The Counsel of God's Will – Ephesians 1:11
In verse 5, the apostle says that God the Father “predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” Now, in verse 11, the apostle says almost the same thing. Here, he says that in Christ “we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the council of his own will.” These verses are linked by the twin ideas of God’s family and God’s purpose. In verse 5, the apostle praises God that he has predestined us to become sons and daughters of God. But now that we are in his family, we have a glorious inheritance from our Father. Thus verse 11. And underneath our acceptance into the family of God and our inheritance in the family of God is God’s good purpose in predestining us to these wonderful gifts.
However, Paul is not being redundant here. Verse 5 answers the question, “How did I get to become a child of God?” The ultimate answer lies in God. We are in his family because he predestined us to be there. All the glory belongs to God, not to us. But now that we are in the family of God, another question arises. How can I be sure that I will remain in the family of God and inherit eternal life in the age to come? Will I persevere to the end? Or will I lose my faith and my salvation? Having begun well, will I finish well? Will I, as the apostle Peter put it, have an abundant entrance “into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11)?
The answer to that question lies in the verse before us. God’s purpose doesn’t just get us into the family of God, it also ensures that all who become sons and daughters of God will inevitably enter into their glorious inheritance in the age to come. God has predestined not only that we believe and obtain the power to become the sons and daughters of God (Jn. 1:12), but also that we inherit the blessing that he has reserved for his children. All whom God predestinates to this blessing will obtain it. For when God speaks a promise, he brings it to pass; when he purposes to do something, he will do it (cf. Isa. 46:11).
In other words, the apostle’s words here imply the doctrine of the preservation of the saints; or, as some like to put it, the eternal security of the believer. I say “the preservation of the saints” because at the bottom of our security is not our fickle faith but the firm and unshakable purpose of God that preserves us in faith. That is not to say that faith is not important. It is not only important but it is necessary. Only those who endure to the end will be saved, as our Lord put it in the Olivet Discourse (Mt. 24:13). However, what keeps the embers of the saint’s faith from dying out is the power and grace of God. Peter put it this way: he says that God has “begotten us . . . to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3-5). Note what Peter says: it is God’s power that keeps us through faith. We are not kept without faith. But we are kept by God’s power. The salvation of the believer is secure.
Our Lord put it this way: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me [there is faith and obedience]: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them [to] me, is greater than all [there is the power of God]; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:27-29). Yes, the saints will persevere in faith and holiness. What keeps the believer in faith and holiness is the grace and undefeatable power of God for him or her.
However, Paul is so solicitous that we should be confident in the fact that all the elect of God will inherit eternal life, he adds, “being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the council of his own will.” In other words, it is not just heaven and eternal life that God has predestined the saint to enjoy. In addition, he works all things after the council of his own will. Paul’s argument is that the believer can have unshakable confidence that he or she will reach heaven and enter into the joy of the Lord with eternal life because there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can possibly jeopardize their inheritance. And the reason why nothing can jeopardize their security is because God works all things after the council of his own will. “All things” here really means “all things.” There is nothing that can happen to the saint that falls outside the purpose and plan of God.
We need to be careful that we don’t soften the apostle’s words here. Paul does not allow the possibility that there are some things that take God by surprise. He is saying that all that happens in this universe happens according to the plan of God. God is never taken by surprise. He doesn’t have to improvise. He is not playing chess with the world. He works all things after the council of his will. God’s purpose is all-encompassing. Listen to the way the prophet Isaiah puts it: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure:’” (Isa. 46:9-10). What does God do? He declares the end from the beginning. He knows the future perfectly. Why? Because he is a good guesser? No! God’s omniscience is grounded in God’s sovereignty: he knows the future perfectly because his counsel will stand and he will do all his pleasure. God’s knowing of the future is not based on my counsel or your counsel or the counsel of any other human being. It is solely determined by his counsel. Contrast this with ourselves. You and I can’t know the future because we can neither understand nor control all the variables involved in just our own lives. But God both understands and controls all the variables. As one theologian has put it, there is not a maverick molecule in the universe.
