Theological foundation for the doctrine about God’s will and the wicked as referred to in the Catechism of Geneva

Theological foundation for the doctrine about God’s will

and the wicked as referred to in the Catechism of Geneva

prof. HG (Gert) Krugera

a School of Chemistry, University of Kwa-Zulu-Natal, Durban 4001, South Africa.


This paper was presented at the 8th Calvin Research Congress at the University of Free state in Boemfontein (2-4 September 2008).


Calvin explained the relationship between God’s will and the wicked in two separated sections of the Geneva Catechism.  This dogmatic position of Calvin is a controversial issue amongst Christians as well as Biblical scholars.  The issue is softened by many scholars which argues that God actually allows or permits the wicked to do certain things as the works by the wicked could not form part of God’s will.  The paper addresses the theological foundations of this doctrine presented by Calvin.  The presentation serves as a reference paper which summarizes most of the related principles such as God’s will, council and predestination, providence, the free will of man etc. Calvin consistently uses the obvious meaning of Biblical text to demonstrate that God is actively directing Satan, sin and the wicked to perform His good and just purpose.  The doctrine is then compared to the dogmatic work of two recent theologians, namely AG Honig (1938) and JA Heyns (1978).  The subtle dogmatic different positions are analysed and critically evaluated in order to obtain a better understanding about the various dogmatic approaches to rationalize this controversial topic.


The question could be asked why the proposed study is relevant.  It is clear from literature (see references and discussion below) that a comprehensive reference paper about Calvin’s doctrine on God’s will and the wicked would be a welcome addition to a series of other papers touching the topic to a lesser extent.  The specific relationship between this doctrine and the Catechism of Geneva appears to be absent in literature as well.

Calvin raises the issue about God’s will and the wicked at two different sections of the Catechism.  The first instance is when God the Father and Maker of heaven and earth is discussed as part of the Confession of Faith (Calvin, 1998a:35):

M. But what shall we say of wicked men and devils? Shall we say that they too are under him?

S. Although he does not govern them by his Spirit, he however curbs them by his power as a bridle, so that they cannot even move unless in so far as he permits them. Nay, he even makes them the ministers of his will, so that unwilling and against their own intention, they are forced to execute what to him seems good.

M. What good redounds to you from the knowledge of this fact?

S. Very much. It would go ill with us could devils and wicked men do any thing without the will of God, and our minds could never be very tranquil while thinking we were exposed to their caprice. Then only do we rest safely when we know that they are curbed by the will of God, and as it were kept in confinement, so that they cannot do any thing unless by his permission: the, more especially that God has engaged to be our guardian, and the prince of our salvation.

The second case is where God’s will is discussed from the Lord’s prayer (Calvin 1998a:75):

M. What mean you by asking that the will of God may be done?

S. That all creatures may be subdued into obedience to him, and so depend on his nod, that nothing may be done except at his pleasure.

M. Do you think then that any thing can be done against his will?

S. We not only pray that what he has decreed with himself may come to pass, but also that all contumacy being tamed and subjugated, he would subject all wills to his own, and frame them in obedience to it.

The short conclusion by Calvin is quite clear but admittedly not easy to understand; it would be fair to say that it is extremely difficult if not impossible for the human brain to understand how God is able to use the wicked and Satan as “ministers of his will, so that unwilling and against their own intention, they are forced to execute what to Him seems good.”  How are we supposed to understand many of the tragic and horrifying cases of crime in the light of the statement that “all creatures may be subdued into obedience to him, and so depend on his nod, that nothing may be done except at his pleasure?”

Aim of the study:

The aim of this study is twofold:  The first object is to research the theological foundation for this doctrine from the collection of Calvin’s theological writings.  An analysis of his dogmatic principles will be made in an effort to shine light on the questions at stake.  The study would like to present a complete as possible reference paper on Calvin’s views to all issues related about this topic.  The focus will also be to provide as much as possible references to Scripture on which Calvin based the doctrine.  The second object is to investigate how close two recent dogmaticians from a reformed tradition, namely Honig (1938) and Heyns (1978), followed the doctrine advocated in the Catechism of Geneva.  These two theologians wrote authentic textbooks which were commonly referred to in the various reformed orientated theology faculties of South Africa.  Most current ministers and theologians still in the service of God in the family of reformed churches were influenced by their teachings about the topic under investigation.  It is hoped that this analysis will enable us to understand the origin of the differences that the South African reformed family of churches experience about this doctrine.  The choice of these two authors is arbitrary but a comparison and analysis of their dogmatic views should give a clear view how well the doctrine from the reformation was preserved amongst reformed scholars.

