Part 5 of 11
In the previous post I mentioned the equation equating right belief with godly life. We critiqued this equation, stating that to reduce the equation to this point is to make an error. Among the most right-believing persons existing are the demons: They believe there is one God and shudder in fear (James 2:19). So, to the left side of the equation must be added some additional factors. Primary to all factors is redemption: the redemption accomplished by God through the activity of His Son, and applied by the Holy Spirit to those whom God has called. Other factors such as admonishment, exhortation, prayer, reminder, and correction play a vital role in our sanctification. In the first post, and in part four, I used the time for admonishment, exhortation, reminder and correction. To hear what God requires of us is critical to our growth as Christians. Right belief is equally critical: it is not good to have zeal without knowledge (Proverbs 19:2a). So for the next few posts we are going to focus in on right-belief type information as we continue to build a biblical framework for human activity.
During part three, I mentioned the apparent Sovereignty of God / Responsibility of Man paradox. Under each category were collected some verses which addressed those subjects as well as some verses that I referred to as plural: they addressed both categories. I warned of the error of libertarianism, which is the loss of a proper understanding of God’s sovereign control of all things and a misunderstanding of the freedom of the human will. This error is labeled libertarianism because it posits a liberty for man that does not exist; a suggested liberty that man can operate outside of the providential will of God; a liberty that makes man sovereign and God the dependent one who must react to the events of history. I also warned of misunderstanding the nature of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility by removing from man the culpability for sin and, in turn, making God responsible for evil. This error I labeled as necessatarianism – meaning that all events simply flow from the necessity of being part of God’s will. This error degrades the nature of the covenant relationship which exists between God and man and ignores that man is, by creation, an image-bearer of God. Also, necessatarianism discredits the effect of secondary causes, which is in direct contradiction with Holy Scripture. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28b) being the primary example of God’s call for, and validation of, secondary causes.
It will be helpful for us to spend some time discussing the nature of God; or, more accurately stated: that portion of the nature of God that He has revealed to us. Primary to this discussion is the statement of Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” So we begin with monotheism: there is only one God. The character of God, or more simply stated: “What is God?” is detailed well by question seven of the Westminster Larger Catechism: “God is a Spirit, (John 4:24) in and of Himself infinite in being, (Exod. 3:14, Job 11:7–9) glory, (Acts 7:2) blessedness, (1 Tim. 6:15) and perfection; (Matt. 5:48) all-sufficient, (Gen. 17:1) eternal, (Ps. 90:2) unchangeable, (Mal. 3:6, James 1:17) incomprehensible, (1 Kings 8:27) every where present, (Ps. 139:1–13) almighty, (Rev. 4:8) knowing all things, (Heb. 4:13, Ps. 147:5) most wise, (Rom. 16:27) most holy, (Isa. 6:3, Rev. 15:4) most just, (Deut. 32:4) most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth (Exod. 34:6).
This God, who possesses these attributes, has revealed Himself to exist in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The question and answer format of the Heidelberg Catechism states: “Since there is but one Divine Being, (Deut 6:4) why do you speak of three persons: Father, Son and Holy Ghost?” It answers: “Because God has so revealed Himself in His word, (Isa 61:1, Ps 110:1, Matt 3:16,17; 28:19, I John 5:7, II Cor 13:13) that these three distinct persons are the one, true eternal God.” The difficulty we have with the structure of the God-head is that we have nothing in the realm of created things with which to relate it in order to comprehend it. We as humans think in an analogous fashion: when we come upon a new concept, we comprehend it by relating it to something we already know. For example, when I tell my son that where I work we heat metal until it becomes a liquid and then we pour it into molds, he can relate it to how an ice cube melts when he holds it in his hands, or how the liquid in a Popsicle mold becomes solid in the freezer.
There have been attempts to relate the structure of the God-head to something in the material word, but each falls short of explaining the true nature of it. For example, an apple is used. It is said that a whole apple can be thought of as God. Then the apple is sliced into three pieces. Each of the pieces is identified with one of the persons of the God-head. The problem with this object lesson is that each part of the apple is one-third of the whole while each person of the God-head is fully God, not a portion of the divine essence. “…The divine essence is not divided among [the persons of the God-head] so that each person possesses a third part of it.” Another attempt is made at explaining the structure of the God-head by using water as an analogy. It is stated that as water is truly water, whether ice, liquid or steam, it can take on those different forms of existence. The error of this analogy is commonly referred to as modalism: God revealing Himself in different modes of existence throughout history as He deems necessary. Modalism denies the eternal existence of all three persons of the God-head simultaneously. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each eternal in personality, “…they assume objective relations with one another, and they address and love one another.”
