Since all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death, God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the entire human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn them on account of their sin. As the apostle says: The whole world is liable to the condemnation of God (Rom. 3:19), All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).*
I. The Canons begin with the human condition as set forth in the Scriptures.
- All of humanity is subject to the just judgement of God [Romans 3:19]
- All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory [his righteous requirements for perfect obedience— Romans 3:23]
- The human race is under the curse—which is death [Romans 6:23]
Too often Americans approach matters of sin and grace from a cultural rather than a biblical perspective. Since this is the case, many of our contemporaries begin the discussion of human sinfulness and God’s grace with a far different set of presuppositions than we find in Scripture and which are summarized in the opening article of the Canons.
This difference in presuppositions explains why there is so much anger and confusion whenever a Reformed Christian even mentions the five-points of Calvinism in a non-Reformed context.
According to most of our contemporaries, we must not begin this discussion with the fact of human sin, but with a kind of democratic egalitarianism. In other words, most Americans already assume the notion to be true that “God isn’t being fair with his creatures, unless everyone has an equal chance at heaven." While it is easy to acknowledge that we are sinners, it is not easy to take that admission to the obvious conclusion--because we are sinners, we are guilty before God. In fact, when you take this as far as Scripture does--we are sinners, we are guilty before God, and we are unable to do anything to save ourselves from God's anger toward our sins--then the trouble begins.
II. These typically American presuppositions are as follows:
- All men and women have an equal opportunity to go to heaven and God would not be acting fairly if any were somehow deprived of that to which they are entitled—they must deprive themselves.
- Of course, all have sinned, but free will and natural ability remain. We are not robots after all.
- We are may be guilty , but we still have the ability to remove the curse from ourselves with Christ’s help, if only we are willing.
These different presuppositions (The Reformed--"we can do nothing to help ourselves" v. the American ideal--"everyone should be given an equal chance to go to heaven") explains why Reformed theology strikes so many Americans as a strange and cruel. The theology set forth in the Canons does not begin with the rosy estimation that most Americans have about human nature--it begins with a biblical realism about human sin and a great confidence in God's grace to save his people from their sins.
The Canons therefore strive begin where Scripture does--with the biblical teaching regarding the sinfulness and inability of men and women to save themselves. Because we begin with humanities’ sin, guilt and inability to come to faith, God’s grace is seen as a rescue of those [the “elect”] who deserve God’s wrath, but are instead chosen to be the recipients and beneficiaries of God's mercies in Christ.
III. This is an age-old debate
- Those in the Augustinian tradition emphasize God’s graciousness to sinners—it is God who saves sinners from beginning to end.
- Those in the Pelagian tradition focus upon humanities natural ability—salvation from sin stems from acting upon our knowledge of God’s commands. If God commands something, it is because we have the ability to carry out that command. (Ironically, this has more in common with Kant’s categorical imperative “ought implies can” than it does with the biblical estimation of human nature after the fall!).
- Most American Christians are “semi-Pelagian.” Simply put, semi-Pelagians see human salvation from sin not so much as a divine rescue in which men and women who are described as “dead in sin” require a resurrection from death to life before they can even respond to God. Semi-Pelagians often speak of salvation as a kind of transaction in which God contributes grace and men and women contribute faith. He has done his part, now its up to you . . .
As Augustine once said, “the grace of God does not find men fit for salvation, but makes them so.” This is a fundamental choice every Christian must make--either we can save ourselves by acting upon the proper information (Pelagianism), God will help us save ourselves (semi-Pelgianism), or God save sinners who can do nothing to save themselves (Augustinianism).
The Bible speaks to this matter directly. "We are dead in sins and transgressions,” (Ephesians 2:1). We are by nature “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), we “do not seek God” (Romans 3:11), and like the leopard, “we cannot change our spots” (Jeremiah 13:23). In fact, we cannot even come to God unless he first draws us to himself (John 6:44, 65). How, then, can we say as our contemporaries do, that our salvation depends upon our choice, our willing, our efforts, even if God helps us do these things.
Scripture is clear that the latter is not the case. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel we read, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13). And, as Paul says in Romans 9:16, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
We are fallen and enslaved in sin. If God did not act first in our lives, no one would have any hope of heaven nor enjoy the comfort of eternal life. Indeed, the wrath of God would still abide on us. That is where Scripture begins when addressing the matter of sin and grace. This is where the Canons begin as well.
Article 2: The Manifestation of God's Love
But this is how God showed his love: he sent his only begotten Son into the world, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
In the opening articles, the Canons are careful to demonstrate that any possible deliverance from our sinful condition (guilt, condemnation and the inability to save ourselves) arises from something good in God--specifically his love for his rebellious creatures--and not because there is something “good” that God sees in the sinner which motivates him to act to save them.
Because of our guilt and sinfulness, God is under no obligation to save anyone. In fact, the entire human race is already under his just judgment and sentence of death (Romans 5:12, 18; 6:23). But because of his great love for us, God sends Jesus Christ to secure for us our redemption (Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:10).
This means that it is God who seeks sinners, not sinners who seek God. We must be clear about this fact. Jesus himself made it perfectly clear that the essence of his own mission was that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10).
But the American religion, on the other hand, understands the manifestation of God’s love to be a response to the goodness and worth that God sees within sinful men and women. But what is there in us that is good? The Scripture says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). We do not seek God, we do not understand the things of God and every inch of us is tainted, stained, and ruined by sin (Romans 3:9-20). Indeed, the prophet Habakkuk declares about God, “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13).
