The Standard Bearer has always been a doctrinalpaper. It began that way; it has continued that way until the present. This is very deliberately the path whichThe Standard Bearer chose to walk. There are reasons for this. The Standard Bearer has as its main purpose the defense and development of the truth of the Scriptures. It arose out of doctrinal controversy and has always appeared as one periodical intent on maintaining and developing the Reformed faith. It never has been the view of the editors however that doctrine is an end in itself. The doctrines of the Reformed faith are precious because they are the knowledge of God Whom to know is eternal life. They are precious because they are the hope and blessing of the Christian. They are precious because they form the foundation for the whole walk of the child of God in the world of sin. Without doctrine a godly walk is impossible.
It is not surprising therefore, that we find innumerable doctrinal articles in the early volumes ofThe Standard Bearer already. Many of these articles dealt with the common grace controversy. This is to be understood. The common grace controversy was the immediate occasion for the beginnings of our paper. And the editors went to great lengths to expose the errors of common grace, to point out specifically where these errors were in conflict with the Reformed faith, to warn repeatedly of the evils and dangers of common grace both in doctrine and life, and to set forth the truth of God’s Word overagainst all this.
Nevertheless, The Standard Bearer was not exclusively negative. It was always positive. In this article therefore, we reproduce an article which appeared in Volume III and which treats a matter which is pertinent yet today. It was originally prepared as a speech by Rev. H. Hoeksema, and was published on pp. 336-371 in the year 1927. The reproduction below has been sharply edited. In its original form it took up over 5½ pages. We have reduced it considerably. It is entitled:
GOD’S COUNSEL AND MAN’S RESPONSIBILITY
The thoughts of men have been divided on this subject and radically opposite solutions have been offered of the implied problem. On the one hand there have been and there still are those that are always careful to defend and maintain the freedom and extol the dignity and majesty of man, regardless more or less of the effect such an attempt would have upon their conception of God. On the other hand there always were those, although they were generally fewer in number, that were chiefly concerned about the vindication of the sovereignty of God. And it may be added immediately that generally the former brought the indictment against the latter, that they destroyed the responsibility of man, were of a single-track mind, and that this single track of their thinking ran in the direction of determinism. It is the old controversy between Paul the apostle, as he develops the truth inRomans 9, and his opponents there mentioned; between St. Augustine and Pelagius; between Gottschalk and his persecutors; between Calvin and the church; between Gomarus and Arminius and between their respective followers in our own day.
Nor did I determine upon a discussion of this subject because I flatter myself and would have you expect, that a complete and ultimate solution of it may possibly be attained, a solution in the sense that all mysteries connected with it have been cleared away. It may be well to exercise our mind upon such problems as these, if it bear no other fruit than to make us humbly confess our insignificant smallness overagainst the eternal One.
I must remind you of the fact, that the old accusation, always brought against people of strictly reformed convictions by Pelagians of every color and kind, has been revived against us, the indictment already mentioned, that we deny and destroy the accountability of the rational creature, more particularly of man, because of our presentation of the truth of election and reprobation. I will answer the indictment and prove that it is false.
I. The Problem As Such.
God’s counsel is, let us remind ourselves of it, no mere dead plan, even as an architect draws a plan with detailed specifications of a proposed structure; but it is the eternal will and mind of God with regard to all things in time and eternity. The counsel of the Most High, said our fathers characteristically, is the living counseling God. We must also call attention to certain attributes of that counsel of the eternal God, that have a direct bearing upon its relation to the accountability of the moral creature. First of all this counsel is all comprehensive. It does not only imply the things that are made, but as they are created at the beginning. Such is the nature of an architectural plan. The architect can probably determine in detail how the structure that is to be raised shall be, but he cannot determine what shall become of the building; its history and destiny lies beyond his control. But such is not the case with God’s counsel. When Scripture teaches us that it is all comprehensive, it signifies that God from eternity counseled how things should be created at the beginning, how they should develop in time, and what should, be their eternal destiny. And this must be understood in its strictest sense. It implies that every creature, great and small had its shape and history in this eternal divine decree; that, therefore, nothing happens in earth or in heaven, in the light or in darkness, with respect to brute creation or to God’s moral creatures, but it has all been determined from before the world was. Secondly, I call attention to that attribute of God’s counsel, which negatively expressed we call its irresistibility and positively denoted is the absolute efficaciousness of God’s decree. God is in the heavens and He performs all His good pleasure. Nothing ever withstood His counsel or ever shall be able to thwart it. Every drop of rain surely falls according to that counsel; every sunbeam shoots its golden shaft into the wide expanse of space in harmony with God’s decree. Every tree grows, every flower blooms, every heart beats, every child is born and every being breathes its last, every mind thinks and every man moves, yea every angel sings and every devil rages according to this determinate will of God. It is irresistibly executed in all the wide world. And lastly I want to mention the immutability, the unchangeableness of the counsel of the Most High. What is determined from eternity is fixed forever and nothing can induce the Lord, whose name is I Am, to alter His will or to change His mind. With absolute certainty and unchangeableness the entire course of the whole universe, and of every last creature in detail, is fixed from before the beginning of all things.
Now, in that whole of the divine, eternal and unchangeable scheme of the universe and its destiny, there are intellectual, moral, rational beings, beings that are responsible, accountable to God and are treated as such. What is a moral being? It is a being with a will, a rational will of his own, a being, who is not simply determined, but who in a sense, in some way, also determines himself. He is a being, that not simply develops and grows, like a tree; whose movements are not simply determined from without, like that of a stone rolling down the mountain; but who acts, who performs deeds of his own choice, determinately, consciously, willingly and rationally. It is a being that stands in a certain relation to the law of God, who knows God and His will and who determines from within his own attitude to that will of the Most High. He is, therefore, in this respect like God, though in a creaturely way and measure he wills and thinks and acts, and thus becomes the author of certain deeds, for the which he is accountable to God because he is a creature. And he is so accountable and responsible, that he will be brought into judgment for all he thought and willed and did, and will receive from God according to what he did, whether it be good or evil. The question now arises: How is all this possible, if we maintain the all-comprehensiveness and efficaciousness and immutable character of the counsel of God?
There is still another element that must be taken into account if we are to see the seriousness of the problem. For God did not only freely and with absolute sovereignty determine all things in His eternal counsel, but He Himself also executes that counsel and does all His good pleasure. How then can the moral, rational creature be held accountable, so that he will receive reward or punishment, according to what he has done, whether it be good or evil, if God is really the deepest determining cause, by His almighty will controlling and directing the frail will of man to His own purpose and end?
What makes the problem so serious is, of course, the existence of evil, both moral and physical. Of course, principally the problem would exist, even if sin never entered into the world and death through sin. For though man never did anything but what is acceptable in the sight of the Lord, the question still would be, how in the light of God’s eternal counsel and almighty Providence, this good man could be accountable and receive credit and reward for the good deeds he performed. But the seriousness, the practical weight and pressure of the problem is aggravated nevertheless by the fact of the existence of evil in the world. Men are held accountable for their morally corrupt state of their nature and for the wicked deeds they commit. And because they are held responsible, there is in the world also physical evil, suffering and death as the wages of sin. Now, especially with a view to these facts, the problem we are dealing with assumes a very grave aspect. For not only does the question arise and urge itself upon us: How can God punish His moral creatures, if we must believe that even in their sinful deeds they accomplish His counsel, yea, that He is the controlling power in it all? But the other question also follows: How is it, that God is not the author of evil in its moral sense, if He is the cause of all things and, even when wicked men sin, executes His counsel? Thus we must state the problem.
II. The Solutions Which Are Offered.
Now in attempting to solve this problem, it is destroyed by many, because either the absolute sovereignty of God or the moral agency and freedom of man is denied. In the one case we lost God; in the other we lose man; or they are really both destroyed by merging them into one.
Pantheism must needs deny and destroy all moral freedom and responsibility, even as it denies the personality of God and His essential distinction from the universe. According to this conception, God is the world itself. The being of God and the essence of the world are one. But while the pantheist derives all things with causal necessity from the being of God; the reformed man finds the cause of all in the intelligent will and counsel of a personal God. All difference between good and evil, all moral self-determination on the part of man; all consciousness of accountability must needs cease, if pantheism were true. Pantheism destroys the problem we are discussing, because it has neither a personal God nor a personal man.
