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(10 posts)

God Ordains the Means

Richard Phillips explains why Calvinism is not an impediment to evangelism: [D]ivine sovereignty does not stand against evangelism because God ordains not only the ends but also the means. He predestines some to be saved and commands us to preach to that end. If we do not preach and teach the gospel, then none will be saved. But God has ordained that some will be redeemed; He has chosen His people to be saved. So he has also ordained that we should preach and share the gospel, and therefore we will, exercising our human responsibility in accordance with His sovereign purpose. God commands all who are His to engage in evangelism; it is part of our obedience to Him. Packer explains: “We are not all called to be preachers; we are not all given equal opportunities or comparable abilities for personal dealing with men and women who need Christ. But we all have some evangelistic responsibility that we cannot shirk without failing in love both to our God and neighbor.” —Richard D. Phillips, Jesus the Evangelist (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007), 171.

God’s Decrees and the Use of Means

In his sermon, Divine Decrees (1805), Lemuel Haynes answers well the question, “Why, if God has ordained all that comes to pass, ought we to pray, or take action of any kind? Why not just passively see what happens?” Faith in divine purpose will excite the people of God to the diligent use of means, as He has appointed them as instruments by which he will accomplish His designs and has commanded them to be workers together with him; indeed, without the exertions of men, it is impossible that they should take place. God revealed to Abraham that his seed should go down into Egypt and at such a time be delivered, but this supposed series of second causes [was] all dependent on the first cause; without them the event could not take place. One was the edict of Pharaoh to destroy the male infants of the Hebrews, that Moses should be born and hid three months, that he should be educated at the expense of the King of Egypt, that the Egyptians should be visited with ten plagues, etc. I might with the propriety make the same remark with respect to the deliverance of Israel from Babylonian captivity and the birth and death of Christ. The people of God consider themselves as active instruments to bring about His holy designs and are, in a good degree, cured of that unreasonable temper of mind that will deduce a natural consequences from certain promises, in order to gratify a licentious conduct. The truly pious are pleased with the absolute decrees of God, as what will promote the greatest possible good. If it is desirable that all God’s counsels should stand, then it must be pleasing to saints to be in the use of such means as tend to bring them to pass—without which they cannot exist; this makes them cheerful in the service of God, as they are seeking the same glorious ultimate object with Him. Jochebed and her husband doubtless understood that God, by this remarkable child, designed the deliverance of the church from the iron furnace, which was an animating object; all they did in fitting him for this work afforded satisfaction. Although the children of God cannot always see the connection between means and ends, yet they put such confidence in the divine Being as delights their souls in preserving in the path of duty—believing that God will effect the greatest good by it. The friends of God delight in expressing their obedience to Him. The use of means affords them opportunity to glorify God and commend him the others if love and obedience are delightful exercises to the saints, then to express them will be pleasing. As God cannot exhibit any true virtue of moral excellence without pursuing a plan, so neither can we, unless we regard His will and interest and are workers together with Him. The humble Christian will feel his own weakness and insufficiency to do anything of himself and will see that all his sufficiency is of God, and his faith and hope will rest of His power and providence to do all—which will be a motive to diligence. This will be the foundation of his trust and will excite him to work out his salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God that worketh in him, both to will and to do His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12–13). This supported the parents of Moses amidst all their care about him and [was the reason] “They were not afraid of the king’s commandments.” Christians will diligently attend to means, as they will see much to be done. Wherever they turn their eyes, they will behold work laid out for them. It is criminal to stand idle in the marketplace. The good man will see enough to employ his head, his heart, his hands, and his temporal interest in the service of God. The reason that so many can find but little to do for God is on account of a slothful and indolent heart that refuses to labor. —Lemuel Haynes, May We Meet in the Heavenly World: The Piety of Lemuel Haynes, ed. Thabiti Anyabwile (Reformation Heritage Books, 2007), 81–83.

Is God Unjust?

