God’s Decrees Are… (Boston)

The Works Of Thomas Boston: Volume 1 by [Boston, Thomas] The Bible teaches that God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11 NIV). This means that whatever God decrees comes to pass and whatever comes to pass God has decreed.  This includes the details of creation, predestination, providence, and so forth.  I like how Thomas Boston defined the properties of God’s decrees using Scripture.  He said the following about God’s decrees:

  1. They are eternal.  God makes no decrees in time, but they were all from eternity. So the decree of election is said to have been ‘before the foundation of the world,’ Eph. 1:4.  …If the divine decrees were not eternal, God would not be most perfect and unchangeable, but, like weak man, should take new counsels, and would be unable to tell everything that were to come to pass.
  2. They are most wise: ‘According to the counsel of his will.’ God cannot properly deliberate or take counsel, as men do; for he sees all things together and at once. And thus his decrees are made with perfect judgment, and laid in the depth of wisdom, Rom. 11:33. ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God I how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!’
  3. They are most free: ‘according to the counsel of his own will’; depending on no other, but all flowing from the mere pleasure of his own will, Rom. 11:34. ‘For who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been his counselor?’  …So his decrees are all absolute, and there are none of them conditional. He has made no decrees suspended on any condition without himself.
  4. They are unchangeable. They are the unalterable laws of heaven. God’s decrees are constant; and he by no means alters his purpose, as men do, Ps. 33:11. ‘The counsel of the Lord standeth for ever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.’ Hence they are compared to mountains of brass, Zech. 6:1. As nothing can escape his first view, so nothing can be added to his knowledge.
  5. They are most holy and pure. For as the sun darts its beams upon a dunghill, and yet is no way defiled by it; so God decrees the permission of sin, …yet is not the author of sin: 1 John 1:5. ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all,’ Jam. 1:13, 17. ‘God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man. With him is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.’
  6. They are effectual; that is, whatsoever God decrees comes to pass infallibly, Isa. 46:10. ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.’ He cannot fall short of what he has determined.

This is an edited summary of a larger helpful discussion on God’s decrees found in volume 1 of Boston’s Works.  It’s found on pages 158-159 for those interested.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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God Behind The Curtains (Calvin)

God is able to make grass grow without sun and rain. He is able to heal without the hand of a doctor. It is possible for him to keep his people nourished without food or drink. However, in his providence, God has chosen to use means and instruments to accomplish his purposes. Rain and sun help make the grass grow, doctors and medicine play a key part in people’s health, and food keeps us nourished.  These things are called “secondary causes.”  Like the Westminster Confession V.3 says, “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means” (Is. 55:10-11). John Calvin stated this well:

When I spoke of the Providence of God being viewed with its mediums, my meaning was this: If anyone shall have assisted his fellow-man when sunk under an extremity of distress, the deliverance rendered by the hand of man is not a human, but a Divine deliverance. The sun rises day by day; but it is God that enlightens the earth by [its] rays. The earth brings forth her fruits; but it is God that giveth bread, and it is God that giveth strength by the nourishment of that bread. In a word, as all inferior and secondary causes, viewed in themselves, veil like so many curtains the glorious God from our sight (which they too frequently do),the eye of faith must be cast up far higher, that it may behold the hand of God working by all these His instruments.

But in what manner the Providence of God can work, without any medium or instrument at all, Christ taught us by His own example, when He repelled the assaulting Tempter with this shield: “Man doth not live by bread only: but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God doth man live” (Matt. 4:4). For as the Redeemer knew that the power of God needed no external support whatever, so He knew that He could supply that strength without bread, which He is nevertheless mercifully pleased to supply by means of bread.

John Calvin and Henry Cole, Calvin’s Calvinism: A Defence of the Secret Providence of God (Wertheim and Macintosh, 1857), 11–12.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

God’s Sovereign Providence – and His Means (Horton)

The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way God is sovereign, and he is providentially in control of everything that comes to pass. He’s not surprised when things happen, nor is he unsure of the future, since all things happen according to his plan (Ps. 33.11, Prov. 19.21, Is. 46.10).  At the same time, he uses means and instruments to accomplish his purposes (cf. Is. 44.28).  I appreciate how Michael Horton said it in The Christian Faith:

“Ironically, many today who would not affirm a classic Christian notion of divine sovereignty in salvation nevertheless often speak as if God does all things in their daily lives directly, without any instrumental means or ‘secondary causes.’  If one attributes a remarkable recovery from an illness to the skill of the physicians, well-meaning Christians are sometimes inclined to reply, ‘Yes, but God was the one who healed her.’  In more extreme cases, some believers even excuse their laziness and lack of wisdom or preparation by appealing to God’s sovereignty.  ‘Just pray about it’; ‘If God wants it to happen, it will happen.'”

