saying: “…you incited Me against him to ruin him without cause.” But if exhaustive determinism was true, then Satan could have turned it around and replied: “It was You who incited me to seek permission to ruin him without cause.” Obviously, Satan knew better than to try to throw Calvinism at God. If Calvinism was true, then one would have to believe that Satan would have tried that excuse to get himself off the hook.

What do Calvinists believe?

God never needs our permission to do anything.

Our reply:

Of course, but by the same token, it doesn’t necessarily mean that God wants to force Himself on to anyone, either.

What do Calvinists believe?

Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams: “Being eternal, God’s sovereign decree is not contingent upon human activity or decision. The will of God is never reactive, but always prior to and determinative for human affairs. God predetermines all events and all human destinies by his eternal will, his decree.”410

Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams: “The Calvinist notion of divine sovereignty is often portrayed as little more than a theological gloss upon a doctrine of philosophical determinism. But this misses the Calvinist point, and certainly misses the biblical witness to the sovereignty of God. The providential and sovereign power of God is neither an abstract nor distant force; rather, through personal power God effects his will in the world.”411

R.C. Sproul: “It is said that God knows all contingencies, but none of them contingently. God never says to himself, ‘That depends.’ Nothing is contingent to him. He knows all things that will happen because he ordains everything that does happen.”412

Our reply:

One Calvinist insists that whatever God decides to “redirect” is then incorporated into His eternal decree, but that would make Calvinism’s purported decree “contingent” on human behavior, which leading Calvinists clearly deny. Even if we were to grant a difference between philosophical determinism and Calvinism’s theistic determinism, Calvinism’s version of determinism is nonetheless said to be “never reactive” and “not contingent upon human activity or decision,” and so, how, then, is there any meaningful room left for a genuine sense of divine permission of human choices? Calvinists simply deny that there is such a thing as an “independent” human decision, and hence, Calvinists believe that God causes that which He permits, and really, what Calvinists are showing is that through words like “permission” and “redirects,” they want it both ways, and then chalk it up to a “tension” or “mystery.”

Calvinist objection:

If God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting something, why can’t God have morally sufficient reasons for decreeing something?

Our reply:

Because exhaustively and meticulously decreeing something would require God’s determination of someone’s evil intentions in order to guarantee a predetermined outcome, whereas with permission, God doesn’t need to determine someone’s evil intentions. Determinism requires God predetermining people’s evil desires, and that’s the difference. Calvinists want their cake and eat it too, meaning that Calvinists want God to be holy, but their theological Determinism consumes God’s holiness.

What do Calvinists believe?

Permission is determinism once removed. For if God decreed to allow something, then He necessarily decreed not to stop it. Since God does everything for a purpose, whatever He allows must also have a purpose, which then is tantamount to God determining all things, both caused and allowed. Hence, what God permits, He decrees to permit it.

Our reply:

That’s permission in appearance, only. Permission, in that sense, is merely veiled determinism. The issue to consider is that permission is multifaceted. Sometimes it is unethical not to try to prevent something (like helping a drowning person, assuming that one can swim), while in other situations, it may be unethical not to allow something that you don’t otherwise prefer (such as letting your daughter marry someone that she really loves but whom you believe would be an imperfect spouse). Consider the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father allowed his son to leave with his demanded share of the inheritance. Obviously, that was not what the father primarily wanted, but the father acquiesced to his son’s demand perhaps because he could not justify holding him against his will. The father’s only purpose in allowing his son to leave was not to violate his own personal standards, principles and ethics. Similarly, for God to allow Adam to sin in the Garden of Eden was not because that was what God primarily wanted or had a purpose in Adam doing, but rather that God had a purpose in not violating his own personal standards, principles and ethics by preventing Adam from both having and making his own choice, and of course, also experiencing the consequence of his choice.

In Calvinism, divine permission is often used as theological cover, so to speak, against the apparent harsh reality of God having decreed whatsoever comes to pass. John Piper provides a sample. In the setting of 9/11, in which children lost their parents, Piper was asked:

Kathy Grossman of USA Today: “It seemed to me that you said that the answer to these children was, ‘Look at what the great opportunities are that God gives you now for your life’….”413

John Piper: “No, that is not what I said. He didn’t give them opportunities. What He did was govern all things at the moment when their parents died. So if they asked me, ‘So where was God?’, or ‘Did God have the ability to stop my daddy’s death?,’ I would say that He did have that ability and He didn’t use it, and then they would say, ‘So you’re saying God took my daddy?’ I would say, ‘God was wise, loving and good towards you when He did not stop them.’ I’m trying to avoid words….”414

However, in Calvinism, it is not simply a matter of God having chosen not to “stop” a tragedy, but rather in God having eternally decreed the tragedy and rendered it certain. In contrast, John Calvin makes sure there is no misunderstanding in God’s role in the affairs of mankind:

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.”415

John Calvin: “But when they call to mind that the devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are, in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how much soever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay, unless in so far as he commands; that they are not only bound by his fetters, but are even forced to do him service,—when the godly think of all these things they have ample sources of consolation. For, as it belongs to the lord to arm the fury of such foes and turn and destine it at pleasure, so it is his also to determine the measure and the end, so as to prevent them from breaking loose and wantoning as they list.”416

John Calvin: “…how foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be, not by His will but by His permission…It is a quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely permits them, when Scripture shows Him not only willing, but the author of them.”417

So in Calvinism, God does not merely permit things; God insists. All things, including sin and tragedy are part of a total plan and design for everything to occur exactly as it is. So, then, for the Calvinist, for God having chosen not to “stop” a tragedy like 9/11 means that God foreordained it. So, why would Calvinists ever invoke divine permission in the first place, when they could simply—and more candidly—speak of God having foreordained all things? The answer is that they are trying to tailor their words to the appropriate audience. That is very evident.

