An attempt to better explain the Decree of God section of the 1689 and WCF confessional statement.
The proper understanding of this doctrine begins at the previous doctrine of Chapter 2:
Paragraph 1. The Lord our God is but one only living and true God(1). whose subsistence is in and of Himself(2), infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but Himself(3). a most pure spirit(4), invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto(5). who is immutable(6), immense(7), eternal(8), incomprehensible, almighty(9), every way infinite, most holy(10), most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will(11), for His own glory(12). most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him(13), and withal most just and terrible in His judgments(14), hating all sin(15), and who will by no means clear the guilty(16).
If we are in agreement of these attributes being a valid scriptural description of God we can then continue. We must go back a chapter further to a statement made in chapter one:
Paragraph 10. The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved(21).
Paragraph 9. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which are not many, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly(20).
Given then our mutual agreement upon these essential preliminaries let us continue.
There are several specific articles describing God and HIS will and character (ie Sovereignty, Omniscience, Omnipresence, Justice, Mercy) brought to light by scriptures that must be considered in a unified consistent systematic manner when developing the grounds for doctrine; a whole of equally valid parts. Such is a difficult matter. Most doctrine is the attempt (not necessarily the perfection) at pursuing such a effort. Such is the case with the matters of God's Decree which in the case of these two standardized confessions leans heavily towards God's Election and Predestination; uncomfortable subjects indeed. The reason for this leaning is the attempt to unify the several specific articles mentioned with the agreed upon attributes of CH 2 Par 1 and the strategy of final scriptural authority CH 1 Par 9-10.
Whether these men were able to successfully do that we all must be the judge!
There are basically two types of arguments that can be made in any debate, one being the intellectual and the other being the emotional, both are prone to missing obvious flaws/contradictions in their own case. There are also two types of participants to a debate, the interested and the disinterested. Thus a debater can be interested in his particular case and at the same time utterly disinterested in what the counterpoint participant has to say. In this particular case of Decree most participants seem to be disinterested in both cases presenting and listening because of the uncomfortable nature involved. It is one thing certainly to agree that God is all of these many things, it is quite another to attempt to suggest how these many things might interact in God in order to make any firm enforceable decision/decree.
With that said let's look at the 1689's attempt to make a clear resolute scriptural statement:
Paragraph 1. God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass(1). yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein(2). nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established(3). in which appears His wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing His decree(4).
Paragraph 2. Although God knoweth whatsoever may or can come to pass, upon all supposed conditions(5), yet hath He not decreed anything, because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions(6).
Paragraph 3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated, or foreordained to eternal life through Jesus Christ(7), to the praise of His glorious grace(8). others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of His glorious justice(9).
Paragraph 4. These angels and men thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished(10).
Paragraph 5. Those of mankind that are predestinated to life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love(11), without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving Him thereunto(12).
Paragraph 6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so He hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto(13). wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ(14), are effectually called unto faith in Christ, by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified(15), and kept by His power through faith unto salvation(16). neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only(17).
Paragraph 7. The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election(18). so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise(19), reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility(20), diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel(21).
And with each of these statements they offered several (but not all) their scriptural proofs. First let's consider the decree as a whole.
The Sobering Weight of Any Decree
Sometimes I think our notion is that God's Decree equals a simple easy choice for HIM without any downside, any expense or overhead, any cost to HIM or to us, that anything HE decrees as being right will be so agreeable and evident to us as being right that we easily and without reluctance would understand and consent to it. Decrees seldom are so, let me illustrate.
By decreeing that only those that freely love HIM will be with HIM in HIS glorious eternity (which I think that we agree is a good solid decree) we are immediately met with an unavoidable complication: what about those that do not/will not freely love you? how can you make someone that doesn't love you to somehow freely love you? and if not later in HIS glorious eternity than where to do they go?
By decreeing that HE will allow time for us to freely choose to do good, it unavoidably follows by the same decree HE is allowing time for us to freely choose to do evil; not only allowing to choose it but to perform it as well. Is God then the author of evil? No, rather HE is the determiner/proclaimer of the just parameters to what good and evil is, HE is the allower for this short time for us to freely chose, HE does not cause for either other than rightly encouraging the one and discouraging the other. Is God wrong for placing one motive and action above another? Is God wrong for decreeing the allowance of time for us to prove these decisions out? Does the decree of a temporary allowance in any way take away from God's sovereign power/reign over all things? There is something surely that God sees as a product of HIM thus decreeing that outweighs the product of HIM not so decreeing else decreeing something other.
Now let's add in the divine attribute of Omniscience and Foreknowledge. We have substantial scriptural evidence suggesting that God knows all things beginning to end and can declare all things before they come to pass. Why need they come to pass then at all? It is not for God's benefit other than in our eyes being proven right, it is for our benefit that we not blame HIM of think HIM unjust. Therefore, by HIM decreeing that even though HE already knows all that will come to pass HE allows the short progression of all things before our eyes, in doing so HE opens HIMSELF to the insult of our second guessing until such presentation is complete. Such second guessing of course will not change what HE knows. There will not be anything happen that wasn't already known. What is already known will not be changed or altered or proven to be wrong. It is not a calculation the God is operating from it is something that has been designed by decree before anything was even created. It not something that we can say 'oh we were created that way' because the design of the decree came before the design of the creation.
