WCF Chapter 3: Of God’s Eternal Decree
When studying God one quickly has to answer challenging questions. How far does God’s authority extend? How much of what happens in this world is God responsible for? For those who take Scripture seriously God’s eternal decree cannot be avoided. Paul sums up what the entire Bible reveals: God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). He wills and does all things. You must believe that. And in the abstract, for God to be sovereign is just what anyone might expect.
But the teaching gets hard when we apply it to specifics. How does God’s sovereignty relate to evil in this world? Does God’s decree undermine human responsibility? Is the eternal punishment of the wicked really God’s will? Clearly “this high mystery … must be handled with special prudence and care.” We must “deal with this teaching in a godly and reverent manner … with a view to the glory of God’s name, holiness of life, and the comfort of anxious souls.”[i]
God Sovereignly “ordain[s] whatsoever comes to pass” (3.1–4)
The biblical God is not local and limited. Either God predetermines everything that comes to pass or he is not God. If God is, then his decree is free, eternal and unchanging, holy, and comprehensive. God cannot be pressured to act. He never changes course. He never makes a mistake. And he decides all things down to common events, like sparrows falling to the ground (Matt. 10:29).
More personally, God’s decree extends to the predestination of some creatures for salvation and others for destruction. Like a potter, Paul explains, God has the right to make out of the same lump of clay “one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (Rom. 9:21). Just as the number of creatures God will make is unchangeably set, so is their character and eternal destiny.
Don’t misunderstand God’s decree.
- God’s decree does not make him sinful. God is essentially holy; he cannot sin. But he can create humans who freely sin against his holy design while acting according to his “definite plan and foreknowledge (Acts 2:23).
- God’s decree does not violate the will of his creatures. God’s hardening of Pharaoh (Ex. 4:21) was so in-line with Pharaoh’s will that Samuel can say Pharaoh hardened his own heart (1 Sam. 6:6).
- God’s decree does not cancel the reality of secondary causes. “God has decided the end from the beginning, but the middle still matters.”[ii] In fact, our choices matter only because of the existence and actions of an eternally decreeing God.
- God’s decree is not based on foresight or deduction. God knows what will happen because he has decreed it to happen, not merely because he has seen that it will happen. God can declare “the end from the beginning” because his “counsel shall stand.” He will accomplish all that he purposes (Is. 46:10).
More specifically, God’s decree affects human destiny.
God Sovereignly Ordains the Salvation Some Sinners (3.5–6)
God not only decrees the course of natural events, like rainfall and vegetation growth (Ps. 147:8), but also the salvation of his elect. The elect are those who, before the foundation of the world God chose in Christ to gather from the ends of the earth to be his friends (Mark 13:20, 27; Eph. 1:4). The word “election” seems to suggest aptitude. In human organizations people are, ideally, selected for their qualifications. But in Scripture “The elect of God” (Col. 3:12 KJV) are simply “God’s chosen ones” (ESV). The elect are in no way more qualified for salvation than others; they are chosen out of God’s “mere free grace and love” without anything “in the creature, as conditions, or causes” for being chosen (see Eph. 2:8–10).
What distinguishes the elect from the rest is their eternal union with God’s Son. God “saved us … not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9). By Adam’s disobedience all people became sinners (Rom. 5:19). But by God’s sovereign choice some sinners were eternally chosen to “receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness … through the one man Jesus Christ” (17). For a charge to stick against God’s children it would have to condemn Christ who always lives for the elect (Rom. 8:33).
God not only eternally joined the elect to Jesus, he also decrees all of the movements in the elect that result in salvation. “For whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son … and those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30).
God Sovereignly Ordains the Destruction of Some Sinners (3.7)
Through some people God glorifies himself through his mercy and love; through others God glorifies himself through his power and justice (Rom. 9:22–23). God is exalted both by revealing himself to some and concealing himself from others (Matt. 11:25–26). “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble” (Prov. 16:4).
Does this make God unjust? It helps to remember that reprobation is passive. In it God decrees to withhold mercy from those whose sinfulness qualifies them for eternal punishment. Because of willful sin “the wrath of God remains” on them (John 3:36). God does not condemn innocent people. God keeps grace from people who are hostile to him; the non-elect do not want God. God reforms the wills of the elect so that they actually desire God. But the wicked would not want an eternity of worshiping their creator. Sadly, those who go to hell get what they want and what they choose. And even if we can’t grasp how God’s decree of reprobation is fair we must resist charging God. As God’s creatures—distorted by sin and largely ignorant of his pure purposes—we are in no position to judge the eternal God (Rom. 9:19–20). “Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” (Rom. 9:14).
How should we respond to God’s decree, not just his decision to pass over some, but to ordain all things? Embrace it! Believe that God’s eternal decree has established the meaning of your choices. God’s working in you “to will and to work for his good pleasure” is why you can and must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12–13). As your will and works harmonize with God’s good intentions you will joyfully praise, revere, admire, and obey God. God’s sovereign decree can become your comfort. This is how to affirm the teaching of God’s will and works: “Whate’er my God ordains is right: here shall my stand be taken; though sorrow, need, or death be mine, yet I am not forsaken. My father’s care is round me there; he holds me that I shall not fall: and so to him I leave it all.”[iii]
[i] See Canons of Dort, Rejection of False Accusations at https://threeforms.org/canons-of-dort/#false_accusations.
[ii] Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 46.
[iii] Samuel Rodigast, Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 231.