A short summary of related literature on this issue

The purpose of the paper is not to reveal what other people said about Calvin, but rather to provide a direct discussion about Calvin’s own views.  However, since the paper is aiming to serve as a reference paper about the topic, it is important to present a relevant overview on related literature.  It appears from recent literature (1945 – present and references therein) that the topic of God’s will and the wicked (Goetz, 1975:263; Schreiner 1992) is not often referred to.  Related topics such as the predestination (Alcantara, 2006:113; Bavinck, 1928; Boer, 1983; Boettner, 1965; Calvin et al. 1998; Gignac, 2003:409; Hulse, 2007:27; Klooster, 1968a52; Klooster, 1977b:71; McCormack, 2006: 124; Müller, 2005:184; Muller, 2000:119; Neuser 1993, 1997, 1998b:60; Zachman, 2006; Park, 2001: Partee, 1975:123; Partee, 1978:14; Pranger, 2002:291; Olson, R.E. 2006a:179; Olson, 2006b: 115; Velema 1993:463; Venema, 1986:435; Wesley, 2001a; Wesley, 2001b), double predestination (Greenbury, 1995:121; Neuser, 1998:60), God’s election (De Boer, 2004:51; Knochenhauer, 2007: 14; Rogge 1974; White, 2006:28), council, providence (Ebenezer, 2006: 143; Eppehimer, 2006; Helm, 1994:388; Helm, 2007:341; Moore, 1971:167; Park, 2007: 30; Potgieter, 2006:112; Potgieter, 2006:175; Selderhuis, 2006:17: Sinnema, 2006:191), God’s will, covenant (Choy, 2001:53; Conditt 1973; Jaeger, 2002:109; Thornton, 2006 Walls, 1984:19) and the free will of man (Lane, A.N.S. (ed). 1996; Van Vliet, 2005) are often referred to.  The references quoted above are by no means a complete selection; however, it provides a reasonable overview of the latest related publications.

Where applicable, some of these references will be discussed in the sections below.

Theological foundation for the doctrine about God’s will and the wicked

It is quite clear that a good starting point for unraveling the basis for this doctrine would be where Calvin is discussing God’s providence in his Institutes (Calvin 1998b, Inst. 1.16 and 1.17) and in his writing about “The Secret providence of God.” (Calvin 1998c)   The next section after God’s providence directly addresses the issue on how God is using the ungodly to perform his judgments; whilst He remains pure from every stain (Inst. 1:18).  Hand in hand with this is the section about Satan and his angles (Inst. 1.14.13-18) and sin (Inst. 2.1.4-11; 2.2.26-27; 2.3.5; 2.4.1-5).  Other related sections include man’s will (Inst.2.4.6-8; 2.5.1-4; 2.5.10-19).  The second option will be where Calvin discusses the Lord’s prayer (God’s will) and a third point of entry could be where God’s predestination and reprobation is dealt with (Inst. 3.21 – 3.24; Calvin 1998d – Calvin’s sermon on election and probation).

Whilst researching the topic it became clear that the origin of Calvin’s view can be traced back to his view about the sovereign, wise and almighty character inherent to the council of God.  The council of God is closely associated with the predestination and it also became clear that Calvin’s view about the predestination actively plays a role in the formulation of the doctrine about God’s will and the wicked.  The paper will therefore provide a short overview about these two fundamental issues before the rest of the questions will be addressed.

God’s council and the predestination

It appears that Calvin did not systemize the doctrine about the council of God.  The translator [Institutes: Battles Translation (1960)] frequently uses the term “the secret plan of God” when Calvin treats this issue.  Not surprisingly, the “secret plan of God” is frequently referred to by Calvin when God’s will and the wicked are considered.  The best way to examine Calvin’s position on the council of God would therefore involve a careful investigation about the topic in Calvin’s respective commentaries.

Many verses are known to refer to God’s council, some directly and others indirectly.  Many references also involve God’s decision about the predestination: Psalm 2:7; 33:11; Proverbs 16:4; Isaiah 14:26-27; 46:10; 49:8; 53:10; Matthew 11:26; Lucas 2:34;  Acts 2:23; 4:28; 13:48; 15:18; Romans 8:28-30; 9:21-22; Ephesians 1:4-5, 11; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2;  Hebrew 6:17; 1 Peter 1:2; 2:7-8.

Since a systematic explanation of this doctrine by Calvin seems absent in his writings, a short representative discussion of each reference will be provided below.  Calvin associates all the following terms with God’s council: God’s pleasure, His good purpose/will, His power and pleasure, His decree and secret good pleasure of God.

God’s council refers to promises by God that He is determined to fulfill.  It also implies a steadfastness which is connected to God’s power and his pleasure (Commentaries, Psalm 33:11). Calvin did not write commentaries on Proverbs.  However, he refers to Proverbs 16:3 when he discusses the predestination and reprobation.  God is glorifying His name by the destruction of the wicked, which was predestined for this purpose and taught in Proverbs 16:3 (Inst. 2.23.6).