We are thus faced with the Biblical principle that God’s eternal plan and providence both sovereign and all encompassing. It is this that afforded the apostle such comfort and became for him the foundation of his praise. Now what about you and me? How is this principle supposed to work out in our lives? What conclusions are we allowed to take from God’s over-arching sovereignty and how are we to apply it to our lives? What are we to know about this so that it too becomes a matter of blessing and praise in our own lives?
I think the best thing to do here is to work this out through Biblical examples. The first example I want to consider with you is that of Joseph, whose history is recorded for us in Genesis 37-50. A brief sketch of Joseph’s history is as follows. Joseph was the oldest son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. Jacob unfortunately showed favoritism towards Joseph and this invited the jealously of his other brothers. What added to the volatility of the situation was the fact that Joseph had several dreams which he unwisely related to his brothers and father. These dreams indicated that one day Joseph would be in a position of power over his brethren, and they further resented him for this. Over time, their jealousy turned to hate and their hate to rage until, when they had the opportunity, they sold him into slavery. To cover up for their foul deed, they lied to Jacob and made it appear that Joseph had been attacked and killed by an animal.
Joseph was then sold to Potiphar, “an officer of Pharaoh’s, and captain of the guard” (Gen. 37:36). However, we are told that God blessed Joseph even in this low position, to the point that Potiphar entrusted all that he had to Joseph, making him the chief steward of his household (Gen. 39:2-6). It seemed that Joseph’s luck was turning, when his master’s wife “cast her eyes upon Joseph” (Gen. 39:7), seeking to tempt him to sin with her. Joseph steadfastly refused; but instead of being rewarded for his godliness (cf. 39:9), he was framed by Potiphar’s wife and, in a sad irony, accused of raping her. This enraged Potiphar who had Joseph thrown into prison (39:20).
So Joseph had gone from being hated by his brothers to being sold into slavery, and now thrown into prison. Now Joseph had done nothing wrong. In fact, in comparison with his brothers (cf. 35:22; 38:1-26), Joseph was the only honorable man among them. At this point, he could have become angry with God. Why did he deserve any of this? Why was God doing this to him? Or perhaps he could have reasoned that God didn’t want him to endure this but didn’t have the power to stop it. Either God wasn’t good or God wasn’t powerful enough. But we know Joseph didn’t think this way. We know that he continued to trust in God. Why did he do this?
What happened next is that Pharaoh threw a couple of his servants into the prison with Joseph, where they both had dreams (40:1-23). In those days, before the Bible was completed, God often spoke to people in dreams (I believe he still does this today, but we should be careful that we do not value dreams over the written word of God. See Acts 10.) Joseph was able to accurately interpret their dreams. This was significant because after several more years, Pharaoh himself had a dream which obviously had some importance but which he was not able to discern (Gen. 41). At this point, one of Pharaoh’s servants remembered Joseph, at which point Pharaoh had Joseph taken out of prison, and he was given the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which he did. In fact, the king was so impressed by the young Hebrew’s ability and wisdom that he elevated him to second in command over all Egypt.
The dreams had been about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of drought. This foresight allowed the Egyptians, under Joseph’s leadership, to prepare for the drought by storing up food. It also brought Joseph into contact with his brothers once again, who came to Egypt to buy grain for food. Eventually, Joseph’s entire family traveled into Egypt and settled there, and would remain there for four hundred years until the Exodus.
Now when their father Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers, now in Egypt and under Joseph’s rule, figured that Joseph would get his revenge. And so they sent a messenger to beg his forgiveness. Here is how Joseph responded to them and it is the key to how he endured all the misery that led up to his prosperity: “Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen. 50:19-20). Do you hear what Joseph is saying? He is not saying that God made a good situation out of a bad one. He is actually saying that God intended for Joseph to be sold into slavery. “God meant it unto good.” They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. Moreover, we do not do justice to Joseph’s meaning here if we say that God simply foresaw what Joseph’s brothers would do. That is not the same as meaning or intending for something to happen. God planned it and it happened.
