God wills and Decrees (God Acts 1)

God is active and working. We know that from what Jesus tells us in John 5: 17. When Jesus worked here on earth, healing and teaching, casting out demons, raising the dead, he was doing what his father did.

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing. In fact, the Father will show him how to do even greater works than healing this man. Then you will truly be astonished.[1] 21For just as the Father gives life to those he raises from the dead, so the Son gives life to anyone he wants.”

Bavinck puts it this way:

“[God] neither sleeps nor slumbers (Ps 121:3-4), does not faint or grow weary (Isa 40:28). Working is integral to his being: the drive and need to work is ever present in him ‘My Father’ said Jesus ‘is always at work.’ (John 5:17 NIV).”[2]

I would note one word of caution here.  We have seen that God is independent or A—Se.  Bavinck would agree with this, so when we talk about God having “the drive and need to work,” we should not see this as a pressure or compulsion such as a workaholic experiences. It is not that God needs work to define him or to give him a sense of worth. Rather, work is a natural and necessary aspect of his character.  He is not a passive God. He is active and alive. He is “supreme existence and supreme life.”[3]

This means that God has been eternally active. There wasn’t a point when he started to work.

“For that reason, too, he did not just begin to work at the time of creation, for his works are from everlasting to everlasting.” God’s personal attributes…are the immanent and eternal works of God. The Father eternally gives to the Son, and with him to the Spirit, to have life in himself (John 5:26), And the community of being that exists among the three persons is life of absolute activity.”  The father knows and loves the Son eternally from the foundation of the world (Matt. 11:27; John 17:24) – and the Spirit searches the deep things of God (1 Cor 2:10). All these works of God are immanent. They bear no relation to anything that exists outside of God, but occur within the divine being and concern the relations existing among the three persons.”[4]

So God’s work starts with the active relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and what they do for each other. This where we start to talk about God’s will and His decrees. God wills things to be.  He expresses his pleasure and desire in good. That will starts with the mutual desire of the Father, Son and spirit that each should be loved and glorified.

Theologians distinguish between God’s “necessary will” and “free will”.[5] Necessary will is about the inner life of God. This includes the fact that he wills his own existence (life in himself) and the things we have seen Bavinck describe above about the relationships within the Trinity. It’s necessary because God wills his own existence and nature. He does not owe his existence to or measure it against any outside force or standard.

God’s “free will” describes his relationship to His Creation. He wills its existence.  In that context, we talk about God’s decrees.

“God acts as Lord in miracle, providence, and creation…all of these actions are a result of thought….God performs miracles with distinct purposes in mind and he governs the course of nature and history with a goal in view.”[6]

So what God decrees arises from His will. This points us to the God who plans and works towards a purpose. This is planning “beyond history” “’before’ creation,” [7]

Because everything arises from God’s Will, it means that creation and history are a revelation of God’s character. We see what God is like and what God loves in what he does.  This also works the other way around too. We can only make sense of this world and why it is the way because of God’s Revelation to us. We need Special Revelation to interpret and understand General Revelation.

Frame sums it up like this:

“God’s decrees…display his authority, for they are meaningful thoughts – wise plans or counsels for the world. As such they interpret the world; they determine the meaning and significance of everything God makes.”[8]

He goes on to add:

“Our world is a world that is exhaustively meaningful, because of God’s wisdom.  Among human beings, interpretation is not the work of trying to assess for the first time the significance of uninterpreted facts. Rather, ours is a work of secondary interpretation, interpreting God’s interpretation.”[9]

In other words, the fact that this world exists due to God’s will and decree gives us permission to study it and understand it.  Theology is the father of science, history, art etc.  The fact that this World exists due to God’s will also constrains us. The scientist, artist and historian are not infallible, nor are they original.

Now, there are a couple of other important things we want to say about God’s will and decrees.  First of all, we want to note that if God’s will towards creation (external to himself) is free, then that means that Creation is not the sum total of what can be known. I guess this is another way of reminding us that God is infinite and eternal. He transcends space and time. This means that:

“All the ideas that are included in the divine decrees and hence designed for realization outside of the divine being are derived from the fullness of knowledge that is eternally present in God. Possibility and actuality do not coincide. The infinite being of God is infinitely more abundant than the whole world in all its dimensions could ever present to our view. What is included in the decrees is no more than a sketch, a summary of the depths of riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge. With God, all things are possible (Matt 19:26), but they are not all actualized.”[10]

In other words, just because God knows that something is possible, it does not mean that He has to act on it and make it possible. If He did, then He would not be exercising His will to make free choices.[11] This means that God would be subject to fate. Moreover, if everything that God thought came to pass, then creation would in effect be a mere extension of his thought, of his imagination.  In other words, we would be pantheists![12]

Secondly, we will want to make a distinction between God’s decretive and preceptive will.  Frame explains that

“God’s decretive will is simply….Gods decree. It’s his eternal purpose by which he foreordains everything that comes to pass.  God’s preceptive will is his valuations, particularly as revealed in his Word (his precepts).[13]

So, for example, God’s decretive will is seen in Genesis 1 when God says “Let there be light.” It’s seen as well in Genesis 2 when God decrees that if man sins, he will die. God’s preceptive will is seen in His precepts – His laws and commands. In Genesis 1 – 2, He commands humans to fill and subdue the Earth; He permits them to eat from the fruit in the garden. He forbids them from eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

God’s preceptive will is also seen in his evaluation.  He declares his creation good.  He declares Adam’s aloneness not good.  Later, he will evaluate the spread of human wickedness as grievous.

Frame also reminds us that:

“Sometimes God’s preceptive will will refer not to precepts, but to states of affairs that God sees as desirable, but which he chooses not to bring about (as in Ezekiel 18:23; 2 Peter 3:9).[14]

In other words, God may make an evaluation that something is good, but choose to forgo it for the sake of something else.  The presumption then is that if God does not decree a particular good, then there is a greater good to come.

We can see this in a finite way in Christ’s life. We are told that for the joy set before Him, He went to the Cross. Jesus saw a greater joy, a greater good that enabled him to sacrifice His life. If what we believe affects how we live, then we will immediately realise that this gives us permission to choose to forgo certain temporary rights, privileges and blessings for something greater, something that will last.

This distinction between God’s decrees and precepts will also help us later on when we return to the question of how a good God can allow suffering and evil in his creation.

Finally, we see that “God never fails to accomplish what he sets out to do.”[15] (c.f. Isaiah 14:24-27; Job 42:2).[16] This leads us on to the next aspect of what God does. When we say that God wills and decrees, we will also want to talk about Predestination.

 

[1] John 5:19-21 (NLT).

[2] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 342.

[3] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 342.

[4] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 342.

[5] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 529.

[6] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 313.

[7] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 313.

[8] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 316.

[9] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 326-317.

[10] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 342-343.

[11] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 343.

[12] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 343.

[13] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 531.

[14] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 531.

[15] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 47.

[16] Frame, The Doctrine of God, 47.

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