Then there is the doctrine of Election (HIS words not ours). Let's put it this way on a more human scale, what would be wrong if I were to say to you that because of what I already know about you I have already elected/favored you. Not much there to be critical of until you thus realize by the same decree that because of what I already know I have already not elected/favored somebody else. On this lite informal scale we can base our objection on the fact that what do any of us really know about each other anyway, but yet my branch manager at work is called upon everyday to do this very thing for the survival and productivity of the company. Simple, but much needed election based upon foreknowledge.
So let's place that concept now on God's much bigger scale and push it back to the time prior to creation. The question now isn't so much the need/right for election at some point, more properly it is what does God know about that a person before that person is living that would make HIM to elect one way or another before then? This scale of this can blow our minds away, but is it any different? Does HE know enough to be right and just electing so?
Let me ask you this though: if God was proven to be this as these confessors have stated, would you still be able respect such a God? would you be able to believe in such a God as this? Many sadly would not and that is why they are hostile to those that even suggest it. If however God does in fact prove to be this then these many will be severely and perhaps irreparably mistaken. It would be wise for us to work the understanding of this out further before making any decision out so rash.
Let's back that off for a moment not to get to any specific individual but to a type/classification of people potentially, would HE be just? (Yes/Maybe?). What if not just potentially, but a literal number anonymous of that type? (Maybe?). Then what about a literal person? (Maybe/No?) You see most of us would set the dividing point at between potential and literal and the broad classification and specific individual. Is that the scriptural point where the mark should be set? A good many of the early reformed protestant Presbyterians and Baptists pondering the weight of scriptural evidence concluded that the last known scriptural mark is back at all the way just and all the way knowing; even prior to creation. While the weight heavily suggests this is so it does not explain how this could be other than HIS immutable character. We are therefore left to partial and incomplete theories explaining how this can be (but so are our critics!).
Perhaps now though we all can better sense the Sobering Weight of Any Decree!
The Interest/Disinterest of the Participants
Along the lines of what I have already said, it is my hypothesis that the reason for disinterest to this decree and the debate that surrounds it is because the majority of people want their theology to be nothing but clean and easy with no complications, nothing that they would have to stand up for and little that they would be uncomfortable with or need to stand against. The lack of any doctrine for or against the statement here is the desire to lack anything that would set their casual informal beliefs apart. Instead we should be welcoming the challenge presented by these statements to know God better one way or the other in all that HE says and does. We should be more and more filling in the voids of our knowledge and be less comfortable with the holes in our nebulous hodgepodge of doctrinal substance.
Many are willing to criticize the stance these reformers boldly took, but yet are purposely unwilling to offer any stance of their own other than their squeaky clean stance of being noncommittal to anything substantive. Few will take the time and interest to formulate an alternative substance scripturally of their own; those few who do, I am more proud to say I feel closer to as a brother even. If we do not agree, we both at least have made a case worthy of being stated. This is the man/woman I would much prefer to kneel beside and worship our Most Holy with (as long as we agree on the few most definite Messianic things)!
If the question is why should we be interested in this decree, I guess the answer should most firmly be why are you not? I am not telling you what to believe, I am challenging you to better examine/define what you believe and for us mutually to take the question direct to the scriptures.
- There is further information in these confessions that we have not gotten to missing from our consideration of this statement on God's Decrees. For instance:
- CHAPTER 6 - OF THE FALL OF MAN, OF SIN, AND OF THE PUNISHMENT THEREOF
- CHAPTER 9 - OF FREE WILL
- CHAPTER 10 - OF EFFECTUAL CALLING
All meticulously spelled out with scriptural proofs. All have something to say or add or clarify as to the confessors understandings.
There are also several other Confessions similar without the Calvinist bent. I would suggest being as critical and analytical and hopefully inquisitive of those as many are with this. Confessions, the best way perhaps to think of them, are starting points. They usually are the result of some questionable doctrines cropping up in the teachings of the church that need to be urgently examined, determined and formally responded to. Unlike a council or synod that addresses smaller points of contention individually, confessions are intended to be systematic summations of the most important of all doctrines inclusive. Individual members of the Pastorate or congregation can have (often do have) differences no matter how slight with particular statements of doctrine, but on the whole they are more in agreement with composite than something other.
Given all of this, there is still only so much that our finite minds are going to truly know. Even the very best of confessions are not going to be right on every single point in the end. They are each attempts to put the pieces together that really won't all come together until we see God as HE really is in Glory. That is not a valid excuse however for not attempting to know now.
Suffice it for now that this we can heavily weight into our lives and decisions at least as reformed believers, that God has made HIS decree, HIS decree will stand and every point of it will be accomplished, nothing will be changed or come as unexpected or unplanned for, that HIS foreknowledge/election is something uncomfortable but because of the weight of scriptural evidences worthy of our further inquiry and consideration.