Can Good Come from Evil? What says the Scripture? by Jack Kettler
Does God permit and even ordain what we would call evil events?
As shocking as this may sound, yes, God permits evil and even ordains it, and yet even in wicked events, He turns it for the good. We see examples of this when we read in Scripture about Joseph in Egypt. As we will see, this turning evil for good, is most evident in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the case of our Lord, evil is seen in its most horrifying magnitude, and yet, from this most wicked act on the part of sinful men comes forth the salvation of God's elect.
Many Christians have struggled with issues like these that involve man's responsibility over against God's predetermination and sometimes postulate theories that try and make the doctrine of God's sovereignty more palatable to human reason. Doing this is not a solution, but rather adds more confusion to a clear and God glorying interpretation of events seen in Scripture.
To prove the assertion about God's predetermined events that are turned for good, the prophet Isaiah says:
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Isaiah 53:10
This passage in Isaiah is a prophesy about the crucifixion and death of God's Son. It was a wicked act on the part of the Jews to turn Christ over to the Romans to be killed. Yet, when considering the New Testament Scriptures, they testify in no uncertain language, that God ordained evil men to crucify the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2:23).
How can this be? How can turning an evil event into something that fulfills the Divine will and is good be accomplished? From a human perspective, this seems impossible. When we understand the outworking of God's Sovereign will in Scripture, we stand in awe at His Majestic Sovereignty. Only God can turn the wicked events of man into God glorifying events.
In Genesis, the first book of Scripture, we see God turning evil purposes for good:
But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it to good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Genesis 50:20
Calvin's exposition of this passage is most edifying:
20. Ye thought evil against me. Joseph well considers (as we have said) the providence of God; so that he imposes it on himself as a compulsory law, not only to grant pardon, but also to exercise beneficence. And although we have treated at large on this subject, in Genesis 45:1, yet it will be useful also to repeat something on it now. In the first place, we must notice this difference in his language: for whereas, in the former passage, Joseph, desiring to soothe the grief, and to alleviate the fear of his brethren, would cover their wickedness by every means which ingenuity could suggest; he now corrects them a little more openly and freely; perhaps because he is offended with their disingenousness. Yet he holds to the same principle as before. Seeing that, by the secret counsel of God, he was led into Egypt, for the purpose of preserving the life of his brethren, he must devote himself to this object, lest he should resist God. He says, in fact, by his action, "Since God has deposited your life with me, I should be engaged in war against him, if I were not to be the faithful dispenser of the grace which he had committed to my hands." Meanwhile, he skillfully distinguishes between the wicked counsels of men, and the admirable justice of God, by so ascribing the government of all things to God, as to preserve the divine administration free from contracting any stain from the vices of men. The selling of Joseph was a crime detestable for its cruelty and perfidy; yet he was not sold except by the decree of heaven. For neither did God merely remain at rest, and by conniving for a time, let loose the reins of human malice, in order that afterwards he might make use of this occasion; but, at his own will, he appointed the order of acting which he intended to be fixed and certain. Thus we may say with truth and propriety, that Joseph was sold by the wicked consent of his brethren, and by the secret providence of God. Yet it was not a work common to both, in such a sense that God sanctioned anything connected with or relating to their wicked cupidity: because while they are contriving the destruction of their brother, God is effecting their deliverance from on high. Whence also we conclude, that there are various methods of governing the world. This truly must be generally agreed, that nothing is done without his will; because he both governs the counsels of men, and sways their wills and turns their efforts at his pleasure, and regulates all events: but if men undertake anything right and just, he so actuates and moves them inwardly by his Spirit, that whatever is good in them, may justly be said to be received from him: but if Satan and ungodly men rage, he acts by their hands in such an inexpressible manner, that the wickedness of the deed belongs to them, and the blame of it is imputed to them. For they are not induced to sin, as the faithful are to act aright, by the impulse of the Spirit, but they are the authors of their own evil, and follow Satan as their leader. Thus we see that the justice of God shines brightly in the midst of the darkness of our iniquity. For as God is never without a just cause for his actions, so men are held in the chains of guilt by their own perverse will. When we hear that God frustrates the wicked expectations, and the injurious desires of men, we derive hence no common consolation. Let the impious busy themselves as they please, let them rage, let them mingle heaven and earth; yet they shall gain nothing by their ardor; and not only shall their impetuosity prove ineffectual, but shall be turned to an issue the reverse of that which they intended, so that they shall promote our salvation, though they do it reluctantly. So that whatever poison Satan produces, God turns it into medicine for his elect. And although in this place God is said to have "meant it unto good," because contrary to expectation, he had educed a joyful issue out of beginnings fraught with death: yet, with perfect rectitude and justice, he turns the food of reprobates into poison, their light into darkness, their table into a snare, and, in short, their life into death. If human minds cannot reach these depths, let them rather suppliantly adore the mysteries they do not comprehend, than, as vessels of clay, proudly exalt themselves against their Maker.