The secret purpose of God is powerful, fixed and unchangeable (Commentaries, Isaiah 14:26-17).  The council of God is connected to a foreknowledge by God and it is safe to put your confidence in God.  What he had decreed will happen since all events is subject to His power and direction (Commentaries Isaiah 46:10).  Our salvation depends on God’s free purpose which is connected to his good will or good pleasure (Commentaries, Isaiah 49:8).  Note that the freedom/sovereignty of God’s council is also associated with His “good pleasure” as can be seen in Matthew 11:26 (below).  The suffering of Christ was carefully planned by God as He does nothing at random.  God was pleased that Christ had to suffer, not since he was guilty, but since He suffered for a good purpose to save us (Commentaries, Isaiah 53:10; Romans 5).

God’s will should be regarded by us with the highest reason and justice.  Whatever God had determined must be regarded as right as it originates from His good pleasure (Commentaries Matthew 11:26).  Calvin states that “it is evident, that men direct their fury against Christ, when, on learning that some are freely chosen, and others are reprobated, by the will of God, they storm because they find it unpleasant to yield to God.”  Christ was long before divinely appointed to destroy the wicked, but also to bring salvation (as the firm corner stone) to us in a secure manner through the resurrection (Commentaries Lucas 2:34).  The council of God is described as His will by which He governs the world.  Christ was appointed by God to be delivered.  This follows a decree from God’s council long before (Commentaries, Acts 2:23).  God governs and guides all things by his secret counsel, even the things done by the wicked.  Calvin connects this fact to the providence of God (Commentaries, Act 4:28).  Those that were ordained were chosen by the free adoption of God and were enabled to believe.  This ordaining must be understood in terms of the eternal counsel of God alone. Calvin also refers to the predestination and election in this regard (Commentaries, Act 13:48).  God saw, before the world was created, what he would do, and the calling of the Gentiles was hidden in his secret counsel (Commentaries, Act 15:18).

The election of God is associated with the secret good pleasure of God.  The foreknowledge is connected with God’s good pleasure; Calvin states that God foreknew nothing out of himself, in adopting those whom he was pleased to adopt; but only marked out those whom he had purposely elected/predestined (Commentaries, Romans 8:28-30).  Paul connects the example of the work by the potter to men that are rejected or chosen by the secret counsel of God (Commentaries, Romans 9:21-22).  The decision about the predestination took place before the creation of the world.  Paul connects the predestination to the good pleasure of God’s will and the purity of our life flows from the election by God, not since He foresaw anything worthy in some of us (Commentaries, Ephesians 1:4-5; 1 Peter 1:2).  God is doing everything according to the council of His own will (Commentaries, Ephesians 1:11).  Paul uses the word “purpose” for the secret decree of God about our election.  This decree was made by God before the foundation of the world (Commentaries, 1 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2).  Believers ought therefore to be fully persuaded that whenever they hear the voice of the Gospel, the secret counsel of God, which lay hidden in Him, is proclaimed to them, and that hence is made known to them what he has decreed respecting our salvation before the creation of the world (Commentaries, Hebrews 6:17).

In summary:  Calvin teaches that God had a meeting in which a master plan for the universe was decided upon which is termed God’s council.  This happened before the universe was created.  God’s master plan was designed with a good purpose and serve to honour Him.  Those that He elected to save, is saved to serve His honour; those that He chose not to elect (the reprobation) serve His good purpose to be destroyed.  The election serves His love and mercifulness whilst the reprobation serves His righteousness.  All God’s works including his active involvement with the universe (His providence) followed from His secret council.  God also actively directs Satan and the wicked to serve his pre-decided good purpose.  In most cases this serves His judgments and righteousness.

God by His Power nourishes and maintains the World created by Him, and rules its several parts by his Providence (Inst. 1.16)

Calvin first refers to several well known passages to demonstrate that the Creation and God’s providence are inseparably joined (Inst. 1.16.1).  Such passages include Mathew 10:29; Psalm 33:6, 13; Psalm 104:27-30; Hand 17:28.  Most of these verses refer to living things, although Psalm 104:32 tells about the mountains that tremble and smoke when God touches them.  Calvin then continues to argue that there is no such thing as fortune or chance (Calvin, Inst.1.16.2, 8, 9).  He bases that on Matthew 10:30; Joshua 10:13; 2 Kings 20:11; Isaiah 38:8 and 1 Timothy 6:20.  Notably these examples refer to non-living things.  It is also clear that Calvin took the examples of supernatural events where the sun stood still (Joshua 10:13) or moved back (2 Kings 20:11 and Isaiah 38:8) to have a literal meaning.  In other words, the sun physically stopped to move through the almighty power of God.  On the other hand, it is quite interesting to note that he uses a scientific argument to explain the three hours of darkness during the crucifixion of Christ by means of a natural eclipse (Calvin, Commentaries on Matthew 27:45).  However, he stresses that the event of the eclipse was not happening by chance, but the miracle was planned as such by God.

