Decrees and Human Exertion - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonCalvinistic Articles on the Christian Faith
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Does the reality of God’s decrees somehow overrule or change the need for human exertion?
Oftentimes when one writes about the decrees of God, they either writing polemically, against heresy in the church (such as the dreadful and heretical teachings of Pelagius or Arminius), or writing possibly as a desire to set forth a systematic theology for Christian edification, or they are writing apologetically against those who would intrude on the precious doctrines of God’s sovereign rights (such as New Agers, Pantheists, and the like). Here, the decrees of God shall be briefly considered in the context of Christian exertion. This is a more unique aspect that joins two areas of theology together in a manner that is often practically abused. For example, Calvinists, or simply Christians, often fall into a lethargic quagmire that relies too heartily on God’s decrees at the neglect of their own personal involvement and action in a given circumstance. One prime objection comes to mind. Usually this objection is brought to the Christian camp in asserting that Christians have no need to evangelize because God decrees the salvation of the elect. In other words, God’s unchangeable, immutable decree for the salvation of “Harry,” exhumes the need for the church to “evangelize” Harry. If he is decreed to be saved, then human exertion in this instance is simply not useful at all. Harry will be saved no matter what if God decreed it. Of course, this is a grave theological mistake, and it is made over and over by those who do not take the time to really think through their nonsense. On the other hand, many Christians, for whatever reason, fall practically into this theological problem in their own lives as a result of not actively expressing the gifts God has given them in the context of the covenant community of the church. They become lazy and think God will do “whatever” He wants to do, so what is the point?
Christians sometimes have a tough time reconciling the relationship between God’s decrees and their own lives. If God already knows why pray? If God has already ordained “XYZ” then why bother? If God…then so what? God is in control. If it is going to come to pass, then it will: with or without “me.” It is true that God does ordain everything. The Westminster Larger Catechism states concisely, “What are the decrees of God?” The answer, “God’s decrees are the wise, free, and holy acts of the counsel of his will, (Eph. 1:11; Rom. 9:14-15, 18; 11:33) 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; Psalm 33:11) especially concerning angels and men.” Scripture is clear on this point. Psalm 33:11, “The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.” Hebrews 6:17, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath.” Isaiah 46:10, “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” Yes, it is true, God is really and truly in control of everything. So, if God already knows, why should men pray? Is this simply an exercise in futility? If God has ordained that Harry is to be saved, then why should someone venture out of their home to evangelize him? It comes down to asking, “How does human exertion relate to God’s decrees?” This is a very practical question. It revolves around all Christians day in and day out.
There are three main points to consider here that help this “theological contradiction” between God’s Sovereign purpose and human exertion. First, there is no contradiction. The doctrine of God’s decrees are set in a context of His divine counsel, and for all intents and purposes of human intervention and action they have nothing to do whatsoever. Though men know about God’s decrees because certain ideas about them and the form they take are described in the Word of God, this has no bearing, whatsoever, practically, on the need to assert human exertion in everyday life. Yes, Christians know God ordains their place in life, their status, their home, their boundaries, everything. But this has nothing to do with the practical nature of everyday life in terms of “exertive living.” It is certainly practical that Christians know God is sovereign (certainly), but this is not the same as how God’s decrees affect daily life because His decree is not interjected practically in everything the Christian does. God does not give every Christian a personal step-by-step book of their daily life to explain every jot and tittle as to how things will go and should go. At this point, all that needs to be understood (in case you still may be confused) is that though God decrees something, that does not contradict the need for human action because human action and God’s decrees are mutually exclusive in terms of theological reflection. A discourse on God’s Sovereignty may have no word whatsoever of man’s free moral agency in order to be a sound theological doctrine. God is sovereign is a biblical fact. Man’s free moral agency is also a biblical fact (and this is very different than the nonsensical doctrine of man’s complete “fee will.”). There is no contradiction at all between God’s Sovereignty and man’s free moral agency because they are both explained on different levels of understanding and theological reflection. They are different in kind as well as sense. So to create a “contradiction” in your own mind is to miss understanding each of them in their own theological shells.
Secondly, and possibly more helpfully to the confused reader at this point, the decree of God is never addressed to men as a rule of action (do not mistake this!). God’s decrees are never the rule of human action because the contents of those decrees are always known only after they occur. What will tomorrow bring? That seems like a simple question. What will tomorrow bring for you? The answer is – you have no clue. Maybe tomorrow Publisher’s Clearing House will knock on you door with a check for $25,000,000. Will you open it? Maybe tomorrow you will get a rise at work. Will you go in to work tomorrow? Maybe a large bus will hit your car and you will be killed. Will you drive your car tomorrow? Now for the million-dollar question – does God know that any of these things will take place tomorrow? Of course! Again, Isaiah 46:10, “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” So, human exertion is never weighed in the balance of the divine decree on your end because you have absolutely no idea what the outcome of “the ultimate end” will be. Maybe you have a scheduled interview for tomorrow for a new job you desperately want. How will it go? Do you know how it will go right now? No. You can guess, but that is simply conjecture. Maybe during your interview a large meteor will hit the building you are in killing everyone. That would end your interview quickly. On the other hands, barring the appearance of the large meteor, maybe your interview will go well, but there are other applicants who will be there that are better qualified. Maybe another who beat you to the punch already filled the job as of five seconds ago! Maybe you are the prime candidate for the job but you are going to break your leg in the shower tomorrow morning getting ready, and miss your interview. You see, you cannot base your day, or any day, on the supposed outcome because the contents of the decree of God are not revealed for you, or anyone else. It is certain that God has decreed something for tomorrow, and this is true because the Scriptures tell us that He has ordained everything. But “everything” is not made known to us in its entirely. We know that He has decreed something, but what that something is cannot be known until after the fact.
