Monday, October 26, 2009

God's Decree and Man's Freedom
When Governor Pilate looked at Jesus, he did not have the eyes to see the truth of who was standing before him. What's more, he did not have the eyes to see neither the limit nor the true origin of his own power as governor. This was especially demonstrated when Jesus refused to answer one of Pilate's questions - to which Pilate responded in great arrogance: "You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have the authority to crucify you" (Jn.19:10)? At this incredibly brazen statement, Jesus broke His silence and put Pilate in his place: "You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above" (Jn.19:11, italics mine).
These words of Christ were a sobering revelation to this pagan Roman ruler. For they revealed the truth that no matter what Pilate chose to do, his actions were only carrying out a greater purpose and power that he could not see. Pilate's every decision and the fulfillment thereof was "to do whatever [God's] hand and...plan had predestined to take place" (see Acts 4:27-28). In short, Pilate's choices were simply but profoundly (even mysteriously!) establishing God's decree.
Now it might be asked in the light of this truth: "Well, if Pilate was fulfilling God's decree, then does that make him nothing but a mere puppet with no free will?" This is a typical response raised as a matter of objecting to the truth that God has decreed everything that comes to pass (including the choices of a man who would order the crucifixion of the Son of God). But what must be recognized, is that God's sovereign decree does not violate the will of man, but actually sustains and provides his freedom to choose; while at the same time, God fulfills His sovereign plan by the means of those choices. Consider how God's Word states this truth in the Book of Proverbs:
"The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord." (16:1)
"The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps." (16:9)
"Many are the plans in the mind of man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand." (19:21)
"The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will." (21:1)
"No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord." (21:30)
"The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord." (21:31)
In each of these passages it should be clear that man makes real choices. He plans and devises to do many things. But none of his choices work against God's decretive will nor do they overturn God's decretive will - but instead, they establish what God has already planned to happen in time.
In the 1689 Baptist Confession, consider the careful and insightful words written to declare this relationship between God's decretive will and man's freedom of choice: "Neither, by reason of [God's] decree, is the will of any creature whom He has made violated; nor is the free working of second causes put aside; rather is it established." We are not puppets with no volition, freedom, or power. Man has genuine freedom which can be defined as "the absence of external coercion." Or, as Sam Waldron put it: "If a man is not forced by any power outside himself to do that which is contrary to 'what he wants to do', then we may properly say that he is 'free'." Bringing greater clarity to this truth, with an important qualification, G.I. Williamson observed:
"The wonder of God's predestination is that God does leave men free in this sense, even though he predestines everything that every man will ever do. Some people use the word "freedom" in another sense, however, which is false in the extreme. They mean, by the 'freedom' of man, that man is able to do good or evil at any moment of time. To say that man is able to do good or evil, is very different from saying that a man is at liberty to do what he desires. We believe that man has liberty but not ability to do what is right. For the truth is that man, while free from coercion from the 'outside' is not free from the control of his own nature. He who is evil by nature must of necessity do evil. Just as we may say that God is good and therefore cannot do evil, so we may say that man (by nature) is evil and cannot (of himself) do good."
So when we talk about man's freedom of choice, we need to be clear about what this means biblically. Man is free to do what he wants but this does not mean that he is able to do whatever he wants. He is free to follow the desires of his nature; and God does not violate that freedom. Thus the Scripture says: "The heart of man plans his way..." (Prov.16:9). Man's "heart" (or nature) is free to choose. There is no coercion here on the part of God, or anyone else for that matter. However, what man chooses to do is not independent of God's sovereign decree. Man's freedom exists under the sovereign rule and reign of God, ordering and establishing the steps of man to fulfill God's eternal purpose. Man therefore is only as free to follow the desires of his heart as God has permitted in His sovereign will.
A good example of this is in Genesis 20, when king Abimelech took Abraham's wife, Sarah, to be his wife (under the false idea that Sarah was Abraham's sister). But before Abimelech could consummate the marriage, the Scripture says that, "God came to Abimelech in a dream by night" (20:3) - in this dream, God declared that this pagan king was a "dead man" for taking another man's wife. In response to this charge, Abimelech protested to God that he was completely innocent in this affair because both Abraham and Sarah told the king that they were siblings. Moreover, at this point, Abimelech had not yet had sexual relations with Sarah.
