God’s Eternal Decree — It’s No “Mystery”; It’s Biblical

Recently I’ve had a few conversations with someone who denies that God, “from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF III:1).  Unfortunately these conversations were not all too fruitful; and perhaps more unfortunately, they were filled with more emotion and mockery than a calm, reasonable discussion of the Word of God concerning these matters. That said, the conversations highlighted some things I want to clarify.

I’ll attempt to summarize the major objections from this person (this is not meant to exhaust the topic, only address some common objections).

1) Did God decree my standing up or sitting down? Does He decree the color tie I pick?

These questions are sometimes framed in order to elicit ridicule. When I answered, “yes,” to the question, it was met with derision and words akin to, “that’s ridiculous.”

My first thought to this objection was the irony of it. Not only is the example of rising and sitting presented in Scripture, but it also appears to support a Reformed position concerning God’s decrees and foreknowledge:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:1-4; emphasis added).

But as ironic as I might find that, the line of thinking is really quite troubling. Sadly, not a few Christians are convinced that God is only concerned or involved in the major events of history (i.e. the crucifixion; the plague; WWII), but not the minor ones that bring about the major events.  But Scripture does not paint that picture, it tells us that God “works ALL things according to the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11), and it does not delineate between things we consider trivial or important. We may call it “random” (1 Kings 22:34), but God knows the end from the beginning, not because he took on knowledge of future events, but because He “purposed” them (Isaiah 46:10). “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33); so even the seemingly random act of tossing dice will result in what God has planned (see how Matthias is chosen to replace Judas; Acts 1:23-26)

It’s also troubling because it makes the person rejecting God’s decrees and purposes appear disingenuous.  Observe, for instance, how a person who rejects God’s decrees reacts in time of crisis or trial; that person, if a Christian, is likely to tell a person going through trials, “God is in control; He has a purpose in all of this; His ways are above ours.”  Now point that out in the middle of a debate on Calvinism, and suddenly they don’t believe God decrees all things and is in control of all things—even the minute details that might have brought that trial along.

I asked this person that refused to believe that God decreed his standing and sitting, “what if you were to fall backwards and break your neck, and it completely altered your life and the lives of your family members, do you believe God was involved? Was it part of His plan? Is He still wise and loving?” The response: “That’s something different.”  I think he saw the point; he simply refused to accept it.

Why?  What if someone was to hear of your tragedy, saw your faith despite the circumstance, and came to faith in Christ—would you say God wasn’t involved? This is not hypothetical; I have seen the most “chance” events result in tragedy, but ultimately contributed to the sanctification of some and the justification of others. So before you ridicule God’s eternal decrees, even in “trivial” things, you may want to think about the consequences of your thinking.

This is not all that could be said on this point, but I think the remaining objections will help us examine the subject from different angles.

2) Could Judas have chosen to do otherwise?

It was asserted that Judas had “otherwise choice.”  That even though God knew Judas’s decision, Judas could have done otherwise, because he had otherwise choice (as I pointed out, the term “otherwise choice” really has no meaning and no functional purpose other than to try to evade God’s decretive act.  It basically asserts that even though God knows all things that come to pass, a person has a “true” ability to do otherwise.  But, of course, had they done otherwise, God would have known that choice, ergo that choice was ordained to take place.  One can easily understand why the term has no meaning, and can only be defended with obfuscation and contradiction).

There are two things that come to mind here.

The first is the show Lost.  There was the reoccurring mantra that “whatever happened, happened.” In other words, going back in time couldn’t change what had already taken place, because if you changed it in the past, then it had always happened that way.  The point is this: no, he couldn’t have chosen otherwise, because that’s what happened, and if that’s what happened, then that is what God decreed.  But the objection is meant to trap the Calvinist/Reformed thinker into saying that this somehow releases Judas from his responsibility, or the imperative for him to choose otherwise.  It doesn’t.  Calvinists believe that man is endowed with a will, and that he is ultimately held responsible for his choices.  The non-Calvinist always wants the Calvinist to explain how that can be possible, and this is where we state what Scripture has declared and go no further.  That doesn’t mean the non-Calvinist can then tell the Calvinist what that means (i.e. that God is the author of sin, that God is a puppet master).  As I repeatedly reminded the individual I was speaking with, confessional Calvinists have declared their position on this, and you cannot accuse them of saying something they don’t.  Pay careful attention to the second half of the Confession’s statement:

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 (WCF III:1).

Whether it seems contradictory is really not the issue; it’s whether it’s Biblical. And what the Bible tells us is that the greatest act of human wickedness was executed according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23; Acts 4:27-28), and that those individuals were held responsible for their actions (see Isaiah 10:5-12 as well).  Anyone who hasn’t dealt with these verses, or thought about the implications of holding the opposite, hasn’t dealt with the topic with any seriousness.

