Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 3 - God's kingly acts
The third chapter of the Confession opens with a statement concerning the wisdom of God's decree. Everything God does is defensible even if it is incomprehensible. We may not understand, but we know that He remains the only wise God. C.S. Lewis has written that
The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men,
and it is precisely in the wisdom of His plan and purpose for the world that we see divine wisdom at its most evident.
The second word to describe God's decree is holy. God's plan is a holy plan. It is separate and unique. It needs no justification yet is perfectly justified. It is our place, and our wisdom, to be still and to know that the throne of the universe is occupied by the Holy One of Israel.
In the Bible, the holiness of God is awe-inspiring and even frightening. As Isaiah sees the Holy Lord in the Temple, he cries out, "Woe is me, for I am undone" (Isaiah 6:5). Yet the saints of God rejoice at the memory of God's holiness (Psalm 30:4; 97:12). As they survey their past experiences and their course through life, they are made all the more aware of the holiness that has been evident in the plotting out of their lives. The remembrance of God's holiness is profitable for them.
Thirdly, God's decree is free. There is no compulsion upon Him to act in any way. Everything He does He does freely and with perfect liberty.
God's decree, however, is not arbitrary. He has willingly bound Himself to covenant promises and to covenant salvation. The pagan gods were free agents, yet no-one could ever be sure what they would do, or why they would do it. But the God of the Bible, who is a free agent also, has revealed Himself in the Word as one who will take a certain course of action in the experience of His covenant people.
None of God's children will impugn Him for any of the free acts of His sovereign will. They will rather say with Eli, "It is the Lord, let him do what seemeth him good" (1 Samuel 3:18), or with Abraham, "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25).
Finally, God's decree is said to be unchangeable. Our will determines our actions. But how often the purposes of our heart are interrupted and turned around! The plans we make are often changed; the decisions we take are often not carried through at all.
But there is one who "unchangeably ordains whatsoever comes to pass", and whose determinate counsel is such that no power on earth or in heaven can alter his plan. Job, who resigned himself at last to the one who knew his way, said,
But he is in one mind, and who can turn him? and what his soul desireth, even that he doeth. For he performeth the thing appointed for me; and many such things are with him.
Job 23:13, 14
The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. Those who have come to love God's self-revelation in Christ, to love the determining, decreeing, ordaining God of Scripture, fear before him, and rejoice at the memory of God's faithfulness, holiness and truth.
The Confession is at pains, however, to remind its readers of what this does not mean.
That God is a decreeing God does not mean that he is the author of sin. If everything is ordained by him, then sin is ordained by him. Yet He remains pure and holy and sinless, and the existence of sin in the world is no blot on the doctrine of total divine control. The cause of sin is found in the free action of man, and its blame can only be laid at our door. R.C. Sproul says that God "ordained the Fall in the sense that he chose to allow it, but not in the sense that he chose to coerce it" (Chosen by God, p97). Or, to use J.M. Boice's phraseology, "The explanation of the seeming contradiction is that human rebellion, while it is in opposition to God's express command, falls within his eternal or hidden purpose" (Foundations of the Christian Faith, p119). It is axiomatic that permission on the part of God falls within ordination; God ordains everything he permits, so that sin, even although it is contrary to what God reveals, is embraced within what God ordains.
To be sure, there is mystery here; nevertheless the doctrine remains fundamental that while the fall of man is decreed by God, the sin of man is wholly man's to answer for.
The second caveat in the Confession's doctrine is that human liberty is established, and not removed, by a biblical doctrine of the decrees. It is at this point, more than any other, that Calvinism is maligned. People argue that if you begin with an electing God, you have destroyed all human freedom. This, it is argued, holds good at every point of human activity.
It is, of course, a moot point whether men have absolute freedom of will at all. Our wills are never neutral; we always act according to "our strongest inclination at the moment" (Sproul, p57). And for the unregenerate, that inclination is always the inclination to sin and to part company with God. Nevertheless sin does not remove freedom from our will; it modifies it and sets limits to it. It is the perimeter fence within which man's will does its work.
Far from being a threatening doctrine, the doctrine of the divine decree actually guarantees that the choices men make are free choices for which they themselves are answerable. God has not made robots of us. The will of man, rooted in the soul, brings us to the very edge of the eternity set in the human heart. The ability to choose reflects the image in which man is made. Divine decrees do not violate that image, however much sin has effaced it.