Is God the Author of Sin? - Gordon Clark's Answer

If God is completely sovereign, doesn't that make him the author of sin? Learn how Gordon Clark distinguishes between being the cause and author of sin.
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Quick Answer

  1. God's sovereignty means He is the sole ultimate cause of everything, including sin.
  2. Being the cause of sin is different from being the author, or immediate cause, or first cause, or committer, of sin.
  3. The sinner who commits the sin is responsible for the sin, not God.
  4. God being the cause of sin is not sinful because God's actions are themselves the definition of what is right and just.

Introduction

One common objection to Calvinism and predestination is that if God is sovereign over, or in control of, everything, doesn't that make God the author of sin? Here, we will summarize philosopher and theologian Gordon Clark's response to this objection by quoting from his book/essay, God and Evil, which can be purchased from The Trinity Foundation. All bolded text has been added.

Definition of terms is extremely important. Clark distinguishes between God being the ultimate cause of sin and God being the author of sin. Clark affirms the former and denies the latter, in accordance with the historic Reformed confessions.

God is the "cause" of sin

Clark does not shy away from saying that God is the cause of sin, since God is the "sole ultimate cause of everything."

Let it be unequivocally said that this view certainly makes God the cause of sin. God is the sole ultimate cause of everything. There is absolutely nothing independent of him. He alone is the eternal being. He alone is omnipotent. He alone is sovereign. Not only is Satan his creature, but every detail of history was eternally in his plan before the world began; and he willed that it should all come to pass. The men and angels predestined to eternal life and those foreordained to everlasting death are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished. Election and reprobation are equally ultimate. God determined that Christ should die; he determined as well that Judas should betray him. There was never the remotest possibility that something different could have happened.

Scriptures

Clark uses these Scriptures to support to point quoted above.

Whatever the Lord pleases he does, in Heave and in Earth (Psalm 135:6)
All the inhabitants of the Earth are reputed as nothing; he does according to his will in the army of Heaven and among the inhabitants of the Earth. No one can restrain his hand or say to him, "What have you done?" (Daniel 4:35)
I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create evil; I, the Lord, do all these things (Isaiah 45:7)
The Lord has made all things for himself, yes, even the wicked for the day of evil (Proverbs 16:4).
You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who has resisted his will?" But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? ... Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? (Romans 9:19-21)
Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God (ROmans 11:22).

"Cause" vs "Author" of sin

Next, Clark distinguishes between the terms "cause of sin" and "author of sin."

Immediate vs Ultimate cause

One is permitted to ask, however, whether the phrase "cause of sin" is the equivalent of the phrase "author of sin." Is the latter phrase used to deny God's universal causality? Obviously not, for the same people who affirm causality deny the authorship. They must have intended a difference. An illustration is close at hand. God is not the author of this book, as the Arminians would be the first to admit; but he is its ultimate cause as the Bible teaches. Yet I am the author. Authorship therefore is one kind of cause, but there are other kinds. The author of a book is its immediate cause; God is its ultimate cause.

First and Secondary Causation

Clark then discusses the concepts of first and secondary causation, which are terms used by the Westminster Confession of Faith.

This distinction between first and secondary causation—explicitly maintained in the Westminster Confession—has not always been appreciated, even by those who are in general agreement. John Gill, for example, who is so excellent on so much, failed to grasp the distinction between the immediate author and the ultimate cause. For this reason there are some faulty passages in his otherwise fine work. Such is the difficulty of the problem and so confused are the discussions from the time of the patristics to the present day, that some of the best Calvinists have not extricated themselves completely from scholastic errors. Not only Berkouwer, but even Jonathan Edwards, in spite of Calvin, still spoke about God's permission of sin.

When, accordingly, the discussion comes to God's being the author of sin, one must understand the question to be, "Is God the immediate cause of sin?" Or, more clearly, "Does God commit sin?" This is a question concerning God's holiness. Now, it should be evident that God no more commits sin than he is writing these words. Although the betrayal of Christ was foreordained from eternity as a means of effecting the atonement, it was Judas, not God, who betrayed Christ. The secondary causes in history are not eliminated by divine causality, but rather they are made certain. And the acts of these secondary causes, whether they be righteous acts or sinful acts, are to be immediately referred to the agents; and it is these agents who are responsible.

God is not responsible or sinful

Clark goes on to explain why God is not responsible or sinful, even though He "causes" sin.

God is neither responsible nor sinful, even though he is the only ultimate cause of everything. He is not sinful because in the first place whatever God does is just and right. It is just and right simply in virtue of the fact that he does it. Justice or righteousness is not a standard external to God to which God is obligated to submit. Righteousness is what God does. Since God caused Judas to betray Christ, this causal act is righteous and not sinful. By definition God cannot sin. At this point it must be particularly pointed out that God's causing a man to sin is not sin. There is no law, superior to God, which forbids him to decree sinful acts. Sin presupposes a law, for sin is lawlessness. Sin is any want of conformity unto transgression of the law of God But God is "Ex-lex."

A human who causes sin is sinful

Clark continues with the difference between God and a human causing sin.

True it is that if a man, a created being, should cause or try to cause another man to sin, this attempt would be sinful. The reason is plain. The relation of one man to another is entirely different from the relation of God to any man. God is the creator; man is a creature. And the relation of a man to the law is equally different from the relation of God to the law. What holds in the one situation does not hold in the other. God has absolute and unlimited rights over all created things. Of the same lump he can make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor. The clay has no claims on the potter. Among men, on the contrary, rights are limited.

God's laws for men do not apply to God

Clark reiterates the previous point in another way.

The idea that God is above the law can be explained in another particular. The laws that God imposes on men do not apply to the divine nature. They are applicable only to human conditions. For example, God cannot steal, not only because whatever he does is right, but also because he owns everything: There is no one to steal from. Thus the law that defines sin envisages human conditions and has no relevance to a sovereign Creator.

Scriptural support that God causes, but is not responsible for, sin

Clark supports his contention that God causes, but is not responsible for, sin, by using 2 Chronicles 18:20-22.

As God cannot sin, so in the next place, God is not responsible for sin, even though he decrees it. Perhaps it would be well, before we conclude, to give a little more Scriptural evidence that God indees decrees and causes sin. 2 Chronicles 18:20-22 reads, "Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, and said, 'I will persuade him.' The Lord said to him, 'In what way?' So he said, 'I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.' And the Lord said, 'You shall persuade him and also prevail; go out and do so.' Now, therefore, look! The Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of these prophets of yours, and the Lord has declared disaster against you." This passage definitely says that the Lord caused the prophets to lie. Other similar passages ought easily to come to one's remembrance. But that God is not responsible for the sin he causes is a conclusion closely connected with the preceding argument.

God's penalties for sin cannot be inflicted on God

Clark continues by pointing out that the consequences for breaking God's law cannot be applied to God.

Another aspect of the human conditions presupposed by the laws God imposes on man is that they carry with them a penalty that cannot be inflicted on God. Man is responsible because God calls him to account; man is responsible because the supreme power can punish him for disobedience. God, on the contrary, cannot be responsible for the plain reason that there is no power superior to him; no greater being can hold him accountable; no one can punish him; there is no one to whom God is responsible; there are no laws which he could disobey.

Conclusion

The sinner, therefore, and not God, is responsible; the sinner alone is the author of sin. Man has no free will, for salvation is purely of grace; and God is sovereign.

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