And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” —Romans 9:10–13 Anticipating objections, the very next verse of Romans 9 says, “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” But objections come anyway, as men are determined to impose their sense of justice upon God, declaring with authority what God would and wouldn’t do. “That’s not fair!” is presumed to pass as a theological argument. But God will speak for himself. Reformed Christians affirm that God elects some to salvation “unconditionally,” but this does not mean that He does so arbitrarily. Paul addresses this while confronting the very objection that predestination is unfair: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” Whenever we find that an objection we are raising is confronted directly in the Bible, we should be careful to heed the answer. Paul says, “By no means!” (Rom. 9:14). Paul’s answer to the question of fairness in unconditional election is important. Essentially, he replies, “Did you say justice?” If justice is what we want—if we want to be treated fairly by God—then the result will be the damnation of us all. No one who wants things to be fair with God can ever hope for heaven, for the simple reason that fairness demands that all sinners be damned. No, says Paul, when it comes to predestination—or salvation in general—the right category is mercy. And mercy, by definition, is sovereignly granted. It cannot be earned. It never is a matter of fairness, but always is a gift of grace. Paul elaborates in Romans 9:15–16: “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” This makes the essential point that when the Bible speaks of God’s predestination, or unconditional election, it is always joined to His mercy. Why is that? Paul’s illustration from the life of Moses makes it clear. God’s statement, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,” was made after the Israelites had soiled themselves with the golden calf while Moses was receiving the law on Mount Sinai. They all were under judgment. But in this hopeless situation, God told Moses that He would choose some to be objects of His mercy. This is exactly how it is with the entire human race. The Reformed doctrine of predestination does not teach that God looked down on a neutral mass of humanity and decided to send some to heaven and others to hell. God was not sitting in eternity with a pile of daisies, picking petals and musing, “I love him, I love him not!” Rather, God looked down from on high on humanity wholly lost in sin. When God predestined to salvation, He predestined sinners who were bound for judgment and were utterly opposed to His will. Donald Grey Barnhouse therefore states: “If we may say so, the doctrine of election was God’s secret weapon which made it possible for some men to be saved. If He had not retreated into His sovereignty . . . there would have been nothing but a curse and no one would have been saved.” —Richard D. Phillips, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace? (Reformation Trust, 2008), 38–40.

Foreknowledge in Brief

A very basic explanation of the foreknowledge of God from R. C. Sproul: Throughout church history one of the most popular views of election or predestination has been the prescient view. Prescience means “pre-science” or “foreknowledge.” According to this view, since Paul in Romans speaks first of foreknowledge and then of predestination, obviously God’s action of election or predestination must somehow be constructed upon His foreknowledge. The prescient view says that God looks down the corridor of time and knows that some people will say yes to the offer of the gospel and some will say no; in other words, some will cooperate with the grace God makes available while others will reject it. On the basis of this prior knowledge, God then chooses or elects unto salvation those whom He knows in advance will respond to the gospel. That view cannot possibly be squared with Romans 8, not to mention Romans 9, nor can it explain the doctrine of election. It basically denies it or tries to get around it. The doctrine of sovereign election is odious to us by nature. The word “foreknowledge” comes before the words “election” and “predestination” in Romans 8 because God never elects nameless, faceless ciphers—He elects people. Therefore, those whom God elects, He knows. Predestination must be related to that divine foreknowledge as the basis upon which God knows what He intends to do. How does God, even in His transcendent majesty, have the ability to know the end from the beginning? How is it possible for God to have knowledge of future things? God does not have a crystal ball into which He gazes so that He can know in advance what decisions we will make; rather, God knows the future because He ordains it. He knows His own plan in advance, and He knows it certainly, because He has decreed it. Those decrees are not based on any human condition that God foreknows. Indeed, if God did look into the future to examine the responses that people will one day make, the only response of fallen human beings to His grace would be that of unbelief. People are not elect because they have faith, but they are elected to have faith. Faith itself is the result of God’s electing grace. —R. C. Sproul, 1–2 Peter: Be All the More Diligent to Make Your Calling and Election Sure (Crossway, 2011), 26–27.

