The Nature of God's Eternal Decree

November 29, 2016

Chapter 3 of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (2LC) is titled, “Of God’s Decree.” God’s “decree” is His plan or purpose that has existed in His mind from eternity past. Robert Shaw says, “By the decree of God is meant his purpose or determination with respect to future things; or, more fully, his determinate counsel, whereby from all eternity, he fore-ordained whatever he should do, or would permit to be done, in time.”1 The decree is an aspect of God’s internal work, and it therefore precedes any of God’s external works in time and space. God’s external works of creation and providence effectively implement God’s eternal decree.

The fact that this chapter on the decree comes so near the beginning of the confession signals the God-centered character of the theology of its framers. The doctrine that God eternally and unconditionally decreed all future things necessarily follows from the fact that God is independent, all knowing, and unchangeable, which is what chapter 2 of the confession teaches. Since God is independent, it follows that His decree cannot depend upon anything in the future or anything outside of Himself. Since God knows all things, it follows that God must have first decreed all things. And since God is unchangeable, it follows that God must have an unchangeable decree at the foundation of all that He does.2

The confession was written at a time of tremendous social unrest in England during the 1640’s. The great doctrine of God’s decree, therefore, must have been a great source of comfort to those who confessed it as they rested in the knowledge that God’s eternal purpose does not change and that it certainly comes to pass.3 This article aims to explain chapter 3, paragraphs 1 and 2, of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 which are about the nature of God’s decree, while also interacting with the confession’s teaching on creation and providence. The text of 2LBC 3.1-2 reads as follows:

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)

1. Isaiah 46:10; Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 6:17; Romans 9:15, 18
2. James 1:13; 1 John 1:5
3. Acts 4:27, 28; John 19:11
4. Numbers 23:19; Ephesians 1:3-5

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)

5. Acts 15:18
6. Romans 9:11, 13, 16, 18

These two paragraphs explain what the Bible teaches about the nature of God’s decree. The remaining paragraphs in chapter 3 discuss the details of God’s decree as it pertains to election and salvation. Consider the confession’s description of the nature of God’s decree.

 

God’s Decree is Universal and Effectual

Paragraph one says that “God hath decreed in Himself … all things, whatsoever comes to pass,” meaning that God’s decree is universal and comprehensive. Nothing happens outside of God’s decree, and everything that comes to pass is the perfect outworking of God’s decree. Van Dixhoorn says, “All that happens in time and eternity is according to the will of the one who ‘made’ both.”4 Consider two of the biblical passages cited in the confession that teach the universal character of God’s decree.

The first passage is Ephesians 1:11, which says, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Paul says God has a “purpose” or “counsel” that encompasses “all things.” The words “all things” are comprehensive language. Some may suggest that the word “all” is limited to a certain category of things, but context shows us that “all” refers to the whole universe. Verse 10 says that God has a plan “to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” “Heaven” and “earth” in verse 10 are a “merism,” a literary device that contrasts two words, intending to encompass everything.

The second passage that teaches the universal character of God’s decree is Isaiah 46:9-10, which says, “I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’”5 Notice how this passage teaches a comprehensive decree. It says that in the “beginning,” God “declares,” or speaks forth, what will happen at the end of all things. And God’s purpose extends to all things not yet done. That is comprehensive.

God’s decree is divided into two main categories that encompass everything outside of God Himself: creation and providence. After chapter 3 on the decree, the confession explains the doctrines of creation (chapter 4) and providence (chapter 5). 2LC 4.1 describes God’s work of creation and says, “In the beginning it pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit … to create or make the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible.” Providence is God’s activity to uphold, direct, and govern everything He has created. Consider 2LC 5.1, which beautifully dovetails with 3.1, and shows how the decree works out in providence:

Paragraph 1. God the good Creator of all things, in His infinite power and wisdom does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things,(1) from the greatest even to the least,(2) by His most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will; to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy.(3)

1. Hebrews 1:3; Job 38:11; Isaiah 46:10, 11; Psalm 135:6
2. Matthew 10:29-31
3. Ephesians 1:11

Thus, God purposes in His decree to oversee every detail of creation. He decrees “chance” happenings (1 Kings 22:28-34; Job 5:6), the details of our lives (Job 14:5; Psalm 139:16; Matthew 10:29-30), the affairs of nations (2 Kings 5:1; Psalm 75:1-7; Proverbs 21:31), the free actions of human beings (Proverbs 16:1, 9; 21:1), the sinful actions of human beings (Genesis 50:20), good and evil events (Isaiah 45:7; Amos 3:6; Job 1:22; Jeremiah 15:2), and the final destruction of the wicked (1 Samuel 2:25; Proverbs 16:4; Jude 4).6

 

God’s Decree is Good

The teaching of God’s universal decree raises several objections, which the confession recognizes and seeks to answer. The first objection to a universal decree is that God must not be good. Some say that if God decrees sin, then God must be the author of sin. The confession, however, says that God decrees every act of human sin, “yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein” (2LC 3.1). In another place, the confession says, “… His determinate counsel extends itself even to the first fall, and all other sinful actions both of angels and men … yet so, as the sinfulness of their acts proceeds only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (2LC 5.4). Therefore, while God decrees sin, He is not the author of sin.

