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The Decrees of God

by Rev. Alexander Paterson

A remarkably gifted and studious man, Alexander Smith Paterson of Aberdeen prepared a Commentary on the Westminster Assembly's Shorter Catechism as part of his efforts to qualify himself for the ministry. These labours contributed to his untimely death in 1828 aged twenty-five. However, as Paterson states in the extract we present, "Only 'those things which are revealed belong to us.' " And: "all things work together for the believer's good, and tend to bring about the designs of heaven respecting him."

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 3, July-September 1996.

Q. What are the decrees of God?

A. The decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. & A. 7.

Analysis and Proofs.

We are here taught:–

1. That God hath formed certain decrees or purposes. EPH. 1:11.– "Being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will." See also PSA. 2:7.

2. That God's purposes were formed in his mind from eternity. EPH. 3:11.– "According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord."

3. That God's decrees are exclusively the purposes or counsels of his own will. ROM. 9:18.– "Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth." See also EPH. 1:5.

4. That all things, which are agreeable to the purposes or counsels of God, have been predestinated or foreordained by him. ACTS 4:28.– "To do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done." See also EPH. 1:11.

5. That God hath foreordained all things for his own glory. PROV. 16:4.– "The Lord hath made all things for himself."


Observation.– God hath formed certain purposes or decrees.

By decree, when spoken of God, we are to understand, a purpose, a foreordination, a will, and an appointment, that such a thing shall take place, or shall not take place.

The decrees of God are exhibited in Scripture under various names. Sometimes they are called the counsel of the Lord.– PSA. 33:11, where they are also called the thoughts of his heart. Sometimes they are called the decrees, in the abstract.– PSA. 2:7. Sometimes the purpose of the Lord.– ROM. 8:28. Sometimes his eternal purpose.– EPH. 3:11. Sometimes the hand of God.– ACTS 4:28. Sometimes the good pleasure of his will.– EPH. 1:5. Sometimes the Father's good pleasure.– LUKE 12:32. And sometimes predestination.– ROM. 8:29, 30.

That there are decrees of God, is evident from the following things:–

1. From the consideration of the above-mentioned passages, compared with the following:– EPH. 1:4; ROM. 9:22, 23, 33; HEB. 5:17; EXOD. 33:12, 17; JER. 1:5; ROM. 11:2; 2 TIM. 2:19; 1 PET. 1:2, etc.

2. From the perfections of God, such as his omniscience.– ACTS 15:18. This knowledge arises from his having decreed all things; for it is just because he decreed them that they take place.

3. From the independence of God, and the dependence of all things on some first cause.

4. From reason, which informs us, that were God to perform any thing in time, which he did not know and purpose from eternity, he would not be infinitely wise, nor would he be immutable, which is contrary to the very nature of the Deity.– JAM. 1:17.

Although we speak of the divine decrees as various or many, on account of the many objects decreed, yet the decreeing act of God is one simple act; because of the perfect oneness or simplicity of his nature, on account of which he could not but decree all things at once; because all things are naked and open to his omniscient eye,– HEB. 4:13; and because of his immutability.– MAL. 3:6.

Observation.– The decrees of God have various properties.

1. They are infinitely wise.– ROM. 11:33.

2. They are most free.– EPH. 1:11; ROM. 9:17,18; EXOD. 33:19.

3. They are most holy.– ROM. 9:14.

4. They are eternal.– ACTS 15:18.

5. They are incomprehensible.– ROM. 11:34.

6. They are perfect.– DEUT. 32:4.

7. They are most gracious. To redeem those whom he hath chosen is the design which he hath to accomplish, to the praise of his glorious grace; and they would have been infinitely gracious, had he determined to save only one soul of the numerous race of Adam from sin and all its consequences.

8. They are most absolute. They depend on nothing but the will of God.– ISA. 46:10; DAN. 4:34,35; PSA. 135:6.

9. They are immutable or unchangeable, as God himself is; and this flows from their being absolute, and from God's independence.– MAL. 3:6; HEB. 6:17,18; PSA. 33:11; NUM. 23:19; 2 TIM. 2:19.

10. They are impartial.– ROM. 9:21; MATT. 11:25. Neither sin on the part of those who are not elected to life, nor holiness on the part of the elect, is the cause of God's passing by the one or choosing the other. The cause of both is the sovereign good pleasure of his will.– ROM. 9:18,22, etc.

Observation.– The decree of God has for its object whatever comes to pass.

It extends to all things; but angels and men are its object in a particular manner.

1. All the actions of the creature, whether good or bad, fall within the decree of God.– ACTS 2:23, and 4:27; GEN. 45:8.

2. Those things which appear to us casual or accidental, fall under the eternal purpose of God.– MATT. 10:29; PROV. 16:33; 1 KINGS 22:34.

3. All things concerning us,– our situation in the world, whether prosperous or adverse,– our calling in the world, etc.– fall within the eternal purpose of God.– 1 THESS. 3:3, etc.

4. The time, the place, and the manner of every man's death, with every concurring and concomitant circumstance, are the object of God's decree.– JOB 7:1; GEN. 16:12, and 25:23; JUDG. 13; 2 SAM. 7:12; 1 KINGS 13:2; ISA 45:1, etc.; ISA. 7:14; MIC. 5:2; MAL. 3:1, etc.; GEN. 19:13; 2 SAM. 12:14; 1 KINGS 14:12, & 22:28, & 21:22; DAN. 5:25, 26, etc.

5. The everlasting state of angels and of men is fixed by God.– 1 TIM. 5:21; 2 PET. 2:4; JUDE 6. See also ROM. 9:21, etc., & 8:29, etc.; EPH. 1:4; JOHN 15:19; REV. 21:27; MATT. 7:23; REV. 17:8; JUDE 4; 2 TIM. 2:19, etc.

Observation.– God hath decreed all things for his own glory.

The end of God's decree is his own glory, which is twofold, either the glory of his grace and mercy, or the glory of his justice and awful severity.– EPH. 1:6,12; PROV. 16:4; ROM. 11:36; REV. 4:11; ROM. 9:15-23.

Observation.– The doctrine of the decrees of God is calculated for the good both of the righteous and the wicked.

1. It excites the righteous to selfexamination, and to follow on to know the Lord. It has no tendency to make them careless in using the means of salvation; because God hath chosen them to salvation "through sanctification of the Spirit, and belief of the truth."– 2 THESS. 2:13.

2. It is calculated to lead the wicked to consider their ways, to break off their sins by repentance, and to give God no rest until Christ be formed in their souls the hope of glory.

Observation.– The decrees of God are not the rule of our conduct.

They are the rule by which God himself acts. "Secret things belong to the Lord our God."– DEUT. 29:29. Only "those things which are revealed belong to us." We ought, therefore, no more to regard the decree in the matter of believing to the salvation of our souls, than in eating and drinking, and all the other common actions of life. It may be here observed, that we act in this world as freely as if there were no decree;and as infallibly as if there wereno liberty.


From this subject we learn:–

1. That nothing whatever comes to pass without the knowledge of God; that nothing takes place by accident or by chance; so that to speak thus is not scriptural.

2. The necessity of patience and resignation to our lot in this world, which is appointed by God.

3. The sovereignty of God.

4. That we must trace every part of our salvation to the eternal purpose of God.

5. The duty of promoting the glory of God, which is his own end in all his ways.

6. The unchangeableness of the love of God.

7. To what we are to refer every event.

8. That all things work together for the believer's good, and tend to bring about the designs of heaven respecting him.

9. To be diligent in the use of every appointed means of salvation. See PHIL. 2:12, 13; 2 PET. 1:10.