How (or Why) Does God Know the Future?

Arminians and even some Calvinists (along with those who claim to be neither) may struggle with the concept of God’s “meticulous sovereignty” (also sometimes referred to as “exhaustive sovereignty”). The Reformed confessions state that “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” Despite the evidence from verses such as Ephesians 1:11 and Matthew 10:29 indicating this to be the case, many people resist this idea. However, all orthodox Christians agree that God is both omniscient and omnipotent.

I have found James P. Boyce to be a helpful guide in explaining why God’s omniscience and omnipotence necessitate his exhaustive sovereignty over all events. In particular, one paragraph from Chapter XIII, Section IV of his Abstract of Systematic Theology. I have quoted that paragraph below, breaking up some of the sentences and attempting to restate them in my own words, because Boyce’s writing from the 1880’s can be a little bit hard to follow for some of us “modern” folks. Hopefully my words are a faithful representation of what Boyce said in his own words.

But whence is God’s knowledge of the futurity of any events, except from the knowledge of his purpose, to cause or permit them to come to pass? 

Having established (in Chapter 9) that God “knows all the past, present, and future of all things,” Boyce now seeks to address the question of how God knows the future.  The answer, he says, is that God’s knowledge of future events can only come from His knowledge of His own purpose in causing or allowing the events.  

The knowledge of the futurity of any event, over which any one has absolute control, is the result of his purpose, not its cause. And, as God has such absolute control over all things, his knowledge that they will be, must proceed from his purpose that they shall be. 

If a person has absolute control over a future event (as God does), then that event will only take place if He allows (or causes) it to take place.  In other words, a future event only becomes certain when the one with absolute control over the event chooses to cause or permit the event to occur.  If the event is under His absolute control (and it is), then the event will not occur without His purpose in causing or permitting it.  In other words, the purpose must precede the knowledge.  God does not first have knowledge of a future event and then incorporate it into his purpose.  The purpose comes first, and the knowledge flows out of the purpose.

It cannot be from mere perception of their nature, for he gives that nature, and in determining to give it, determines what it shall be, and thus determines the effects which that nature will cause. 

Nor is it from mere knowledge of the mutual relations which will be sustained by outward events or beings, for it is he that establishes these relations for the accomplishment of his own purposes. 

Having established the source of God’s knowledge of future events, Boyce addresses two alternative explanations for the source of God’s omniscience.  The first is that God knows what will happen in the future because of his intimate knowledge of the actors who will bring the events to pass.  In other words, God knows what Joe Smith will do because He has perfect knowledge of Joe Smith’s nature, and knows what Joe Smith will freely choose to do in any and every circumstance.  Similarly, God knows the nature of wind and water, and sun and moon, and all of creation, and so He has knowledge of all future events due to this knowledge of the nature that produces these events.

The second alternative, similar to the first, is that God’s knowledge of future events is derived from his knowledge of the relationships between the actors and events that occur throughout history. In other words, God perceives the “chain reaction” set into motion by His creative act (and other acts where He directly intervenes in history), and thereby knows what other events will occur as a result.

However, in both cases, the nature of every created being and the relations between beings and events were given by God, so these alternative explanations do nothing to explain God’s knowledge of future events outside of His purposes.

To say that this nature and these relations are from God, and are not from his purpose, is in the highest degree fatalistic, for it would involve that they originate in some necessity of the nature of God, because of which he must give them existence without so willing, and even against his will. 

If one were to object, saying that the nature and relations that God created and established do not arise from His purpose, then the alternative would be that the nature and relations that came from God “had to be,” due to some essential aspect of God’s nature.  Thus, in an attempt to avoid ascribing God’s knowledge of future events to His eternal purpose (in a vain attempt to preserve libertarian “free will”), one has devised an even more fatalistic framework wherein God himself is bound out of necessity to create a world that leads to a known future.

In this way alone could God be said to know, and yet not to purpose them. His knowledge would arise from knowledge of his nature, and of what that nature compels him to do, and not from knowledge of his purpose and of his will involved in that purpose. This, and this alone, would make equally certain and known what will come to pass, without basing that knowledge upon his purpose; 

Boyce perceives no other option that would preserve God’s knowledge of all future events without having purposed for those events to occur.  The only alternative is to claim that the certainty of all future events arises from an essential aspect of God’s nature, and thus it is God’s knowledge of Himself that is the source of His knowledge of all future events.

but it would not only be destructive of his free agency and will, but, from the nature of necessity, would make the outward events eternal and prevent the existence of time, and the relation to it of all things whatsoever.

As was noted previously, by linking God’s knowledge of future events to an essential aspect of His nature (rather than His purpose), free agency and free will are destroyed; however, this also gives rise to yet another problem.  If the certainty of an event depends on a necessary aspect of God’s nature, then the event cannot be a future event.  If the event arises from an essential aspect of God’s nature, then the event must always exist; it can never “not be,” since it arises as a necessity out of His nature.  Therefore, all events are eternal and the passage of time cannot exist.

