Sin and Providence – The Mystery of Concurrence
Old Testament Reading: Genesis 50:15-21
New Testament Reading: Acts 2:22-33
Sermon text: Job 1:6-22
Audio located here.
The Concept of Concurrence
Pastor Brian has been going through the life of David in 2 Samuel. A few weeks ago, we saw that David did not go to war with his army, but stayed home instead. While at home, he was tempted by the sight of Bathsheba bathing, gave into the temptation by breaking first the 10th Commandment in coveting his neighbor’s wife and then the 7th Commandment by committing adultery with Bathsheba. She became pregnant, and to cover up his adultery, David had her husband, Uriah, killed at the front lines, thereby violating the 6th Commandment. Adultery is bad enough of a sin, being a rejection of the good gift that God in His wisdom has provided, but to try to cover it up by murdering the an innocent party goes beyond the pale.
It seemed like the perfect crime. The king of Israel violated the 10th then the 7th Commandment, then covered it up by violating the 6th, no one who knew would talk and no one else was the wiser. As Mel Brooks would observe over two-and-a-half millennia later, it’s good to be the king.
Well, not entirely. You see, we live Corum Deo – before the face of God. God is omniscient, not only seeing all that we do, but also all that we think – even what’s on our computers. Remember Psalm 139 says:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David with his sins. Although David immediately repents (good thing for Nathan, BTW) and God spares his life, there were consequences. We saw those played out in the death of the child conceived in adultery and in the rebellion and death of his son Absalom. Sin always carries consequences. We believe otherwise to our peril.
At this point, you’d think that the adulterous Bathsheba would fade into obscurity. Spoiler alert. As we will hear in a week or two, she doesn’t. David marries her and they have a son with whom you are probably familiar – Solomon. Solomon, the eventual result of David’s and Bathsheba’s commission of adultery, and David’s commission of murder to cover it up, becomes the next king in God’s promised line, the line to Jesus Christ Himself. Whoa. What’s up with that?
Chapter 3, paragraph 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith says this about God’s decrees:
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.
It seems appropriate to define sin at this point. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin as any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. We sin when we don’t do what we ought to do, and when we do that which we ought not do. I sometimes think that we do not give the Fall full credit due its implications. The Fall introduced sin, death, and decay into a perfect universe. The Fall touched everything, from imparting total depravity into our hearts to introducing futility and corruption into creation itself, which groans with us as Paul tells us in Romans 8:20-23. The effect of the Fall was both radical and complete. We should never overlook that truth.
With that background, let’s look at God’s providence, as we read in Chapter 5, paragraph 4 of the Confession:
The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.
As the Confession shows, there are two related aspects of concurrence, but we will only consider one today. The first involves how God interacts with His creatures in general, how they are “powered” as it were. As Paul says in Acts 17, we live and move and have our very being in God. That has profound implications, as Scripture shows, but we don’t have the time to do the entire topic justice. The second aspect, the more difficult if that’s possible, is the mysterious relationship between God’s preceptive will, His decretive will, and His willful creatures, which the Confession discusses in Chapter 5, paragraph 4.
Dr. RC Sproul, Sr., notes that everything that happens, even our sin, is the will of God. Said another way, there are things in God’s decretive will that violate His preceptive will. God’s preceptive will is His Word, the Scriptures, our only rule for faith and practice. His decretive will is His secret counsel of all that will come to pass. So the concept is that God decrees things in His secret, hidden will that violate His Word. Berkhof defines concurrence as the “cooperation of the divine power with all the subordinate powers, according to the pre-established laws of their operation, causing them to act and to act precisely as they do.” We saw that David provided a perfect example of this. Yet, God is not the author of sin as James makes clear in 1:13 and John does in his first letter 2:16. Kinda makes your head hurt, eh?
How does all this work? Very well, thank you. Seriously, no one knows the mind of God. His knowledge is too wonderful for us. As Calvin said, “Finitum non capax infinitum.” The finite cannot contain or comprehend the infinite. God is infinite, we are finite creatures. Isaiah 55:8-9 tells us:
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.
Dt 29:29 warns us that the secret things belong to the Lord; they are not for us to know or speculate upon. We would be wise to heed the warning.
That said, Scriptures is full of examples of this complex interaction between God and His sinful creatures. They run right from the beginning of redemptive history to the very end. We will cover some of those this morning, but we will not exhaust the subject. Hopefully, today you will walk away with an appreciation for the doctrine of concurrence and how to think about it in your lives.
Concurrence in the Scriptures
Consider God’s servant Job in today’s sermon text.
