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The Decrees of
God (Part 1)

The Decrees of God

by Richard Nichols

Published in
The Christian Informer
August, 1999

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Last updated:
August 1, 1999.

IN THIS STUDY WE want to consider the purposes of God.  His purposes are found in His decrees.  The decrees of God relating to evil and the salvation of men are widely disputed.  But the problems cannot be solved by mere human reason.  A diligent study of the Scriptures is the only method of determining the truth on the subject.

The Definition Of The Decrees

Most problems in understanding the decrees of God disappear with a proper understanding of their nature.  They are not inconsistent with man's free moral agency; they do not take away all motives for human effort; and they certainly do not make God the author of sin.  All of this becomes clear as we study the Scriptures.  The answers begin to become apparent from a proper definition of the decrees.  The definition: "the decrees of God are His eternal purpose or purposes, based on His most wise and holy counsel, whereby He freely and unchangeably, for His own glory, ordained, either efficaciously or permissively, all that comes to pass."  (In a real sense all things are embraced in one purpose, as we shall see).  Let's analyze this definition briefly to determine just what it ays.

God's Purposes

First of all, the decrees are God's eternal purpose.  God does not progressively make His plans or alter them as human history develops; He determined them in eternity and they remain unaltered.  Secondly, God's decrees are based on His most wise and holy counsel.  He is omniscient and so knows what is best; He is absolutely holy and so cannot purpose anything that is wrong.  Thirdly, the decrees originate in God's freedom.  He purposes of His own volition, without constraint, if He purposes at all.  The only necessity laid upon Him in this respect is the necessity that comes from His own attributes as a wise and holy God.  We can know only by revelation from God what it is that He has purposed.  Fourthly, the decrees have as their end the glory of God.  They do not primarily aim at the happiness of the creature, although this is included in His aims, but at the glory of God who is absolute perfection.

Efficacious And Permissive Decrees

Fifthly, there are two kinds of decrees: efficacious and permissive. There are things which God purposed that He also determines efficaciously or effectively TO BRING ABOUT.  There are other things which He merely determines TO PERMIT.  But even in the case of the permissive decrees, He overrules all for His own glory.  And, finally, the decrees embrace all that comes to pass.  They include all the past, the present, and the future; they embrace the things which He efficaciously brings about and the things which He merely permits. Surely, this concept of the decrees of God removes most of the difficulties that are often associated with them.

The Proof Of The Decrees

The events in the universe are neither a surprise nor a disappointment to God.  The teaching of the Scriptures is that the things that come to pass on earth are not the result of God's capriciousness or arbitrary will, but they are the outcome of a definite purpose and plan of God.  Listen: "Jehovah of hosts hath sworn, saying, surely, as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand...."  "This is the purpose that is purposed upon the whole earth; and this is the hand that is stretched out upon all the nations.  For Jehovah of hosts hath purposed, and who shall annul it? and his hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?" (Isaiah 14:21,26,27);  "...Making known unto us the mystery of His will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in him... in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will (Ephesians  1:9,11; 3:11).

Someone has said, "A universe without decrees would be as irrational and appalling as would be an express train driving on in the darkness without headlight or engineer, and with no certainty that the next moment it might not plunge into the abyss."

One Decree

The decrees of God are sometimes represented as one decree.  "Called according to his purpose" (Romans  8:28); "having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will" (Ephesians 1:11).  In each case it is one purpose. Though to us the degrees appear to be many purposes, to the divine mind they are in reality but one great all-inclusive purpose.  That is why we can speak of a universe, rather than a "multi-verse".

They are always represented as eternal.  "According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Ephesians 3:11); "foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but manifested at the end of the times" (1 Peter 1:20); "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8 A.V.); "whose name hath not been written from the foundation of the world m the book of life of the Lamb that hath been slain" (Revelation 13:8 A.S.V.); "even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4); "according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before times eternal" (2 Timothy 1:9); and "in hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before times eternal" (Titus 1:2).  It is quite clear that the things decreed come to pass in time, and in successive series; but they constitute one great system which as one whole and a unity was comprehended in one eternal purpose of God.

The Bases Of God's Decrees

A great deal of light is shed upon this subject by a clear understanding of the bases on which God's decrees rest.  Why did God decree at all?  Why was He not content to confine His fellowship and activity to the Godhead?  We are far from claiming to know the whole answer to this profound question; but there are some things that have been revealed, and these we may know.  Moses says: "The secret things belong unto Jehovah our God ; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deuteronomy 29:29).