Before Arminius

Although the Arminian Remonstrance took place in the seventeenth century, the controversy goes back much farther than that. None of the doctrines bearing the “Arminian” or “Calvinist” labels originated with Arminius or Calvin. Arminianism has its roots in Pelagianism, the system put forth by the fifth century monk Pelagius (360–418). Calvinism is simply a reiteration of Augustinianism, so named after Augustine (354–430), bishop of Hippo (in modern-day Algeria), who, against Pelagius, defended the biblical doctrines of original sin and monergistic soteriology. Pelagianism diverged much farther from orthodoxy than Arminianism. While an Arminian may be a Christian (as R. C. Sproul once said, “just barely”), a Pelagian cannot. Pelagius taught that everyone was born in the same state as Adam, able to keep the law perfectly and believe the gospel. Augustine said, No, man has inherited Adam’s sin. Consequently, his very nature is so corrupted that, without divine grace—bestowed upon those whom the Father has chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world—he is neither able nor willing to believe. Enter John Cassian (360–435), a monk from Gaul (France), who concocted a middle way between Pelagianism and Augustinianism. Short of denying original sin as Pelagius had, Cassian taught that man, though corrupted by sin, retained the ability by the natural powers of his mind to take the first step towards conversion and, having taken that first step, would then gain the Spirit’s help in coming the rest of the way. This middle way was called Semi-Pelagianism, and “is not at all differing from . . . Arminianism.” Both Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism were rejected by the Reformers. Like Augustine, the Reformers held to the doctrines of the sovereignty of God, the total depravity of man, and unconditional election. As Boettner shows, they stood together in their view of predestination: It was taught not only by Calvin, but by Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon (although Melanchthon later retreated toward the Semi-Pelagian position), by Bullinger, Bucer, and all of the outstanding leaders of the Reformation. While differing on some other points they agreed on this doctrine of Predestination and taught it with emphasis. Luther’s chief work, The Bondage of the Will, shows that he went into the doctrine as heartily as did Calvin himself. . . . Thus, it is evident that the five points of Calvinism, drawn up by the Synod of Dort in 1619, were by no means a new system of theology. On the contrary, as Dr. Wyllie asserts of the Synod, “It met at a great crisis and was called to review, re-examine and authenticate over again, in the second generation since the rise of the Reformation, that body of truth and system of doctrine which that great movement had published to the world.” —The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 11–13.

Foreknew (Romans 8:29)

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. —Romans 8:29–30 Whether you will be an Arminian or a Calvinist (and you will be one or the other*) will depend partly on your understanding of the word “forknew” as it is used in this passage, for herein we meet predestination, sanctification, adoption, calling, justification, and glorification, all tied together. Who will be the recipients of these blessings? “Those whom [God] foreknew.” Arminians and Calvinists have very different views of who that describes. Arminians believe that God, knowing the future, foreknew (knew in advance) who would respond in repentance and faith to the gospel, and predestined them to salvation. In other words, he saw who would respond in repentance and faith to the gospel, and predestined them to respond in repentance and faith to the gospel. (If that seems redundant and nonsensical to you, it’s only because it is.) Calvinists believe that knew has a much more personal, intimate meaning. God did not merely know about certain people and what they would do—certainly, he knows about everyone and everything they will do—he knew them in a personal, intimate way. In order to draw the Arminian conclusion, an idea must be added to the text, that is, “whom he foreknew [would believe], he also predestined.” Not only is that idea not found in this particular text, it collides rather violently with the rest of Scripture, perhaps most obviously, Romans 9:11–13: for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Therefore, foreknew cannot mean that God predestined individuals based on conditions they would meet, and it cannot mean that God knew them in advance, since he knows everyone in advance, and not all are saved. It has to mean more than that. See again the passage above: “Jacob I loved.” This is how orthodox theologians have always understood the foreknowledge of Romans 8:29. To be known, in this sense of the word, by God is to be loved by him. When the Bible speaks of God knowing particular individuals, it often means that He has special regard for them, that they are the objects of His affection and concern. For example, in Amos 3:2 God, speaking to Israel, says, “You only have I known of the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” The Lord knew about all the families of the earth, but He knew Israel in a special way. They were his chosen people, upon whom He had set his heart. See Deuteronomy 7:7–8; 10:15. Because Israel was His in a special sense, He chastised them (cf. Heb. 15:5–6). God, speaking to Jeremiah, said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”(Jer. 1:5). The meaning here is not that God knew about Jeremiah, but that He had special regard for the prophet before He formed him in his mother’s womb. Jesus also used the word “knew” in the sense of personal, intimate awareness. “On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:22–23). Our Lord cannot be understood as saying, “I knew nothing about you,” for it is quite evident that He knew all too much about them—their evil character and evil works; hence, His meaning must be, “I never knew you intimately or personally, I never regarded you as objects of my favor or love.” Paul uses the word in the same way in 1 Corinthians 8:3, “But if anyone loves God, he is knownby God,” and also 2 Timothy 2:19, “the Lord knows those who are his.” The Lord knows about all men, but He only knows those “who love God . . . who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28)—those who are His! —The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 159–160. * Those who disdain such labels are free to use synergist or monergist, respectively. I actually prefer these, but really, you say tomayto, I say tomahto . . .

