I’ve refrained from writing this post for a while now because of its sensitive nature. Whenever you deal with the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, things can get sticky in a hurry. But today, I want to dive into the depths of this mystery and talk about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and your struggle with sin. As you walk through this with me, keep in mind that we are going to take things a step at a time so we don’t get lost in the difficulty of the subject matter – so this will be a much longer post than usual. So let’s get started!
I want to begin with this simple fact: You will struggle with sin for as long as God wants you to struggle.
Are you fighting to overcome pornography addiction, but find yourself failing continually? Do you fall prey to the hidden sin of pride on a regular basis? Is hate towards a particular brother and sister in Christ pent up in your heart, even though you don’t want it there? Is there some sin that you have asked God to take away from you time and time again? Are you met with silence each time?
It’s because God isn’t ready for you to overcome that sin yet. He wants you to struggle.
Now, you might be asking, wouldn’t that make God more like Satan? How can God simultaneously want me to be holy as he is, but to continue to fall to sin? I think there’s a short answer to that, but I want to show you that claiming God can use sin for a higher purpose (like I will claim later in this article) by no means puts God in the wrong. We stand on solid historical and Biblical grounds when we assert this. Look first at the Westminster Confession of Faith:
“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, not is violence offered to the will of creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” (WCF Chapter 3.1, emphasis added)
The Westminster Confession openly declares that God has ordained all that will come to pass in earth’s history. By deduction, that means God ordained sin. This is more explicitly stated in another section of the Confession:
“Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptation of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to his wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to his own glory.” (WCF Chapter 6.1, emphasis added)
Even the Fall, mankind’s first sin, was ordained for a higher purpose; namely, God’s glory. Yet, as WCF 3.1 asserted, God is by no means the author of sin. We don’t have time to flesh this out fully, but let’s look at a story from the Bible that I think illustrates this concept well.
If you have a general knowledge of the Bible, you know the story of Joseph. In short, Joseph was the favorite son of his father, Israel. Due to this favoritism, his brothers got jealous and plotted to kill him. Instead, though, they sold him into slavery. Thus began a chain of events that brought Joseph to Egypt, where he was accused of sexual immorality and imprisoned. Years later, however, Joseph rose to a place of prominence in the Egyptian government. So much so that when a famine struck the land, his evil brothers were forced to travel to Egypt, one of the only areas with grain because of Joseph’s insistence that they store some up to prepare.
When Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers, he says this: “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. 50:20 ESV)
Joseph says, after all of the sin and suffering that has occurred in his life, that God meant for it all to happen. Notice that he doesn’t say (as so many Christians insist when it comes to sin and tragedy in the world), “You meant this for evil, but thankfully God was able to work it out for good.” No, Joseph says that God meant for it to happen. But He meant it for a higher purpose: the good of His people Israel and His glory.
This complex truth, that God ordains sin but yet is not guilty of it nor the author of it Himself, is what the Bible teaches. To teach that God is not sovereign over sin, or that God is sovereign over sin but guilty of it Himself, would go against Biblical teaching.
Now, why did I labor this point for so long? Because I want to make adamantly clear that when I assert that sometimes God wants his children to struggle with sin, I am not asserting something that goes against the Bible or church history. With that taken care of, let us return to our initial proposal: that sometimes God wants you to struggle with sin.
What I mean by that is sometimes God has a desire to teach, grow, or chastise his children and to accomplish that desire, He allows us to struggle continually with a particularly besetting sin in order to solidify our dependence on Him and His grace.
I think there are two main reasons God sometimes allows His children to struggle with sin.
First, to draw them ever closer to Him. Listen to the great Puritan John Owen. Concerning indwelling sin in the life of the believer, he says, “Dost thou think he [God] will ease thee of that which perplexeth thee, that thou mayst be at liberty to that which no less grieves him? No, says God, ‘Here is one, if he could be rid of this lust I should never hear of him more; let him wrestle with this, or he is lost.’”
Owen says that for some people, if God delivered them from a particular sin (in this case, lust), God would never hear from them through prayer again! If they were delivered from that sin, they would neglect the mortification of other sins and begin to shun the spiritual disciplines. So, sometimes God allows His children to struggle with sin that they might draw ever closer to Him.
Second, God allows His children to struggle with sin so He can give more grace. Popular blogger Tim Challies says, “God does not zap away our sin, but gives us a new hatred for it and a new desire to do the hard work of battling it. He does not sovereignly remove it in a moment, but extends grace so we can battle it for a lifetime.”
That statement convicts me deeply. I would love if God just zapped away my sin. In fact, I selfishly pray that all the time. I want God to sovereignly and completely destroy the besetting sins in my life. However, He has yet to answer that prayer. Are you in the same boat? Take comfort in the fact that God is teaching you to mortify sin through the grace of Christ!
So, I think some of the main reasons God allows His children to struggle with sin are to draw them closer to Himself and to give them more grace. Thus, it is through these holy purposes that God can ordain sinful actions without being at fault.
But we aren’t done yet. Where does this leave us? When we sin, should we shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, God must not want me to stop sinning this sin yet, so it isn’t my fault He ordained for this to happen!” To that I respond with the words of Paul in Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2 ESV)
We are always responsible for our sin. Let me state that again: we are always responsible for our sin. Never should we sin and blame God, even though He is indeed sovereign over it. Scripture nowhere puts the blame of sin on God and shame on us if we do. This is the tension of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility that we saw in the story of Joseph. Did God mean for the brothers to commit those evil acts? Yes. Were they morally responsible for those acts? Yes. To deny either one of those truths is to deny the Bible.
What do we do when a particular sin continues to beset us, then? Simply put, we confess our sin, fall on the grace of God, and keep fighting. All the while knowing deep down that God is teaching us something through our failures.
Do you struggle with this teaching? I do too. And I imagine that I will struggle with it until my moment of glorification when sin is finally once and for all destroyed. Nevertheless, the Bible holds these two truths up very clearly: God is sovereign, even over sin, yet man is responsible.
Christian, don’t give up the fight. Learn to hate sin, learn to mortify sin, and learn to see God’s grace even when you fail again and again. He is working in you for a higher purpose, whether you see it or not!
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1646 Westminster Confession of Faith
The Mortification of Sin by John Owen
"When God Doesn't Zap Away Our Sin" by Tim Challies - https://www.challies.com/christian-living/when-god-doesnt-zap-away-our-sin/