The Decrees of God

The Divine Decrees of God[1]

In general, we can begin by defining what we mean by a “decree” of God.  A decree reflects the definite plan of God; Wollebius[2] defined a decree as: “an internal act of the divine will, by which he determines from eternity, freely, and with absolute certainty, those matters which shall happen in time.”[3]  Thus, when we are speaking of the “Decrees of God,” the definition is focused on three basic aspects:

  1. The Decrees were made in eternity, prior to God’s creative act.  This is not a portrayal of God that pictures him working along through history, hoping that he can bring his desires into reality, but a God who is in sovereign control over history.[4]
  2. These Decrees were made in perfect consistency with God’s immutable will.[5]  All these decrees flow out of his perfections and are good and right and designed for the bringing about of God’s purposes.
  3. These Decrees were made without outside influence[6] (as in eternity prior, there was nothing outside of our Godhead) and without any internal deficiency or need. 

With this definition in mind, there are seven attributes or character traits that can be said to belong to these decrees:  they are founded on divine wisdom; they are eternal; they are efficacious; they are unchangeable; they are unconditional; they are all-comprehensive; and they are permissive with respect to sin.

  1. They are founded on Divine Wisdom.  God neither pronounces his decrees randomly nor in a way that is arbitrary or fickle, but his sovereign decrees are pronounced in, by, and through his divine wisdom.  This gives his decrees purpose and meaning and gives us every reason to trust in said decrees.  They are his “good pleasure” to design, are grounded in God’s ever-wise foreknowledge[7], and they come to pass as a result of God’s ever-wise foreordaining.[8] 
  2. They are eternal.  The Decrees of God are formed from before the beginning of time and will relate to all things that will come to pass, beginning with God’s first spoken word of creation and continuing forever without end.[9]
  3. They are efficacious.  What God decrees comes to pass.  While man may plan, contrive, and anticipate all sorts of endeavors, he cannot so much as make one hair white or black[10], nor add an hour to his life.[11]  Yet, God can do all things that he sets before himself to do; the God of the Bible is not a God who sits in submission to the works of men nor is he a God whose plans are able to be undone by the aspirations of man.[12]
  4. They are unchangeable.  God is not a God who is fickle as men are fickle, nor is he a God of chaos.  If God’s will is perfect, then, by definition, there is no room to improve on that perfection, and hence the concept of change in the decrees of God is nonsensical.[13]
  5. They are unconditional.  God does not act in response to outside input; God’s actions and decrees are not caused by anything apart from his perfect will.  Neither do God’s decrees rely on fallen man so that they may come to pass; they come to pass because God so decrees.[14]
  6. They are allcomprehensive.  Some have made the suggestion that God’s decrees are only concerned with salvation and do not apply to anything else.  Yet God has ordered all things according to the counsel of his will[15] and has set all things into being[16], from the greatest of things to the smallest.  He numbers our hairs[17], feeds the birds of the air[18], and he has set the moon and stars into their respective orbits.[19]  Even what we view as evil in this world is brought to pass through the will and decrees of God.[20]  Note that this does not mean that God is the author of evil, yet he uses the evil that comes through sin and rebellion to accomplish his good and perfect will.  There is nothing that we experience in this world that does not fall under the oversight of God’s decrees.[21]
  7. With reference to sin, they are permissive.  God is not the author of sin[22], yet God yet permits sin to come about through secondary causes, using it to complete God’s good and perfect plan.[23]


Objections to the Doctrine of God’s Decrees:

There are several concerns that rise when we use the language of God’s decrees that ought to be addressed.  The first is one which we have already dealt with in that the language of decrees can seem to imply that God is the author of sin.  In discussing this, we must add to what has already been discussed the concept that sin is an attribute of the fall much in the same way that wisdom is an attribute of God.  Wisdom is not so much a created thing as it is a reflection of God’s perfect being and actions.  In the same way, sin is not so much a created thing, but it is a reflection of our fallen state and actions.  We miss the mark, when it comes to God’s righteousness, and hence we sin.  Even so, this doctrine does contain the idea that God willingly chose to permit the fall to take place and could have ordained otherwise.  Yet, as Augustine suggested, there is a blessedness in the fall, for without the fall of man, we would not know the full extent of Jesus’ sacrificial love for us as his people.

The second concern that has been raised with the Doctrine of God’s Decrees is that such a doctrine robs man of his moral freedom and will, thus removing from him the liability for his sin, making the idea of salvation meaningless.  This debate is at the core of the Calvinist-Wesleyan/Arminian[24] debate.  It is not our purpose here to delve into this debate beyond the following principle:  the scriptures present the God of the Bible as being sovereign over all things and the scriptures present man as being responsible and culpable for his sin.  Any theology that does not affirm both of these principles is out of accord with orthodox Christianity and both the Calvinist and the Wesleyan seek to present a theology that affirms both of these principles.  With this in mind, whether Wesleyan or Calvinistic, one is right to speak of the decrees of a sovereign God.

