Recently, I was talking to some brothers in Christ about Calvinism. Through our conversations it was clear that their primary rejection of Calvinism as they know it was due to the concept of what we Calvinists call God’s decree. In other words, they had some basic understanding of how, in Calvinism, God has decided what happens in history, and given all the evil and suffering which takes place, that understandably does not sit well with them.
The sovereign decree of God, otherwise known as the eternal decree, seems to be the primary reason that many reject Calvinism. The idea of God decreeing whatsoever comes to pass perhaps creates the greatest animosity within the Christian’s heart.
What is odd is that the sovereign decree of God, as controversial and important to Calvinism as it is, is not part of the TULIP acronym, even though TULIP has become the baseline for defining Calvinism. Why is the doctrine of a sovereign decree left out of the TULIP acronym?
Calvinism as a Worldview
Perhaps the reason that the eternal decree of God is left out of TULIP is because the decree of God certainly transcends soteriology (the study of salvation), which is what the TULIP acronym seeks to address. TULIP is about salvation, and the decree of God involves much more than just salvation. For that reason, God’s sovereign decree is appropriately excluded.
Although God’s sovereign decree (to be defined soon) is not in the same category as TULIP, it is organically and inseparably related, which is why it is next to impossible to discuss Calvinism without talking about the decree of God.
“Calvinism” is more a biblical worldview. As J.I. Packer describes,
“Calvinism is something much broader than the ‘five points’ indicate. Calvinism is a whole world-view, stemming from a clear vision of God as the whole world’s Maker and King. Calvinism is the consistent endeavour to acknowledge the Creator as the Lord, working all things after the counsel of His will. Calvinism is a theocentric way of thinking about all life under the direction and control of God’s own Word. Calvinism, in other words, is the theology of the Bible viewed from the perspective of the Bible—the God-centred outlook which sees the Creator as the source, and means, and end, of everything that is, both in nature and in grace. Calvinism is thus theism (belief in God as the ground of all things), religion (dependence on God as the giver of all things), and evangelicalism (trust in God through Christ for all things), all in their purest and most highly developed form And Calvinism is a unified philosophy of history which sees the whole diversity of processes and events that take place in God’s world as no more, and no less, than the outworking of His great preordained plan for His creatures and His church. The five points assert no more than that God is sovereign in saving the individual, but Calvinism, as such, is concerned with the much broader assertion that He is sovereign everywhere.”
This extended introduction is to justify this final installment. It seemed that my TULIP series wasn’t complete without a sixth point, and so I would like to officially end it by pluralizing the acronym, TULIPS. I would like to briefly defend why I believe in a Sovereign Decree (SD).
God’s SD goes by many names. Sovereign decree, divine decree, eternal decree, and righteous decree are all various ways of describing the decree of God. Many of the adjectives and qualifiers seem redundant to the reformed thinker. Surely, “the decree of God” is sufficient. However, these adjectives can be useful, since the word decree may have different usages or connotations. Nonetheless, a decree of God is hardly a decree if it isn’t righteous, divine, or sovereign. Nevertheless, these titles remain. I am choosing the term “sovereign decree” for one reason and one reason only; it fits the acronym. “TULIPS” works. “TULIPD,” “TULIPE,” and “TULIPR” are all nonsensical.
God’s sovereign decree is His plan of history. God has planned the entire flow of history. As the great Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) says,
God from all eternity did, by the most wise (Rom. 11:33) and holy counsel of His own will, freely (Rom. 9:15, 18), and unchangeably (Heb. 6:17) ordain whatsoever comes to pass (Eph. 1:11): yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin (James 1:13, 17; 1 John 1:5), nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures (Matt. 17:12; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28); nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (John 19:11; Prov. 16:33).
In layman’s terms, this means that everything that happens in all of human history is part of God’s plan. However, secondary causes are not removed; meaning, men are held accountable as moral agents. God is therefore not to be blamed for authoring sin. Nonetheless, the sin of men is never outside of God’s decree.
Thousands of pages could be written on this topic. I do not expect to overturn every rock and sweep every nook and cranny. However, I do plan to provide biblical support for a concept which, to the uninitiated, is highly unnerving.
Isaiah tells us of God’s decree in the epic portion of his prophecy commonly called the “trial of the false gods.” Isaiah actually utilizes the SD of God to separate YHWH from false gods!
…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…”
Notice that Isaiah links God’s knowledge of the future and the past to His ability to accomplish His purposes (more on that later). God will accomplish all His purposes. The obvious conclusion of that being all that happens in the present was purposed. If God had a different purpose, He would have accomplished something different. The passive, shoulder-shrugging God that is inevitably portrayed by brothers who deny the decree cannot handle Isaiah’s language here. Evil and suffering are not events God in no way purposed, but is unable to intervene and prevent. That’s not how Isaiah speaks of God’s sovereignty. The same thought is expressed by Jeremiah.
Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?
All that happens is ultimately rooted in the God who commands it to happen.
One of the strongest New Testament texts is found in the epic first chapter of Ephesians cited already in this series. The WCF cites this in their definition as well.
After Paul didactically explains the purposes of God in salvation, he expands this to show us that God has purpose in all things.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…
God’s good and gracious will is what works all things together. There simply is no getting around God’s absolute sovereignty in working all things together how He wants, accomplishing His purposes.
Author of Evil?
The primary reason so many reject what Scripture plainly teaches about God’s decree is that it immediately sounds like God is evil, since He is responsible for evil. If God decreed evil, He is committing evil.
Even if I grant the argument for a moment, let me briefly explain how a God without a SD is still not holy in this regard. If God knew the future, and He knew the consequences of His action of creating, and then created anyway, He still becomes the primary cause and agent of all evil. And this is why Open-Theism is always more attractive to Arminians than Calvinists.
However, I do not grant the argument, and I deny that a SD makes God the author of evil. Notice how the WCF denies this charge as well,
[Y]et 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.
In laymen’s terms, God is not the author of sin, and God is not enticing humans to sin, nor is He coercing them to sin. Rather, they serve as secondary causes. They execute God’s plan, but are accountable for the evil they committed without any coercion from God. That may sound absurd, illogical, and inconsistent to you. What does the Bible say?
I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.
The English word “calamity” is the Hebrew word ra‘, and the King James renders it as “evil.” God creates calamity. He does more than permit it, He creates it. Nevertheless, Isaiah would never dare accuse God of sin, even though he does accuse God of creating calamity.
Job recognized this well when, after his wife tempted him to curse God for the calamity done to him, he responded in kind,
“‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10).
So first we see the Bible is not ashamed to speak of God as creating “evil,” nor of us receiving evil from Him. The Scriptures are not so squeamish in this. This does not make God the author of evil, but it certainly establishes His control and sovereignty over it.
However, the thrust of the charge is really refuted in passages which teach what the Reformed tradition calls “compatibilism.” This is the doctrine that states man’s free choices are not contradictory to God’s SD. Notice how Joseph interprets evil as fitting nicely within God’s plan.
So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Certainly, Joseph was sent to Egypt by his brothers. Read the text. They betrayed him, assaulted him, and sold him. Yet Joseph speaks as if God was the actor! Notice that Joseph does not say God “allowed you to send me here.” Joseph believes that in one sense the brothers sent him; but in another very real sense, God sent him. God did to Joseph what we would call evil.
Since God used secondary agents, they are the evil ones, but that does not change the fact that they did what God wanted according to His SD. This becomes even more clear in Genesis 50 when Joseph states this explicitly to the brothers.
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.
The same action is attributed to both God and the brothers. But the evil is only attributed to one party. That, my friends, is Compatibilism. That is why God decreed evil, but did not author evil. His decrees are meant for good, while the perpetrators of the evil are wicked.
Compatibilism is perhaps nowhere else best proved than in the crucifixion itself. Often times, those who try to refute God’s SD turn to acts of evil that in their minds surpass all others. Things like child rape, child murder, cancer, and sex trafficking come up often. And while those are horribly wicked, they still fall short of the most wicked thing that has ever happened: the cross.
All other instances fall short since the victims are still sinners worthy of death. God however, is not. Jesus was perfect, free from sin. He was not only perfect, He was the God-man. He was, and is, the God of the universe, and people murdered Him. That is the most wicked thing which has ever happened.
And what does the Bible say about that sin? Did God author it? Did He plan it? Did He passively allow it?
Notice what Peter says in his epic, post-Pentecost sermon:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:22-23).
According to Peter the crucifixion was performed by “lawless men.” Men made the choice to kill Jesus, and that free choice was evil. God is not the author of the evil of the crucifixion. However, that’s not all Peter says. He also adds that this lawless, wicked deed was done because Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” God is not the author of this evil, but He did plan it. Jesus’ death was part of a plan. If God can plan the evil of the cross, why can He not plan the evil done to us? And if God does not take blame for the evil of the cross, why do the non-reformed folks insist He must take blame for the evil done to us?
These same questions can be asked not much longer in Acts’ story line, as the early church prays a prayer bearing striking resemblance to Peter’s sermon.
And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’ — for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:24-29).
I emphasized the relevant verse. Jesus’ crucifixion was due to many personal desires. Herod, Pilate, the Jews, and the Gentiles all played a real role for Jesus’ death. Yet, their killing of Jesus is said to have been God’s predestined plan. The early church clearly believed that the evil and suffering of the cross was something God made to happen (your hand) and it was part of His plan, and it was something He chose to happen (predestined to take place). Yet, nowhere is God blamed for the evil.
