(The Sovereign Decree(s) of God)
As the sovereign, all-wise, omnipotent, and omniscient God, Scripture teaches us that God, as also immanently involved in His creation, has a sovereign plan He is accomplishing in the universe. The truth of God’s sovereign plan has many practical ramifications for us, but before we can properly relate to God’s plan, we need a right understanding of that plan generally speaking, or we may try to relate to the plan of God improperly. We need a grasp of the fundamental principles regarding His plan from the Word to form the grid needed for our thinking so we can relate responsibly to both God’s sovereignty and to His plan. So, what exactly is God’s plan? What is God’s plan like, and how does it impact our lives?
Theologians and Bible teachers often speak of the decrees of God in relation to God’s decisions to do certain things in history. But these are only various aspects of the one great plan of God often referred to as the decree of God. In God’s plan there are many steps and phases, yet there is only one master plan which intricately and harmoniously includes all things (Acts 2:23 [“plan” is singular]; Isa. 46:10 [“purpose” or “counsel” is singular]). The plan or decree of God is a single plan that encompasses all things. Nothing is outside the scope of this sovereign plan of God.
Ephesians 1:11 also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, (emphasis mine)
Let us remember that while there is one great master plan, each one of us has a part in the master plan of God. This is infinitesimally small which should be humbling, but our part is very important to God, important enough to consider us individually even as to the number of the hairs on our head (Matt. 10:30). Such should not only comfort, but it should remind us we are here for a purpose (cf. 1 Pet. 5:6-7 and Eph. 2:10).
The decree or plan of God is “God’s eternal purpose, according to the wise council of his own will, whereby, for His own glory, he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (“Shorter Catechism,” Question 7, Westminster Confession of Faith). The great purpose of this plan is the manifestation of the glory of God in all His divine perfections.
The Scriptures refer to God’s plan by various designations. Some of these may look at some specific aspect of God’s plan, but it is still a part of the decree of God. Some of these are: “the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11), “predetermined plan” (Acts 2:23), “foreknowledge” (1 Pet. 1:2; cf. vs. 20), “purpose” (Acts 4:28; Rom. 8:28), “kind intention” (Eph. 1:9), “predestined” (Rom. 8:30), “elect” (1 Thess. 1:4), and “will of God” (Eph. 1:1).
When did God form His plan? Second Timothy 1:9 declares it is “from all eternity.” First Peter 2:20 says it was from “before the foundation of the world.” God’s plan is an eternal plan that has existed from all eternity. While it is an eternal plan, it is unfolded and manifested in time or human history. However, the entire plan was formed from all eternity and it is not subject to change. God is not scrambling about trying to work out His plan or make last minute corrections. When we fumble the ball, or when things go wrong, or when tragedy strikes, according to Scripture, God’s plan has not slipped a gear. He is still on the throne and in control. The tragedy was (or is) a part of God’s plan. God includes our fumbles and allows the tragedies of life in His sovereign purpose (Isa. 43:10-13; 44:6-9, 24-28; 45:6-13, 20-22).
He has foreordained all that comes to pass and this includes the evil and the good and the permission of the evil will ultimately demonstrate His glory and bring praise to Him (Ps. 76:10).
