This doctrine about God’s decrees are actually not difficult to understand and even teach. And yet its teaching about predestination generates a lot of controversies in the church even today. So I think the difficulty here lies not on the teachings per se but its reception among Christians.
Now because of the controversy it brings, the doctrine of God’s decrees suffer neglect in the pulpit today. This results to the ignorance of many Christian in knowing this important truth. I personally did not encounter this doctrine while I was still a member of an evangelical church. I only received a formal teaching of it when I came to a reformed church because it holds to a confessional standard like the Westminster Confession and Canons of Dort.
So it is important that we spend a Lord’s Day sermon about this topic. We will dwell on Question 7 of the WSC which asks: “What are the decrees of God?” And it answers: “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.”
Today, we will learn about God’s decrees and we have two sermon points: 1) General Decrees; 2) Special Decrees. The first point deals with the meaning and scope of God’s decree and the second point treats the particular application of it towards the predestination of the elect and the reprobate.
Before we begin, let us pray:
Our heavenly Father, we ask You to look upon us in grace, as we look away from ourselves into the face of Your Son, whom You have appointed our Mediator and Savior. As all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Your Son, guide us by Your Holy Spirit into the true understanding of the doctrines of Christ. May our meditation upon His truth produce in us the fruit of righteousness to the glory and exaltation of His name, the instruction and edification of this congregation, and the salvation of the lost through our witness. We pray this in the name and favor of Your well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in dependence on His Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the meaning and scope of God’s decrees?
Simply put, to decree means to “eternally to purpose and fore-ordain, to appoint and determine, what things shall be. There are several items about God’s nature or being which are related to this topic and it is good we discussed them weeks ago and the first term that needs pointing out is the description “eternal”. This means God’s decrees happened in eternity and not within the bounds of creation and time.
Now, while it is important for us to understand that this event happened in eternity because the subject of the decree is God who is eternal, the objects of his decree are in creation, redemption, and new creation. This means that while we only consider God’s decree as one singular act from eternity, before the creation of the world, we treat the objects as many because it concerns everything that will come to pass, hence the plural use of the term “decrees of God”.
So aside of the eternal property of God’s decrees, what are the other characteristics?
Next, they are absolute. This means they are not dependent on any other beings aside from God. God alone determine whatever comes to pass. Nothing happens except by God’s own decree. In Ephesians 1:11, Paul describes God’s ordination as “all things according to the counsel of his will”. The singular term “counsel” describes the ability to deliberate and choose. This is why declares the purposes of God as the working out of God’s will.
So the eternal and absolute decree of God comes from the purposes and will of God. It is by the infinite wisdom of God. Both in creation and redemption, this character of God is manifested. In Psalm 104:24, the psalmist exclaim: “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” And in Ephesians 1:7-9, Paul points out, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ.” These verses praises God for his wisdom in every work he performs.
Therefore, God’s decrees are wise, eternal and absolute. And because they are infinite, they are also considered as immutable. God declares to Isaiah, “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it (Isaiah 46:9-11).” This carries the same weight as what the psalmist declare in Psalm 33:11, “The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.”
Again, God’s decrees are eternal, absolute, wise, infinite, and unchangeable. So we are finished with the definition and characteristics of the decrees of God and now how about its scope?
In terms of scope, there are several thing we need to clarify.
- We cannot understand the things decreed primarily because the mind of God contains his secret will. We will never be able to exhaustively know God’s decrees. However, the study of these decrees covers the act of decreeing or discerning as they revealed to us in Scripture particularly the predestination of the elect and the reprobate.
- Next, whenever we are talking about God’s decrees we are not just talking about the end but also its appointed means. Simply put, God appoint the end as well as the means. Like what Paul explains in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, God ordains the salvation of his people but also appoints the Word and Spirit as its means. And with regard to the means, we do not see them as conditions from anything or anyone outside God. No, God makes certain the coming to pass of both the means and the ends. The will of God is not dependent on the will of creature. God alone is perfectly sovereign.
- Next, God’s decrees do not destroy the liberty of man’s will and contingency of second causes. It means God works out his end through this means even when they intend it for evil. We will deal with this matter extensively later on.
- Lastly, the chief end of God’s decree is his glory. It displays God’s majesty and praise (Romans 8:28).
So what comprises the general decrees of God?
Thomas Vincent explains, “God’s general decrees are his eternal purpose, whereby he hath fore-ordained whatever comes to pass; not only the being of all creatures which he doth make, but also all their motions and actions; not only good actions, which he doth effect, but also the permission of all evil actions.”
Again, nothing comes to pass in time except what God decreed in eternity. This includes both the motion and actions of all men. But will this not make God is the author of sin and evil? No, for God is perfectly holy and just. He is not the author of sin and evil (James 1:13, 17; 1 John 1:5). God’s Word settles it so we are called to believe it. So what distinguishes God’s decree in relation to the action of evil men?
Let me read James Fisher’s Catechism on this:
Q#26: How does the decree of God extend to things naturally and morally good?
Answer: Effectively: because God is the author and efficient cause of all good (Philippians 2:13).
This means since God alone is good and he is the source of all good. He effects this good to us. But how about evil? This is where the asymmetrical relationship comes.
Q#27: How does it extend to things morally evil?
Answer: Permissively and directively only (Acts 14:16).
Q#28. Is the permissive decree a bare inactive permitting of evil?
Answer: No; it determines the event of the evil permitted, and overrules it to a good end, contrary to the intention both of the work and worker.