Calvin quotes Psalm 115:3 to argue that God is governing heaven and earth with the active omnipotence of his providence.  This is confirmed by passages such as John 5:17; Acts 17:28; Hebrews 1:3 (Inst 1.16.3, 4).  Calvin then demonstrates that God’s providence not only directs nature (Inst 1.16.5, 7) but also directs the lives of people (Inst. 1.16.6).  He refers to Exodus 21:13; Psalm 75:6-7; Proverbs 16:1, 9, 33; 20:24; 29:13 as representative examples from Scripture.

In the next chapter of his Institutes (Inst. 1.17.2) Calvin first hints that the way God’s providence operates is not comprehendible by man, since God did not reveal to us all the secrets of his will.  The part of God’s will that teaches us how to live is clearly described in the law and the rest of the Bible (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).  However, the part of His will that involves his judgments remains hidden and a mystery to us (Romans 11:33-34; Isaiah 40:13-14; Deuteronomy 29:29; Job 26:14; Job 28:28).  Our difficulty to understand God’s will is also discussed later (Inst. 1.18.3): “in a wonderful and ineffable manner nothing is done without God’s will, not even that which is against his will. For it would not be done if he did not permit it; yet he does not unwillingly permit it, but willingly; nor would he, being good, allow evil to be done, unless being also almighty he could make good even out of evil.”

The next section that shines light on the issue of how the wicked cannot be acquitted for their deeds (Inst. 1.17.5) builds up from the fact that God’s providence does not relieve us from our responsibility (Inst. 1:17.3) and due prudence (Inst. 1:17.4).  The natural brain does not have difficulties to agree with that.  However, the same theme than quoted in the Catechism of Geneva is here repeated, picturing the paradox:

I grant more: thieves and murderers and other evildoers are the instruments of divine providence, and the Lord himself uses these to carry out the judgments that he has determined with himself.  Yet I deny that they can derive from this any excuse for their evil deeds.  In their own conscience they are so convicted as to be unable to clear themselves; in themselves they so discover all evil, but in him only the lawful use of their evil intent, as to preclude laying the charge against God. (Inst. 1:17.5)

Examples of how God had used the deeds of wicked people is later quoted (Inst. 1:17.8).  Joseph told his brothers that he was sent to Egypt by God’s will (Gen 45:5, 7-8; Gen 50:20).  Job said that God gave and He took away when the Chaldeans attacked him.  Job 1:21 – the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.

David acknowledged that God ordered Simei to curse him (2 Sam 16:11).  David accepted that God brought the distress that he was experiencing (Psalm 39:9).

Towards the end of the chapter, Calvin demonstrates the other side of the coin:  “Certainty about the Providence of God puts joyous trust towards God in our hearts” (Inst. 1.17.11).  Here he quotes Psalm 22;4; 27:1, 3; 31:15; 56:4; 118:6; 1 Corinthians 16:7.  Some people however use every means to disprove the doctrine about God’s providence.  Examples of where God is quoted to repent are used to argue that the eternal plan of God is not firm and steady (Inst 1.17.12).  The important point here is not the argument used by Calvin to explain how we should understand the repentance of God, but that the basis for God’s will with respect the wicked (amongst others) was cemented into his master plan for the universe, designed before He started with the creation.

God so uses the works of the ungodly and so bends their minds to carry out his judgments, that He remains pure from every stain (Inst. 1.18). 

Calvin acknowledges that it may seem absurd that a ”man, who will soon be punished for his blindness, is blinded by God’s will and command.”  In order to avoid this problem, some believers started to distinguish between God’s will and what He permits/allows to happen (Inst. 1.18.1).  Calvin uses various verses to demonstrate that the idea about events happening outside God’s will (since He allows or permits that to happen) is contrary to what the Bible teaches.  Even Satan presents himself before God to receive his commands (Job 1:6; 2:1).  Satan cannot undertake anything unless God so wills.  Confirmation that God was truly in control and commanded Job’s misfortune through an active exercise of His will is given in Job 1:21 (already mentioned above).

The next example is clearly pictured:

God wills that the false King Ahab be deceived; the devil offers his services to this end; he is sent, with a definite command, to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets (1 Kings 22:20, 22). If the blinding and insanity of Ahab be God’s judgment, the figment of bare permission vanishes: because it would be ridiculous for the Judge only to permit what he wills to be done, and not also to decree it and to command its execution by his ministers. (Inst.1.18.1)

Other examples where God had used people to perform his will in terms of ungodly deeds are Acts 4:28; Acts 2:23; Acts 3:18; 2 Samuel 16:22 and 2 Samuel 12:12; Jeremiah 1:15; 7:14; 50:25; Jeremiah 25:9; Isaiah 7:18; Hosea 8:1; Zephaniah 2:1; Isaiah 10:5; Matthew 3:10; Isaiah 28:21; 2 Samuel 16:10, 11; 1 Kings 11:31 and 1 Samuel 2:34 (Inst 1.18.1).