What do Calvinists believe?

The Westminster Confession Of Faith: “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; 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.”418

Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams: “But if God created the world, knowing that sin and evil would certainly enter it, how is his action different from causing or foreordaining evil? It was he who set the process in motion, knowing where it would go.”419

Erwin Lutzer: “Both Calvinists and Arminians teach that God does not and cannot do evil. Calvinists say that God nonetheless ordains it through secondary causes. Arminians say God only permits it. Nonetheless, his permission necessarily means that he bore ultimate responsibility for it. After all, he could have chosen ‘not to permit it.’”420

Our reply:

In our legal system, if an estranged husband hired a hit man to murder his wife, would he ever be exonerated on the grounds that he used a “secondary cause”? Of course not, and neither did God exonerate David for having used the Philistines as a secondary cause to murder Uriah.

Moreover, if God chooses to permit something, then it’s not necessarily because He wanted it to happen, since God may be acquiescing to the will of another. For example, in the parable of the Prodigal Son of Luke 15:11-32, the father allowed his son to leave home with his share of the inheritance, even though he sincerely wanted for him to say. So by a Calvinist’s reasoning, the father must have secretly wanted for his son to leave, and even ordained it, or else he would have put an immediate halt to it. The underlying problem is that Calvinists do not think in terms of free-will, and so they necessarily see permission as a subset of determinism.

So in terms of God creating the Garden of Eden, knowing that Adam and Eve would choose to sin, we could say with equal force that God had a purpose in letting them exercise their own free and unnecessitated choice, even if their poor choice was against God’s wishes, since God had a purpose in letting them have and make their own choice, so as to experience the consequence of their choice, whether for good or for bad, as God’s ultimate purposes for mankind possessing such autonomy would nonetheless still be achieved in the long run.

Ken Keathley: “Permission is problematic for the Calvinist—particularly to those who hold to determinism—because permission entails conditionality, contingency, and viewing humans as in some sense the origin of their own respective choices.”421

Jerry Walls: “In a normal case of permission, the person granting permission does not determine the choices of the one who is granted permission.”422

That which God permits is the autonomous free-will of creatures, or else what you would have, as reflected in the Calvinist paradigm, is God permitting to not stop Himself from exercising whatsoever He has foreordained and unconditionally decreed. Omni-causality is fraught with problems, and hence words like permit, allow and concur have no room in a consistent Calvinist’s theological language.

So the question to ask Calvinists is this: When you speak of God permitting something, do you mean that God is allowing something that may or may not come to pass, or do you mean something else? The answer, of course, is something else, which effectively unmasks the duplicitous nature of a Calvinist’s theological language. Ultimately, divine permission in Calvinism means that God scripted things to look like He was permitting someone else to exercise their own self-determination when yet their self-determination was unchangeably predetermined for them.

What do Calvinists believe?

John Calvin: “Again it is quite clear from the evidence of Scripture that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills just as He will, whether to good for His mercy’s sake or to evil according to their merits, His judgment being sometimes open and sometimes concealed, but always just. For it ought to be fixed in your hearts that there is no iniquity with God.”423

John Calvin: “For the man who honestly and soberly reflects on these things, there can be no doubt that the will of God is the chief and principal cause of all things.”424

Despite John Calvin’s affirmation that God is the “chief and principal cause of all things,” in which it is “quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely permits them,” as Albert Mohler testifies, John Calvin does not avoid using the word “permit” in his pastoral ministry to those who suffer great loss. Is this an inconsistency in Calvin’s teaching? We believe it is. John MacArthur, a notable Calvinistic pastor, wrote:

“But God’s role with regard to evil is never as its author. He simply permits evil agents to work, then overrules evil for His own wise and holy ends. Ultimately He is able to make all things-including all the fruits of all the evil of all time-work together for a greater good (Romans 8:28).”425

As previously cited, famed Calvinist pastor, John Piper has written:

“God has established a world in which sin will indeed necessarily come to pass by God’s permission, but not by his “positive agency.” God is, Edwards says, “the permitter . . . of sin; and at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted . . . will most certainly and infallibly follow.”426

Contrast the statements of Edwards, Piper and MacArthur with the one from Calvin above and the inconsistency becomes quite clear. Calvinistic theologian, R.C. Sproul, addresses the heresy of “equal ultimacy” by giving this warning:

