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.
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.