Calvin accepts that God’s will is one.  He however admits that “it appears manifold to us because, on account of our mental incapacity, we do not grasp how in diverse ways it wills and does not will something to take place.” (Inst 1.18.3)

How does God’s impulse come to pass in men? (Inst 1.18.2)

Calvin argues that God actively influences individuals so that “Whatever we conceive of in our minds is directed to His own end by God’s secret inspiration.”  God is actively working inwards into men’s minds to direct them in various ways.  The foundation for this view is based on Proverbs 21:1; Ezekiel 7:26; Job 12:24; Psalm 107:40; 106:40; Leviticus 26:36; 1 Samuel 26:12; Isaiah 29:14; Deuteronomy 28:28; Zechariah 12:4; Isaiah 29:10; Romans 1:28 and Exodus 14:17.

Theologians of his time seemingly argued that whenever sin is involved, God was not directing the person.  Instead God allows the person to perform certain sins.  Calvin again quotes a number of passages where it is quite clear that God directed people to do sin.  Romans 1:20-24 is an example where the Spirit clearly expresses the fact that blindness and insanity are inflicted by God’s just judgment.  God hardened Pharao’s heart (Exodus 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10, 14:8).  The result was that Pharao kept on abusing the people of Israel.  Other examples are Psalm 105:25 and Isaiah 10:6.  According to Calvin God commands them “because He will bend them to execute His judgments, as if they bore His commandments graven upon their hearts; from this it appears that they had been impelled by God’s sure determination.

Satan is often used by God to act in the wicked but in such a way that Satan performs his part by God’s impulsion (see also Inst 1.14.17) and advances as far as he is allowed 1 Samuel 16:14.  Satan blinds the minds of unbelievers so that they don’t believe (2 Corinthians 4:4) but this was actually directed by God so that they all might be damned (2 Thessalonians 2:11,12; Ezekiel 14:9; Romans 1:28, 29).

Even when God uses the deed of the Godless for His purposes, He does not suffer reproach. (Inst. 1.18.4)

It is quite human to reason that if God is actively influencing the ungodly for His purposes, then they “are undeservedly damned if they carry out what God has decreed because they obey his will.”  The answer to this lies in the fact that God’s will and his law or instructions to us are different entities.  God nevertheless has one will only (see discussion below).  God had instructed man to love God and his fellow man; by choosing not to do so they cannot put the blame on God.  As will be described below (see the example about Judas), the mystery on how God could induce/direct man to do sin and how He cannot be blamed for that is not revealed in the Bible.

It is interesting to note that Calvin thus far has not use the argument that these ungodly are willingly and actively choosing to do the sin predestined by God’s Council in this section.  As will be pointed out below, this is an argument used by later theologians such as Honig (1938) and Heyns (1987).  This could potentially fit in with Calvin’s argument as an active free choice to disobey the law of God would put all blame on the sinner.  As pointed out below, Calvin does use this argument (men decided freely to disobey God) in his Commentaries on Mathews 26:24.

It appears that Calvin is not happy to use the term free will of man as can be seen from his later writings (Inst. 2.2; 2.2.1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 26, 27; 2.3.5, 10, 14).  The reason for his fierce resistance to the use of this term (also by Augustine – Inst. 2.2.8 and earlier church fathers – Inst. 2.2.9) is that a popular argument used at the time was that man has the freedom of choice to choose doing good and thereby deserving eternal life.  However, it is clear that Calvin agrees that man is choosing for sin willingly and without compulsion.  He actually goes further to argue that man is subject to the necessity of sinning (after they were enslaved by sin), but doing so willingly (Inst 2.3.5 and 2.4.1).

God’s predestination and reprobation

This doctrine was partially addressed above with the discussion about the Council of God.  An in depth discussion is presented in Calvin’s Institutes and sermons (Inst. 3.21 – 3.24; Calvin 1998d, Calvin’s sermon on election and reprobation).  What is relevant for this study is the following:

Calvin rejects any notion that the foreknowledge of God suggests that God chose certain people since He knew that they would be worthy to be chosen.  Calvin defines the foreknowledge of God as: ”When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things always were, and perpetually remain, under his eyes, so that to his knowledge there is nothing future or past, but all things are present.” (Inst 3.21.5).  Both election and reprobation are included in God’s decision about the predestination (Inst. 3.22.11; 3.23.1) and they are opposite sides of the same coin.  God is just to those that he rejected since they are responsible for choosing to sin (Inst. 3.23.3-7; Inst 2.3.5 and 2.4.1).  The election is a result of the merciful character of God and the reprobation the result of His righteousness (Inst. 2.23.11).

