Sometimes my children hear what they want to hear, not being careful to understand or represent my instructions accurately. Can anyone relate? One time at the dinner table, my young son said “Mommy, if you eat all your chicken I can have dessert.”
Just a few days ago, I told my children “I’m planning to take you to the play place this morning, but you have to clean up all your craft supplies first.” An hour later, we hadn’t left for the play place, and there were still craft supplies that had not been put away. I told my children, “Put your coats on. It’s time to go to the store now. And we’ll stop by Chick-fil-A for lunch.” This was met with cries of disappointment. “But Mommy you said we would go to the play place!”
Was it true that I had said we would go to the play place? Yes, I had said the words “I’m planning to take you to the play place this morning,” but was that all that I said? There was an important caveat placed on the statement–one that my children didn’t think was important to take note of, emphasize, or repeat back to me. But in fact, the qualifier “but you have to clean up all your craft supplies first” was critical to understanding the meaning of my prior statement!
The Eternal Decree of God
We can easily make the same mistake when discussing complex theological issues. Take, for example, the sovereignty of God as it relates to the sinful acts of man. Does God ordain all that comes to pass? Yes, but there are important nuances and caveats that are essential to understanding what we mean by this in Reformed theology.
The Westminster Confession of Faith introduces us to the doctrine of the eternal decree of God in the following manner:
“God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” Westminster Confession of Faith III.I
Notice the caveats that the divines were careful to include: God is not the author of sin, the will of the creatures is not violated, and second causes are not eliminated but rather made certain. It seems not a small matter to consider these qualifiers and exercise great care in discussing them with the nature of the decree of God. Sure, we could bluntly state “God ordains all that comes to pass,” with no other qualifying nuance. And sure, this phrase is indeed found in our confession. But is it in a vacuum? No. It might seem callous, then, to announce without caveat “God ordained your rape!” Why? Because it doesn’t tell the whole story. It should come as no surprise that a victim of rape might not find such a truncated announcement comforting.
In light of the need to exercise care in discussing the decree of God, let us examine one of the qualifying statements given by the divines in the Westminster Confession:
Not the Author of Sin
We know that God is not the author of sin because the scripture tells us directly. The psalmist reminds us in Psalm 92 that “…the Lord is upright…and there is no unrighteousness in Him,” and we see this repeated throughout scripture.
How then can this be that God ordains all that comes to pass, when we know that some of what comes to pass is sin, and very heinous sin at that? Berkhof is helpful here in giving a succinct introductory explanation:
“…God cannot be the author of sin…the decree merely makes God the author of free moral beings, who are themselves the authors of sin. God decrees to sustain their free agency, to regulate the circumstances of their life, and to permit that free agency to exert itself in a multitude of acts, of which some are sinful. …The decree respecting sin is not an efficient but a permissive decree, or a decree to permit, in distinction from a degree to produce, sin by divine efficiency.”
I found two distinctions to be especially helpful in gaining a better understanding of the relationship between the decree of God and the moral agency of man: the divine decree is one comprehensive decree rather than a series of decrees, and the decree is not the events and actions themselves.
God is eternal, and His decree lies in eternity (outside of time) as a complete plan, known and foreordained simultaneously and comprehensively. Thinking of the decree of God as a single, unified plan helps me to understand that God is not positively producing sin in the hearts of human beings, but rather that we originate sin in time, in our own fallen nature, as we respond and interact to the means which He has ordained within that one, comprehensive plan. God’s decree which sets about and controls all that comes to pass is not one and the same with the actions that His creatures take in time. Berkhof clarifies for us again:
“A distinction must be made between the decree and its execution. God’s so ordering the universe that man will pursue a certain course of action, is also quite a different thing from His commanding him to do so. The decrees are not addressed to man, and are not of the nature of a statute law; neither do they impose compulsion or obligation on the wills of men.”
Though it is certainly complex and mind-bending to think about, Reformed theology does not teach that God’s ordaining of all that comes to pass includes Him actively producing man’s will to sin, or the sin itself. When human beings commit murder or abuse children, we are responsible, and God does not delight in it.
A Final Thought
The doctrine of God’s decree is complex and difficult to understand. In short, because it encompasses the problem of evil, it is a mystery that we can expect to never fully grasp. This should cause us to fear and tremble with Job, and say with the Apostle Paul “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” It is our role to accept the mystery and proceed reverently and with care in the way that we discuss these difficult doctrines, remembering always that the way we present truth matters. We should strive to present the full picture, and do so with humility and gentleness.