The structure of this chapter may be visualised as two concentric circles, in other words, a smaller circle within a larger circle. The larger circle is God’s general decree of all things. This is the subject of paragraphs 1 and 2. The smaller circle within this larger decree is God’s specific decree relating to predestination to eternal life. And this is found in paragraphs 3-7.
—The General Decree of All Things
Paragraph 1 speaks of the fact that this decree is absolutely universal. Several crucial assertions are put forward in this paragraph with regard to the decree being universal.
The confession affirms the reality of its universality. The decree includes and makes certain to happen—here is the key phrase—“whatsoever comes to pass.” Nothing escapes God’s decree. It includes absolutely everything. This is, of course, the plain teaching not only of the Confession but of Scripture (Psa. 115:3; Daniel 4:35; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11).
Not only does the Bible generally assert the universality of God’s decree, it specifically asserts it. In A Modern Exposition, it includes:
1. Good and evil events
2. Sinful acts
3. Free acts of men
4. ‘Chance’ occurrences
5. Personal Details of our lives and deaths
6. Great Affairs of the nations
7. Final destruction of the wicked are included in God’s eternal decree.
This is a massive and majestic truth, is it not? If this is true, it should change the entire way we view God and our lives. And it is true. All our lives are in God’s hands down to their minutest detail. Everything that happens to believers, everything that affects their lives, are worked together for good by God in His eternal plan or decree. But, of course, this massive truth also raises massive questions in our minds.
Does this make God the author of sin? The Confession flatly and clearly asserts that it does not. Though sin is, of course, included in God’s decree, God is not the author of sin. In the decree of God, it is creatures--angels and men--that author or commits sin. The Bible makes clear that God’s motives in decreeing sin are entirely different from those of the creatures who commit or author sin.
He decrees sin to happen for His own glory. They commit it to deny His glory. He decrees sin in order to use it to redeem His people. In the case of Joseph, we are told that the sin of his brothers was over-ruled for good (Gen. 50:20). God also decreed the death of Jesus by the hands of sinful men (Acts 2 and 4), but this was for the sake of the redemption of men from sin. Sometimes also, He decrees sin as a just punishment for previous sin. David numbered Israel because of God’s decree to punish Israel and David for sin. (Cf. 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Chron. 21:1. The sons of Eli refused to repent because God has decreed to put them to death for their sins (1 Sam. 2:25.)
Yes, there remains a deep mystery regarding God’s decree of sin, but the Bible plainly teaches that He is not the author of sin. James 1:13 is the key text: “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” The confession then addresses a second question related to the universality of God’s decree. Does this not destroy the liberty, responsibility, and significance of the wills of men and angels? The Confession denies that it does, and in fact, affirms that, on the contrary, it is God’s decree that establishes these things.
Obviously, the Confession is not working with the same definition of free will that most people affirm. Free will is not the ability to act contrary to God’s decree. Free will is not the ability to act contrary to one’s nature. Free will is simply the ability to will whatever one wants and act on that will to accomplish that want without external constraints. When someone wills what he wants, he is at liberty, he is responsible, and his will is significant. Creaturely will actually accomplishes things and does so freely and responsibly (Matt 17:12).
How should we respond to this doctrine of God’s universal decree? The Confession concludes (par. 1): “in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.” God was wise to order all things by His decree, and if we wait on Him and the development of His plan, we will see it. God’s power is displayed in this mighty plan. We should worship His majesty. God’s faithfulness to His people and to Himself is also revealed in the accomplishment of His decree. Job 23:13 says it: “But He is unique and who can turn Him? And what His soul desires, that He does.” His soul desires our good and His glory and nothing shall deter Him in the accomplishment of His eternal good pleasure.
God’s decree is not only universal; paragraph 2 says that it is unconditional. There are three straightforward arguments for the fact God’s decree is unconditional. The first is the nature of the situation. No one was there, and nothing existed when God decreed. Hence, God took nothing into consideration except his own will when he decreed all things. To say anything else is to fall into the catastrophic and anti-God view of an eternal dualism. The second is the assertion of Scripture. Scripture asserts that no one counselled God when he decreed (Isa. 40:13-14; Rom. 11:34; 1 Cor. 2:16). The third is the inference of its universality. We have already proved that God’s decree is absolutely universal or comprehensive. The decree determines all things, but if it determines all things, then it is determined by none of those things that it determines.
God foreknows the future comprehensively and certainly. Foreknowledge does not make the future certain, but foreknowledge does assume that the future is comprehensively certain. So we ask the Arminian to think a little more deeply and ask this question. Though foreknowledge by itself does not make the future comprehensively certain, something does. What is that something? The only possible answer is God’s eternal decree. Foreknowledge is possible because God’s decree is universal and unconditional. The connection is stated in Isaiah 46:10-11: “Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, 'My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” Yes, we worship a God who knows the future comprehensively and completely and certainly. That is because—it can only be because—He planned it comprehensively and completely and certainly. His people may trust Him completely. His enemies should be in terror of this God!
—The Specific Decree of Predestination to Life
The first biblical characteristics of election are, according to Paragraph 3, its selectivity. What I mean is this. The biblical doctrine of election as an act of selection presupposes and implies an act of rejection. Rom. 9:11 embodies this idea: “for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls." The following arguments may be marshalled for the selectivity of election and against the idea that everyone is elect in Christ.
• The words used for election imply the idea of selection (Ps. 147:19-20; Amos 3:2; Deut. 7:7-8).
