Theology: The Doctrine of God
The Decrees of God: General Observations
Having considered the principal sources from which God may be known, and who and what He is in His Being, attributes, and the Persons of the Godhead, we proceed with a discussion of the extrinsic works of God. These can be considered both as to their origin and manifestation. The extrinsic works of God originate in the decrees of God. This is true in a general sense, but also in a special sense, relating to man’s eternal predestination, as well as the Counsel of Peace or the Covenant of Redemption, wherein the Son became Surety on behalf of His elect. The manifestation of the extrinsic works of God relates to nature—creation and providence—or grace, which is the execution of the great work of redemption.
We initially will consider the decrees of God, which is a doctrine from which a believing child of God may derive extraordinary comfort, delight, peace, and joy. God is all-sufficient in Himself, having had no need to create any of His creatures. The creature can neither add glory nor felicity to Him; however, it has pleased the Lord to create creatures in order to communicate His goodness to them and consequently render them happy. God in decreeing creation has eternally purposed and decreed within Himself where, when, how, and of what nature each creature should be, and what each should do and encounter. Whereas the doctrine itself can be deduced from the Word of God, the manner in which God decreed is hidden from us. In this respect we have hindsight rather than foresight. We discuss this doctrine in human terms, seeking to understand it in a manner consistent with God’s Being.
Socinians and Arminians, considering the contingent nature of all that transpires, as well as the fact that man acts according to the free exercise of his will, are prepared to remove everything, particularly that which pertains to man, from under the domain of divine government, as they cannot comprehend how God could have decreed everything so precisely.
They argue: “What happens to the concept of contingency and what remains of the freedom of man’s will? How can prayer, exhortation, and diligence have any purpose, and how then can God be exempt from being the cause of sin and the damnation of man? If man cannot add anything to his salvation, he might as well cease all efforts and live in indifference.” Consequently, they deny that God’s decree extends to everything and that He has decreed specific events from eternity. We, however, being firmly grounded in the truth, maintain upon the basis of God’s Word that there is such a decree of God, a truth which we confess and seek to use in a sanctified manner. In order to present this truth clearly to everyone, we shall consider the essential nature of God’s decree and its particulars, confirm this from God’s Word, respond to objections, and exhort one another to put this doctrine into practice.
We shall begin by considering the testimony of the Word of God. Scripture, in teaching that God has created, maintains, and governs all things according to a decree which He has decreed within Himself, uses a diversity of expressions to describe and represent this eternal decree.
(1) It uses the word decree. “I will declare the decree” (Psa. 2:7); “truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined”2 (Luke 22:22).
(2) It uses the verb to appoint. “For He performeth the thing that is appointed for me” (Job 23:14).
(3) It uses the phrase determinate counsel and foreknowledge. “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23); “For to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:28).
(4) It uses the phrase the counsel of His will and His pleasure. “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure” (Isa. 46:10); “who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11).
(5) It uses the word purpose. “Who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28); “Having made known unto us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which he hath purposed in Himself” (Eph. 1:9).
These texts do not merely provide us with the various designations for this decree, but convincingly and simultaneously confirm the truth of the doctrine that God has eternally made a decree, according to which proceeds all that transpires in this time state.
In human decision-making, people will view a matter from all angles, considering both pros and cons, in order to determine its feasibility. Often they cannot analyze the situation correctly, vacillate between two options, and ultimately must make a decision based on the facts as they appear to be at that moment and in similar situations. Far be it from us, however, to attribute such imperfections to the omniscient, only-wise, omnipotent, and immutable God; His ways are not as our ways. We cannot analyze in what manner the Lord decrees and establishes His counsel and purpose. We know, however, that He does so and that our human terminology gives expression to the unsearchable wisdom and immovability of God’s purpose, as well as His comprehensive plan concerning all things as to the manner of their existence and the time of their occurrence.