Now in view of the king's innocence in this matter, God said to him: "Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart..." (20:6a). In this statement, God is not only acknowledging Abimelech's innocence, but even the freedom of what he desired to do by taking Sarah to be his wife. However, the only reason why Abimelech had not yet consummated the marriage, was because God did not permit him. God said to this king: " was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her." Abimelech followed the desires of his heart to take Sarah to be his wife; but his freedom to do this was entirely under God's sovereign will - thus he was not able to consummate the marriage because God did not let him. "The heart of a man plans his way, BUT the Lord establishes his steps" (Prov.16:9). Man therefore is only as free to follow the desires of his heart as God has permitted in His sovereign will.
Thus, Pilate was free and responsible for the choices he made against Christ (God did not force Pilate to hand Jesus over to be crucified). Yet, all of Pilate's free choices were only the "second causes" for Jesus going to the cross. The "first cause" for Christ to be crucified was God's eternal decree (Isa.53:10; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). God therefore preordained both the ends and the means that put His Son on the cross.
So then, when we affirm the biblical truth that God has ordained everything that comes to pass - we are not denying that man makes real, responsible choices that have real consequences which he will be held accountable to answer. However, what we do affirm, is that nothing man chooses to do can override or thwart God's sovereign decree. For if in some sense God does not ordain everything that comes to pass, then He is not really sovereign; and if He is not sovereign, then He is not God. Perish the thought!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is God the Author of Sin?
There is probably very few of us who are comfortable with unanswered questions. If we inquire about something, we simply expect an answer. In most circumstances this would not be an unfair or even arrogant assumption. However, when it comes to the nature and works of God, it is not only unreasonable but insolent to demand an answer for everything that concerns who God is and what He does (e.g., Rom.9:19-21).
First of all, it is unreasonable to demand that God explain everything about Himself for the simple fact that we are finite and He is infinite (Job 11:7). Our understanding is so limited by our creatureliness and marred by our sinfulness, that it is impossible to fully understand God. Even with being divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit to write God's Word, Paul the apostle had to confess: "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways" (Rom.11:33)!
But worse than unreasonable, it is insolent for any of us to put "God in the dock", as it were, and demand answers of His nature and works. One reason for such bold impudence is due to our sinful pride, that expresses itself in the postured attitude that it is "my right" to know all that God is doing (e.g., Job 30:16-31:40). Another reason for such arrogance toward God, is because we think (though foolishly and unintentionally, if we are true believers) that God is just like us (cf. Psa.50:21a), and treat Him as if what He does must be given our approval if it can be signed off as a good thing. And by this kind of arrogance, many people in the visible church react in hostile anger toward those parts of God's revealed Word which they cannot understand and seem to them as either unfair or unreasonable. "My God," they retort, as if they own the Almighty, "would never do a thing like that!"
But the truth of the matter is - God can and does whatever He pleases (Psa.115:3); and He owes no one an explanation for what He chooses to do (Deut.29:29; Rom.9:20,21). Moreover, whatever God does is always right, holy, and just (Gen.18:25; Ex.15:11; Num.23:19), no matter how unthinkable and beyond our understanding it may be (see Hab.1-3).
Now with this said, I want to consider another crucial aspect of God's decretive will, which (with humble admission) we cannot wrap our minds completely around: God's decree does not make God either the author of sin nor responsible for it. Though God has "from all eternity...decreed all that should happen in time" (ref. 1689 Baptist Confession: chapter three, paragraph one) - yet, He has not brought to pass everything in exactly the same way. So then, the sinful actions of men are all according to the counsel of God's will (Eph.1:11); however, God neither tempts anyone to sin nor can He be tempted Himself (see Jam.1:13). What does this mean? It means that God decrees the sinful actions of men in such a way that preserves to the full their freedom of choice, and thus does not at all destroy their responsibility; while at the same time, their wicked deeds serve God's sovereign purpose without making God the author of their sin.
