Calvinism and Sovereignty in Isaiah 10

The opening statement from chapter ten of Isaiah is telling: God chides those who enact "iniquitous decrees" and "oppressive statutes." (Isa. 10:1) He pronounces a "woe" upon such persons, a typical expression of dissatisfaction, and even judgment. (link) Why I find that statement ironic coincides with Calvinistic theory regarding God's decrees. The decrees of God, according to Calvinist Philip Holtrop and traditionally-accepted Calvinistic confessions, are rooted in the Calvinistic conception of God's hyper-sovereignty (deterministic power) as "a theological starting point. The focus is on God's determining in God's eternal decree (plan) whatever occurs in heaven and earth."1 (emphasis added) All iniquity and oppression, then, is enacted by God's decrees.

What we have, then, is a double standard: God can decree iniquity and oppression but mortals may not do so without incurring God's divine retribution. Even worse, God decreed that wicked people would decree iniquity and oppression, and then He would condemn them for it. God confesses His righteous disgust for those who "turn aside the needy from justice and ... rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!" (Isa. 10:2) Granted, that such occurs in the earth merely bespeaks to God's decreeing of the same, a most obvious logical and necessary outworking of Calvinistic philosophical theology.

God pronounces judgment upon such persons, insisting that there is nowhere they can hide from His all-seeing vision, and no one who can defend them (Isa. 10:3, 4). God is bringing about judgment to His people for disobeying Him. But the mere fact that God Himself confesses that His people have disobeyed Him should inform the reader that God did not decree their rebellion. Else we are left with a God who decrees and renders certain the rebellion of His own people and then punishes them when they disobey. But this is exactly the type of God that the Calvinist promotes. This God is conflicted within Himself. John Piper infers as much! In God there are, allegedly, two opposing wills -- one will that renders how God wishes events could be, which is not a will at all, and another that renders certain how events will be. (link) One almost feels a Christian sympathy for such a distraught being.

God, according to John Calvin, decrees and renders certain that which He insists He hates. The Calvinist's God is inwardly bifurcated: commanding obedience while decreeing disobedience. Will no Calvinist rescue God from such inept representations of the integrity and character of God? Some have attempted to declare that God merely "permits" sin and evil by way of answer. Calvin names this response an evasion, footnoted below, and refuses this option.

When confronted with the thorny issue of God's holiness being questioned because He has decreed from eternity past, and rendered certain all of the sinful and evil acts that people commit, Calvin answers: "That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on anything but what he has previously decreed [within] Himself, and brings to pass by His secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture [divorced from their contexts, of course]."2 (emphases added) Notice God's slippery cunning: "the secret instigation." Notice God's über control over us: He decreed what we "discuss and deliberate." Notice God's devious involvement in every action: He "brings to pass by His secret direction." This quoted reference is an infamous passage. Let me quote others lesser known:

  • What we formerly quoted from the Psalms (Ps. 115:3), to the effect that He does whatever pleases Him, certainly extends to all the actions of men.
  • The manner and the end are different, but still the fact is, that he cannot attempt anything without the will of God.
  • [W]e infer that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and wicked robbers were merely the instruments.
  • Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself devise, God holds the helm, and makes all their efforts contribute to the execution of His judgments.
  • God frequently exclaims, that by His hiss, by the clang of His trumpet, by His authority and command, the wicked are excited to war.
  • [W]hatever we conceive in our minds is directed to its end by the secret instigation of God.3
Calvin's hermeneutical error when interpreting the scriptures is the same as that of his followers: the assumption of relegating universals out of particulars -- they assume that particular instances of God's actions and interactions with mortals is how He operates universally and at all times in all cases.

For example, Calvin assumes that when God brings about judgment, for instance on Israel, and God uses the enemies of Israel for punishment, he presumptuously understands God to be controlling the minds of all involved: thus God decreed the rebellion of Israel, and then controlled the minds of their enemies to invade their land and take them captive by way of punishment, and then God punishes the enemies of Israel for invading His covenant people and taking them captive. All to what end? So that all will acknowledge God's so-called sovereignty and power? But if God is so almighty, and sovereign, then He could, since the Calvinist assumes God controls our thoughts, merely plant such within our minds without all the drama and bloodshed -- unless, that is, the Calvinist God is bloodthirsty, which He admits He hates (Prov. 6:16-19; Ezek. 35:6).


John Piper asks: "Is God less glorious because He ordained that evil be?" (link) The point is worse, actually; people like John Piper, taking their cue from Calvin, portray God as having decreed all evil, and bringing all evil about, thus themselves rendering Him less glorious! The answer to Piper's question is yes, with a caveat: not God, generally taken, but the Calvinist God. But the Calvinist God is not only "less glorious" because of the evil that He has rendered certain -- the evil that must have been necessary even for God -- but He is also the Author of sin and evil. If God has decreed sin and evil, from before the world was created, then God is the worse sinner in the known universe. Arminius writes:
Nay, He who decreed and ordained that sin should be committed, cannot with justice punish sin when perpetrated: for He cannot be the avenger of a thing done of which He was the ordainer that it should be done: He cannot be the ordainer of the punishment, who was the ordainer of the crime. And rightly does Augustine say, "God can ordain the punishment of crimes, but not the crimes themselves;" not ordain them, that is, to be committed. And I have already shown that man does not become wicked by his own fault if God has ordained that he should fall and become wicked.4
The primary question remains the same always and for all time: Must sin or evil have occurred? The only answer the Calvinist can, with integrity and consistency, grant is yes: sin and evil must occur because God, from their own confessions and theological constructs, has decreed for such to occur; again, not due to His foreknowledge of events caused by free will choices, but simply according to His desire of how He wanted the future to unfold. Try as they may, Calvinists cannot avoid charging God as the Author of sin; and, as Arminius himself insists, God is therefore (God Himself forbid the thought!) the only real sinner in the universe.5 Arminius concludes that the justice of God will allow for no semblance of Calvinism, infra- or supralapsarian, and this justice of God's nature motivates the entirety of Arminius' theology.