The Decree of God Defined
We understand the decree of God to be the eternal, volitional, all-wise, sovereign, and immutable purpose of God concerning all and every matter, comprehending both the time and the manner in which these matters will occur.
Prior to the creation of the world there was only eternity, and thus matter, bodies, forms of life, and whatever else one may imagine, did not exist. God, who inhabited eternity, purposed to create a world, populate it with creatures, and maintain and govern them, thereby determining and stipulating the place, activity, and the course of events transpiring during the existence of each creature. This decree is the original cause whereby and according to which all things exist and occur in time, existing and occurring without deviation from this decree. Men first form a mental concept of that which they wish to make, adding and subtracting things which initially they have either partly or fully observed. Concerning God, however, there was no design external to Him imposed upon Him after which He would pattern that which He wished to create. All that He has created is an expression of His counsel. God’s decree is the vehicle whereby He gives expression to His counsel; all that exists and transpires is the expression of that decree. The decree of God, being an intrinsic act of His will, is not incidental to God, but is the decreeing God Himself.
God’s decree is from eternity. God does not decree things in response to issues which are already present; such is the manner of human decision-making. Rather, prior to the creation and existence of the world, He ordained all the events which He would bring into existence; that is, the time and place, means of execution, individual activities, and the individual circumstances from beginning to end for each.
Scripture states emphatically, “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18). God, by virtue of His decree, has foreknowledge of all that will exist and occur in time, so that according to His will, by an act of His omnipotence, all matters are transferred from a state of potential existence to actual existence. It thus logically follows that God’s eternal foreknowledge of all matters necessarily follows from the fact that He has eternally decreed them. “According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4); “… to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Tim. 1:9).
That which exists prior to time is necessarily exclusive of the concept of time. Prior to the existence of time there was only eternity. Should the thought occur concerning the moment when God made His decree prior to the existence of time, one is without knowing it already thinking within the parameters of time. Eternity necessarily excludes duration of time and chronology. Eternity is an incomprehensible concept for us as temporal creatures. Since God’s decrees are existent prior to time, they are necessarily eternal. In the execution of things both duration of time and chronology are factors; however, also this chronology has been eternally decreed by God by a singular act of His will. In sequence and nature God Himself precedes His decree; however, in view of the eternal existence of this decree, such cannot be true in a chronological sense. Even among creatures the cause of an event does not always chronologically precede its effects.
In considering God’s decree we must differentiate between viewing this decree relative to the decreeing God, it being a singular act of His will, or relative to the matters which have been decreed. In the latter there are as many dimensions to this decree as there are matters to which this decree relates.
The decree of God is in all aspects volitional and noncompulsory. It is also not motivated in the least degree by any internal or external necessary causes. It is purely an expression of His sovereign good pleasure. “Having made known unto us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He hath purposed in Himself” (Eph. 1:9), “after the counsel of His own will” (verse 11). Compulsion and volition are mutually exclusive, but necessity and volition can very well coexist. God’s Being is of necessity volitional. The fact, however, that His will extends to matters which are extrinsic to His Being, that is, to create and govern them; to decree their manner of existence; to establish the course of events during their existence, that one will be rich and the other poor, that one will live in this locality and the other in that locality—all this is purely volitional. God could have decreed to create nothing; or if it were His will to create and govern, He could have created in a different fashion and have established a different course of events for His creatures.
If a potter has power over clay to create a vessel purely by the free exercise of His will, if the head of a household has the prerogative to furnish his home as he pleases by placing one object here and another there, would then the sovereign Lord of all things not have the prerogative to deal with His clay and with His creatures according to His good pleasure? Would anyone be able to prevent Him, who is omnipotent, from doing so, thus having to adjust Himself to the whims of His creation? Would anyone be able to say, “Why hast Thou decreed it to be thus and not otherwise?” Would any creature be able to compel Him to establish a particular decree? This obviously cannot be so! His decree is the expression of His sovereign good pleasure, and it is for this reason that everything, transpiring as it does, is good because He wills it to be so. How blessed it is for the creature to acknowledge this, approve of it, and surrender His will to the will of God.
