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§ 1. The Nature of the Decrees.
It must be remembered that theology is not philosophy. It does not assume to discover truth, or to reconcile what it teaches as true with all other truths. Its province is simply to state what God has revealed in his Word, and to vindicate those statements as far as possible from misconceptions and objections. This limited and humble office of theology it is especially necessary to bear in mind, when we come to speak of the acts and purposes of God. “The things of God knoweth no man; but the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor. ii. 11.) In treating, therefore, of the decrees of God, all that is proposed is simply to state what the Spirit has seen fit to reveal on that subject.
“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.”508508Westminster Shorter Catechism, 7. Agreeably to this statement: (1.) The end or final cause contemplated in all God’s decrees, is his own glory. (2.) They are all reducible to one eternal purpose. (3.) They are free and sovereign, determined by the counsel of his own will. (4.) They comprehend all events.
A. The Glory of God the Final Cause of all his Decrees.
The final cause of all God’s purposes is his own glory. This is frequently declared to be the end of all things. “Thou art worthy,” say the heavenly worshippers, “O Lord, to receive glory, and honour, and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” (Rev. iv. 11.) All things are said to be not only of God and through Him, but for Him. He is the beginning and the end. The heavens declare his glory; that is the purpose for which they were made. God frequently announces his determination to make his glory known. “As truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord.” (Num. xiv. 21.) This is said to be the end of all the dispensations of his providence, whether beneficent or punitive. “For mine own 536sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it; for how should my name be polluted? and I will not give my glory unto another.” (Is. xlviii. 11.) “I wrought for my name’s sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen.” (Ezek. xx. 9.) In like manner the whole plan of redemption and the dispensations of his grace, are declared to be designed to reveal the glory of God. (1 Cor. i. 26-31; Eph. ii. 8-10.) This is the end which our Lord proposed to Himself. He did everything for the glory of God; and for this end all his followers are required to live and act. As God is infinite, and all creatures are as nothing in comparison with Him, it is plain that the revelation of his nature and perfections must be the highest conceivable end of all things, and the most conducive to secure all other good subordinate ends. Order and truth, however, depend on things being put in their right relations. If we make the good of the creature the ultimate object of all God’s works, then we subordinate God to the creature, and endless confusion and unavoidable error are the consequence. It is characteristic of the Bible that it places God first, and the good of the creation second. This also is the characteristic feature of Augustinianism as distinguished from all other forms of doctrine. And when the Protestants were divided at the time of the Reformation, it was mainly on this point. The Lutheran and Reformed churches are distinguished in all that characterizes their theological systems, by the fact that the latter allow the supremacy and sovereignty of God in the workings of his providence and grace to determine everything for his own glory, while the former lean more or less to the error of restraining God’s liberty of action by the assumed powers and prerogatives of man. The Bible, Augustine, and the Reformed, give one answer to all such questions as the following: Why did God create the world? Why did He permit the occurrence of sin? Why was salvation provided for men and not for angels? Why was the knowledge of that salvation so long confined to one people? Why among those who hear the gospel, do some receive, and others reject it? To all these, and similar questions, the answer is, not because the happiness of creatures would be secured in a higher degree by the admission of sin and misery, than by their entire exclusion; some men are saved and others perish not because some of their own will believe and others do not believe, but simply because, Thus it seemed good in the eyes of God. Whatever He does or permits to be done, is done or permitted for the more perfect revelation of his nature and perfections. As the knowledge of God is the ground and sum of all 537good, it of course follows that the more perfectly God is known, the more fully the highest good (not merely nor necessarily the highest happiness) of the intelligent universe is promoted. But this is a subordinate effect, and not the chief end. It is therefore in accordance with the whole spirit and teachings of the Bible, and with the essential character of Augustinianism, that our standards make the glory of God the end of all his decrees.
B. The Decrees Reducible to one Purpose.
The second point included in this doctrine is, that the decrees of God are all reducible to one purpose. By this is meant that from the indefinite number of systems, or series of possible events, present to the divine mind, God determined on the futurition or actual occurrence of the existing order of things, with all its changes, minute as well as great, from the beginning of time to all eternity. The reason, therefore, why any event occurs, or, that it passes from the category of the possible into that of the actual, is that God has so decreed. The decrees of God, therefore, are not many, but one purpose. They are not successively formed as the emergency arises, but are all parts of one all-comprehending plan. This view of the subject is rendered necessary by the nature of an infinitely perfect Being. It is inconsistent with the idea of absolute perfection, that the purposes of God are successive, or that He ever purposes what He did not originally intend; or that one part of his plan is independent of other parts. It is one scheme, and therefore one purpose. As, however, this one purpose includes an indefinite number of events, and as those events are mutually related, we therefore speak of the decrees of God as many, and as having a certain order. The Scriptures consequently speak of the judgments, counsels or purposes of God, in the plural number, and also of his determining one event because of another. When we look at an extensive building, or a complicated machine, we perceive at once the multiplicity of their parts, and their mutual relations. Our conception of the building or of the machine is one, and yet it comprehends many distinct perceptions, and the apprehension of their relations. So also in the mind of the architect or mechanist, the whole is one idea, though he intends many things, and one in reference to another. We can, therefore, in a measure, understand how the vast scheme of creation, providence, and redemption, lies in the divine mind as one simple purpose, although including an infinite multiplicity of causes and effects.538
