If,—as our confession teaches us,—God “from all eternity … unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF 3.1) and “His providence… extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men” (WCF 5.4), then how could God hold sinners responsible for their sin?

This question has been asked many times whenever the subject of the sovereignty of God is discussed. Sometimes it is even asked in a way to suggest that perhaps the whole doctrine is fallacious. I trust that you have no difficulty agreeing that the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God is taught in the Bible. One of the most comforting verses in the Bible—Romans 8:28—would be baseless unless we believe that God is in sovereign control over everything no matter how great or small, animate or animate, rational or irrational. The sinful actions of Joseph’s brothers were ordained by the good of the people of God (Gen 50:20). The doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty was not invented by the Reformers or by the Westminster Assembly.

But how could God hold sinners responsible when he ordained their actions? Well, one of the best places to find the answer is in the Scriptures, in Proverbs 16. Here are a few verses from this chapter:

·    1 The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD. 

·    2 All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the LORD weigheth the spirits.

·    4 The LORD hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.

·    9 A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.

Now, verse 4 teaches us that all things including the wicked are made,—and by implication ordered,—by the LORD. The sinful actions of the wicked were ordained (by God’s eternal decree) and brought to pass by His sovereign power in time. Even the “answer of the tongue” (v. 1b), or the words spoken by a person is “from the LORD” or ordained and brought to pass by the LORD.
However, take note of how verse 1, 2 and 9 also suggest that man makes decisions to speak or to do anything based on his heart’s desires and choices. “The preparations of the heart in man” (v. 1).  “All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes” (v. 2). “A man’s heart deviseth his way” (v. 9). The fact is: Man will always choose to do what he believes to be the most profitable or right thing for him to do at the moment. Man is made a creature with the ability of moral choice; and it is his inward choice that determines if his action or word is ultimately sinful.  “The LORD weigheth the spirits.” Says Solomon (v. 2b).
Thus if a man picks up a gun and shoots and kills another person, he is not necessarily committing a sin. It depends on the context and his intentions. He would, of course, be committing a sin if his intention were to murder. But what if he is a soldier at war shooting at the enemy; or what if he is an executioner appointed to execute a criminal? You see, though the shooting is ordained by the LORD, whether it is sin is determined by the moral intention of the shooter. If the shooter happens to be a chimpanzee, then it would be no sin at all because a chimpanzee in an irrational animal. But if the shooter is a man created in the image of God, then whether it is sin will be determined by his purpose in carrying out the act.
This then is how God holds man accountable and responsible for his sin. All words and actions of man, including sinful ones, were ordained of God. However, the intention of man belongs to the man and it is the intention that gives the actions and words their moral qualities.
It may be asked: What about the thoughts and intentions of man? Are they ordained of the Lord so that all that we think were already decreed? Well, the Scriptures gives us no reason to think so. Indeed, Proverbs 16:1 suggests that while we must know that God has providential control over our actions, we must recognize our intentions as originating from our hearts. Thus, WCF 9.1 declares:God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty, that it is neither forced, nor by any absolute necessity of nature determined, to good or evil.”