All Things Foreordained

The Westminster Confession states that “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” (WCF 3.1; Cf. WLC 12, WSC 7). This is at odds with what is commonly believed, that is, that Satan is a free agent, working evil in the world, and that God is left to react to his attacks, protecting us from evil, and/or using it for our good. But God is more ahead of the game than that. God does not merely use evil after-the-fact; it is a part of his eternal plan (Genesis 50:20). As for the discord and strife that we say exists between Satan and God, we ought to accept as a fixed certainty the fact that he can do nothing unless God wills and assents to it. For we read in the history of Job that he presented himself before God to receive his commands [Job 1:6; 2:1], and did not dare undertake any evil act without first having obtained permission [chs. 1:12; 2:6]. Thus, also, when Ahab was to be deceived, Satan took upon himself to become a spirit of falsehood in the mouths of all the prophets; and commissioned by God, he carried out his task [I Kings 22:20–22]. For this reason, too, the spirit of the Lord that troubled Saul is called “evil” because the sins of the impious king were punished by it as by a lash [I Sam. 16:14; 18:10]. And elsewhere it is written that the plagues were inflicted upon the Egyptians by God “through evil angels” [Ps. 78:49]. According to these particular examples Paul generally testifies that the blinding of unbelievers is God’s work [II Thess. 2:11], although he had before called it the activity of Satan [II Thess. 2:9; cf. II Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2]. Therefore Satan is clearly under God’s power, and is so ruled by his bidding as to be compelled to render him service. Indeed, when we say that Satan resists God, and that Satan’s works disagree with Gods works, we at the same time assert that this resistance and this opposition are dependent upon God’s sufferance. I am not now speaking of Satan’s will, nor even of his effort, but only of his effect. For inasmuch as the devil is by nature wicked, he is not at all inclined to obedience to the divine will, but utterly intent upon contumacy and rebellion. From himself and his own wickedness, therefore, arises his passionate and deliberate opposition to God. By this wickedness he is urged on to attempt courses of action which he believes to be most hostile to God. But because with the bridle of his power God holds him bound and restrained, he carries out only those things which have been divinely permitted to him; and so he obeys his Creator, whether he will or not, because he is compelled to yield him service wherever God impels him. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.14.17.