C. The Decrees of God are Eternal.
That the decrees of God are eternal, necessarily follows from the perfection of the divine Being. He cannot be supposed to have at one time plans or purposes which He had not at another. He sees the end from the beginning; the distinctions of time have no reference to him who inhabits eternity. The Scriptures therefore always speak of events in time as revelations of a purpose formed in eternity. The salvation of men, for example, is said to be “according to the eternal purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. iii. 11.) What is revealed in time was hidden for ages, i.e., from eternity in the mind of God. (Eph. iii. 9.) Believers were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. (Eph. i. 4.) “Who hath saved us, and called us . . . . according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus, πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων, before eternal ages.” (2 Tim. i. 9.) Christ as a sacrifice was “foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you, who by Him do believe in God.” (1 Pet. i. 20, 21; Rom. xi. 33-36; Acts ii. 23.) This is the constant representation of Scripture. History in all its details, even the most minute, is but the evolution of the eternal purposes of God. It is no objection to this doctrine that the Scriptures often represent one purpose of God as consequent upon another, or that they speak of his purposes as determined by the conduct of men. The language of Scripture is founded on apparent truth; they speak, as men always do, as things appear, not as they themselves know or believe them to be. We speak of the concave heavens, or of the firm foundation of the heavens, although we know that it is not concave, and that it does not rest on any foundation. So the Bible speaks of the decrees of God as they appear to us in their successive revelation and in their mutual relations, and not as they exist from eternity in the divine mind. Neither is there any force in the objection that the agent must be before his acts. The sun is not before his brightness, nor the mind before thought, nor life before consciousness, nor God before his purposes. These objections are founded on the assumption that God is subject to the limitations of time. To Him there is neither past nor future, neither before nor after.
D. The Decrees of God are Immutable.
Change of purpose arises either from the want of wisdom or from, the want of power. As God is infinite in wisdom and power, there 539can be with Him no unforeseen emergency and no inadequacy of means, and nothing can resist the execution of his original intention. To Him, therefore, the causes of change have no existence. With God there is, as the Scriptures teach, “no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” (James i. 17.) “The counsel of the Lord standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations. (Ps. xxxiii. 11.) “The Lord of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand.” (Is. xiv. 24.) “I am God . . . . declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.” (Is. xlvi. 9, 10.) The uniformity of the laws of nature is a constant revelation of the immutability of God. They are now what they were at the beginning of time, and they are the same in every part of the universe. No less stable are the laws which regulate the operations of the reason and conscience. The whole government of God, as the God of nature and as moral governor, rests on the immutability of his counsels.
E. The Decrees of God are Free.
This includes three ideas, —
1. They are rational determinations, founded on sufficient reasons. This is opposed to the doctrine of necessity, which assumes that God acts by a mere necessity of nature, and that all that occurs is due to the law of development or of self-manifestation of the divine being. This reduces God to a mere natura naturans, or vis formativa, which acts without design. The true doctrine is opposed also to the idea that the only cause of events is an intellectual force analogous to the instincts of irrational animals. The acts performed under the guidance of instinct are not free acts, for liberty is a libentia rationalis, spontaneity determined by reason. It is therefore involved in the idea of God as a rational and personal being that his decrees are free. He was free to create or not to create; to create such a world as now is, or one entirely different. He is free to act or not act, and when He purposes, it is not from any blind necessity, but according to the counsel of his own will.
2. Our purposes are free, even when formed under the influence of other minds. We may be argued or persuaded into certain courses of action, or induced to form our designs out of regard to the wishes or interests of others. God is infinitely exalted above all ab extra influence. “Who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?” (Rom. xi. 34.) “Behold, 540God exalteth by his power: who teacheth like Him? Who hath enjoined Him his way?” (Job xxxvi. 22, 23.) “Who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord? or being his counsellor hath taught Him? With whom took He counsel, and who instructed Him, and taught Him in the path of judgment?” (Is. xl. 13, 14.) “Who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct Him?” (1 Cor. ii. 16.) God adopted the plan of the universe on the grounds of his own good pleasure, for his own glory, and every subordinate part of it in reference to the whole. His decrees are free, therefore, in a far higher sense than that in which the ordinary purposes of men are free. They were formed purely on the counsel of his own will. He purposes and does what seemeth good in his sight.
