THE DECREES, OR GOD'S ETERNAL PLAN
SHORTER CATECHISM, 7ó8; LARGER CATECHISM, 12ó14; CONFESS1ON OF FAITH, III.
THIS chapter leads to the consideration of a very difficult set of topics, and has to deal with what forms one of the great distinguishing features of the Westminster Standards. In general, the doctrine of predestination is to be explained, according to its statement in the Standards. The Shorter Catechism at this point states the general doctrine of the decrees, and then, in connection with the doctrines of redemption in Christ, it sets forth the subject of election. The Larger Catechism does the same thing, though not quite so distinctly. In this celebrated third chapter of the Confession, the whole doctrine of predestination, together with that branch of it termed election, is fully exhibited. For purposes of compact and complete statement the plan of the Confession is perhaps best; but for practical purposes of exposition there are some advantages in the order pursued in the Catechisms. According to the latter plan the general doctrine of the decrees, or Godís eternal purpose, would be explained at this point, and then, in connection with the great redemptive work of Christ, election as a branch of the eternal plan of God would be explained. This would be in harmony with the true order of the factors involved in the purpose to redeem, according to the view of that order held by generic Calvinism, as taught in the Standards. This would also avoid even any appearance of the supra-lapsarianism, which has sometimes been unjustly charged against the Confession. The Confession has the best order for a rigid creed statement, while that of the Catechisms is no doubt the best for purposes of religious instruction.
I. The explanation of some terms involved in the doctrine of this chapter may be useful at the outset. In this discussion there are several terms which are often used, and which it may be of advantage to have explained at once. This is now briefly done in a few paragraphs.
It may be well to remark that the term decrees used in the Standards is often rather misconstrued. It is often popularly taken to mean some sort of efficient and entirely sovereign enactments, which, in an authoritative, if not in an entirely arbitrary, manner determine all events in precisely the same way. But this is not the correct meaning of the term, and the term itself is perhaps not the best one that might have been used. The idea denoted by some such word as purpose, or plan, made and executed, is what is meant by the term decrees in the Standards. In this there cannot be, in the nature of the case, anything arbitrary or irrational. The definition in the Catechisms in a measure explains the term decrees from this point of view, and so relieves the difficulty to a certain extent. The Shorter Catechism says that the decrees are Godís eternal purpose, and the Larger Catechism describes them to be the wise, free and holy acts of the counsel of Godís will. This signalizes the term purpose, which is a very good one to denote what is here meant. Perhaps the best single word to signify what is intended by the term decree, is the simple word, plan. According to this idea, it is asserted that God has had from all eternity an all-wise and intelligible plan, and that all the events in nature, in providence and in grace, are but the bringing certainly into effect of the various parts of this all-embracing plan. Alter this preliminary remark, the terms already alluded to may be explained.
First, Foreknowledge is a term often used in these discussions. It expresses the fact that God, in the exercise of his wisdom and omniscience, knows always and at all times everything which is to come to pass. Strictly speaking there is nothing future for him, as there is for finite minds, so that all events are at once present to his infinite knowledge. God knows beforehand all events in their relations, and with their conditions, so that there can be nothing entirely contingent, as a matter of fact.
Secondly, Foreordination is a general term which is used to express the fact that the divine ordination is related in some way or other to all that happens. The word really means to arrange beforehand, and so to predispose all events and their conditions in such a way that all shall come to pass according to the eternal plan. This fact pertains alike to the sphere of the natural order of the physical universe, and to that of the moral order of the divine government of responsible agents. Foreknowledge and foreordination are closely related, inasmuch as God foreknows events because he has in some way prearranged the happening of these events. To admit foreknowledge carries foreordination with it.
Thirdly, Predestination is still a stronger word, and it needs to be thoroughly understood. It literally means to bound or limit, and so to fix very definitely the happening of any event. Usually it stands as the word which specially denotes the Calvinistic views upon this subject, and so to express the plan of God as it relates to the acts and destiny of moral agents. In the Standards it is uniformly applied to the case of the elect, but never to that of the non-elect. The case of the latter is always denoted by the term ordination. Predestinated to life and ordained to death is the fixed language of the Standards, and this should never be forgotten.
