Doctrine of God: The Decrees of God
January 3, 2021 Series: Great Doctrines of the Christian Faith
Topic: Default Scripture: Ephesians 1:1–1:15
We spent the last two weeks investigating and answering where our hope should lie.
We’ve looked at how recognizing the true locus of our hope should result in a practice that clearly demonstrates our hope.
We spent time discussing the half-truths and attempts of the popular media and the government to move our hope away from God.
- How they have, as their goals, not to honor God but themselves.
- How they attempt to fill us with fear and dread
- How they attempt to subvert obedience to God by telling us it is ok to directly disobey God and skip Worship – which is His right and our duty
But I fear these two weeks may fall on deaf ears if we are not willing to examine ourselves and our behaviors honestly.
We must condition ourselves to not trust in what we think we know
- Since we are fallible creatures, our knowledge cannot be perfect
- Since we are fallible creatures, once we are sure we are “Ok” with God and know which of His commands are “Ok” for us to break, we must realize that we in danger of starting down the wrong path
- Down the path to sustained disobedience
To help us avoid these common tendencies, we also discussed a practice that would help us to evaluate our decisions, beliefs, and actions (hopefully before we commit them.
Let’s review our mnemonic
- A – Attributes of God
- Always interpret the word around in light of what you have learned about the attributes of God.
- How does it accord with what you know of God’s attributes
- B – Bible
- Remember the only place we can go to find absolute truth.
- The Scriptures are the very Words, the very Breath of God.
- To live a life that glorifies God, and therefore strengthens our faith, we must read and obey the Scriptures.
- C – Confession
- We learned that the confession is subordinate to the Scriptures.
Today, we are going to continue studying the Major Doctrines of the Christian Faith by looking at another aspect of the Doctrine of God:
We are going to discuss the “Decrees of God”
We’ll first begin with some foundational concepts before we dive into a deeper understanding.
Foundation: Decrees of God
Let’s begin with a quote from James Benjamin Green, he was Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Columbia Theological Seminary, in Decatur, Georgia between 1921 to 1950. He died in 1967.
“This is one of the hardest articles of our Creed. There is mystery in it. Let no one enter here who is unwilling to put the shoes from his feet. If a man cannot accept what he cannot understand, he can find no standing room here. Indeed, he can find no standing room anywhere in the Bible or in the world.”
He also advises that we ought not to worry about the word “decrees.” Man has often issued decrees that were not pleasing to God but evil. The decrees of God do not have any association with evil.
The Shorter Catechism defines the decrees of God as “His eternal purpose.”
If it helps, think of decrees as purpose and plan.
You will also see the Decrees of God being interchangeable referred to as in the singular and in the plural.
Both of these are proper as the Decrees of God are one and also many...one whole of many parts
Herman Bavinck explains,
‘The one and only and eternal decree of God is gradually and little by little unfolded before the eye of the creature, unfurling itself in many events and happenings, each of which in turn points back to a definite moment in the single decree of God, so that in our human language we speak of the decrees of God in the plural. This manner of speech should not be condemned as long as we maintain and recognize the close relation that obtains between the several decrees and the fact that in God the decree is one.’4
So you see, it is not wrong to say the “decrees of God” because from our side and our perspective, we only see it as successive plans of God carried out in time and space a sequence.
Neither is it wrong to say the “decree of God” because God, in eternity, has decreed them simultaneously.
Before we continue, let us see what the Westminster Confession says about the Decrees of God, Chapter 1, Article 1
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.
The first part of the sentence that stands out is that God issued the decree from “all eternity”. Can you think of where else in the Scripture we might have a similar statement? Where might we find God acted before “the beginning”?
- Maybe Ephesians, “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (1:11)
- Or in Acts: ‘Him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain’ (2:23)
- Perhaps, later in the Fourth Chapter of Acts: ‘The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done’ (4:26-28);
So, in just a few verses, we begin to see the Scriptural foundation of this topic.
- It is His eternal plan and purpose in which he foreordains all things that come to pass
- It is the plan of His mind of all that he will bring into existence.
- Example: An architect drawing his building
- He knows the plan has come from his own mind.
- He knows his own design.
- He knows what will be the end.
- The decree of God is where God decrees the plan for His creation.
- Example: An architect drawing his building
And this beginning, that “God from all eternity”, we must keep in mind.
