Detective Harry, and his buddy Lieutenant Columbo, are sitting in a church classroom after everyone else leaves, including the teacher, ruminating in the truths they had just been walked through concerning God as sovereign. Harry is perplexed.
Columbo: Harry, what’s eating you? You look very perplexed.
Harry: I can’t get around it. God is the author of sin.
Columbo: Oh, now Harry, I can’t say that with the way I understand God’s attributes and will. Why would you?
Harry: It’s inevitable. It’s the logical conclusion.
Columbo: Well, you know how easy it is to miss a step and conclude something very wrong. Police do it all the time in detecting clues in cases. I can say, in my understanding of what the teacher just taught, God isn’t the author of sin. But, why do you think he is?
Harry: God created everything. In this way, God is responsible for sin being in the world. God, then has to be its author.
Columbo: That’s true. God created everything. And sin is part of everything, and so, yes, I’d agree with you, God is responsible for sin being in the world. But I have to qualify it in this way, if He didn’t create the world, there would be no sin. So in that respect, God is responsible that sin exists in His world that He created. But, saying, God is the author of sin, and … that God is the author of sin, are two very different things.
Harry looks bugged eyed at Columbo’s response …
Harry: I don’t get what you mean. You just said the same thing twice.
Columbo: Well, not really. It depends on what I mean by both of those statements and their context, and we have to consider them separately. I mean two very different things with very different conclusions.
Harry: They are the SAME sentence Columbo. What on earth are you talking about?
Columbo: [Columbo chuckles] Okay, Okay, I know that sounds confusing. Here, think about it this way, God is the author of sin in a sense. Sin is in the world isn’t it? But God is not the author of sin in the world where He acts out sin within people’s hearts. People do that. But certainly, God is the author of sin in a certain sense.
Harry: So you agree with me that God is the author of sin!
Columbo: Nooooo. [Columbo sits back and stretches.] I don’t believe that at all, not in the way you are stating it. You mean it as a negative and as a bad thing.
Harry: But you said God is responsible for sin being in the world.
Columbo: Yes. He is. But what you are struggling with is whether or not God is the efficient cause of sin in the world, which is very different thought than that sin is in the world, and God is the first cause of the creation of the world.
Harry: Lieutenant, don’t confuse me here. If God created the world, then God is the first cause of all things. And all things would include sin. Wouldn’t it?
Columbo: Not in the way you are thinking about it. No.
Harry: Why not?
Columbo: Follow me first on what you are trying to say so I understand – if God is the author of sin, because there is a sure and infallible connection between things that come first and the consequents to those things, it follows, in the way you are thinking about it, that for God to be the author or orderer of those things which He knows beforehand will be infallibly attended with a certain consequence, it’s the same thing in your mind for Him to be the actual author of that consequence, to work sin in the heart of a person and to act sin, as much as He ordained it.
Harry thinks through that for a moment.
Harry: Yes. That’s what I’m saying at this point.
Columbo: Well, well, that won’t do. Let’s use an example to sort this out. Shall we?
Harry: Sure. Which one?
Harry: Judas, tragic.
Columbo: God certainly knew, long before Judas was born, that if He ordered things just right, that there should be a man born named Judas, at a certain time, and at a certain place, and that his life should be preserved, and that he should, in God’s Divine Providence, be led to meet Jesus.
Harry: OK. Yes, I agree with that. God ordained it.
Columbo: There are a whole bunch of events that would have to occur for that to happen just in the right way. And God was there attending them all and ordering them all. God is set down in the Bible as the Supreme and Absolute Governor of the universe, who orders all important events within his dominion, by His wisdom. You know, there is a wonderful book called Adoring God that you should read, covering all those attributes, including God’s sovereignty. I’ve just finished it, and I can tell you, it clears up a whole bunch of things I had rattling around in my mind. Now, let’s say, that Judas’ heart should be so influenced by God’s Spirit, or could we say, by God’s providence over events in his life, as to be inclined to follow Christ, that he should be one of the twelve, which should be chosen to attend Him constantly as His family and disciple, you know, eat with Him, learn from Him, walk with Him, etc., for three years or so …
Harry: I’m still okay with that.