Not otherwise it is with all materialistic conceptions. Materialism denies the existence of spirit as a distinct substance. All is matter, and outside of matter nothing exists. Matter is the sole God; that is, if you wish to speak of a God at all. It is the gospel of the flesh, the theology of mammon. Man is only material, not spiritual. The soul of man is not a distinct spiritual being, an entity; what we call soul is nothing but the sum-total of so-called psychical phenomena, and these are nothing but the results of his material existence functioning. We have no dispute with materialism on the ground that it teaches that all things occur with necessity; but as we find the necessity of things in the wise and intelligent will of an absolutely good God, materialism finds it in the cold despotism of blind matter. With regard to the subject under discussion we may say, that materialism has no problem because it has no spirit, no mind and will, either in God or man. Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die!
But the problem is also destroyed in still another way. It cannot exist for all that follow the deistic line of thinking. In a sense deism is the very opposite of pantheism. The machine of the world is finished and now runs according to its own laws and by its own inherent power; the ship of the world is built and launched and now sails on the wide ocean of history without its builder. You understand, that deism with relation to the will and moral freedom of man is Pelagianism and Arminianism. It is the exaltation of man over against his Creator, the maintenance and vindication of human majesty. Man, in all his thinking and acting is absolutely free and there is no control or direction or cooperation on the part of God. His will is as sovereignly free as the will of God. The latter does in no wise determine the former. The absolute sovereignty of the Most High is thus denied. God is placed outside the doors of His own house and is not allowed to intervene in the life and acts of him who is now sovereign within that house, the glorious man! Also on the basis of this view we have no problem as regards the counsel of God and the responsibility of man, but we rid ourselves of the problem by discarding God! And this price is certainly too high and precious! I am bold to say, that if in the attempt to solve the problem we must, lose either, God or man, then let us keep God, and lose little man.
Lastly, to come a little nearer home, I call your attention to that view, that is satisfied to leave the counsel of God and the responsibility of man stand side by side as an irreconcilable contradiction, though in the faith, that what seems contradictory to us, is not in conflict with each other in God. These speak generally of two wills of God, that cannot be brought into a higher unity as far as our understanding is concerned, though this higher unity exists. The will of command is related to our responsibility; the will of God’s counsel has respect to God’s government of all things. And these two run parallel as far as eye can see, and all attempts to penetrate more deeply into this mystery are necessarily futile. We have this objection against this prevalent view, that there is in it not even an attempt to gain a conception of the relation between God’s counsel and man’s responsibility. Nor does it even try to express itself with regard to the proper conception of the relation between the two, though certainly it must be admitted that God’s counsel and the moral freedom of man cannot be co-coordinated, even though we should ultimately not be able to reconcile them. Besides, in practice this view often leads to a certain Arminian presentation of the matter. It is emphasized, that we have to do with the will of command; the doctrine of God’s counsel is relegated to an almost forgotten place, and a practical Pelagianism is the result. It is not infrequently these very people that are first to ring alarm when in their estimation one would seem to over-emphasize the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty.
III. The Proper Conception Of The Matter In The Light Of Scripture.
Now, it is not necessary for me in this connection to prove that the Word of God teaches that every man is responsible to God for all his deeds. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. Neither is it necessary to quote the Word of God with regard to the truth of God’s counsel as such, or of the providence of God in general. But I will quote the Word of God to show that His counsel is executed in and that His providence overrules even the deeds of men, whether they be good or evil. In other words, I will show that we may not present the matter as if God’s overruling counsel and man’s responsibility must simply be placed side by side, coordinately; but that the latter is subordinate to the former. I would like to make the distinction between God as first cause and God as author, and maintain, that God is the cause of all things, the deepest cause also of the deeds of men, whether they be good or evil, though He is not their author. This has been in principle always accepted by men of reformed faith. We may not have two determining causes of things; to postulate them means that we fall back into ancient heathen dualism. It is not true that God is a cause and the devil is also a cause, co-ordinate with and independent from God; but it is thus, that God is also the determining cause of the devil and of all his works. Let us refer to Scripture in support of this. Prov. 21:1. Certainly, if the Lord turns the king’s heart at will, He overrules and directs the issues of that heart, his will and mind, his thoughts and all his desires. And if it is true of the king’s heart it is equally true of every other heart of men. What about God’s relation to the evil deeds of men and devils? It is true, is it not, that in the history of God the devil must obtain permission from the Lord before he can accomplish his evil purpose? And what does the man of God say when the devil, through the means of Chaldeans and Sabeans, wind and tire, made Job poor and miserable? “The Lord hath taken away.” The devil and his instruments were after all but instruments in the hand of the Lord. He took away! What is the truth of the matter when Ahab is about to go to war with the Syrians, and Micah is interrogated as to the Lord’s counsel? What is the word of the Lord by the mouth of Micah? That the Lord sent a spirit of error, a lying spirit into the heart of the prophets of Ahab to persuade him through these false prophets to go and fall at Ramoth-Gilead! I Kings 22:20ff. Who sends wicked Shimei to curse David? The Lord and none other, II Sam. 16:10. What do we read of the sons of Eli? That when their father weakly admonishes them because of all their wicked deeds, they hearkened not unto the voice of Eli, because the Lord would slay them! I Sam. 2:25. Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, that he may not listen to the voice of the Lord and exalt himself against God? Who makes the heart of wicked Israel fat and their eyes blind, that they may become ripe for destruction? The Lord, Ex. 8:15; Rom. 1:26,28. Or turn your attention to that heinous sin by which the Lord of glory was nailed to the accursed tree. What do the Scriptures say of this? The Lord was delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God to be crucified by wicked hands. Acts 2:23, Acts 4:27-28. On the basis of Scripture I can make this first statement, that God is the first cause, also when men are moral agents, it makes no difference whether for good or for evil. Our God is in the heavens. He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased. Ps. 115:3.