This is why we must be careful to realize that the very essence of grace is that it is purely gracious. As one Puritan divine puts it, “there is no reason to be given for grace but grace.” The only place to look for an answer to the questions about sin and grace then is in the justice, the love and the mercy of God, not in the supposed "goodness" of sinful men and women.
This is why God sent his Son into this world, not because we are worthy, but because he is gracious. And this love is most clearly visible in this—"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
Yes, the Canons of Dort actually quote John 3:16 in the second article! Imagine that?
Article 3: The Preaching of the Gospel
In order that people may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends proclaimers of this very joyful message to the people he wishes and at the time he wishes. By this ministry people are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. For how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without someone preaching? And how shall they preach unless they have been sent? (Rom. 10:14-15).
The authors of the Canons are careful to link the end (God’s gracious desire to save sinners who do not deserve his favor), with the means by which those same sinners are called to faith in Christ--the preaching, teaching and communication of the gospel (the message of Christ crucified) to non-Christians.
The Canons correctly remind us of Paul’s words in Romans 10:14-15, well worth quoting in their entirety: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" (Romans 10:14-15)
In 1 Corinthians 1:18-20, Paul points out that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” According to Paul, it is the preaching of Christ crucified that is power of God, and the specific means that God uses to grant us faith. This is why in Romans 1:16, Paul can state, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
Although the preaching of Christ crucified is foolishness to the Greek, a stumbling block to the Jew, and probably both to a modern American, the preaching of Christ crucified is the only divinely ordained means through which God offers forgiveness of sins to sinners. As Calvin has said, “every time the gospel is preached it is as if God himself came in person solemnly to summon us.”
As the Canons make plain, it is God, in his grace, who uses the proclamation of Christ crucified--the foolishness of preaching--to call us from darkness to light, and to grant us entrance into the kingdom of his dear Son.
Therefore, in this article, the Canons remind us that God has not only ordained the ends (those whom he will save), he has ordained the means by which he will save them--the preaching of Christ and him crucified.
Article 4: A Twofold Response to the Gospel
God's anger remains on those who do not believe this gospel. But those who do accept it and embrace Jesus the Savior with a true and living faith are delivered through him from God's anger and from destruction, and receive the gift of eternal life.
The Scriptures are very clear about human guilt before God and the Canons effectively summarize these verses. The wrath of God abides on all of those apart from Christ. There is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun.
As John says in his gospel, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (John 3:36).” We cannot offer the false hope, however sincere, to those apart from Christ that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” as we find it in the Four Spiritual Laws. This promise is true, but only for a believer. Those apart from Christ know no such hope. They can only expect God’s wrath. That is why such people need to hear the law, and thereby be stripped of all false hope of personal righteousness which can stand on the day of judgment.
As Paul puts it so clearly in Romans 5:1 ff:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
In this passage, Paul sets out the glorious promise that while we were sinners and unable to do anything to save ourselves, God sought us in Christ, taking away the guilt of our sin, which was the very ground of God’s estrangement from us. Remove the basis for God’s anger toward sinners and peace can be restored. This is why it is only in Christ that God saves us from his own wrath, and it is through the death of Christ that he reconciles himself to us and then us to him once the guilt of our sin is removed. This is what it means to have peace with God. The war between sinners and God is over.
But those who are not Christ’s know no such peace and it is not right to hold out false assurances to them. Theirs is but the pursuit of the passing pleasures of sin. Theirs is but the false wisdom of this present evil age. They are without hope and without God in the world. They are separate from Christ and foreigners to the covenant of promise (Ephesians 2:11-22). The wrath of God abides on them (John 3:36). There is no more horrible state imaginable then that which results from human sinfulness and not believing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For the Christian, it is not the law (and the word of condemnation), but the gospel (the word of promise) that has the last word. Let us never forget that those who are Christ’s through faith are heirs to all of the promises of God. For in Christ we are given eternal life, we are justified and can know our sins are forgiven—no matter how great the guilt of them seems to us. In Christ, we are adopted as God’s sons and daughters and in Christ we will inherit all the riches that are found in him. In Christ, therefore, we live and die in the unspeakable comfort of the hope of heaven.
All that we must to is receive that which God offers to us in his son with the empty hands of a living faith by simply trusting that the son of God loved us and gave himself for us to reconcile us to God.
Article 5: The Sources of Unbelief and of Faith
The cause or blame for this unbelief, as well as for all other sins, is not at all in God, but in man. Faith in Jesus Christ, however, and salvation through him is a free gift of God. As Scripture says, It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8). Likewise: It has been freely given to you to believe in Christ (Phil. 1:29).
At this point, the Canons deal with the difficult question as to why some people believe the gospel when it is preached to them, while others reject that same gospel. The authors of the Canons are very careful to follow the biblical testimony about this matter and so they assign all the blame for eternal loss to humanity while giving all glory to God for the salvation of any of Adam's fallen children!
It is often objected, “if salvation depends entirely upon the grace of God, and not all are saved, then God is somehow unfair in his dealings with his creatures." We often hear the question, "why didn’t God chose everyone?” Others have objected, “it seems as though God is somehow preventing people from believing!”
