What Are the Decrees of God (WSC Q. 7)

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Beloved, God gave us the inheritance that we have in Christ before the ages began! And why is that? Because God allowed sinful men to perpetrate the most wicked act of all time against our sinless savior. The only one, in the history of the world, who did not deserve the wrath of God, went to the cross on our behalf. This was all according to God’s eternal plan. So, find your courage in the glorious and all-consoling doctrine of the decrees of God.

What Are the Decrees of God?

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
April 12, 2020

If ever there was a doctrine that was all-consuming in its scope, the decrees of God is it. Tonight we begin to unpack the work of God. Questions 5-38 are the fleshing out of tonight’s question. This section covers everything from creation to consummation. Indeed, we begin tonight with events that took place before the creation of time itself, as we catch a glimpse of the internal counsel of the triune God. The Bible gives us occasional glimpses of the eternal counsel of God. The catechism articulates these biblical glances in question 7. 

God has a purpose in every human event, and all things are heading toward a single destination and goal. Moreover, the Christian who takes the time to study and cherish this doctrine will find comfort in all seasons. If you embrace this doctrine of the decrees of God and apply it in every circumstance, you will have a refuge from the storm and strong shield in battle. To know that God is behind it all—to see that he has planned it all—is the most exceptional comfort we can possess, especially when we find Christ at the center of everything. So let’s find joy and courage in the all-consuming and all-consoling doctrine of the decrees of God.

Q.7. What are the decrees of God?     

A. The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.      

—Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 7

We will look at the decrees of God in two parts.

1. The Decrees of God are His Eternal Purpose

God has a plan, and this is good! There is nothing more disconcerting than the feeling that your life is somehow going nowhere. This feeling is, of course, the logical conclusion of atheism. If atheism is true, life really is going nowhere. Life is meaningless. Your existence means nothing. Any kind of worth, or value, or purpose that you give to your life is all make-believe. You are living a grand delusion if you think that your life can have real meaning without God. In the end, you are dead. You are gone. Forgotten. From dust to dust, you come and go. Goodbye, sayonara. Now, fortunately, God has a plan, and your purpose and meaning are bound to it. There are three aspects of God’s eternal decrees that we must see here.

First, the Bible refers to God’s eternal purpose in several ways. In Psalm 33:11, God’s plan is called “the counsel of the Lord.” Likewise, Ephesians 1:11 refers to God’s plan as “the counsel of his will.” The Bible is showing us that God held a session with himself to plan and purpose all things. This inter-trinitarian counsel is no-doubt given to us in anthropomorphic language. There is no possible way for us to conceive of God “meeting” with himself, nor can we imagine him meeting before the world began when time did not exist. Nevertheless, the Bible condescends to use language that we can understand to get a picture of something real about God.

Second, the counsel of God’s will is a plan for all time. Again, in Psalm 33:11, we are told that the plans of his heart are to all generations. Job tells us that these plans are unchangeable (Job. 23:13). Before time began, God planned redemption. The Bible says that God chose his people in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Perhaps one of the most remarkable descriptions of the eternal nature of God’s plan is found in Ephesians 1:7-10.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.    

—Ephesians 1:7-10

The gospel reveals the mystery of God’s will. At the heart of everything is Christ. Christ is elected, by the counsel of God, to be the uniting center that binds everything in heaven and earth. This holding together of all things means that everything in the universe, whether visible or invisible, is derivative of Christ. Its relationship to Christ defines the meaning and purpose of everything. Christ’s redemptive work was not “plan B.” God planned it before time began.

The Bible speaks of this in several places. In Revelation 13, those whose names have been “written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” is the designation of God’s people (Rev. 13:8). Peter tells us that the Messiah was “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 1:20). Paul says in Titus 1 that eternal life was “promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). Moreover, speaking on the Mount of Olives, Jesus says that the kingdom was prepared for us before all worlds, saying, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). God’s glorious plan of redemption was no contingency plan concocted after Adam’s fall in the Garden. No, God set forth his plan of redemption before the world began.

Third, nothing can thwart his plan. God’s eternal decrees stand forever. No power on earth or in heaven can prevent, modify, or change what God has decreed will come to pass. But don’t take my word for it. Hear it directly from the mouth of God. Here are several scriptures that speak to the eternal and fixed nature of God’s eternal decrees.

Psalm 33:11,

The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.

—Psalm 33:11

Proverbs 19:21,

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.       

—Proverbs 19:21

Isaiah 14:24,

The Lord of hosts has sworn: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand.      

—Isaiah 14:24

Psalm 135:6-7,

Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses.   

—Psalm 135:6-7

Daniel 4:35,

All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”    

—Daniel 4:35

The decrees of God are his eternal purpose. God has a plan. We are not skyrocketing through the universe as a series of meaningless accidents. God’s purpose is definite. It is eternal, and no force in heaven or earth can shake it. Finally, all of God’s decrees center around his redemptive plan in Christ—“a plan for the fullness of time” (Eph. 1:10).

2. The Decrees of God Foreordain All Things for God’s Glory

God has a purpose in every human event, and all things are heading toward a single destination and goal. Now, what is that single destination and goal? The answer brings us back to Ephesians 1.

