An Excellent Summary
In the sixteenth article of the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) we have a powerful summary of biblical predestination. With true and heart-felt conviction the Reformed doctrine is articulated with reverence, accuracy, and profound simplicity.
We believe that, all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of our first parents, God then did manifest Himself such as He is; that is to say, merciful and just: merciful, since He delivers and preserves from this perdition all whom He in His eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness has elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works; just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.
Using the Belgic as our framework I want to highlight several of its distinctive features, in order to develop the confessional doctrine of predestination in its (3) most critical aspects
The first thing we should notice then, is that predestination is an eternal and unchangeable decree. Among other things, this means that God’s electing purposes are wholly independent of all creaturely influence. His perfect plan of salvation is irrevocably fixed. As such, it cannot be subject to frustration or any degree of alteration. To say that God’s decree has, will, or even can be changed, is to undermine the perfection of His wisdom, since what is revised is either no longer perfect, or was not perfect to begin with. This is not possible with God (Psa. 147:5).
The second thing we need to see is that predestination necessarily consists in two parts. In the first place we have what is properly called “election,” which is God’s sovereign choice of certain men to be the beneficiaries of His deliverance in Jesus Christ. In the second place we see that just as every choice implies a non-choice, so in God’s election of some there is a “leaving” of others. In Reformed theology, this leaving of others is called “preterition,” and it emphasizes God’s absolute right to exercise discrimination in the distribution of His gifts. What God grants to some He sovereignly withholds from others.
Accordingly God declares,
I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (Rom. 9:15)
In distinguishing between the two parts of predestination however, we must insist upon the asymmetrical nature of God’s decree. In other words, the Confession shows that election and preterition are not identical in all their particulars. For example, while the former is defined in active terms (God chooses), the latter is described in passive terms (God leaves). And while the ground of all election is only mercy since it is “without respect to their works,” the preterition of others is always just since it leaves them in the perdition “wherein they have involved themselves.” But why is this a matter worthy of our insistence? This makes a perfect segue into our third point.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly then, is the fact that predestination presupposes sin. While this may seem to only state the obvious, it is amazing (even lamentable) how often this guiding principle is overlooked, even within Reformed circles. For this reason it is deserving of more than a mere mention, and will instead occupy a section of its own.
In View of the Fall
To begin with, we should note the fact that in the Belgic Confession of Faith, article (16) on predestination comes after articles (14) and (15) which deal with the creation and fall of mankind. Daniel Hyde, in his exposition of the Belgic, argues that the order in which predestination appears in the Confession was “never intended to impute meaning.” With Muller as his reference point Hyde writes, “The ‘placement’ of election after the creation of man, and man’s sins, was not a substantive one, but a pedagogical one.”i
However, while it is certainly true that the order of appearance is suitable for teaching purposes, we are not permitted to conclude that it was therefore void of all theological significance. Strictly speaking there is no warrant to exclude the possibility that the order of the confession was also intended to reflect the logical order of predestination, as it relates to the decrees of God. In fact, when we look at the language of the article itself, it becomes a bit more than possible that the design of its placement has relevancy beyond mere pedagogy.
To his credit, Hyde rightly sees in its language a theological connection to Augustine.
The Language used in article 16, placing election in the context of humanity’s ‘perdition and ruin’ (perditionem et exitium), as well as the language describing God as ‘merciful’ and ‘just,’ clearly tie Belgic article 16 to Augustine, who taught that in his electing grace, God chose humans to salvation out of the mass of damnation (massa damnata).ii
Admittedly, the observation made here is the whole of our burden; Mercy and justice have absolutely no meaning if they are describing an action that does not presuppose the fall. When Paul in Romans 9 mentioned that God’s choice of Jacob and rejection of Esau took place “before” their birth and “before” they had done good or evil, he was nevertheless careful to frame his response in terms of “mercy,” which clearly paints God’s sovereign predestination against the back-drop the fall.
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (Rom. 9:14, 15)
To be sure, Jacob’s election was not made in light of his good works. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t made in light of Adam’s Fall. God’s choice to save anyone presupposes their need for salvation, right? If not, then as the apostle Paul might say: Mercy is no longer mercy!
Turretin confirms the point.
