The Eternal Decrees of God

by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

In our consideration of these biblical doctrines we come now to a new section of the particular doctrine with which we have been dealing, namely the doctrine of God. You will recall that we have considered what the Bible tells us about the being, the nature, and the character of God as He has been pleased to reveal that to us in the Scriptures. We have also considered the names which God has applied to Himself as a part of this revelation of His essential being, and His relationship with creation. And that, in turn, brought us to the consideration of the great, mighty and inscrutable doctrine of the blessed Holy Trinity.
Now, still considering the doctrine of God, we come on to the next section, which is obviously this: the works of God; the activity of God; what it is that God has done. This is a kind of subsection or branch of this general doctrine concerning God Himself. And the question is: What comes next? What do we proceed to consider? We are about to consider the works of God, so if you were asked the question: ‘What do you think comes next in the biblical sequence and in the logical order?’ I wonder what your answer would be. I may be wrong, but I think if I were to put the question many would be likely to say that obviously we come on immediately to the doctrine of creation.
Now, of course, there is one sense in which that would be the correct answer, but actually it seems to me that it is not, although you will find, if you look up certain books which deal with these matters, that that is precisely what they do. You could quote quite a number of authorities who do go directly from the doctrine of God’s nature and character to the question of creation. But that seems to me to be quite wrong. It is unscriptural, and therefore it is not the right and true thing to do.
Before we come to consider the doctrine of creation, there is something that we must consider first, and we do so because the Bible tells us about it. It is this: the Bible, before it tells us what God has done, leads us to the character of all God’s activities. There is a great deal in the Bible, as I want to try to show you, about the way in which God does things, and it is important that we should consider that before we consider exactly what He has done.
There are certain great principles which underlie and characterise all God’s works. In other words, before God proceeded to create the world and man, God had thought, God had willed and had determined on certain things. So this consideration must come in at this point. Certain things were decided in the eternal mind and counsel of God before He did anything at all in the matter of actual creation, and it does seem to me therefore that this is the obvious chronological (if one may use such a term), certainly the obvious logical sequence which should be followed.
Now the description which is given in the Bible of God’s manner or method of working, is what is commonly called the doctrine of theeternal decrees of God. These are things which God determined and ordained before He had done anything at all. Now I want to admit very frankly that I am again calling your attention to an extremely difficult subject. I do not apologise for that because, as I shall show you, this is not a question of choice. The business of someone expounding the Bible is to expound the whole Bible. But I do admit that it is a very difficult subject, and I imagine that that is why many of the books do not include it. But it is so scriptural that it must be faced. It is like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity—beyond our minds, in a sense. But as we saw with that doctrine, we must not avoid it just because it is difficult.
For your encouragement, however, I think I can promise you that some of these primary, preliminary doctrines are the most difficult because we are dealing with the mind of the Eternal, and are therefore considering something which is beyond our finite understanding and the grasp of our puny and pygmy intellects. From one standpoint the doctrines of man and of creation and salvation, are of necessity very much easier.
‘But,’ somebody may say, ‘in view of its difficulty and inscrutability, why consider it at all? Why not take us straight on to the doctrines of creation and of man and of the fall? That is what we are really interested in; that is what we want to know.’ Well, certain answers must be given to such an objection. My first reason for calling your attention to this doctrine, as I have said, is that it is revealed in the Bible, and because of that, it is obviously meant for our consideration and study.

May I put it like this: Is it not rather surprising to notice and to consider how prone we are to read only parts of the Bible? I wonder whether you read the ninth chapter of the epistle to the Romans as often as you read the eighth? If you are a haphazard Bible reader you probably do not. Now we have no right to pick and choose with the Bible. We have already agreed that it is the inspired Word of God. If I believe that about the Bible from cover to cover, I must take my whole Bible. The fact that there are parts which baffle me must not keep me from it. I must read the whole and must grapple with it all; I must try to understand it all. And as this great doctrine of the decrees of God is in the Bible, then it is my business to study it.

