How Can God Be Both Righteous and Sovereign over Evil?

God’s Complete Sovereignty

The Bible is crystal clear: God is sovereign over all his creatures. Everything that happens unfolds according to his plan, without exception.

If you’re encountering these ideas for the first time, you likely have a few questions, especially with regard to God’s sovereignty over evil. If God planned all things that ever come to pass, how is he not also the author of sin, seeing that sin is among all the things that take place in human history?

Questions like this are even more pertinent when we consider the severity of human suffering. How can a God of love allow the kind of suffering that we see in the world today? If he is truly in control of the world and has the power to stop wickedness and suffering, then why wouldn’t he?

Is God Really Sovereign?

Conrad Mbewe

In this addition to the Church Questions series, pastor Conrad Mbewe explains the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereignty, addresses the common questions that it raises, and shows how it affects one’s outlook on salvation, suffering, prayer, and worship in the Christian life. 

This second question has prompted many people to assume there are only two options: (1) if God is sovereign, then he could not possibly be holy and good; or (2) if God is holy and good, then he must not be completely sovereign.

Are either of those true? Most Christians know we should dismiss the first option out of hand. If the Bible is clear on anything, it’s clear on the holiness and goodness of God. But what about that second option? Are Satan and evil human actions simply outside of God’s control? Is God simply doing his best to hem evil in but occasionally failing to keep it at bay—just managing the whole affair to work for good after the fact?

If you’ve been tracking with all of the biblical passages we’ve been examining, then you’ll realize that the Bible never presents God as powerlessly subject to the decisions of his human creatures—simply responding to them as best he can. No, according to Scripture, God is absolutely sovereign over all the actions of his creatures, even their sinful ones. As Amos 3:6 says: “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”

God brings disaster on a city, and yet Scripture maintains that he remains holy and good. His sovereignty doesn’t compromise his holiness, and his holiness doesn’t compromise his sovereignty. In fact, the biblical authors never even acknowledge any supposed tension between these two ideas. They simply reveal that God is sovereign, holy, and good.

Let’s look at how Scripture affirms both ideas: first, God is sovereign over evil; and second, how he remains holy and righteous.

1. God is sovereign over evil.

The Bible teaches that God sometimes hardens human hearts resulting in people doing moral evil. For instance, God said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go” (Ex. 4:21). God did the same to Sihon, king of Heshbon, in Deuteronomy 2:30: “But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day.” Israel’s experiences in Egypt and on the road to Canaan, their cruel oppression by Pharaoh and the resistance they met from the Canaanites, ultimately came from God’s sovereign hand.

We see this same point taught not only in the books of Moses but in the Psalms as well. The psalmists referred to the way God’s people suffered in Egypt as something that God planned and carried out. “He turned [the Egyptians’] hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants” (Ps. 105:25). As I’ve already pointed out, perhaps the greatest display of God’s sovereignty over human sin was the events surrounding the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of his Son. Remember the prayer of the apostles in Acts 4? “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

2. God is sovereign over evil but is not the author of evil.

At the same time, Scripture is clear that God cannot and does not commit sin. God hates sin with absolute hatred. The apostle James makes this point when he states,

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13–15)

So how can God be sovereign over sin without ever tempting anyone to sin? We can resolve this apparent contradiction to some extent by the maxim: God has a hand in the action of the sin but not in the sin of the action. In other words, God’s control of history ensures that everything happens by his design, but he does not plant evil thoughts and motives in human beings to carry such actions out.

The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is a perfect illustration of this maxim. Do you remember the story? Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him and decided to sell him off as a slave to Egypt. They lied to their father, Jacob, claiming that a wild beast had killed Joseph. For years Joseph lived in slavery in Egypt, and then things got worse. He was falsely accused of trying to rape his master’s wife and was thrown into prison. Finally, God turned Joseph’s fortunes around. He was released from prison by Pharaoh and given the second highest position in Egypt—only Pharaoh ranked higher.

Years later, a famine swept through the land. Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to look for food. Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and showed that he held no grudge or bitterness toward them in a very moving and emotional scene in Genesis 45. Despite all the evil they had inflicted on him, Joseph reconciled with his brothers.

Have you ever wondered how Joseph was able to extend forgiveness to men who had hurt him so deeply? Take a look at Genesis 45, and you’ll find that the foundation of Joseph’s forgiveness was his rock-solid confidence that God was sovereign, even over the evil actions of his brothers.

So Joseph said to his brothers . . . “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. (Gen. 45:4–8)

This isn’t the only time Joseph affirmed his confidence in God’s sovereignty over his brothers’ evil actions. Later, when his father died, Joseph’s brothers thought he would take revenge on them. They concocted a story saying that their father, Jacob, had left word on his deathbed that Joseph should not act vengefully against them. When they told this story to Joseph, he said, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:19–20).

When the whole of human history is over and we are gathered in eternity, we shall see what God achieved through his sovereignty.

Joseph saw that there were two hands and hearts that brought about his enslavement in Egypt—the divine hand of God and the human hand of his brothers. God’s hand was the primary cause, and his brothers’ hands were the secondary cause. God’s hand ensured that the action happened. His brothers, as free human agents who were following their own desires, carried out the action. God’s motive was good and loving—“to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” The motives of Joseph’s brothers were evil—“you meant evil against me.” God had a hand in the action of the sin but not in the sin of the action. His motive was righteous, while Joseph’s brothers’ motives were wicked.

Good from Suffering

You might still be wondering how God ensures that free human agents fulfill God’s will without coercing their actions. Well, with respect to the good actions of human beings, we know that he works directly, and thus we acknowledge that all the good we do is because of his grace. The apostle Paul wrote, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). With respect to our sinful actions, we find ourselves falling short of a fully satisfactory answer. We simply have to confess that we are shortsighted. We may have to leave some questions unanswered until we get to eternity. Our job isn’t to answer every philosophical question we may have but to simply affirm everything that the Bible affirms. And as we’ve seen, the Bible clearly affirms that God is sovereign over evil and yet not the author of evil.

When we look at human suffering, especially in our own times of anguish, we often ask, “What good can possibly come from this?” We often ask, “Why? Why? Why?” If we can put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes for a moment, it is the kind of question he may have asked while a prisoner in Egypt. It’s the very question that prompted my “quarrel with God” on that bus ride to Mufulira all those years ago. This question will continue to be asked by God’s people while they are in the furnace of affliction.

Sometimes, our shortsightedness causes us to question God’s ways—especially when we pray for deliverance, and things only seem to get worse. In those moments, we are tempted to doubt God’s sovereignty and wisdom.

And yet, those are precisely the moments we need to trust God’s sovereignty. Ultimately, all things will work for our good and for his glory. In Joseph’s case, when he was finally out of prison and leading the greatest nation on earth, he was able to see that God planned his life with all its anguish and pain to bring about the salvation of many from the famine.

My own experience has taught me more than any Bible college or seminary training could have about God’s character. In the case of our Lord Jesus Christ and his suffering, we all know that the miscarriage of justice that took place in his life resulted in our redemption. When the whole of human history is over and we are gathered in eternity, we shall see what God achieved through his sovereignty. All our questions will be stilled. We will see as never before that God is sovereign and that he is good and holy.

This article is adapted from Is God Really Sovereign? by Conrad Mbewe.

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