“Man’s Steps Are from the Lord”

The pride of man rebels against the sovereignty of God over all creatures and events. Nevertheless, Scripture affirms the conclusion of the Westminster Confession that “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” But because we know that the universe was established especially for the sake of mankind, we ought to look for this purpose in his governance also. The prophet Jeremiah exclaims, “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not his own, nor is it given to man to direct his own steps” [Jer. 10:23]. Moreover, Solomon says, “Man’s steps are from the Lord [Prov. 20:24 p.] and how may man dispose his way?” [Prov. 16:9 p., cf. Vg.]. Let them now say that man is moved by God according to the inclination of his nature, but that he himself turns that motion whither he pleases. Nay, if that were truly said, the free choice of his ways would be in man’s control. Perhaps they will deny this because he can do nothing without God’s power. Yet they cannot really get by with that, since it is clear that the prophet and Solomon ascribe to God not only might but also choice and determination. Elsewhere Solomon elegantly rebukes this rashness of men, who set up for themselves a goal without regard to God, as if they were not led by his hand. “The disposition of the heart is man’s, but the preparation of the tongue is the Lord’s.” [Prov. 16:1, 9, conflated.] It is an absurd folly that miserable men take it upon themselves to act without God, when they cannot even speak except as he wills! Indeed, Scripture, to express more plainly that nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination, shows that things seemingly most fortuitous are subject to him. For what can you attribute more to chance than when a branch breaking off from a tree kills a passing traveler? But the Lord speaks far differently, acknowledging that he has delivered him to the hand of the slayer [Ex. 21:13]. Likewise, who does not attribute lots to the blindness of fortune? But the Lord does not allow this, claiming for himself the determining of them. He teaches that it is not by their own power that pebbles are cast into the lap and drawn out, but the one thing that could have been attributed to chance he testifies to come from himself [Prov.16:33]. In the same vein is that saying of Solomon, “The poor man and the usurer meet together; God illumines the eyes of both” [Prov. 29:13; cf. ch. 22:2]. He points out that, even though the rich are mingled with the poor in the world, while to each his condition is divinely assigned, God, who lights all men, is not at all blind. And so he urges the poor to patience; because those who are not content with their own lot try to shake off the burden laid upon them by God. Thus, also, another prophet rebukes the impious who ascribe to men’s toil, or to fortune, the fact that some lie in squalor and others rise up to honors. “For not from the east, nor from the west, nor from the wilderness comes lifting up; because God is judge, he humbles one and lifts up another.” [Ps. 75:6–7.] —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.16.6.

Does God Repent?