Two of the greatest examples to this truth in Scripture are seen in the suffering of Joseph and the crucifixion of Christ. With Joseph, remember what he told his brothers in Genesis 50:20 - "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it [the evil] for good." The term translated "meant" is a Hebrew word that carries the idea of planning, devising, and inventing. Joseph's brothers planned and devised evil against him; but God was behind their evil plan to overrule it for good. Commenting on this amazing revelation from Genesis 50:20, consider R.C. Sproul's observation and application:
"[God] used the brothers' treacherous activity in order to save lives, sanctify Joseph, and bring his plan to pass. One of the most comforting passages in the New Testament is Paul's statement that 'all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose' (Rom.8:28). We must be careful here. Paul does not say that everything that happens, considered in and of itself is good. Nor is our theme song Que Sera, Sera, 'whatever will be, will be.' We do have the astounding promise, however, that everything will work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. This means that even from the bad things happening to us, God is bringing about good. This glorious concept means that we should trust God - even in the midst of tragedy, pain, disease, and suffering of all kinds. God assures us that he is working all things together for our good."
Now it should be very plain to us that Joseph understood what Paul would write centuries later to the church at Rome. The principle truth that would be later expressed by Romans 8:28 was no mere theory to Joseph, it was a living reality. God gave him the eyes to see that what his brothers did to him was God's plan all along, which was fulfilling a redeeming purpose in the end. Think about this and take it in: God ordained the evil carried out by Joseph's brothers. But Joseph's brothers were still accountable and responsible for their sin. God did not force them to do harm to Joseph, but He gave them freedom to do harm by their own will - yet, their actions all along were bringing to pass what God had already decreed. Hence, Joseph could confess that his brothers' evil intentions was the good intention of God.
The other biblical example which proves how God decrees evil and yet is not the author of it, is the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, this example is the greatest of all, since there has never been a greater sin committed by man, yet God ordained this for our redemption. Consider how this truth is expressed in a prayer recorded in Acts 4:27,28 -
"...for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontious Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place."
In this passage we see both the responsibility of man and the sovereignty of God in the same sentence, contradicting neither. First, we see the enemies of Christ mentioned by name and held accountable for their opposition to the Lord. "they gathered against your holy servant Jesus." They "gathered against" Christ of their own free will, uncoerced, not forced, but by the liberty of their own desires. In Acts 2:23, the apostle Peter indicted the Jews for this opposition against Christ, when he said: " crucified [Jesus] and killed by the hands of lawless men." "You did this," Peter said. "This is what you are guilty of." So then, man is responsible for his sinful actions.
But in the crucifixion of Christ, the Son of God was not nailed to the cross only because sinful man willed this to happen. There was a far greater and infinitely more powerful will at work which brought Jesus Christ to die on the cross: it was God's will to crucify His Son. Therefore, in Acts 4:28, the early church confessed that what the enemies of Christ "gathered together" to do against Jesus was in fact the fulfillmemt of a greater plan and purpose: it was "to do whatever [God's] hand and [His] plan had predestined to take place." Now think about this. Remind yourself of all the wickedness done against Jesus. He was betrayed, slandered, blasphemed against, beaten within an inch of His earthly life, given over to a kangaroo court and a blood thirsty mob, and finally nailed to a Roman cross to hang there in all His nakedness and humiliation, till He died. Nevertheless, all this wickedness was carried out against Christ by one ultimate cause: "to do whatever [God's] hand and [His] plan had predestined to take place."
No Jew or Gentile living in the first century could lift a finger, utter a word, or make plans against Jesus apart from "whatever [God's] hand and [His] plan had predestined to take place." As John MacArthur rightly affirmed based on the testimony of Acts 4:28 - "It reminds us that God is the supreme historian who wrote all history before it ever began. Having done their worst [i.e., the enemies of Christ], they merely succeeded in fulfilling God's eternal plan (cf. Acts 2:23). As the psalmist expressed it, 'The wrath of man shall praise Thee' (Psa.76:10)."