Second, the irony comes out again. At least three times Judas is referred to as the “son of destruction” that fulfills prophecy (John 13:18; John 17:12; Acts 1:16-20). This whole discussion really calls into question the nature of prophecy, and how it is God could bring about the things that He says He will. It also doesn’t deal with difficult statements of Scripture that imply that a person did what they did because God determined a certain outcome.  A person who objects must deal with passages like 1 Samuel 2:25: “But they [Eli’s worthless sons] would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death.”

One must keep in mind that God does not puppeteer these actions, as the Westminster Confession makes clear; He ordains the means and the ends; He utilizes the will, nature, and choices of His creatures to fulfill His purposes.  The writers of Scripture declare with equal clarity that God knows and purposes all things, but that man is at liberty to make choices, and is held responsible for those choices.  I think Lorraine Boettner summarizes nicely:

“The true solution of this difficult question respecting the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man, is not to be found in the denial of either, but rather in such a reconciliation as gives full weight to each, yet which assigns a preeminence to the divine sovereignty corresponding to the infinite exaltation of the Creator above the sinful creature.”

Here are some Scriptures to further consider on this matter (provided by Boettner): Prov 16:9; Jer 10:23; Ex 12:36; Ezra 6:22; Ezra 7:6; Rev 17:17; 2 Sam 17:14.  You can call it prooftexting, but you must offer explanation of verses such as these before you dismiss them.

3) Why evangelize? Won’t the person be saved anyway? You can’t honestly tell someone to believe in Christ! You have to tell them, “only if you are one of the elect.”

There are several objections here, but I think they can be addressed in a single point.

This is an old objection, and it’s surprising that the person I spoke with brought it up, because he should know the answer by now, and he should recognize the objection for the straw man it is.  Most of these questions can be answered simply: we don’t know who the elect are.  I don’t know how many different times, or in how many different ways, that can be told to a synergist (non-Calvinist).

If it hasn’t been said enough, let me say it again: we are not Hypercalvinists; we reject hypercalvinism as a great error.

We believe that God has not only ordained the ends, but also the means.  As I tried to explain to this person, the incarnation shatters the belief in a deistic god or impersonal fatalism.  We do not believe that God drafted the blueprint, or programmed the computer, and then stepped out of the picture.  We believe in a personal God, who interacts, covenantally, with his creation.  He has entered into time and space, grown from infanthood to adulthood, experienced fatigue and undergone death; in other words, he fulfills His purposes in a dynamic way that cannot be fully comprehended.  He fulfills His purposes and designs through the utilization of secondary causes (i.e. the human will and nature).  How does all of this work?  We don’t know; the Scriptures don’t fully explain the depth of it.  But if you’re not going to deal with our stated beliefs, and basically treat all of us as if we’re Hypers so you can dismiss the arguments, then you’re not treating the subject fairly—and truthfully, you’re not treating the Scriptures faithfully.

4) The way that God knows all things without decreeing all that comes to pass is a “mystery”.

When pressed to tell me how God can know all things without decreeing those things, it was said, “I don’t know, it’s a mystery.”  The problem with the “mystery” argument is that it only works where the Scriptures don’t speak.  If I say God decrees all things and man is responsible for his actions, I can reconcile those things by appealing to “mystery,” because the Bible does not fully explain.  Really the only answer given to “Why does He still find fault? For who can resist his will?” is, But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?  Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’  Has the potter no right over the clay…” (Romans 9:19-21).

However, one cannot appeal to mystery if the answer has been given–and especially if the answer is contradictory to what your assertion is.  We know that God knows all things, because He is the creator; sustainer; primary mover; first cause.  He works ALL things to His purpose (Eph 1:11).  There is nothing outside of God that determines the path or purpose of human history; to assert otherwise is to introduce a force outside of God that He then acts upon or responds to.  In this instance “mystery” is simply a cop out for not wanting to answer the Biblical evidence for God’s eternal decree.

Conclusion

Understanding that God has decreed all things is not the same as fully comprehending it.  Sometimes the Scriptures express paradoxical truths; they may seem contradictory, but they are revealed as truth.  The Trinity is the cliche example.  We worship 1 God, revealed in 3 persons.  We are able to understand this concept, but perhaps we are not able to comprehend completely.  In the same way, we can understand that God has an eternal decree, and that this exhaustive decree does not violate man’s will or responsibility, but we cannot always fully comprehend it.  The fact is, the Scripture declares the truth of both.  As John Piper once quipped: “better our minds be broken than the Scriptures.”  We have only to adore, fear, and worship our wise, holy, and good God; and we must understand that we are His creatures, and we will give an account for all of our actions—and there will be no blaming God on that day.

SDG,

Jon

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~ by TSL on December 28, 2015.

One Response to “God’s Eternal Decree — It’s No “Mystery”; It’s Biblical”

  1. Thanks, Jon!

    Well said.

    Bruce

Comments are closed.

 
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