To save much people alive. Joseph renders his office subservient to the design of God's providence; and this sobriety is always to be cultivated, that every one may behold, by faith, God from on high holding the helm of the government of the world, and may keep himself within the bounds of his vocation; and even, being admonished by the secret judgments of God, may descend into himself, and exhort himself to the discharge of his duty: and if the reason of this does not immediately appear, we must still take care that we do not fly in confused and erratic circuits, as fanatical men are wont to do. What Joseph says respecting his being divinely chosen "to save much people alive," some extend to the Egyptians. Without condemning such an extension, I would rather restrict the application of the words to the family of Jacob; for Joseph amplifies the goodness of God by this circumstance, that the seed of the Church would be rescued from destruction by his labor. And truly, from these few men, whose seed would otherwise have been extinct before their descendants had been multiplied, that vast multitude sprang into being, which God soon afterwards raised up.1
From John Gill's commentary we read more about this divine ordaining of events, which God controlled and turned for good:
But as for you, ye thought evil against me,.... That must be said and owned, that their intentions were bad; they thought to have contradicted his dreams, and made them of none effect, to have token away his life, or however to have made him a slave all his days:
but God meant it unto good; he designed good should come by it, and he brought good out of it: this shows that this action, which was sinful in itself, fell under the decree of God, or was the object of it, and that there was a concourse of providence in it; not that God was the author of sin, which neither his decree about it, nor the concourse of providence with the action as such supposes; he leaving the sinner wholly to his own will in it, and having no concern in the ataxy or disorder of it, but in the issue, through his infinite wisdom, causes it to work for good, as follows:
to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive; the nation of the Egyptians and the neighbouring nations, as the Canaanites and others, and particularly his father's family: thus the sin of the Jews in crucifying Christ, which, notwithstanding the determinate counsel of God, they most freely performed, was what wrought about the greatest good, the salvation of men.2
We see this same truth in New Covenant Scripture where God ordains and turns and frustrates the evil purposes of man, and uses them for good:
Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Acts 2:23
From the classic commentary by Jamieson-Fausset-Brown we get a concise summery:
23. determinate counsel and foreknowledge—God's fixed plan and perfect foresight of all the steps involved in it.
ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain—How strikingly is the criminality of Christ's murderers here presented in harmony with the eternal purpose to surrender Him into their hands!3
From the multi-volume Pulpit Commentary we learn more about this monumental event:
Verse 23. - Delivered up for delivered, A.V.; by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay for have taken and by wicked hands have crucified and slain, A.V. and T.R. The determinate counsel. God's counsel, that Christ should suffer for sins, was not a vague, indistinct purpose, leaving much to accident and the fluctuating will of man; it was determinate and defined in respect of time and manner and the instruments used for carrying it out. Foreknowledge is coupled with counsel or will, perhaps in order to show us that the counsel or will of God, as far as it comprehends the action of free agents, is indissolubly connected with his foreknowledge, and does not involve any force put upon the will of man. (Compare, with Chrysostom, the saying of Joseph to his brethren, "Be not angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life" (Genesis 45:5); also Judges 14:4; 1 Kings 12:15, etc. Delivered up (ἔκδοτον, only found here) is by many understood of the action of Judas in betraying Jesus into the hands of his enemies (John 19:11) - ἔκδοτον being taken as equivalent to what πρόδοτον would mean if it were in use. But it may with equal propriety be applied to the action of the chief priests and elders in delivering Jesus to Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:2) to be crucified (Matthew 27:26). Our Lord himself alludes to Pilate's power as circumscribed by the will of God (John 19:11, ὁ παραδιδούς μέ σοι: comp. Matthew 26:45). By the hand of lawless men. "By the hand of" is the common Hebrew phrase בְיַר, by means of, through the agency cf. The Jewish nation (ἄνδρες Ἰουδαῖοι) had crucified the Lord of glory by the hand of the heathen Romans. Lawless, equivalent to the sinners of Matthew 26:45 (comp., for the special application of the term to the heathen, Galatians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 9:21).4
Just so the reader is clear on what is being said about God's sovereignty and the responsibility of man for evil deeds:
The Westminster Confession of Faith (Ch. III) teaches that God's absolute sovereignty established the freedom of second causes and that it does not do any violence to the human will, nor does it make God the author of sin:
GOD from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;a yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, b nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. c
a Ephesians 1:11; Romans 11:33; Hebrews 6:17; Romans 9:15, 18.
b James 1:13, 17; I John 1:5.
c Acts 2:23; Matthew 17:12; Acts 4:27-28; John 19:11; Proverbs 16:33.