The prophet Isaiah presents a sovereign God, whom all believers adore, and trust. This God is trustworthy: i.e., He can be trusted due to His just and holy nature. He wants our obedience and does not decree our disobedience. (cf. Isa. 1:27, 28, 29; 3:8, 9, 10, 11; 5:4; 9:13, 14, 15, 16, 17) In righteousness and justice He will correct or punish our disobedience. By suggesting that God is good and performs only that which is just; but also insisting that He has decreed all sin and evil, and brings such to pass; is to call evil "good" and good "evil" (Isa. 5:20).

We by no means suggest that God has not decreed events in the earth.6 (cf. Isa. 10:5, 6, 7, 12; 13:3, 5, 11, 12, 13; 14:4, 5, 6) The God of Israel, regarding Assyria, claims: "It will all happen as I have planned. It will be as I have decided." (Isa. 14:24 NLT) "I have a plan for the whole earth, a hand of judgment upon all the nations." (Isa. 14:26) Yet, this is not a God who decreed calamity for the sake of decreeing history. Judgment and discipline is exacted for one reason: "Because you have turned from the God who can save you. You have forgotten the Rock who can hide you." (Isa. 17:10, emphases added)

Time and time again God calls out to a rebellious people: "Though you are such wicked rebels, my people, come and return to the LORD." (Isa. 31:6) He warns them against being foolish and rebellious (Isa. 32:6, 7, 8). He longs for them to be honest and fair (Isa. 33:15, 16). He desires for them to walk on the path of righteousness (Isa. 35:8, 9, 10). But He has chosen to punish disobedience and sin (Isa. 37:28, 29). People, however, freely choose contrary to what God desires for them to choose (Isa. 41:24; 42:17, 18, 19, 20; 43:22, 23, 24, 27, 28; 44:18, 19, 20). God creates light (blessing) for the obedient, and darkness (calamity) for the disobedient (Isa. 45:7), concluding: "I would not have told the people of Israel to seek me if I could not be found. I, the LORD, speak only what is true and declare only what is right." (Isa. 45:19)

God Himself declares, "For the sake of my reputation I hold back my anger; for the sake of my prestige I restrain myself from destroying you." (Isa. 48:9 NET; cf. Isa. 50:1; 65:2) God is not giddy in dealing out retribution. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are angry sinners in the hands of a holy and compassionate God who restrains Himself and limits His power in order to be the Savior that we so desperately need. "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way." (Isa. 53:6 NRSV, emphases added; cf. Isa. 57:8, 9, 10, 17; 59:2, 6, 7, 8; 66:3) If "our own way" is not "the way of the LORD" then we cannot insist that God decrees we take our own destructive way when He claims His desire for us to take His way.

Furthermore, God Himself states that He does not decree every event that occurs. Warning about oppression from a foreign nation, after He restores His people (Isa. 54:7, 8, 9, 10), He declares: "If anyone stirs up strife, it is not from me" (Isa. 54:15; cf. Hosea 8:3, 4). If the oppression is not from God, then it derives from someone else, and certainly not from an eternal decree. So, He calls out, "Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink -- even if you have no money! Come, take your choice of wine or milk -- it's all free!" (Isa. 55:1 NLT) God gives freely.

If a lowly person, like an historical Eunuch, insists that he is not worthy, God responds, "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant" (Isa. 56:4), such will be granted the same eternal rights as everyone else. God delights in salvation; He grieves over condemnation. "But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word." (Isa. 66:2 NRSV) If we are to be faithful to and agree with the prophets of YHWH, as well as YHWH Himself, then we are obligated to reject any notion of Calvinistic determinism. We, by reason of the scriptures, cannot accept the Calvinist portrait of God because we deem such as unbiblical, ahistorical, and not conducive to reality.


1 Philip C. Holtrop, "Decree(s) of God," in Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, ed. Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 97.

2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 1.18.1, 199. "It seems absurd that man should be blinded by the will and command of God, and yet be forthwith punished for his blindness [which is tantamount to blaming a compass for pointing north, which is exactly what Calvin and Calvinists explicitly do]. Hence recourse is had to the evasion that this is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that He [that is, God, is the One who] does this, [and thus God] repudiates the evasion." (198-99) See also Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319; Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.

3 Calvin, 199-200.

4 The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 3:82-83.

5 Ibid., 1:630. "From these premises we deduce, as a further conclusion, that God really sins. Because (according to this doctrine), He moves to sin by an act that is unavoidable, and according to His own purpose and primary intention, without having received any previous inducement to such an act from any preceding sin or demerit in man.

"From the same position we might also infer that God is the only sinner. For man, who is impelled by an irresistible force to commit sin (that is, to perpetrate some deed that has been prohibited), cannot be said to sin himself." In such a scenario, then, sin cannot really be sin, since sin is so very contrary to the nature and character of God, and since God cannot sin. To name such a philosophy as being absurd is an understatement.

6 Arminius argues that all events have been decreed by God, even salvation, but not according to His mere decree, but according to His infinite and exhaustive foreknowledge: "But, because 'known unto our God are all His works from the beginning of the world' (Acts 15:18 KJV), and as God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do, this vocation [calling unto salvation] is likewise instituted and administered according to God's eternal decree: So that what man soever is called in time, was from all eternity predestined to be called, and to be called in that state, time, place, mode, and with that efficacy, in and with which he was predestinated." (Works, 2:235; cf. 2:350; 2:368)


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.