Order From Disorder

“When will I ever use _________ in real life?”  Students (and sometimes their parents) ask this question about algebra, trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, grammatical parts of speech, literature, history, or other subjects that they find difficult to learn.

As human beings created in the image of God, one of the ways we reflect God’s image is by creating order from disorder.  Although God created ex nihilo (which we as humans cannot do), part of his creative effort was to create order from disorder.  Genesis 1:2 tells us that the initial state of the earth was “formless.”  The first thing God did was to separate light (day) from darkness (night).  Next he separated the waters above (sky) from the waters below, and finally he separated the waters below (sea) from the dry ground (land).

When humans “create,” we use our God-given faculties to put things in a meaningful order or structure.  Scientific and mathematical discoveries are all about discovering the order that God has instilled in the universe, and utilizing that order to discover yet more and harnessing that order in ways that benefit us.  Learning about, and helping to define the order of our world isn’t just useful for those considering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) careers (although this is certainly a very good reason for learning these subjects).  It is also an exercise in understanding and reflecting our Creator.

It’s fairly easy to see how science is a means of discovering and utilizing the order that exists in the physical world around us, while mathematics may be described as a logical structure explaining and predicting what we observe in the physical world.  But this exercise in observing and creating order is not limited to just the fields of math and science.  Language and art is also about creating order and meaning.

Without organizing thoughts and meanings into words and language, our communication would be limited to pointing and grunting.  Assembling words with no regard for their order and structure is what we call “gibberish.”  This is why all students should welcome the opportunity to learn sentence structure, parts of speech, and how different ways of organizing words can enhance meaning.  A sonnet, a haiku, a pun, a limerick, etc., are different ways of organizing and structuring words and thoughts that may elicit a different response than if they were organized differently.  So, even if the language arts are not “your bag,” there is value in understanding how words are ordered and structured.  Again, putting random words into a meaningful order is a creative process that reflects our Creator and it gives Him glory when we follow Him in creating order from disorder.

It should be clear by now that the visual arts and musical arts are also creative outlets for producing order and structure in a way that reflects and glorifies our Creator.  A piece of artwork keeps colors and lines separated and ordered in a way that creates meaning.  A musical composition arranges notes and sounds in a certain order.  Whether someone finds that order “pleasing” or not, it’s still a creative effort that can be distinguished from random, unordered sounds (aka “noise”).

Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”  Even those of us who are not kings can partake in the glory of kings and the glory of God by seeking to find and create order in the world around us.  Keep this in mind the next time you are struggling to solve a quadratic equation or remember what a dangling gerund is.

Communion with God …a series of echoes

This is a devotional written by my grandfather, Laurance W. Long.

Laurance W. Long“When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek” (Psalm 27:8).

Communion with God may be likened to a series of echoes. When God speaks, and “echo” response should come from His children. An echo is immediate. It does not vary from the original . . . it is an accurate reproduction. God says SEEK . . . we should seek. God says GIVE . . . our echo should be to give. SERVE, serve. LOVE, love. OBEY, obey . . . in complete conformity with the command. Then, in turn, the child may ask his God for mercy. And God’s reply is MERCY. Bread, BREAD. Grace, GRACE. Peace, PEACE. Communion with God . . . a series of echoes going both ways, all the day.


If you do a web search on “where is God when it hurts” you will find a book by Philip Yancey by this title, as well as some other articles and dicussions of this topic. Here’s one page in particular that is relevant:

There is a verse in the Bible, 2 Peter 3:9, that says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.” If I could have my own book of the Bible, I might have a verse that said, “The Lord is not unfair in dealing with people, as some understand unfairness.”

To illustrate this concept, Jesus tells a story in Matthew 20 about a man who hired some workers to work in his vineyard. At the beginning of the day, he hired some men and agreed to pay them a typical days wage. At various times throughout the day, he went out and hired more workers. The last few workers he hired were hired only an hour before quitting time. Then, at the end of the day, he paid all his workers a full days wage, even the ones who had only worked part of the day. The workers who started first thing in the morning were upset, because they thought they should get more than the workers who only worked part of the day. The owner of the vineyard told them, “Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take it and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be angry because I am kind?”

