Today we continue our new series on Gospel Convergence; each week I will reflect on a chapter of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the confession and read along with me.
What’s a Decree?
Starr Meade’s helpful family devotional based on the Shorter Catechism answers this question. In a simplified rehearsal, the answer to the question of ‘What are the decrees of God?’ is ‘The decrees of God are His eternal plan based on the purpose of His will, by which, for His own glory, He has foreordained everything that happens.’ (Training Hearts, Teaching Minds, pg. 28). Monday’s devotional then explains it this way:
God had a purpose for everything He made. He has a purpose for everything that happens: God’s purpose is to glorify Himself. Before He began to create, God planned how every single thing He would create would fit together and how all of it together would bring Him glory. To be certain that everything would happen just as He planned it, He foreordained, or gave orders in advance, for everything that would ever happen. We call these orders God’s decrees. (pg. 28)
The Confession unequivocally states that God decrees all things. Chapter three opens with these words:
God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things whatsoever comes to pass (pg. 35)
It is quite a claim, but a claim which is clearly supported in Scripture. God himself proclaims, through the prophet Isaiah, “I am God, there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Is. 46:9-10). The testimony is no different in the New Testament, as the Apostle Paul writes ‘him who works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Eph. 1:11).
Although God does decree all things, the Confession is careful to note that this in no way means God is the author of sin; nor does it do any violence to the will, liberty or contingency of the creature (pg. 35). Further, although God foreknows all things his decrees are in no way based on what he knows. Rather, he foreknows things because he decrees them. The Confession reads:
Although God may knoweth whatsoever may or can come to pass, upon all supposed conditions, yet hath He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. (pg. 35)
This is amply illustrated in Romans 9:
For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (vv. 9-18)
A reference to Romans 9 brings us nicely to the second assertion that the Confession broadly makes in this chapter, namely that God decrees special things also. Primarily this is displayed in God’s decrees of salvation. As the Confession puts it:
3. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated, or foreordained to eternal life through Christ Jesus, to the praise of his glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of His glorious justice. (pg. 36)
There is immediately a sentiment which jars with me here: angels predestined to eternal life through Christ Jesus? Surely not, after all Peter tells us the angels long to look into, know, experience the gospel (1 Peter 1:12). It seems the authors of the Confession based their phraseology on 1 Timothy 5:21 where Paul writes of ‘elect angels’. This is the only place in Scripture that angels are ever called elect. While it is frequently used in salvific terms in the New Testament, it appears this reference is to angels who were given a specific task (of judging it seems) by God. For fuller discussions of this see the commentators Knight, Mounce and Towner.
The concern of the Confession, however, is not this debate about elect angels but to affirm the beauties of God displayed in the decrees of salvation. God is glorified through his decrees of salvation because it evidences his grace and love; there was nothing in humanity which demanded or caused God’s action in salvation. Also evidenced is his great power; the number of those elect is certain, definite, cannot be increased, nor diminished. Indeed, he will keep them. This was all of God’s goodness as the means through which all of this was achieved was the death of his own Son.
The vitriol which so often accompanies any discussion of predestination, election and decrees of salvation was in no way desired by the Confession. Rather, the out-workings and consequences of these doctrines were envisaged very differently:
7. The doctrine of the high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election; so shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel. (pg. 37-38)
The application of these special decrees was to be assurance, worship, meekness and obedience.
I can think of no more fitting conclusion to this reflection than Jude’s doxology:
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (vv. 24-25)