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.