Fourthly, Election is the special term which, with abundant Scripture warrant, is applied to the heirs of salvation. The word means selected, designated, or chosen out. It relates to Godís gracious plan or purpose to save certain persons through Jesus Christ, and by the appointed means. This eternal plan, in its bearing upon those who are finally saved, must, in the nature of the case, be a gracious choice, and an efficacious salvation of sinful men. This is a very important term, and great care should be taken not to explain away its true scriptural signification.
Fifthly, Reprobation is the strongest word used in the discussions upon this great subject. At the very outset it is proper to say that this term, often so severely criticised, does not occur in the Standards. It has been introduced into theological discussions to denote the divine purpose in regard to the lost. But the Standards clearly do not quite justify the use sometimes made of this strong word. The Standards simply speak of the non-elect being passed by and left in their sin, so that the best word to express this fact is the word preterition, or passing-by. The non-elect are passed by and left in condemnation, on account of their sins. This word is certainly a much better one than reprobation, and the latter, let it never be forgotten, is not found in the Standards. But this explanation of terms must suffice for the present.
II. The fundamental fact in the doctrine of the decrees is the sovereignty of God over all things. It is needful to keep this in mind, in order to avoid narrow mechanical views of this great subject. The basal fact in the doctrine of the Standards at this point is the absolute sovereignty of an omniscient, omnipotent, and holy God. If this fact be rightly understood, as it is taught in the Scriptures and set forth in the Standards, then foreknowledge, foreordination, and predestination, which includes election, all follow as a matter of course. And, further, if this view of the divine sovereignty be held in its proper scriptural proportions, the Calvinistic view will appear to be the only one which does justice to all the facts in the case. If God be before all, over all, in all and through all things, and if by him all things exist and subsist, then his absolute direction and control of all things, each according to the nature and powers which he has given it, must be admitted. And this is all that predestination, and that branch of it known as election, means; and less than this cannot be held and justice be done to Scripture. Emphasis, therefore, must be laid upon the fact of the divine sovereignty in the intelligent interpretation of the third chapter of the Confession.
III. The decrees, or eternal purpose of God, are next to be explained in a general way. The Shorter Catechism expresses this aspect of the decrees when it says that God by his eternal purpose foreordains whatsoever comes to pass. This, in briefest form, is a statement of the general scope of the eternal purpose of God, and it includes several particulars.
1. The purpose, or plan, is eternal. That God did from all eternity ordain, predestinate or elect, is the language of the Standards. This means that God ever had the plan in view which is being wrought out in the order of successive events, and his decree or purpose concerning all the parts and conditions of the plan is eternal. No part of the plan is an after-thought. The entire plan was present to the infinite wisdom of God from before the foundation of the world, and all events were arranged to fall out in time just as they do. The plan is eternal, while its execution is ternporal.
2. The eternal plan or purpose involved in the decrees is wise, holy, and free. All the parts of its complex frame are wisely adjusted to each other. The means and ends, the conditions and results, the causes and effects, are all fitted to each other in such a way as to constitute a complex and organized whole. So far as Godís immediate, or direct and efficient agency is concerned, it is holy. The plan had in it no evil of any kind, for everything was pronounced very good. Sin is an abnormal factor in the plan, as shall be seen more fully in another chapter. Then, too, in framing the purpose, and in executing it, God is absolutely free. To decree, or purpose to create, was Godís free choice. He was under no necessity of any kind in the case. So, also, in all the events of providence his free ordination is seen, for nothing happens by chance. And in the sphere of redemption everything is of Godís own free favor and choice, for the grace and good pleasure of God everywhere appears in the salvation of sinful men.
3. Godís eternal purpose is unchangeable, immutable, and unconditioned. These three words are grouped together to denote several general features of the eternal purpose of God. That God has unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass is evident from Scripture, and from the nature of the case. As an omnipotent and omniscient sovereign he does not change. If at any time there be apparent change in the relations between the creator and the creature, the change must always be in the creature. The word immutable, used in the Standards, means almost the same thing as unchangeable. The word unconditioned brings in a slightly different idea. It means that nothing apart from God himself moved or determined him in forming his purpose or eternal plan. While God knows that certain things will come to pass upon certain conditions, yet these conditions of such events are not the condition of the purpose of God concerning these events. Hence God has not purposed or decreed anything simply because he foresaw it as future, or because he perceived that it would happen upon certain conditions. Thus a careful distinction must be made between events within the plan, which may stand related as condition and result, and the purpose of God which so related them as itself an unconditioned purpose. As related to the divine purpose, the whole plan and all its parts are unconditioned, while as related to each other the several parts may condition one another.
