Reflecting on this coming week’s reading assignment in the Institutes brings to mind a simple but profound truth that many of us were taught as part of prayer at mealtime: “God is great, and God is good.”
God is so great that when we consider the question of how God works in men’s hearts (2.4), we must affirm that God, Satan, and man may be active in the same event (2.4.2). And yet at the same time we must affirm that Satan is not excused in his evil part, nor is man, and neither is God the author of evil. And how does all this come to pass? Calvin notes that there is no inconsistency in assigning the same deed to Satan, man, and God because of the distinction in purpose and manner of each party involved, causing God’s righteousness to shine forth blameless (last sentence of 2.4.2). The Chaldeans pillaging of Job’s possessions (Job 1:21), as Calvin noted, perfectly illustrates this interplay of purpose and manner of acting:
The Lord permits Satan to afflict his servant; and the Chaldeans, who had been chosen as the ministers to execute the deed, he hands over to the impulses of Satan, who, pricking on the already depraved Chaldeans with his poisoned darts, instigates them to commit the crime. They rush furiously on to the unrighteous deed, and become its guilty perpetrators. Here Satan is properly said to act in the reprobate, over whom he exercises his sway, which is that of wickedness. God also is said to act in his own way; because even Satan when he is the instrument of divine wrath, is completely under the command of God, who turns him as he will in the execution of his just judgments.
In 2.4.5 where Calvin elaborated more on how Satan also must serve God, he refers the reader back to earlier sections where he previously vindicated God from any blame in his rule and overrule even of Satan. I find 1.18.4 to be particularly helpful here (thanks in no small part to footnote 9 on p. 313 of the McNeill-Battles edition):
If I mistake not, I have already shown clearly how the same act at once betrays the guilt of man, and manifests the righteousness of God. Modest minds will always be satisfied with Augustine’s answer, “Since the Father delivered up the Son, Christ his own body, and Judas his Master, how in such a case is God just, and man guilty, but just because in the one act which they did, the reasons for which they did it are different?” (August. Ep. 48, ad Vincentium). If any are not perfectly satisfied with this explanation—viz. that there is no concurrence between God and man, when by His righteous impulse man does what he ought not to do, let them give heed to what Augustine elsewhere observes: “Who can refrain from trembling at those Judgments when God does according to his pleasure even in the hearts of the wicked, at the same time rendering to them according to their deeds?” (De Grat. et lib. Arbit. ad Valent. c. 20). And certainly, in regard to the treachery of Judas, there is just as little ground to throw the blame of the crime upon God, because He was both pleased that his Son should be delivered up to death, and did deliver him, as to ascribe to Judas the praise of our redemption. Hence Augustine, in another place, truly observes, that when God makes his scrutiny, he looks not to what men could do, or to what they did, but to what they wished to do, thus taking account of their will and purpose. Those to whom this seems harsh had better consider how far their captiousness is entitled to any toleration, while, on the ground of its exceeding their capacity, they reject a matter which is clearly taught by Scripture, and complain of the enunciation of truths, which, if they were not useful to be known, God never would have ordered his prophets and apostles to teach. Our true wisdom is to embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the Holy Scriptures, have delivered. Those who indulge their petulance, a petulance manifestly directed against God, are undeserving of a longer refutation.
I close by passing along a “shield” from the Lord’s panoply which I have found to be fully capable of absorbing every fiery dart of Satan which seeks to call into question God’s goodness: “The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and kind in all His deeds.” (Psalm 145:17, NASB)
Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes: