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Question and Answer

Permissive will of God?

Question:

Is there a permissive will of God?

Answer:

In response to your question I would like to begin with briefly looking at Acts 14:15–16, when Paul and Barnabus are addressing the Lystrans: “you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and the sea and al that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways” (ESV: some translations have “suffered the nations” or “permitted the nations”). 

We must not construe this “permitting” as a “bare permission” (WCF 4.3) in the sense that God has somehow severed the rope between his sovereignty and man’s responsibility and allowed the ship of the Gentiles to float on its own in the open sea. For in the very next statement we read, “Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons.” Man is always and everywhere confronted with the existence of God and his providential care (cf. Ps. 104:27–30). 

The point that is made in the “allowing the nations to walk in their own ways” seems to be that God deferred the bringing of final judgment against their idolatry and sin. He did not bring an end to them, even though they had gone in their own rebellious way. We can also think of Paul’s speech at Athens: “times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30). In other words, in the contexts of Acts 14 and 17, God’s “permissive will” still has a definite purpose: in the case of the pagan nations, it was to lead them to repentance and faith in Christ.

Peter affirms this in his second epistle: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). The “permissive” language used in association with the will of God in this sense then is part of the preparatory work of God leading up to the final revelation of his Word in Christ (Heb. 1:1). Now that Christ is raised, the “times of ignorance” are over, for the door is wide open for Jew and Gentile alike to enter the kingdom by calling upon the Lord (Rom. 10:13). 

When it comes to systematic theology, some writers have made the distinction between the ‘active’ and ‘permissive’ will of God when dealing with the question of how God can work righteously through sinful instruments, to “use sin sinlessly” (cf. Lombard, Sentences I.xlv.11). In Calvin’s Institutes he notes that Augustine “proves that God’s will is the highest and first cause of all things because nothing happens except from his command or permission.” But then he notes, regarding this “permission,” that “surely he (Augustine) does not conjure up a God who reposes idly in a watchtower, willing the while to permit something or other, when an actual will not his own, so to speak, intervenes, which otherwise could not be deemed a cause” (Book I.18.1.a)  

Richard Muller observes that, for Reformed theologians like Vermigli, “the category of divine permission is necessary to any understanding of events that appear to contradict God’s will. Nonetheless, once this category of divine willing is recognized, there is a further issue: when God permits something, he must permit it willingly or unwillingly. For the permission to be unwilling, there would have to be a power greater than God, capable of contravening his will. This is, of course, impossible. God therefore permits willingly—or better, his permission is a kind of divine willing … When God permits something, therefore, his permission consists in a will not to hinder a particular sinful act but to use the sin to bring about his own ends” (Post Reformation Dogmatics, vol 3: “The Divine Essence and Attributes,” 442).

In summary, then, I think there is solid precedent for speaking of a “permission” with respect to God’s willing, but like all theological distinctions, this needs to be carefully qualified in each context in which this matter is raised. 

I hope this is helpful.


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