4. Several other features of the decrees may be grouped under a fourth head. The Standards carefully assert that God is not the author of sin. However and wherever sin had its genesis, it was neither in God, nor from his decree in any productive or efficient way. God simply, as will be seen in subsequent chapters, permits sin, and at the same time bounds and controls it for his wise and holy ends, even though these ends be inscrutable to men. In like manner the free agency of the creature is not impaired, nor in any way made to suffer violence by the purpose of God. The decree or purpose, viewed as a mere plan, cannot possibly affect the will of the creature, for it never comes into contact with it. It is the execution of the decree, if anything, which would do violence to the will of the creature. But in this sphere consciousness very clearly testifies that men are free agents, and not under any sort of necessity, even though the acts of men as free agents effecting the divine purpose are in themselves certain. And, again, the reality of second causes, with their dependent efficiency, is not destroyed, but rather established by the eternal purpose. The reason of this is that Godís plan includes means and ends in their relation to each other, so that both are alike related to the divine decree, and the result shall surely come to pass.
5. The supreme end of the eternal purpose, plan, or decree is to manifest the glory of God. The Catechisms both say that God foreordained all things for his own glory. The Confession declares that it is for the manifestation of his glory, the glory of his grace, his power, and his justice that the purpose of God was formed and is carried out. The good of the creature, whilst a result which follows, is always subordinate to the glory of God, which is the chief end to which the divine purpose always has reference.
IV. Godís eternal purpose is now to be viewed in its special or more limited sense. This brings up the teaching of the Standards in regard to the nature and destiny of moral agents, such as men and angels, in relation to, or as affected by, the eternal purpose of God. This leads to the subject of predestination, in its bearing upon men and angels, and this requires an explanation of what the Standards teach regarding election and preterition. In making this explanation a few plain statements are set down in order.
1. As to the use of the terms foreordination and predestination, a remark of importance ought to be made. Predestination in the form of election is used only in regard to those who are chosen in Christ to be the subjects of salvation. It is never applied to the non-elect, who die impenitent and are finally lost. The term applied uniformly in the Standards to the latter class of men and angels is foreordination. They are foreordained to dishonor and wrath for their sin. In the Shorter Catechism the saved among men are said to be elected, and nothing whatever is stated regarding the lost. In the Larger Catechism some angels are said to be elected, certain men chosen to eternal life, and the lost are simply passed by and foreordained to their destiny. The Confession distinctly asserts that some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and some are foreordained unto everlasting death. The elect are predestinated, and the non-elect are foreordained. This is the fixed usage of the language of the Standards, and it is of the utmost importance to observe this usage in order to understand the doctrine, to avoid some of the difficulties in the case, and to ward off certain objections made against it.
2. Again, the elect are always said to be chosen in Christ, while the non-elect are simply said to be left in their sin. The divine purpose in election, therefore, is not an arbitrary choice, even if it is, so far as the creature is concerned, entirely unconditioned. Believers are chosen in Christ, and unto holiness, and with a view to everlasting life. The Larger Catechism says that God hath in Christ, by an eternal and immutable purpose, chosen some men unto eternal life. The Confession says that God before the foundation of the world hath chosen in Christ those who are predestinated unto life. So, also, the purpose of preterition is not an arbitrary decree fixing destiny without any conditions on the part of those who are passed by. The sin of the non-elect is always presented as the ground of their final condemnation. The Larger Catechism states that those who are passed by are foreordained to dishonor and wrath to be for their sin inflicted. The Confession with equal distinctness makes the same assertion, when it says that those of mankind who are passed by, God has ordained them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice. The elect are chosen in Christ to holiness and life, while the non-elect are ordained to death for their sin. This is a point often sorely overlooked by many of those who reject the teaching of the Standards upon this subject.
