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Title: John Calvin - Secret Providence - Article Third
Author: John Calvin
Language: English

00004-0008 Secret Providence - Article Third

The sins which are committed, are committed not only by the permission, but also by the will of God. For it is frivolous to make a distinction between the permission and the will of God, so far as sin is concerned. Those who do so wish to gain God’s favor by compliments and adulation.


Against the third, concerning time difference between will and permission, they allege this. Calvin says, that he is a prophet of God; and we say that Calvin is a prophet of the devil. Now, one of us must be saying what is false. For if he is a prophet of God, we lie; but if he is a prophet of the devil, he himself lies in saying that he is a prophet of God. But if both these are by the will of God: that is, if God will that Calvin should say, he is a prophet of God, and that we should say, he is the prophet of the devil, he wills incompatible things; which is impossible. For if God will a lie, he does not will truth, or if he will truth he does not will a lie. Whence it follows, if he wishes one party to speak truth, he is unwilling that the other should lie. But one or other of the parties undoubtedly lies, it lies, therefore, not by the will, but by the permission of God. There is then a difference even in God between permission and volition.

They also bring forward many clear examples, of the difference between volition and permission; especially from the twentieth chapter of Ezekiel, where God after largely upbraiding his people for their unwillingness to obey his precepts, at last concludes thus; go ye, serve every one his filthy god, since ye obey not me. As if he said this, I permit you to follow your own lust, since ye will not obey my precepts. And this seems to be the same, as he had spoken before in the same chapter; “As they rejected my laws, I delivered to them precepts not good.” Now God did not give the Israelites precepts that were not good; for all God’s precepts are good.

But because they rejected God’s good precepts, he deserted them; and they, deserted by God fell into bad precepts; just as the prodigal son, when deserted by his father, or rather when his father was deserted, fell into wantonness; and as Paul teaches, because men did not love the truth, God sent them a spirit of error to believe a lie.

Such seems to do the import also, of that passage in the fourth chapter of Amos, “Go to Bethel and sin, since ye love to do it.” So now, as men are unwilling to obey God, who declares that he does not will sin, God has permitted spirits of error to exist, who teach that God wills sin; that those who are unwilling to obey the truth, may obey a lie.

They also bring forward the passage from Zechariah, where God declares himself angry with the nations that were at rest; because when he was slightly incensed against the Israelites, the heathens, aggravated the punishment; that is, they more grievously vexed the Israelites, than the anger of God could tolerate; therefore, it was by the permission, not by the will of God.

They adduce a similar instance from the Prophet Obadiah, who reproves the Israelites, for afflicting the Jews, more grievously than the anger of God demanded. They also refer to the example of the prodigal son, which I have already touched. If you say that he ran his vicious course by the will of his father; it were most absurd; it was then by his permission. So, the guilty, they say, are the prodigal children of God, and sin by the permission, not by the will of God. Also that saying of Christ, “Will ye also go away?” Certainly he was unwilling that they should go away, but he permitted it. Finally they appeal to common sense, which dictates a difference between volition and permission; according to which common sense, Christ was accustomed to teach divine things, and which if you subvert, all the parables of Christ must perish, because common sense alone can judge of them.


The third article no less than the others, betrays your extreme fondness for foetid calumnies. If you will attack my doctrine, why not at least show candor enough to quote my own language. In our present discussion, I maintain the distinction between permission and volition to be frivolous.

You oppose what you fancy a witty subtlety, but what is really a silly sophism, viz.: If God wills all things, he wills incompatible things, inasmuch as you call me a prophet of the devil, while I affirm myself to be a faithful servant of God. This apparent inconsistency, indeed, dazzles your eyes; but truly, God himself, who knows well how at once to will, and not to will the same thing, is not concerned about your dimness of sight. Whenever God raised up true prophets, he certainly willed, that they should actively and strenuously contend, in maintaining the doctrine of his law; false prophets arose who labored to subvert that doctrine: there must be a conflict betwixt them; but God did not conflict with himself when he raised up both. You here thrust the divine toleration in my face; while he openly proclaims ( Deuteronomy 13:1,) that no false prophets arise, whom he does not ordain, either to try the faith of his own, or to blind the unbelieving. “If a false prophet shall arise among you,” says Moses, “your God tries you.” ( Deuteronomy 13:1, 3b) You, by a most impertinent commentary, transfer to a totally different quarter, what Moses ascribes, not rashly to God. Either deny that it is the prerogative of God to examine the hearts of his people, or yield at length to the clear and indubitable truth, that false prophets, are God’s instruments in that examination of which he choose to be recognized as the author. Ezekiel 14:9 is still clearer; “if a deceived prophet has brought forth anything, I, God have deceived that prophet, and my hand is upon him.”

