One of my favorite movies is a film called Cast Away. In that film, Tom Hanks plays the lead role of a man named Chuck Noland. And this is a man that, in the beginning, sees the world through a certain lens and with a certain sense of order. He sees the world as this ticking clock, a machine that will always act in a particular way; and if you can find the best way to manage your time, then you are, in a sense, ‘in control’. But then, this man finds himself as the lone survivor of a horrible plane crash in the middle of the ocean, and he’s forced to survive on a deserted island, with practically nothing; and he does just that, for 4 years. Then one day he spots this piece of garbage on the shore, that turns out to be the broken off side of a port-a-potty, and he uses that as a sail, which allows him to escape the island.
But when Chuck gets home, things don’t feel right. He realizes that the clock kept ticking without him. He was pronounced lost at sea, his friends all had a funeral for him and even buried a coffin, and his fiance, the love of his life, got married and had children with another man. But then, when he’s sitting with a friend of his, trying to come to grips with everything that’s happening, he has an epiphany. He recalls that there was a moment on the island, when he had given up all hope, and he was going to take his own life, and the tree limb that he was going to hang himself from broke. In his own words, he said, “I couldn’t even die the way I wanted to, I had power over nothing.” But then he remembers finding that piece of trash on the shore, the one that allowed him to escape, and then he says, “I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow, the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”
Now, this man had an absolute shift in his thinking. One which changed not only his whole life, but more importantly, how he viewed the world. He was a man that thought he had a perfect understanding of the world, and could control it. But when that illusion of control was taken from him, he didn’t resent it. He embraced and was comforted by it. And when we look at this attribute of God, and His decree, I would hope that we would have the same response. That we would be reminded that God is in absolute control, and that we can take comfort in knowing and trusting that.
But before we begin, I’d like to preface this lesson by spending the first few minutes taking into consideration a few things that we will want to keep in mind as we go through it.
First, is that we need to understand that this is a difficult subject which by it’s very definition is beyond us. That is, in it’s entirety. This is not a topic that is simply too big for us, or hard to understand, or just a bit outside of our perception. This attribute is one which takes into account the entirety of God’s purpose, as well as the means to carry out those ends through creation. There is no way that we can ever fully understand that. However, we have already seen that in our studies of God’s attributes thus far, and will certainly see that more and more as we continue, but we need to be reminded of it from time to time as we go; that we are finite beings trying to comprehend the incomprehensible and infinite God. Still, we are not without rudder. God has been gracious to us in sharing with us, through His word, what He has determined to be sufficient revelation for us regarding all of His attributes, including this one.
The second thing I want, is for us to understand that this attribute is a philosophical one. Philosophy is defined as ‘the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.’ The decree of God comprises all of that and more. These are the things which we appeal to, and which determine our Christian worldview. Much as Tom Hanks’ character from our introduction had a shift in how he saw the world, and that changed his whole outlook on things; we too, need to see this as something which helps us to define both how we see the world, and more importantly, how we view God.
Third, I wanted to share with you/warn you that as I was going through this study, it became abundantly clear to me that as we go through the attributes of God, that you are going to be hearing a lot of, for lack of a better word, ‘overlap’. It is in no way possible for me to approach the nature of God’s decree, without also demonstrating His faithfulness, or His foreknowledge, or His goodness, or His lovingkindness. Nor could anyone else approach the nature of His patience, or His grace without doing the same. God is manifold in His nature, His presence, and His work; so when we discuss one, the others will and must come up. So, if I say something that has already been said by another, or vice versa, we aren’t trying to be redundant, it’s simply unavoidable when attempting a study such as this one.
And finally, the mere scope of this topic is so vast and incorporates so much of what we would already consider to be either difficult or substantial terrain theologically speaking. So just know that I am wholly unqualified to fully examine even some of the more difficult theological points that this attribute might raise, let alone the entirety of the attribute itself. Please keep that in mind as I will do my best to present this information clearly and adequately, but I am merely standing on the shoulders of giants as I present this material.
So now, we come to the matter at hand. What is this attribute that is the decree of God? And the answer, in one respect, is very simple. It is everything. As we saw last week, before God had created time or space or quite frankly anything that we are aware of or are not aware of, God simply was. In eternity past, God, in His perfect unity of Father, Son and Spirit existed as the completed self-sufficient and self-satisfied Holy Trinity. And from that union, and through God’s infinite wisdom, God declared, or decreed, or purposed within Himself that He would be glorified through creation.