If the starting point set out by the authors of the Canons is correct—human sinfulness and total inability—then the only reason why any perish is because of the guilt of their sin. Those who are lost eternally bear all responsibility for their own sins. On top of that, they are also guilty for their participation in the sin of Adam, who acted as their federal and biological representative in the Garden of Eden. Simply put, people suffer eternal loss (hell) because they are sinful and will not believe the gospel. They do not suffer eternal loss because God deals unfairly with them.
Since all of us are dead in sin and unable to respond to the gospel on our own, our salvation must be seen as a free gift from God. This is what Scripture clearly teaches, as the Canons so clearly indicate. We are saved “by grace through faith, this is not of ourselves.” It is “God who works in us to will and do of his good pleasure!”
The Scriptures also teach that God has not only ordained the ends [who will be saved] but he ordains the means by which they will be saved [the preaching of the gospel]. And the chosen instrument through which sinful men and women receive the merits of Christ (which alone can save them from eternal loss), is faith alone. This is what God has ordained and what the Canons set forth.
But the question remains, "why do some believe in Jesus Christ and others reject him?" This is the real question here and humanly speaking it is difficult to answer. Unless God gives to us an answer to this question, we cannot know why some believe and others do not, we can only guess.
The answer given us in Scripture as to why some believe and others do not, is crystal clear--God in his grace, gives the gift of salvation to those whom he has chosen to be saved, and that through faith, God’s elect embrace the Savior who has been proclaimed to them through the foolishness of preaching. This pattern is set forth by Paul in the first chapter of Ephesians (vv. 3-14):
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
Yet, those whom God does not elect are justly passed over and left to the consequences of their own sins and their guilt in Adam. Dead in sin and under God’s just condemnation, they freely and willfully reject the savior and therefore, tragically, perish eternally. This is clearly taught in Romans 9:10-24.
10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. 19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
At the end of the day, if we think that we are of the elect and are Christians because of something good that God sees in us, or because of something that we have done which causes God to respond to us, we will necessarily depreciate the grace of God. We will not see salvation as a free gift, but as a reward. In fact, the degree to which we attribute our salvation to something good in us is the same degree to which we see ourselves higher than we ought and the degree to which we depreciate the wonderful grace of a merciful God.
Article 6: God's Eternal Decision
The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision. For all his works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decision he graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of his chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by his just judgment he leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen. And in this especially is disclosed to us his act--unfathomable, and as merciful as it is just--of distinguishing between people equally lost. This is the well-known decision of election and reprobation revealed in God's Word. This decision the wicked, impure, and unstable distort to their own ruin, but it provides holy and godly souls with comfort beyond words.
Election is always a difficult concept, especially for Americans operating with the presuppositions of modern democracy–choice determines everything. Nevertheless, election is a doctrine which is clearly taught throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. If God gets all the glory when undeserving sinners are saved, and if men and women are blamed for not believing, how are we to understand this? What about the question of “fairness?” In article six, the authors attempt to deal with some of the implications raised by the fact that our salvation only comes about because of something good in God, and not because of anything good that God finds in the sinful and rebellious creature.
First, the Canons are careful to point out that the ultimate reason why anyone comes to faith in Christ is to be found in God’s eternal decree to save some, known in Scripture as “election.” The Scriptures clearly teach that God acts according to his deliberate plan and purpose. He does not merely watch his creatures act and he then reacts accordingly—which would be something akin to classical deism. In a biblical text (Ephesians 1:11) we have already considered in the previous article of the Canons (article 5), God’s choice to save some is not based upon his foreknowledge of contingent [uncertain] events. Rather, God's choices are based upon his own “purpose” and his “plan,” or better yet, what Paul calls his eternal counsel.
In other words, the decree of election is based upon God’s eternal plan and purpose, and not his response to what his creatures may or may not do using their free will. Clearly this is difficult for us to understand since we are bound to time and space and God is not. But what would the alternative be? The alternative is a God who cannot act to rescue his creatures from their bondage to sin, but who can only watch and then react when the creature takes the first step—something Scripture teaches sinners cannot do (cf. Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13). We are left with a “god” who cannot control every aspect of his own creation, but who can only attempt to change the actions of those who willingly co-operate with his efforts. Such a view does not square with either God’s omnipotence or his immutability.
Those whom God has chosen to save do indeed come to faith only because he acts upon them, by “graciously softening their hearts and inclining them to believe.” As we have seen above, God does this through the means of the preaching of Christ crucified. It is the Holy Spirit working through gospel who turns unbelieving hearts of stone into hearts of flesh which will believe. This means that according to God’s eternal purpose, the stony hearts and unwilling wills of his elect are softened and inclined toward Jesus Christ, through the preaching of the gospel. Ends (God’s election of those specific individuals whom he will save) must be connected to means (the preaching of the gospel).
All of this raises the more difficult question, “what happens to those who are not numbered among God’s elect?” In one sense, we can simply answer, “nothing.” God, who is under no necessity of saving anyone, justly leaves the non-elect to suffer the effects of the hardness of their own hearts. God does not soften that heart, nor does he incline them to believe. He leaves them as they are, dead in sin, unable and unwilling to respond to the good news of Christ. The result is that they perish eternally, because they are guilty in Adam and they willfully commit sin, justly placing them under God’s curse. Unless their hearts are so inclined and softened, they do not want to believe the gospel! It remains dark and repulsive to them. But the fault for this is theirs. God passes over them, exercising his justice and withholding saving grace from them. After all, he is God and can do what he wishes with his creatures.