The human brain cannot fully understand the doctrine of the predestination and the complete answer on how to understand it is not revealed in the Bible.  An example to demonstrate that is the case of Judas (Matthews 26:24).  Christ declares that He was not accidentally dragged by men to the cross, but that the sacrifice had been appointed by an eternal decree of God for expiating the sins of the world.  Judas was appointed by God’s decree to betray Christ, but he is nevertheless not free from blame since he brought upon himself righteous condemnation by his own choice; because he was full of treachery and avarice (Commentaries, Mathews 26:24).  Despite that Christ was part of the decision to predestined/direct Judas to betray Him, He sincerely sympathized with Judas by saying that it would have been better for him if he was never born.  One should admit that it is not easily understood by the human mind how Christ could have been part of the decision to condemn Judas and simultaneously sympathize with him.

Scripture does not reveal to us how to understand the necessity/obligation for Judas to betray Christ, and how God could not be blamed for his sin, apart from that we know that Judas cannot blame God since he willingly performed the act of betrayal.

Satan and his angles stand under God’s Power and Will (Inst. 1.14.13-18; 2.4.2, 5)

The devil was created by God but his malice is the result of his perversion.  Calvin uses the example of Satan’s interaction with God about Job to come to the conclusion that it is a fixed certainty that Satan can do nothing unless God wills and assents to it.  Other examples where the Bible quotes God to direct the work of Satan are 1 Kings 22:20-22; 1 Samuel 16:14; 18:10; Psalm 78:49; 2 Thessalonians 2:9, 11; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2.

What is the relationship between God and sin? (Inst. 2.1.4-11; 2.3.5; 2.4.1-5)  

Calvin, amongst others, defines sin to be a “hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’.” (Galatians 5:59; Inst.2.1.8).  Our destruction through sin comes from the guilt of our flesh and not from God.  We have perished solely since we have degenerated from our original good condition when God created us (Inst 2.1.10).  Man now sins of necessity and not due to compulsion, but willingly (Inst. 2.3.5).  Man stands willingly under the power of Satan (Inst 2.4.1).  Later Calvin demonstrated that the fall into sin was also predetermined by God (Inst. 3.23.7).  Again the same theme is described.  God included sin as part of His sovereign master plan/council.  The fall into sin by Adam and his posterity formed part of the inevitable will of God. In a certain sense, Adam had no choice but to sin.  However, he willingly did so and therefore cannot blame God for doing so.  This explanation by Calvin forms again and again the basis of his position on the predestination, God’s providence and God’s direction of the wicked and Satan.

The Secret Providence of God (Calvin 1998c)

After the discussion above, it is still a difficult experience to read through and comprehend the doctrine about the Secret providence of God as summarized by Calvin.  Intuitively and perhaps influenced by the philosophy of our times, one frequently feels that the conclusions by Calvin are too harsh and perhaps even wrong:

1 God, by a simple and pure act of his Will, created the greatest part of the world for destruction.

2 God not only predestined to damnation; but He also predestinated Adam to the causes of damnation; Whose fall He not only foresaw, but determined from eternity by a secret decree, and ordained that he should fall; And that this might come to pass in his time, He set forth the apple, the cause of the fall.

3 The sins which are committed, are committed not only by the permission, but also by the will of God. For it is frivolous to make a distinction between the permission and the will of God, so far as sin is concerned. Those who do so, wish to gain God’s favor by compliments and adulation.

4 That all the crimes which any man commits, are the good and just works of God.

5 That no adultery, theft, or homicide, is committed, without the will of God being concerned.

6 The Scripture openly testifies that crimes are appointed, not merely by the will, but by the authority of God.

7 What men do in sinning, they do by the will of God, since very often the will of God is inconsistent with the precept.

8 The hardening of Pharaoh, and consequently his obstinacy and rebellion, were the work of God, even by the testimony of Moses, who ascribes the whole rebellion of Pharaoh to God.

9 The will of God is the highest cause of the hardening of man.

10 Satan is a liar by the command of God.

11 God gives will to those doing wrong; He even suggests wicked and dishonorable affections, not only permissively but efficaciously, and that for His own glory.

12 The wicked, by their wickedness, do God’s work rather than their own.

13 We sin necessarily by the design of God, when we sin by our own, or by chance.

14 The wickedness which men perpetrate by their own volition proceeds also from the volition of God.


Calvin consistently uses the obvious meaning of Biblical text to demonstrate that God is actively directing Satan, sin and the wicked to perform His good and just purposes.  This puts the Biblical scholar in a difficult position where one has to agree that the way to understand difficult questions that arise from this observation from God’s revelation is not provided in Scripture.  The alternative would be to find complicated expositions of the related references from Scripture, which contradicts the obvious meaning.  Ordinary reformed believers were empowered by the reformed principle (Belgic Confession, Art 7) that Scripture is clear enough to be understood by ordinary church folk.  This is perhaps the reason why the theology practiced in the broad family of Christian churches is much more conservative than what is taught by “objective” Biblical scientists (Bray 1996)

In the next section the views by two reformed scholar will be compared with those of Calvin in an effort to get a better understanding about the subtle differences that exist about these issues.