But I’m not just speaking of the act of creation itself, but through the entirety of all of God’s creation. From the physical creation, and the God ordained scientific principals which govern it, to the spiritual creation and all of the aspects which govern it both theologically and in its relation to the physical world; to all of the theological doctrines which bind both man and angel, and all of these which happen not just in a moment, but in every moment from God’s first physical inception of created order all the way throughout the age to come as the elect in Christ will reside with Him for eternity. God’s decree is His master plan, or His blueprint, and it is perfect, and it is good, and it was fully established before the foundations of the world.
Over the years, many within the church have found it necessary to record the established or biblical doctrines that they felt were being challenged by heresy and false teachers. And throughout those documents or confessions, the issue of God’s decree was something which was often written about, and as well see, was handled with a certain delicate amount of care:
God hath decreed in Himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears His wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.
– 1689 London Baptist Confession 3.1
We believe that the same God, after He had created all things, did not forsake them, nor give them up to fortune or chance, but that He rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment; nevertheless, God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.
– The Belgic Confession (Article 13)
There are not various decrees of election, but one and the same decree respecting all those who shall be saved, both under the Old and New Testament; since the Scripture declares the good pleasure, purpose and counsel of the divine will to be one, according to which He hath chosen us from eternity, both to grace and glory, to salvation and the way of salvation, which He hath ordained that we should walk therein.
– The Canons of Dort (Article 8)
The Westminster Larger Catechism – 12. What are the decrees of God?
God’s decrees are the wise, free, and holy acts of the counsel of His will, whereby, from all eternity, He hath, for His own glory, unchangeably foreordained whatsoever comes to pass in time, especially concerning angels and men.
I hope you picked up on the recurring theme of God’s will not being charged with the guilt of sin. We’ll get into that a little bit later, but it’s a very important aspect of the decree, as we’ll see. The other thing that I’m hoping your beginning to pick up on, or perhaps you recall from your reading in A.W. Pink’s book, is the interchangeability of some of these terms when talking about the decree. They’re referred to as His “decree”, His “eternal purpose”, His “good pleasure”, His “will” and His “counsel”. And we’ll see that more and more as we begin to look through the scriptures. And on that note, let’s begin now to look at where this doctrine of the divine decree begins.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.
I’m hoping you saw it there, at least. According to what? “According to the kind intention of His will” (v. 5), “according to the riches of His grace” (v. 7), “according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him” (v. 9), “according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (v. 11). Those are all interchangeable, this is all a part of His decree. And when did He decree it? “Before the foundation of the world” (v. 4). And to what end? “That we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory” (v. 12). And we can see this all throughout the scriptures. I’ll go through a few more for you-
Regarding His foreordaining purpose:
“The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,
Regarding His eternal wisdom:
1 Corinthians 2:6-7
Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory;
Regarding His preeminence:
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
2 Timothy 1:9
who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity,
For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 5:24
Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.
Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them.
So, now that we have a better understanding of what the decree of God entails, and the general scope of it; we’re now going to take a look at some of the characteristics of the decree itself. Now these may differ a bit from the ones in your book, but I think you’ll understand in a minute, why that is.
First, God’s decree is eternal. Since the decree is an extension of God’s internal purpose, and since God Himself is an eternal and unchangeable being, then it would posit that the decree itself has existed eternally within the counsel of the Godhead. As A.W. Pink puts it, “To suppose [God’s decree] to be made in time is to suppose that some new occasion has occurred; some unforeseen event or combination or circumstances has arisen, which has induced the Most High to form a new resolution.” Well, we know that would be impossible since God is unchangeable.
Second, the decree of God has been formed in the counsel of His will, which means that it has been formed through His infinite wisdom. God is not merely the possessor of all knowledge, but rather, He is the source of all knowledge. If this decree has been determined through His infinite wisdom, then it is an infinitely wise decree. Or, a decree which is without flaw or folly. God is good, and His decree is good.
Third, the decree of God is efficacious. It is effective. When God decrees that something will happen, it will happen. There is such certainty to the success of God’s decrees that we can speak, in a sense, as though they have already achieved their appointed end. Similar to the confidence of the Apostle Paul who wrote in his epistle to the church at Philippi, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
The next characteristic of God’s decree is that it is immutable. God is unchanging and unchangeable. So His decree, which flows from His eternal character, must also remain unchanging and unchangeable. And this might be a good place to ask this question. From what we’ve heard already about the decree of God, would you say that the implementation of the decree of God is a purely voluntary act, or is it one done out of necessity?