Of course, this gives us a conception of the proper relation between the sovereign God and man, the moral agent; but it does not quite solve the problem. Two questions must yet be answered, to see a little light on this subject. The first question is: How can man be responsible? What is responsibility? Does moral accountability presuppose sovereign freedom and moral independence? If that is the case, we must come to the conclusion that man is no responsible agent, for such sovereign freedom he never did possess, not even before the fall in paradise. Even as for his bodily existence he is from moment to moment dependent on the living God, thus it is no less with his spiritual, intellectual, moral life. He is always creature. When we assert that man possesses freedom, we must add, that in his freedom he is dependent, utterly dependent. But it is not true, that accountability requires an absolutely and sovereignly free agent. But it does require that man is the conscious and rational and willing subject of all his actions, that he does things because he wills them and chooses them. A man, consciously and willingly committing sin, or performing what is good, remains accountable, no matter how his deeds may be overruled otherwise, by the counsel and providence of the Most High. Man is responsible, because he always remains the moral, the conscious and willing subject of all his deeds. Judas betrays the Lord because he wills it. Not for one moment does he feel compelled by an outward force that urges him against his own will and choice to deliver his Master into the hands of sinners. Neither, let me add, was any such external compulsion exerted on Judas. And because this is the truth, Judas is the responsible agent, the author of his sin, and God’s judgment as well as his own conscience condemns him. Thus it was no different with regard to the first sin of Adam in paradise. There was no external force which made it compulsory for Adam to sin against the choice of his own will. It was his own, morally free, act. And thus it is with all the acts of men.
The second question that must be asked is: But whatthen does God determine and how does he so co-operate with men, that they always perform His counsel? To this it must be answered first of all, that God never intervenes between the will of man and the deed. His determining influence does not interrupt the action of the will, its manifestation and execution. In other words, never does the Most High so control the deeds of men, that He forces them to commit what they do not will to commit or to perform. The thoughts and desires and deeds of men remain always their own. God stands behind it all, behind the mind, behind the will, behind the heart of man, to turn it as rivers of water, whithersoever He wills. And secondly, I would answer, that the Lord does this through His Holy Spirit. The manner of this operation of the Most High is a mystery to us. We cannot trace the ways of the Infinite. But this must be said, nevertheless, that it is the Spirit of God that convicts men of sin, and that binds the responsibility of every man upon his own heart. For that reason it is impossible that man should ever lose the consciousness of his responsibility. God justifies Himself. He justifies Himself in the cross, both as to the condemnation of the world and the redemption of the elect. He justifies Himself in the conscience of every man, convicting the world, because they believe not in Christ and bringing His people to confession and humiliation before Him. And He will justify Himself in the day of judgment, when all deeds of men shall be manifest and irrevocably and undeniably be bound upon the conscience of every man. And all will confess that God is just and overcomes when He judges. Only thus may we conceive of this problem, though we admit that even so we cannot fathom the ways of God. For only thus is it possible to maintain that God is God alone, that He does all His good pleasure. And even with sin and evil, with the devil and his host, we can commit ourselves safely in the hands of Him, who only is the cause of all things!