That of course does not take away the culpability of his brothers. Because they meant it for evil, they were certainly guilty of a foul sin. Here we have the mystery of providence: God freely planned this event for good, while Joseph’s brothers freely planned the same event for evil.
However, we can now see why Joseph didn’t get angry with his brothers and didn’t let bitterness fester in his heart against God or his family. Joseph recognized that God was moving and acting according to his good plan in all that happened. God planned his slavery and his imprisonment because it was through this route that God would set Joseph over all Egypt. Joseph recognized that God’s plan is good even when we do not or cannot understand what God is doing.
In the same way, there are a lot of things that can happen to us to make us doubt or question God’s love and care of us. We may not be sold into slavery or thrown into prison, but things can happen to all of us that can be crushing and bring us to the point of despair. In those moments, we need to remember what Joseph believed: that God means it for our good, whatever men may intend or events may threaten. God works all things after the counsel of his own will, and God’s plan for his children is good. It is one which will bring them into an eternal inheritance of never-ending joy.
Another example of this principle we find in the life of Job. Like Joseph, Job was a godly man, and is introduced to us in the very first verse of the book that bears his name as “a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job: and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil.” This man was fantastically wealthy, with 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 donkeys. He also had what is often lacking among the rich: a wonderful and loving family, which included 10 children. Job had everything going for him.
Everything was going for him, that is, until the day “when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them” (Job 1:6). He came as he always does, as the accuser of the brethren. And there he accused Job of having an empty and hypocritical faith. Satan dared God to take away Job’s wealth, saying that if Job lost his wealth, his godliness would disappear along with it. Sadly, this has proved all too true in far too many cases. Satan bet that this was true of Job as well.
In order to show Satan that he was wrong about Job, God allowed Satan to take away Job’s wealth and his children. In a few short moments, Job was hit with news of tragedy after tragedy, and the hurt was infinitely multiplied when he learned that all his children were killed in a freak accident. I cannot imagine the pain that Job must have been feeling at that moment.
What did Job do? What would you have done? I dare say that many of us would be tempted to shake our fist at heaven and berate God. Or to do what Job’s wife would later counsel him to do: to curse God and die (Job 2:9). Instead, we are told that “Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, and said, ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly” (Job 1:20-22).
Now the first thing I want to note here is that the theology of Job is correct: “In all this Job sinned not, nor charged God foolishly.” Which is exactly the opposite of what most theologians today would say. When tragedy strikes, we are often told that God had nothing to do with it. That is not what Job claimed. “The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away.” He’s referring to the loss of all his children and all his wealth. God gave these things to him and God took them away. Yes, we know that Satan was immediately responsible for these tragic acts. And his malice was evil and wicked. He will pay for his crimes in the lake of fire forever. Nevertheless, Job was not saying a lie when he ascribed his losses to God. Job knew that God works all things after the counsel of his own will, the good and the bad. Job knew that Satan could not move a muscle without God’s permission. He is on a leash and God is holding the leash.
That does not mean that God willed Job’s tragedy in the sense of delighting in it. In fact, we are told in the next chapter that God complains to Satan that “thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause” (2:3). (Note here that God is ascribing Job’s tragedy to God!) God hated what was happening to Job. Nevertheless it is right to say that God willed it in the sense that he allowed it for his wise and ultimately good reasons. And Job obviously knew that.
Unfortunately, Satan was not finished with Job. He was still not convinced that Job’s piety was real: “And Satan answered the LORD, and said, ‘Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face’” (Job 2:4-5). In other words, Satan is saying that if Job loses his health, he will also lose his religion. (Again, what about us? If you lost your health tomorrow, would you lose your faith?)
Job didn’t. Amazingly. When Satan “smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown” (2:7), we are told that Job still retained his integrity. And when his wife pushed him to shake his fist at God and commit suicide (ver. 9), we are told that Job responded, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (ver. 10). Once again, we are told that “in all this Job did not sin with his lips” (10).
