Sovereign Over Evil

Martin Luther, the best known of the Protestant Reform-ers, addressed divine sovereignty, human freedom, God’s governance of evil, and other related topics in The Bond-age of the Will. Luther writes, “When God works in and by evil men, evil deeds result; yet God, though He does evil by means of evil men, cannot act evilly Himself, for He is good, and cannot do evil; but He uses evil instruments, which cannot escape the impulse and move-ment of His power.” God is sovereign even over evil, and evil happens because He works in and through evil agents. But it is not simple to describe God’s relationship to evil. Luther says both that God “does evil by means of evil men” and that He “cannot do evil.” Well, does God do evil, or does He not do evil?

That apparent contradiction can be reconciled when we highlight Luther’s argument that the Lord superintends evil “by means of evil men.” Here we see the doctrine of concurrence. When evil occurs, both God and creatures are involved, but only the creature is guilty of wrongdoing. That is because the creature’s intent is evil, but God’s is not. And Scripture assigns guilt based on the intentions of the parties involved. Both God and Joseph’s brothers sent Joseph to Egypt, but only the brothers were guilty of evil because only they had evil intent (Gen. 50:15–21). Because of God’s good purposes for evil and lack of evil intent, our Reformation confessions often say that He “permits” or “allows” evil in order to tell us that the Lord’s involvement in evil is not parallel in all respects to His involvement in good. But it is not a bare permission of evil whereby God simply stands back and watches things happen. No, He actively governs evil to fulfill His purposes.A

ll of this is to say that God is no less in control of evil than He is of good. His Word affirms this time and again. We see it in today’s passage (Isa. 45:7). We see it in other texts such as Acts 2:22–23, where Peter says that the most evil act in history—the crucifixion of Christ—was planned by God but carried out by men with evil in their hearts. Though it can be hard at times to understand how God can be good and ordain evil, we nonetheless must affirm this biblical truth.

Scripture does offer some help in putting these things together. We know that God works all things together for good for His people (Rom. 8:28). Evil is evil and is itself not good, but ultimately it is good that evil exists or God would not ordain it. He ordains evil and uses His creatures’ evil actions to bring about great goods for His children.

Coram Deo

God is not pleased with evil in and of itself, but He does govern it so as to bring about greater goods. We can be confident, therefore, that the hardest things we endure are not brought our way in vain. God will work in and through them to bring about much ultimate good for us and much final glory for Himself.

Passages for Further Study

Exodus 7
1 Samuel 2:22–25
2 Chronicles 18
Acts 4:23–31

For permissions, please see our Copyright Policy.