Lesson 4 – The Decrees of God

Survey Studies in Reformed Theology

Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2012

Theology Proper: Lesson 4 – The Decrees of God
by Pastor Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010

Lesson Index
God’s decrees do not lead to Fatalism
The Decrees of God
The Extent of the Decrees
God Is Not the Author of Sin
God Cannot Sin
God is Sovereign Over All His Creation
All That Is, Exists for God’s Glory
Is God not said to be the cause of evil?
God is Not the Creator of sin
This doctrine establishes the reality of “Secondary Causes”
Questions for Review and Thought

God’s decrees do not lead to Fatalism
Christians often have a hard time understanding what separates two very different views about what directs all things toward their certain outcome. The one is Fatalism and the other is the concept called Predestination, or more properly Foreordination. The term “Predestination” is usually only used for God’s determination to redeem certain ones to eternal life. “Foreordination” is the broader term for all of God’s determinations.

The difficulty comes from two influences at work in our fallen nature. The one is a desire to imagine that the individual, not anything outside of him, has ultimate control of his own destiny. And there is a revulsion against the concept of a personal and sovereign God who is beyond our full comprehension.

The idea of personal control of all things leads to an extreme which denies that the end of all things has any determined element to it. Pure naturalism dominates the thinking of Western culture in our present era. Physical laws and human choices are seen as the controlling factors for the direction of events in history.

There has also been a long persisting understanding that there is something more moving all things toward a fixed goal. So to preserve the second prejudice against the control of a personal God some have accepted the view of Fatalism.

Thankfully, the believer is not left to speculate about such things from within his own human prejudices. He has a Bible which records God’s own words clearly ruling out the uncertainty of events, and at the same time marking the difference between his sovereign control and the pagan idea of Fatalism.

Fatalism views god as nothing more than the workings of natural or unknown impersonal forces which make all things come out in some predetermined way. The Stoic called it Destiny. One scholar explained fate by imagining man as a water-beetle caught in a torrent of water. He may struggle, or he may let himself be swept along in peace simply accepting his doom. If we see God’s providence as nothing more than fate, then the best we can hope for is to resign ourselves to the horrors that may lie ahead, and be swept along by blind destiny. Naturalistic Fatalists see the forces of an evolving universe sweeping us along irresistibly.

That is not the biblical picture of God’s providence. Fate is like the workings of a machine without reason or purpose. The God of Scripture acts personally to carry out his plan to a specific, known goal by directing all things for his own glory and for the blessing of his people.

The Bible makes it clear that God brings about everything he determines should happen. Nothing can occur that will ruin his plan. Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135:6 and Job 42:2 are among the passages that make this point. Even acts of sin and evil are permitted to occur so that they are used to serve God’s end. While this does not make evil to be good, it shows that evil is never beyond God’s control. God may control evil without being said to cause it. Evil condemns the rebel, but is employed to reveal more of the glorious perfections of God (see Genesis 50:20, Acts 2:23 4:27-28). The personal nature of God gave Job the courage to say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him!” (Job 13:15)

There is no heresy greater than that which reduces the loving work of our Sovereign God to mere natural forces at work blindly. We are created in his image as persons, not as machines. We act and think and choose. We alone are responsible for our sin. However, as for the good we do, God alone provides the ability for us to exercise faith, repentance and obedience. He gives life to our fallen hearts, turns us by his Holy Spirit, and gives us a new nature that impels us to do good. Yet even in his work of grace, we come as persons made willing, not as machines or as rebels screaming and kicking against his redeeming love.

The biblical position is not the same as Fatalism. Fate drags us to an irrational destiny with no purpose and does not consider us as real persons. Foreordination has a good purpose. It is designed by a loving God to reveal his own glory, and to produce benefits for his people. The biblical doctrine treats us as persons who participate as real beings reflecting the sovereign work of God upon our hearts. The biblical teaching does not let us blame God for our rebellion, yet it will equally not let us take credit for our restoration, or for the good we do.