Another story in the Bible that illustrates how God operates is the story of Job. Job was “blameless, a man of complete integrity. He feared (obeyed) God and stayed away from evil.” God even bragged about Job to Satan. “The LORD asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth–a man of complete integrity. He fears (obeys) God and will have nothing to do with evil.” Satan replies that the only reason Job is so obedient is because God has blessed him greatly. “Take away everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face!” So God said, “All right, you may test him. Do whatever you want with everything he possesses, but don’t harm him physically.” Later, after Job has remained faithful to God, Satan wants to up the stakes. “Take away his health, and he will surely curse you to your face!” So God allows Satan to go even further. “All right, do with him as you please. But spare his life.” Although Job never curses God, he does begin to ask, “Why me, God?” At the end of the book, God goes on for four chapters asking Job all sorts of questions that Job cannot answer, really putting Job in his place. Finally Job says, “I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you. You ask, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’ It is I. And I was talking about things I did not understand, things far too wonderful for me.” Then God restored Job’s fortunes and blessed him even more than ever. Was God fair to Job? Would it have been fair of God if he hadn’t restored Job’s fortunes? (hint: the answer to both questions is “yes”)

One more verse: Matthew 5:45. “He (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Not everything that happens in life is a function of whether we “deserve it” or not.

In reality, everyone has sinned against God and deserves immediate destruction. It would be perfectly fair and just of God to let the ravages of sin completely destroy us. However, in His wisdom, in ways that we do not understand, He extends grace at certain times to certain people.

Originally posted 8/3/2005 on

Fear or Love?

Do you believe in Jesus because you love Him, or because you fear hell? Should children obey their parents because they fear being punished, or because they love them?

This question stems from some negative reviews of Tedd Tripp’s book Shepherding a Child’s Heart.

Originally posted 10/2/2004, on

Which is better–obedience out of fear, or obedience out of love? I think we would all agree that obedience out of love is better. From what I’ve seen about this book, Tedd Tripp is saying the same thing. He is focused on the child’s heart moreso than their actions, and the parent’s role in protecting and guiding their child’s heart.

The difference of opinion appears to be in the best way to effectively guide and prepare children so that they will be most likely to acheive that goal of obedience to Christ out of love.

Which is better–obedience out of fear, or disobedience? Some people may disagree with me, but I think obedience always trumps disobedience. Every child I’ve ever seen is disobedient, so something needs to be done to help them move from disobedience to obedience. The big question is whether that is best accomplished by a two-part process (‘obey because there are consequences’ first, followed by ‘obey because you want to’) or a one-part process that skips right to the final goal.

The Old Testament tells us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; but it seems to talk even more about fearing God and keeping His commandments. Why did God wait 4,000 years before sending Jesus to redeem us for our sins? Why did He lay down the law to the Israelites and stress judgement for so long, instead of skipping right to grace and love? (not that grace and love are absent from the OT; they just don’t seem to be the focal point like they are in the NT.)

When I was a child, I loved my parents, but that isn’t necessarily why I obeyed them. When I was young, I obeyed them because I would get spanked if I didn’t. As I got older, I continued to obey them (for the most part) even if I knew I wouldn’t get caught, because they had taught me right from wrong and I loved and respected them.

Soldiers in basic training do what they’re told because their commanding officer will make their lives miserable if they don’t. Yet when their training is over, many soldiers would voluntarily lay down their lives for their commander. I doubt if our military would function nearly as well if it wasn’t for some healthy fear of disobeying. Now, soldiers aren’t children, and children should not be treated like soldiers, but I think the principle still applies. I don’t think it’s wrong to instill a little fear, because that is often a necessary motivator. It’s hard to teach someone love and respect if they won’t first obey.

It is wrong to overemphasize fear, or to stop at step 1 of a 2-step process. Some churches and leaders are guilty of this. They get so wrapped up in the negative consequences of disobedience, that they end up failing in their goal of guiding the heart, because outward behaviour gets priority instead. They don’t intentionally put outward behaviour above heart change, but that’s the message that comes across. As with most things in life, the best approach is balance not one or the other. It can be difficult to find the right balance.

More thoughts on “the fear of the Lord…”

Originally posted 10/4/2004 on

Some people get hung up on the word fear, because they associate it with terror. It has more to do with reverence and respect for the power and holiness of God. An illustration I like that sheds a little light on a proper context for fear goes something like this: a group of teenagers are hanging out and someone suggests going to do something that they shouldn’t do. One teen objects, and says “no, I’d be scared my dad would find out.” Another teen sneers, “what you’re afraid your daddy will hurt you if he finds out?” The teen replies, “no, I’m afraid if he found out it would hurt him.” This isn’t a perfect illustration, but it gives a picture of “being afraid” in a proper context.

I am reminded of a passage in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (if you haven’t read the Chronicles of Narnia, I highly recommend you do).

If you’re familiar with the story, you know that it is an allegory, and Christ is represented by Aslan the lion. Much of the story centers on four children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, and their journeies in Narnia. In the following passage, Mr. & Mrs. Beaver are describing Aslan (Jesus) to them:

“Is he—quite safe?” [asks Susan.] “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

There is something a little paradoxical about God being our shield, protector, provider, comforter, etc.; yet at the same time He is our fearsome judge and ruler. Is God safe? No, but He’s good, so you can trust Him. He gives us plenty of reason to fear getting on His bad side, but He also gives us His word that He knows what’s best for us and will take good care of us if we trust and obey Him.