At this point, the authors of the Canons are careful to point out that if we are all sinful by nature and by choice, the basis for anyone going to heaven and being numbered among the elect is to be found only in God’s unfathomable, mysterious and yet merciful act, in distinguishing between people equally lost. In other words, since we are all sinful, we must see election as God’s choice to save some—based upon reasons known only to himself, his plan and counsel—and not because of anything in the creature which motivates him to chose one but not the other.
Why does God choose one and by-pass the other? He does not tell us why he acts as he does. He doesn't have to. But he does say that he has reasons which remain unknown to us. Moses reminds us in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
This whole subject is difficult for us to comprehend and it is easy for the enemies of the Christian faith or those who do not understand, to distort the biblical teaching on this point. It is easy to caricature the teaching of election so as make it seem as though the Reformed turn the “loving God” into a cold and capricious monster, who supposedly takes away all choice from us, and who creates people only to damn them to hell forever. This obviously is not what the Scriptures teach, nor what the Reformed churches believe.
Indeed, for those who are Christ’s, and who know and believe what the Scriptures teach in this regard, the doctrine of election is a source of unspeakable comfort. If we are in Christ, it is because of something good in God that is far greater than our weakness and sinfulness. And if we are in Christ at this moment, we can be assured that we will be “in Christ” forever. This is clearly taught in John’s gospel when Jesus describes himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10:1-30).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
19 There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. 20 Many of them said, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” 21 Others said, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
22 At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
We find here not the cold language of metaphysics, nor the terminology of speculative theology, but we find the image of the good shepherd caring for his sheep. Since Jesus is our “good shepherd” and we are his sheep, we know that he will never leave us or forsake us because he is faithful and his father is all-powerful. No one can snatch us from his hand! In this, election is an unspeakable source of comfort.
Article 7: Election
Election is God's unchangeable purpose by which he did the following: Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, he chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery. He did this in Christ, whom he also appointed from eternity to be the mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation. And so he decided to give the chosen ones to Christ to be saved, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ's fellowship through his Word and Spirit. In other words, he decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of his Son, to glorify them. God did all this in order to demonstrate his mercy, to the praise of the riches of his glorious grace. As Scripture says, God chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world, so that we should be holy and blameless before him with love; he predestined us whom he adopted as his children through Jesus Christ, in himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, by which he freely made us pleasing to himself in his beloved (Eph. 1:4-6). And elsewhere, Those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified (Rom. 8:30).
In article seven, the Canons set forth a working definition of election which will be used throughout the following articles. It is always important to define our terms and this is what the authors do here. We can best understand this definition by working our way through the main points in order.
First, the Canons point out that election took place in eternity past—“Before the foundation of the world.” This is what Paul states in Ephesians 1:4-6, and his point should be carefully considered so that we remove from our thinking all notions of election being based upon something God sees the creature doing–as in the case of those who argue that God merely knows in advance what we will do under certain conditions and reacts accordingly. While election takes place in eternity past, God executes his eternal decree in time and space. Redemptive history is therefore the outworking of God’s eternal decree. This too can be seen in Ephesians 1:7-10, when Paul speaks of the work of Christ for us, and then in verses 11-14, when he speaks of Christ’s work being applied to believers by the Holy Spirit.
Second, we are told that our election is based upon “sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will.” In other words, the reason why God elects anyone to be saved, is because he is good and merciful, not because we are lovable or desirable. Neither can we say God “needs” us, as if he were lonely. Let us not forget that God is triune and has known a perfect inter-Trinitarian love from all eternity. As much as we wish it were so, God could get along fine without us. The reason why any of us are chosen in Christ remains a mystery which lies hidden in the eternal counsel of God.
Third, God “chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin.” In order to understand the doctrine of election, it is imperative that we see it as a divine rescue of sinners. In election, God rescues a multitude so vast they cannot be counted (Revelation 7:9) from the guilt and the consequences of their sin (Romans 5:12, 18-19). Because we are all sinful, we will not come to God, unless we are first chosen by God, then called through the preaching of the gospel, and given the gift of faith. God has chosen to save those whom he has chosen, and his saving grace is specifically directed toward the men and women he intended to save from his own wrath. He does not direct his saving grace toward the human race generally (or ineffectually). This means that God acts directly upon those whom he intends to save, so that they come to faith in Christ and receive the forgiveness of sins and a justifying righteousness. The Bible does not teach that God makes it possible for sinful men and women to save themselves with his help.
The fourth point is closely related: “Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery.” Those chosen can count on the fact that God chose them to confound the wise! There is nothing to boast about if you are a believer in Christ. In a remarkable passage in Deuteronomy, we read of God’s election of Israel: “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8). God chose Israel for reasons known to himself, and not because of any good works or great faith he foresaw in his chosen nation.
Likewise, for the Christian, election is God’s gracious choice to save a particular sinner who deserves his just wrath and punishment so that in the end God will be glorified and the sinner redeemed. God is not taking anything away from other sinners, nor is he preventing other sinners from coming to faith. All are equally guilty before God and deserving of his judgment. But in his unspeakable grace, God chooses to save some who would otherwise perish eternally.
