The Institutes (31)

Book 1 Chapter 16 Sections 5-9

Jonathan Edwards, the pastor of Northhampton Church during the 18th-century, oversaw and encouraged an awakening of the people to realize their position before God. This was not what was commonly called the First Great Awakening, but a smaller “awakening” that preceded it in 1734 and 1735. Edwards preached on sin, judgment, and the glory and satisfaction of God. The intended effect was to help people turn towards God and away from themselves.

This didn’t always have the intended effect. On the morning of June 1, 1735, a prominent man in the community, Joseph Hawley II, slit his throat. In the sermon the Sunday before, Edwards had spoken about men’s consciences showing them that they were bound for judgment, and the need for them to repent. Although we do not know for sure, there is a good probability that Hawley latched onto the first, and not the second.

Hawley was Edwards’ uncle, and the news of his death absolutely staggered him. This effectively ended the “awakening”, and Edwards struggled to find an answer or reason for what he labeled “awful providence.” And in his mind it must be awful, because a sovereign, huge, omnipotent God who was directly or indirectly controlling all things must be in some sense responsible for Hawley’s death.

Edwards’ viewpoint on God’s sovereignty reflected a Calvinistic worldview, one that Calvin himself would have ascribed to. To Calvin, God’s sovereignty means not just a “permission” for events that take place in time, but a causality. Talking about Augustine’s view of God’s providence, Calvin writes:

How the term “permission,” so frequently mentioned by [Augustine], ought to be understood will best appear from one passage, where he proves that God’s will is the highest and first cause of all things because nothing happens except from his command or permission. Surely he does not conjure up a God who reposes idly in a watchtower, willing the while to permit something or other, when an actual will not his own, so to speak, intervenes, which otherwise could not be deemed a cause.

Calvin goes for the jugular throughout this section; his aim is to show that nothing, small or big, falls outside of God’s control. This is especially true concerning mankind, God’s chief creation. Calvin sums up his view of God’s providence over man:

… it is clear that the prophet and Solomon ascribe to God not only might but also choice and determination… It is an absurd folly that miserable men take it upon themselves to act without God, when they cannot even speak except as he wills!

To believe Scripture is to believe that God is actually God, not a deity that lacks power or accedes to chance. The rub comes in when dealing with the presence of evil. This is the question that Edwards had to struggle with after the suicide of his uncle. If God is sovereign, why does He let evil exist? Calvin declares that all contingencies and circumstances find their original source in God’s providence, which means that evil must exist at least by His “permission”… but even that is causal. So why does evil exist?

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?

Evil exists so that we might not only see our need of mercy, but also see the extreme awesomeness of His goodness. The wicked are made “for the day of trouble” (Proverbs 16:4). Is your picture of God this big? That He can allow evil to highlight His goodness?


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