Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2016
God’s Decrees: Certainty and Contingency
[Watch the Video]
There are two difficult issues at work in our fallen nature.
1. Fallen people want to believe they have ultimate control of their own destiny.
2. Fallen people reject the idea of a sovereign God who is beyond our full comprehension.
However, there is a persisting awareness that there is more to life than physical laws and human desires. That awareness is either suppressed and denied, or some deity or force other than the biblical God is imagined.
This has lead to alternate world-views:
Naturalism believes that physical laws and human choices control the direction of history.
Fatalism sees impersonal controling forces as an alternative to a personal God. To the Fatalist god is nothing more than the workings of nature or unknown impersonal forces. All things happen and will ultimately come out in a 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. The best we can hope for is to resign ourselves to fate, and be swept along by blind destiny.
Naturalistic Fatalists see the forces of an evolving universe sweeping us along irresistibly.
The Christian is not left to speculate about such things from within his own human prejudices. The Bible tells us that it’s God’s plan that rules out the uncertainty of events.
The term “Predestination” is usually describes God’s determination to redeem certain individuals to eternal life. The corresponding principle is “Reprobation”, God’s determination to leave some in their lost estate. “Foreordination” is a broader term used to describe all God’s determinations.
Fate is the workings of a machine-like universe without reason or purpose. Providence is God acting personally to carry out his plan to a specific known goal. He directs all things to display his own glory and to bless his people.
The Bible makes it clear that God controls everything he determines should happen. Nothing can ruin his plan.
Psalm 115:3, “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”
Psalm 135:6, “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.”
Job 42:2, “I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.”
Sin and evil are permitted to serve God’s ultimate purposes. This does not make evil to be good, yet 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
Genesis 50:20, “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.”
Acts 2:23 speaking of Jesus says, “this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”
Acts 4:27-28, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”
The personal nature of God gave Job the courage to say, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him!” (Job 13:15)
We were created in God’s image as persons, not as machines. We act and think and choose. We alone are responsible for our sin. However, God alone provides the ability for us to exercise faith, repentance, and obedience. He gives life to fallen hearts, turns them by his Holy Spirit, and gives them a new nature that impels to do good. Yet even in his work of grace we come as persons made willing, not as machines, not as rebels screaming and kicking against his redeeming love.
In Fatalism, fate drags us to an irrational destiny with no purpose. Foreordination has a good purpose. It’s designed by a loving God to reveal his own glory. It produces benefits for his people. It treats us as persons who participate as real beings reflecting the sovereign work of God on our hearts. It does not let us blame God for our rebellion, yet it will equally not let us take credit for our good.
In 1904 Dr. B. B. Warfield wrote an article for the Presbyterian magazine explaining the difference between the biblical doctrine of Foreordination 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.
“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 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)
As to the Extent of the Decrees: Nothing can be exempt from God’s decrees. Events can be conditioned upon other events,
but God’s decrees are not conditioned upon something not decreed. That would make the condition more absolute in determining the course of events than God. If so, God could not control with absolute certainty the outcome toward his intended end. The conditioning issue would have ultimate sovereign control and contradict God’s word.
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, then how does this relate to sinful acts?
All the actions of created intelligences are not merely the actions of God. Creatures act freely and responsibly as the proximate causes of their own moral actions. If God was the proximate cause of every act, all things would simply 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. Shorter Catechism 14, sin is, “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.”
It would contradict God’s nature if 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 whould 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 able to prevent men from sinning. 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 uses 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)
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”
God can restrain sin, and he obviously permits it, but he always employs it for his ultimate glory. Sin is never produced by God. It is never condoned by him. Sin is that which is contrary to the moral principles of God.
God’s mind is not divided into parts (no parts of him could know something detached from other things). Decrees relating to sin and evil are not separate from his overall plan. Everything is altogether and eternally inclined toward his ultimate plan of glory and good.
His plan is revealed to us in parts because that’s how we finite beings 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. Sin directly caused by God would put him in rebellion against himself. This is inconsistent and 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 is not the author of sin or of evil.
The following highly regarded professors and theological writers 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, (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.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
The 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
Acts 14:16, “and in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways;” The Scriptural term describing God’s relationship toward the inclusion of evil in his universe is “permit”. He “allows” [“eiasen” (ειασεν) from “eao” (εαω)] them to act upon their corrupted desires. God “allows” or “permits” his creatures to rebel. He is not in them rebelling against his own moral principles.
Acts 17:30 “therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent.”
God is not the cause of sin. The term “cause” is that which is directly responsible for an action or directly brings a change or action into being. The sinner is held directly responsible for his sin. Persons other than God are always considered the direct agents of evil. This is consistent with the traditional philosophical uses of the term Runes Dictionary of Philosophy pg. 48 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.
Sometimes bad translations of the original biblical text make God appear to be the author or cause of sin. The Hebrew word “ra`” (ךע) means “calamity, disaster, harm”. It can only be used of something wicked as a derived and secondary usage. The Hebrew term “kha-TAH'” (חטא) means “sin, do evil, fail, miss”. It’s never used with respect to God acting.
God, as Lord of all creation, is certainly behind what we might term calamities or natural disasters. Such things are not evil. They have no wicked intentions contrary to the revealed moral principles of God.
In the King James Version Isaiah 45:7 says, “I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” More accurately, the New American Standard Version says that the LORD (Jehovah) is, “…causing well-being, and creating calamity;” The New International Version translates it; “…I bring prosperity and create disaster;”.
In Amos 3:6 the King James Version translates it, “… shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?” The NASB more accurately translates it; “… 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?”
Ultimately we can’t fully solve the problem of sin’s permission. God has not revealed all the details. The fact of its permission is directly revealed. The problem is in our understanding of 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 Adam’s 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)
Sin is not an independently existing created thing. It doesn’t float about in the universe as an independent and unattached entity. It’s an attribute, a moral condition of an agent who acts or intends things which are contrary to moral good as defined by God’s own nature. Evil 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 brought 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 more fully all his own perfections.
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.
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?
(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)