Fifth, we must take note of the fact that “He did this in Christ, whom he also appointed from eternity to be the mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation.” Christ is elect one, in whom all of God’s elect are chosen and justified. This means we are chosen in Christ, called to faith by the preaching of Christ crucified, justified by the blood and righteousness of Christ, and sanctified by the Spirit of Christ, before we are glorified. Christ is the mediator of the covenant of grace, which is the historical outworking of God’s gracious decree to save. This is why our election is inextricably tied to our faith in Christ. God elects us in Christ so that we will believe in Christ.
So, how then do you know if you are numbered among the election? The answer is to be found in Christ! As Calvin points out, Christ is the mirror of our election (Institutes, III.xxv.4). In other words, if you believe in Jesus, you are assured that you are among the elect, because election is always “in Christ.”
Sixth, the Canons point out that “[God] decided to give the chosen ones to Christ to be saved, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ's fellowship through his Word and Spirit. In other words, he decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of his Son, to glorify them.” This is important because it means that God not only elects us in Christ, giving us to Christ (as Jesus declares in John’s gospel, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37), but that God also acts in Christ to ensure that his elect are called through the preaching of the gospel, that they believe when the gospel is preached to them, and that all the benefits of Christ are now theirs, applied to them by the Holy Spirit.
Paul sets this forth in unmistakable clarity in Romans 8:28-30: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” This passage is often called the “golden chain" of our salvation.
Finally, the ultimate reason behind this doctrine is clearly and simply stated— “God did all this in order to demonstrate his mercy, to the praise of the riches of his glorious grace.” As we said earlier, there is no reason to be given for grace, but grace. All praise, glory, and honor must go to God when a sinner is saved by God from God. There is no human boasting allowed!
Article 8: A Single Decision of Election
This election is not of many kinds; it is one and the same election for all who were to be saved in the Old and the New Testament. For Scripture declares that there is a single good pleasure, purpose, and plan of God's will, by which he chose us from eternity both to grace and to glory, both to salvation and to the way of salvation, which he prepared in advance for us to walk in.
Scripture clearly teaches that election is based upon God’s eternal counsel and purpose, and is a mystery to us unless revealed by God in his word or through the passage of time (cf. Ephesians 1:3-i4). As we have seen, election is not based upon anything God foresees in the creature. We now learn that God’s decree is one. God does not have multiple wills or purposes, as for example, when our Lutheran friends contend that God has an antecedent will to save all men and women but a consequent will to save those who believe and do not resist grace [the elect]. This may be a sincere attempt to solve the problem of reprobation [God not choosing some to be saved, thereby rendering them objects of his wrath], but ends up creating a bigger problem–two apparently contradictory wills within God. These two wills include God’s will to save all, and his will to save the elect only (those who do not resist God’s grace and who believe the gospel.
Therefore, it is important for the authors of the Canons to point out that God has a single eternal purpose based upon his own eternal counsel. While this is beyond our full comprehension, it is nevertheless a fundamental fact of the teaching of Holy Scripture (cf. Ephesians 1:11— “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will”).
It is also clear from Scripture that God’s elect, who would otherwise remain dead in sin, are expressly called from their former condition unto holiness of life. As Paul says in Ephesians 1:4, “we were chosen in Christ before the creation of the world, to be holy and blameless.” And as the apostle says in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” From this it is clear that we have been called from our bondage and slavery to sin and its wage (death), and are given faith and are thereby united to Christ. As an inevitable result of this union with our savior, we will now walk in the good works which God has prepared in advance for us to walk.
Far from making us indifferent to holy living and cold toward God and neighbor, election is in reality the only biblical basis for a life of obedience, lived in gratitude as a response to God’s grace bestowed to us in Christ! The only way a bad tree will ever bear good fruit is if the nature of the tree itself is changed. This is, of course, exactly what happens in election and regeneration which flows from God decision in eternity past. This is what Jesus is getting at when he says in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”
Article 9: Election Not Based on Foreseen Faith
This same election took place, not on the basis of foreseen faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, or of any other good quality and disposition, as though it were based on a prerequisite cause or condition in the person to be chosen, but rather for the purpose of faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, and so on. Accordingly, election is the source of each of the benefits of salvation. Faith, holiness, and the other saving gifts, and at last eternal life itself, flow forth from election as its fruits and effects. As the apostle says, He chose us (not because we were, but) so that we should be holy and blameless before him in love (Eph. 1:4).
The authors of the Canons are now careful to make the point that since the Scriptures teach that election is based upon God’s good pleasure and purpose (and nothing good within us), election cannot be based upon anything external to God (i.e., something good that God sees in the creature). It is equally clear that God does not elect any as the consequence of some action that the creature takes which causes or motivates God to respond (in this case, the exercise of faith). This is difficult for us to grasp because this view of election necessarily assigns all glory to God, and all blame to us.
Many have tried tried to evade the force of this critical point by arguing that God's election is indeed based upon factors external to God, i.e., something which the creature does. In other words, God sets things in motion (by providing a generic, universal, and non-saving grace), and he then reacts to what his creatures do with with the grace he's made available to them. But this amounts to nothing more than a practical deism.
The most common objection that we encounter to the doctrine election as set forth in the earlier articles of the Canons is the argument that God elects individuals based upon foreseen faith. In other words, God elects those whom he knows will believe the gospel when it is preached to them. You’ve probably heard the all-too common analogy that election is like a movie God has already seen. He knows what each of the characters will do, and so he elects them on that basis.