3. The decrees of God are free in the sense of being absolute or sovereign. The meaning of this proposition is expressed negatively by saying that the decrees of God are in no case conditional. The event decreed is suspended on a condition, but the purpose of God is not. It is inconsistent with the nature of God to assume suspense or indecision on his part. If He has not absolutely determined on what is to occur, but waits until an undetermined condition is or is not fulfilled, then his decrees can neither be eternal nor immutable. He purposes one thing if the condition be fulfilled, and another if it be not fulfilled, and thus everything must be uncertain not only in the divine mind, but also in the event. The Scriptures, therefore, teach that He doeth whatsoever He pleaseth. (Ps. cxv. 3.) He doeth his pleasure in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth. (Dan. iv. 35; Ps. cxxxv. 6.) Of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things. (Rom. xi. 36.) It is expressly taught that the purposes of God, even as to the future destiny of men, are founded on his own good pleasure. As all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, He has mercy upon whom He will have mercy. It is not according to our works, but of his grace that He saves us. It is of Him that we are in Christ Jesus, that those who glory should glory in the Lord. (Matt. xi. 26; Rom. viii. 29, 30; ix. 15-18; Eph. i. 5, etc., etc.)
F. The Decrees of God are certainly Efficacious.
The decrees of God are certainly efficacious, that is, they render certain the occurrence of what He decrees. Whatever God foreordains, must certainly come to pass. The distinction between the efficient (or efficacious) and the permissive decrees of God, although important, has no relation to the certainty of events. All 541events embraced in the purpose of God are equally certain, whether He has determined to bring them to pass by his own power, or simply to permit their occurrence through the agency of his creatures. It was no less certain from eternity that Satan would tempt our first parents, and that they would fall, than that God would send his Son to die for sinners. The distinction in question has reference only to the relation which events bear to the efficiency of God. Some things He purposes to do, others He decrees to permit to be done. He effects good, He permits evil. He is the author of the one, but not of the other. With this explanation, the proposition that the decrees of God are certainly efficacious, or render certain all events to which they refer, stands good. This is proved, —
1. From the perfection of God, which forbids the ascription to Him of purposes uncertain as to their accomplishment. No man fails to execute what he purposes, except through the want of wisdom or power to secure the end proposed, or through some vacillation in his own mind. It would be to reduce God to the level of his creatures, to assume that what He decrees, should fail to come to pass.
2. From the unity of God’s plan. If that plan comprehends all events, all events stand in mutual relation and dependence. If one part fails, the whole may fail or be thrown into confusion.
3. From the evident concatenation of events in the progress of history, which proves that all things are intimately connected, the most important events often depending on the most trivial, which shows that all must be comprehended in the plan of God.
4. From the providential and moral government of God. There could be no certainty in either if the decrees of God were not efficacious. There could be no assurance that any divine prophecy, promise, or threatening, would be accomplished. All ground of confidence in God would thus be lost, and chance and not God would become the arbiter of all events. The Scriptures variously and constantly teach this doctrine, (a.) By all those passages which assert the immutability and sovereignty of the divine decrees. (b.) By those which affirm that He fixes the bounds of our habitations, that our days are all numbered, and that even a hair from our heads cannot perish without his notice. (c.) By those which declare that nothing can counteract his designs. “The Lord of hosts,” says the prophet, “hath purposed, who shall disannul it? And his hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back.” (Is. xiv. 27.) “I will work, and who shall 542let it?” (xliii. 13.) (d.) By those which teach doctrines that necessarily assume the certainty of all God’s decrees. The whole plan of redemption rests on that foundation. It is inconceivable that God should devise such a scheme, and not secure its executions and that He should send his Son into the world, and leave the consequences of that infinite condescension undetermined. It is, therefore, the doctrine of reason as well as of Scripture, that God has a plan or end for which the universe was created, that the execution of that plan is not left contingent, and that whatever is embraced in the decrees of God must certainly come to pass.
G. The Decrees of God relate to all Events.
God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass. Some events are necessary, that is, are brought about by the action of necessary causes; others are contingent or free, or are acts of free agents; some are morally good, others are sinful. The doctrine of the Bible is, that all events, whether necessary or contingent, good or sinful, are included in the purpose of God, and that their futurition or actual occurrence is rendered absolutely certain. This is evident, —
1. From the unity of the divine purposes. That unity supposes that the whole scheme of creation, providence, and redemption, was fixed by the divine decree. It was formed from ages in the divine mind, and is gradually unfolded by the course of events. It is therefore inconsistent with this sublime and Scriptural representation, to suppose that any class of actual events, and especially that class which is most influential and important, should be omitted from the divine purpose. He who purposes a machine, purposes all its parts. The general who plans a campaign, includes all the movements of every corps, division, and brigade in his army, and if his foresight were perfect, and his control of events absolute, his foreordination would extend to every act of every soldier. Whatever is wanting in his foreordination is due to the limitation of human power. As God is infinite in knowledge and resources, his purpose must include all events.
