O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. – Habakkuk 1:12b
I love words. I think we all in a way appreciate words. The written word is the means God communicated to us in His Word.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… – Hebrews 1:1-2a
Words have a way of helping us understand concepts. When you read the words, “grace of God” you are likely comforted at the fact that God offers unmerited favor to sinners for salvation. I may not understand every single caveat about grace, but I know enough of the Bible to believe and proclaim that “grace” means God is giving something to me that I cannot earn.
However, when we try to describe from Scripture the holy God, who our minds cannot fully comprehend, we often find that words are feeble and incomplete.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. – Isaiah 55:8-9
The Sovereignty of God
I think some of our words feel incomplete based on the Bible’s words about the sovereignty of God.
I [God] form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things.
Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
let the earth cause them both to sprout;
I the Lord have created it.
Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’? – Isaiah 45:7-9
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:15-17
The word sovereignty is never used in the above two verses, however, “the supreme power or authority” of God over all things (which is sovereignty as defined* by Oxford Languages) seems very clear. The passage in Isaiah proclaims God’s authority as the One who has created all things. Paul’s words in Colossians that, “…all things were created through him [Christ] and for him,” does not limit God’s authority in any way. Every power in the world under the umbrella of His divine purposes, even sin and evil.
All things? What about sin?
Is God Sovereign Over Sin?
This question strikes provocatively. Does God’s power and authority reach even over sin and evil in the world? Habakkuk believes this to be true, I think.
O Lord, you have ordained them [evil Babylon] as a judgment [judgement of Israel],
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. – Habakkuk 1:12b
Does God Allow sin or Ordain sin?
If God is sovereign over all things, is He allowing sin and responding accordingly to it, or is God ordaining sin as part of His purposes and plan? These words are feeble attempts to define God’s work. What do we usually mean when we say ordain or allow?
One Feeble Word: Ordain
The dictionary* will tell you that ordain means to prescribe or determine something to be. In the case of Habakkuk, God has determined that He will use an evil nation as His instrument of judgment. It seems that God is intentionally stepping into the situation and ordaining that evil will be used against His people.
How is ordain a feeble word that doesn’t fully address the character of God? Ordain implies that God is both supreme over sin and then responsible for that sin Himself. However, the Scriptures are clear that God is holy. He is incapable of be responsible for evil.
You [God] who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong… – Habakkuk 1:13a
I think this is why many cringe at the word ordain. It makes it sound like we believe God is responsible for evil Himself if He supreme over it.
So… Is there a better word we can use based on Scripture?
Another Feeble Word: Allow
What about the word allow? By this I mean that God allows or permits someone to do something (as defined by Oxford Languages). I’ll admit, this word immediately sounds a lot more comfortable than ordain. Someone might say, God does not ordain sin, but He allows it to happen in the world. Allow is a helpful word because it attempts to reiterate that God never sins. Humans sin.
How is allow a feeble word that doesn’t fully address the character of God and His relation to sin? Allow does not fully address what the Bible says about the supreme authority of God over all things. God is allowing (permitting) sin to happen, not ordaining (determining it to be) sin. God owns the playground, and sin is rebellious child He is letting play on the monkey bars. However, when we see examples in the Bible of God using sin to accomplish His purposes (for example in Habakkuk), the implication is that God is awaiting evil to occur in order to use it for His purposes. Therefore, God must react to the evil that occurs which inevitably undermines the supreme authority of God. If this is true, God’s power and control is dependent on whether or not a person commits evil. God is merely allowing sin and not determining sin to be. He then cannot be sovereign over ALL things because He is not sovereign over sin itself. He is actually dependent on sinners to sin and must react to them (i.e. the person sovereign over sin is the one who commits the sin).
A Word on Both Feeble Words
Regardless of which word used, if our ultimate goal is to prevent people from thinking untrue thoughts about God, we will ultimately fail.
If God ordains sin, one will eventually say, “Then God must be evil Himself if He purposes evil to be!”
If God allows sin, one will eventually say, “Then God must be evil Himself if He is powerful enough to allow something to happen, of course He could be powerful enough to prevent sin from happening!”
A Word of Hope on Feeble Words
Whatever words we use to describe God, we have utterly failed if the words are not founded in what God has spoken about Himself. Scripture seems to hold up two unashamed truths.
Truth #1 God is never surprised by anything. He has established a plan from the foundation of the world that incorporates unspeakable evils (i.e. the murder of His Son) into a tapestry that will lead all creation to one day say, “You do all things well.”
Truth #2 God is the absolute standard of perfection. Everything He does is utterly pure and right. He is free from sin. Sin by definition is something outside of God’s character.
Let us not be surprised when our words fall flat as we attempt to describe what Scripture reveals about God. Let us continue to read and pray and believe and explain God rightly, so that he may be honored. When we see mysteries in the Bible, thank God that the questions are only answered the God who is our refuge.
Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. – Ecclesiastes 5:2
*Oxford Languages was used for all the word definitions mentioned