Of course, this is seriously flawed, and is not what the Scriptures teach. God does not merely know in advance what we will do under certain conditions. God knows what we will do, because he has ordained whatsoever comes to pass, and yet he does so in such a way as to establish human freedom, not destroy it. God knows what we will do in the movie of life because he wrote the screenplay and the script, he created the actors, the cameras, the film . . . You get the point.
While the Greek word proginosko, translated as “to foreknow” in Romans 8:29, can mean that God knows in advance what his creatures will do, the term is probably better understood here in the sense of “knowing the person in advance.” This would mean that God does not merely know what actions a person whom he foreknows will take under certain circumstances, and he then reacts to that action. Rather, proginosko may be better understood in light of a text like Psalm 139, where God’s intimate knowledge of us (as persons) is the basis for his knowledge 0f what we will do. He who formed us in our mother’s womb knows us better than we know ourselves. This is why it helps to understand the word “foreknow” in terms of personal intimacy (God’s knowledge of us since he created us), rather than in terms of sterile metaphysics (God knows in advance what we will do with the various options available to us).
Remember too, that according to Romans 8:28-30, God's calling is not based upon foreknowledge, but upon "his purpose." This fits perfectly with a text like Psalm 139, and with Ephesians 1:3-14, which we have already discussed in some detail above.
It is important to notice that the Canons also teach that election is always unto something (holiness), not because of something in us (the presence of faith, the virtue of faith, or any personal holiness which might result from faith). This point is vital to understand. We are sinful and fallen and can do nothing to soften our own hearts or incline ourselves to believe the gospel. When we are chosen by God, we are chosen in Christ so that when we come to faith in him, we are also delivered from our bondage to sin and death. We are also set aside for God’s sovereign purposes. We become his workmanship, appointed to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). It is because we have been chosen in Christ that the fruit of the Spirit develops within us, and God produces holiness in our lives.
Just as we are not numbered among the elect because God knows that we will believe when the gospel is preached to us (rather, because we have been chosen by God, we will believe when the gospel is proclaimed to us), so too, we are not numbered among the elect because God knows that we will perform certain good works once we are Christians. Rather, because we are elect in Christ, we will perform good works as the fruit of that faith which he graciously gives to us.
As the Canons make clear, election is the only basis for the manifestation of any of the Christian virtues in us (faith, obedience and so on), since otherwise, we would still be slaves to sin and unable to perform a single good work, because without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). It is because of divine election that we respond to the gospel when we hear it. It is because of divine election that we perform good works and demonstrate true holiness.
This is a cause and effect relationship. Election is the cause, and faith and obedience are the effects—and not the other way around, as is so often taught today.
Article 10: Election Based on God's Good Pleasure
But the cause of this undeserved election is exclusively the good pleasure of God. This does not involve his choosing certain human qualities or actions from among all those possible as a condition of salvation, but rather involves his adopting certain particular persons from among the common mass of sinners as his own possession. As Scripture says, When the children were not yet born, and had done nothing either good or bad..., she (Rebecca) was told, "The older will serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" (Rom. 9:11_13). Also, All who were appointed for eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).
As we have seen in our survey of the previous articles, the Canons point out that the only biblical basis for God’s choice of a multitude of sinners so vast they cannot be counted to become vessels of honor and not vessels of destruction (Romans 9:22-23) is to be found solely in God’s own inscrutable will (Isaiah 46:8-10; Psalm 115:3; 135:6). Likewise, the reason why God sovereignly passes over others is known only to himself (Romans 9:14-16), except to say, that since all of Adam’s children are sinners by nature and by choice (Romans 5:12-19), not one of them deserves to be chosen.
To put it another way, the only reason why any are chosen to be redeemed from their sin is to be found in God and not in the creature. This means that election is based upon God’s sovereign pleasure and purpose, and not because of anything good in us, since we are seen as fallen in Adam when we are chosen.
The sole reason why any of us were chosen by God is because of God’s mysterious will—what Calvin called the “horrible [awesome] decree.” What good or value could God possibly foresee in us that would cause him to choose us? There is nothing good in us (Romans 3:10-12). God doesn’t choose us because we are smarter, better-looking, less offensive, and so on, than others. Rather, we are chosen from the same common lump of fallen human clay to become vessels of glory for reasons known only to God. Those who are not chosen remain as they were before and are, therefore, destined to remain vessels of wrath. The elect receive grace. Those passed-by receive justice. No one is treated unjustly or unfairly as our contemporaries so often whine.
Clearly, this is a great mystery and it is this very point about which most people object--democratic Americans especially. It is only natural that we would want God to choose everyone. It is certainly understandable why we would want God to choose our unsaved loved ones. Of course, we want God to do it our way, or else we will object! But who are sinners, bound to time and space, and who can have no knowledge of what it means for the Holy God to be offended by our sin, to complain about how the creator of all saves a multitude of people who don’t deserve to be saved? We don't like this doctrine because it forces us to bow the knee before our Creator and Redeemer and say, "not my will be done, but thine."
The fact is, Scripture teaches that God elects a multitude of Adam's fallen children based upon reasons known only to himself--reasons which he chooses not to reveal to us. If any go to heaven, it is only because God elects them in Christ and then redeems them in Christ. If any perish eternally, it is because God has passed over them and leaves them to the just consequences of their own sin and their sin in Adam.
When we talk of election, God must get all praise, glory and honor. And we must accept all the blame. And that is why people don't like the topic of election.