“To be sure, the truth of God’s providence is meant to assure believers that ultimately our times are in God’s hands, but God does not fulfill all of his purposes directly.  In fact, it is his ordinary course to employ means, whether human beings or weather patterns, social upheavals, animal migrations, various vocations, and a host of other factors over which he has control.  We are comforted by the truth that God works all things – even adversity – into his plan for our salvation.  God provides, but we are commanded to pray for our daily bread and to labor in our callings.”

Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 361.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

A Kind Of Implicit Blasphemy In Complaining (Boston)

The Works Of Thomas Boston: Volume 1 by [Boston, Thomas] If you know a few things about Israel’s wilderness years, you know they complained and grumbled more than once.  Israel’s grumbling was a terrible sin, because it showed that they doubted God’s providence and promise, it showed their arrogant and covetous hearts, and it showed they didn’t trust God.  Paul says we can learn from Israel’s sin: “…And don’t grumble as some of them did, and then were destroyed by the angel of death” (1 Cor. 10:10 NLT).  Paul also said we should do all things without grumbling and arguing (Phil. 2:14).

While talking about God’s providence and sovereign decree, Thomas Boston (d. 1732) listed some notes of application.  What does it mean that God sovereignly decrees all things that come to pass, and by his providence is in control of all things?  Here’s one application point that has to do with complaining (I’ve slightly updated the language):

“See here the evil of murmuring and complaining at our lot in the world. How quick are you to quarrel with God, as if he were in the wrong when his dealings with you are not according to your own desires and wishes? You demand a reason, and call God to an account, ‘Why am I thus? Why so much afflicted and distressed? Why so long afflicted? And why such an affliction rather than another? Why am I so poor and another so rich?’ Thus your hearts rise up against God

But you should remember, that this is to defame the counsels of infinite wisdom, as if God had not ordered your affairs wisely enough in his eternal counsel. We find the Lord reproving Job for this: ‘shall he that contend with the Lord instruct him?’ (Job 40:2). When you murmur and fret under irritable and afflicting dispensations, this is presuming to instruct God how to deal with you, and to reprove him as if he were in the wrong. Yea, there is a kind of implicit blasphemy in it, as if you had more wisdom and justice to dispose of your lot, and to carve out your own portion in the world. This is the language of such a disposition, ‘Had I been on God’s counsel, I had ordered this matter better; things had not been with me as now they are.’

O presume not to correct the infinite wisdom of God, seeing he has decreed all things most wisely and judiciously.”

To combat sinful complaining, we need to contemplate the sovereign decree and providence of God, and trust that he does all things well.  He’s the Potter, we are the clay!

Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: Part 1, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 1 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 166.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Behind a Dark Providence

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms One big question that often comes up in the Christian life is, “Why is God letting this happen to me?”  Similarly, we ask what point trials, temptations, and tribulations have in our lives; it seems like they crush and hurt us, and when we’re in the middle of them, we struggle to stay afloat in the faith.  We surely need a biblical anchor during trials!

The Westminster Confession talks about this under the topic of God’s sovereign providence.  In 5.5 it says,

“The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave, for a season, his own children to manifold [various] temptations and the corruptions of their own hearts….”

Why?  Why would a gracious God let his children go through this?  Here are a few reason the Confession gives (edited slightly):

1) …to chastise them for their former sins,
2) or to discover unto [reveal to] them the hidden strength of corruption and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled (2 Chr. 32:25-26, 31; Deut 8:2-3, 5; Lk 22:31-32)
3) and to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself,
4) and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin,
5) and for sundry [various] other just and holy ends (Ps. 73:1-28, Ps. 77:1-12, Mk 14:66-72, 1 Cor. 12:7-9).

It is a great comfort to know that God, in his loving and sovereign providence, uses trials and temptations ultimately for our good.  Knowing God is sovereign in his providence towards us means, as the Heidelberg Catechism says,

“We can be patient when things go against us (Ps. 39:10), thankful when things go well (1 Thes. 5:18), and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from his love (Rom. 8:35-39).  All creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved (Prov. 21:21, Acts 17:24-28)” (Q/A 28).

shane lems
hammond wi

Good, Evil, and God’s Providence

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grudem) I appreciate Wayne Grudem’s discussion of providence in his Systematic Theology (ch. 16).  At one point, after discussing the doctrine of God’s providence, Grudem wrestles with the topic of good/evil and how they relate to this doctrine.  Here is an abridgment of Grudem’s analysis of the Bible’s teaching.