In 1904 Dr. B. B. Warfield wrote an article for the Presbyterian magazine explaining the difference between the biblical doctrine of Predestination and the pagan teaching called Fatalism. He ended his article with a story which illustrates something of the difference between blind, mechanical fate and the workings of a personal and sovereign God. Warfield wrote:

“There is a story of a little Dutch boy, which embodies very fairly the difference between God and Fate. This little boy’s home was on a dike in Holland, near a great wind-mill, whose long arms swept so close to the ground as to endanger those who carelessly strayed under them. But he was very fond of playing precisely under this mill. His anxious parents had forbidden him to go near it; and, when his stubborn will did not give way, had sought to frighten him away from it by arousing his imagination to the terrors of being struck by the arms and carried up into the air to have life beaten out of him by their ceaseless strokes.

“One day, heedless of their warning, he strayed again under the dangerous arms, and was soon absorbed in his play there — forgetful of everything but his present pleasures. Perhaps, he was half conscious of a breeze springing up; and somewhat in the depth of his soul, he may have been obscurely aware of the danger with which he had been threatened. At any rate, suddenly, as he played, he was violently smitten from behind, and found himself swung all over at once, with his head downward, up into the air; and then the blows came, swift and hard! O what a sinking of the heart! O what a horror of great darkness! It had to come then! And he was gone!

“In his terrified writhing, he twisted himself about, and looking up, saw not the immeasurable expanse of the brazen heavens above him, but his father’s face. At once, he realized, with a great revulsion, that he was not caught in the mill, but was only receiving the threatened punishment of his disobedience. He melted into tears, not of pain, but of relief and joy. In that moment, he understood the difference between falling into the grinding power of a machine and into the loving hands of a father.

“That is the difference between fate and predestination. And all the language of man cannot tell the immensity of the difference.” (Benjamin B. Warfield, 1887-1921)

The Decrees of God
“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.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, question #7)

The Extent of the Decrees
Nothing in the universe can be considered to be exempt from God’s decrees. While events in the universe can be thought of as conditioned upon other events, it is never accurate to say that any of God’s decrees are conditioned upon something not decreed. That would make the condition more absolute in determining the course of events than God. If any single influence is a condition external to God’s decrees then he could not control with absolute certainty the outcome of his universe toward his intended end. That conditioning issue would have ultimate sovereign control and would contradict clear statements of God’s word.

The approach we will follow in this study will be to enlarge upon what is revealed in Scripture about God’s decrees while ruling out some of the common objections raised against this doctrine. Often by correcting misconceptions we are forced to reduce what we believe to the simplest statement based upon biblical fact alone. One of the most common struggles in understanding this doctrine is the presence of evil in God’s universe and the free actions of intelligent creatures. If God has foreordained all that comes to pass so that there is no uncertainty that his decrees will be carried out exactly as he intended them, then how does this relate to sinful acts which are admittedly present?

God Is Not the Author of Sin
All the actions of created intelligences are not merely the actions of God. He has created a universe of beings which are said to act freely and responsibly as the proximate causes of their own moral actions. When individuals do evil things it is not God the Creator and Preserver acting. If God was the proximate cause of every act it would make all events to be “God in motion”. That is nothing less than pantheism, or more exactly, pandeism. The Creator is distinct from his creation. The reality of secondary causes is what separates Christian theism from pandeism.

God Cannot Sin
Sin is an action or desire contrary to God’s moral principles. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, in answer to question #14, defines sin as, “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”

It would contradict God’s revealed nature to imagine that he does not accomplish what he wants done, or that he does things contrary to what he wants done. By definition that would be sin and God cannot sin.

1 John 1:5 “…God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.”

James 1:13 “…God cannot be tempted by evil”

James 1:17 “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow.”

It is impossible that God as he is revealed in Scripture should choose to do anything contrary to his own desire or nature. God cannot have a “split personality” where he is at odds with himself.

God is Sovereign Over All His Creation
In the previous chapter of the confession concerning God’s nature it was shown that God maintains absolute control over all things. This idea will be taken up further in our study of God’s Providence. In this present section we are concerned primarily with his control of the moral actions of persons in his creation.

