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.