1) God uses all things to fulfill his purposes and even uses evil for his glory and for our good.  Thus, when evil comes into our lives to trouble us, we can have from the doctrine of providence a deeper assurance that ‘God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose’ (Rom. 8:28 NASB).   We can realize that God is glorified even in the punishment of evil (Prov. 16:4, Ps. 76:10, Rom. 9:14-24).

2) Nevertheless, God never does evil, and is never to be blamed for evil.  In Luke 22:22, Jesus combines God’s predestination of his crucifixion with the moral blame on those who carry it out (cf. Matt. 26:24, Mark 14:21, Acts 2:23, 4:27-28).  God uses evil for his purposes, but he never does evil and is not to be blamed for it.  There is such a thing as secondary causes; human beings do cause evil and are responsible for it.

3) God rightfully blames and judges moral creatures for the evil they do.  Many passages in Scripture affirm this (Is. 66:3-4, Ecc. 7:29, Rom. 9:19-20).  The blame for evil is always on the responsible creature, whether man or demon, who does it, and the creature who does evil is always worthy of punishment.

4) Evil is real, not an illusion, and we should never do evil, for it will always harm us and others.  Scripture consistently teaches that we never have a right to do evil, and that we should persistently oppose it in ourselves and in the world.  We are to pray, ‘Deliver us from evil’ (Matt. 6:13).  See also James 5:19-20 and 1 Peter 2:1.

5) ‘The problem of God’s relation to sin remains a mystery,’ as Berkhof said.  In spite of all the foregoing statements, we have come to the point where we confess that we do not understand how it is that God can ordain that we carry out evil deeds and yet hold us accountable for them and not be blamed himself.  We can affirm all these things are true, because Scripture teaches them.  But Scripture does not tell us exactly how God brings this situation about or how it can be that God holds us accountable for what he ordains comes to pass.

These are helpful statements.  Again, you’ll have to read chapter 16 for the unabridged version.  The Bible for sure does tell us some things that we have to believe and other things we have to reject about God’s providence, good, and evil.  And at the end of the day, we sing Paul’s doxology in Romans 11 that magnifies God’s sovereignty as well as the fact that we are finite creatures and he is the infinite Creator.

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 327-330.

shane lems

It Was a ‘God Thing’ (Really?)

Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology For Pilgrims on The Way (This is a repost from February, 2012)
I’m sure many of you have heard the phrase, “It was a God-thing” or something similar.  What evangelicals usually mean by this phrase is that God was somehow directly or immediately at work through some instance in their life.  For example, someone will say that they really needed to hear a certain song on Christian radio on the drive to work – and since it played, “it was a God-thing” (despite the fact that the radio station plays this song 437 times each day).  One problem with this is the subjectiveness of it all.  Why wouldn’t it be a “God-thing” to keep the radio off and pray?  Or why wouldn’t it be a “God-thing” to carpool to work to save gas money?  Couldn’t it be a “God-thing” to think about your schedule for the day?  Or, might it be a “God-thing” to walk or bike to work for much-needed exercise?  The subjective list goes on.

A section of Mike Horton’s The Christian Faith uncovers another error behind this way of thinking. Paradoxically, many evangelicals who talk about everything being a “God-thing” are Arminian when it comes to salvation, regeneration, and faith.  It’s a “God-thing” to hear a Third Day song on the way to work, but choosing Christ and letting him into your heart or making him Lord of your life – that’s a “man-thing.”  Oddly, many evangelicals use monergistic language for things like songs on the radio at the right time but synergistic language for regeneration.  Horton says it well as he discusses God’s sovereignty in providence and secondary causes (causa secundae).

“Ironically, many today who would not affirm a classic Christian notion of divine sovereignty in salvation nevertheless often speak as if God does all things in their daily lives directly, without any instrumental means or ‘secondary causes.’  If one attributes a remarkable recovery from an illness to the skill of the physicians, well-meaning Christians are sometimes inclined to reply, ‘Yes, but God was the one who healed her.’  In more extreme cases, some believers even excuse their laziness and lack of wisdom or preparation by appealing to God’s sovereignty.  ‘Just pray about it’; ‘If God wants it to happen, it will happen.'”

“To be sure, the truth of God’s providence is meant to assure believers that ultimately our times our in God’s hands, but God does not fulfill all of his purposes directly.  In fact, it is his ordinary course to employ means, whether human beings or weather patterns, social upheavals, animal migrations, various vocations, and a host of other factors over which he has ultimate control.  We are comforted by the truth that God works all things – even adversity – into his plan for our salvation.  God provides, but we are commanded to pray for our daily bread and to labor in our callings.”

This quote is found on page 361 of The Christian Faith.

shane lems