God is able to prevent men from sinning. For example, God speaking to Abimelech concerning Abraham’s wife said in Genesis 20:6, “I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her.”

God is also able to use the sins of His creatures to accomplish His decrees. When Joseph’s brothers conspired to kill him and sell him into slavery it is said, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:7-8), and, “And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result to preserve many people alive.” (Genesis 50:20)

Elsewhere in the Bible the same principle is taught…

Psalm 76:10 “for the wrath of man shall praise Thee;”

Acts 14:16 “in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways;”

Psalm 106:15 “so He gave them their request”

Though sin is able to be restrained by God, and though he obviously permits it, he always employs it for his ultimate glory. However, sin is never said to be produced by God, and sin is never said to be condoned by him. Sin remains that which is contrary to the moral principles of God.

Since the mind of God is not divided into parts (there are no parts of him that could know something detached from anything else he knows) the decrees relating to sin and evil are not separate things from his overall plan for the universe. Everything is altogether and eternally inclined toward his ultimate plan of glory and good. This indivisible plan is revealed to us in individual parts because that is how we finite beings come to understand things. Systematic knowledge is only a characteristic of the creature. To divide up the divine mind into such compartments is to degrade the unified and perfect nature of God. Therefore to see sin as an act of God would put him in rebellion against himself. This is inconsistent with the self revealed nature of God and is self contradictory.

All That Is, Exists for God’s Glory
God made all things to declare his nature and glory.

Colossians 1:16 “for in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through Him and for Him.”

Some things manifest the riches of God’s glory:

Romans 9:23 “He did so in order that He might make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory”

Some things manifest God’s wrath:

Romans 9:22 “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”

God, in creating the best kind of universe for making his attributes and glory known, made a universe that would include sin and evil. That does not make evil “good”. It would not follow logically. The Scriptures teach that God is not the author of sin or of evil. God’s word is not unclear when allowed to speak for itself. The overwhelming testimony of the Bible is agreed upon by all who accept it as God’s word. Note that the following highly regarded professors and theological writers all concur on this as a clearly stated biblical fact.

B.B. Warfield: Biblical & Theological Studies p283
J.O. Buswell Jr.: A Systematic Theology (Vol I) pp163-169, 262-272
J.O. Buswell Jr.: A Systematic Theology (Vol II) pp 154-156
L. Berkhoff: Systematic Theology p 220
W.G.T. Shedd: Dogmatic Theology (Vol I) pp 405-415
L. Boettner: Reformed Doctrine of Predestination pp 228-253
A. Hodge: The Confession of Faith pp 63-69
C. Hodge: Systematic Theology (Vol I) pp 429-436
John Calvin: Institutes of Christian Religion I:18,II:4:3,III:21-24
John Bunyan: The Doctrine of Election & Reprobation Chapter VI
Horatius Bonar: The Five Points of Calvinism pp 63-64
Stephen Charnock: The Existence & Attributes of God pp 473-532
Martin Luther: The Bondage of the Will pp 83-93
J. Zanchius: Absolute Predestination p 20
Westminster Assembly: Westminster Confession of Faith III:1, V:4
Guy de Bres: Belgic Confession XIII:1
Synod of Dort: Canons of Dort I:15

God’s decree concerning sin was “permissive” not “efficacious”
The best Scriptural term to describe God’s relationship toward the inclusion of evil in his universe is “permit”. God “allows” or “permits” his creatures to rebel. He is not to be thought of as being in them rebelling against his own moral principles. He has “allowed” [“eiasen” (ειασεν) from “eao” (εαω)] them to act upon their corrupted desires.

Acts 14:16 “and in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways;”

Acts 17:30 “therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent.”

Therefore we say that God is not the cause of sin. The term “cause” is used of that which is directly responsible for an action or that which directly brings a change or action into being. The sinner is the one held directly responsible for his sin, and persons other than God are always considered the direct agents of evil. This is consistent with the traditional philosophical uses of the term (see Runes Dictionary of Philosophy pg. 48 where he identifies cause as that which is actually “responsible” for a change, motion, or action). To call God the “cause of sin” would be to use this term in an improper manner. Similarly it would be an error to call God the author of sin. An author is always the efficient cause of his work, and is responsible for it.