God has decreed everything with eternal, infinite, and unsearchable wisdom. When people construct something peculiar or extraordinary, we are amazed and exclaim, “How has man been able to conceive this?” Nevertheless, the idea is not truly original, having been derived from other principles which have been observed either in animals, inanimate objects, or in the work of other men. By way of subtraction or addition, or by a rearrangement of order, he has developed the concept for his creation. But “who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being His counsellor hath taught Him?” (Isa. 40:13). He, who is “the only wise God” (1 Tim. 1:17), whose “understanding is infinite” (Psa. 147:5), who in wisdom has made all things (Psa. 104:24), has also, before the existence of time, with wisdom ordained and decreed all things. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!” (Rom. 11:33).
The Characteristics of God’s Decrees
The decrees of God are independent, absolute, purely unconditional, and not dependent upon secondary causes. Everything has most certainly been decreed, will most certainly come to pass, and will not have any other result or purpose than that which has been decreed. God has indeed decreed that many things will come to pass by virtue of secondary causes and means. These secondary causes, however, are not conditional to the decree; as if God has made a conditional decree which would change if these conditions were not met; as if these conditions were subject to the control of the creature or to chance. Rather, these secondary causes are merely the means whereby the decree is executed. Both these means as well as the ultimate outcome of the decree have been most certainly decreed, even though there may be much uncertainty and contingency relative to these secondary causes. Such contingency exists relative to the creature, but never with God.
Did God decree many things conditionally, so that their ultimate outcome depends on whether or not these conditions are fulfilled, the latter being dependent upon the manner in which man exercises his power and free will?
Socinians, Arminians, and Jesuits answer in the affirmative, whereas we answer in the negative for the following reasons:
First, if God had made such a conditional decree, this would have been either because He could not do otherwise as He could be prevented from executing His decree or because He did not will differently, leaving the fulfillment of the condition or the lack of it in the hands of man. The first proposition cannot be true because God is omnipotent, and He exercises this omnipotence in the execution of His decree. “For the
LORD of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it?” (Isa. 14:27).
The second is also impossible, because a creature is not able to function independently from God; he cannot do anything apart from His influence and government. “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
The nature of man is such that it is impossible for God to make a decree concerning those matters in which man exercises his free will. God has created the will of man in such a fashion that it cannot be compelled but always retains its freedom to will or not to will something. God could have decreed to save any individual unconditionally, regardless of how such a person would conduct himself. If God, however, elects a person who will believe and repent, then this choice must necessarily be conditional, being dependent on the exercise of man’s free will as to whether or not he wishes to believe and repent.
(1) The freedom of the will does not consist of an arbitrary disposition in determining whether one will or will not do something; rather its function is a necessary consequence of one’s judgment and inclination.
(2) Both a freedom of will which is arbitrary in nature and a freedom of will which is self-determining do not function independently from God. God causes man to will. He works in men to will and fashions the hearts of all men (Psa. 33:15). He turns the hearts even of kings as rivers of water whithersoever He will (Prov. 21:1). Is not He who has given man a will able once again to give him a good will if it so pleases Him?
(3) Faith and repentance are not conditions upon which the decree is made. Rather, God has decreed these means as well as the final outcome in order to accomplish His ultimate purpose. Thus, this argument neither applies nor renders the foregoing proof invalid.
(4) If the decree of God were contingent upon something which in turn was independent from Him, the Creator would be dependent upon the creature.
Secondly, God’s decree was made purely according to His good pleasure,
And therefore could not have been made contingent upon any conditions. “Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in Thy sight” (Mat. 11:26); “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will” (Eph. 1:5). God accomplishes this good pleasure irresistibly. “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure” (Isa. 46:10). In light of this, how can there be a condition upon which God’s decree would be contingent? It would contradict the sovereignty, wisdom, and omnipotence of God.