• The biblical passages which teach reprobation imply the idea of selection (John 12:37-40; Jude 4).
• The biblical passages which contrast the elect and the non-elect imply the idea of selection (Rom. 9:6-24; 1 Peter 2:8-10).
Paragraph 4 shows us the specificity of election by speaking of the immutability and particularity of God’s predestination. This raises the question, ‘Did God elect only nations or groups? i.e. Does Roman 9 have only to do with the election of nations. Did God simply choose the church as a whole? A positive answer to such questions would be both illogical and unscriptural.
It is illogical. If God only elected groups, but not individuals, everyone in the group might fall away and be lost. Thus, the whole group elected by God could be lost. In other words, if the salvation of some is certain, how can this be secured without the election of certain individuals?
It would also be unscriptural (Rom. 11:5-6). We know that effectual calling is specific and individual. God’s calls people to salvation in their particular and individual circumstances (1 Cor. 7:20-22). Effectual calling is the historical index or outworking of election (Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 1:26-31). If calling is individual, personal, and specific, then so must be the election of which it is the historical manifestation.
The third characteristic of biblical election in paragraph 5 is the causality of election. This is called unconditional election. The question is frequently raised, did not God simply elect those whom he foresaw would repent, believe, be receptive, be holy, or persevere? A negative answer to all these questions is demanded by the following considerations.
1. Foreknowledge presupposes God’s decree.
2. Foreknowledge means foreordination. Standard Greek lexicons assert that the word ‘foreknowledge’ means foreordination in the key passages.
3. The idea that God chooses us because of some good thing in us is categorically denied by the Bible (Rom. 9:16; 11:5, 6).
4. The opposite idea (that we are chosen for nothing good in us) is specifically affirmed. We are chosen freely because of God’s good pleasure (Eph. 1:6, 9).
5. Faith, repentance, perseverance, holiness, receptivity-all the good things which God is supposed to foresee in us-are all themselves the fruits of election. As the fruits of election, they cannot be its prior conditions.
Biblical election is then distinguishing, personal, and unconditional. But several questions are raised about this doctrine of election.
Can anyone be saved beside the elect?
The answer to this question, according to paragraph 4 is no. The reason, however, for this is not that God actively prevents them from being saved, but that only by the grace foreordained for men in God’s electing purpose will any man ever come to earnestly seek salvation. Outside of electing mercy, in other words, no one wants to be saved.
What makes the difference between those God ordains to life and those he leaves to death?
According to paragraphs three and five, the difference is made by God’s choice and grace. Because of original sin, all men are equally exposed to God’s wrath. Nothing about them conditions God’s choice of them or commends them to God’s grace. It is God’s choice which makes the difference, then, between those who will be saved and those who will be left to themselves in original sin to work out their destruction. The distinction between the elect and the non-elect is made by divine sovereignty, not divine justice.
How can we know if we are elect?
We can know that we are elect by observing the fruits of election in our lives, per Paragraph 6. If we see faith in Christ, sanctification, perseverance in the Christian life in our own cases, they are present in us only because of electing grace. Only elect people possess such things. Thus, if they are ours, we may be sure that we are elect.
Is God’s “secret counsel and good pleasure of His will” to be obeyed?
The will of God in Scripture may have reference to two distinct things. The phrase “secret counsel and good pleasure of His will,” is a clear reference to what may be called God’s decretive will (also known less clearly as God’s secret or sovereign will.) God’s ethical demands upon us, his law, may be called His preceptive will. These two aspects of the divine will are clearly distinct. The decretive will is what God has determined that He will do. The preceptive will is what God has commanded that man ought to do. The biblical basis for this distinction is stated most clearly perhaps, in Deut. 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed to us and to our sons forever that we may observe all the words of this law.” This distinction is also implied in Gen. 50:20. There it is clear that Joseph’s brothers fulfilled God’s decretive will in selling Joseph into Egypt. Yet, in doing this, they sinned and violated God’s preceptive will. God’s decretive will is not the rule of our conduct.
This distinction is absolutely crucial if we are to avoid hyper-Calvinism. Often, for instance, it has been denied that faith in Christ is the duty of all men because God has not elected to give all men faith. This, however, is to make God’s electing purpose, His decretive will, the rule of our conduct. This is a capital mistake. Faith is the duty of all men regardless of whether they are elect or not.
Is it true to say that the elect will be saved no matter what they do? Are predetermined events dependent on human actions and other historical events for their occurrence?
The answer to these questions is contained partly in paragraph one and partly in paragraph six. In answer to the second question, the answer must be given that, yes, predetermined events are dependent on human actions and other events. According to paragraph one, “the contingency (the fact of their being the conditions of later events) of second causes” is not “taken away.” As paragraph six makes clear, if God has foreordained the end, He has also “foreordained all the means thereunto.”
Thus, the elect will not be saved no matter what they do. They will be saved in that God has foreordained and no other. Only this makes sense of Paul’s statement that “I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, that they may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus...” (2 Tim. 2:10). Paul knew that if God has foreordained the end, He has also “foreordained all the means thereunto.” It must always be remembered that election and God’s decree are simply God’s plan. Plans, no matter how certain of fulfillment they are, must still be carried out. The blueprint is not the house, even if it is God’s blueprint. The decree to save the elect is one thing. Ephesians 1:4 teaches that election is something that happens before the foundations of the world. Salvation, however, is something that happens during the history of the world.
8th May 2021