You enjoin us to be content with mere permission. God declares his own will and hand to be at work. Now mark, which witness is better entitled to belief: God speaking of himself by his Spirit, the only fountain of wisdom, or you prating of his unknown mysteries, according to your carnal silly apprehension. What? When God calls Satan as the executioner of his vengeance, and openly commissions him to deceive, does this differ in no respect from a simple permission? The voice of God ( 1 Kings 22:20,21) is distinct enough; “who for us will deceive Ahab?” And there is no obscurity in the command given to Satan; “Go and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” ( 1 Kings 22:22) I would also know whether doing and permitting are the same thing.

Because David had secretly abused his neighbor’s wife, God ( Samuel 12:11) declares, that he will bring it about, that his wives shall be dragged to similar infamy, in the sight of the sun. He does not say I will allow it to be done, but I will do it. You, to aid him with your hollow help, plead permission as an apology. David himself was of a very different mind, who, reflecting on the dreadful judgment of God, exclaims, “I am dumb because thou didst it.” So also, when Job blesses God, he does not merely acknowledge that by the divine permission, he had been spoiled by the robbers, but distinctly affirms that God had taken away what he had given.

If the same rule hold in giving and receiving, then by your authority, wealth cannot be a gift of God; but must flow to us casually by the divine permission. Now, though you, with your corrupt crew, cease not to rail, yet God will justify himself. But we will reverently adore mysteries, which far transcend our comprehension, till a full knowledge of them shine forth, when, face to face, we shall behold Him who now can be discerned only as in a glass. Then, says Augustine, shall be seen in the clearest light of wisdom, what the faith of the pious holds, how certain, and immutable, and most efficacious is the will of God, how many things it could do, but chooses not, while it chooses nothing, to which it is unequal. But from the lips of the same pious writer, I answer you on the point in hand. “These are the great works of the Lord, immaculate in respect of all his volitions, and so wisely immaculate, that when the angelic and human creature had sinned, that is, had done not what he, but what itself willed, even by that same volition of the creature, by which what the Creator did not will was done, God accomplished his own design: wisely employing like one supremely good, even evil, for the damnation of those, whom he justly predestinated to punishment, and for their salvation whom he benignly predestinated to pardon. For, in so far as they were concerned, they did what God did not will; but in reference to the Omnipotence of God, it was impossible, as by this very acting against God’s will, his will concerning themselves, was performed. Therefore, the great works of the Lord, are immaculate in respect of all his volitions, so that in a wonderful and ineffable way, even that which is against his will, does not happen if he did not allow it; nor does he allow it unwillingly, but willingly. Nor, as good, could he allow evil to be done, unless as Omnipotent he could bring good out of it.

As to the Scripture examples which you adduce, they are just as much as the purpose, as mixing wine with oil. God, by Ezekiel, addressing the disobedient Jews, says; “Go ye, serve every man idols.” I acknowledge, indeed, that this is not a word of command, but of rejection of the impious mixture by which the Jews adulterated his legitimate worship, But what more will you infer from this, except that God sometimes permits what he reprobates and condemns; as if, forsooth, it were not universally agreed, that in such forms of expression, God sometimes commands, and sometimes permits. He says, in the law, six shall thou work; it is a concession; for, consecrating to himself the seventh day, he left men free on the other six. In another way too he anciently allowed divorce to the Jews, which he by no means approved. Here he indignantly devotes the hypocritical and perfidious to idols; because he would not have his name profaned. But how comes it that you forget, that the point in debate is the secret Providence of God, by which be destines and turns all the agitations of the world, to his own purpose according to his pleasure?

Moreover, by corrupting another passage, so unskillfully and so perversely, you show that nothing is sacred to an impious and profane man. God’s words are; “because they were unwilling to obey my precepts, I gave them precepts not good.” Here you trifle by telling us, that when they were deserted by God, they fell into idolatry. Whereas, there is no doubt God means the Jews were bound in servitude by the Chaldeans, who compelled them to obey their tyrannical laws. Now the question is, whether God merely permitted the Jews to be hauled by the Chaldeans into exile; or whether he employed them as his chosen instruments for chastising the sins of his people. Indeed, if you still seek a pretext, in the permission of God, all the prophets must be consigned to the flames, who declare at one time, that Satan is sent by God to deceive; at another that the Chaldeans, or Assyrians are sent to ravage. Again they tell us that the same God hissed for the Egyptians, when about to employ their agency; that the Assyrians were his mercenaries; that Nebuchadnezzar was his servant in spoiling Egypt; and that the Assyrians were the axe in his hand, and the rod of his anger, in the destruction of Judea. Lest I should be tedious, I omit innumerable other instances.

You are guilty of not less drunken audacity, when you pretend that God sends a spirit of error to the unbelieving that they should believe a lie, merely, inasmuch, as he allows these teachers to exist. When you prate in this way, do you suppose that your readers are so blind as not to see, a totally different meaning in Paul’s words, “God sent strong delusion?” But it is not wonderful that he should babble thus licentiously, who either supposes there are no divine judgments at all, or securely despises the very meaning of the word judgment. For no one of sound intellect will say, that a judge does nothing when he inflicts punishment, or that he inefficiently leaves it to others, what is peculiar to his own office.