Thirdly, all the decrees of God are immutable.
“That the purpose of God according to election might stand” (Rom. 9:11); “For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6); “… the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of His own will begat He us …” (James 1:17–18). That which is contingent upon a condition, however, not having been decreed, and which, as some parties insist, is contingent upon man’s own control and the exercise of his free will, must of necessity be mutable. Consequently, the immutable decree of God cannot be contingent upon any condition. God does not change His decree in response to man’s mutability, but all human changes occur in harmony with the immutable decree of God, who by means of human mutability immutably executes the comprehensive relationship which He has decreed between the means and the end, between sin and its punishment, and between godliness and the experience of salvation.
“But ye have set at nought all My counsel” (Prov. 1:25); “But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves” (Luke 7:30). From this it is evident that men can reject the counsel of God, rendering His decree impotent. Therefore, it must be concluded that God’s decrees are of a contingent nature.
The word “counsel” as used in these texts does not refer to the decree of God, which at times is indeed referred to as “counsel,” but refers to a directive accompanied either by promises or threats, which becomes evident from the texts themselves. In Proverbs 1:25 there is added, “and would none of my reproof.” The counsel as expressed in verse 23 was to repent. It is presented with a reproof, “Turn you at my reproof,” and with promises, “Behold, I will pour out My Spirit unto you.” This exhortation they had not obeyed. The same is true for Luke 7:30. John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus had admonished the people of Israel to repent, for John preached the baptism of repentance, proclaiming that they should believe in Him who would come after him (Acts 19:4). They disobeyed this admonition, rejecting the counsel, the directive, this being evidenced by the additional clause “being not baptized of Him.”
God’s Word contains many conditional promises and threats. Since all promises and threats issue forth from one of God’s decrees, there must of necessity be conditional decrees. Note these conditional aspects in the following texts, “If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword” (Isa. 1:19–20); “And it shall come to pass, if ye diligently hearken unto Me … then shall there enter into the gates of this city kings and princes … but if ye will not hearken unto Me … then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof,” etc. (Jer. 17:24–25, 27).
It is a well-known truth which we readily embrace, that God’s Word contains many conditional promises and threatenings issuing forth from one of God’s decrees. We deny, however, the deduction that God’s decrees must then of necessity also be conditional. The one does not imply the other, for it only follows that God has decreed to make such conditional promises and threats. He has decreed the cohesive relationship between these matters to be such, that it will be well with the righteous and ill with the wicked. If someone improves, repents, and believes, it is the work of God. God converts (James 1:18), gives faith (Eph. 2:8), and works both to will and to do (Phil. 2:13). “Without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). God’s decree relative to all this is absolute and unconditional: to bring the elect to salvation in the way of repentance and faith, and to damn all others in consequence of their sins. The decree is absolute, but its execution is by means which have been decreed as certainly as the end itself.
God is said to change His decree if the condition is not fulfilled. Thus, the decree is conditional. This is to be seen in Scripture: “I said indeed that thy house, and the house of thy father, should walk before Me for ever: but now the LORD saith, Be it far from Me; for them that honour Me I will honour, and they that despise Me shall be lightly esteemed” (1 Sam. 2:30); “For now would the LORD have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue” (1 Sam. 13:13–14).
In these texts there is no reference to the decree of God, but rather to the execution of the decree. God does not make a decree in this time state in response to the issues at hand, but His decree has been made from eternity (cf. Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:4). Thus, the execution of the decree is not contingent upon a condition which occurs in time. These texts merely demonstrate the relationship between sin and punishment, and between godliness and divine blessing. God uses these as a means to convince man of his duty, and of God’s righteousness in punishing sin when man fails to perform his duty. He also uses such texts as means to lead the elect to godliness and thus to bestow the salvation which He had ordained. “I had said,” that is, “I had promised you upon condition of obedience. You did not obey, however, and neither did I will to give you such an obedient heart. I was neither obligated to do so, nor did I decree to give you such a heart. Thus, the fulfillment of the promises will also not be yours.”
