According To His Holy Will
Basic to the truth of God’s providence is the truth of God’s eternal counsel. Indeed, the doctrine of divine providence can neither be understood nor maintained and defended over against Deistic and Pantheistic denials of it, except on the basis of the doctrine of God’s eternal and sovereign counsel. It is important that we understand this from the outseit, and understand too that our Confession clearly teaches this. Simply stated, the truth of God’s providence means that God alone executes His eternal and unchangeable counsel.
Our Belgic Confessor clearly teaches this in its opening statement: “We believe that the same God, after he had created all things, did not forsake them, or give them up to fortune or chance, but that he rules and governs them according to his holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without his appointment.” In fact, it is exactly for this reason that our Confession is so concerned at the same time to maintain that “God neither is the author of, nor can be charged with, the sins which are committed.”
Let us try to understand a little of the all-comprehensive significance of this relationship between God’s counsel and God’s providence.
In the first place, let us ask and answer the question: what does our Confession mean by this phrase, “according to his holy will?”
You are all undoubtedly acquainted with the distinction that is sometimes made in the will of God between the will of God’s command and the will of God’s decree. This distinction has its merits although it is not entirely without shortcomings. The danger, of course, is that we conceive of the matter as though there are two wills in God; and this is not true. God has one will. And that one will of God may be distinguished as to its ethical aspect, or the will of His command, and its decretive aspect, or the will of His decree, or counsel. Only we must remember that there is the most perfect unity and harmony in the will of God between those two aspects. On the one hand, God’s counsel is characterized by infinite righteousness and holiness, as our Confession also emphasizes in this connection. And, on the other hand, the ethical will of God is served and maintained throughout by God’s counsel and by the execution of that counsel, so that we may say that the ultimate goal of God’s counsel is the maintenance and revelation in the highest possible degree of all God’s infinite perfections, the revelation of the glory of His name in the realization of His everlasting covenant of grace.
Now when our Confession speaks in this connection of God’s “holy will,” it is evident that it means God’s counsel. The meaning is not that God governs all things according to the will of His command, that He maintains His justice, and that He in His moral government deals with His creatures according to the standard of His law. For however true that may be as far as God’s moral creatures are concerned, in connection with the truth of God’s providence it would make no sense here. The point is rather that God governs all things according to His eternal counsel. That this is true is evident from the context. In the first place, this truth of God’s government of all things according to His holy will stands in contrast with the notion that all things are given up to fortune or chance. In the second place, the article states as a consequence of this troth that nothing happens without his appointment. And, in the third place, the article immediately intercepts the possible argument that God is then the author of sin an argument which would only be raised against the truth that God governs all things according to His counsel, so that nothing happens without His appointment.
This counsel of God is frequently referred to in Scripture. Included in it is His decree of election and reprobation, according to which He “bath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” Romans 9:18. Significantly the Scriptures speak of the goal of that counsel in Ephesians 1:9, 18: “Having made known unto us the mystery of His will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: 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.” And in this same chapter God’s people are depicted as having a place in the divine purpose: “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the, good pleasure of his will.” Moreover, it is literally according to Scripture that God worketh all things after the counsel of His will: “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. 1:5, 11. And so there are numerous other passages of Scripture which refer to this will of God, to some of which we till have occasion to refer when we discuss the subject of God’s providence and sin.
Hence, the Scriptures teach and our Confession maintains that the truth that is basic to the doctrine of God’s providence is that of God’s holy will. God is a willing God. The power that operates the universe is not an impersonal power. It is not a blind “fate.” But it is the power of an intelligent, willing, personal God. That will of God, or the power of all-wise, intelligent determination, concerns every creature. It determines the existence of the creature. It determines the relation of the creature to God. It deter mines the relation of the creature to every other creature in the world. It determines also the development of every individual creature, as well as the development of all creatures mutually and of the universe as a whole. Moreover, that will of God determines the goal of that development of all creatures and of the universe, as well as the place and purpose of each creature in the attainment of that goal. Then too, the will of God determines the place and function of each creature when finally that destiny of all things has been reached.