Many passages of Scripture demonstrate that God is not the author of sin. The Bible everywhere asserts that God is good. For example, “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good” (Psalm 107:1); “You are good and do good” (Psalm 119:68). A good God cannot be the author of sin.

Additionally, 1 John 2:16 teaches that sins come from the world and not from God the Father. It says, “For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions – is not from the Father but is from the world.” This denies that anything evil comes from God. The phrase “all that is in the world” anticipates the three categories of sin to follow, which account exhaustively for every kind of sin: “desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions.” None of these are “from the Father” and all of them are “from the world.” Therefore, 1 John 2:16 clearly teaches that God is not the author of sin.

The twin truths that God decrees sin but is not the author of sin must be held together in tension. The confession affirms both because the Bible teaches both, but it does not attempt to reconcile them completely, only to declare what the Bible declares without diminishing one truth in favor of another. In another place, the confession attempts to give some explanation to how God can decree sin without being the author of sin. It says “God was pleased … to permit” the fall (2LC 6.1). This shows that the manner in which God decrees good and evil are different. God only decrees to permit evil, and yet the confession is also clear that God’s permission is not a “bare permission,” since when God decrees to permit evil, He powerfully renders it certain (2LC 5.4). Though God renders sin certain in the decree, He is never the agent of sin, or the secondary cause of sin. Gordon Clark attempts to explain these things by way of illustration:

Perhaps this illustration is faulty, as most illustrations are, but consider that God is the cause of my writing this book. Who could deny that God is the first or ultimate cause, since it was he who created mankind? But although God is the cause of this chapter, he is not its author. It would be much better, if he were.7

An “author of sin” is the person who actually commits the sin. In whatever manner God decrees to permit sin, He does so without ever committing sin Himself. God is not a sinner. Though we might ask questions about how this could be, given that God decrees sin. But the Scriptures do not tell us. While we may not know the answer to that question, we can confidently rest with assurance that God does know.

 

God’s Decree Accounts for Human Freedom

A second objection to God’s universal decree is that it nullifies human freedom. Some think that if God comprehensively decrees all things, then human beings cannot be considered free in any meaningful sense. With respect to the human will, the confession states, “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” (2LC 3.1). To understand what this means, it is critical to understand the meaning of the word “contingency.” J.V. Fesko explains:

Contingency does not mean that something does not have a cause, as Jonathan Edwards argued. Rather, it means that something could be otherwise. God’s decree, for example, is contingent in the sense that he was under no external or internal necessity to decree anything – He was free to decree and free not to decree.8

The same is true of free human choices. When human beings choose freely, the confession says they have the ability to choose other than what they chose. In the chapter on divine providence, the confession says that God orders all things “to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently” (2LC 5.2). God decrees contingent things without imposing any necessity upon them. His decree renders contingent things certain but not necessary. In the case of sin, human beings can always choose otherwise, but God’s decree makes their choice certain.

The confession’s chapter on free will declares, “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil” (2LC 9.1). It does not explain how God renders contingencies certain in the decree. It simply affirms both contingency and certainty because the Bible affirms both. William Ames wrote:

The will of God does not imply a necessity in all future things, but only a certainty in regard to the event. Thus the event was certain that Christ’s bones should not be broken, because God willed that they should not be. But there was no necessity imposed upon the soldiers, their spears, and other secondary causes then present.9

This means that “certainty” and “contingency” are not mutually exclusive. The divines taught that God’s decree grounds contingencies and makes them possible. Without God’s decree, making contingencies certain, there could be no contingent choices at all. Fesko observes, “apart from God’s decree and the ordination of the existence of creatures, there would be no freedom or contingency in the world; one must account for both primary and secondary causes in any one event.”10 This is simply because the divine decree is the reason anything exists or comes to pass. It brings things to pass in different ways, some things freely, some things necessarily, and some things contingently.

The book of Acts illustrates both certainty and contingency in the death of Jesus Christ. Acts 2:23 says, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” God’s “definite plan,” or decree, rendered Christ’s death certain in God’s “foreknowledge.” Human beings, however, “crucified” and “killed” Him. They performed “lawless” deeds. Thus, we see both God’s decree and human freedom and responsibility bound up together in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

 

God’s Decree Accounts for Means

The third objection to God’s universal decree is that it implies our choices and actions do not matter. Some think that if God has decreed all things, God will accomplish His purpose no matter what people do. The confession, however, says that the decree does not take away the reality of “second causes” (2LC 3.1). This means that God not only decrees that things will happen, but He also decrees the ways or means by which they will happen. God decrees that the end will come to pass by decreeing the means by which they will come to pass.