So evil do not come from God. He is not the author of sin. Sin comes from every fallen man. God only permits it but his permission is not passive in a sense that man can do anything without any directions from God. No, God overrules every evil action from fallen men and puts it into good use in the end (Romans 8:28).
Q#29. What scripture example is there of this?
Answer: God permits Joseph’s brethren to sell him into Egypt, and Potiphar to throw him unjustly into prison, and yet overrules both these evils, and makes them means, contrary to the intention both of the work and workers, for executing the decree of his advancement to the greatest honor (Genesis 45:5-8; and 50:20) — “Ye thought evil against me, (says Joseph to his brethren,) but God meant it unto good.”
Q#30. How can the decree of God be permissive and efficacious at the same time?
Answer: It is permissive, with respect to the sinfulness of the action as a moral evil; and efficacious, with respect to the matter of it as a natural act.
Q#31. How do you prove that God cannot be the author of sin?
Answer: From the contrariety of it to his holy nature and law, and the indication he has manifested against it, in what Christ suffered on account of it; for he can never be the author of that of which he is the avenger.
Again, like what we learn about God’s providence, we know He concurs the action of all men. Even though some meant it for evil, God works it out for our good. We may not fully comprehend the decrees but we can take comfort of the fact that God intends them of our good.
This ends our discussion about the General Decrees so we now move on its particular application, the Special Decrees of Predestination.
What then are God’s special decrees? Thomas Vincent provides an excellent definition. He wrote: “God’s special decrees are his decrees of predestination of angels and men, especially his decrees of election. and reprobation of men.” And when we asked to define predestination, we answer (James Fisher) provides in this case another great answer, “It is God’s unchangeable purpose or decree, concerning the last end, and eternal state, of angels and men.”
This means God elects those whom he saves but at the same time, passes over those he leave for condemnation. Paul affirms the former when he wrote: “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity (2 Timothy 2:19)”. It is a simple declaration of fact. Jesus is the Great Shepherd and the sheep knows him and hear his voice (John 10:27). Now, the choosing of God’s elect is made plain by Paul when he wrote in Ephesians 1:4-5, “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will”.
However, the predestination of the reprobates are implied in several verse one of which was written by Paul in Romans 9:21-22, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” The rhetorical question is answered here positively. God who is sovereign over all his creation freely choose those whom he saves and leaves for condemnation. But does this make God a tyrant? Can anyone charge God of injustice or any wrong doing? Paul provided us an explanation here. As James Fisher echoes in his answer to this particular question, “No more than a potter is esteemed partial, or unjust, in making, out of the same lump, one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor”.
So again, God chooses whom he saves and leaves for condemnation. What is the basis for predestination and what are the ways provided by God for each end and how are we then to live in the light of such understanding?
The basis for God’s election and reprobation is nothing but his divine pleasure and will. It pleases the Lord to demonstrate the glory of his grace by electing some to eternal life and it is his will to leave some to suffer the consequences of their own sins and display his justice and wrath. Paul affirms this about God when he wrote: “As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Romans 9:13-15).” In either case, God did not base his election on the foreseen faith of the person, nor his good works. But at the same time, can we say the reprobation of the unbeliever is ultimately not based on his sinful actions? No, Scriptures vindicate the free and sovereign will of God over all his creation. It alone is the basis for both predestination and as students of God’s Word, we are called to submit to its judgements and ways.
Now, the way to reprobation is sin but what are the God appointed means of election? Simply put, they are God’s Word and His Spirit. Paul explains in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “…God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” We can called to diligently use these God-appointed ordinary means of grace and abandon any effort or ministry that seek ways to improve it. James Fisher asks and answers:
Q.#47. Ought we then to improve the means of salvation, without regard to the decree?
Answer: We ought no more to regard the decree in the matter of believing to the salvation of our souls, than in eating, drinking, buying, selling, or any other common action of life; because “the secret things belong unto the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed, belong unto us, and to our children for ever (Deuteronomy 29:29).”
Finally, what are then called to do in the light of the revelation we received? We are exhorted to confirm our calling and election (2 Peter 1:10). Zacharias Ursinus directs us with these words:
“Election and reprobation are known in general, as that there are some elect, and some reprobate: but not in particular, as, that this one, or that one is chosen, or not. But of our own election in particular, we not only may, but ought to be certain, the knowledge of which is obtained, a posteriori, that is, from our conversion to God, or from true faith and repentance, which are the effects of our election unto eternal life.”
James Fisher adds:
“We ought to be encouraged to believe in Christ: considering that electing love pitches on the chief of sinners (Ezekiel 16:6); that it flows not from, nor is rounded upon, any condition to be performed by men, Rom. 9:11; and that it contains in it all things pertaining to life and godliness.”
Finally, John Calvin encourages:
“This great subject (predestination) is not, as many imagine, a mere thorny and noisy disputation, nor speculation which wearies the minds of men without any profit; but a solid discussion eminently adapted to the service of the godly, because it builds us up in sound faith, trains us to humility, and lifts us up into an admiration of the unbounded goodness of God toward us, while it elevates to praise this goodness in our highest strains.”
ZCRC(Imus), Let us read these words from Scripture to encourage us about God’s decrees and his election: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 5:10-11).”
Rev. Lance Filio is a minister of the Word and Sacraments at Zion Cornerstone Reformed Church (Imus). He finished his Bachelor Degree in Electronics Engineering at Mapua Institute of Technology and He is currently taking his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) at MINTS. He lives in Taguig City, Philippines with his wife and three children.