Let us emphasize the fact, that the decrees of God did not originate in external necessity.  God did not have to decree anything, nor was He limited by anything outside of Himself in making the decrees.  In reality, there was nothing outside of God to influence Him at the time when He made them.  What He decreed He decreed freely, voluntarily.  We would also emphasize the fact that they are not due to mere caprice or arbitrary will.  God does not act from mere emotional impulse; He always acts rationally.  He may not always announce His reasons for decreeing one thing instead of another, but we are assured that there are always reasons.  The expression, "Thou shalt know hereafter" in John 13:3 is an encouragement to us that we shall some day understand the meaning of certain puzzling Scriptures and the mysteries of certain perplexing providences.

Arbitrary Choices

Neither does God exercise an arbitrary will.  Some have taught that there is no criterion of value that determines God's will.  A thing is right because God wills it, but if this is true, then the death of Christ is also not necessitated by any inner principle in God, but merely by God's choice.  So, if God had willed to save man without the death of Christ, He could have justly done so.  On the contrary, we repeat, the decrees of God are based on His most wise and holy counsel. Being all-wise, knowing the end from the beginning, knowing that sin would come (since He had decided to permit it to come), knowing what would be the nature of sin and how He would have to deal with it if He were to save anyone, He based His plans on all His knowledge and understanding.  Being perfectly holy, and incapable of partiality or unfairness, He made His plans according to that which is absolutely right.  He can save the sinner only if in doing so He can remain absolutely just (read Romans  3:25).  It is on the basis of His nature, His wisdom, and holiness, then, that He has made the decrees, both those that are efficacious and those that are permissive.

The End Of The Decrees

What end did God have in view in making the decrees?  What was His fundamental reason for purposing and undertaking to do anything?  Is there an end, an object to the universe?  If so, what is it?  We would say, negatively, that it is not primarily the happiness nor the holiness of the creature, although God does seek to promote the happiness of His creatures.  Paul said at Lystra: "He left not himself without witness, in that he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:17).  And in his letter to Timothy: "Who giveth us richly all things to enjoy" (1 Timothy 6:17).  Paul regarded the abstinent principles of the Gnostics, who said: "Handle not, nor taste, nor touch," as "the precepts and doctrines of men" (Colossians 1:21, 22), which have "a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and severity to the body; but are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh" (Colossians 1:23).  Yes, God seeks to promote the happiness of man, even the so-called outward happiness.  But don't forget that MAN'S HAPPINESS IS NOT GOD'S PRIMARY END IN HIS DECREES; IT IS BUT A SECONDARY END.

God is certainly concerned to promote the holiness of His creatures. To prove this we need only remind ourselves of the fact that "the new man... after God is created in righteousness and true holiness" (Ephesians 4:24).  He admonished man to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 11:44); He gave him His holy law as the standard of life (Romans 7:12); Christ died that he might sanctify His people (Ephesians 5:25-27); and the Holy Spirit came to bring the message of regeneration and sanctification of men (John 3:5; 1 Peter 1:2).  Surely, God seeks to promote the sanctification of the creature.  But holiness, too, is not the highest end of God.

The Glory Of God

The highest aim of His decrees is the glory of God.  Creation glorifies Him.  David said, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork" (Psalms 19:1).  God says He will refine Israel in the furnace of affliction and adds, "For mine own sake, for mine own sake, will I do it; for how should my name be profaned? and my glory will I not give to another" (Isaiah 48:11). Paul says, God has made "known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he afore prepared unto glory" (Romans 9:23), and that He has foreordained believers "to the praise of the glory of his grace" (Ephesians 1:6; 2:8-10).  And the twenty-four elders cast their crowns before God's throne and say: "Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power: for thou didst create all things, and because of thy will they were, and were created" (Revelation 4:11).  We say, then, that the end of all things is the glory of God; and only as we also adopt this as our real goal in life are we living on the highest plane and in full harmony with the purposes of God.

Pride And Selfishness

The question arises: How can God make this the end of the decrees? Does He not manifest pride and selfishness in doing so?  To think in this way is to forget who God is.  In man it would be selfishness to seek for his own glory, because man is sinful and imperfect, and to seek for his own glory would be to seek to glorify sinfulness and imperfection.  But this is not the case with God.  He is absolutely sinless and perfect in holiness.  He is the only one who is.  For Him to aim at His own glory is, therefore, merely to seek the glory of absolute holiness and sinless perfection.  There is no one and nothing higher to glorify.  It seems that necessity is laid upon God, and in turn upon us, to aim in everything to glorify Him who is the manifestation of all goodness, purity, wisdom, and truth.

[More next time, Lord willing. -- R.N.]