“[Equal ultimacy is the belief that] God works in the same way and same manner with respect to the elect and to the reprobate. That is to say, from all eternity God decreed some to election and by divine initiative works faith in their hearts and brings them actively to salvation. By the same token, from all eternity God decrees some to sin and damnation (destinare ad peccatum) and actively intervenes to work sin in their lives, bringing them to damnation by divine initiative. In the case of the elect, regeneration is the monergistic work of God. In the case of the reprobate, sin and degeneration are the monergistic work of God. Stated another way, we can establish a parallelism of foreordination and predestination by means of a positive symmetry. We can call this a positive-positive view of predestination. This is, God positively and actively intervenes in the lives of the elect to bring them to salvation. In the same way God positively and actively intervenes in the life of the reprobate to bring him to sin. This distortion of positive-positive predestination clearly makes God the author of sin who punishes a person for doing what God monergistically and irresistibly coerces man to do. Such a view is indeed a monstrous assault on the integrity of God. This is not the Reformed view of predestination, but a gross and inexcusable caricature of the doctrine. Such a view may be identified with what is often loosely described as hyper-Calvinism and involves a radical form of supralapsarianism. Such a view of predestination has been virtually universally and monolithically rejected by Reformed thinkers.”427

So do John Calvin’s comments reflect support of “equal ultimacy” or not? If not, how are they different in any meaningful way? And what practical difference is there with the Calvinistic claims and that described above as “equal ultimacy?” Can anyone clearly define a distinction with a difference between a world where God is said to hate one brother and love another before the creation and the world described by Dr. Sproul under the label of “equal ultimacy?” Is God merely permitting or allowing anything according to Calvinism’s teaching?

For a Calvinist to affirm divine permission in any sense of the word is for them to affirm contra-causal (or autonomous) free will, for what is there to permit in a deterministic worldview except God’s own determinations? Likewise, for Calvinists to speak of God restraining evil is also an affirmation of autonomous freedom, for what is there to restrain outside of God’s own determinations? Is God restraining that which He determined? If not, then there must exist something that He did not determine, which is itself an affirmation of creaturely autonomy.

As most theologians regularly acknowledge, the doctrine of the fall of man is quite complicated and mysterious. However, the root question boils down to this:

“If mankind was created good and not inclined to evil, then how could he choose to do other than what is good?”

The Calvinist must appeal to a mystery on this question, as evidenced here in the words of John Piper:

“How God freely hardens and yet preserves human accountability we are not explicitly told. It is the same mystery as how the first sin entered the universe. How does a sinful disposition arise in a good heart? The Bible does not tell us.”428

The answer for those of us who do not affirm meticulous divine determinism is relatively simple. The non-Calvinist simply affirms the permissive will of God in creating others with libertarian freedom, while consistent Calvinists teach that the ultimate cause of every choice, for good or evil, is God Himself.

The inconsistency of the Calvinist is evident in the quotes above and in examining of writings of their scholars, such as Jonathan Edwards. On the one hand, Edwards argues that mankind always chooses according to their greatest inclination, which is ultimately determined by their God given nature, yet on the other hand Edwards preached that Adam “was perfectly free from any corruptions or sinful inclinations,” and that he “had no sinful inclinations to hurry him on to sin; he did it of his own free and mere choice.”429

How does this not violate Edwards own definition of human will and choice? For Adam to choose to sin he must violate the law of his own nature, as defined by Edwards. Thus, the Calvinist rejects the mystery of contra-causal freedom only to adopt another even more difficult mystery. One that arguably brings into question the holiness, righteousness and trustworthiness of our Go (i.e. the theory that God is implicated in the origin of moral evil—see Calvin’s original quote).


409 Chosen By God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1986), 26.

410 Why I Am Not An Arminian (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 95.

411 Ibid., 142.

412 What is Reformed Theology? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1997), 172.

413 Kathy Grossman of USA Today, On the New Calvinists, Q&A with Reporters

414 Ibid., emphasis mine.

415 Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 171-172, emphasis mine.

416 The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 17, Section 11 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, translated by Henry Beveridge, 1845), 196, emphasis mine,

417 Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 176, emphasis added.

418 The Westminster Confession Of Faith, Chapter III. Of God’s Eternal Decree, 1646.

419 Why I Am Not An Arminian (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 157.

420 The Doctrines That Divide (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998), 209-210.

421 A Southern Baptist Dialogue: Calvinism (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 197.

422 Why I Am Not A Calvinist (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 131.

423 Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 177.

424 Ibid.

425 John MacArthur, Is God Responsible for Evil?, emphasis mine.

426 John Piper, Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained That Evil Be?, emphasis mine.

427 R.C. Sproul, “Double” Predestination.

428 John Piper, The Hardening of Pharaoh and the Hope of the World.

429 Jonathan Edwards, ‘All God’s Methods Are Most Reasonable’, in Sermons and Discourses: 1723-1729, ed. by Kenneth P. Minkema, Works 14 (1997): 168.

[This post has been excerpted with permission from Richard Coords, Calvinism Answered Verse by Verse and Subject by Subject, © 2024.]