But the preeminent principle that we are attempting to see from the examples of Joseph's sufferings and Jesus' crucifixion, is that while God ordained both events and the evil in those events; yet, God remained neither the author of that evil nor responsible for it. God was the First Cause of this historical events, as He is the First Cause of all history, but He cannot be accused of being the creator and author of the sin which takes place in history. God willed sin to be here but He is not sin's author. How can this be? No one knows and no one should foolishly attempt to find out, because God has left that in His secret counsels (cf. Deut.29:29a). But what we do know is this: God is holy and there is no sin in God whatsoever. Secondly, God is sovereign and there is nothing in time that takes place apart from His sovereign decree. Thirdly, man is a sinner and responsible for his sin. Fourthly, the free sinful actions of man fulfill and carry out the divine sovereign decree of God. And finally, because man's sin carries out God's purpose, God will overrule man's sin to bring about good. Therefore, even man's sin will ultimately display the glory of God.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Baptist Confession and God's Decree
The most well known and widely published Confession of Faith in Baptist history is The Second London Confession of 1689. It was the adopted confession for the very first Baptist Association in America in 1742 (i.e., the Philadelphia Association, est. 1707). The Charleston Association (1767) also adopted it as their confession for Baptists in the South; and in 1839, Jesse Mercer (1769-1841), republished the 1689 Confession to run as a series in The Christian Index (the Baptist state paper for Georgia) - calling it, "our Old Confession." Moreover, the 293 delegates who met in Augusta, Georgia to form The Southern Baptist Convention (May 8, 1845), all came from Baptist churches and associations who held to the 1689 Confession in its adopted form as the Philadelphia/Charleston Confession of Faith.
Now among the 32 chapters which frame this confession, the third chapter, handles with the greatest care and most well chosen words, the biblical truth of God's decree. In the first paragraph of this chapter, the overall truth of this doctrine is affirmed:
"From all eternity, God decreed all that should happen in time, and this He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will. Yet in so doing He does not become in any sense the author of sin, nor does He share responsibility for sin with sinners. Neither, by reason of His decree, is the free working of second causes put aside; rather is it established. In all these matters the divine wisdom appears, as also does God's power and faithfulness in effecting that which He has purposed."
Now to just begin wrapping one's mind around this mammoth truth of Scripture, it would be helpful to simply paint with a broad brush a few central truths which are expressed in this paragraph. First, God's decree is His eternal sovereign purpose over all things in the universe. This means that we are not speaking here of what has been called "God's revealed will." The revealed will of God is clearly pronounced commands in Scripture (e.g., the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:1-17). God's will, in this respect, can be obeyed or disobeyed by man. However, God's decretive will is not "revealed" in every respect (Deut.29:29) nor is it a moral command God has given us to obey. Rather, God's decree is His eternal sovereign purpose that encompasses everything that happens in the universe. Hence nothing happens in the universe apart from God's decretive will (see Isa.46:10; Dan.4:34,35; Eph.1:11).
Second, God's decree cannot be frustrated or thwarted by man. Proverbs 19:21 says, "Many are the plans in the mind of man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand." In Isaiah 14:24-27, God's decree concerning His judgment on Assyria is couched in terms which bespeak of His sovereign will as irresistible: "The Lord of hosts has sworn: 'As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand...For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who shall annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back' (vv.24,27)?
Finally, God's decree is not conditioned by anything outside of Himself. The Confession states that what God decreed, "He did freely and unalterably, consulting only His own wise and holy will." God does not wait for man to act and then decide what He should do. Never! When God decreed all things to come to pass, He did so as an act of sheer sovereign will. The universe and all its events, great and small, bow the knee to the decretive will of a holy, all-wise God who says: "it will be done."

Friday, October 09, 2009

Deism: The Denial of God's Decree
If I were to ask the typical pew-sitter in any given evangelical church in America, "Are you a deist?", I'm certain that the answer I would receive would be - "no" - and then in the same breath they would inquire, "What is a deist?" My purpose behind raising such a question is due to the fact that most Americans, combined with many professing Christians are fundamentally deistic in their thinking. I would not say they are consciously of this conviction, but it is by and large the native air many people breath in when talking about God.
Historically, deism was a movement of rationalistic thought from the mid-17th century to the mid-18th century. It basically taught that though God was the Creator of the universe, yet His purpose was to create it to run on its own. Thus, God had no personal intervention at all in the universe He made. Like a great clockmaker, deism taught that God built the clock, wound it up, and then left it to run by itself. Hence, the universe is nothing more than a great big machine run by natural laws which work independently of their Creator. Moreover, man is completely autonomous in the deistic world: he creates, determines, and fulfills his own destiny while God sits by as merely a distant spectator of man's self-determination.
Now if I raise the question again, "Are you a deist?", what would your answer be? When hurricane Katrina basically wiped out New Orleans - was God involved? When the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 were struck by blood-thirsty Muslim terroists - did God have a hand in that tragedy? What about wars, famine, disease, and death - do these things all come to pass by a sovereign God who has decreed for His own holy purposes such events? I am quite certain that questions like these posed to most professing Christians would receive a swift deistic confession. "No!," they would cry. "It is never God's will for any of these things to take place. He has nothing to do with such things." I actually heard a local preacher make such a confession by saying: "God's will is never done on earth, but He has given the earth over to the power of men." This preacher was unwittingly but foolishly teaching his congregation the ideas of deism.