God’s decree is immutable. If God were to change His decree, it would either be because subsequent to the decree He perceived that it was not good, there being a better option, or because a circumstance presented itself preventing Him from executing His decree. Neither of these two possibilities can be true concerning God. The first possibility cannot be true for He is the only wise God, and the second possibility cannot be true as He is the omnipotent One. Thus, it is certain that nothing can cause a change in God’s decrees. Scripture confirms this in many places. “I am the LORD, I change not” (Mal. 3:6); “… with whom is no variableness” (James 1:17); “For the LORD of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it?” (Isa. 14:27); “My counsel shall stand” (Isa. 46:10); “That the purpose of God according to election might stand” (Rom. 9:11); “Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel” (Heb. 6:17).
Objection: God is said to repent, not to fulfill His promises and threatenings, presently to command something different than He did before, and to change His dealings.
Such statements are never made in reference to God’s decrees. This manner of speech merely reveals the relationship between the matters and the condition, be it expressed or implied—all of which God has in each case most certainly decreed to propose or to command. Thus, He permits the ungodly in their wickedness to fail His requirements, in consequence of which they do not receive the promised blessing, but rather are partakers of the threatened punishment; whereas He causes the elect to fulfil the condition and thus obtain the decreed blessings.
Having considered the particulars of God’s decree, we must now consider that which God decrees.
His decree pertains to all matters in general and each individual matter in particular. No matter, no activity, meeting, no final results (whether they be great or small, good or evil)—be it that it all transpires in the common course of nature—are contingent upon secondary causes or happen accidentally. This is also applicable to the results of man exercising his free will, such as wars and their outcomes, marriages and all their related incidents, the times and places of our residence, our birthday and day of death—none of these matters are excluded. In a word, everything, every angel, every inanimate created object in heaven and upon earth, every man, every action, every result, and whatever may exist regardless of the name attributed to it—all function at a particular time and place according to a most certain and immovable decree. The one decree relates both to the intent and the execution of plans; the other relates to that which God permits and yet governs. This is taught throughout the entire Scriptures.
First, there are texts of an all-inclusive nature.
“Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18); “… Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11). The word “all” is all-inclusive, and there are no exceptions.
Secondly, there are texts which refer to specific matters, such as,
(1) the place and time of everyone’s residence. “… and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation” (Acts 17:26);
(2) all the events which occur in man’s lifetime. “He performeth the thing that is appointed for me” (Job 23:14);
(3) the blessings which will be bestowed upon the elect. “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.… Having made known unto us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He hath purposed in Himself” (Eph. 1:5, 9);
(4) the election and reprobation of persons and nations. “That the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth; it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom. 9:11–13);
(5) that which is accomplished by the exercise of man’s free will. This is evident from that which men did to Christ. “And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom He is betrayed!” (Luke 22:22); “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken,” etc. (Acts 2:23); “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” (Acts 4:27–28);
(6) marriage. “Let the same be the woman whom the LORD hath appointed out for my master’s son” (Gen. 24:44); “What therefore God hath joined together …” (Mat. 19:6).
Thirdly, the time, place, manner, and circumstances of the death of each man have been determined.
(1) This is expressly stated in Scripture. “Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with Thee, Thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5). Job, referring to all men, speaks of a specified number of days and months which have been appointed, to which not one month or day will be added; that is, he will not live longer than this appointed time. David speaks likewise: “LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth” (Psa. 39:4–5). His reference here is not to the brevity of human life in general, but particularly that God has allotted him a measure of days, the duration of his life having its limits defined as it were by an handbreadth, so that his life was but a very short, predetermined time. “… and hath determined the times before appointed” (Acts 17:26).
