Part 6 of 11
I know that some of the concepts I bring up during these posts are difficult to understand. And it is good for me to be reminded, that while I have been digesting these ideas for weeks and months, you may just be coming into contact with them. Some of the things we talked about last post are difficult to tackle…so we will tackle them again. I know you were hoping for that…
Shown below, in chart form, those same categories I introduced last week: decretive, preceptive and dispositional – relating to God’s will – and conservatio, concursus, and gubernatio – relating to God’s providence. I have placed conservatio and concursus under the heading of preservation and have placed a question mark next to concursus – I will explain the purpose of those changes in a little while. It is important that you understand what is meant by God’s decretive will – which I have placed at the top of the chart (we can use the terms “decrees” and “decretive will” interchangeably); His acts of creation and providence – which are two subcategories of His decretive will, His providential activities of preserving and governing His creation, and the subcategories of His will: His preceptive will, and His will of disposition.
As I thought about the way I explained the three categories of God’s providence: conservatio, concursus and gubernatio, it could have been misunderstood that I was implying, for example, that conservatio had to do with God’s agreeing with the existence of an item, in that order – implying that the item existed first and then God agreed with its existence, and that is certainly backwards. A better way to define conservatio is this: a thing will continue to exist as long as its existence is in agreement with God’s providential will. Further, a better definition of concursus is that a thing will continue to have the power to effect change – the potential to be a secondary cause – as long as it is in agreement with God’s providential will. And finally, a better definition of gubernatio is that a thing will actually effect a change – to be a secondary cause – as long as that change is in agreement with God’s providential will. I used the example of dynamite last week to explain these three. So again, God’s providential conservatio allows the ingredients of dynamite to remain in existence, His providential concursus allows dynamite to have a power to effect change, and His providential gubernatio allows the power of the dynamite to move a boulder.
As pointed out before, I have grouped conservatio and concursus under the heading of preservation. In Nehemiah chapter nine God’s acts are spoken of in this way: “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:6). We hear similar words in Paul’s letter to the Colossians speaking of Jesus Christ. “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16, 17). God truly sustains all things by his mighty right hand.
Why did I put a question mark next to concursus? Because the concept of concursus is a theory concerning the mode in which God interfaces with the powers He has given to created things. The theory of concursus, which was developed during the 16th century, is an attempt to explain how secondary causes, brought about by created things, which have been given a latent power by God, interact with God as the primary of first cause. In other words, it is an attempt to explain what Charles Hodge calls “the inexplicable.” As Charles Hodge also says: “The fact is clearly revealed that God’s agency is always and everywhere exercised in the preservation of his creatures, but the mode in which His efficiency [power to act] is exerted, further than that it is consistent with the nature of the creatures themselves and with the holiness and goodness of God, is unrevealed and inscrutable. It is best, therefore, to rest satisfied with the simple statement that preservation is that omnipotent energy of God by which all created things, animate and inanimate, are upheld in existence, with all the properties and powers with which He has endowed them.”
Concerning God’s gubernatio – His governing of all things – we can affirm that God exercises His government or rule over nature – for Christ says that God “…makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45b), over the animal world – for the Psalmist says: “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (Psalm 104:21), over nations – for God “…rules in His might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations” (Psalm 66:7), and over individuals – for God “…does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Daniel 4:35). Job affirms the awesome power of God as God works in all He has created; consider these words: “Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable. For he draws up the drops of water; they distill his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop on mankind abundantly. Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds, the thunderings of his pavilion? Behold, he scatters his lightning about him and covers the roots of the sea. For by these he judges peoples; he gives food in abundance. He covers his hands with the lightning and commands it to strike the mark. Its crashing declares his presence;the cattle also declare that he rises” (Job 36:26-33). And Hannah, the mother of Samuel, affirms, in her prayer to the Lord, upon being given a son after many years of barrenness, that “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world” (I Samuel 2:6-8). The logic of Hannah’s prayer is that the Lord kills and brings to life – He exercises his providence – because He has set the world on it pillars – because He has created.
I also want to return to the categories of God’s will and add some further definition for clarification. As I said last post, God’s decrees, or decretive will includes creation and providence. The Westminster Larger Catechism answers question 12: “What are the decrees of God?” this way: “God’s decrees are the wise, free, and holy acts of the counsel of his will, (Eph. 1:11, Rom. 11:33, Rom. 9:14–15,18) whereby, from all eternity, he hath, for his own glory, unchangeably foreordained whatsoever comes to pass in time, (Eph. 1:4,11, Rom. 9:22–23, Ps. 33:11) especially concerning angels and men” (Question 12).
As I stated in the last post, God’s decretive will is carried out in His acts of creation and providence – which is addressed in question 14 of the Westminster Larger Catechism. Concerning creation, we will often think primarily of the creation of the universe including this world in which we live. But God also continues to create in the gifts of newborn children. Remember the words from Psalm 104 verse 30: “When you send forth your Spirit,they are created…” God created the heavenly beings, He created the world and all that dwells upon it, and He continues to send forth His Spirit to bring about life.
I also stated last post that the majority of God’s decretive will is secret and that the portion of His will which we can know is that portion called prophecy. Well, that is true, but there is one other, a little thing called history! History is an unfolding of God’s will, and all that has come to pass has done so because of His providence. As we look back upon history, we are seeing the revelation of God’s will, which was, except for those events prophesied, hidden beforehand.
For example, the coming of the Messiah and the effective power of His redemptive work, and the opening up of the gospel to the Gentiles, were told of centuries before but are referred to as mysteries. The “…good news of a great joy…” (Luke 2:6) that Emmanuel was coming was prophesied before Christ’s birth, told of in the Gospels, and explained in the Epistles. The prophet Micah speaks of Bethlehem being the birthplace of Israel’s king: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity” (Micah 5:2). Isaiah speaks of a coming ruler who will reign forever on the throne of David: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:6, 7).
Concerning the idea of revealed mystery, consider the words of Paul in Romans chapter 16: “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:25, 26). We know that the promise of the coming Messiah had been prophesied as far back as the statement of Genesis chapter three when God said to Satan concerning the Messiah: “…he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). However, many of the statements of the Old Testament were not fully understood until the arrival of Jesus. His statements recorded for us in the Gospels and the statements of the writers of the other books of the New Testament explain what was beforehand shrouded in mystery; those portions of God’s decretive will which were revealed through prophecy, but not fully understood.
Consider the words of Ephesians chapter one: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:7-10).
Also consider the words of Colossians chapter one: “…I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:25-27). So we can see that portions of God’s providential will are revealed through prophecy and the unfolding of history.
An important truth that I want you to take from this teaching is that all the events of history, and all the events of the future, are under God’s control. Nothing has come to pass, nor will come to pass, which is outside of His providence. If we entertain the possibility of an event occurring outside of God’s control then we have compromised what Holy Scripture teaches us about Him. Either God is sovereign over all that He has created or He is not, and if He is not sovereign over all things, then He is not God.
With all of this being said, can anything or anyone disobey God’s will? If we are speaking of God’s decretive will, the answer is no. Indeed with respect to God’s decrees, there is really no question of obedience or disobedience. God has foreordained all that comes to pass. If we are speaking of God’s preceptive will, then the answer is yes, and the act of disobedience is called sin. We can disobey His precepts, but we cannot act outside of His decrees. As we address the subject of God’s preceptive will next week, we shall discuss precept-keeping and precept-breaking human agency.