God’s decree is a doctrine demonstrating God’s eternal power and control over every aspect of life. There is not one thing that falls outside of this decree. It is complete in its scope and effectual in its purpose. And this decree is not thwarted by the whims of man. I think that this doctrine can be mined from other parts of Scripture, but I would like to investigate it as found in the book of Isaiah.
What is the Doctrine of God’s Decree?
This doctrine is one that is held by the Reformed and Biblical traditions, and we will be looking at it from the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith:
God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.2nd LBCF, Chapter 3, paragraph 1
There is much to be unpacked in this paragraph (such as sin’s authorship, which was discussed in a past article I wrote on sin’s nature: What is Sin?) but we will only focus on the first section about what the decree is. What this means is that God has decreed or purposed all that which will come to pass, and that He brings those plans to pass through primary and secondary causes. Benjamin Keach notes in his catechism,
Q. 11. What are the decrees of God?Benjamin Keach
A. The decrees of God are His eternal purpose, according to the counsel of His will, whereby for His own glory, He has fore-ordained whatsoever comes to pass
Samuel Renihan notes,
The decree is the act of God by which he determines, absolutely, the existence and infallible future (or futurition) of all that is outside of himself, to the praise of his own glory, the first cause and Director of all things, the Antecedent and Governor of all events…We say the decree of God is an act because God is pure act, existence itself, and from the infinite fullness of his being God causes the existence of (or, actualizes) all things and events.Samuel Renihan, Deity and Decree, page 113
The doctrine of God’s decree is grounded in Scripture and finds its footing in multiple places, but Isaiah is one that speaks very clearly on the topic.
The Old Testament Teaches a Divine Decree?
Isaiah is a powerful book. It shows us God’s redemptive plan to bring Christ into the world and also discusses the judgement that would come upon the people of Israel. But in and through this is the clear description of God’s decree, even for bad things that were to come. A key principle to Biblical interpretation is that the clearer passages must ALWAYS take precedence over passages that may give the initial appearance of a contrary message, but are less clear. This principle is laid out in the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith:
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.2nd LBCF, Chapter 1, paragraph 9
And the book of Isaiah brings forth clear passages that speak of this decree, so these should be used when discussing the doctrine of God’s decree. Our presuppositions of what the decree SHOULD be are never to be imposed onto the text. Before we go into His decree specifically, let us look at a passage that discusses His omniscience.
Let all the nations be gathered together,Isaiah 42:9 (NKJV)
And let the people be assembled.
Who among them can declare this,
And show us former things?
Let them bring out their witnesses, that they may be justified;
Or let them hear and say, “It is truth.”
Here we see that God is defining Himself as the one who can lay bare those things that are past. This is His omniscience, meaning He knows all things. And this follows verse 8 where God compares Himself to the false gods. There is no other God. He and He alone knows all things and can declare what happened before. This theme of God comparing Himself to the false gods will be throughout the book as God establishes His credibility with Israel. We will also see that His knowledge of all things is tied directly to His decree and then back to Himself as the only God.
I, even I, am the Lord,Isaiah 43:11-13 (NKJV)
And besides Me there is no savior.
I have declared and saved,
I have proclaimed,
And there was no foreign god among you;
Therefore you are My witnesses,”
Says the Lord, “that I am God.
Indeed before the day was, I am He;
And there is no one who can deliver out of My hand;
I work, and who will reverse it?”
Here we see God establishing Himself as the one, true God. From a verse like this we can find the principle of monotheism, and this is tied to His decree. The declaring and knowing and working that comes forth from Him is tied to His nature as the one, true God who made all things and works everything according to His will. There is none who can stay his hand (Daniel 4:35).
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel,Isaiah 44:6-8 (NKJV)
And his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
‘I am the First and I am the Last;
Besides Me there is no God.
And who can proclaim as I do?
Then let him declare it and set it in order for Me,
Since I appointed the ancient people.
And the things that are coming and shall come,
Let them show these to them.
Do not fear, nor be afraid;
Have I not told you from that time, and declared it?
You are My witnesses.
Is there a God besides Me?
Indeed there is no other Rock;
I know not one.’ ”
Again, God uses His nature to ground His works. The ability to decree what is to come is grounded in His very nature as God. What this means is that if there were other gods who could do what God does, He would no longer be unique and He would not be the Supreme One who holds all power to do as He wills. In other words, He would not be God. This is laid out explicitly in Isaiah 44:24-28. God alone is powerful to decree and to accomplish all He has willed. Now I anticipate the argument, “this only was for Israel! God’s decree was not for EVERYTHING!” Since God is grounding this in His very nature as God, this is who He is and what He does. It transcends specific events and must encompass all things. The all encompassing nature of the decree is found in Ephesians 1:11,
In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,Ephesians 1:11 (NKJV)
Notice that Paul is not just saying this “all things” is limited to salvation. It literally means “all things” with the salvation of His people being a “subset” of the overall decree.
“Assemble yourselves and come;Isaiah 45:20-21 (NKJV)
Draw near together,
You who have escaped from the nations.
They have no knowledge,
Who carry the wood of their carved image,
And pray to a god that cannot save.
Tell and bring forth your case;
Yes, let them take counsel together.
Who has declared this from ancient time?
Who has told it from that time?
Have not I, the Lord?
And there is no other God besides Me,
A just God and a Savior;
There is none besides Me.
The same principle is laid out here. The false gods cannot save. They are not able to bring about any plan or bring forth any knowledge. Only God can do that. Only He has declared what will come to pass from ancient times. This is grounded in Himself as God. He is the Decreeing One and any who would dare to challenge that are counted as foolish.
Remember the former things of old,Isaiah 46:9-11 (NKJV)
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things that are not yet done,
Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
And I will do all My pleasure,’
Calling a bird of prey from the east,
The man who executes My counsel, from a far country.
Indeed I have spoken it;
I will also bring it to pass.
I have purposed it;
I will also do it.
This passage is probably the most explicit in Isaiah that ties the eternal decree to God’s nature and shows that it is not bound to any specific event. His council shall stand because He is God and there is no other. This is why arguments against using passages like Acts 2:23 to show that God has decreed that which comes to pass fall short. God does not decree only certain events to come to pass. He does not decree only the good. But everything that comes to pass does so because of the eternal decree of God. His decree is eternal because God Himself is eternal and does not change with time like we do. And His power to decree is simply God. Ergo, there is no limit to His decree, not to mention the examples given here by God about His decree encompassing things of old and that which is to come. God also gives examples of working out His decree with the bird and the man who brings about His council, which are not tied to the specific events at hand but are used as examples to prove the normative point: God is the Decreeing One and all that comes to pass is because of His will. That plan, decree, and purpose will infallibly come to pass.
Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord,Isaiah 40:13-20 (NKJV)
Or as His counselor has taught Him?
With whom did He take counsel, and who instructed Him,
And taught Him in the path of justice?
Who taught Him knowledge,
And showed Him the way of understanding?
This is the God that we serve. The One who is all powerful and all knowing. His decree and knowledge are perfectly consistent with the character of the One who brings all things to pass according to His good pleasure and ultimately for His glory.