2. It is therefore inconsistent with the perfection of God to suppose either that He could not form a plan comprehending all events, or that He could not carry it into execution, without doing violence to the nature of his creatures.
3. The universality of the decree follows from the universal dominion of God. Whatever He does, He certainly purposed to do. Whatever He permits to occur, He certainly purposed to permit. 543Nothing can occur that was not foreseen, and if foreseen it must have been intended. As the Scriptures teach that the providential control of God extends to all events, even the most minute, they do thereby teach that his decrees are equally comprehensive.
4. Another argument is derived from the certainty of the divine government. As all events are more or less intimately connected, and as God works by means, if God does not determine the means as well as the event, all certainty as to the event itself would be destroyed. In determining the redemption of man, He thereby determined on the mission, incarnation, sufferings, death, and resurrection of his Son, on the gift of the Spirit, upon the faith, repentance, and perseverance of all his people. The prediction of future events, which often depend on the most fortuitous occurrences, or which include those that appear to us of no account, proves that the certainty of the divine administration rests on the foreordination of God extending to all events both great and small.
The Scriptures in various ways teach that God foreordains whatever comes to pass.
1. They teach that God works all things according to the counsel of his will. There is nothing to limit the words “all things,” and therefore they must be taken in the fullest extent.
2. It is expressly declared that fortuitous events, that is, events which depend on causes so subtle and so rapid in their operation as to elude our observation, are predetermined; as the falling of the lot, the flight of an arrow, the falling of a sparrow, the number of the hairs of our heads.
Free Acts are Foreordained.
3. The Bible especially declares that the free acts of men are decreed beforehand. This is involved in the doctrine of prophecy, which assumes that events involving the free acts of a multitude of men are foreseen and foreordained. God promises to give faith, a new heart, to write his law upon the minds of his people, to work in them to will and to do, to convert the Gentiles, to fill the world with the true worshippers of Christ, to whom every knee is gladly to bow. If God has promised these things, He must of course purpose them, but they all involve the free acts of men.
4. The Scriptures teach that sinful acts, as well as such as are holy, are foreordained. In Acts ii. 23, it is said, “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain;” iv. 27. “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou 544hast 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.” “Truly the Son of Man goeth as it was determined; but woe unto that man by whom He is betrayed.” (Luke xxii. 22.) It was foreordained that He should be betrayed; but woe to him who fulfilled the decree. Here foreordination and responsibility are by our Lord Himself declared to coexist and to be consistent. In Rev. xvii. 17, it is said, “God hath put in their hearts to fulfil his will, and to agree, and give their kingdom unto the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.” The crucifixion of Christ was beyond doubt foreordained of God. It was, however, the greatest crime ever committed. It is therefore beyond all doubt the doctrine of the Bible that sin is foreordained.
5. Besides this, the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar, the destruction of Jerusalem, and many other similar events, were predicted, and therefore predetermined, but they included the commission of innumerable sins, without which the predictions, and consequently the revealed purposes of God, could not have been accomplished.
6. The whole course of history is represented as the development of the plan and purposes of God; and yet human history is little else than the history of sin. No one can read the simple narrative concerning Joseph, as given in the book of Genesis, without seeing that everything in his history occurred in execution of a preconceived purpose of God. The envy of his brethren, their selling him into Egypt, and his unjust imprisonment, were all embraced in God’s plan. “God,” as Joseph himself said to his brethren, “sent me before you, to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God.” (Gen. xlv. 7, 8.) This is but an illustration. What is true of the history of Joseph, is true of all history. It is the development of the plan of God: God is in history, and although we cannot trace his path step by step, yet it is plain in the general survey of events, through long periods, that they are ordered by God to the accomplishment of his divine purposes. This is obvious enough in the history of the Jewish nation, as recorded in the Scripture, but it is no less true in regard to all history. The acts of the wicked in persecuting the early Church, were ordained of God as the means for the wider and more speedy proclamation of the Gospel. The sufferings of the martyrs were the means not only of extending but of purifying the Church. The apostasy of the man of sin being predicted, was predetermined. The 545destruction of the Huguenots in France, the persecution of the Puritans in England, laid the foundation for the planting of North America with a race of godly and energetic men, who were to make this land the land of refuge for the nations, the home of liberty, civil and religious. It would destroy the confidence of God’s people could they be persuaded that God does not foreordain whatsoever comes to pass. It is because the Lord reigns, and doeth his pleasure in heaven and on earth, that they repose in perfect security under his guidance and protection.
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