The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in His providence, that it extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as has joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to His own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceeds only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin (WCF 5.4).
This is an elusive article, and it would be dishonest of me to say I understand why. I’ve written and deleted several drafts, unable to say anything meaningful on the subject. So I put it off. And then I wrote a few more drafts-turned-paper-wads. But it’s nice to know I’m not alone. Samuel Johnson describes the struggle well:
After a short effort of meditation by which nothing was determined, I grew every moment more irresolute, my ideas wandered from the first intention, and I rather wished to think, than thought upon any settled subject; till at last I was awakened from this dream of study by a summons from the press: the time was come for which I had been thus negligently purposing to provide, and, however dubious or sluggish, I was now necessitated to write (The Rambler #134).
Writing a practical essay on WCF 5.4 is just one of those nuts that requires diligence and patience to crack, and at last, it seems I’ve breached the shell – and not a moment too soon. I tell you this because, on the whole, I feel my experience is representative of how many (most?) people approach the subject of WCF 5.4 – with hesitancy, puzzlement, and perhaps a dash of dread. The deep things of God easily fatigue our fragile minds, mine being particularly fatigable and frail. Yet, I’ve set out to say something useful about each article in the Confession. So here’s to wastepaper baskets overflowing with first, second, and third attempts.
This article of the confession, for all its depth and difficulty, is bulging with brilliance and beauty; its seams are taut and threaten to break. The truths here are hard truths, hard as flint. Yet, as flint is prone to do when struck, it lights the night with embers. Our faith collides with this doctrine and the sparks fly upward. In the flash we catch a glimpse of a Father’s face, glowing, and are reminded He sometimes hides it behind a frowning providence. The Fall is, indeed, a frowning providence.
As I’ve proposed in other essays, God as author makes most sense of what the Scriptures teach about His sovereignty. It’s a surprisingly sharp metaphor that trims those thorny theological bramble bushes we often find ourselves tangled in. Doug Wilson speaks of the Godhead as consisting of God the Writer (the Father), God the Written (Christ, the eternal Word), and God the Reader (the Spirit, who interprets for us the mind of God). But if God is a storyteller – the Storyteller – He must write stories, and stories necessitate conflict.
Pick a story, any story. Conflict drives the plot forward. This could be internal or external conflict, but it must be present for a story to exist. So, for God to write the story of redemption, He had to introduce conflict into Creation, thus, we have the Fall.
The black coffee Calvinism of the Westminster Assembly is too stout for many evangelicals; it makes them jittery, gives them nervous stomachs. Why the nerves? Because they feel they must get God off the hook for this mess we’re in. But God doesn’t need to be gotten off any hooks; He’s right where He should be, pen in hand.
It’s intriguing the divines chose to emphasize God is not the “author of sin.” What they intend by this is that God is not culpable for sin. He’s not, Himself, a sinner because He ordains sin. I say it’s an odd phrase – “author of sin” – because the metaphor of authorship is the only way I can make sense of what the Confession teaches here. God’s role as an author means He can write sin into existence without being, Himself, unrighteous. As Wilson writes, “[God] is the author of the fact of the sin, the limits of the sin, the place of the sin, the purpose of the sin, the meaning of the sin, but He is not the author of the sin itself. He approves it, but He does not approve of it” (Westminster Systematics, [Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2014], 45).
But, in some respects, our metaphor falls flat. It’s bound to. We’re talking about the pattern of human authorship, not an imitation. When we write stories, they’re littered with plot holes and sundry other literary sins. God writes flawless, non-fiction fairy tales. No other author can boast of “almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness.” These divine qualities provide us with assurance the Fall is, in the narrative flow of history, both good and necessary.
Here are two implications of the Fall that are worth our reflection:
- Apart from the Fall, we wouldn’t know mercy. When you ponder this Year of Jubilee we’re in, the eon of Kingdom expansion, remember there’s no resurrection without ruin, no triumph without tragedy. So preach the Gospel to all nations that all may experience the privilege of pardon.
- Apart from the Fall, we wouldn’t know justice. The Fall manifests God’s righteous standards and vindicates His law, both at the Great White Throne judgement and throughout history as the Mosaic civil laws are observed by civil magistrates. Therefore, we must teach those converted nations to observe everything Christ commands (in both the Old and New Testaments).
It seems simple because it is. The conflict in the story of redemption is the Fall, and all subsequent conflict in the story has its origins there. The climax of the narrative is the cluster of events surrounding the incarnation (i.e, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension and Pentecost). The falling action is the incremental completion of the Great Commission, which includes both the Gospel grace of pardon and the worldwide implementation and observance of biblical law as the standard of justice. This is the simple, beautiful, action-provoking meaning of WCF 5.4. God is a good author who writes good stories. Therefore, the Fall was necessary. Our marching orders in the narrative are to carry the news (and the meaning) of the cross, resurrection, and ascension to the ends of the earth. And we do this in anticipation of the denouement, that moment the task is finished and the Fall reversed, when the earth is filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
Now Apply It!
- Obviously, God requires obedience to His commands. But what’s the benefit of seeing these commands in their narrative context? In other words, what do we gain by justifying obedience theologically? Why not just obey the Great Commission without all this talk of narrative and stories?
- How can you work the story of redemption into catechesis to help your children understand the narrative context of theology?