The third concern flows out of the previous question and leads us to the discussion of election and predestination.  It is felt that in affirming a doctrine of God’s decrees (assuming that God has decreed who will come to him in faith) one robs man of the motivation for evangelism and of the responsibility to seek him in a stance of worship.  Yet, this objection misunderstands the position of the Calvinist.[25]  Scripture clearly affirms that man is used as a tool by God[26] to bring about his ends and that our primary task as the church is to go out and make disciples of all nations[27] through the process of preaching and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.[28] Thus, regardless of your position on decrees and on predestination, the making of disciples through evangelism and teaching is the work we have been commissioned to do.[29]

[1] While we normally refer to “Decrees” of God in the plural, it should be noted that this is not meant to suggest the disunity of God’s decretive work.  All of the decrees of God flow from his perfections in such unity that one could realistically speak of them as if they were a single, multi-faceted

[2] Johannes Wollebius (1586-1629) was a Dutch theologian and professor of Old Testament at the University of Basel.

[3] Compendium of Christian Theology (need more accurate citation)

[4] Acts 2:23; Job 11:7-9; 21:22; 1 Corinthians 8:6.

[5] Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:11; Proverbs 16:4; Job 40:2.

[6] Romans 11:34-35; Isaiah 40:12-14; Job 34:13-15.

[7] There is an important distinction that must be made between foreknowledge and foreordination.  Foreknowledge, drawn from the Greek term proginw/skw (proginosko), literally means, “to know beforehand.”  Yet, we must understand that this knowledge is not simply a result of God gazing ahead in time and seeing what will come to pass.  Knowing, in its Biblical usage, refers to a relational knowledge.  Thus, foreknowledge not only reflects God’s perfect knowledge of all time from eternity prior, but it also reflects God’s setting his affections upon that which he foreknows or those which he foreknew.  In contrast, foreordination is represented by several Greek words:  pro/qesiß (prothesis), which means “to will beforehand” (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:11; 3:11); and proori/zw (proorizo), which means “to decide beforehand” or “to predetermine” (Acts 4:28; Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 2:7).

[8] Acts 15:18; Psalm 84:8-11; Ephesians 1:9-11.

[9] Ephesians 1:4; Isaiah 48:13; Matthew 25:34; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 17:8.

[10] Matthew 5:36.

[11] Matthew 6:27.

[12] Psalm 33:10; Proverbs 19:21; Isaiah 46:10; Acts 2:21.

[13] Ephesians 1:11; James 1:17; Job 23:13-14; Psalm 33:11; Luke 22:22.

[14] Ephesians 2:8; 1 Peter 1:2.

[15] Ephesians 1:11.

[16] Job 38.

[17] Matthew 10:30.

[18] Matthew 6:26.

[19] Psalm 8:3.

[20] Isaiah 45:5-7.

[21] Deuteronomy 18:22; Isaiah 42:9; Ezekiel 24:14.

[22] James 1:13; Job 34:10—note, the concept of God sinning is self-contradictory and nonsensical.  Sin, by definition, refers to missing the mark—not living up to the righteous standard of God.  Thus for God not to be able to live up to the standard that is set by his own essential character is a contradiction of the very term and makes no sense.

[23] Genesis 50:20.

[24] It should be noted that while many Calvinists confuse Wesleyanism with Arminianism, assuming their views to be synonymous, there is a distinction between the two.  Wesley adapted the positions of the Remonstrance particularly in the area of the extent of the fall.  The Arminians held that the fall did not affect the human will, thus allowing man freedom of choosing God rightly on one’s own.  Wesley properly understood that the fall affected the will as well as the mind and flesh, yet argued that the work of the Cross made it possible for man to choose God when presented with the Gospel (falls under Wesley’s category of “Prevenient Grace”).

[25] It should be noted that one ought not confuse the position of the Calvinist with the heretical position of hyper-calvinism, which does, in fact, hold that believers have no obligation to evangelize because of God’s predestining work.

[26] Zechariah 9:13; Romans 9:19-24.

[27] Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; John 20:21; Acts 1:8.

[28] Luke 24:47; Romans 10:14-17.

[29] Sometimes it is easier to talk about these decrees in the negative:  God is not the author of sin; God does not repress the will of created beings; God does not eliminate secondary causes; God does not relinquish his divine sovereignty.

About preacherwin

A pastor, teacher, and a theologian concerned about the confused state of the church in America and elsewhere...Writing because the Christian should think Biblically.

Posted on June 07, 2008, in Pastoral Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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