Q: What are the decrees of God?
A: The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.
Ephesians 1:11-12: 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, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.
I want to be cautious here. This week's question and answer sets our minds spinning, and we can often times feel overwhelmed by what it means to confess that God foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. Everything. Everything that has ever happened or will ever happen is ordained by God and part of his eternal decree. Not just the "good stuff", but also the terrible things are part of God's eternal decrees. This notion shakes us to the bones. It rattles us to the core of who we are. The implications of this idea are huge, and we can't help but go to the extremes. We can't help but think, "Is God, then, the author of sin?" Or perhaps we ask, "Is there no such thing as free will?" The Bible must be our guide on this. We know from the Word of God that God is not the author of sin, and we know that free will is very much real. But it baffles our minds on how all of this can work and be true. The Westminster Divines were no doubt baffled by this mystery as well. But they worked with the understanding that there are two worlds at play here. They believed that there was a very clear distinction between the Creator and the creation. The creation (you and me) work with a very finite understanding of reality. The Creator, on the other hand, is infinite. It's a wonderful thing for the finite to be overwhelmed in exploring the decrees of the Infinite, but we must always keep this distinction between Creator and creation in mind, lest we go too far in trying to explain God that we end up falling into serious error.
If we can, however, move past the great mystery of this truth and accept it as fact, then I do believe there is great comfort in this. I was once asked by a coworker who lost her eight year old daughter, "Do you think God ordained for my daughter to die?" She was a Christian who was struggling with this very idea about the decrees of God. I was unprepared to answer that question in the moment, but I have spent years reflecting on that question. The question haunted me as I faced my brother's death last April. Did God truly ordain this to happen? Here, then, is the conclusion to which I came, based on the Word of God. If God did not ordain all things, then we are working with a God who is simply reacting to the ways of the world. He is not a proactive God, but rather, a reactive one, simply doing damage control. But, if God truly does ordain all that has and will happen, then we know that truly, God is in control of all things. We know that truly, God is working all things according to the counsel of his will, and for the good of those who love him. We know that God is not surprised by anything that happens, nor is he simply reacting to circumstances or man's decisions. And, we know that all that comes to pass is for the glory of God. I find no comfort or peace in the idea of a reactive God. God is not some kind of cosmic "first responder", being called on the scene to minimize the damage and effect of a fallen world. I do find, however, great comfort in a God who, having proven himself trustworthy, ordains and sets all things into motion, who is working all things for his glory, and is working all things for the good of his people.
Brothers and sisters, this is not a cheap, theological meandering. This idea strikes at the heart of who we believe God is. But lest any of us think that God is heartless, if any of us dare ask how God could be loving and yet ordain such pain and agony in our lives, let us remember this. God, in his eternal wisdom and counsel, did not spare himself from the greatest of all suffering. We need only to look to the cross of Christ to see that this is true. And just as God proved himself faithful to his Son as his eternal decrees were carried out on the cross, despite the tremendous amount of pain and suffering Christ endured (more suffering than even the worst sinner in Hell will ever experience), we can know that God has, and will, continue to prove himself faithful to us as his decrees are being worked out in this world. He will hold us fast. As the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism says, "He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven". This God, this all powerful, fully sovereign God, is who loves us, holds us in his hands, and who is working all things for our salvation.