(2) As He determines the day of birth of every man, likewise God Himself takes man’s life at His time. God has life and death in His hand, works everything according to His determinate counsel (Acts 2:23), and according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). Consequently, man’s age has been determined. “My times are in Thy hand” (Psa. 31:15); “Thou turnest man to destruction” (Psa. 90:3); “He shall cut off the spirit of princes” (Psa. 76:12); “The Lord killeth, and maketh alive” (1 Sam. 2:6). Yes, even when someone dies due to an apparent accident, it is by divine government. If a man in passing is killed by an axe which has slipped from the helve (Deu. 19:5), God will have delivered that man into the hand of the hewer of wood (Exo. 21:13). God had determined Ahab’s age, even though it appeared that the arrow of a marksman hit him accidentally (1 Ki. 22:28, 34). Did not God determine the age of the first world, and of the one hundred eighty-five thousand soldiers in Sennacharib’s army?
The duration of life depends upon the good or evil behavior of man, according to which God either lengthens or shortens his life. Therefore the day of his death has not been precisely determined. “… that thy days may be long” (Exo. 20:12).
This lengthening of days is not related to the decree of God in which the terminus of each life has been determined. It rather expresses the relationship which God has established between godliness and blessing. Both have been decreed by God, the one as the end and the other as the means wrought in them by God Himself.
“Bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days” (Psa. 55:23). Thus, there is no established decree concerning the hour of man’s death.
If this text refers to the decree of God, it obviously expresses that the precise duration of life has been determined, for if the half of such a life has been determined, the end has been determined with equal certainty. Then we would have to conclude that God had indeed determined the hour of each person’s death, but that the person could yet resist and undo the determinate counsel of God. This is impossible, as we have shown. It is evident that this text does not refer to the decree of God, but rather to the natural resiliency of the body which potentially could enable man to live a much longer life. It could also refer to the possible notion of the ungodly that they will live a long life, but God—due to their ungodliness and according to His decree—joins the end and the means and thus removes them in the strength of their life. It is from this perspective that we must view Ecclesiastes 7:17, “Why shouldest thou die before thy time?”
“Behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years” (Isa. 38:5). This proves that there is no established decree concerning the duration of man’s life.
It is obviously stated here that the duration of Hezekiah’s life is limited to an additional fifteen years. God had decreed that this illness would not be unto death, but that his death would occur fifteen years later, even though, if God had not miraculously healed him, according to his physical condition he should have died. He therefore received a message that he would die.
Man has his life in his own hand. He has the option to drown or hang himself, and thus, as some do, shorten the duration of his life.
If someone commits such an act, the time of his death was according to God’s decree. The fact is that in judgment upon his sins he would be his own executioner and thus die an ungodly death. If it is not his time, however, such a person will neither commit this act, nor will he be desirous to do so, but rather make every effort to preserve his life. Someone may be able to shorten his life as far as the potential of his natural constitution is concerned, but not relative to God’s decree.
If the hour of death has been determined for every person, from which follows that man will not die before his time, there is no need that one avail himself of the means. Then one does not need to eat, one can throw himself in water or fire, and in illness one need not avail himself of medicine, etc.
God, having decreed the end, has also decreed the means to that end, and thus will motivate man to use the means for both body and soul, and man will delight in them. One may not use the means, however, with the foolish objective to change the decree of God, but rather in subjection to God’s counsel, since God has commanded us to use the means. “Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 27:31); “I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them” (Ezek 36:37).
Since man is completely free to do or not to do a certain thing, the outcome of nearly every event depends upon the exercise of man’s will. Since many things occur accidentally, the time and place of man’s death could not have been decreed. To go a step further, therefore there cannot be such a decree of God pertaining to all things, for then everything would have to occur by unavoidable necessity.
