May 10, 2006

God's plan

Yesterday, I pointed out that theologians have historically thought of God's will in two senses: his will of decree and his will of desire. Today I want to work through the first of these, which we could also call God's decretive will, his secret will, or his plan. If we wanted to personify it slightly, we might call it, simply, Providence.

Millard Erickson defines God's plan very simply: it is "his eternal decision rendering certain all things that will come to pass."1 This definition has several important ramifications.

God's plan is eternal. It didn't just occur to him on the spur of the moment, nor is it merely a reaction to human or natural activity. There was never a time when he planned something different.

God's plan is a decision. Decision implies personality and intelligence. Christians are not fatalists. We do not believe in some invincible, impersonal, force called Fate that is inevitably, but purposelessly, directing our steps. Nor do we believe in an arbitrary and capricious God with no real purpose behind his actions. Rather, we believe that history is being guided by a good and intelligent God who loves his creation, has a plan for it, and to that end continuously upholds it and cares for it.

God's plan is certain. What God has purposed, he will do. He does not plan one thing, then whimsically change his mind at the last minute. His plans are not thwarted by the actions of other beings, such as the decisions of men or the work of the devil. There is complete integrity and consistency between what God intends and what he accomplishes.

Lastly, God's plan is exhaustive. It encompasses all that ever happens or will happen.

God's plan covers the big things. Isaiah writes, "I form light and create darkness, / I make well-being and create calamity, / I am the LORD, who does all these things" (Isa. 45:7). And the prophet Amos asks, "Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?" (Amos 3:6).

But God's plan also covers the little things, even minute things and practically worthless things. Jesus taught:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matt. 10:29-30)

Even seemingly random events are part of God's plan: "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD" (Prov. 16:33). When the prophet Micaiah warned Ahab, king of Israel, that he would die in battle, the king attempted to cheat death by disguising himself as a common soldier so that he would not draw the fire of the enemy. Nonetheless, his clever plan was useless, because

a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, "Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded." And the battle continued that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Syrians, until at evening he died. (1 Kings 22:34-35)

The Bible teaches that God is sovereign not only over human actions, but human attitudes as well: "The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD;he turns it wherever he will" (Prov. 21:1). King Nebuchadnezzar, after coming to his senses following seven years of insanity with which God afflicted him for his hubris, acknowledged:

[A]ll the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, "What have you done?" (Dan. 4:35)

But it isn't just the heart of kings that God is concerned with. Paul's first convert in Europe was a woman named Lydia, of whom Luke records that as she heard the Gospel preached, "[t]he Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said" (Acts 16:14). God's plan extends to changing the hearts of kings and merchant women.

Finally, God's plan is sovereign over even human evil. This truth is one that makes some people very uncomfortable: they don't like the thought that a morally good God uses evil acts to accomplish his good purposes; worse, they suppose it makes God the "author of sin." This is why, when the framers of the historic confessions of faith wrote about God's decrees, they made sure it was clear that they were not implying this. The authors of the London Baptist Confession, for example (adapting the Westminster Confession the Presbyterian church), made it clear that though they believed "God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity . . . all things, whatsoever comes to pass," nonetheless God was "neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein."2

The Bible, in fact, has many examples of God incorporating sinful actions into his greater, good plan. Let me cite three.

  1. Joseph's brothers sinned when they sold him into slavery to Egypt; nonetheless, as Joseph later told them when he was prime minister of Egypt and in charge of the only plentiful source of food in the Middle East during a time of famine, "you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Gen. 50:20).
  2. The general thrust of the prophetic book of Habakkuk is that the prophet recognizes the wickedness of Israel, but is upset that God chose to use the invading Assyrians as the instrument of judgment. God's reply is that he will turn around and judge the Assyrians, too, for their attack on his people.
  3. The greatest crime in the history of humanity was the trial and execution of Jesus Christ, nonetheless, it was intended by God to bring about the greatest good, salvation from sins. The early church recognized that God's purpose was accomplished through the sins of Herod, Pilate, and the priests. They proclaimed to the people:

    This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. (Acts 2:23)

    But they also prayed:

    [T]ruly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27-28)

God's plan is known by some as his "secret" will. It's a "secret" simply because God has not seen fit to reveal every aspect of his plan to his creation. We can, of course, look back at history to see what he has done. He occasionally gives his people glimpses, through his messengers the prophets, of what he was going to do. But otherwise, God's plan is his own business, which he does not necessarily share with the rest of us, nor is he obliged to.

Conversely, we are not obliged to try and figure out what God is doing so that we can "get on board" and join in his plan. We are already playing our part. Besides, we can't actually figure it out with any degree of certainty: Jesus told the Pharisees that although they might be able to read the sky to discern the next day's weather, they weren't equipped to discern the signs of the times (Matt. 16:2-3). Knowing the future is God's prerogative. Our prerogative is to trust him, and to submit to the workings of Providence in our lives, knowing that we are in the hands of a good God who loves us and is actively working to bring his good creation to its intended purpose.

Next time we will look at the other way God wills: his revealed will.


1 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 372.

2 The Baptist Confession of Faith, III.1; available from; Internet; accessed 9 May 2006.

See also

First in the series: Finding and doing the will of God: Prolegomena

Previous entry: God's guidance and "open doors"