Since God’s plan is the plan of an omniscient and all-wise God, it must be the wisest plan possible. God’s plan accomplishes the purposes of God in the most complete and perfect way. His plan is best because He is omniscient, knows all things possible, and was eternally aware of all other possible plans. Since God is perfect in His perfections—holiness, love, grace, mercy, justice, goodness, truth, power, etc., our faith in God must rest in the fact it is the wisest possible plan and, as His finite creatures, we need to submit to God’s plan regardless of how things appear to us. We need to learn to see life from the standpoint of its overall purpose, the glory of God. Unfortunately, we tend to look at life from the finite standpoint of our very temporal and limited existence. Looking at God’s plan from an eternal perspective with its eternal weight of glory, enables us to rest in today and to accept life and use the things that happen to serve God and His eternal plan. Paul demonstrates this attitude and perspective toward the trials of life. He wrote:
2 Corinthians 4:8-18 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death works in us, but life in you. 13 But having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore also we speak; 14 knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and will present us with you. 15 For all things are for your sakes, that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. 17 For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us in Isaiah 55:8-9 that God’s thoughts and ways are very different from ours, as much so as the heavens are higher than the earth. This means we may often be perplexed about the way God runs the universe and about the things that He allows to go on in terms of misery, pain, and evil. Since we now see in a mirror dimly, we must simply wait for God’s illumination in the future when we will see face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). Enns writes:
God’s wisdom and knowledge cannot be comprehended, and His decisions cannot be tracked as footprints in the sand. God has consulted no one and no one has advised Him. But because God knows all things He controls and guides all events for His glory and for our good (cf. Ps. 104:24; Prov. 3:19).66
Having discussed the sovereignty of God and His plan and purposes for the nation of Israel in Romans 9-11, the Apostle concludes with this praise to the infinite wisdom of God:
Romans 11:33-36 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
Though God often uses human instruments to accomplish His plan, it ultimately depends solely upon God both for its source and for its accomplishment.
Isaiah 40:13-14 Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, Or as His counselor has informed Him? 14 With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding? And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge, And informed Him of the way of understanding?
Isaiah 40:21-26 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22 It is He who sits above the vault of the earth, And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. 23 He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. 24 Scarcely have they been planted, Scarcely have they been sown, Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, But He merely blows on them, and they wither, And the storm carries them away like stubble. 25 “To whom then will you liken Me That I should be his equal?” says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high And see who has created these stars, The One who leads forth their host by number, He calls them all by name; Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power Not one of them is missing.
Ephesians 1:11 also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will,
Excluded from the decree of God are all things relating to His own existence, His attributes, His subsistence in three Persons, His intimate relationships, or His responsibilities. All these proceed from the nature of God rather than from His will or decree. The decree of God relates to His acts that are not immanent and intrinsic and that are outside His own being.67
Every year, we are bombarded with news of horrible things that occur all around the globe: serial murders, mass killings, plane crashes, devastating floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and on the list goes. There seems to be no end to it. Could all this be in God’s plan? God’s Word, though perplexing to us, gives us the answer. The Bible tells us that God is the One “… who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11) (emphasis mine). Not some things, but all things. Note how the Psalmist put it:
Psalm 103:19 The LORD has established His throne in the heavens; And His sovereignty rules over all.
Even the evil and the good are included together in the sovereign plan of God. There are no areas, or happenings over which God is not the Supreme Ruler. Everything in creation is subject to His rule and only occurs as a part of His sovereign plan (see Isa. 46:10-11; 45:6-7, 9).
(7) The kingdom of God (Matt. 25:34).
(9) The giving of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:11).
(11) Even the calamities of life fall within the permissive aspect of the sovereign will of God (Isa. 45:7).
Since God is infinitely holy, how do we account for the evil and the pain and allowance of sin? Not an easy question and there are no easy answers, but Scripture does give us an answer.
The fact of sin is the major problem in the doctrine of God’s decree. If sin had not entered the universe, there probably would have been no possibility of challenging the sovereignty of God. Within our limited comprehension as human beings it is perhaps difficult to see how God would sovereignly adopt a plan in which terrible acts of sin take place. Yet that is the universe in which we find ourselves and the universe to which Scripture addresses the truth of God’s sovereignty …
It is not sufficient to assume that God was unable to prevent sin from eventuating or that He could not cause it to cease at any moment if this were His will. God, however, permitted evil to appear, and the Bible provides the only basic solution to the problem of evil in the universe which exists in all forms of human thought.