(1) It is erroneous to maintain that the freedom of the will consists in doing or not doing something. Man’s will does not function arbitrarily but of itself, so that man does everything with consent and inclination. God, who has created the will to function in this manner, inclines it, without compulsion and in harmony with its propensity, to function in accordance with His will.
(2) The outcome of events does not depend upon man, nor upon his activity, but upon God who grants the means, and according to these means brings to pass the outcome according to His good pleasure. He grants to one more strength, wisdom, and wealth than the other (Prov. 22:2), and provides one king with a larger army than the other. Even then, God often demonstrates that the final outcome does not depend on strength, wisdom, wealth, and number, but the ultimate outcome of events is from Him (cf. Prov. 21:31; Psa. 33:16).
(3) In respect to man and secondary causes, everything is contingent and accidental. Such however is not the case from God’s perspective. He has most certainly decreed everything, and without impediment will execute His decree according to His good pleasure. This is even true for those events which appear to be most contingent in nature, such as an unexpected murder (Exo. 21:12–13), the casting of lots (Prov. 16:33), the falling of a sparrow from the rooftop, and the falling of a hair from our heads (Mat. 10:29–30).
(4) It is true that everything occurs by unavoidable necessity; however, it does not occur by compulsion. There is a threefold necessity. First, there is an internal necessity which proceeds from the very nature of a matter. Thus, fire burns of necessity, and that which is heavy necessarily falls downward. Secondly, there is a necessity which is the result of external compulsion, as for instance when a man compels a child, against his will, to go where he wishes him to go. Thirdly, there is a necessity stemming from dependence and the outcome of events. Every creature of necessity depends on God in all his activity, and the outcome of every event will necessarily be according to God’s will. God, having most certainly decreed everything, executes everything irresistibly—not in an unnatural, compulsory manner, but in harmony with the nature of His creatures. Therefore, relative to God’s decree everything happens of necessity, even though there is contingency relative to secondary causes.
Therefore refrain from the Socinian, Anabaptist, Arminian, Jesuit, and all who submit to natural reason, who are ignorant of God and His way, reject and contradict these truths, seek to dethrone God, and make man master of all. We cast down the imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself and bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), and defend this doctrine which is so comforting and profitable for believers.
All believers, even though they believe these truths, do not have equal clarity concerning them but are often subject to temptation when they pray for a situation which they strongly desire. When things do not go well, when they experience adversity or are oppressed by various circumstances, they readily lose sight of the decree of God, being overcome by fear, and cannot submit themselves to God’s decree with love and delight. They believe the Lord to be against them and to have decreed nothing in their favor. When they resort to prayer in these circumstances, they are sorely troubled by thoughts such as: “Of what use are my prayers, since I will neither receive what I request nor be delivered except it be decreed, and I fear that the decree is not in my favor.” Such thoughts diminish their zeal. Prayer is impeded and becomes listless, clearly proving that we do not sufficiently love the decree of God, for we become more active to bring God’s will in line with our desires, than our desires with God’s will. We are more concerned to bring God’s counsel in line with our will, than that our will be in line with His. This grieves believers and causes them to be much troubled within. They would gladly have faith in God’s decree, delight in it, and believe that in all things it is for their good. They desire to use prayer and all available means to stimulate a holy desire to surrender to God’s counsel, who by decreed means accomplishes the decreed end.
They are much hindered, however, in this pursuit.
(1) Some are hindered by ignorance, having not been sufficiently instructed in these and other truths.
(2) Others are hindered by negligence, lacking the discipline to meditate upon this truth in order to become intimately acquainted with it.
(3) Some are hindered by strong and impure desires for earthly things.
(4) Others are hindered by failure to acquaint themselves with the Word of God whereby a text might readily be available when specific circumstances present themselves.
(5) Some are hindered by focusing too much on the circumstances, whether they are for or against them. All of this brings on darkness and yields opportunity for unbelief, thus allowing it to flourish.