Comparison with Honig (1938) and Heyns (1978)

Both Honig (1938: Chapter 11.6) and Heyns (1978: Chapter 3.6) agree that God included sin in His master plan for the universe.  Both also agree that God did not merely permit sin.  They argue that God will be reduced to a position where He had lost control if He allows for sin to exist outside His direction and control.  It appears that Calvin never uses this argument (in the sections quoted above), notably since he accepts that God directs and control the works of the wicked.  Both Honig and Heyns agree with Calvin (Inst. 1.18.2) that God limits what Satan and the wicked can do.  Honig also suggests that God is actively ruling over sin; He uses sin to achieve His goals and judgments.  Honig therefore essentially accepts the doctrine as set out by Calvin.

Heyns states that God is ruling over sin, and even though God willingly took it up in His council, sin is operating not in accordance to God’s will.  God created room for sin and sets boundaries for it.  Heyns agrees that the realities of everyday life are the realization of God’s decisions but states that God’s will cannot be deduced from that.  He distinguishes between God’s will and His decisions to create room for sin.  God is ruling with sovereignty over all possible things, He even creates evil, with reference to Isaiah 47:7 and Amos 3.6.  Nothing is happening outside the will and the decisions of God but His decisions are connected to the reality in different ways (Chapter 3.6).  The one good thing that happens is the direct result of God’s decision and His will, whilst the next bad thing that happens is included in His decisions/council/will only in so far that He created room/space for it and that it cannot operate outside the boundaries set by God.

One can therefore conclude that Heyns is in essence agreeing with Calvin to the point where he tries to rationalize the inclusion of sin in God’s council by means of a special area where sin is allowed to operate (outside God’s will but as part of His master plan/council) as far as God essentially permits.  By doing so Heyns is trying to free God from any blame as God would be the author of sin if He is involved more than merely creating a well defined space for sin.  This argument is actually flawed since when the reality of everyday life is observed, there appears to be no limits for sin!  Many examples of where God diminished and limited the force and destruction of Satan can be named, but the first example where clearly no boundary was adhered to by Satan/sin, would again reduce God to a position where He is not in control.

Heyns also does not explain how all events happening is the result of God’s decisions, without God taking a willful decision?  Like Calvin, Heyns could claim that the secret on how to understand this was not revealed to us.  As is demonstrated below, Heyns’s footwork to explain God’s providence by means of space created for sin, still leaves many questions about clear passages in Scripture about God directing the wicked.

To be honest, the same argument (God becomes the author of sin) that Heyns tried to circumvent could be used against the doctrine as described by Calvin:  What type of God would direct the Satan and wicked to do such evil things and for what purpose?

As pointed out above with the example of Judas, the sinner can never blame God for being predestined to do the sin, as the sinner performs the sin willfully and without compulsion.  Although the sinner willfully performed the act of sin, according to the will of God as decided in His council, sin is forbidden by God instructions of the law (Inst 1.18.3).  How that is achieved and how God is free from all blame is not revealed in the Bible.  Also the answer on how the one will of God can involve what appears to be two seemingly paradox outcomes, is not provided in Scripture (Inst 1.18.3).  Although Calvin does not refer to James 1:13 here, the same argument is essentially used in his commentaries on James 1:13.  Calvin makes an important remark about this:

“Let those for whom this seems harsh consider for a little while how bearable their squeamishness is in refusing a thing attested by clear Scriptural proofs because it exceeds their mental capacity, and find fault that things are put forth publicly, which if God had not judged useful for men to know, he would never have bidden his prophets and apostles to teach.” (Inst. 1.18.4)

At this stage the question above is not yet satisfactorily answered. What type of God would direct the Satan and wicked to do such evil things and for what purpose?  Given a choice between the doctrine of Heyns (God is not really in command of the wicked) and Calvin (God is directing the wicked and completely in command) then the answer by David comes to mind: “And David said unto Gad, I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the LORD; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man.” (2 Samuel 24:14)

Heyns appears not to be considering the explicit passages quoted by Calvin to demonstrate that God is directed the wicked, which creates the impression that he may be turning a blind eye to avoid these paradox issues:

2 Samuel 12:11-12 – Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun. 12For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.  (with reference to 2 Samuel 16:22)

2 Samuel 16:22 – So they spread Absalom a tent upon the top of the house; and Absalom went in unto his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.

2 Samuel 16:10-11 – And the king said, What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah? so let him curse, because the LORD hath said unto him, Curse David. Who shall then say, Wherefore hast thou done so? … let him alone, and let him curse; for the LORD hath bidden him.

1 Kings 22:20 – 22 –  And the LORD said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramothgilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner.  21And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the LORD, and said, I will persuade him. 22And the LORD said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so.

Isaiah 10:5-7 – O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation.   6I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.  7Howbeit he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few.