Columbo: … and that God would have ordained him to be healthy enough to preserve in his life for that time, that he should go up to Jerusalem, at the last Passover in Christ’s life, and if God ordered it, that Judas should see Christ’s kind treatment of the woman which anointed Him at Bethany, and then be scolded by Christ about it, which I’m sure he didn’t like …
Harry: Where are you going with this?
Columbo: Easy now, take it step by step. And so Judas being scolded, which he didn’t like, and then, at that time, to see and hear other things, which worked up his enmity against his Master, and that if other circumstances would be specifically ordered in God’s providence, as they were ordered, and you know we looked at some of those things in the Gospels in todays’ class, it would finally come to pass that Judas certainly would betray his Lord, and then, tragically, would soon after hang himself. He would die in his sins, and be sent to hell for his horrible wickedness. [Columbo stretches out his hands and widens his eyes at such a thought, shaking his head…]. Terrible.
Harry: Ok, I’m following so far.
Columbo: Answer this: who betrayed Christ, God or Judas?
Harry: [Thinking for a moment.] Judas.
Columbo: Did God ordain that Judas should betray Christ even though it was a wicked sin?
Columbo: Did God choose to betray Christ or did Judas choose to betray Christ?
Harry: Judas. But I’m uncomfortable with this.
Columbo: [Columbo leans in a bit] Now THAT, is a very interesting statement. Being “uncomfortable.” Why?
Harry: I understand what you are saying, but I don’t like the idea that God ordained Judas to betray Christ because that would make God the author of the sin, at least permitting it, and Judas playing his puppet role, really, having no choice in the matter.
Columbo: [Columbo leans back]. No it doesn’t. You are confusing how human choice works and God’s sovereign ordination of events. When people object that this idea makes God the author of sin, they ought to distinctly explain what they mean by that phrase, “the author of sin.” As people use it, it signifies something that “isn’t a good thing.” Something negative.
Harry: Of course negative, that’s the whole point of this conversation!
Columbo: If “the author of sin” means that the God is the actual sinner, the agent, or actor of sin, (inside Judas’ heart for example), and God is the worker of a wicked thing, it would be a reproach and blasphemy to label God as the author of sin in this sense. He didn’t go inside Judas’ heart and “act out sin” for Judas. He did not create a moral sin molecule and sovereignly introduce it to Judas’ heart and make Judas do something he wasn’t inclined to do. You already answered that Judas sinned. Judas betrayed Christ. Because if God did it, God should be punished for sinning.
Harry: I agree. But how do we avoid that God ordained that specific sin to occur?
Columbo: Why do we need to avoid it? That’s what happened! What the problem is, its that you don’t emotionally like that feeling. You are uncomfortable that God is God in that way. He is sinless, yet in control of everything; and you are not.
Harry: Maybe so. It’s the whole puppet thing. It’s hard to escape being a puppet then.
Columbo: Do you feel like a puppet?
Columbo: Then what’s the problem?
Harry rolls his eyes.
Columbo: I don’t believe for a second that God is the author of sin in that false way. But if, by “the author of sin,” is meant both the permitter and at the same time the one who disposes all the circumstances in the world, in such a manner, for wise, holy, and most excellent ends and purposes any sin that occurs in the world, then I don’t have an issue with that at all. So, that’s why I said, I don’t deny that God is the author of sin (though I don’t like that phrase), because it is not a reproach for the Most High to be the author of sin in this way of ordering. But, God is not the actor of sin. So I said, “God is the author of sin” and “God is the author of sin” as two very different ideas that need explanation in two very different circumstances. Would you agree with me to that?
Harry: Yes, I think I would as I consider it.
Columbo: God, in this way of ordering and guiding the way the world works, is the orderer of sin, is very clearly shown in the Bible. [Columbo takes out his notepad and pencil, and flips through his pages after adjusting his reading glasses]. As a matter of fact, God uses sin in His providence sinlessly, for if God wills sin, and is the author of that sin, He should be punished for sinning.
He leans over a little and points to a certain page …
Columbo: You see here, in the nature of God’s providence, it can’t be otherwise. I wrote it down here in my notepad in just that way: It can’t be otherwise. God ordered the hardness of Pharaoh in his refusing to obey God’s commands, to let the Israelites go. Exod. 4:21, “I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.”