Article 11: Election Unchangeable
Just as God himself is most wise, unchangeable, all-knowing, and almighty, so the election made by him can neither be suspended nor altered, revoked, or annulled; neither can his chosen ones be cast off, nor their number reduced.
As the Canons point out, God is immutable (unchanging) in both his being and his purpose. Therefore his decree of election is likewise unchanging. We know this because election is based solely upon God’s good pleasure and purpose, and occurs, as Paul says, “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). This means the full number of the elect is unchangeable.
This is an important point because it means that God does not change his mind once his decree is executed in time and space. God does not add to the number of the elect when he sees someone doing something good he did not expect! Nor does God subtract from the number of the elect when one of those whom he has chosen happens to fall into sin. All of God’s elect will come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. This is God's purpose in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-14; Romans 8:28-30).
The knowledge of this should give us great comfort because it means that no one who is presently numbered among the elect can fall away and be lost. This is what Jesus means when he says “all that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). God is not capricious nor does he change his mind. This means that if we are truly in Christ at this moment, we can be assured that we will die in Christ, because he will never leave nor forsake us. We cannot simply slip through his fingers.
As Paul reminds the Philippians, "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philppians 1:6). Indeed, the good shepherd reminds us, "my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:27-30).
Just think of where we'd be if God's decree was not immutable . . .
Article 12: The Assurance of Election
Assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation is given to the chosen in due time, though by various stages and in differing measure. Such assurance comes not by inquisitive searching into the hidden and deep things of God, but by noticing within themselves, with spiritual joy and holy delight, the unmistakable fruits of election pointed out in God's Word–such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.
We now come to one of the most troubling aspects of the biblical teaching about election, and that is the question, “how do we know that we are numbered among the elect?” Assurance of salvation is one point where the rubber hits the road for many struggling saints. The authors of the Canons are careful to point out that “assurance...is given to the chosen in due time, though by various stages and in differing measure.” Assurance of salvation is a struggle for some, and not at all for others. Not all Christians have the assurance of their salvation at all times. Yes, this is a difficult struggle for many.
The primary reason for a lack of assurance is human sinfulness. Although we were chosen before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), and we are called to faith in Christ at a particular point in time (Ephesians 1:13), and are then justified, and have the hope of heaven and glorification, the sinful nature is not eradicated until death (Romans 7:14-25; Galatians 5;17). In fact, the sinful nature (the flesh) puts up a fierce struggle until we take our last breath, and finally enter into the presence of God. When we are disobedient to God’s commands, or when we are indifferent to the things of the Lord, we may indeed feel God’s displeasure with us, and we may, for a time, question whether or not we are among the elect.
Lest this be too big a burden for us to bear, we need to remind ourselves that a non-Christian never once worries about whether or not they are numbered among the elect! Only a Christian regrets his or her actions, and feels what we call “the conviction of sin.” In these cases, the law does its work, and the Spirit moves us to repent. As every Christian knows, this is a very miserable place to be.
As Paul points out in Romans 7:14 ff., only the Christian desires to obey God’s law, and then struggles with his or her repeated inability to do so. Only the Christian struggles with desiring to do what is right, and only the Christian desires to avoid doing what is wrong in the sense described by Paul. Only the Christian feels this misery when we fail to do things we know that God requires of us. According to Paul, this struggle is the normal Christian life! Paradoxically, the fact that we struggle with sin is not a sign that we are not numbered among the elect. Rather, it is just the opposite! The struggle with sin is the sign that God is working in us to will and do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). This is a struggle which a non-Christian never experiences. Thankfully, God does not leave us where we are, he sanctifies us. At times, his work within us can be an intense, and difficult struggle. But it is his work.
A second reason we may lack the assurance of our salvation is to be found in the unbiblical teaching and false doctrine about the nature of the Christian life, which so many of us learned in our evangelical or Roman past. In much of the evangelical world, assurance of salvation is often based upon performance, obedience, and external acts of piety. If it was a good week, then we feel God’s favor. If we have a good devotional time, if we witnessed to our co-worker, then we are doing just fine. If it was a bad week, then we need to worry! We have not let Jesus become Lord over every area of our lives, and we are not living in victory. When this happens, we are told that we are in real trouble. The voice in our head starts to tell us, “we might not be Christ’s . . . . If we were, we’d be doing better.”
At this point, the Canons pointedly remind us not to seek the assurance of our salvation in our own performance. Instead, we must seek our assurance through those things taught in Scripture—“such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.” In other words, we are not to look within to find assurance of our salvation, but instead we are to look outside ourselves to the promises made in Scripture about the sufficiency of saving work of Christ. God’s word says that Christ saves sinners, even the worst! Do we believe that promise, regardless of our own performance? That is where assurance begins–but not necessarily where it ends.
This is why the authors of the Canons direct us to those promises in the word which need to be repeatedly declared to us audibly by our minister, our elders, and fellow Christians. When we lack assurance, we must learn to quickly run to the promises of Christ in his word.
Our fear of failure--that we might eventually fall and come under the wrath of God--often manifests itself in displeasure at our own performance. We take our failures as a sign that God hates us. Ironically, our displeasure with our progress is actually a sign of God's favor toward us! God is convicting us of our sin. God is bringing his work in us to fruition. But far too many times, we have this completely backwards. We take our poor performance in the Christian life as a sign that we are not elect, when, in fact, our sorrow over our poor performance, is actually a sign that we are among the elect! No non-Christian has ever experienced this struggle. No non-Christian ever worried about this. But every Christian struggles with sin.