3. According to the Standards, the ground of the salvation of the elect, and that of the doom of the non-elect, are very different. In the former case it is the love, the free favor or good pleasure of God, or the unsearchable counsel of his will. The Larger Catechism says that it was out of his mere love, and for the praise of his glorious grace, that some men and angels were elected. The Confession is much more explicit at this point, and says, negatively, that the ground of the choice of the elect is not Godís foresight of their faith and good works, or their perseverance therein, nor is it anything in the creature that forms the basis of the electing purpose of God; and, positively, that it was out of his mere grace and love, and according to his secret counsel and good pleasure, that their election was made before the foundation of the world. In the latter case the ground or condition of the condemnation of the non-elect is entirely different. It is not merely the secret counsel and good pleasure of God which grounds the passing-by and condemnation of the non-elect. It is not merely the fact that God giveth and withholdeth mercy as be pleaseth that, conditions their destiny. It is the sin of the non-elect, and their continuance therein, which is the fundamental ground of their condemnation. This is simply ordination to death in harmony with the conditions and sanctions of Godís moral government, for they, being left in their sin, are treated as their sin deserves. All were under sin, and so, guilty before God. Some are chosen to life, others are passed by and left in their sin. The ground of the choice is grace, while the ground of the passing-by is sin. The Standards must not be misunderstood at this point.
4. As to the number of the saved and of the lost, the Standards have something quite definite to say. This is a point, also, where they have been assailed with great misapprehension of the real import of their meaning. It is necessary, therefore, to explain this point with some care. The Confession alone speaks upon it. It says that these men and angels, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished. This much-criticised passage gives no favor to the charge sometimes made, to the effect that the Standards teach that only a few are elected and shall be saved, whilst the vast majority of men and angels shall be lost. The real point in this statement does not lie in the reference to the number of the elect and non-elect respectively, but it relates to the certainty of the destiny of each, from the standpoint of Godís eternal purpose. If the fact be certain as to the final estate of each man from the view-point of the foreknowledge and foreordination of God, then the statement of the Confession is the only possible assertion in the case. If the matter be viewed from the standpoint of the result at the day of judgment, it will be seen that the number of the saved and of the lost is fixed. That this result is not of chance, nor even fixed by the choice of the moral agents concerned, apart from the divine purpose, is evident. Consequently, the result, whatever it be as to the number saved and the number lost, was intended by God, and provided for in the purpose of election. From the view-point of the decree of God, or the divine purpose of election, the statement of the Confession is the only possible one which meets the facts in the case, if any statement at all is made. 5. The means requisite for the salvation of the elect are also provided for and included in the eternal purpose. This is a fact often overlooked in the interpretation of the Calvinistic doctrine. In the Confession alone is this clearly brought out, when it says that as God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so he hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. This being the case, all men are viewed as fallen in Adam, and then the elect of the fallen race are chosen in, and redeemed by, Christ, effectually called and enabled to believe in Jesus Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit in due season. Those who are thus called, regenerated, and believe, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation. All these steps, as means to the end, are included in the purpose to save, and in due time these means are made effectual according to the same purpose, which secures that the sinner shall be made willing in the day of divine and gracious power. It naturally follows that none others are redeemed, called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved but the elect only. This means that of those given by the Father to the Son not one is lost, and that all who are thus saved were so given.
6. The end of predestination and foreordination is the glory of God. This does not mean that his essential glory is in any degree enhanced, but it implies that his glory is manifested in and by the divine purpose of election. The elect, in their final salvation, are for the praise of his glorious grace; and the non-elect, in their final condemnation, are for the praise of his glorious justice. The supreme end of the eternal purpose is the glory of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
7. The Confession very properly utters a closing word of caution in regard to what it calls the high mystery of predestination. It is a doctrine to he handled with care and prudence. For the sinner, the doctrine has no practical meaning whatever. The only way by which a sinner can give evidence of his election is by attending to the revealed will of God, and by embracing the offer of the gospel, that by means of his effectual call he may prove his eternal election. Prior to this, nor in any other way, should the sinner
ever raise the question of his election. But to the believer the doctrine becomes a matter of boundless praise to God, and of humble diligence in the service of Christ. When the believer thinks, as he may, that God had set his love upon him from all eternity, and in time wooed him from sin to the feet of the Saviour, and surely keeps and guides his steps all along the way to the gates of glory, then will his faith be made stronger, his love warmer, and his zeal in the service of his Master increase from day to day. The believer, therefore, finds comfort, strength, and joy in the doctrine.