The essential nature of sin is one area that needs to be explored. Though evil is a part of God’s original plan, it is not attributed to God as an act of His will in the sense that He determined that evil would be accomplished. Scripture is clear that the presence of sin in the world cost God the death of His Son as a sacrificial Lamb on the altar when He was killed at Calvary. Permitting evil cost God the most of any possible plan.
Under the circumstances the question may be raised as to why sin is allowed in the universe. This is best explained by pointing to the ultimate purpose of God to bring men into likeness to Himself. To realize this end they must know to some degree what God knows. They must recognize the evil character of sin …
In examining the fact of sin consideration must be given to the fact of God’s grace toward the fallen and the sinful. No demonstration of grace is possible unless there are objects that need grace, objects that know the experience of sin. Sin must be brought into final judgment.
In conclusion, it must be said that God’s primary divine purpose was not to avoid the presence of sin. He could have prevented it if He had willed to do so. To achieve His purposes, which were holy, just, and good, God had to permit sin in order to demonstrate His glory—especially His righteousness, love, and grace.68
In the outworking of God’s plan in human history, God’s decrees are often viewed in three aspects: The efficacious or overruling will of God, the permissive will of God, and directive will of God.
The efficacious will of God is carried out by various means (directly by physical causes, Job 28:25-26; Gen. 1, and by spiritual forces, Eph. 2:8, 10; 4:24; Phil. 2:13) for which God is personally or directly responsible and for which He acknowledges responsibility as in the preceding verses.
Other parts of God’s plan He permits. The permissive will of God embraces only the moral features that are evil or contrary to His desired will. Though God does not actively promote this aspect of His sovereign will, He uses them to accomplish His purposes, since He knows before hand just how every person will respond to every possible situation, and decreed to allow it or not. Regardless, God always places the responsibility for these acts and their results with men or angels, as in the case of the fall of Satan and then of man (Acts 14:16; Ps. 78:29; Isa. 10:5-14; Acts 2:23; Rom. 1:18-32). A classic example of this is perhaps the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the book of Exodus.
Ten times it is said that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34; 13:15), and 10 times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17). Paul uses this as an example of the inscrutable will of God and of His mercy toward men (Rom. 9:14-18). Seven times Pharaoh hardened his own heart before God first hardened it, though the prediction that God would do it preceded all.69
The fact that God permits these things does not make them less certain, nor remove them from the sovereign plan of God, but it does remove the responsibility for the sinful acts of men and fallen angels from God. Another illustration of this is the way God sovereignly uses kings, who often commit evil acts and who, though they operate by their own volition and have no intention of serving God (see Isa. 45:4-6), are accomplishing God’s sovereign purposes. Isaiah calls Cyrus, the Persian monarch, God’s anointed because he was carrying out God’s purposes in protecting the Nation of Israel. In this passage, we have this well-known verse that is directly related to this subject:
Isaiah 45:7 The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these.
The Psalmist writes in Psalm 76:10, “Surely your wrath against men brings you praise, and the survivors of your wrath are restrained.” (NIV)
“Wrath” refers to the evil acts of men done in rebellion against God, or His people, or against the world. God may use such rebellion or wrath in His sovereign plan to carry out His purposes, or He may restrain it. “The entrance of sin into the universe was made certain by God’s plan. God did not create sin, but in His infinite wisdom He allowed its entrance into the universe.”71
Sin is always the product of the creatures own negative volition to God. God may permit it, use it, or hinder it, but it is the creature who chooses to sin in rebellion against God. God did not create man to be a robot but a creature created in God’s image with the moral responsibility to know God, love God, and choose for God. A robot that could do only what it was programmed for would bring little glory to God; it certainly would not have the capacity for love and true fellowship.
By the directive will of God we mean the will of God as it may be discerned and defined by God’s specific instructions or directions as they are found in the Word and by His specific workings within a person’s individual life. God’s sovereignty not only includes the end, but the means He has chosen to attain that end. The primary means He has chosen is found in the directive will of God. This is where human responsibility comes into play. This truth moves man onto the stage with God, not as a puppet, but as a volitional and moral agent responsible for a relationship with God wherein man studies, prays, serves, and witnesses for God and the Savior.