Since the contents of the divine counsel of God have not been revealed to us in their entirely, that makes life more difficult. It really does. And it makes life more interesting. It would be great to know what tomorrow brings. It would be nice to know that your interview will go well, you will get the job, and one day own the company as a result. But who knows what will happen. We do know some basics. But we do not have a moment-by-moment playbook that explains everything that will go on in our lives. Instead of relying on the divine counsel for our daily direction, we rely on the affect of God’s decree that centers on the revealed Word of God. Man is obliged to read, study and know the Word of God because in it lie the principles of Christian obedience and sanctification. Christians have no right to say, “Well, if God decrees that I will get the job then it will just happen.” No, it will not if you do not get up out of bed and get to the interview dressed and prepared. Instead, Christians should say, “His word says….(such and such)…so I will obey it.” For example, His word says in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” So, attend your job interview with a sharp mind and be prepared so you can find some work. Stop saying, “If God wants me to pay my bills, then He will provide.” We know He will, but not at the expense of human exertion. Stop kidding yourself on that point in whatever situation you apply this basic principle. God is not going to deliver you from debt if you do not work. He is not going to evangelize Harry if you do not go next door and witness to him. He is not going to sanctify your soul if you do not pray or read the Word. He is not going to deliver you from drunkenness if you keep going back to the bar. The decrees of God, though they are true, cannot be the rule and guide for the life of the Christian simply because of the fact that their contents are not revealed to us. God’s will for His people is revealed in the Word of God. If you want to know “God’s will for you life” then go read the Bible, and know it inside out and backwards. Apply biblical principles to daily life and God will richly reward you as He providentially guides your steps. But stop thinking that He is going to appease your laziness in life by “zapping” you by some magical decree.
Thirdly, God’s decrees include the means as well as the ends. God’s subordinate ends in general are accomplished by means. Harry is not going to be saved because God simply “zaps” him. No, God uses various means to accomplish an end. He will use a preacher, the Bible, and yes, you as a next-door neighbor. Do you know Harry will be saved? No, you have no idea. Maybe he will, maybe he will not. But the contents of God’s decreed will do not override your obligation to go over there and witness to him because the decree is not revealed to you. Maybe you have a sickly wife. She is in the hospital. Will you pray for her? If God already knows the answer, why pray? God has decreed “something for her.” But you have no inkling as to what that is. Pray! Stop your incessant laziness around the revealed Word of God that commands you to pray, and go pray for your wife. Where in the Word of God does it say, “Since God already knows everything and has decreed everything you ought not to pray?” Does God know everything? Yes. Does God decree everything? Yes. But that has nothing to with the fact that God commands you to pray. Never mix up the decree of God with human exertion. Psalm 116:4, “Then I called on the name of the LORD: “O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!”” Matthew 6:6, “But when you pray… (Not “if” you pray). Matthew 6:9, “Pray then like this…” 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing,”
Clever Christians will say, “Jeremiah was told by God not to pray. Sometimes God does not hear us at all! Jeremiah 11:14 says, “Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.” This is actually not so clever. This is God’s revealed Word to Jeremiah. It is God’s revealed word to us as well, but in a very different content. If you are Jeremiah, and you are in prison, and you are threatened with exile as a result of a stubborn Jewish nation, then go right ahead and claim that verse. Otherwise, stop making excuses and pray. God revealed His will to Jeremiah specially in this circumstance. He specifically told Jeremiah that he should not pray in this one instance. In other instances, Jeremiah prayed fervently because he too did not know God’s decreed will – Jeremiah 42:4, “Jeremiah the prophet said to them, “I have heard you. Behold, I will pray to the LORD your God according to your request, and whatever the LORD answers you I will tell you. I will keep nothing back from you.”” So pray!
The means to a subordinate end is as much intended by God as a decree to reach the final goal. Prayer is part of that end. Witnessing is part of that end. Using your gifts in the church is part of that end. Going to work is part of that end. Never neglect the means. The means are as important to the decreed end as the end itself. Without the means, the end would never come to pass. That is why Paul presses this point home forcefully in Philippians 2:12-13, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Salvation is of the Lord, but we are commanded to work out our salvation daily. Salvation is never really true salvation without demonstrating the truth of that saving power by walking in God’s statures and commands. That is why Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Good works are part of the Christian life. By walking in good works we demonstrate we are God’s people for faith without works is dead. God works in us to affect His decreed end for us, but we must walk as well. This is not synergism as is theologically argued, but really understanding how decrees and human exertion go hand in hand as theologically practical issues. Without walking, we go nowhere. God supplies us with what we need to accomplish the end and to run the good ace, but without running the race is never won.
So, to recap – 1) there is no contradiction between God’s decree and human exertion. They are exclusive theological concepts and have different relations to both God, and us, though they are complimentary in our systematic thought. 2) The decrees of God are not addressed to man as the rule of action, and cannot be our rule of action because their contents are not disclosed to us each day for the day before. Instead, His revealed will is the means by which Christians know the mind of Christ. 3) The decree of God includes the means as well as the end in a given situation or instance. The means are just as important as the ends since those means are the steps to see the end realized.
Great controversies have arisen (such a Dordt’s synod to eject all heretical preachers from the Netherlands) through church history because there has been an incessant desire to wed the decrees of God with human exertion in a way that empties the content of the decree into our hands. Simple, God never does this, and His word never does this. The two remain true, and mutually exclusive theologically in this light. We know there is a decreed counsel. But the secret things of such a counsel belong to the Lord. What He desires us to know is revealed in the Word of God. That is why it is imperative for the church to have such a high view of the Scriptures, because there, and only there, are the directives and principles of Christian sanctification found.