Although God’s decree is itself a completely autonomous and voluntary “act”, and even though God is under no compulsion to act in any way, shape or form by man; since He, in His infinite wisdom, and grace has decreed to act and remain faithful, He will, from our perspective, necessarily act and bring forth all that He has decreed to. It has to happen. In his Christian classic, Knowing God, J.I. Packer puts it this way:
Repenting means revising one’s judgment, and changing one’s plan of action. God never does this; He never needs to, for His plans are made on the basis of a complete knowledge and control which extend to all things past, present, and future, so that there can be no sudden emergencies or unlooked-for developments to take Him by surprise… What He does in time, He planned from eternity. And all that He planned in eternity He carries out in time. And all that He has in His word committed Himself to do will infallibly be done.
– J.I. Packer (Knowing God)
And through our understanding of that, we can come to count on the promises of God to be those things which are merely in the process of being fulfilled. When thinking about the things which still pertain to the future, it’s hard not to consider the book of Revelation. This was a book written to the Church catholic to prepare us for the trials and persecution to come. And knowing that God is faithful to His elect, and that His purpose is good, and is also certain; consider how John opens this letter to the churches:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must soon take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that He saw. Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.
Next, God’s decree is unconditional. This simply means that since it has existed before God created anything, then it is free from being influenced by anything. The only thing that had anything to do with the determination of the decree was the infinite wisdom and glory of our God.
By now, I’m hoping that your picking up on why the list I’ve chosen is slightly different from A.W. Pink’s. That being that it more fully demonstrates what we said earlier regarding “overlap”. Almost all of these characteristics of God’s decree are also attributes of God Himself. God is wise, God is Eternal, God is immutable. In many ways, God’s decree reflects God Himself.
And finally, although this characteristic doesn’t fit so well in the context that we just mentioned, God ‘s decree is universal. God’s decree has determined any and all things and actions that would exist throughout creation to take place according to His good purpose. How this differs slightly, is that this includes acts of sin as well. And, just as the confessions do, and just as the scriptures do, we need to make perfectly clear that although God does indeed decree that sinful acts would be used in bringing about His good purpose, that even so, God is not and could not be the author of sin. God is not responsible for sin. The burden and blame for sin rests solely on the men and angels who commit such acts. But more on that in just a minute.
Now, there is one topic that I want to touch on very briefly. Since the time of Calvin, there has been a bit of a debate that has existed (not a major one, but it exists). That being of the order of God’s decrees. While the scripture is pretty clear that God’s decree is comprehensive and singular and simultaneous in nature, and the men who debate such things would even acknowledge this (those being both the ‘infra’ & ‘supra’ lapsarians), but they have still found it a point to contend with to determine the most logical order of importance of the doctrines that comprise the decree. So, I’ll admit that from the moment I heard about this debate, it just seemed ridiculous to me, so I was rather a bit elated when, while researching this lesson, I came upon an article by a very sound Christian named John Frame who addresses this topic very well:
In favor of such neutrality, it may well be argued that both parties exaggerated their competence to read the divine mind. In this writer’s view, the most that can be learned from scripture itself is that each of God’s thoughts takes each of the others into account, i.e. that His purposes form a unity. Granted this premise, many “orders” are possible: God may do A for the sake of B and also B for the sake of A. Thus there may be truth in many suggested orders, and these may be mutually exclusive less often than theologians have thought.
– John Frame (Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith)
SIN & ELECTION – THE HOT-BUTTONS:
Now, here is where we get to the difficult part. That being the nature of sin and election and how God’s foreordained decree in both can be reconciled with the knowledge that men will be held accountable for their own actions. The bad news is that I don’t have the answer. But the good news is that I don’t have the answer.
And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER.” Just as it is written, “JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED.”
This passage and the verses that follow all talk about God’s freedom to not only choose men to be called to election, but also His freedom to create men for any purpose. And then there is another passage that I’d like to look at as well.
And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE THINGS? ‘THE KINGS OF THE EARTH TOOK THEIR STAND, AND THE RULERS WERE GATHERED TOGETHER AGAINST THE LORD AND AGAINST HIS CHRIST.’ “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.
Here, we see not only the enemies of God being gathered to commit the greatest act of injustice in human history against the Man, and the Christ, our Lord Jesus, but that God predestined that it would happen according to His own purpose. And we see that over and over again in the bible. In the book of Exodus, we see that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but it also says in Exodus that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. In Isaiah 10, we see God declare the Assyrians to be God’s own rod of judgment against the Israelite’s, and then we see Him declare His judgment against the Assyrians for their wickedness towards the Israelite’s. These are really hard things to put up against each other and we just have to sit and stare at it and say, I don’t understand how that works. But like I said, the good news is that I don’t have the answer. That’s good news because I don’t have to have the answer. No one has the answer. With all that God has determined in His good and lovingkindness to reveal to us in the scriptures, this answer is not part of it. God has remained silent on the subject and so I must remain silent on the subject, and that can be a far more merciful response. But don’t take it from me, listen to what John MacArthur had to say on the subject.