God could act and accomplish His plan without man, but He has chosen to use human beings as earthen vessels to bring His plan to fulfillment. This means that there is a two-fold operation and responsibility.
(1) Man’s responsibility includes the various means of faith, prayer, learning and applying Scripture, giving, serving, and moral uprightness, etc.
(2) God’s responsibility includes calling, convicting, illuminating, regenerating, leading, and working in men to enable them to accomplish His directive will.
Philippians 2:12-13 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
All the imperatives and principles laid out in the Bible point us to man’s responsibility while all the promises of Scripture point us to God’s. So our human response and responsibility to God is a part of God’s plan, that which He has decreed that we might carry out His purposes. It’s like the farmer who acts on the laws of the harvest that the Creator has established. God does not clear the land, plow, disc, fertilize, and plant the crop. The farmer must do those things in cooperation with God’s creative processes. Likewise, God does not read the Word for us, haul us to Bible class or church, or spend quality time with our families, witness for us, and so on. These are things He has directed us to do in faith which He prospers and uses to His glory and for our edification and fruitfulness in the world (1 Cor. 3:5-9).
The ultimate purpose of God’s plan is the praise and manifestation of the glory of God (Eph. 1:6, 11, 12, 14; 3:21; Rom. 11:36; 16:27; Rev. 4:11; 5:13). It is essential to the very Being of God and by the very nature of God that His glory be manifested and appreciated because of what God’s glory is and does within the universe. This is not the action of some pompous person who wants to be seen to feel good about himself. Not for a moment. Rather, this is more like the blessing, the joy, and the awe we may experience when we see some highly-skilled acrobat, athlete, actor, musician, or some majestic part of creation. Because of the beauty, grace and skill, it needs to be seen and appreciated by others. When we view a glorious mountain in its beautiful setting or see an athlete perform in an outstanding way, we often think, how awful it would be if such talent or beauty were never seen and appreciated, not for the ego of the person, but for the joy and thrill it gives to the viewers.
So God’s plan is designed to manifest the various facets of His glory or perfections. How? By allowing sin through the creature, God’s plan brought out all aspects of God’s glory much like sparkling diamonds against the backdrop of black velvet. The presence of sin and rebellion manifests God’s love, patience, holiness, mercy, and grace to a magnificent degree.
Amidst all the confusion and uncertainty of the world in which we live, how assuring to know that God orders our steps! Our faith need not be in blind chance nor in circumstances, but should be in an infinitely wise God who does all things well, who knows the end from the beginning and whose every desire for us is for ultimate good and His glory.
These great truths will make the child of God humble and remove any confidence in the flesh … These are family truths and are not understood by those outside the family and in fact should not be taught to them.
God’s truth concerning Himself and His plan strengthens our faith and give us assurance, hope, and confidence in Him. But these sublime truths should also help us to see our duties within God’s plan and to see them as a part of that plan.72
The concept of God’s sovereignty and sovereign plan as seen in the Scripture is a declaration of God’s majestic rule and control over this earth and all the affairs of life. It is also an invitation to each of us to worship the Lord, to submit to His authority over every aspect of life, to rest and relax in His control over all our affairs, and to obey His Word which He has given us to direct us into His perfect will and plan. But by His mercy and grace, even in our disobedience, as with Jonah who found himself in the belly of the great fish, God is still in control either for our blessing or for our discipline, itself a form of blessing because of its design to make us like His Son.
It is a marvelous revelation of the Bible to learn (a) that God watches over all that happens, indeed, He has known it from all eternity, and (b) that He is in complete control over all situations, no matter how dark or hopeless. Amazingly, this knowledge, if rested in by faith, can free us to serve the Lord and love others unconditionally, for ultimately, nothing can stand in the way of God’s plan for our lives.