Calvin on God’s Permissive Will

Calvin: Institutes of the Christian ReligionAfter reading my post on Zac Smith’s cancer a while back, a friend of mine saw a link in the sidebar to a related post, “The Grace of Cancer,” and left a comment challenging my choice of words when I repeatedly said that God gave cancer to a man from our church to bring him to repentence.

I responded by encouraging him to read Calvin’s InstitutesI, xviii (esp. 1), where he discusses the “distinction [that] has been invented between doing and permitting,” and Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.”

I spent some time rereading Calvin’s chapter on the issue of permission, “The Instrumentality of the Wicked Employed by God, While He Continues Free from Every Taint,” and I thought much of it was worth quoting here at length. I’ve bolded the most pertinent portions.

FROM other passages, in which God is said to draw or bend Satan himself, and all the reprobate, to his will, a more difficult question arises. For the carnal mind can scarcely comprehend how, when acting by their means, he contracts no taint from their impurity, nay, how, in a common operation, he is exempt from all guilt, and can justly condemn his own ministers. Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting, because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that he directs their malice to whatever end he pleases, and employs their iniquities to execute his judgments. The modesty of those who are thus alarmed at the appearance of absurdity might perhaps be excused, did they not endeavour to vindicate the justice of God from every semblance of stigma by defending an untruth. It seems absurd that man should be blinded by the will and command of God, and yet be forthwith punished for his blindness. Hence, recourse is had to the evasion that this is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that he does this, repudiates the evasion. That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on any thing but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture. What we formerly quoted from the Psalms, to the effect that he does whatever pleases him, certainly extends to all the actions of men. If God is the arbiter of peace and war, as is there said, and that without any exception, who will venture to say that men are borne along at random with a blind impulse, while He is unconscious or quiescent? But the matter will be made clearer by special examples. From the first chapter of Job we learn that Satan appears in the presence of God to receive his orders, just as do the angels who obey spontaneously. The manner and the end are different, but still the fact is, that he cannot attempt anything without the will of God. But though afterwards his power to afflict the saint seems to be only a bare permission, yet as the sentiment is true, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; as it pleased the Lord, so it hath been done,” we infer that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and wicked robbers were merely the instruments. Satan’s aim is to drive the saint to madness by despair. The Sabeans cruelly and wickedly make a sudden incursion to rob another of his goods. Job acknowledges that he was deprived of all his property, and brought to poverty, because such was the pleasure of God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself devise, God holds the helm, and makes all their efforts contribute to the execution of his judgments. God wills that the perfidious Ahab should be deceived; the devil offers his agency for that purpose, and is sent with a definite command to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets, (2 Kings 22:20.) If the blinding and infatuation of Ahab is a judgment from God, the fiction of bare permission is at an end; for it would be ridiculous for a judge only to permit, and not also to decree, what he wishes to be done at the very time that he commits the execution of it to his ministers. The Jews purposed to destroy Christ. Pilate and the soldiers indulged them in their fury; yet the disciples confess in solemn prayer that all the wicked did nothing but what the hand and counsel of God had decreed, (Acts 4:28,) just as Peter had previously said in his discourse, that Christ was delivered to death by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, (Acts 2:23;) in other words, that God, to whom all things are known from the beginning, had determined what the Jews had executed. He repeats the same thing elsewhere, “Those things, which God before had showed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled,” (Acts 3:18.) Absalom incestuously defiling his father’s bed, perpetrates a detestable crime. God, however, declares that it was his work; for the words are, “Thou didst it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.”1  The cruelties of the Chaldeans in Judea are declared by Jeremiah to be the work of God. For which reason, Nebuchadnezzar is called the servant of God. God frequently exclaims, that by his hiss, by the clang of his trumpet, by his authority and command, the wicked are excited to war. He calls the Assyrian the rod of his anger, and the axe which he wields in his hand. The overthrow of the city, and downfall of the temple, he calls his own work. David, not murmuring against God, but acknowledging him to be a just judge, confesses that the curses of Shimei are uttered by his orders. “The Lord,” says he, “has bidden him curse.” Often in sacred history whatever happens is said to proceed from the Lord, as the revolt of the ten tribes, the death of Eli’s sons, and very many others of a similar description. Those who have a tolerable acquaintance with the Scriptures see that, with a view to brevity, I am only producing a few out of many passages, from which it is perfectly clear that it is the merest trifling to substitute a bare permission for the providence of God, as if he sat in a watch-tower waiting for fortuitous events, his judgments meanwhile depending on the will of man.

See also R. C. Sproul’s post on the Ligonier blog “Exposing the Permissive Will of God.”


  1. 2 Sam. 12:12; Jer. 50:25; Is. 5:26; 10:5; 19:25; 2 Sam. 16:10; 1 Kings 11:31; 1 Sam. 2:34.

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2 Responses to Calvin on God’s Permissive Will

  1. Mark Snoeberger June 11, 2010 at 12:29 pm #


    I wonder if it isn’t possible to carve out some middle ground between “doing” and “permitting.” I agree with you that the word “permit” is inadequate–it suggests independent agency outside of God’s control, which agree is untenable.

    At the same time, I wonder whether calling the oil spill an “act of God” doesn’t say too much. Wikipedia, for instance defines an acts of God as “events outside of human control…for which no one can be held responsible.” If this definition holds, then the oil spill was not properly an act of God. I agree that he did more than “permit” the oil spill. He was in fact its decretal cause, but he was not its efficient cause. Or as Feinberg puts it, he was the remote cause but not the proximate cause.

    Call me a soft determinist, but this seems a necessary conclusion if human culpability is to be maintained. Your thoughts?


    • Phil Gons June 11, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

      Hmm. Not sure. I think it is biblical to say that God delights in them and is glorified by them differently.

      I think I misread Warren’s tweet. He was apparently using “Act of God” to refer to its legal usage, not to refer to God’s providence. So my comments there may not apply to Warren’s theology. (See my update to that post.)

      I don’t think calling the oil spill an act of God says too much, assuming you’re using it in its theological sense. If it’s being used in its legal sense, then it may be inappropriate. I haven’t read enough about the spill to have an opinion on that. (I do think the legal meaning of the term is unfortunate and potentially confusing.)

      Scripture speaks in very active language of God’s involvement in calamity and evil. No evil happens in a city that the Lord has not done (עָשָֽׂה). He turned (הָפַ֣ךְ) the Egyptians’ hearts to hate His people (Psalm 105:25). God gave the Jews a spirit of stupor (Rom 11:8). Et al. In each of these cases, God both predestined the event in eternity and effected it in time.

      Most people are uncomfortable with the language of Scripture when it comes to God’s involvement with evil. I think it’s important that we let it stand as it is and not qualify it other than guarding people from drawing conclusions that explicitly contradict other Scriptural teaching (e.g., God is not good, God is not holy; man is not accountable for His actions, etc.). God in His wisdom chose to speak in an active way about His involvement with evil for a reason. To water that language down is to run the risk of encouraging people to think wrong thoughts about God.

      It seems to me that God not only planned all things in eternity, but also actively works to bring them about in history. What he ordained in the past, in time he brings to pass. Of course, I’m not denying that God uses means to bring about His wise plan.

      The only thing I think is necessary to maintain human culpability is Scripture’s affirmation. I don’t feel the need to make sense of how God can ordain and effect all that happens and still hold men accountable for it. This is one of the few areas I’m content to call a mystery.