Another reason is this—and I think you will agree with me when we have finished with it—that it will reveal to us fresh aspects of the glory of God Himself. It will give us, as it were, a greater and a grander conception of God, and that in turn will promote our worship of God. I am never tired of saying that the real difficulty of evangelism today is that we do not spend sufficient time with the doctrine of God. We are so interested in a subjective experience and subjective salvation that we forget this great doctrine of God Himself; and it accounts for many of our troubles and problems. The more we know about God in His infinity, the more we shall worship Him.
So another reason for considering this doctrine is that it will save us from many errors. Most of the errors into which men and women have fallen throughout the centuries, and many other questions which have arisen, have been due to the fact that they have never quite realised as they should the Bible’s teaching with regard to the eternal decrees of God.
And my last reason for calling your attention to it is that, speaking for myself, I know of nothing that gives me greater consolation than this particular doctrine. I do not hesitate to say that nothing gives me greater comfort than to know that behind me, little creature as I am passing through this world of time, there is this doctrine of the eternal decrees of God Himself.
Very well, then, if that is why we are considering it, let me say just a word on how we are going to consider it, and this is most important. The first thing you always have to do when you are considering this doctrine is to get rid of your prejudices and any kind of party spirit. By ‘party spirit’ I mean that we all tend to take up certain positions and, without knowing it, we are sometimes much more concerned to defend what we think we have always believed, than to find out the truth.
The other negative is that we must not approach this subject philosophically. I know I keep on talking about this! Philosophy is a great curse in the realm of the Christian faith, because philosophy by definition is always something that tries to understand everything as a whole. That is the quest of philosophy—to span everything with the human mind. But we are now dealing with something for which the mind is utterly inadequate. So we must realise that as we approach this subject there are aspects of it which, by definition, we are not going to understand.
Therefore, positively, we must approach the subject with humility; we must approach it with reverence; we must approach it by faith, and with a ready admission of our own limits. We must approach it with an open mind, seeking and searching for the teaching of the Scriptures. We must come in a childlike spirit, ready to receive what is revealed to us, and ready, may I add, not to ask questions beyond the revelation of the Scriptures.
Indeed, I am increasingly coming to think of faith in this way: faith is a readiness to submit oneself to the biblical limits. It is a readiness not to ask questions about things which are not revealed in the Scriptures. Faith is saying, ‘Very well; I will take all that is given, and I do not want to know more than that; I am content with the revelation.’ We must approach this great doctrine in this way.
Above all, we shall have to realise that there are certain things which we, with our finite minds, will not be able to reconcile with one another. Now I am trying to avoid the use of technical terms as far as I can, but here I must introduce the word antinomy—not antimony. What is an antinomy? It is a position in which you are given two truths which you yourself cannot reconcile. There are certain final antinomies in the Bible, and as people of faith we must be ready to accept that. When somebody says, ‘Oh, but you cannot reconcile those two,’ you must be ready to say, ‘I cannot. I do not pretend to be able to. I do not know. I believe what I am told in the Scriptures.’
So, then, we approach this great doctrine like this: in the light of the things we have already considered about the being, the nature, and the character of God, this doctrine of the eternal decrees must follow as an utter, absolute necessity. Because God is who and what He is, He must work in the way in which He does work. As we have seen, all the doctrines in the Bible are consistent with one another, and when we are considering any particular doctrine we must remember that it must always be consistent with everything else. So as we come to study what the Bible tells us about the way in which God works, we must be very careful not to say anything that contradicts what we have already said about His omniscience, His omnipotence, and all the other things that we have agreed together are to be found in the Scriptures.
Now, having said all that, let me come to a positive statement of the doctrine, and in order to make it clear I shall put it in the form of a number of principles. The first is that from eternity God has had an unchangeable plan with reference to His creatures. The Bible is
constantly using a phrase like this—‘before the foundation of the world’ (see Eph. 1:4). As the apostle Paul said about our Lord’s birth, ‘When the fulness of the time was come …’ (Gal. 4:4).
We can put this negatively: God never does anything half-heartedly. There is never anything uncertain about His activities. If I may put it in still another form, God never has an afterthought. Remember that we have agreed that He is omniscient and omnipresent, that He knows everything from the beginning to the end, so He cannot have an afterthought. Nothing is accidental, haphazard, uncertain or fortuitous. God has a definite plan and purpose about creation, about men and women, about salvation, about the whole of life in this world, about the end of it all, about the ultimate destiny. Everything that God has done and has brought to pass is according to His own eternal plan, and it is fixed, certain, unchangeable, and absolute. That is the first statement.
The second is that the plan of God comprehends and determines all things and events of every kind that come to pass. If you believe that God has determined certain ends, then you must believe that He determines everything that leads to those ends. If you believe that God decided to create at a given point, that He decided that the end of the world, according to time, is to take place at a given point, surely, if the end is determined, everything that leads to that end must also be determined; and you realise that there is also a kind of interrelationship between all events and things that happen, and that all are leading to that end. So the doctrine of the eternal decrees of God says that all things are ultimately determined and decreed by Him.
Therefore, if everything is determined by God it must include, of necessity, the free actions, the voluntary actions of free and voluntary agents. Now that is a fundamental statement; let me break it up a little and give you the scriptural evidence. With regard to the whole system, this is put very plainly by the apostle Paul. He says, ‘That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him: in whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will’ (Eph. 1:10–11). Now that applies to everything. Paul is speaking there of the whole cosmos being united in Christ, and he says that God is going to bring this to pass in that way.
Then there is further scriptural evidence to show that God, in this way, governs and controls and determines events that appear to us to be quite fortuitous. In the book of Proverbs we read, ‘The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord’ (Prov. 16:33). We call a ‘lot’ a matter of chance and of accident, do we not? You ‘cast’ a lot. Yes, says this passage in Scripture, ‘but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord’. Or in the New Testament we read that our Lord says, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father’ (Matt. 10:29). A little sparrow drops dead and falls on to the ground. Accident, you say. Chance. Not at all! ‘Not one of them shall fall on the ground without your Father.’ The life of a little sparrow is in the hands of God. But, He continues, ‘The very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (v. 30). There are events which appear to be quite accidental, but they are controlled by God.
Then take our free actions. Read Proverbs 21:1: ‘The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.’ The king appears to be free, but God is controlling him as He controls the very rivers. Ephesians 2:10 tells us, ‘For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.’ And inPhilippians 2:13 we are told, ‘For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.’
But come to something more extraordinary and striking: the Scripture teaches us that even sinful actions are in the hands of God. Listen to Peter preaching on the Day of Pentecost at Jerusalem: ‘Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, yehave taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain’ (Acts 2:23). Then Peter puts it like this in Acts 4:27–8: ‘For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together’—notice—‘for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done’ The terrible sin of those men was determined beforehand by the counsel of God.
And then you have a striking example of the same thing in the book of Genesis, the famous statement of Joseph to his brethren. Joseph, retailing the facts of his story, turned to his brothers and said, ‘So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God …’ (Gen. 45:8). From our standpoint it was they who had done it. They had done a dastardly thing, a very wicked thing, for mercenary motives and as the result of their own jealousy. ‘But,’ said Joseph, ‘it was not you that sent me hither, but God.’ These sinful actions came under this great eternal decree of God.