We must understand that everything which follows is modified by this phrase.
- It is only natural that God who controls all things should have a definite plan.
- That works accordingly in creation.
- That works accordingly in Providence.
- That works accordingly in process of redemption.
W.G.T. Shedd offers this explanation to help distinguish what is included in the Decrees of God and what is not included:
- The divine decree relates only to God's opera ad-extra or external workings
- The Trinity is not included.
- The Trinity is not a decree of God.
- The Trinity is God Himself.
- That God can no more decree the Trinity than he could decree the attribute of omnipotence or omniscience.
- The divine decree comprehends only those events that occur in time.
- That which God has created of the beginning.
- That which God has created that should come to pass.
- That which God has created of the end.
- In space and time, the divine decree is formed in eternity but executed in time
- The decree comes before the foundation of the world in eternity.
- There are sequences in the execution of the Decree but not in the formation of God's eternal purpose
- God has decreed these effects simultaneously in eternity when he determined to set forth his plan.
- He decreed every part of His plan would be carried out, though not simultaneous it is successfully day after day after day after day.
Conclusion: Decrees of God
That’s enough for now. We should take our time in discussing and seeking to understand the Decrees of God and not move too fast lest we become impudent and try to force them into our own understanding.
Keep this in mind. This will be useful for keeping in mind as we study this doctrine.
John Dick suggests the following:
‘upon such a subject no man should be ashamed to acknowledge his ignorance. We are not required to reconcile the divine decrees and human liberty. It is enough to know that God has decreed all things which come to pass, and that men are answerable for their actions. Of both these truths we are assured by the Scriptures; and the latter is confirmed by the testimony of conscience’
This might beg the question, I am not expected to understand this, of what use is it to me, therefore, to study such subjects.
It would be an affront to God to dismiss:
- what He, in His infinite wisdom and grace gave to us, as not being of sufficient importance to study.
To dismiss any part of the Biblical text as unimportant:
- or not important enough to give attention after He provided this revelation through the prophets of old and the apostles of the New
- after He has preserved His text through the centuries of war and conflict and destruction….
is to be making ourselves wiser than God.
The most obvious use is for beating down and subduing human pride and arrogance while extolling the sovereignty of God.
The following is excerpted from a treatise written by Rev. Hugh Cartwright titled, “God’s Eternal Decree and Preaching”, presented at the Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in December 2007.
In his Outlines of Theology, Hodge answers our very question:
‘What are the proper practical effects of this doctrine?
- First and Foremost -> Humility
- Because of the infinite greatness and sovereignty of God,
- and of the dependence of man;
- confidence and implicit reliance upon the wisdom, righteousness, goodness,
- and cheerful obedience to his commandments
- always remembering that God’s precepts, as distinctly revealed, are our rule of duty’.
Later on, he says this doctrine, when truly held,
- Exalts the majesty and absolute sovereignty of God, while it illustrates the riches of his free grace and his just displeasure with sin.
- It enforces upon us the essential truth that salvation is entirely of grace – that no one can either complain if passed over or boast himself if saved.
- It brings the inquirer to absolute self-despair, and the cordial embrace of the free offer of Christ.
- In the case of the believer, who has the witness in himself, this doctrine at once deepens his humility and elevates his confidence to the full assurance of hope.’
We conclude with Calvin’s comment on what he calls the utility of this doctrine and its most pleasant fruits:
‘We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election, the grace of God being illustrated by the contrast – namely, that he does not adopt promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others. It is plain how greatly ignorance of this principle detracts from the glory of God, and impairs true humility.’
In other words, there is nothing that we can do to be worthy or make God apply salvation to us. To believe otherwise is to believe in a God that does not exist in the Scriptures.
So, what are we to do with this?
How might this impact our lives?
- The first thing is to acknowledge that all that you are and all that you have is only by the grace of God.
- The second thing is to recognize your utter dependence upon Him as your savior and reject all other means and promises to save you.
- Finally, you must stop negotiating with God, thinking that you are in any position to reason with God and pick and choose which of His commands you will disobey or disregard.
Take heed of the means of grace he has provided you…attend church, attend unto the sacraments, attend unto prayer and singing.
Most of all – do not forsake the corporate worship of God. Worship is what is due to God ---- it is not for you. It is, as with all things, about God and His glory.