Consider another text from Acts which continues this same theme of God controlling human events:
The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his Son Jesus; whom you delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted to you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God has raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses. Acts 3:13-15
The Words of our Lord provide a powerful commentary of this divine truth:
Jesus answered, You could have no power at all against me, except it were given you from above: therefore he that delivered me to you has the greater sin. John 19:11
In Romans chapter eight there is what is referred to as the “golden” chain of salvation. It is said that this chain is golden because the links cannot be broken. The links in this chain are: those whom He foreknew, He predestined. Those He predestined, He called. Those He called, He justified. Those He justified, He glorified. There is nothing lost along this golden chain. All he chose from before the world began will be fully glorified.
Because this Golden Chain of Scriptural truth, the Apostle Paul concludes his argument with:
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28
Other difficult passages of Scripture:
Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech (Judges 9:23).
And the LORD said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the LORD, and said, I will persuade him. And the LORD said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so. Now therefore, behold, the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the LORD hath spoken evil concerning thee (I Kings 22:20-23).
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things Isaiah (45:7).
Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it (Amos 3:6)?
Men have struggled through out history trying to grasp the divine truths of God's absolute sovereignty and human responsibility. These issues are weighty and difficult. It is import to recall the Westminster Confession when is summarizes the totality of Scripture on this topic by saying that God's absolute sovereignty established the freedom of second causes and that it does not do any violence to the human will, nor does it make God the author of sin.
In light of all of the Scriptures we looked at in this brief study, it can be asserted that God is Sovereign, and because of this, He can overrule the sinful designs of man and turn them for His glory. And furthermore, what-ever He does is right, simply because He does it! Holding God to the standard of human reason, is unacceptable. Human reason must always be subservient to God's revelation in Scripture. This really is the core issue with which some believers wrestle against, namely, submitting human reason to the authority of Scripture and the rejection of all forms of human autonomy.
In addition, it is right to maintain, that there is no law structure or standard above God that he is held accountable to. If there was a law structure over God, then the law structure would be God and one could also ask, where did this law structure came from. A law structure independent and above God would create many additional uncertainties. Therefore, we can conclude, it is a sin to elevate human reason as a standard above God and hold him to an outrageous humanistic un-Scriptural standard. We should rejoice in God's sovereign will will enables Him to to foil the plans of man and work glorious good, overruling the evil intent and plans of man.
In his Bondage and Liberation of the Will, Calvin explains these difficulties best:
“...we allow that man has choice and that it is self-determined, so that if he does anything evil, it should be imputed to him and to his own voluntary choosing. We do away with coercion and force, because this contradicts the nature of the will and cannot coexist with it. We deny that choice is free, because through man's innate wickedness it is of necessity driven to what is evil and cannot seek anything but evil. And from this it is possible to deduce what a great difference there is between necessity and coercion. For we do not say that man is dragged unwillingly into sinning, but that because his will is corrupt he is held captive under the yoke of sin and therefore of necessity will in an evil way. For where there is bondage, there is necessity. But it makes a great difference whether the bondage is voluntary or coerced. We locate the necessity to sin precisely in corruption of the will, from which follows that it is self-determined.”5
John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries Volume 1, Genesis, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, Reprinted 1979), pp. 486-489.
John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments 9 Volumes, Genesis, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, pp. 846,847 .
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1977) p. 1083.
The Pulpit Commentary, H.D.M. Spence & Joseph S. Exell, Acts, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, pp. 236-238.
John Calvin, edited by A. N. S. Lane, Bondage and Liberation of the Will, The: A Defence of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice against Pighius, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Academic Books, 2002) pp. 69-70.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For further study, the serious student of Scripture should read:
Gordon H. Clark's God and Evil: The Problem Solved, Reviewed by Dr. W. Gary Crampton
The Problem of Evil (Part 1 and 2) By Dr. Greg Bahnsen