It is at this point already that all Deism and Pantheism diverges from the truth of the Word of God.
Our Confession does not directly mention the two above-mentioned errors. It makes mention instead of “that damnable error of the Epicureans, who say that God regards nothing, but leaves all things to chance.” The Epicureans were an ancient school of pagan philosophy, named after their founder, Epicurus. From the point of view of the fact that the Epicureans did not believe in God at all, but were pagans, it seems strange that they are even mentioned in our Confession. In this connection, however, the reference is to that element of their philosophy according to which they taught that the deity took no interest and no part in and did not interfere in the affairs of the universe and of men. They indeed taught that the deity regards nothing, but leaves all things to chance. And the practical end of their philosophy was the hedonistic and thoroughly immoral motto, “Let us eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” This same Epicurean philosophy made inroads into the Christian church. And especially in the modern era it reappeared in the form of what is called Deism. The error of Deism is usually said to consist in the denial of God’s immanence. It exactly teaches that God, after He had created the world and established the ordinances and laws of each creature’s existence, withdrew. He is not in the universe and in all things; but outside it. He has nothing to do with its, operation and development. He regards nothing. All things are left to themselves, to chance, to blind fate.” Frequently the example has been used, to illustrate the relation between God and the wodd, of a watchmaker. After he has made a watch and wound it up, he has nothing to do with that watch and its operation any longer. That watch operates independently of its maker, and operates according as it was made. Thus God formed the world, wound it up; so to speak; and now the world continues to exist and. to operate and develop independently of its Maker.
Pantheism, the other error which we mentioned, also denies God’s providence. Both of these errors we shall refer to further as we discuss the truth of God’s providence. But we mention them now because the root of them is a denial of the will, or counsel, of God, or rather: a denial of the willing God. Often Pantheism is described as denying God’s transcendence only. But this is hardly correct. Pantheism denies both that God is transcendent above the world and that God is immanent in the world, and instead identifies God and the world. God is the world, and the world is God. As the very name indicates, all (pan) is God (theism).
In this connection we want to emphasize, first of all, that both of these errors arrive at the same end, namely, the denial of the providence of God and the exclusion of God as a willing, intelligent Being from the universe, though along different courses. In the case of Deism, God is simply put altogether outside of the universe; and in the case of Pantheism, God and the universe are simply confused. In the second place, both of these philosophies succeed theoretically in getting rid of God as a personal, intelligent, volitional, or willing, Being. Deism would probably try to deny this to an extent; but by putting God outside of the universe altogether, it to all intents and purposes denies His existence as a willing and intelligent God. Pantheism simply denies the personal God completely: God is the great ALL. In the third place, with respect to the moral creature, man, both of these errors end by teaching that somehow or other man is “the captain of his fate, the master of his soul.”
Now you may probably be asking what all this has to do with our Reformed faith, and what significance a knowledge of these errors has as far as our practical religious knowledge and life are concerned. After all, there is no Deist Church, is there? And there is no Pantheist Church? No, but Deism and Pantheism are two philosophies, two schools of thought, which have had no little influence in the church. Modernism, with its theory that man is essentially divine and its teaching that Christ was divine because He was so truly human and that He showed man how to reahze the divine in himself is Pantheistic essentially. And not only has Deism made its influence felt in the modernist church, especially, for example, in Unitarianism; but all Pelagianism and Arminianism, with its fundamental exclusion of the will of the moral creature from the sovereign will of God, is Deistic as far as its doctrine of man is concerned.
Hence, once more we learn how important it is to hold on to the truth of God’s sovereign counsel. And let it be emphasized that this will of God is indeed sovereign. Of ah that God wills He has the source and the conception and the reason in Himself; What He wills God wills according to His own good pleasure. There is never any compulsion or any limitation of the will of God. There is never anything involuntary in God. There is never any conflict in God’s will. All that God does He wills to do; and all that He wills God sovereignly accomplishes. And nothing in all the universe, let it be added, is excluded from that will of the divine good pleasure. In the most perfect, free, unhampered, infinitely sovereign sense it is true of the living God, without any limitation, that “He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased.” Psalm 115:3.