Sometimes you almost have to laugh at how every single passage of Scripture can be disputed. People (myself included) like to bring fresh eyes to the text to see what others may have missed. Part of that might be good Bible study, but part of that might be the pride of life.
The opening passages of Scripture are no different. The creation account of Genesis 1-2 has been torn apart and reassembled more times than perhaps any other passage. The modern age has said it is trying to reconcile reason with Scripture when it comes to the matter of the age of the earth and how space, time, and matter came to be. That premise, though, is misleading. Were reason and Scripture disjointed before the modern era?
The Confession opens its doctrine of creation with this: "In the beginning it pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, to create or make the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good.”
Right off the bat, we are reminded that for all of eternity, the Godhead has existed as Father, Son, and Spirit. That is no small matter. Believing that keeps us from all kinds of false notions, such as Jesus being adopted or created. All three persons are God.
We’re also given the purpose, or telos, of creation. The heavens and the earth were created “for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom and goodness”[.] Did God need anything? Was he lonely? Did he create everything, including us, because of a need inside of himself? By no means, to quote the apostle.
For many, this is a paradigm shift in their thinking about, well, everything. We are not the point, reason, or purpose for existence. We are here to glorify God, not fulfill him. Everything exists, from the smallest particle no human eye will ever see, to the largest supernova in the farthest galaxy, to shine a light on how glorious, wise, and powerful our creator is. He is the point of it all.
The Confession also does not mince words on the timing of creation. Creation took place “in the space of six days”. The text of Scripture, whether or not we agree with it, could not be more clear. Between the days of creation being given a number and every day being marked by both evening and morning, to look for loopholes in what the text actually says to reconcile it with contemporary science is not the point.
There are several theories as to how this can be done, from the gap theory (millions of years between days), to the day-age theory (days are equal to aeons), to the framework theory (it’s just a literary device, not literal history).
Let’s be clear what we are saying if we deny the historicity of a literal 6 24-hour days of creation. Death existed before sin entered the world. Adam was not a special creation. Paul’s arguments about the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in Romans 5:12-23 becomes meaningless, making sin less than a rejection of the law of God.
Well-intentioned, Bible-reading Christians can surely disagree on minor interpretive issues, even around creation. But if we are people of the book, we must take the book as it comes to us. We must read the creation account for what it is: a highly organized, memorable, poetic account of the creator forming everything from nothing. Once we read the text and interpret it rightly, only then are we able to incorporate contemporary science and philosophy into our understanding of how God made everything from nothing. And a robust doctrine of the authority of Scripture necessarily places it as the text that corrects and guides our scientific conclusions.
The Confession then states, “After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, rendering them fit unto that life to God for which they were created”[.] Two people were created, one from the other, in perfect harmony with the rest of creation. That was the only time in world history when there were no struggles, diseases, or disasters. They were completely “fit unto that life to God”, which was their purpose: to live for God. Tending the garden, multiplying, and subduing the land was how they would live for God. Should we not live for God any differently today?
The Scriptures present Eden as a kind of temple. Though the tabernacle and temple of Israel would not come until much later, the text clearly presents the earth as the place where God especially dwells. Even then, the structure and decor of the tabernacle (and later the temple) would reflect the way that Eden is described in Genesis 1-2. When sin entered the world, God cast the people out of his presence. When the Israelites sinned, God’s presence left the temple and the people were kicked out of the land again. It’s hard to read Exodus 40-48 alongside Genesis 2 and not see how clearly they correspond.
Theologians call this the covenant of works. God interacts with his people always in a covenant, never without. Before Adam sinned, eternal life was based on works. When God told Adam that death would come from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the sense is that not eating from it would lead to eternal life. Creation came with a series of obligations, blessings, and curses, hence, a covenant of works.
Hosea 6:7 says, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant”[.] Why are we held captive by Adam’s sin? Because he was our covenant head. That is one of Paul’s main points in Romans 5:12-20, another reason why the creation account matters. It’s all interrelated and incredibly cohesive!