6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
13 Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 14 and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, 15 and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, 19 and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”
20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
Who were the Sabeans and Chaldeans? Were they a gentle people at their weekly tea and krimpet party when Satan enticed and incited them? Were they discussing donating their bingo winnings to World Vision to feed the hungry at that moment? Were they reading How to Win Friends and Influence People when God changed their hearts and turned them into thieves and cattle rustlers?
Not hardly. They were thieves and cattle rustlers to their core. It’s what they did. Look how God describes them later to Habakkuk:
They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more fierce than the evening wolves; their horsemen press proudly on. Their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, all their faces forward. They gather captives like sand.
God didn’t change the Sabeans or Chaldeans, He simply removed His protective hedge from around Job and let them do what came naturally to them, what they likely wanted to do for a long time. They were sinners from whom God removed His restraint. God later describes this phenomenon relative to the sinful Israelites in Ps 81:12:
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.
One might be inclined to think that would be a favorable thing. We get to do whatever we want – woohoo! Far from it. Paul describes this removal of restraint as a judgment in Romans 1:24 and 26. Remember – sin always has consequences.
Another clear example is Pharaoh, when he would not release the Israelites. God didn’t change Pharaoh from a leading Christians for Israel contributor into an unjust king who hated the Jews. No, God merely removed his restraining hand and allowed the Pharaoh to do what he wanted. In Exodus 14:17, God explicitly stated that He removed His restraint from the Pharaoh at that time so that the Egyptian army would be destroyed in the sea, with God getting the glory. The same release of restraint was true of the Sabeans, Chaldeans, and at times is so even with us if we are honest with ourselves.
And yet in the end, the sins of the Sabeans, Chaldeans, Pharaoh, and ourselves today, all serve God’s ultimate purpose in ways that we often could not imagine. We only know so in Job and elsewhere because God tells us in Scripture.
Consider the passage from Genesis 50 read earlier. Joseph’s brothers decided to kill him by leaving him in a hole in the ground with no food or water. They were persuaded to change their minds and instead sold Joseph into slavery. God didn’t make them do that. It was the brothers’ own jealousy that drove them to sin. Then Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, and subsequently lies when her seduction fails, which puts Joseph in prison. God didn’t change Potiphar’s wife from a virtuous woman and dedicated Red Cross volunteer into a devious, lustful liar. She was a devious, lustful liar whom God simply let proceed in accordance with her own sinful desires.
If anyone had a reason to be bitter towards their brothers, it was certainly Joseph. Yet, in Genesis 45:5, Joseph clearly states that it was God who sent him to Egypt to preserve life. God opened Joseph’s eyes to see the grander plan. How could Joseph harbor ill-will towards his brothers when God used Joseph so powerfully. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. That’s the doctrine of concurrence.
In Isaiah 10:5, God uses Assyria as His rod of anger. Again, did God change the peace-loving Assyrians into aggressive conquerers? History says otherwise. The Assyrians wanted to conquer the land of Israel. God merely removed His hedge from Israel and His restraint from Assyria to do as they willed.
Consider Habakkuk. He complained to God about the evil in Israel succeeding while the innocent suffered. God’s solution was to bring in the Chaldeans. Remember them? God didn’t change the gentle, tea-totaling Chaldeans, turning them from holding fund raisers for blankets for the homeless into fierce and heartless warriors. No, they spent centuries honing their skills as fearsome conquerors and pillagers of other nations. Yet, God used their heartless sins to accomplish His purpose for Israel.
As if there were any doubt, God makes explicit in Isaiah 66:4 that He does not approve of the sins of the proud. Yet those sins facilitate bringing God’s sure plans to fruition.
I saved the ultimate expression of the doctrine of concurrence for last. We see concurrence clearly in our salvation. In Acts 2, Peter clearly lays out the Jews’ sin in murdering Jesus, yet he also says that it was God’s plan. Peter says the exact same thing in Acts 4:27, 28. God did not change devout temple worshipers and strict law keepers into blood-thirsty murderers. No, the mobs held murder in their hearts of their own will. Peter does not excuse the murderers because it was God’s plan, but lays their guilt squarely upon them. Yet their lawlessness and murder proved critical to bringing about the ultimate answer to sin and the Fall in the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Think on that for a few minutes. Without God’s absolute sovereignty and superintending providence over His universe, there would be no salvation for His elect.
