Canons Of Dort (11): The Doctrine Of Predestination Is Edifying And Should Be Taught Wisely

We would expect those outside the Augustinian mainstream of the Western church to object to the teaching of doctrine of predestination (i.e., the doctrines of election and reprobation) since they reject the doctrines. The reader might be surprised, however, to learn that there have been those within the Reformed tradition who have held that the should not be taught. In On The Bondage of the Will (1525) Luther stoutly defended the doctrine of predestination against Erasmus. Calvin wrote a treatise defending the doctrine of predestination in 1543 against Albert Pighius in The Liberation and Bondage of the Will and in 1555 Beza defended the propriety and spiritual usefulness of teaching the doctrine. Of course the Remonstrants did not think that the doctrine should be taught, even though they made their case from within the Reformed church, because they no longer believed it. We have already seen that the Remonstrants rejected the doctrine of unconditional election. They also rejected the doctrine of reprobation as it was taught in the Reformed churches. In the Opinions of the Remonstrants (13 December 1618). In their “Opinion Regarding the First Article Dealing With Predestination” they confessed,

1.1 God has not decided to elect anyone to eternal life, or to reject anyone from the same, prior to the decree to create him, without any consideration of preceding obedience or disobedience, according to His good pleasure, for the demonstration of the glory of His mercy and justice, or of His absolute power and dominion.

1.2 Since the decree of God concerning both the salvation and perdition of each man is not a decree of the end absolutely intended, it follows that neither are such means subordinated to that same decree by which the elect and the reprobate are efficaciously and inevitably led to their final destination.

To be sure, the Remonstrants clouded the issue by addressing only the minority Supralapsarian position (that the elect and reprobate are considered as potentials and not as created and fallen) and not the majority infralapsarian position (that the elect and reprobate are considered as created and fallen) among the Reformed. Clearly they rejected unconditional election. When they say the decree of perdition (reprobation) is “not a decree of end absolutely intended, they rejected both the infralapsarian and supralapsarian positions. Remember, Arminius himself rejected both in favor of so-called middle knowledge. On this see the earlier essays in the series.

The delegates to Synod however, who came from across Europe (the French delegates were forbidden by the French crown to attend) and the British Isles reflected the consensus that, indeed, it is encouraging to believers to know that God has loved and chosen them, not for anything in them or done by them, and therefore he will not abandon them. This is a great comfort in the midst of spiritual trials, doubt, and struggle.

Further, it is not as if the Scriptures themselves do not clearly teach that God unconditionally elects his people and allows others to remain in their sin and unbelief. Synod responded to the Remonstrants thus in 1.14:

Art. XIV. As the doctrine of divine election by the most wise counsel of God was declared by the Prophets, by Christ himself, and by the Apostles, and is clearly revealed in the Scriptures both of the Old and New Testament, so it is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed, provided it be done with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety, for the glory of God’s most holy name, and for enlivening and comforting his people, without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the Most High.

As we have already seen, Moses (after whom the later prophets were patterned; Deut 18:15), who was the paradigmatic prophet, had already declared the Yahweh’s Word to the Israelites (Deut 7). They were not elected as a nation because of anything in them or done by them. Though the national election was temporary and typological (anticipating future realities) it is true of the election of individuals. Jacob was not elected because God foresaw anything in him (Rom 9:11–13). Isaiah 14:1 uses the same verb as Moses used in Deuteronomy 7 to describe God’s free election. In Isaiah 41:8, Israel (Jacob) is said to have been unconditionally chosen by the Lord (Isa 41:8–10; See also 44:1–3; 49:7). We see the same sort of language in Ezekiel 20:5 and New 9:7. Indeed, the prophets are replete with the doctrine of God’s unconditional election. In the parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1–14) our Lord himself expressly said, “For many are called but few are elect” (πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοί, ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί). He intentionally distinguished between the external call and the divine decree of election. In the Olivet Discourse, he warned that false prophets and false messiahs will arise in an attempt to deceive the elect (Matt 24:24). The elect shall be gathered at the last day (Matt 24:31). In the gospel of John 10 he described the efficacious call by the Spirit of the elect, those for whom he was to lay down his life. In his high priestly prayer (John 17) he declared that the time had come to give eternal life to all whom the Father had given to him (John 17:2). Paul’s doctrine of unconditional election in Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 and 2 seems quite clear to the Reformed.

