The decree is a single plan encompassing all things. Nothing is outside the scope of God’s sovereign rule. Ephesians 1:11 emphasizes “all things” are brought to pass by His decree. Because everything is encompassed in God’s sovereign plan it is sometimes spoken of in the singular—it is one decree.
The decree covering all things was formed in eternity past but is manifested in time. The believer was chosen by God in eternity past (Eph. 1:4; the phrase “before the foundation of the world” = “from all eternity” ). The believer’s salvation and calling is once more related to God’s determination from eternity past (2 Tim. 1:9). In this passage it is emphasized that it is according to “His own purpose.” Purpose (Gk. prothesin) emphasizes the resolve or decision of God in His calling and saving the believer. The decision for Christ to take on humanity and shed His blood for humanity was also made “before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 1:20).
The decree is a wise plan because God Who is wise has planned what is best. In Romans 9–11 Paul discusses the sovereignty of God and His election of Israel and concludes this “difficult to comprehend” section with a doxology extolling the wisdom of God in His sovereign acts (Rom. 11:33–36). God’s wisdom and knowledge cannot be comprehended, and His decisions cannot be tracked as footprints in the sand. God has consulted no one and no one has advised Him. But because God knows all things He controls and guides all events for His glory and for our good (cf. Ps. 104:24; Prov. 3:19).
The decree is according to God’s sovereign will—He does as He pleases. God does not adjust His plan according to the events of human history; instead, His decree governs human history. Daniel 4:35 is all encompassing: God “does according to His will” in the angelic realm as well as with the inhabitants of earth. In the context of the book of Daniel God determines the course of human history and the rulers of the kingdoms of earth (Dan. 2:21, 31–45). God has established His decrees in freedom and in independence of everything and everyone else.
The decree has two aspects. (1) The directive will of God. There are some things in which God is the author; He actively brings about the events. He creates (Isa. 45:18); He controls the universe (Dan. 4:35); He establishes kings and governments (Dan. 2:21); He elects people to be saved (Eph. 1:4).
(2) The permissive will of God. Even though God has determined all things, He may actively bring them about Himself, or He may bring them about through secondary causes. Sinful acts, for example, do not frustrate the plan of God, but neither is God the author of them. They are within the scope of God’s decree and are part of His eternal plan and purpose, but man is nonetheless responsible for sinful acts. Hence, “a distinction must be made between the decree and its execution.” All acts—including sinful acts—conform to the eternal plan of God, but He is not directly the author of all acts. For example, when the people of Israel demanded a king to rule over them, they sinned against the Lord (1 Sam. 8:5–9, 19–22). But the Lord had foreordained that kings would come from Abraham’s lineage (Gen. 17:6; 35:11), culminating in Messiah. The people sinned, but God’s plan was being executed.
The purpose of the decree is the glory of God. The creation of the world is designed to reveal God’s glory (Ps. 19:1). The vastness of the heavens and the beauty of the flora and fauna of earth reflect the glory of God. God’s sovereign act whereby He predestined believers to salvation (Eph. 1:4–5) is “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6, 11–12). God is glorified in the display of His unconditional grace (cf. Rom. 9:23; Rev. 4:11).
Although all things are encompassed in the decree, man is responsible for sinful actions. This is known as an antinomy and is important in understanding the concept that although God is sovereign and has decreed all things, nonetheless man is responsible for sinful acts. Antinomy comes from the Greek word anti, meaning “against,” and nomos, meaning “law,” hence, an antinomy is something that is contrary to law or contrary to human understanding. An antinomy, of course, is such only in the mind of man; with God there is no antinomy.
In Acts 2:23 Peter explained that Jesus died because of the “predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.” “Plan” (Gk. boule) stresses the predetermined will or decision of God. Foreknowledge is a rough equivalent and suggests not merely previous knowledge but action. Hence, Christ died because of the decision of God in eternity; nevertheless, Peter held the people responsible for killing Christ saying, “you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” Although Christ’s death was a result of the decree and plan of God, wicked men were responsible for His death.
Similarly, in Habakkuk 1:6 God explained to the prophet that He was raising up the Chaldeans to chastise His disobedient people in Judah. But when the Chaldeans concluded their work, God would hold them responsible (Hab. 1:11). Although God has decreed all things, man is responsible for his sins.
Some aspects of the decree are carried out by people. This distinguishes the decree of God from fatalism. The decree cannot be fatalism because the decree also involves the means, not only the end. For example, the decree of God involves electing certain ones to salvation, yet no one is saved apart from evangelism. On the one hand, the decree says the believer is chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), yet someone must present the gospel to the person to enable him to believe and be saved (Acts 16:31). In the matter of salvation, God uses people in evangelism to carry out His decree.