On several occasions in Scripture, God is said to “repent” of things he has done or decreed. Since repenting, or changing one’s mind, necessarily implies learning and correction, this might lead, and indeed, has lead some, to conclude that God is neither omniscient nor immutable, and adjusts his actions to new information as he receives it. This conclusion, of course, contradicts the testimony of Scripture to the nature of God, and therefore must be erroneous. Yet the passages that describe God as repenting cannot be ignored. How, then, should they be understood? [C]ertain passages . . . seem to suggest . . . that the plan of God does not stand firm and sure, but is subject to change in response to the disposition of things below. First, God’s repenting is several times mentioned, as when he repented of having created man [Gen. 6:6]; of having put Saul over the kingdom [I Sam. 15:11]; and of his going to repent of the evil that he had determined to inflict upon his people, as soon as he sensed any change of heart in them [Jer. 18:8]. Next, some abrogations of his decrees are referred to. He made known through Jonah to the Ninevites that after forty days had passed Nineveh would be destroyed, yet he was immediately persuaded by their repentance to give a more kindly sentence. [Jonah 3:4, 10.] He proclaimed the death of Hezekiah through the mouth of Isaiah; but he was moved by the king’s tears and prayers to defer this [Isa. 38:1, 5; II Kings 20:1, 5; cf. II Chron. 32:24]. Hence many contend that God has not determined the affairs of men by an eternal decree, but that, according to each man’s deserts or according as he deems him fair and just, he decrees this or that each year, each day, and each hour. Concerning repentance, we ought so to hold that it is no more chargeable against God than is ignorance, or error, or powerlessness. For if no one wittingly and willingly puts himself under the necessity of repentance, we shall not attribute repentance to God without saying either that he is ignorant of what is going to happen, or cannot escape it, or hastily and rashly rushes into a decision of which he immediately has to repent. But that is far removed from the intention of the Holy Spirit, who in the very reference to repentance says that God is not moved by compunction because he is not a man so that he can repent [I Sam. 15:29]. And we must note that in the same chapter both are so joined together that the comparison well harmonizes the apparent disagreement. When God repents of having made Saul king, the change of mind is to be taken figuratively. A little later there is added: “The strength of Israel will not lie, nor be turned aside by repentance; for he is not a man, that he may repent” [I Sam. 15:29 p.]. By these words openly and unfiguratively God’s unchangeableness is declared. Therefore it is certain that God’s ordinance in the managing of human affairs is both everlasting and above all repentance. And lest there be doubt as to his constancy, even his adversaries are compelled to render testimony to this. For Balaam, even against his will, had to break forth into these words: “God is not like man that he should lie, nor as the son of man that he should change. It cannot be that he will not do what he has said or not fulfill what he has spoken” [Num. 23: 19 p.]. What, therefore, does the word “repentance” mean? Surely its meaning is like that of all other modes of speaking that describe God for us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry toward sinners. Therefore whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience; because God, whenever he is exercising judgment, exhibits the appearance of one kindled and angered. So we ought not to understand anything else under the word “repentance” than change of action, because men are wont by changing their action to testify that they are displeased with themselves. Therefore, since every change among men is a correction of what displeases them, but that correction arises out of repentance, then by the word “repentance” is meant the fact that God changes with respect to his actions. Meanwhile neither God’s plan nor his will is reversed, nor his volition altered; but what he had from eternity foreseen, approved, and decreed, he pursues in uninterrupted tenor, however sudden the variation may appear in men’s eyes. The sacred history does not show that God’s decrees were abrogated when it relates that the destruction which had once been pronounced upon the Ninevites was remitted [Jonah 3:10]; and that Hezekiah’s life, after his death had been intimated, had been prolonged [Isa. 38:5]. Those who think so are deceived in these intimations. Even though the latter make a simple affirmation, it is to be understood from the outcome that these nonetheless contain a tacit condition. For why did the Lord send Jonah to the Ninevites to foretell the ruin of the city? Why did he through Isaiah indicate death to Hezekiah? For he could have destroyed both the Ninevites and Hezekiah without any messenger of destruction. Therefore he had in view something other than that, forewarned of their death, they might discern it coming from a distance. Indeed, he did not wish them to perish, but to be changed lest they perish. Therefore Jonah’s prophecy that after forty days Nineveh would be destroyed was made so it might not fall. Hezekiah’s hope for longer life was cut off in order that it might come to pass that he would obtain longer life. Who now does not see that it pleased the Lord by such threats to arouse to repentance those whom he was terrifying, that they might escape the judgment they deserved for their sins? If that is true, the nature of the circumstances leads us to recognize a tacit condition in the simple intimation. This is also confirmed by like examples. The Lord, rebuking King Abimelech because he had deprived Abraham of his wife, uses these words: “Behold, you will die on account of the woman whom you have taken, for she has a husband” [Gen. 20:3, Vg.]. But after Abimelech excused himself, God spoke in this manner: “Restore the woman to her husband, for he is a prophet, and will pray for you that you may live. If not, know that you shall surely die, and all that you have” [Gen. 20:7, Vg.]. Do you see how in the first utterance, he strikes Abimelech’s mind more violently in order to render him intent upon satisfaction, but in the second sentence he clearly explains his will? Inasmuch as there is a similar meaning in other passages, do not infer from them that there was any derogation from the Lord’s first purpose because he had made void what he had proclaimed. For the Lord, when by warning of punishment he admonishes to repentance those whom he wills to spare, paves the way for his eternal ordinance, rather than varies anything of his will, or even of his Word, although he does not express syllable by syllable what is nevertheless easy to understand. That saying of Isaiah must indeed remain true: “The Lord of Hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” [Isa. 14:27]. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.17.12, 13, 14.