My questions remain: Why is God allowed to plan Jesus’ sufferings, but He is evil to plan yours? Why is God allowed to plan the evil of the cross, but you accuse Him of authoring evildoers He plans it elsewhere? Why is the Bible comfortable saying the Romans who drove the nails into Jesus’ body did so as part of the plan of God, yet they alone are responsible for the evil of those actions, and you are not comfortable with it?
The Bible says God plans all things, even evil; yet, is not responsible for evil. Man alone is responsible for evil. Even if that’s a mystery difficult to understand, what’s relevant is what the text says.
One has to also consider the pastoral benefits of a decree. Without a decree, while we think we have gotten God off the hook for something, we have actually stripped the sufferer from finding their hope in God during their difficult time.
If God did not decree suffering and evil, than it is meaningless. That’s right: meaningless. God promises to clean it up later, but when it happens, it has no purpose, is part of no plan, and God stood by and let it happen to you, but could not prevent it. That makes evil purposeless and meaningless. Try taking that to the hospital room.
If one takes issue with me claiming the non-reformed person believes God is unable to intervene and stop evil, I ask how that is not the inevitable conclusion? I understand what you want to say is that He is unwilling. Yet, that is hard to distinguish between the charges of evil you bring to God’s decree. When a child is being raped, and God is unwilling to help, how does that satisfy your demands?
Secondarily, I also realize you think His unwillingness and/or inability is due to His not wanting to coerce a person’s freedom. But that is unsatisfactory. It does nothing to quench the thirst for God’s goodness that often leads people away from the decree. How does a grieving mother find the goodness of God when she is told God loved the rapist’s free-will more than her daughter’s happiness, freedom, and body? How many grieving mothers would rather have God value their daughters over another man’s freedom to rape? And this problem is amplified by the fact that the Bible simply never says that. Free-will is never used as an explanatory category in Scripture.
The free-will theodicy is in fact an unbiblical theodicy. No writer of Scripture ever appeals to libertarian, autonomous free-will as a defense for the goodness of God. You’ll never find it.
Omniscience or Clairvoyance?
To conclude I would like to make a very important philosophical proof for God’s SD, something I said I would return to.
I referenced Is. 46:10, teaching God knows all things. This is called “omniscience,” and all orthodox Christians confess this. However, the deeper level to this attribute of God is a discussion of the basis of this knowledge. For most, there is no basis. To ask such a thing is potentially offensive. He just knows all things; that’s who He is. When examining the issue more closely, that answer actually does not cut it. When we grant that God knows the future, how God knows the future is the difference between a sovereign God and a lucky God.
I don’t believe in fortune-tellers. They are obviously charlatan pagans not capable of doing what they claim. However, knowledge of the future is sometimes made available to men. Evil men and women can still know the future through demonic powers (Acts 16:16), and obviously God can reveal future events to men (Hebrews 1:1). Whether a person is faking it or not, what is happening when a human foretells the future? How is this different from God’s knowledge of the future?
When the clairvoyant is looking at your palm, or in some crystal ball, or at tarot cards, she is not creating the future. A Fortuneteller is simply seeing it, and relaying it. The fortune teller is not creating the future. She cannot give you a good outcome or a bad one. Thus, when the demon-possessed fortune teller knows the future, the question is still begged as to who created that future. In other words, is God nothing more than a clairvoyant? Is God simply seeing what will happen, and relaying it to us, or is God creating the future?
If God is not deciding the course of future events, than like a clairvoyant, He is a slave of fate. He cannot create or control the future, but He can at least tell us what is going to happen, and there goes all comfort and all hope. Instead of the good, gracious, just, sovereign God making history flow, He is simply along for the ride with us, just with a better seat.
The hose of this philosophical conundrum only continues to twist and kink when some try to say that God can change the future He “sees.” The question then becomes what was God “seeing” in the first place? If He decides to change what He sees, and that becomes the new future, why was this inevitable future not what He first saw?
Secondly, what standard is there for establishing exactly what God can change about the future He previews and what He can’t? This quickly unravels into a passive decree. All of the tension of the Calvinist decree still intact, only now it’s lacking the Biblical justification and the logical clarity.
Third, this language comes uncomfortably close to speaking of a God who takes knowledge in, and learns new things.
Rather, God’s knowledge of the future is rooted in His decree. He tells us what will happen on the basis of what He will accomplish. He is not just seeing the future, then acting relieved when it turns out He wins in the end (hence, the lucky God.) Instead, He knows He cannot be beaten, He knows what He will do, and on that foundation knows future events.
(Different categories of God’s knowledge have been more thoroughly discussed throughout church history, and has recently become relevant with the modern insurgence of Molinism. A more scholastic, exhaustive, treatise on these categories is beyond the scope of this post.)
The view that rejects God’s decree sees God not as an author or a director, but as a movie critic who got to view the full film before we did, and fills us in on how it ends. But the question still remains, who made the movie?
Better yet, as Jeremiah says, someone commanded the future to happen. If not God, then who commanded the end?
Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?