Now let us be clear about this. In view of what we have already agreed about the holiness of God, we must at once say this: God does not cause evil in any sense or in any degree. He does not approve of evil. But He permits the wicked agents to perform it and then He overrulesit for His own wise and holy ends.

Or take it like this if you prefer: the same decree of God which ordains the moral law that prohibits and punishes sin, also permits its occurrence. But it limits it and determines the precise channel to which it shall be confined, and the precise end to which it shall be directed, and overrules its consequences for good. The Bible clearly teaches us that. Listen again to this account of Joseph and his brethren in Genesis 50:20: ‘But as for you,’ said Joseph, ‘ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.’ And I suppose in many ways the most striking example of all is to be found in the betrayal of Jesus by Judas: a free and voluntary action, and yet a part of God’s great eternal purpose and plan.
Now that brings me to my third general proposition, which is that all the decrees of God are unconditional and sovereign. They are not dependent in any sense on human actions. They are not determined by anything that people may or may not do. God’s decrees are not even determined in the light of what He knows people are going to do. They are absolutely unconditional. They do not depend upon anything except God’s own will and God’s own holiness.
But—and I want to make this quite clear—that does not mean that there is no such thing as cause and effect in life. That does not mean that there are no such things as conditional actions. There is such a thing in nature and in life as cause and effect—yes. But what this doctrine says is that every cause and effect, and free actions, are part of the decree of God Himself. He has determined to work in that particular way. God has decreed that the end which He has in view shall certainly and inevitably be brought to pass, and that nothing can hinder or frustrate it.
Now let me give you my evidence for all this. Take the prophecy of Daniel: ‘And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?’ (Dan. 4:35). Nothing can stay the hand of God or even question it. Or listen to our Lord stating this very thing in Matthew 11:25–6: ‘I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.’ Why has God withheld these things from the ‘wise and prudent’, and ‘revealed them unto babes’? There is only one answer—it is that ‘even so’ it seemed good in His sight.
Paul also says the same thing: ‘Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will’ (Eph. 1:5). I do commend to you a careful study of the first half of that first chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians. Observe all it says, and you will know that everything that God has done is always ‘according to the good pleasure of his will’. Nothing else at all. It is entirely of grace.
But, of course, you find this doctrine stated most clearly of all in that great and mighty ninth chapter of the epistle to the Romans. I want at this point especially to emphasise verse 11. You will find that it is a verse in brackets; but what a verse! What a statement! ‘(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth.)’ Paul’s argument is that God had decreed that the elder should serve the younger because before either of them were ever born he had said, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’ (v. 13).
‘Why,’ you ask, ‘did God love Jacob and hate Esau? Was it because of what they did?’ No. Before they were ever born, before they wereever conceived, God had chosen Jacob and not Esau. It had nothing to do with their works in any respect.
God’s purpose is unconditional and absolutely sovereign. Listen to Paul again: ‘What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid’ (Rom. 9:14). God forbid that you should even think it! It is impossible:
For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.
Rom. 9:15–18
Let me come on to the fourth principle, which is that the decrees of God are efficacious. Now this, of course, follows of necessity. Because God is a sovereign Lord, because of His omnipotence and His almightiness, His purposes can never fail. What God determines and decrees must infallibly be brought to pass. Nothing can prevent it. Nothing can frustrate it.