For example, “When God decided to save sinners, he specifically decided to save sinners by Jesus Christ.”11 There was no other way for sinners to be saved but through Jesus Christ. The means of all that consummates in Christ’s redemptive work, therefore, are necessary, given God’s holy character and the end God intended. Other means, however, are not morally or legally necessary, but are determined by God’s immutable wisdom. But once God decides to accomplish any ends by any given means, the means must certainly come to pass in order for the ends to be achieved. Similarly, God decreed that He would ordinarily save His elect people by means of the gospel (Romans 10:14–17). If the gospel is not preached, the elect will not ordinarily be saved. God ordains not only the ends, but also the means.” For example, “When God decided to save sinners, he specifically decided to save sinners by Jesus Christ.”

The confession’s doctrine of secondary causes guards against the heresy of fatalism. Fatalists teach that the future is fixed by blind impersonal forces and it does not matter what people choose or do in the world. The fated future always comes to pass. This belief leads to the notion that human choices and actions do not matter. But the teaching of the Bible and of the confession is exactly the opposite. Everything we choose and do matters because our choices and actions contribute to the future ends God has designed. When a fatalist sees a problem, he never thinks to try to solve the problem because his actions cannot change things. But when someone who believes in the doctrine of God’s decree sees a problem, he thinks that God may have decreed his efforts to solve the problem as the means by which the problem will be solved.

 

God’s Decree is Unconditional

Paragraph 2 of chapter 3 on the divine decree excludes any conditions from the decree. It reads:

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)

5, Acts 15:18
6. Rom. 9:11, 13, 16, 18

This paragraph was written to affirm the absolute freedom of God’s decree in opposition to Arminianism and Molinism.12 Arminianism teaches that God foresees the future free choices of human agents, and then chooses or decrees those choices based on His foreknowledge of what people will choose. Arminianism teaches that God decrees future free choices “because He foresaw it as future.” This means that in Arminianism God cannot control the future, since human beings first make their choices and then God decrees whatever they choose. Molinism, formulated by Louis Molina (1535-1600), attempts to give God more control than Arminianism, while still preserving both some degree of libertarian freedom as well as God’s decree. It teaches that there are three eternal logical moments in God. First, God knows all the possible worlds He could create (necessary knowledge). Second, God knows what free human beings would choose in each possible world (middle knowledge). Third, based on this knowledge, God chooses to instantiate the best possible world (decree). In this way, Molinism holds that God’s decree is based on “that which would come to pass on such conditions.” In both Arminianism and Molinism, God’s knowledge of the future depends on what free creatures will choose in the future.

But the confession denies that God’s decree depends on knowledge conditioned by the future free choices of human agents. Rather, God’s knowledge of the future depends on God’s decree alone. God knows the future because He decrees the future. Gordon Clark writes:

‘Do I decide to use the Queen’s Pawn opening in a chess tournament because somehow I can predict that this is what will happen; or am I able to predict that I shall use this opening because I have decided to?’ The answer is obvious is it not?13

God’s decree isn’t conditioned by knowledge outside of God, since that would compromise God’s independence, immutability, and omniscience. Rather, God’s decree is only conditioned by His internal knowledge of all possibilities. This is because God cannot know what something will be until He has first decreed that it will be. This is the clear teaching of verses such as Isaiah 43:11, in which God says, “I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” That means God “speaks,” or knows, the future precisely because He has “purposed,” or decreed, the future and will “bring it to pass.”

This glorious doctrine of God’s decree affords the believer great comfort. We take comfort in the fact that our good God will certainly accomplish all His pleasure. There is no reason to fear what men may do. There is no reason to doubt God’s promises. The decree is fuel for our faith and our souls. It teaches that God will keep His Word, that the forces of evil arrayed against Him and His people will fail, that Christ will have His bride, and the gates of hell will not prevail against the advancement of His kingdom.


1 Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1845; reprint, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus, 2008), 81.
2 Shaw, The Reformed Faith, 82.
3 Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading its Theology in Historical Context (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009), 174-175.
4 Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Readers Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA: Banner, 2016 reprint), 44.
5 All Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV.
6 Samuel E. Waldron, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 3rd ed. (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1999), 63-64.
7 Gordon H. Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1965), 37.
8 J.V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 103.
9 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans John Eusden Dykstra (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 1.7.2, (p. 94). Cited in Fesko, Westminster Standards, 106.
10 Fesko, Westminster Standards, 107.
11 Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith, 46.
12 Letham, The Westminster Assembly, 184.
13 Clark, What do Presbyterians Believe?, 39.