When Adam sinned and was ejected from the garden, God entered into a covenant of grace with him. God slaughtered an animal to shed blood (without which there is no remission of sins) and to make coverings for the people to cover their shame. All of the covenants that follow, up to including the new covenant in Christ’s blood, are all under the banner of the covenant of grace. The Noahic, Abrahamic, Sinaitic, David, all look forward to the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. Even the law, which was never meant to take away sins but to expose them, is within the covenant of grace.
Next week, we’ll take a look at chapter 5, divine providence: how God governs the world for his glory.
Of all the doctrines concerning God, perhaps his will takes the most care. To some, God’s decrees are a precious truth that both comforts and convicts. To others, his will is gruesome and proof that he is untrustworthy and unloving. But is God’s will meant to be a comfort or a cause for repulsion?
Last week we established that the Confession clearly articulates the truth that God is in control and moves the world to accomplish his will. That fact brings with it, however, the question of how evil can exist in a world where a good God is in control. Even then, we must ask another question: is “good” God’s only attribute? How do you define "good"?
God’s choice is a critical component of his will. The Confession says that the number of those who are chosen are fixed and “cannot either be increased or diminished.” Reading Scripture will make clear that because God is just, he makes choices. He discerns between good and evil. But he is also a God of mercy. But if God is also love, why does he choose some to be reserved for mercy, while others are left for justice?
Here we see the fallacy of equating mercy with love. There are overlaps to be sure, but they are quite distinct. Love protects those you love. Love recognizes that there is real evil in the world, does not downplay its effects, and does all it can to safeguard the good. Those who repent of their sin and believe in Christ are loved by God, and his love will guard and protect his children from evil.
Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:19, “But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are his.’” At the last supper when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he says to them, “I know whom I have chosen” (John 13:18). The Christian believes both that the parable of the prodigal son teaches God deeply loves his children and rejoices at their repentance and return to him as well as that he makes choices between people. We must not pit Scripture against Scripture.
God’s choice is not an arbitrary choice. The difference is that his choice is not based upon anything God sees within us. The Confession says, “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, without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving him thereunto.”
God’s choice of the elect was made before they were born, even before creation. How can anyone say that it was entirely their choice to believe in Christ when God already made that choice before Genesis 1:1?
Again, it is not an arbitrary choice. It is according to “the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will”[.] Paul could be no clearer when he wrote, "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). Paul is not denying human responsibility; he is declaring that your salvation is dependent on the mercy of God, not your choice of God, which you are unable to make while dead in your sins.
“Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). If human free will is all that we think it is, and our choice is the deciding factor of our fate, then we must be willing to admit that it was our choice that brought us sin and death. But it was God who brought us to life through the death and resurrection of Christ. No matter how we frame it, God is in control.
Just as God elected some before the foundation of the world, he also “foreordained all the means thereunto”. That is, God did not bring salvation without also supplying the road to salvation. The means of salvation were twofold: the Son of God would willingly substitute himself on our behalf, and the Spirit of God would apply that redemption in real time.
Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2:13). Also, throughout the book of Acts, the common refrain is that when people repent and believe the gospel, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the seal of the redemption purchased in Christ’s blood.
Romans 8:30 presents what is called the “golden chain of redemption.” Paul wrote, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Here we read a summary of all that can be said about salvation. God predestined (or elected) some to salvation, he calls them to faith and repentance at a point in time, he justifies them upon faith and repentance, and he will glorify them in the resurrection.
The truth that God chooses some and passes over others is often a jarring revelation. And yet, the Scriptural witness is clear. God does not choose arbitrarily, but he chooses according to his good pleasure. We can rest assured that whatever his choice is, it is just and good without even a twinge of duplicity. The truth remains that all are guilty before God. No one in heaven deserves to be there. Everyone in hell does.
But the Confession notes the carelessness that can often attend such a staggering truth and the danger that comes from such carelessness. “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; so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.”
The doctrines of God’s will, election, and predestination should be handled like a priceless artifact. It is beautiful, yet a certain level of fear and respect accompany it.
