Wednesday @ Westminster: What are the Decrees of God?
Apr 6, 2016
What have you done for me lately? As a former basketball player I new this line well. No one cared about your last game. All that mattered was today and what you would do in the games to come. It’s no stretch of the imagination to say that this kind of attitude affects us all. At least here in America, we are captive to the arrogance and self-centeredness of chronological snobbery. We do not look to the past nor do we care much about it; but what we do care about is today and progressing into the future. As believers in Christ we have been liberated from the bondage of such a worldview. More and more we are to be transformed in our minds from such a worldview (Rom. 12:1–2).
One of the ways we see the Word of God challenge this worldview is in its revelation of God’s eternal decrees. Think about that: God’s plans and his eternal plans are disclosed to us, sin-bound creatures. The Westminster Larger Catechism says it like this:
What are the decrees of God?God's decrees are the wise, free, and holy acts of the counsel of his will, whereby, from all eternity, he hath, for his own glory, unchangeably foreordained whatsoever comes to pass in time, especially concerning angels and men. (Q&A 12)
In summary, the Catechism teaches us that the decrees of God are his plan and his purpose for all things. As believers, we need to spend time meditating upon the past—even eternity. One place in Scripture we read of these decrees for “whatsoever comes to pass in time” is Ephesians 1:4–11.
His Plan for All Things
God’s decrees are his plan for all things. The Christian God does not only know “the end from the beginning,” in the sense that he knows all potentialities that could and may happen, but he is the God who declares all actualities “from ancient times things not yet done” (Isa. 46:10). This is why he can say, “I am God, and there is none like me” (Isa. 46:9). And in Ephesians 1, Paul expresses with his pen the doxology in his heart about this truth of God. Paul’s present “blessed be” (Eph. 1:3) is rooted in the eternal “to be” of God. Notice in Ephesians 1 several aspects of God’s plan for all things.
A Wise Plan
Paul says God’s eternal plan is wise. Paul speaks of the eternal decree of election and predestination of us so that we would become sons of God through Christ (1:4–5). He goes on to say that this decree was executed in our lives when “he lavished upon us [grace], in all wisdom and insight” (1:8). God’s plans, then, are never arbitrary, haphazard, or random; they are wise. In a personal sense, when I came to faith, where I came to faith, and how I came to faith were all a part of God’s wisdom applied in my life.
A Free Plan
His plan is also free. We read that it was “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” who has blessed us (1:3), who has chosen us (1:4), and who has predestined us all according to “the purpose of his will” (1:5). Nothing outside of him, in any way whatsoever, compelled or constrained God to do this. The only thing that moved him was his own will (1:5, 11), which our older translators called God’s “good pleasure” (eudokia). This is illustrated in the fact that Paul praises God for choosing us “that we should be holy” (1:4). This led Augustine to say in his debates with the Pelagians, “Not therefore because we were to be so, but that we might be so” (Non ergo quia futuri eramus, sed ut essemus) [De Praedestinatione Sanctorum, 18.36].
What a comfort this is to us, miserable sinners! If God based his plan for us on anything in us, even if he waited a million lifetimes, he would not find anything worthy. This is why Paul says, “Blessed be…God.” This is why we do as well.
An Eternal Plan
His plan is also eternal. God chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (1:4). One of the implications of this is that God’s decrees are unchangeable. As we saw above in what the Lord said through Isaiah centuries before, God has foreordained the end from the beginning. And God concluded this statement, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isa. 46:10).
When we meditate upon this, it leads us both to serene rest and vigorous activity. Our salvation is of the Lord from eternity past into eternity future. As a believer I can exclaim with confidence and joy, “It is finished.” And because of this, I am led to vigorous action. The same God who says he “works in [me], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13) also says to me, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). In other words, the eternal God who decreed from eternity my eternal salvation also decreed this through the use of temporal and tangible means. I need to receive the Word by reading it, hearing it preached, and by meditating upon it. I need the tangibility of the sacraments for my temporal weaknesses. I need prayer and fasting to draw me closer to my Father. I need the fellowship of my brothers and sisters. In the words of Thomas Watson, “As a man who refuses food murders himself, so he that refuses to work out his salvation destroys himself” [A Body of Divinity, 69–70].
A Comprehensive Plan
The final aspect of God’s plan is that it is a comprehensive plan. It concerns all things. One of the most powerful verses that led me to become an Augustinian in my view of grace is Ephesians 1:11: “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Our predestination to salvation is just one aspect of God’s larger purpose and counsel for everything. “All things” are executed in time and space because they were purposed in eternity. And in that, I can thank God when the world seems hell-bent on its own destruction. God is in control.
His Purpose for All Things
Because he is in control, we also learn that God’s decrees are his purpose for all things. The Catechism says the decrees of God are “for [the purpose of] his own glory.” We see this in many ways in Ephesians 1. We were predestined “that we should be holy and blameless” (1:4), that is, that we should glorify God in our lives. We were adopted into God’s eternal family “to the praise of his glorious grace” (1:6), that is, to demonstrate his overflowing riches of benevolence and love. And as Paul concludes, we who have hoped in Christ exist “to the praise of his glory” (1:12).
What a difference in approach God’s revelation of himself makes for us in contrast to how we the all-too-often reason. When we think of God’s eternal decrees, we all too often get bogged down into a labyrinth of speculation about things like the order of the decrees. Yet God in his Word makes it very clear how he wants us to approach this deep truth: all of this is meant to cause us to praise and glorify him now, and into eternity. And it’s when I meditate upon my past, and further behind that, to God’s past, that I am of most use to my neighbor now and in the future.