This God, whose ontology – or nature and essence – is Trinitarian, is transcendent unto His creation, and thus we deny pantheism, yet is immanent to His creation, thus we deny deism. Pantheism, literally “all-god”, is the belief that the universe is god and no distinction is made between God and His creation. A pantheist will usually deny or explain away the existence of evil since no room is left for it if all is god. A deist believes that God created all things but did not continue to involve Himself in His creation; the god of deism is often referred to as the divine watchmaker: he made it, wound it up, and ended his involvement. A deist would deny the inspiration and, therefore, authority of Holy Scripture. As I said before: we affirm God’s transcendence and we affirm His immanence.
Relating to God’s transcendence and immanence, we affirm this relationship of God to His creation in the acts of creation and providence. As Hebrews 11:3 states: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” “By faith we understand”: it is only through a direct action of God that we have faith and understanding – this highlights His immanence. “…The universe was created by him”: a real world was created by God, Who upholds it by His power – this highlights His transcendence. The Westminster Larger Catechism refers to God’s works of creation and providence as the execution of His decrees. The question and answer format reads: “How doth God execute his decrees? God executes his decrees in the works of creation and providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will (Eph. 1:11)” (Question 14).
It will be helpful for us, as our quest continues for a biblical understanding of the effect of secondary causes, to examine the providence of God. Primary to the facets of providence is God’s act of sustaining His creation. By an act of His will, God created from nothing all that has been made. Also by an act of His will, God sustains or upholds His creation, which would not exist for one moment unless His continues His providential, sustaining power. This act of providence is referred to as conservatio (in Latin), which means conservation or preserving. An additional facet of providence is referred to as concursus (again in Latin), from which we get the English word concur. Concursus has to do not with the sustaining of an object but with its power to work. I have the power to lift this pen because God concurs, or agrees, that I will be able to. A third facet of providence is gubernatio, which means direction or government, which He exercises over all created things. For example, the conservatio of God’s providence allows the ingredients of dynamite to remain in existence, the concursus of God’s providence allows dynamite to have a power, and the gubernatio of God’s providence allows the explosion of dynamite to move boulders. The Larger Catechism states the acts of God’s providence this way: “What are God’ s works of providence? God’ s works of providence are his most holy, (Ps. 145:17) wise, (Ps. 104:24, Isa. 28:29) and powerful preserving (Heb. 1:3) and governing (Ps. 103:19) all His creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, (Matt. 10:29–31, Gen. 45:7) to His own glory (Rom. 11:36, Isa. 63:14)” (Question 18). So, in summary, we have God’s activities of creation, conservation, agreement and government of all that exists.
Superimposed upon these activities, Scripture identifies three categories which help us understand how God interacts with His creation. These categories are: God’s decretive will – referring to His decrees, His preceptive will – referring to His precepts, and His will of disposition; we will look at each of these in turn.
The first category, God’s decretive will, as was stated before, includes His works of creation and providence. His decretive will includes that which is secret – the majority thereof, and that which is revealed. The portion of God’s decretive will which is revealed before the event occurs is referred to as prophecy. Included in God’s decretive will is His freedom to act. As Daniel 4:35 says: “…All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”
The second category, God’s preceptive will, identifies that which He has revealed to us in the form of precepts: that which He has commanded as an authoritative rule of action. The primary example, which almost immediately comes to mind, is the Ten Commandments. We find throughout God’s word statements detailing His preceptive will: the Ten Commandments, as I said, the revelation of the depth of God’s commands as Jesus illuminates them in the Gospels, and the summary of the commandments of God given by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. We find in Deuteronomy 29:29 an identification of these two categories, decretive and preceptive: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
The third category, God’s will of disposition, is more descriptive of God’s character than His activity. For example, in second Peter chapter three Peter is warning the Church of scoffers who ask, “Where is the promise of His coming?” They scoff because of the time passing between Christ’s first and second advent and they interpret the great span of time as an indication that He is not coming at all. Peter follows this with a warning that God will come in judgment and the world will be destroyed once again; this time with fire instead of with water. Peter then says in verse nine: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” It is God’s disposition that none should perish; and He takes no delight in the destruction of the wicked (Ezekial 33:11). Consider the words of Jeremiah 9:24: “Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.’”
When God moves based upon His will of disposition, we can see that it is also part of His decrees. Consider the words of Micah chapter seven: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all oursins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.”