Next week, we will move on to a topic about which there is no confusion or debate: creation.
Perhaps no other doctrine of Christianity troubles as many people as that of God’s will. The perennial questions have to do with how God’s will relates to his benevolence and the existence of evil. Other problems stem from simply a lack of teaching on the subject, and nature abhors a vacuum. If the church does not teach on God’s will, you will fill the void with other ideas, and the chance of them lining up with Scripture is slim-to-not-gonna-happen.
The Confession begins by saying, “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.” Immediately the, “Yea, but…” begins. Does God really control evil? Why is there sin if God is in charge? If God is in charge and people still go to hell, does God make people just to send them to hell?
The Confession immediately follows with, “yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; 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; in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.”
No one likes the idea that people will go to hell (or suffer, or die in natural disasters, or be killed by tyrants, etc.), so we try to reason that God must not send them. But if we start with our own minds, we will believe anything. If we start with Scripture, we will believe the truth.
Scripture is clear that God does not will evil. And yet, God is responsible for all that happens. When Peter and John are before the Jewish council in Acts 4, the council wants to get rid of them but can’t because of the high esteem they hold with the people. They’re released and go back to their friends. As they give thanks for their release they pray, and they say, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (4:27-28). Peter and John both knew that God predestined the evil that Herod and Pilate perpetrated upon his own Son.
Reformed theology in general also believes in what are deemed “second causes”. God establishes, or predestines, certain things to take place, up to and including the crucifixion, the greatest act of evil ever seen on the earth. “Second causes” are those mechanisms by which God can be held responsible but not to blame. For instance, the Jewish priests and scribes were to blame for Christ’s death, because they started the ball rolling. And yet, the Roman soldiers were also to blame for Christ’s death, because they beat him and crucified him. And yet, Pilate was to blame for Christ’s death, because he had the earthly authority to order capital punishment.
The Confession also rejects Molinism, which says that God sees an infinite number of possibilities and how every person would react given a set of circumstances and so orders creation to bring about that which he wants. “Although God knoweth whatsoever may or can come to pass, upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything, because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.” At first blush it may seem like splitting hairs. But upon further examination, Molinism sees God ultimately as reacting, not ruling. Under Molinism, God is a respectable manger, not a king.
But here is where I want to land today. Many people have rejected the historic doctrine of God’s decree because of predestination. But I would argue that many people have been given a view of predestination that tries to round off the rough edges of reality, of thinking that mankind is better than we actually are, that we are less sinful than we actually are and God is less holy than he actually is.
The Confession says, “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, to the praise of his glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of his glorious justice.”
The idea of God making a choice, or election, is rampant throughout Scripture. The locus classicus of predestination is probably Ephesians 1:4-6, where Paul writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
Regardless of our personal taste when it comes to election, for Paul it was a matter of absolute worship and praise. Are you worthy of being saved because you’re a good person? If you said that to Paul’s face, he’d call you a heretic and start from ground zero with the gospel with you. The hard truth is that no one is “worth” being saved. That’s what makes grace such a matter of worship. Our salvation was God’s choice! He chose to love us when he would still be just to damn us!
Because of election, Paul calls God “blessed”. God chose us “in love”. His will to do so was “to the praise of his glorious grace”.
So does that mean that since God chose some to salvation, that by extension he chose some to damnation? No! God gives unearned mercy to the elect. He gives earned justice to the reprobate. In fact, Scripture teaches that God is actually patient with the reprobate.
Romans 9 is were the apostle Paul address this issue at length. If God controls every decision we make, including if we will believe in Christ or not, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will” (9:19)? His answer might shock those of us who are comfortable with a teaching that assumes the goodness of man.
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:20-24)
So let’s set aside any notion of having a right to a “decision” on our part. Who are you, o sinner, with your supposed rights before a holy God?
The point of this post is to say that maybe we haven’t understood the will of God according to the full counsel of God. Yes, at times, it seems harsh. But woe to us if we live another day thinking God owes us.
Next week, we will dive deeper into the Scripture that addresses the goodness of God’s decree.