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God’s Determinate Counsel and Foreknowledge

At the conclusion of Paul’s thesis regarding the equal status of the Jew and Greek in God through Christ, he wrote, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past tracing out! For who hath know the mind of the Lord or hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? …” (Romans 11:33-35).

Nothing demonstrates God’s infinite wisdom more clearly than the statement Peter made as he continued his sermon on Pentecost. Having declared that Jesus was a “man approved of God”, he said, “Him, being delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye, by the hands of lawless men did crucify and slay …” (Acts 2:23). For millennia men have discussed and debated the foreknowledge of God, a difficult search as Paul implied by his words “how unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past tracing out”. But whatever God reveals of Himself we can know. Peter spoke of the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God: two items which are alike, but not always identical.

There are some things which God may determine beforehand to happen. He willed beforehand that His Son should come into the world through a virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14). He willed that He should die as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He willed that He would rise again (Psalm 16:8-11). He willed that there would His people, saints, through the sacrifice of His son (1 Peter 1:1-2). These undoubtably reflect the “determine counsel and foreknowledge of God”.

There may be some things which God knows beforehand but that He does not will to happen. Does He will that someone would kill another in anger? Does He will that a man would lust and rape an innocent woman? Does He will that a man would covet and steal the possessions of another? He knows each of these things. He knows these actions will be reflected in the lives of men. He even may may know specifically that a person is guilty of theses things, but we must not charge that God wants these to happen. Both Daniel and John prophesied of the terrible suffering and persecutions that God’s saints experienced under the Roman Emperors (Daniel 7:21, 25; Revelation 13:4-7). God knew they would happen but He did not want them to occur. God’s people suffered wrongfully at the hand of the persecutor. Were the trials against God’s people sinful? Will the perpetrator of them be held accountable for the wicked deeds he did against God’s people or even God Himself? If God knows beforehand what the wicked person will do, is that person unable to do anything else? It is easy to ask questions, but finding satisfactory answers are not so simple.

Whatever God may know man may do does not mean that man cannot do otherwise. It does not mean that man no longer has freedom to choose, that he is no longer a “free moral agent”. Isaiah wrote of Assyria (a warring nation which overran the northern kingdom and exiled its people), “Ho, Assyria, the rod of my anger, the staff in whose hand is my indignation” (Isaiah 10:5). God used Assyria to punish the northern kingdom for her idolatry and apostasy. Did Assyria have no choice otherwise but to do this? He could have done otherwise if he wanted to. Isaiah spoke of the spirit which moved that aggressive nation: “He meaneth not so; but it is in his heart to destroy and to cut off nations, not a few” (Isaiah 10:7). Assyria did what he wanted to do! Although God used Assyria to punish Israel for her sins, Assyria acted because of its own lust and volition.

Jesus knew Peter would deny him three times (Matthew 26:75). Because Jesus knew what Peter would do, did that mean Peter could not have done otherwise? Jesus knew Judas would betray Him, selling Him for 30 pieces of silver (Zechariah 11:12-13; Matthew 26:21-25). Jesus knew who He had chosen (John 13:18). Was Judas the only disciple capable of acting wickedly? Peter was interested in what he would get from following Jesus (Matthew 19:27); James and John asked for places of honor at the left and right hands of Jesus (Mark 10:35-37). All the apostles were changed from what they were into what they became by the marvelous teaching and example of Jesus. Judas could have been. It was his fault, not God’s. Judas did what Judas wanted to do.

God willed that His Son should come into the world for the redemption of man, and give His life for man’s forgiveness of sin (John 3:16). That was God’s determinate counsel and foreknowledge. But Jesus could not be delivered up except by sinful, wicked dealings on the part of man. It was out of greed, selfish ambitions, and the acts of self-serving men that delivered Jesus up. Those who delivered Him up acted out of their own desires. And they sinned when they so acted: “Ye by the hands of lawless men did crucify and slay”. God will hold them accountable for their wicked deeds even though God willed the death of His Son so that man could be saved. They did not have to do what they did.

God’s ways and thoughts are not like man’s (Isaiah 55:8-9). He is righteous, just, and always wants the salvation of every soul. He does not compel man to obey Him or to disobey Him. He wrote to the lukewarm church at Laodicea, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man will hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him and sup with him, and he will sup with me …”  (Revelation 3:20). He stands and knocks at the door of the hearts of all men. He will not force His entry into any heart. We must open the door, and we can and will if we love Him and want to please Him.

Jim McDonald

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