In all these places (and in many others) Scripture explicitly teaches the doctrine of unconditional election and conditional reprobation, i.e., that God has chosen, in Christ, to save his elect out of the fallen mass of humanity and to allow the rest to remain their fallen state. Yet, Synod wisely cautioned that this doctrine should be taught carefully, “with a spirit of discretion” and in “godly and holy manner,” at the “appropriate time and place.” This is in contrast to the way the doctrine is sometimes handled by new converts to the great Augustinian consensus. When evangelical Christians first discover these doctrines, it can be liberating and also frustrating. Many have said to me, “Why did not anyone tell me this earlier?” That is a fair question and the sense of frustration is understandable. It does sometime seem as if some have deliberately put a veil over portions of Scripture with which they simply disagree. Yet, just at the moment of discovery is perhaps not the best time for every lay person to go about declaring his new-found treasure. Some have called this period, “the cage phase,” because the newcomer should be put into a cage until he settles down a bit. The truth is the we came into possession of this glorious truth in God’s providence. When we rage against providence are we not contradicting our new-found confession?

Synod was calling for wisdom in the teaching of this doctrine. Its opposite here would be carelessness. When we are thoughtless or careless with this doctrine unnecessary doubts, fears, and confusion may arise. That is unfortunate and should be avoided by the careful handling of it. For example, Twitter (and other social media platforms) might not be the best place to hammer out the logical order of the decrees (e.g., Supralapsarianism or Infralapsarianism) or other intricate questions related to the doctrine of predestination. Wisdom may suggest that these doctrines be handled publicly by those who have been called and prepared to handle them, who have experience and preparation. Access to a keyboard and to the internet are not qualifications to teach the doctrine of predestination.

Synod itself illustrated how the doctrine should be explained:

Art. XV. What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election is the express testimony of sacred Scripture, that not all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God, out of his sovereign, most just, irreprehensible and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but permitting them in his just judgment to follow their own way; at last, for the declaration of his justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger.

Remarkably, the way some, particularly those who are hostile to the doctrine of election, describe or characterize it, one might think that no ecclesiastical body has ever issued a brief, one-paragraph, summary of the Reformed doctrine of election and reprobation. One regularly sees those who should know better describing what is essentially the Remonstrant doctrine of conditional election as though it were the Reformed doctrine. Others, e.g., Max Weber added prosperity as a mark election as if all the Reformed were wacky prosperity teachers. Other critics, e.g., some Lutheran theologians, write as if Luther did not say essentially the very same thing in 1525.

By definition, grace is unmerited or undeserved. Merited grace is an oxymoron. It seeks to turn grace into works. Abraham was a sinner. Isaac was a sinner and so was Jacob. None of us is qualified to be elect. Were our election conditioned upon our foreseen faith and obedience, all of us should be lost because our faith is imperfect and our obedience wavers constantly. In the nature of grace, it is free, earned for us by Christ, and freely given to us in him and applied by the Holy Spirit.

Finally, though our Remonstrant critics (then and now) write and speak as if all the Reformed agreed with Gormarus (one of Arminius’ colleagues and critics) on Supralapsarianism, in fact, by confession we are Infralapsarian. The elect are considered as created and fallen. As we have noted previously, election and reprobation are not exactly symmetrical. Both groups are considered as fallen but that fact removes any foreseen quality or act by us as a ground of election and provides the ground of reprobation. We do not deserve election but, by nature, we do deserve reprobation. There is no injustice in God. The reprobate get what they deserve and the elect get what Christ earned for them. Sola gratia. Sola fide. Soli Deo Gloria.

R. Scott Clark, Escondido

Here are all the posts in this series.

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