Doctrine: The Decree

Some Christians believe that God foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. They say that in a single decision in eternity, God wisely, unchangeably, and freely determined all the details of life and history. What is called “the decree of God,” writes Arthur Pink, “is his purpose or determination with respect to all future things.”

But if God determines all things, did I decide to write this post? If God determines all things, can people really do what they want to do at all? Do events have any meaning? Can sin—going against the will of God—be real? It would seem that the decree makes a God-creation relationship impossible. Either there is no God over creation, or all of life is just a pre-determined thought in the mind of God.

The Will of God

Trying to bring some clarity to these issues, theologians have distinguished two aspects of the will of God: (i) the decretive will and (ii) the preceptive will.

The decretive will is God’s unbending determination of things. He determines sovereignly whatever will happen. This is hidden from us until it occurs; and everything that occurs displays God’s decretive will. The preceptive will is the will he expresses as his breakable requirement for man, beginning in Gen 2:17: “of the tree of the knowledge of God and evil you shall not eat.” The law of God reveals God’s preceptive will.

Decretive and preceptive are two aspects of the one, self-consistent will of God. We may say that his will is rich and unsearchable; but we cannot say that it is multiple and contradictory. This gets complicated: God did not desire the fall, but he decreed it. God decreed that some sinners are saved; others not. But he does not take pleasure in the death of anyone; he desires that all men repent and live.

Some theologians add a permissive will as part of the decretive. They say that God permits sin and the fall, but he permits it with certainty. So he is not guilty of evil, but still sin and the fall are within his sovereign decree. Even the crucifixion of the Son of God, Scripture says, took place according to the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). The permissive (or ‘permissive-decretive’) is a kind of magical theological moment. It seems like it must come in between decretive and prescriptive.

Theology Taken Captive

Because of such difficulties, many Christians do not believe that God has a determining influence over all things. So we need a broad theological framework for understanding these things. We might ask it this way: what is the Bible’s theology of the Creator-creature relation?

Heb 11:3 says, first, that what we know about the creation of the world we know by faith. Essentially, by virtue of saving trust in God (“by faith”) we know or contemplate the fact of divine creation from nothing. The verb translated “we understand” is νοέω. So, the verse begins more less saying: “by faith we understand” or “by believing we know.”

And what do we know? “That the universe was created by the word of God [ῥήματι θεοῦ],” and that “what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” The most basic fact of creation and of God’s relationship to creation is a matter of faith, of saving faith—of faith-wrought, mind-renewing union with the Son.

John 1:1-3 connects Gen 1:1 directly to Christ. Verses 1 and 2 both contain the phrase “in the beginning” [ἐν ἀρχῇ]. So, John says that Jesus Christ was there, too, in the beginning, and that the Hebrew Elohim includes the Son as well as the Father. John makes Christ equal to God the Father. In 1:3 John says that “all things,” no exceptions, “were made through him,” the Son. The second person of the Trinity, the Son of the Father, is the divine person through whom all things were made (also verse 10). Verse 4 adds remarkable to remarkable: the Son himself is the “life” and the “light” of men. The Greek might be rendered, “that which was made was life in Him.” Creation is a work of God through the Son.

Heb 1:3 also affirms boldly the full deity of Christ the Son. It adds that Christ the Son “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (also Col 1:17). This adds to the creative role of the Son (John 1) a direct role for the Son in providence. The Son is immediately present in the universe, throughout the world, directly upholding creation. Then, after this, Heb 1:3 describes the mediatorial work of the incarnate Son. So: God the Son is immediately present in the universe upholding all things, before and apart from his mediatorial presence in the flesh.

The Son’s relationship to creation is like the air that the trumpeter blows through the instrument. The sound begins and continues only so long as air pressure is maintained. There is no sound where there is no immediate, animating, intentional pressure. Where and when air flows, all things are possible.

In the very act of creating, God, in the Son, entered into a relationship with creation that involved his immanent, personal presence everywhere in it. God the Son had immediate dealings with everything that God triune created. And from that moment forward, even to today, God the Son, who lacks none of the glory and power of the Father, upheld all things.

In this Christological doctrine of creation there is a baffling confluence of attributes: the Son is eternal and infinite God; and the Son gives immediate attention to every inch of the universe. He becomes the upholder of creation while remaining infinite God. Something similar happens when the Son becomes flesh for the Father’s love of the world (John 3:16). Jesus Himself, as he stands upon the earth conversing with men, takes to Himself the divine name, saying “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

In the incarnation, the Son of God adds to Himself the form, or the nature, of a servant, of a human being. The Son added weakness to Himself. The servant-form which he took to Himself did not detract from His divine nature; it was added to His person, so that the Son is man, and the Son is still and eternally God. The Son added to Himself everything about being a human bearer of the divine image, except sin.

We may say that in a similar way, from the beginning God in the Son added to Himself all the attributes of covenantal intercourse with the creature—all the aspects of a ‘real relation’. Among those ‘weakness additions’ is the ability to be disagreed with. Above we called this ‘permissive-decretive’ will. When God created, He remained the sovereign determiner of all things, but He added to Himself the features of a time-bound, contingent exchange.

Conclusion

Gen 2:16-17 is the first expression of covenantal terms: if this, then that. But general revelation is not void of religious content; it is covenantal, too, but non-verbally. So the reality of covenant precedes its explicit expression. This remains true today. In my view, therefore, covenant is a helpful term for understanding the God-creation relation from the very moment of its inception. And that covenant is conceived in the eternal mind of God through the Son. It is brought into being through Him. Original Edenic eschatology, too, is through the Son. And so, through the Son, room is made for Adam to transgress. And through Him, that transgression is overcome. The Son is the end of all things because He was the beginning; He is the omega because He was the alpha. All that is to say: our theology may appreciate the high, eternal sovereignty of God and the intimate communion God has with His creation, so long as our theology is thoroughly Christian.

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