Harry: So God created evil in Pharaoh’s heart.
Columbo: Oh, noooo. The text doesn’t say that at all. God is the One who ordains events. Look here, “And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go.” (Exo. 8:32). Pharaoh hardened his own heart.
Harry: Now I’m really confused. One Scripture says God hardened his heart, another says Pharaoh did.
Columbo: Did God go into Pharaoh’s heart and create evil in it?
Harry: I don’t know, no, I don’t think so.
Columbo: Can God do that? Would that be consistent with His nature?
Harry: No He can’t do it. I’d have to say, it would be inconsistent with what I know Scripture teaches about God’s character and attributes – He is perfect, and holy.
Columbo: What does it mean for God to harden Pharaoh then?
Harry: I’m not sure.
Columbo: Fair enough. I’d say it this way – that God so ordered all the circumstances around Pharaoh, that Pharaoh could not but choose, like Judas, to harden his own heart. But since God providentially ordered the event for His own glory (Romans 9), Moses writes that God was the active ordaining cause of Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened, but that Pharaoh was the active cause of hardening his own heart with bitterness and sin.
Harry: That’s … tricky.
Columbo: Judas too, he betrayed the Lord. He did it in a way in which he was responsible for his own sin, but God ordered all the events where all those choices would be made to crucify the Lord. God is responsible for sin being in the world, but not responsible for Judas being the actor of sin that gives in voluntarily to lust and concupiscence, wickedness, in his own heart to betray Christ in malice. God is only responsible for sin insofar as Judas’ sin exists in the world because He both created the world and orders all its events, which are ordered for a most glorious purpose. But God is not responsible for acting sin in Judas’ heart. That responsibility lies in Judas from both original sin and actual sin.
Harry: So, Scripturally, just dealing with Pharaoh and Judas, there is a great difference between God’s being concerned in this way by His permission, in an event and act, and being concerned in it by producing it and exerting the act of sin in some’s heart.
Columbo: [Columbo pulls out a cigar and lights it up] Yes. Exactly. But God does not work by mere permission. He is actively ordaining whatsoever comes to pass, as our Confession interprets Scripture on that point.
Harry: So it would be logically impossible to accuse God of creating sin in the heart of Judas, but we can certainly say that Judas would fulfill all God’s plans to betray Christ so that Christ would be crucified. So God ordains sin. And God ordains all the circumstances around certain sins that they would come to pass, but is not the author of acting sin in that way in someone’s heart.
Columbo: Yes again. “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain,” (Acts 2:23). Right?
Harry: Yes, I suppose so.
Columbo: Suppose? [Columbo smiles] I suppose you are dealing with that uncomfortable feeling of impinging on God’s goodhood again?
Harry: Maybe. … So we can’t say God is the primary cause of sin in the heart.
Columbo: Correct. And this is the reason why it’s a very slippery slope to say God is the primary cause of sin in the world. It’s important that we define what we mean. Any terms we use, whether proximate cause, actual cause, providence, ordination, author of sin, permittor of sin, and the like, all have to be defined and carefully weighed. Basic Scripture proves out that God is the Orderer and Disposer of events. This includes in the inherent subject and agent what might be moral evil against His Law. And yet, His working in the midst of a given circumstance, He is not acting in any moral evil. He may ordain the works of such an event, and it’s coming to pass for some glorious and good ends (like salvation in a crucified Christ), and still, His will is not an immoral or sinful will, but a perfectly holy will. [Columbo takes a few puffs of his cigar and waves the smoke a bit around] … most people are uncomfortable with that because they equate evil with “ultimate evil” and God with “ultimate good” and set them against one another as if God could be challenged by something as fictional as “ultimate evil.” But everything is under the sovereignty of God. There isn’t anything sovereign but God. All things, including evil, work for good for those that love God and are called according to His purpose.
Harry: I’ll have to pray about being uncomfortable with it, but I understand what you said.
Columbo: I’m so very glad to hear it. Next week we can talk about the very first sin that appeared in the angel who later is known as the devil. Now that’s a tricky one to deal with. An unfallen creature, sinning, with no force inside him, in his heart, behind the temptation. That would be a great case to solve!