If God had predestined man to glory before [He ordained] the fall, this would have been an act of outstanding goodness, but one which could not rightly be called mercy; for mercy is concerned not only with those who are not worthy, but with those who are unworthy, and deserving of its opposite. Likewise, if God had condemned man who was free from all sin, this would have been an act of absolute power, but not of justice. God mercifully frees, and justly condemns, as Augustine said.iii (My brackets)
To imagine that God deciding to punish persons not already sinful and deserving of wrath would be tantamount to God purposing to save that which – in light of His decree – was not already lost. Does that even make sense? The answer is No, and to impute such an arrangement to the mind of God is not only illogical, it is unworthy of a holy and righteous God – in whose judgments men are supposed to take comfort.iv
In a very real sense, this would liken God unto that notorious council of men which sought to first condemn our Lord Jesus Christ and afterward – only as a means to justify their pernicious end – assembled a jury for the execution of a mock trial. Nicodemus who was among them courageously pointed out that such a proceeding was not in line with the righteous character of God’s holy Law.
“Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” (John 7:51)
A powerful and searching question in itself. To which we answer, of course, in the negative, seeing that death is the wages of sin only.
J.H. Thornwell stood with Nicodemus as he argued that the order of God’s decree
“involves something more than a question of logical method. It is really a question of the highest moral significance… Conviction and hanging are parts of the same process, but it is something more than a question of arrangement whether a man shall be hung before he is convicted.” v
If God’s righteous Law is any reflection of His eternal moral character, then we should see nothing less than God’s own righteousness in the proverb,
“He that condemneth the just is abomination to the LORD.” (17:15)
Our Ultimate Standard
When presented with any truth claim, there is one fundamental question which needs to be asked. That question is whether or not such a claim can be validated by the Word of God. This is primary, and in principle, it’s the only thing that really matters. The Bible alone is our canon, our measuring stick which in itself is the only infallible standard in possession of the Church – by which all doctrine must be tested.
To this effect, the apostle Paul requires us to “prove all things” and “hold fast that which is good” (1 Thes. 5:21). Remember how the apostle Paul himself commended the “noble” men of Thessalonica, because as he delivered to them the message of Jesus Christ, “they searched the Scriptures daily, to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). His desire was that all men might follow them in their nobility. Paul was not afraid to have all his teaching tested by the Word of God; and neither should we.
Without fear of contradiction, however, there arises yet another important consideration. Having searched the Scriptures for ourselves and drawn our own conclusions, do we find that our conclusions are in line with the testimony of God’s Church in history? Keep in mind that the same apostle who wrote to the Thessalonians also – by the same Spirit – wrote to the Corinthians. Therefore Paul reminded the Church at Corinth that he consistently taught the same things “every where in every church” (1 Cor. 4:17).
It’s important that our interpretations therefore, have some continuity with the interpretations of the Church in history. If they do not, we run the risk of becoming ourselves the object of the timeless apostolic rebuke,
What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? (1 Cor. 14:36)
Our goal here should be to dodge that bullet.
The Doctrine of Election
In Ephesians 1: 3-5 Scripture reads,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.
For our purposes here we only need to make a few brief observations. First, in line with what we read in the Belgic Confession, election is an eternal choice having taken place “before the foundation of the world.” Secondly, God predestinates men to adoption not according to some holiness or blamelessness found in them. Rather as the text indicates, they are chosen “according to the good pleasure of his will.” This is a vitally important point.
Biblically speaking, grace and works are mutually exclusive categories, particularly when speaking of Election. As the apostle Paul argued,
Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more of grace: otherwise work is no more work. (Rom. 11: 6)
Consequently, it is not only confirmed in the Belgic Confession, which unambiguously states that God elects men “without any respect to their works,” but is also powerfully expounded in the first Head of the Canons of Dort.
In article 9 we read,
This election was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness… He chose us in Him (not because we were, but) that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love (Eph. 1:4).
Other Scripture passages that fall in line with our present framework are not a few. In Romans 8:28 we read, “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” God has a “good purpose” for those whom He calls, and by His almighty hand He works all things together for the accomplishment of that purpose. But who are these called ones, and what is that good toward which God Himself is now working?
In verses 29-30 we find the answer.
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
In other words, the called ones are those who were predestined to glorification, where they will be completely conformed to the glorious image of Jesus Christ.
Generally there are two questions which commonly arise in connection with this passage.
First, How may we know that all and not only some who are called will ultimately be glorified? To which we answer, The force of this passage is better seen when we work our way backward through the chain of actions – beginning with glorification: All who are glorified must have been justified and therefore must have been called and therefore must have been predestinated to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Moreover, all who were so predestined by God must have been foreknown by God Himself. In keeping with the nature of a poly-syllogism (a popular form of the ancient literary device called sorites attributed to the Greek logician Eubilides of Miletus), the chain of redemption is unbreakable in either direction. (See Rom. 10:13-15 for another example of a poly-syllogism).
