The Decree of God
by Peter J. Wallace

What are the decrees of God? Today the doctrine of God's decrees receives short shrift in most evangelical churches. Modern translations of scripture rarely use the term, so many people think that the idea is unbiblical. Yet many passages of scripture talk about God's counsel, God's foreknowledge, and otherwise mention decisions which God made "before the foundation of the world" (this and similar phrases may be found in Mt. 25:34; Jn 17:5; Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 13:8; 17:8). Question seven of the Westminster Shorter Catechism explains that "the decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass." This is more fully expounded by the Westminster Divines in their famous confession:

"God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established." (Eph.1:11, Rom. 11:33, Heb 6:17, Rom. 9:15, Jam 1:13, IJohn 1:5, Acts 2:23, Matt 17:12, Acts 4:27, John 19:11, Prov 16:33). [WCF III.1]

Further explanation can also be found in the Larger Catechism Qs 12- 14, which expands on the Shorter Catechisms answers. God's foreordination is not exactly equal to predestination, because predestination deals explicitly with salvation. Foreordination has to do with everything else in creation (including damnation). In other words, the Confession does not teach a strict double predestination, but predestination to salvation, and foreordination to damnation. This is precisely why it teaches that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.

Many have suggested that God simply permits whatever may come to pass, as a general decree in which God declares that he will put his stamp on whatever the creation does. This has generally been rejected by Reformed theologians as being inconsistent with Scripture, and also because it suggests that either God does not know what the creature will do, or else God is unable or unwilling to prevent things which he does not want. Zacharias Ursinus, the author of the Heidelberg Catechism, has some good comments on the true understanding of "permission." It is not that God is merely indifferent, or suspends his providence when he permits evil, but rather:

"it is a withdrawal of divine grace by which God (while he accomplishes the decrees of his divine will through rational creatures) either does not make known to the creature acting what he himself wishes to be done, or does not incline the will of the creature to render obedience, and to perform what is agreeable to his will. Yet he, nevertheless, in the meanwhile, controls and influences the creature so deserted and sinning as to accomplish what he has purposed." Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p153.

Therefore, God "directs all things, both good and evil to his own glory and the salvation of his people." (p151). In this way, God is not the author of evil, but yet he does decree it and ordain it for his glory and our salvation. The problem of the origin of evil cannot be resolved here. All God has revealed is the solution for evil--the cross of Christ.

Yes, God has foreordained every event, from the beginning of creation through the end of history, but, as the Confession says, this does not destroy the liberty of the creature, but it establishes it. "What?" you say, "This is theological gibberish!" But consider the heart and soul of the doctrine of predestination. We are predestined in Christ. This is critical. It is not that we are simply predestined by some abstract decree, which in some fatalistic, arbitrary way yanks us into the kingdom of heaven. Rather, we are predestined in Christ. Jesus Christ (the one who as God made the decrees in the first place) brings the plan of God into history. In him there is no abstraction. His incarnation, his death, his resurrection, his being seated at the right hand of the Father on our behalf ensure that we cannot think abstractly about the decrees of God (Eph 1). All of salvation is rooted in Christ. Even faith is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9). The work of salvation is the gracious work of God. Yet the act of faith which we ourselves make--the confession of sin which we humbly make before God, begging his forgiveness--these are free actions. God cannot force us to make them. But still we believe in irresistible grace. God woos us to himself, but his wooing always works--for those he called, he also justified, sanctified and glorified--in Christ (Rom. 8:28-30).

Perhaps the best treatment of this issue is Calvin's Institutes, Chs 21-24, especially Ch 23. Other useful resources are The Belgic Confession Article XIII-XIV, Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology, vol I, Ch 9 and vol II, Ch 9, as well as Cornelius Van Til's, The Defense of the Faith pp241ff. Calvin insists that we are ultimately faced with a mystery, and Paul's answer to the overly-curious is indeed the only one possible: "Who are you O man to answer back to God!" This answer is the biblical one, and one which most Reformed theologians agree on. Yet we can say something about it.