But it is in vain that you strive to alarm, and harass me, with your barking.

You allege there are by the permission of God, erroneous spirits teaching that God wills sin. As the very same reproach was cast on Paul, by men of your stamp, there is no reason why I should take it amiss, to be associated with him. You quote from Zechariah, that God was incensed against those nations, that vexed the Israelites more cruelly, than his displeasure would tolerate. Are you then so absurd, as to suppose there was not strength enough in God, to prohibit these injuries, if it was his pleasure that his people should be chastised more mildly? You will object, that such is the sound of the words. But you are thrice, yea four times stupid, if you do not perceive, that, in one way, God wonderfully tries the patience of his own, by a severe ordeal; and meanwhile, in another, is displeased with the insolence of the enemy, when he beholds him extravagantly exulting in victory, and rushing into barbarity. Besides nothing is more evident, than that your follies, if let alone, mutually destroy each other. For God either commanded, or permitted, profane nations, gently to chastise the Jews. If you answer there was a command, I maintain, however causelessly troublesome, those neighbors may have been to God’s unhappy exiles, yet they would have been free from blame, provided they had kept due bounds. For who would make a fault of their obedience to God? Yet you make a distinction between permission and command, inasmuch as when God had ordered them to inflict light punishment on his people, they by his permission exceeded their limits. On this principle, the Israelites were worthy of reproof, because they afflicted their brethren more grievously, than the divine anger allowed. Now your absurdity is too blind, in imagining they would have been free from blame, if they had only kept the due mean. For I will always drag you back to this point, that the Israelites were not merely guilty by divine permission (as you fancy,) of excessive harshness, but also of unjustly taking up arms against their brethren. You scruple not to assert, that there was nothing wrong in undertaking the war, because God was angry at the Jews, and armed the Israelites, to execute his commanded vengeance. But I maintain they sinned twice, because in the first place, they had no intention of obeying God, however they were the instruments of his vengeance; and then, the very atrocity they displayed, showed that righteousness was not in all their thoughts.

Besides, in your principle itself, you display shameful ignorance in fancying that men slip and err, by God’s permission, in so far as they are concerned. For it is an impious and sacrilegious figment, that God permits any evil to men, in respect of them, since it is evident he severely prohibits, and forbids whatever is contrary to his commands. But why he chooses to allow men to err, any dooms those to error in his secret decree, whom he commands to hold the straight course, — of this it is the part of sober modesty to be ignorant; while it belongs to mad temperity to cavil about it as you do.

As to Christ’s permission to his disciples to depart, you may infer how skillfully you interpret the passage, from the fact, that he exhorts them to perseverance, by setting before them the defection of others. For when he mournfully asks them, ( John 6:67) “will ye also go away?” he, as it were, puts a bridle on them to prevent them wandering with apostates.

Does this way of speaking seem to you a permission? I acknowledge, indeed, that common sense dictates a difference between ordering and permitting, but on this point we have no discussion. The question is, whether God inactively beholds what is done on earth; or whether he governs with supreme sway all the actions of men.

Or, if the word permission pleases you so much, answer, is the permission willing or unwilling? This last supposition is overthrown by what we read in the psalm, that God does whatever he pleases. But if it be a willing permission, then you cannot, without impiety, fancy him inactive.

Whence it follows, he regulates by his counsel, what he chooses shall come to pass.

Now it is too silly in you, to think of subjecting so sublime a mystery of God, to the rule of common sense. For, as to your objection, that Christ accommodated all his instructions on divine things, to common sense, he himself expressly denies it and convicts you both of lying, and impudence.

Do you not hear how he declares, that he spake in parables, that men in general by hearing, might not hear? It is true, indeed, that the Holy Spirit, always as it were stammers, like a nurse, for our sakes; but common sense is still very far from being a fit judge of that doctrine, which transcends the capacity of angels. Paul exclaims, that the natural man perceiveth not the things of God. Therefore, he enjoins all who would advance in the celestial school, to become fools, and to be emptied of their own sense. In fine, God everywhere claims for himself the light of intelligence; and time and paper would fail, were I to gather the proofs, which so convict common sense of blindness, that whoever would learn of God; must renounce his own wisdom, and seek light from heaven. Therefore, one example is sufficient. Paul calls it a mystery hid from ages, yea concealed from the celestial angels themselves, that God would not have evangelical doctrine, promulgated to the Gentiles, till the coming of Christ. You thrust forward common sense, to subvert this doctrine at its pleasure, as you allow nothing to be susceptible of proof, of which it is not the judge, and the arbiter. The prophet, speaking of the Providence of God, exclaims, how magnificent are thy works, oh Jehovah, thy thoughts are very deep. You deny anything to be divine, which you cannot measure with your own reason. What then is the meaning of Paul, when speaking on this subject, he says, “Oh man, who art thou?” Again, “oh the height and the depth!”

He enjoins wonder and astonishment; because all our penetration fails us, when brought to the incomprehensible counsel of God. But you will admit nothing, that is not subjected to your eyes.