The real problem with deism is that it is on a collision course with biblical Christianity. For it outright denies the plain truth of Holy Scripture that God has not only created the universe, but He also sustains it, governs it, and is in fact working all things in the universe according to the counsel of His own will (Job 12:13-25; Psa.33:8-11; Acts 17:24-28; Rom.11:36; Eph.1:11; Col.1:16,17; Rev.4:11). God is not therefore a mere spectator of events. His sovereignty means more than His knowledge of what is going to happen, but He has actually ordained what is happening.
Thus wars (Hab.1:5-11), famine (Psa.105:16), disease (Lev.14:34), weather of every kind (Job 37:1-13), food (Acts 14:17), habitations (Acts 17:26), seasons (Dan.2:21), existing authorities (Rom.13:1), physical handicaps (Ex.4:11), calamities (Isa.45:7), national sufferings (Lam.3:37,38), death (Heb.9:27), and even the little sparrow that falls from its nest (Matt.10:29) - all of these things, with the rest of what we see in the world, come to pass by God's holy decree (Isa.46:10). And though God does not bring these things to pass in exactly the same way, yet nothing happens in this world apart from His sovereign eternal will. The "god" of deism then is simply a false god. The true and living God is always ruling, reigning, sustaining, and governing His universe. Moreover, if God were otherwise, He would not even be God.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

God's Decree and a Flight of Stairs
There is a story often told by many preachers, of a man who after falling down a staircase, shakes his head in relief, saying, "I'm sure glad that's over." The point of this story is to make a mockery of Christians who believe that God has preordained everything that comes to pass - including a tumble down a flight of stairs. It paints a picture of such Christians as being both foolish and fatalists. In other words, this fictional story is aimed at denying (unwittingly) the biblical doctrine of God's eternal decree as worked out in God's providence. Thus the preacher who tells the story typically says in a snide way: "God may be sovereign but He's not the cause of or in control of everything in the universe." And many Christians who hear this usually affirm it with a hearty, "Amen!"
But, I wonder if we should be so quick to agree that such a confession like this is true? I grant that the story of the man's staircase fall presents some problems if left without a biblical context. However, if we place this story in the light of Scripture, some things begin to emerge about God and man which the story alone does not tell. In the first place, the man's relief that the fall was over should be fanned out to say much more - if biblical. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong in his initial satisfaction that the tumble has ceased. For he recognizes that this fall was no mere accident of purely human carelessness; but rather, it was ordered by the sovereign purpose of God. What would inform him of this? Psalm 139:16 which affirms that in God's "book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me." Then there is Proverbs 20:24, "A man's steps are from the Lord; how then can man understand his way?" These two verses (along with a host of others) simply teach us that nothing happens to us by chance or even blind fate - but our "steps" and "days" have been determined by God's sovereign will.
On the other hand, this man's confession must say more: not only is he glad the fall is over, but what is God teaching him by the fall? This is the difference between God's providence and blind fatalism. Fatalism says everything is determined with no rhyme or reason, it's just impersonal force making things happen. God's providence however is God Himself ordering and governing all things with a holy purpose. Thus the man thanks God for the fall and asks God to teach him what he is to learn from the fall.
We see this in Joseph when he says to his wicked brothers: "As for you, you meant evil against me (i.e., selling him as a slave to Egypt), but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Gen.50:20). Joseph did not deny his brothers' evil actions, but he understood that God was working even this together for the good of Joseph and others (cf. Rom.8:28). In other words, the evil actions of Joseph's brothers were not the only cause for his going to Egypt. They simply established the first cause which was God's sovereign will and purpose (see Eph.1:11). This doesn't mean that God was the author of the brothers' sin nor that they were not culpable before God for what they did. But rather, God ordained through their real free choices that He would bring Joseph to Egypt for the outworking of His great and glorious plan.
So then, the man who has fallen down the steps should not only see his fall as physical clumsiness - but a loving, sovereign, wise, and holy God who ordained even this for His people's good and the display of His own glory.

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