Van Til simply follows the traditional Reformed distinction, started by Calvin, in the discussion of ultimate (remote, first) and proximate (immediate, second) causes. Man can never be an ultimate cause. Man is derivative and temporal, and cannot be regarded as ultimately autonomous. This is absolutely critical for understanding Reformed theology. We stand before the infinite and transcendent God. His knowledge, wisdom, and his being are original, uncreated, and absolute. Man's freedom and sovereignty must always be understood as a limited freedom and sovereignty under the absolute and unconditional freedom and sovereignty of God. Therefore, no matter what position you take in the attempt to explain sin and evil, God must always be regarded as the ultimate cause. Even in the radical view which says that God limited himself when he created man--giving man absolute freedom outside of His freedom and sovereignty (which no Reformed theologian to my knowledge has ever done), even this view makes God the ultimate cause of evil, because by giving man this autonomy, God "started the ball rolling" toward sin.

But this faulty understanding of God's decrees also undermines the role of ultimate and proximate causes. To say that God is not the ultimate cause is to say that man (or Satan) is. This would mean that man's sinful and wicked actions are outside the sovereignty of God. But then, how do you deal with Ephesians 1:11? Can God be said to work "all things" according to the counsel of his will, if man has a region of sovereignty which God cannot (by his own self-limiting) touch? This God must deal with a power in the universe (man's absolutely free and sovereign sinfulness) that he has no control over. In order for God to save man he must take away the freedom which he gave man, by yanking him out of the mess which man's freedom got him into! In this view, for God to regain control over man, and conquer man's sovereign sinfulness, he must violate and revoke the freedom which he gave to man. This view makes freedom into a curse, because it forces God to take away his gift of freedom in order for him to save us! We are left with the choice between freedom to sin, and bondage to God. Scripture presents the opposite alternative. True freedom is obedience to God, and bondage comes only when we attempt to set up our own autonomy and freedom outside of God's freedom and sovereignty. Bondage comes precisely because we cannot escape from God. It is because God is the free and sovereign Lord of the universe that we find ourself in shackles when we try to deny this reality. Therefore, we must affirm that God is the ultimate cause of sin, yet not in such a way as to make God the author of sin, or to remove the validity of the will of man, or to eliminate the validity of second causes.

This doctrine does not violate the will of the creature, because it affirms that our wills make valid choices. Abraham Kuyper once said that God cannot force anyone to believe in him. That is because God does not operate by force; he works in people's hearts so that they freely choose to obey--or he leaves them to their own wicked hearts so that they freely obey the lusts of their sinful natures. It is not merely a matter of foreknowledge, but God truly foreordains these events. How? Not by working abstractly, but concretely, in history. If I sit down to write an essay, God does not simply say, "Let Peter write an essay!" This essay cannot be seen as the product of an abstract decree made in eternity past (after all, what is eternity past except eternity future and eternity present? God's decrees cannot be placed in time, they are eternal, and therefore transcendent--yet they are worked out in an organic history of redemption. The reason this can be so is Christ. In him the eternal decrees of God became flesh, and the abstract became concrete), but this essay has a whole series of organic connections which winding and weaving back through time are founded upon the original act of creation, and behind that to the plan of God. So, yes, all individual events are foreordained--but what is an individual event? When does an event start? Or when does it stop? When I finish writing this essay, what happens to the event? It did not begin with my turning on my computer, but with discussions with friends and reading and study-- but no, not even there, because those "events" were based on previous inquiries into other subjects (ad infinitum). The event is not complete until you have read this essay, but it will continue long afterward. Indeed this essay is not a isolated, individual event, but a part of a story that began in the eternal decree of God, and will not end until the consummation--if it ends at all.

Does this sound fatalistic? It doesn't to me, but only because of Christ. Jesus Christ is the guarantee that this world is not merely a machine, running down to an impersonal end. It is here that the immanence of God in Christ puts an end to our deterministic fears. We are not dealing with an impersonal fate, but with a freely electing God. His creatures are free, because He is free. His creatures are free in much the same way that He is free, except on a finite and created scale, not an infinite and uncreated scale. Just as he is free to be Himself, so are we. True freedom is not, of course, freedom to choose between right and wrong. If that is the definition of freedom, then God is in bondage because he can only do what is right. True freedom is to the freedom to be yourself, the freedom to be the person that you were meant to be. Why else does the Scripture teach us that freedom in Christ is true freedom? Because it is only there and then that we will truly be what we were meant to be. We will glorify God in the New Creation because we will be non posse peccatore, not able to sin, as Augustine says, yet truly and really free. In Christ.

