Riddlebarger: It Is Not A Sin Not To Have All The Answers

My phone usually doesn’t ring at 6:45 AM. I could hear someone leaving me an urgent message: “turn on the television!” When I turned the TV on, I watched in horror as a commercial jet airliner crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in New York. From the smoke pouring out of the other Trade Center tower, it was clear that this was not the first plane to strike. The TV reporter was still speculating about what was becoming obvious–this was a terrorist attack. Like most Americans, I spent the rest of the morning of September 11, 2001, glued to the television watching the Pentagon burn, shocked at the huge loss of life, and coming to the inevitable conclusion that Usama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist network was behind these savage acts. I knew that America was going to war.

But it was not long before the phone rang again. This time a twenty-something year-old member of our church was calling, deeply troubled by horrors they had witnessed in New York and Washington. Looking for some solace, the caller soon checked off a series of difficult questions such incidents always seem to bring to mind. “Pastor, Paul says in Ephesians 1:11 that `God works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.’ Does this mean that God is responsible for this? Is this horrible tragedy really a part of God’s purpose?”

I was very thankful that the caller divided their question into two parts, because that way I was able to answer each part of the question with fewer qualifications. “No, God is not responsible for this.” “Terrorists flew those planes, not God.” And, “yes, this horrible act is still a part of God’s plan.” We discussed the fact that God is sovereign and omniscient, so nothing like this is outside of God’s will or purpose. God is still on his throne. But we also talked about the fact that God is gracious and compassionate and takes no delight in the suffering of his creatures. Indeed, God promises to comfort all those who call upon his name. Then we talked about hope. According to Romans 8:28, some how and in some way, when all is said and done, God will turn this horrible event to good.

Whether the caller did so purposely or not, making a distinction between God’s moral responsibility for sinful human actions (the first question), and the question of whether or not sinful human acts fall within the scope of God’s eternal decree (the second question), is an important one. Indeed, this is what the Scriptures teach. But making this distinction inevitably brings us to the topic of divine concurrence, which is defined as God’s relationship to secondary causes. How can it be that the horrible tragedy of September 11 is a part of God’s eternal purpose? And if it is, how can we at the same time affirm that God is good and that those who plotted these acts and flew the airplanes into the Twin Towers are fully responsible for their crimes against humanity? This is one of the most difficult and perplexing questions in all of Christian theology. But tragedies like 9-1-1 bring such questions to the forefront and there is no escaping them.

Before we proceed any further, we need to make several very important qualifications. Questions like this have been asked before. So, we are not left totally on our own in this regard. September 11 was shocking to many Americans–especially younger Americans–because terrorist attacks upon civilians have not happened on American soil before. But since human tragedy is as old as Adam and the fall of the human race into sin, the questions raised by the events of 9-1-1 are certainly not new. Christians have thought about these things before, and so have the biblical writers. Therefore, in order to formulate answers to such questions which not only supply pastoral comfort but deal with the weighty issues at hand, we must first look to the biblical data dealing with God’s relationship to human sin. While the biblical writers do speak to certain aspects of this relationship, we must also note that a great deal of mystery remains.

Another qualification we ought to keep in mind in this discussion is that we are creatures, limited in knowledge, and bound by time and space. But God is not subject to such human limitations. Therefore, when we as creatures wrestle with questions such as these–which, it must be candidly admitted, are often beyond our full comprehension–we find ourselves in a difficult predicament. God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). The secret things belong to him alone (Deuteronomy 29:29). Since this is the case, there is a great temptation on our part to answer difficult questions like this in the abstract. “Can God do such and such?” “What about the hypothetical case where . . .?” While the temptation to do this is great, we must avoid it at all costs. Not only is a little creaturely humility in order when we deal with questions like this, but if our curiosity gets the better of us, we risk entering a maze from which we cannot escape. It is not a sin, after all, not to have all the answers. Read more»

Kim Riddlebarger | “Human Sin and God’s Purpose: Some Thoughts on the Doctrine of Divine Concurrence” | The Riddleblog | Sept 10, 2021


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. “Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.”
    Isaiah 46:11 KJV

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