Is God not said to be the cause of evil?
Sometimes bad translations of the original biblical text can make God appear to be the author or cause of sin. A more faithful translation shows the original intent of the passage. The Hebrew word ra` (ךע) means “calamity, disaster, harm”. It can only be used of something wicked as a derived and secondary usage. It is not equivalent with the Hebrew term kha-TAH’ (חטא) which means “sin, do evil, fail, miss”. The second term is not used with respect to the actions of God. Only the first. God, as Lord of all creation, is certainly behind what we might term calamities or natural disasters. However, such things are not evil in that they have no wicked intentions contrary to the revealed moral principles of God.

In Isaiah 45:7 the LORD (Jehovah) is said to “create” calamity. The NASB properly translates it; “…causing well-being, and creating calamity;” and the NIV translates; “…I bring prosperity and create disaster;”. Sadly the old King James Version has rendered it in a moral sense: “I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” (KJV)

In Amos 3:6 the LORD (Jehovah) is said to be the cause of calamity when it occurs in a city. The NASB accurately translates; “… if a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?” The NIV renders it; “… when a disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?”. Again the older King James Version has translated it as moral evil: “… shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?”

Ultimately we cannot truly solve the problem of sin’s permission since God has not revealed the details explaining what he says he has done. There is no question concerning the fact of its permission since that is directly revealed. The problem we face has to do with God’s employment of the evil deeds of creatures as a part of his certain plan. Even the Arminian concedes that God foreknows all things, including the advent of sin and its consequences. A.A. Hodge explains, “He (the Arminian) is unable as the Calvinist is to explain why God, notwithstanding that certain knowledge, did not change those conditions.” (Confession of Faith pg. 68)

God is Not the Creator of sin:
Sin is not an independently existing created thing. It does not float about in the universe as an independent and unattached entity. It is an attribute, a moral condition of an agent which is contrary to moral good as defined by God’s own nature. It is no more a created thing than is “good”.

God’s attributes are not created, they are eternal. Good is eternal because it is a characteristic of the divine nature. The creation of imperfect morally fallible and mutable creatures would bring into existence the possibility of the opposite of God’s perfections. We see by revelation that in his relationship to such creatures and to the moral evil they produce, God intends to display his own perfections.

It is nothing short of blasphemy to say that God is the cause of sin, once we understand what the Bible reveals about God and sin.

This doctrine establishes the reality of “Secondary Causes”
Though God is not the cause of sin, it does have a cause. Evil can only be found in the creature. Therefore the creature is the only efficient and proximate cause of sin. We are not created as just machines following impersonal programming. We are persons who act morally. We are responsible for our actions before God. This is why the doctrine of the decrees differs so completely from the doctrine of Fatalism.

Note: The Bible quotations in this syllabus are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.

Questions for Review and Thought
1. Why are fallen men sometimes attracted to the idea of Fatalism?
2. Show from Scripture that God has Sovereign control over all things in his creation.
3. Show from Scripture that God sometimes uses the sinful acts of creatures to carry out his decrees.
4. How does the Shorter Catechism define God’s decrees?
5. How extensive are God’s decrees over events in the universe?
6. Why does calling God the author of sin demand a pandeistic understanding of the universe effectively removing the reality of sin and moral law.
7. How does our understanding of what sin is, rule out the idea that God is the cause of sin in general, or of any single sinful act?
8. How does the unchangeable unity of the mind of God argue against some events being decreed and others being conditional upon matters not decreed absolutely?
9. Why do we say God “permits” sin but does not “cause” sin?
10. How should we understand the texts that appear to say that God caused evil to occur? (Isaiah 45:7, Amos 3:6)
11. Why is it wrong to speak of the “creation of sin”?
12. How is the idea of secondary causes necessary in maintaining a biblical view of God, creation and of moral law?

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