“See, the Bible doesn’t tell you one side of this in this book and then four books later sneak in the other side, it’s in the same place over, and over again. So, folks, what I’m getting to say is simply this: I can’t resolve this; you just need to enjoy the pain, because nobody is going to to go anywhere other than where the Scripture goes. And you certainly don’t want to come up with a hybrid in the middle which denies the reality of both; they are what they are. And if you’re under the illusion that you can figure it out, you’re on the level of a man who thinks he’s a poached egg.”
– John MacArthur ([Sermon] Does the Doctrine of Divine Decree Eliminate Human Will?)
And if you’re one who prefers a more refined response to this question, then listen to this quote from Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones:
Why did God decree to permit sin? And there is only one answer to that question: We do not know… You have to leave the ultimate understanding until you arrive in glory. All you have to do here in time is to believe that God is always consistent with Himself, and to accept what He has plainly and clearly told us about His eternal decrees, about what He has determined and decided before He ever created the world.
– Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones (Great Doctrines of the Bible)
Now, I want to wrap up by giving us a few practical ways that we can apply the doctrine of God’s decree to our lives. When we have a decree that includes the sum of all created existence, how do we then carry that knowledge with us into the day to day daily walk that we have with God.
Well, the first way is through prayer. As we come to God in prayer, we often concern ourselves with the future things that we’d like to see fulfilled as opposed to the future things that God has already decreed would take place. But we should consider God’s purpose in things first. Martin Luther claims that even the most hardened human being that claims that they don’t even submit to the God of the bible still acknowledge God’s sovereignty when things get tough. He writes:
In fact, I can easily prove the exact opposite of your position: namely, that whenever such holy men, as you boast of, approach God to pray or deal with Him, they approach Him in utter forgetfulness of their ‘free-will’; in self-despair they cry to Him for pure grace alone, as something far other than they deserve.
– Martin Luther (The Bondage of the Will)
But there was another man named John Howe who tells those of us who do claim to believe in and trust in the Lord; instead to submit to, and consider first, the will of God when we pray:
Now to pray with hearts possessed with the sense that God doth all things after the counsel of His own will, is the best preparation for prayer, in reference to the present concernments of this season, that can be thought. That is, it is such a disposition of the spirit that will, in this duty of prayer, be both most honourable to God, and most comfortable to ourselves… Things lie in the best hands they can lie. We have this to satisfy our hearts in; and though we pray as men, we are to expect that He should answer as God.
– John Howe (The Principles of the Oracles of God)
Another way we can view God’s decree is through His decreed will for us.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
I know this isn’t an exhaustive list of our responsibilities as Christians, but it’s a great place to start, and it is the will of God. God’s decree has seen fit to include us in His great work, and here He lays out a few things that we are in fact commanded to do. Rejoice, pray, give thanks. Give thanks for those things that God has done for you, pray for those things that God has promised He will do for you, and rejoice always in those things that God is doing for you right now.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and those whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
It has been decreed that all things that God has determined would take place, both good and bad, they work together for our good. I know that we hear that verse a lot, and there are some times when we just don’t hear it anymore, but it’s still true. And look at what that means. Look at how equated those terms are. We were called according to His purpose, we were predestined according to His purpose, We were justified, and foreknown, and glorified according to His purpose. We can trust that and take comfort in that just as many of those Brothers that we look up to do as well:
“”Oh the depth of riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” That’s where we all end up, folks, this is way beyond us. But we love these truths, don’t we? We love the truth of divine sovereignty, we embrace the truth of human responsibility, and we cherish gospel duty.”
– John MacArthur ([Sermon] Does the Doctrine of Divine Decree Eliminate Human Will?)
I know of nothing that gives me greater consolation than this particular doctrine. I do not hesitate to say that nothing gives me greater comfort than to know that behind me, little creature as I am passing through this world of time, there is this doctrine of the eternal decrees of God Himself.
– Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones (Great Doctrines of the Bible)
And finally, the author of our study, A.W. Pink, concludes his chapter with these encouraging words.
To deny the divine decrees would be to predicate a world and all it’s concerns regulated by UN-designed chance or blind fate. Then what peace, what assurance, what comfort would there be for our poor hearts and minds? What refuge would there be to fly to in the hour of need and trial? None at all. There would be nothing better than the black darkness and abject horror of atheism. O my reader, how thankful should we be that everything is determined by infinite wisdom and goodness! What praise and gratitude are due unto God for His divine decrees. It is because of them that “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose”. Well may we exclaim, “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be the glory for ever. Amen.”
– A. W. Pink (The Attributes of God)
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