One might raise an objection at this point. How can God hold us accountable for sins which he uses to bring about his decretive will? Sound familiar? I hope so, because Paul tackles that question head on in Romans 9:19-23:
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
Calvin minces no words in his commentary on these verses:
“Indeed, it is evident that no cause is adduced higher than the will of God….he [Paul] placed the will of God in the highest rank for this reason,–that it alone may suffice us for all other causes.”
God is God – almighty, sovereign, perfectly loving, merciful, and just. We fail ourselves as well as cast a shadow on God’s character when we evaluate what we see unfolding in a fallen world through finite human lenses rather than Scripture. I refer you back to Isaiah 55:8-9, which should find a permanent place in your memory.
Augustine summarized the mystery this way: “God knew that it pertained more to his most almighty goodness, even to bring good out of evil, than not to permit evil to be.” That is indeed a profound mystery to our finite minds.
Application for Today
So, did Bob just run you down a rabbit hole to see how the Mad Hatter was doing this morning? I hope not. The doctrine of God’s providence, especially the difficult doctrine of concurrence, should give us great hope each and every day as we navigate this fallen creation. We find the ultimate expression of how concurrence brings hope to believers living in this fallen world in Romans 8:28:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Everything that happens – good, bad, even tragic – serves to glorify God and progress His plan for the universe and the sanctification of all those called according to His purpose. “All things” means that there is no wasted or pointless event in the universe. All things, without exception, serve God’s ultimate purposes, even our sin and their inevitable consequences. We are not victims in a random universe, but active, critical elements in bringing about God’s eternal purposes. We are absolutely responsible for our sins and the inevitable consequences, but we also know that God will use even our sin to bring about His immutable purposes. That should blow your mind. It does mine. Our hope, or only hope, is that God is sovereign over all. He decrees all that comes to pass. As the Psalmist tells us in Psalm 46:10-11,
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
This is certainly not a new concept for you. On the first Sunday of every month, we read question and answer #1 from the Heidelberg Catechism. We did so this morning. Did you think about the words, “indeed, that everything must fit His purpose for my salvation”? Meditate on that this week.
When you see the world, your job, your family, or your life seemingly out of control, think about the disciples watching the crucifixion, most from a safe distance. Think about the despair that they felt afterward in the upper room before Jesus appeared to them. They lost sight of Jesus’ clear teaching. God is every bit as in control now as He was then.
Dr. R.C. Sproul, Sr., was in a major train accident on Sep 22, 1993. A barge hit a bridge support that night in Alabama, and the bridge collapsed into a bayou when the Dr. Sproul’s train reached it. Forty-seven people were killed and 103 were injured, including Dr. Sproul. It ranked as the deadliest train wreck in Amtrak history. When the press found out that Dr. Sproul was on the train, they cornered him and asked him where God was on that night when so many were killed and injured. Dr. Sproul replied that God was in the same place He was when His Son was crucified – in heaven and in charge. Dr. Sproul would later write:
I knew that on the horizontal plane of history this train wreck was a horrible tragedy. I also knew that on the vertical plane there are no accidents. I understood that the invisible hand of Providence was involved in this “accident,” and it was one of those events that worked together for good for those who love the Lord.
So it should be for each and every one of us. I am not saying that such a godly attitude is easy. We cannot necessarily know or see what God’s specific end game is in a particular circumstance, but we can always trust that it serves His glory and our sanctification. God never makes anyone sin. We alone are responsible for our sins. But although God hates sin, so much so that Habakkuk observed that God cannot even look upon it, somehow, in ways that we could never imagine in our finite minds, God even uses the violations of His preceptive will to bring about His marvelous plans through His decretive will. Everything serves His purposes, and always to His glory alone. No exceptions. Everything.
What should our response be to all this? Such wondrous truths should drive us to worship and praise our Creator and Savior. We have comfort that all things serve the eternal purposes of God who loves us so much that He sent Jesus, His only begotten Son, to die a horrible death on the cross to pay the price for our sin that we could never pay, then raised Him from the dead in vindication of His perfect righteousness, and crediting that righteousness to all who believe, that we may worship and glorify Him forever in perfect, resurrected bodies. That’s an incredible and eternal love.
Job finishes out his trials by repenting of his pride and worshiping God for His greatness and wisdom. Hear Job’s final reply to the Lord:
Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”
Habakkuk closes with a prayer of praise after God reveals the extent of His very difficult providence – the destruction of God’s chosen people by a fierce and remorseless enemy. Here how he closes his prayer:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, they should be our models. It was no easier for them in their day than it is today for us.
The knowledge of God’s secret decrees is too wonderful for us, but we can rest and find our joy in the One in charge, who loves us with an everlasting and perfect love. Be still, and know that He is God.