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, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 

—Ephesians 1:11-12

We need to see two things to understand the single destination and goal of God’s decree. First, God is working all things according to the counsel of his own will. “All things” is not ambiguous. Paul means “all things.” God works all things according to the counsel of his will. Because God works all things according to that counsel, he is responsible for the unfolding events of this pandemic. The losses in jobs and lives are according to his eternal decree. The Bible does not tell us why, but it does tell us that they are. He works all things according to the counsel of his will.

Now this is a hard pill to swallow. Believe me. I wrestled with this doctrine for a long time as a young man. But we have to take the Bible seriously. We can’t just believe the parts that we like. Paul’s description of God in Ephesians 1 is the One “who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” God is the Lord who works the big things and the small things as he sees fit. This includes election and salvation. Twice in Ephesians 1, we are told that God’s people are predestined to salvation. Verse 5, “In love he predestined us for adoption.” Then again in verse 11, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to him who works all things according to the council of his will.” To fully work out this aspect of God’s decrees, we need to understand that God does not just choose the saints to salvation, but he also chooses the rest of mankind to reprobation. This is the witness of Scripture. Paul says in Romans 9,

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 9:22-24

The Bible is clear. God sovereignly works all things according to the counsel of his own will. Concerning redemption and reprobation, God is behind it all. He is the one who prepares vessels for mercy and vessels for wrath. Ephesians and Romans tell us that God planned this before the foundation of the world.

Now, there is a big question as to God’s justice. And this is the rub. What is evident in the Bible is that God has an eternal plan. It is also clear that his plan does not change, nor can anyone thwart it. Furthermore, the Bible is clear that God is the one who elects people to salvation and damnation. All of this is apparent from an honest and thorough read of the Bible. But, what is less clear is the justice of God in it all. But here is where we must make a decision. The Bible tells us that God is just. Recall Abraham’s consolation in Genesis 18:25,

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”            

—Genesis 18:25

God is just. The judge of all the earth will do what is right. Nevertheless, the judge of all the earth is the same one who has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. So there is the problem of evil to deal with here. We cannot do full justice to that tonight. Let me simply make one observation, which I take from Baptist theologian, Millard Erickson. The Bible teaches that God is all sovereign, all good, and that evil exists. To satisfy the problem of evil, from a human point of view, we have to remove or modify one of those three propositions. Either God is not all sovereign, or he is not all good, or evil doesn’t actually exist. But to remove or modify any of those propositions is to create a fictional god. We cannot remove or alter what the Bible teaches. The Bible certainly teaches that God is all sovereign, all good, and that evil really does exist. Explain that away and you have created something that is sub-biblical and sub-Christian. In the end, we must consign ourselves to the fact that the Bible is right, and that God knows what he is doing. We would be best to remember the counsel of Moses, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belongs to us” (Deut. 29:29).

The second and final thing that we need to see is that God’s eternal decrees find their ultimate destination and goal in our salvation and God’s glory. This is the gospel, beloved. In choosing vessels of mercy, God did not just elect the Jews, the biological children of Abraham. He chose Gentiles like you and me too. Paul says in Romans 9 that God chose “…even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (Rom 9:24). As Paul says back in Ephesians 1, all of this is to the “praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6; see also 1:12, 14).

Beloved, God gave us the inheritance that we have in Christ before the ages began! And why is that? Because God allowed sinful men to perpetrate the most wicked act of all time against our sinless savior. The only one, in the history of the world, who did not deserve the wrath of God, went to the cross on our behalf. This was all according to God’s eternal plan. So, find your courage in the glorious and all-consoling doctrine of the decrees of God.

Do not be mistaken. The crucifixion of our Lord was according to the definite plan of God. The cross of Christ is the act of God at the center of all time and history. Christ’s crucifixion is at the heart of God’s plan. The justice and the mercy of God meet at the cross. And God planned that before the creation of the world. Peter says to the crowd at Pentecost,

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.   

—Acts 2:23-24

At the center of God’s definite plan and foreknowledge is the death and resurrection of Christ. Beloved, it is here that we find full meaning and purpose to our existence. You were chosen before the foundation of the world to be raised with Christ to salvation and new life.

Now, if you hear this, and you are not saved. Listen to Peter’s charge to the crowd. When they listened to his words, they were cut to the heart, and they said to Peter, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). And he said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). I invite you to repent and be baptized. If you would like to do that, please reach out to me. In making that choice, you will find yourself walking into the inheritance that was prepared for you from before the creation of time itself.

Beloved, what are the decrees of God? “The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (WSC Q. 1).

Christian, the Bible gives us the doctrine of the decrees of God to bring us great hope and bold courage. You are in good hands. God planned your days long ago, his purpose for you in Christ will ever stand secure—for your good and his glory. When you hold fast to the doctrine of God’s decrees, there is nothing that will shake your courage to face the future nor the present battle. As a Christian once wrote long ago,

“My religious beliefs teach me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time of my death. I do not concern myself with that, but to be always ready whenever it may overtake me. That is the way all men should live, and all men would be equally brave.”        

—Stonewall Jackson