Isaiah 28:21 – For the LORD shall rise up as in mount Perazim, he shall be wroth as in the valley of Gibeon, that he may do his work, his strange work; and bring to pass his act, his strange act. (with reference to Joshua 10)

Jeremiah 25:9 – Behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, saith the LORD, and Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land, and against the inhabitants thereof, and against all these nations round about, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, and an hissing, and perpetual desolations.

Jeremiah 50:25 – The LORD hath opened his armoury, and hath brought forth the weapons of his indignation: for this is the work of the Lord GOD of hosts in the land of the Chaldeans.    

Acts 2:23 – Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.

Acts 4:28 – (the people of Israel, were gathered together,)28 For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.

Unless and until a suitable and logic alternative explanation/exposition for these (and other) verses are given, one will have to agree with the conclusion by Calvin that God is in fact actively directing sin for His good and just purposes.

In terms of the doctrine of the predestination both Honig (Chapter 4) and Heyns (Chapter 4) accept that God has chosen a number of people to be saved before He created the world.  This decision was based on God’s free will and good purpose and not since God could foresee that these people were going to be worthy of saving.  Honig also accepts the reprobation as the other side of the same coin.

Heyns does not accept the reprobation as logical parallel of the election since according to him this would make God the author of sin and remove the blame from the rejected sinner doomed to sin by God’s reprobation.  Heyns accepts that God is the subject of the reprobation, but not in the same way than with election.  According to him the sin of man plays a role and leads to God’s decision about the reprobation.  Heyns uses the example of Esau that was rejected due to his reckless attitude about his birthright (Hebrews 12:16-17).

Calvin discusses this verse in his commentaries and explains that Esau (who was rejected by God before he was born – see Calvin’s commentaries on Romans 9:11-17, 21-22) was lost beyond hope at that stage.  He explains the word “rejected” here means that he was repulsed, or denied his request (Commentaries on Hebrews 12:16-17).

Again, Heyns fails to explain the meaning of clear passages such as Proverbs 16:3 and Romans 9:11-17, 21-22.  It should be acknowledged that Heyns was not known to be a commentator on Scripture.  By seemingly ignoring important passages about these issues, the impression is created that even though Heyns agrees on most of the major issues around God’s council, predestination and providence, he tries to soften the full consequence of this doctrine by ignoring clear passages that contradicts his denial.  The fact is that other expositions for passages such as Romans 9 exist (White, 2006:28 and earlier references therein) but Heyns does not offer/discuss such alternative views.

Final conclusion

The discussion above clearly demonstrates that the theological foundation from the phrases about God’s will and the wicked in the Catechism of Geneva is found in Calvin’s Institutes, his expositions and his sermons.  The doctrine about God’s council, predestination and providence in terms of Satan, sin and the wicked is one of the most difficult questions to understand.  The reformed doctrine tries to explain this doctrine as far as possible, but acknowledges that the answers to some aspects were not revealed in Scripture.

The obvious meaning of scripture teaches that nothing happens outside God will and that He directs and rule the wicked to perform his good and just purpose.  The works of the wicked is against Gods will and instructions as commanded in the law but in accordance to His will in terms of his providence.  God has one will only, although it appears as if His will about the law in some cases could be different to His will in terms of his providence.  The wicked are performing the sin freely and without compulsion.  They can therefore not blame God as they have willingly disobeyed God’s law.

Calvin chose to reconcile all relevant references in the Bible which deals with the doctrine described above. In order to do so he had to embark on the argument that the answers to two paradox issues are not revealed to us in the Bible.  These issues are:

(a) How is it possible that God can direct the wicked/sin without being contaminated by it?  On the same line, how can God direct the wicked without compulsion?  The same principle is involved with God’s decision about the election and reprobation or His predestination.

(b) How can God’s will be one but seemingly differs in terms of His law and His providence?

Heyns wants to avoid the first inevitable paradox by invoking a defined space which was created by God in which the wicked/sin is free to operate within well defined boundaries.  He tries to bypass the second paradox by claiming that the cruel reality of everyday life happens against God’s will, but still is the result of His eternal decisions.

In order to escape the inevitable paradox that flows from his approach, Heyns has to use the same final argument which Calvin had to realize:

(a) The answer is not revealed to us in Scripture on how God is ruling over sin by creating free space for it in which say, a baby could be raped.

(b) The answer is not revealed to us on how all events happening is the result of God’s decisions, without God taking a willful decision.

(c) The answer is not revealed to us on how God is the subject of the reprobation, whilst His decision is based on the sin that man will be doing?

As pointed out above, Heyns also seems to avoid some clear references in the Bible in order to accommodate his, what seems to be a “softer” approach, to rationalize God’s interaction with the wicked and sin.  Interestingly, Neuse (1998:60) demonstrates that the sermons by Calvin about the predestination (Calvin 1998d) teach a somewhat softer approach of the reprobation than what may be deduced from his other writings.


I thank the Rev. Hennie van Wyk, Reformed Church Pinetown for his valuable comments and advice.


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