i. God from all eternity did, by the most wise (Rom. 11:33) and holy counsel of His own will, freely (Rom. 9:15, 18), and unchangeably (Heb. 6:17) ordain whatsoever comes to pass (Eph. 1:11): yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin (James 1:13, 17; 1 John 1:5), nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures (Matt. 17:12; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28); nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (John 19:11; Prov. 16:33).
Nowadays we hear much of a God who tries His best but can't be blamed if things don't work out very well. All manner of obstacles frustrate God, we are told. Natural laws tie His hands from intervening. Random accidents make a mess of things. The devil runs loose. Worst of all, God's pleadings with humanity often fall upon deaf ears and He can do nothing about it. How frustrated this God must be!
Nevertheless, it is said, as God watches from a distance He hopes that men and women will exercise their free wills to discover His love and their own self-worth. Such is the "kinder and gentler" deity of our day. It is no wonder that some label the religion of the age as "moralistic therapeutic deism."
The Bible knows nothing of a frustrated God. Psalm 115:3 sets God apart from all idols by declaring, "But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased." God works out His will in all things: He "worketh all things after the counsel of his own will" (Eph. 1:11). The word "counsel" means a wise plan including goals and ways of getting them done.
God has a plan. Every intelligent person makes plans; only a fool sets goals but gives no thought to the means by which he will accomplish them. A good and wise God would never have created the world without a plan for what He desired to see take place in it. His counsel is eternal, a purpose formed in His mind before the creation of the world (Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2; Rev. 13:8; 17:8).
God's plan is perfect and unchanging. Many of our plans are frustrated despite all our intelligence and effort. We must shift to plan B, or C, or Z. It is not so with God; His plans never fail. "The LORD bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought: he maketh the devices of the people of none effect. The counsel of the LORD standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations" (Ps. 33:10-11). Therefore, those whom God has chosen to bless are truly blessed (v.12)! His sovereign will guarantees our ultimate and perfect happiness.
The Holy Scriptures call God's plan "the decree of the most High" (Dan. 4:24) because it is the authoritative command of the supreme King. The Confession is entirely biblical then in speaking of God's "decree" by which He did "ordain" events. For example, the Bible says that God's "decree" established the properties of creation (Ps. 148:6; Prov. 8:29; Jer. 5:22), the destruction of sinners (Isa. 10:22; Zeph. 2:2), and the triumphant kingdom of His Son (Ps. 2:7). He "ordained" or appointed Jeremiah to be a prophet before he was born (Jer. 1:5).
God's decree is all-comprehensive. God has decreed when the rain will fall and where the lightning will strike (Job 28:26). Regardless of what men may decide, no good thing and no bad thing can take place apart from God's decree (Lam. 3:37-38). God's counsel was formed long ago and includes all that will take place to the very end, including the rise and fall of kings and nations--and His counsel will stand (Isa. 14:24-27; 46:10-11).
It is not just the big things that God has decreed. Whether you will live to see tomorrow depends on His will (James 4:15). The condition of every little bird and every hair on our heads is wrapped up in His plan (Matt. 10:29-30). For this reason, our Lord Jesus said that God's children need not fear men (Matt. 10:31). The Confession's theology is a doctrine of hope and confidence.
The Westminster divines were careful however to fence off the doctrine of God's eternal decree from any kind of fatalism. First, they insisted that God is holy and righteous while decreeing sin. He cannot sin, nor does He entice anyone to sin (James 1:13). God uses sinners as tools in His sovereign hand to accomplish His good and righteous purposes (Isa. 10:5-7, 15). They plan evil but His plan overrules theirs for good (Gen. 50:20). God knows how to draw straight lines with crooked sticks.
Second, they taught that God's decree does not nullify the reality of man's will. God predetermines events but people are still responsible for their choices (Luke 22:22). Men's choices flow from their own hearts (Prov. 4:23; Mark 7:21). But God's will rules over men's hearts so that their choices fulfill His purposes. "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will" (Prov. 21:1). People dream and scheme, but God's plan will stand (Prov. 19:21).
Third, they taught that though God's decree is the primary cause why all things happen, there are still "second causes" which God uses as means to His ends. God decreed that His Son would die, yet He did it by the hands of wicked men (John 19:11; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). Some events like the rolling of dice are truly random or contingent on a human level, although God still controls exactly how they land (Prov. 16:33)--perhaps to judge greedy gamblers!
Therefore God's eternal decree does not encourage us to be lazy and careless in our use of proper means to do good. If God intends to prosper you, ordinarily He does so by moving you to work hard at your vocation, for "the hand of the diligent maketh rich" (Prov. 10:4). If God plans to save your soul, often He begins by motivating you to attend the preaching of the Word, for "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom.10:17).
What God's eternal decree does encourage is humility. Let us never think or speak boastfully about what we intend to accomplish. Apart from His will we can do nothing. Let us never proudly say, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul." Let us rather proclaim, "Jesus is Lord!"
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Two Books on Scripture
John Henry Newman: A Biography
The Hole in our Holiness