And that brings me to the fifth: the decrees of God are in all things perfectly consistent with His own most wise, benevolent and holy nature. I think I need not argue that. In other words, there is no contradiction in God. There cannot be. God is perfect, as we have seen, and He is absolute, and all that I am saying now fits in perfectly with all that we have previously considered. As I warned you in the introduction, you and I here upon the earth, with our finite and sinful minds, are confronted with a problem. It is this: Why did God decree to permit sin? And there is only one answer to that question: We do not know. We know that He did decree to permit sin, or sin would never have taken place. Why, we do not know. It is an insoluble problem. But we shall see it all clearly when we are in glory and face to face with God.

Two things we can be certain of and must always assert: first, God is never the cause of sin. In Habakkuk 1:13 you will find it said, ‘Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil.’ James says, ‘God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man’ (Jas. 1:13). Second, the purpose of God is, in all things, perfectly consistent with the nature and the mode of action of His creatures. In other words, though we cannot reconcile it, there is an ultimate reconciliation. The decrees of God do not deny the existence of free agents and free actions. All we say is this: though God has granted this freedom, He nevertheless overrules it all in order that His ultimate ends may come to pass.
How can God decree everything and yet hold us responsible for what we do? Here is the answer:
Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory.
Rom. 9:20-3
‘But,’ you may ask, ‘how do you reconcile those two?’
I answer, I cannot. I know the Bible tells me the two things: that man, in a sense, is a free agent, and on the other hand, that God’s eternal decrees govern everything.
Now I must come to my last proposition, which is that the salvation of men and women and of angels, and of certain of them in particular, was determined by God before the foundation of the world. He does this entirely of His own good will and His grace. I would again refer you to Matthew 11:25–6. And in John 6:37 we read, ‘All that the Father giveth me shall come to me.’ In verse 44 our Lord says, ‘No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.’ In Acts 13:48 I read this: ‘And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.’
In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 you find, ‘But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.’ Then in his letter to Timothy Paul says: ‘Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began’ (2 Tim. 1:9).
But especially I want to emphasise again that great statement, which I have already quoted, from Romans 9:20–3. The apostle Paul,preaching this great doctrine of the eternal decrees of God, imagines somebody in Rome asking a question, and saying: I do not understand this. It seems to me to be contradictory, to be unfair. If what you are telling me about these decrees is true, it seems that God is unjust. The questioner says to Paul, ‘Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?’ (Rom. 9:19).
And Paul’s reply is, ‘Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory.’
That is the apostle’s answer. That is the scriptural answer. That is God’s answer, therefore, to us and for us while we are in this world of time. It is beyond us. We cannot grasp the ultimate working of God’s mind. It is no use asking, Why this? and, Why that? Why did God raise up Pharaoh? Why did He choose Jacob and not Esau? Why does He punish us if all things are determined and decreed? The answer is, ‘Nay but, O man, who art thou?’ You are pitting yourself against the mind of God. You are forgetting how small you are, how finite you are, how sinful as a result of the fall. You have to leave the ultimate understanding until you arrive in glory. All you have to do here in time is to believe that God is always consistent with Himself, and to accept what He has plainly and clearly told us about His eternal decrees, about what He has determined and decided before He ever created the world.

And, above all, realise that if you are a child of God, it is because God has determined it, and what He has determined about you is certain and safe and sure. Nothing and no one can ever take you out of His hands, or make Him forgo His purpose in respect to you. The doctrine of the eternal decrees of God before the foundation of the world! He knew me. He knew you. And our names were written in the Lamb’s Book of Life before the world was ever made, before you and I or anybody else ever came into it.

Let us bow before His Majesty. Let us humble ourselves in His holy presence. Let us submit ourselves to the revelation that He has so graciously been pleased to give.
Excerpt from Great Doctrines of the Bible by Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Hear the Original Lecture here in MP3 format

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