Although God must be said to be the ultimate cause of sin, this is not to say that God is the author of sin. If God created the world, and the world fell into sin, then God is the ultimate cause of sin. There is nothing that God is not the ultimate cause of. (Try to think of something that has happened or could happen in the universe that does not have its ultimate source, or cause in God). But this does not mean that God is morally responsible for sin. Here is a very weak analogy: God is not the author of this essay, but he is the ultimate cause. Not merely because I could not have written this essay unless God had created me, etc., but in his plan and purpose, he foreordained that I should write this essay. But that does not mean that he is morally responsible for its contents. If I err, it is I who err. If I speak truth, it is I who speak truth. But this could only be, if God was the ultimate ground and cause of my existence, my knowledge, and everything else. And the only way to escape Deism is to say that he is personally involved in every event, sustaining this world moment by moment by his providential decree. And the only way to escape fatalism is in Christ. Why is God not morally responsible for his creatures' actions? Because we have rebelled against him. We refused to obey him, we, you and I, spat in his face. It is a mystery. How could Adam, who was good, and was surrounded by the wonder and beauty of God's good creation, rebel against God? Push it one step back--how could Satan do the same thing? Scripture never answers this question- -but it does give the solution. Jesus Christ.

The Ultimate Cause of all things, though not morally responsible for the actions of his creatures, has taken the guilt and sin of the rebellious creature upon himself. The solution to the problem of evil is Christ. The cross is our guarantee that God is not the author of sin, but of salvation. It is not as though Christ makes up for God's mistake in creating a world where man blows it, rather, Christ takes our place, reconciling us to the God we have rejected. It is here that we encounter one of the most awesome statements of scripture-- that the death of Christ was itself predestined by God: "This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross" (Acts 2:23; cf. 3:18; 4:28).

In short, when we say that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, we are saying that nothing can happen outside the freedom and sovereignty of God. He is the ultimate cause of all things. Every individual event is foreordained--but not as an individual event. God sees every individual event as a part of one organic whole. We cannot, because we are finite, and worse, fallen. Yet after saying this, we also know that this doctrine establishes the reality and importance of proximate causes. In fact, I would argue that without the absolute sovereignty and freedom of God, there is no freedom and sovereignty at all--and especially none for man. To say that there is something in this world which has its origin in a source other than God, is to say that there is another God. Remember that evil is not a thing. It is the opposite of good--the opposite of the will of God. How did man (or Satan) choose evil? I do not know. How could a good creature, surrounded by the goodness of God, untainted by sin, choose to disobey? I cannot fathom it. But it happened. God foreordained it, but he did not author it--as the Larger Catechism says (Q21): "Our first parents being left to the freedom of their own will, through the temptation of Satan, transgressed the commandment of God in eating the forbidden fruit; and thereby fell from the estate of innocency wherein they were created." Yet this is to be understood in terms of the Confession VI, 1: "Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptations of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory." It is their sin, by the freedom of their will, but permitted by the wise and holy counsel of God for his glory. And recall what Ursinus says about "permission"--it is a permission rooted in what God intends to accomplish, not a mere giving in to man's foolish ways.

The conclusion is that we face a mystery. We know that God is the free and sovereign Lord of the universe, who has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, from reading Scripture, but we also know that he does not do violence to the will of the creature, and rather than remove the liberty and contingency of second causes, he does indeed establish them. The answer to the decrees of God must always be viewed in light of the cross. It is only in God's redemptive acts, surrendering his life for ours in Christ, that we can see the meaning of the decrees. If all you learn from this is that the decrees of God can only be seen in light of redemptive history--that the two come together in Christ--then I will be content; because Christ is the heart and soul of the decrees.