We continue our discussion of the seeming contradiction between total depravity (that doctrine which expresses that fallen man is unwilling and unable to do any good work apart from the grace of God) and the common experience of seeing good done amongst those who have no faith in the living God.
In the first section, we identified that there is always a sinful motivation behind every work which appears to be good apart from faith, for the purpose of the work is never the glorification of God – which is to say, it is not with the intention that good be done but that good be done for personal reason or benefit. We established that in these cases, the author of the good is God, but the author of the evil is man.
In this section, the question shifts to whether it is a fact of Biblical pedigree that God works through the wicked and evil acts of man to achieve the ends of good, or if it is only by chance that good occurs out of evil. We will do this by discussing a number of passages from the Bible to show how it is that God has so designed things that an evil and wicked man in his wrongdoing might bring about good not through repentance and faith but through continuance in sin.
God so arranges matters so that he authors good even through acts of human wickedness
In the book of Isaiah we encounter God revealing his plan to use the sinfulness of a wicked man to achieve a military victory. The man in question is the Rabshakeh, or field-commander, of the King of Assyria who was ready to invade Judah. This is the design God revealed through Isaiah to King Hezekiah of Judah “Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land” (Isaiah 37:7). Indeed, “the Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah, for he had heard that the king had left Lachish”, thus in his wicked zeal for military conquest was he led away – it was his wish to support his evil king in the work of invasion and subjugation which kept him from Judah. That there was good done is undeniable, for Judah was protected and her prayers answered, yet that good was not on the part of the man who decided to do it – for he thought only of evil conquest and never of bringing relief to Judah.
Perhaps one of the most memorable accounts of God’s design to bring about good through the pure evil of man is that of Joseph, sold into slavery to Egypt by his very own brothers out of deep jealousy and greed. Yet, with what words does Joseph comfort them when at last he reveals himself as so powerful a person in Egypt? Truly, Joseph said to them, “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” (Genesis 50:20). It was truly good to save so many from famine, and to glorify God so greatly, and yet we can in no means imagine that Joseph’s brothers had any intention other than the most terrible of evils when they sold him into slavery. We see here again that God does act to use the evil of man to produce good effect, as testified by scripture.
More than four centuries later, Moses was to bring Israel out of Egypt again, which by time the country had become a place of the most horrific slavery. Now, we know that it was with faith that Moses acted and he did so through the grace of God; yet let us look to the effect of the great evil within Egypt. What has the effect of this brutal treatment and enslavement been throughout history and even until today? Surely, it is not less than that which Moses expresses in “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand the LORD brought you out from this place” (Exodus 13:3). The power of Egypt and the wicked enslavement of Israel stands to demonstrate in the most vivid way the great power of God which exceeds the full power of the greatest nation of that time, and the love of God which brought Israel from the depths of human bondage to the heights of freedom under God. No more notable action is recorded between the time of Noah and the time of Christ than this great deliverance, and it stands above all else to glorify God and as a witness to his name amongst all generations. So, the great blessing of the power of the Lord is revealed not by the evil acts, but in response to the evil acts; the great good of the deliverance being in no way attributable to Egypt for causing the need for exodus but only to God himself.
Indeed, the destruction of evildoers as a means to glorify God is not an isolated theme. For example, Paul writes in Romans 9:22, “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”. Here we gain a glimpse into God’s eternal decrees, and their purpose. First, the wickedness of men fitted to destruction, and secondly that the purpose of his longsuffering is to show his wrath and to make his power known. Here we discuss the reprobate, to whom we can certainly attribute no good works; but yet there is good produced – for through them God will reveal some of his own power and glory. To this we find agreement from Proverbs 16:4 which states that “The LORD has made everything for its purpose,
even the wicked for the day of trouble”; so even the reprobate have a purpose to fulfill for God, and yet their fate verifies immediately that the good work of achieving this purpose (that God be glorified) is not a good work of their own authorship.
Still further, those who work great evil bring glory to God in a most notable way, should God through his grace deliver them and bring them to faith. Take the example of St. Paul himself – he writes to the Galatians of the effect of his testimony of deliverance that ‘they only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.’ (Galatians 1:23). If God is glorified, then good is done, and yet the cause for this glorification is Paul’s conversion from wicked persecutor of the church to dedicated preacher of the Gospel and apostle to the Gentiles. Nobody imagines that the then Saul did a good work in becoming a wicked persecutor! Although these evil deeds were used by God that He might be glorified, yet those evil deeds remain evil. The author of the evil works remains Saul, the author of the good which came from them is unambiguously God alone.
At length then, we arrive at the most powerful of all events. Nowhere in history is there a more powerful example of God using pure evil and wickedness to bring about good than in the cross of Christ. The crucifixion of Christ came to pass in such a way that evil was committed by all classes of man; Roman and Jew, Priest and Peasant, Governor and Governed, King and Solider, Disciple and Doubter. Never was such an injustice before committed as the putting to death of the Son of God, that is, God himself. Such an evil had the world never committed beforehand, even before the time of Noah or at any time since. Yet, such good had the world never seen either; for it was through the cross that we are reconciled to God through the forgiveness of sin.
No man defended Christ, for by the end all of them had turned out of the way, even Peter denied him. No man can claim to have been the author in any way of the good of the cross, although so many men contributed to the work of the cross. What man contributed to the cross was pure wickedness, and so the good of the cross is entirely and undeniably the work of God. As Peter said to the men of that day, “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). Yet, even as it came to the time of the greatest of evil and men were plotting the very event, Christ looked to the good, as he declared “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23).
I hope that we have, through discussing this selection of events, demonstrated that God does work through the evil that man designs to bring about the good which God designs. If it were alleged that this is a small selection of events and not representative of the whole of the Biblical record, the point would be well conceded. Whilst we have established that such a means of action exists by showing that it is used, we have not discussed the frequency or nature of its use or the application of this doctrine to us today.
Therefore, in the third and final part of this series, we will discuss the doctrine often termed ‘common restraining grace’ in more detail as we investigate ways in which God oftentimes acts to restrain fallen and faithless man from causing evil despite man’s continued and consistent design to cause evil. In it, by referring to Biblical texts, we will tie together our inability to do good apart from faith and the work of God in bringing forth good (even from evil) to discuss whether (and if so how) God presently intervenes in the world even today.