Second, What does it mean that God “foreknew” those whom He predestined? To which we answer, The knowledge here spoken of is no general pre-science by which God knows all men, since not all men will be glorified. Rather, it is an intimate, covenantal love which God sovereignly exercises toward His elect. So we read that “Adam knew his wife again, and she bare a son” (Gen. 4:25), and in response to the angelic announcement Mary asked, “How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man” (Lk. 1:34)? Also God says to Israel, “You only have I known, of all the families of the earth” (Am. 3:2). For God to fore-know therefore is nothing more than for God to love beforehand.
Notice here that the whole of our salvation from beginning to end is God’s work. It extends from everlasting to everlasting and therefore lies beyond the reach of all possible temporal frustration. In 2 Timothy 1: 9 we are told that in time God saves us and calls us, “not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” God’s purpose will not, and even cannot fail because every action in this “golden chain of redemption” is performed by God Himself.
By writing it out this way the apostle Paul is emphasizing the immutability of God’s decree. Every point in the divine purpose is as fixed and guaranteed as any other. This also means that all necessary means and conditions (viz. the satisfaction of Jesus Christ, the regeneration, repentance, and saving faith of God’s elect) are all comprehended here, even if they are not explicitly mentioned.
For this reason the synod of Dort concludes,
Therefore, election is the fountain of every saving good – from which proceed faith, holiness, other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself. (Head I, Art. 9)
If election is the fountain of every saving good, including faith, holiness, and all other gifts of salvation, then we would expect to find this somewhere affirmed in Scripture. And of course we do. In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 we read,
God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth; whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Notice that God’s election to salvation takes into account the very means of obtaining that salvation – namely the sanctification of the Spirit (regeneration) and belief of the truth (saving faith). What?! Election is the fountain of saving faith? Yes.
In Acts chapter 13 the Jews to whom Paul and Barnabas were preaching, rejected their message. With divine prophecy as their stimulus, they boldly responded to the unbelief of the crowd.
It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. (vv 46-47)
In light of the present question, of whether God’s election is the fountain of saving faith, notice how Scripture describes what happened next.
And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. (v 48)
The Doctrine of Reprobation
When dealing with predestination, the standards of the Reformed churches speak not only of election, but also of reprobation. Admittedly this is a difficult doctrine, and were it not for the plain teaching of Scripture upon the subject, our forefathers might have taken exception to its inclusion in their confessional documents. Likewise, were it not for the sheer frequency of its occurrence in Scripture, and the sanctifying impact it has upon those who humbly receive it, this writer might not have been constrained to mention it. Even so, reprobation is a biblical and Reformed doctrine and for this reason, it is deserving of our attention and most diligent study. In keeping with the pattern of sound words therefore, laid up by them that have gone before us, we now give ourselves to the task.
Reprobation may be defined as that eternal and unchangeable decree of God, whereby having elected some only, and not all unto salvation in Jesus Christ, He has sovereignly determined to pass others by – withholding from them the gift of regeneration and saving faith – and for the declaration of His justice, to punish them on account of their sins.
From the fifteenth article of the Canons of Dort we gather that reprobation itself is the necessary consequence of preterition. As such, it should be presented with certain degree of “overlap” so that the totality of the doctrine consists in two parts. Again then, in the first part we have “preterition,” (negative) wherein some men “are passed by in the eternal decree,” God thereby “permitting them to follow their own ways.” In the second part, however, we have what some have called “pre-condemnation,” wherein God has, before the foundation of the world, determined to “condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins.” All together, that’s reprobation.
The Canons read,
God, out of His sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure, has decreed to leave [some] 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 ways, 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.
Does this language offend you? It might. And if it does, I can only suggest that you return to the beginning of this post and take note of an important point. And that is this: All predestination (whether election, preterition or reprobation) presupposes sin. As the Canons here make plain, all of God’s predestinating activity is performed in view of the fall of man. Which further means that no man chosen by God deserves it, and no man condemned by God does not deserve it. That’s an important factor in the biblical doctrine.
Nevertheless, beyond these considerations, we must at some point come to reckon with the Scriptural facts themselves. And to be sure, the assertion that God has, by an eternal and unchangeable decree, chosen one portion of mankind to salvation while leaving the other portion to destruction, calls for ample scriptural support. In conclusion therefore, I will leave the reader to consider a summary of the biblical record, though due to my present limitations in time and space, he will have to survey the content from the bird’s eye view, looking down on it from thirty thousand feet above commentary.
The LORD hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil
2 Peter 2:12-13
These, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption; And shall receive the reward of unrighteousness.
For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation.
2 Thessalonians 2:11-12
And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
The children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth; It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.
i Hyde, With Heart And Mouth, An Exposition of the Belgic Confession, pg 212
ii Ibid. 213
iii Turretin, Reformed Dogmatics, Beardslee, 368
iv In Genesis 18:25 Abraham reasons with God, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?”
v Thornwell, Collected Writings, 2:20