Job’s theology was essentially correct. In fact, at the very end of the narrative, we are told by God himself that Job was right. In contrast with Job’s three “friends,” God says, “ye have not spoken of me the thing which is right, like my servant Job” (42:8). And it is clear that it was Job’s theology of God’s sovereignty over all things is the one thing that kept him from apostasy. It kept him hoping when all hope seemed lost. It is what stands behind verses like 13:15: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” And, “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: one the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him: but he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (23:8-10). Job knew and understood that this trial was ultimately from God and because of that he could be sure that God was going to use it for his good.
In the same way, we ought to join Job in knowing that our lives, from beginning to end, lie in the hands of a wise and kind God, even when we are going through periods of massive difficulty and hardship. As one preacher put it long ago, God is too wise to err, and too good to be unkind. He will work all things, the good and the bad, for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). He will take “our light affliction, which is but for a moment” and work “for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
For our last example, I want us to consider what King David says about himself in Psalm 139. How encompassing is God’s plan and providence? David answers this question in this psalm when he talks about the omniscience (ver. 1-6) and omnipresence of God (ver. 7-12). Such is God’s knowledge of us that he knows what we are going to think before we even think it (2). Such is his presence that “if I ascend into heaven, thou are there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou are there” (8). The upshot of this is that we cannot hide from God, not even in our thoughts!
But David goes further. He next contemplates the providence of God over his life, beginning at his birth: “13. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. 14. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. 15. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (ESV).
Hear what David is saying. All the days of our lives are written in God’s book before we are even born. The fact that they are written in God’s book indicates that every aspect of our lives are comprehended in the plan of God. There is not a day nor a detail that God is not working out according to his plan. He is working all things according to the counsel of his own will.
What makes this knowledge a blessing lies in the fact that the one who so thoroughly knows us is God, who loves his people with an undying, never-ending love. So David goes on to say: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you” (17-18, ESV). David stands amazed that God not only thinks of him but that he never stops thinking of him. And God’s thoughts are precious thoughts when they involve his children. He is always solicitous for their good and well-being.
At this point, I do want to add a word of caution. We have to be careful that we keep the balance of Scripture when discussing this principle. A lot of confusion had happened because of a lack of faithful care when handling such doctrines. Yes, God works all things after the counsel of his own will. Yes, God’s plan encompasses all things. Yes, God’s purposes have never been, and never will be, defeated. But we should not reason from this that it follows that it doesn’t matter how we live or what we do. Fatalism is never taught in Scripture. This is a mystery, and you can ruin it by inserting unbiblical propositions to fill in the holes of what we cannot understand. This is why I think the framers of the London Confession were wise when expounding the decrees of God. Their statement is Biblically balanced: “God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, feely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath any fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree.” If you say that you cannot see how both the statement and its caveats can be simultaneously true; well, that is because we are talking about God here. Though we don’t want to violate reason neither do we want to arrogate our reason above the revelation of God in the Bible. We have to learn to be humble when we think and talk about the ways and works of the infinite God.
In concluding, I want to end by pointing out that of course the greatest example of this principle in all of Scripture is found in the death of our Lord upon the cross. I have dealt with this recently, so I will only remind you of it. The cross was no accident. It happened according to the plan of God. The fact that it happened according to God’s eternal purpose did not lessen the crime of those who nailed him to the cross. Neither did the freely chosen actions of wicked men lessen the fact that Christ was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. The apostle Peter put it best: “Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:22-23).
Thank God for the cross. Those who put him to death meant it for evil. But God meant it for eternal good. Though the wicked men who nailed Jesus to the cross thought they were proving that Jesus was a sinner, what they didn’t realize is that in a very real sense upon the cross our Lord became a sinner – not from sins of his own, but because in God’s plan he bore the guilt of our sins upon himself. This was the great exchange: he took our sin so that we might have his righteousness. All who believe on him are forgiven of all their sins, are given the right to become sons and daughters of God, and are given a place in God’s eternal inheritance.
And being forgiven, we can live life here with fearless faith, knowing that our loving Father hold the future for our good and his glory. If we truly believe this, our lives will be characterized by courage, not cowardice; by faith, not fear; by joyful contentment, instead of envious contention. May God make it so in us. Amen.