By God’s Decree

The language of “permission” is often used in regard to the existence of evil in the world. Sinful acts are committed and, since it is unthinkable that God could have decreed them, he is said to have merely permitted them. However, that men can accomplish nothing except by God’s secret command, that they cannot by deliberating accomplish anything except what he has already decreed with himself and determines by his secret direction, is proved by innumerable and clear testimonies. What we have cited before from the psalm, that God does whatever he wills [Ps. 115:3], certainly pertains to all the actions of men. If, as is here said, God is the true Arbiter of wars and of peace, and this without any exception, who, then, will dare say that men are borne headlong by blind motion unbeknown to God or with his acquiescence? But particular examples will shed more light. From the first chapter of Job we know that Satan, no less than the angels who willingly obey, presents himself before God [Job 1:6; 2:1] to receive his commands. He does so, indeed, in a different way and with a different end; but he still cannot undertake anything unless God so wills. However, even though a bare permission to afflict the holy man seems then to be added, yet we gather that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and his wicked thieves were the ministers, because this statement is true: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased God, so is it done” [Job 1:21, Vg. (p.)]. Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane; the Sabaeans cruelly and impiously pillage and make off with another’s possessions. Job recognizes that he was divinely stripped of all his property, and made a poor man, because it so pleased God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments. God wills that the false King Ahab be deceived; the devil offers his services to this end; he is sent, with a definite command, to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets [I Kings 22:20, 22]. If the blinding and insanity of Ahab be God’s judgment, the figment of bare permission vanishes: because it would be ridiculous for the Judge only to permit what he wills to be done, and not also to decree it and to command its execution by his ministers. The Jews intended to destroy Christ; Pilate and his soldiers complied with their mad desire; yet in solemn prayer the disciples confess that all the impious ones had done nothing except what “the hand and plan” of God had decreed [Acts 4:28]. So Peter had already preached that “by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, Christ had been given over” to be killed [Acts 2:23]. It is as if he were to say that God, to whom from the beginning nothing was hidden, wittingly and willingly determined what the Jews carried out. As he elsewhere states: “God, who has foretold through all his prophets that Christ is going to suffer, has thus fulfilled it” [Acts 3:18]. Absalom, polluting his father’s bed by an incestuous union, commits a detestable crime [II Sam. 16:22]; yet God declares this work to be his own; for the words are: “You did it secretly; but I will do this thing openly, and in broad daylight” [II Sam. 12:12 p.]. Jeremiah declared that every cruelty the Chaldeans exercised against Judah was God’s work [Jer. 1:15; 7:14; 50:25, and passim]. For this reason Nebuchadnezzar is called God’s servant [Jer. 25:9; cf. ch. 27:6]. God proclaims in many places that by his hissing [Isa. 7:18 or 5:26], by the sound of his trumpet [Hos. 8:1], by his authority and command, the impious are aroused to war [cf. Zeph. 2:1]. The Assyrian he calls the rod of his anger [Isa. 10:5 p.], and the ax that he wields with his hand [cf. Matt. 3:10]. The destruction of the Holy City and the ruin of the Temple he calls his own work [Isa. 28:21]. David, not murmuring against God, but recognizing him as the just judge, yet confesses that the curses of Shimei proceeded from His command [II Sam. 16:10]. “The Lord,” he says, “commanded him to curse.” [II Sam. 16:11.] We very often find in the Sacred History that whatever happens proceeds from the Lord, as for instance the defection of the ten tribes [I Kings 11:31], the death of Eli’s sons [I Sam. 2:34], and very many examples of this sort. Those who are moderately versed in the Scriptures see that for the sake of brevity I have put forward only a few of many testimonies. Yet from these it is more than evident that they babble and talk absurdly who, in place of God’s providence, substitute bare permission—as if God sat in a watchtower awaiting chance events, and his judgments thus depended upon human will. —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.18.1.


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