Exhortation to Profit from this Doctrine
Do you desire to profit from this comforting doctrine?
First, seek to rid yourself of inordinate and close attachment to earthly things, and be diligent in renouncing your own will.
The things of this earth are not your portion, and therefore cannot satisfy. Have you not often experienced that instead of resulting in more holiness, they rob you of your peace and spiritual liberty, hindering you from running your course with joy? Have you not often perceived in retrospect that it was God’s wisdom and goodness that He did not give you the desire of your heart, and that at times you were uncomfortable when your desire was granted? Why then are you so set upon receiving your desire? Is it not much better to rest in God’s decree?
Secondly, seek often to stimulate love for the sovereignty of God.
Do you wish God to be your servant in order that you might receive your foolish desires? Or is it your joy that He is Lord, that He acts freely, and that as supreme Sovereign He rules everything according to His will, so that no one can stay His hand and say, “What doest Thou?” Would you wish God to be subject to you, and to do your bidding? Do you not rather desire that, without the least deviation, His will be accomplished, both in regard to all things and in regard to yourself, even if you would have to lose all that you possess? You would certainly approve of this if you would but quietly contemplate this.
Therefore, rejoice in His sovereignty and render Him honor and glory. You will then find sweet rest in His decree concerning the future, the present, and the past.
Thirdly, consider and believe unreservedly that all that God has decreed concerning His elect He has decreed to their benefit to such a degree that they could not have imagined or desired anything to be more profitable.
Approve of this truth and apply it to your own situation. If you may believe yourself to be a partaker of Jesus Christ, God’s decree will be precious to you. You will be able to find sweet rest in it, and you will be able to surrender everything into the Lord’s hand with ease, saying, “He may accomplish in me whatever He has decreed concerning me, and it will be well.”
Fourthly, you have no prior knowledge of what God has decreed concerning you in various specific circumstances.
This much you know, however, that God works out His decree in the way of means, and has bound us to these means. Whoever refuses to use the means—which God will cause him to do if He has so decreed—has no right to complain, as he himself is to be blamed for it. “Ye have not, because ye ask not” (James 4:2). The promise is, “Ask, and it shall be given you” (Mat. 7:7); “Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it” (Psa. 81:10). Keep yourself from using unlawful means, for then you are losing sight of God’s decree, thus expecting it from the means. Use lawful means, and use them with the desire that God’s counsel be accomplished rather than having the intent to change it. Let there then be no anxiety concerning the outcome of the matter, knowing that the outcome will be such as God in His counsel has decreed to be to your benefit. If this may be your practice, you will avoid or overcome many temptations, and preserve a quiet inner disposition.
By confirming and believing this truth while allowing yourself to grow accustomed to it through much meditation, you will be armed and strong in all circumstances of life; your desires will be holy, your concerns will be moderate, and you will use the means with more liberty, and yet carefully.
Should there be many evil circumstances, that you are threatened or oppressed with poverty, injury, disgrace, devastation by enemies, famine, pestilence, loss of property, loved ones, or life, the decree brings quietness since it is not inflicted by man, but is all according to God’s eternal counsel, which you should neither desire to change, nor can be changed by anyone. Consider that His decree is for your good, even though you cannot perceive this beforehand. Then you will not fear, even if everything were to be turned upsidedown.
If you are currently desirous for something, meditation upon God’s decree will not remove this desire, but will rather sanctify it, thus encouraging you to bring your desires before God more freely. Or it may cause you to bow before the Lord in holy submission, confessing, “Thy will be done!” without daring to insist strongly upon receiving your desire, but rather to have your desire swallowed up in God’s will. It will soon become evident whether a person is entertaining any impure desires, which in such a frame will readily be extinguished. It will not only keep us from ever doing evil in order that good might come out of it, but rather it will motivate us to yield everything into the hands of the Lord, be satisfied with this, and thank the Lord in all things, confessing, “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).
Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 1:193–209.