Let us not forget that the closer we grow to God, and the more we know his word, the more dissatisfied we may be with our present level of sanctification. Not one of those whom God passes over and leaves in their sin will ever worry about their level of sanctification. Are we sorrowful at our sins? Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness? These, too, are signs of assurance, not signs of God's wrath toward us.
Another reason why so many lack assurance, is because we are looking for it in all the wrong places! When we seek assurance of our salvation in our feelings and opinions, our religious experience, our performance, we are setting ourselves up for a gigantic disappointment. God does not promise to give us assurance through these things. Rather, he gives us assurance through his word and sacraments. Through these means of grace, God’s Spirit bears powerful witness to us that we are the children of God.
But how does he do this? He does this through the promise of forgiveness of sins given in his word, and through the strengthening of our faith given to us through the sacraments. Through the promise of the gospel, and through water, wine, and bread, God promises us that we are his. Yet, if we fail to take avail of the means of grace that God has graciously given to us, of course, we will suffer, and the loss of assurance is one of the first things that may go, especially if we we start looking for assurance in the wrong place--i.e., our own obedience or performance.
At the end of the day, how do we know that we are among the elect? The answer is simple. Do you believe the promise in Scripture that Christ saves sinners, even the worst? Do you believe that Christ's death can even save you? Are you unhappy with your present level of sanctification? Are you sorry for your sins?
If you can answer these questions with a “yes,” then take heart, for you are certainly numbered among the elect!
Article 13: The Fruit of This Assurance
In their awareness and assurance of this election God's children daily find greater cause to humble themselves before God, to adore the fathomless depth of his mercies, to cleanse themselves, and to give fervent love in return to him who first so greatly loved them. This is far from saying that this teaching concerning election, and reflection upon it, make God's children lax in observing his commandments or carnally self-assured. By God's just judgment this does usually happen to those who casually take for granted the grace of election or engage in idle and brazen talk about it but are unwilling to walk in the ways of the chosen.
Contrary to the theology of fear and guilt taught by so many of our contemporaries, the assurance of our salvation is actually the only proper basis for good works. Critics of the Reformed faith often charge that if you tell Christians that they can assuredly know that they will go to heaven when they die, then there is no longer any incentive for doing good works.
The response to this misguided argument is a simple rhetorical question. “Does a dog bark to become a dog, or does a dog bark because it is a dog?” According to Hebrews 11:6, only the Christian who has been given faith as a gift by God, can actually do good works in the first place! Non-Christians can't perform any work that is acceptable to God, because whatever work they perform, is completely tainted and stained by the guilt of sin (Romans 3:12).
Let us not forget that good works spontaneously spring forth in the lives of those who have been called by God to faith in Jesus, and who have been justified and united to Christ (cf. Galatians 5:16-26). If the tree has been changed from a bad tree to a good one through regeneration, so too, good fruit will naturally and inevitably follow—though, as Luther wisely counseled, we should not look to this fruit in our own lives for the primary assurance of our own salvation because we are often times the worst judge of our own character! If we are privileged to see good fruit in our own lives, it should only serve to remind us of God’s graciousness to us, since his grace is the only reason why the fruit is there in the first place. But others in the body of Christ may see true fruit in us and be moved to give thanks to God.
Although I am sure they are there, I have yet to meet someone who is a Christian, and who asks, “how many sins can I commit and still be a Christian?” Biblically understood, the assurance of our salvation is not based upon human presumption and vanity, but upon confidence in Jesus Christ, who has promised to never leave us nor forsake us, and who prays for us, to that our faith will not fail (Luke 22:32; I John 2:1-2). Far from making us lax in our efforts, then, if we are in Christ, what else can we do, but live a life of gratitude, striving to be obedient to the commands of God as revealed in his word (1 John 5:2)?
The Canons also warn us, that those who reject this teaching, and who base assurance on human efforts are, ironically, the ones most apt to fall into sin. “By God's just judgment this does usually happen to those who casually take for granted the grace of election or engage in idle and brazen talk about it but are unwilling to walk in the ways of the chosen.” How many illustrations of this are there? Too many, I am afraid.
Therefore, the assurance of our salvation is based upon the promises of our Savior (John 6:37, 10:28), and once we are in him, the Scriptures declare, good works will inevitably follow (John 15:16). We must be very careful here not to reverse this order, and make the good works that we do to be the basis for our assurance. For this is the religion of fear and doubt, the religion that terrifies the soul. This is the American religion, grounded in a false sense of human goodness, and which places far too much confidence in the flesh.
Article 14: Teaching Election Properly
Just as, by God's wise plan, this teaching concerning divine election has been proclaimed through the prophets, Christ himself, and the apostles, in Old and New Testament times, and has subsequently been committed to writing in the Holy Scriptures, so also today in God's church, for which it was specifically intended, this teaching must be set forth--with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High. This must be done for the glory of God's most holy name, and for the lively comfort of his people.
It is vital that we keep in mind the fact that the doctrine of election is not presented to us in Scripture as a subject for our intellectual speculation, or as a means by which we can satisfy our sinful curiosities about the hidden things of God. God did not reveal his eternal purposes to us so that we could have a new subject about which to debate and speculate. He did not reveal this so that the more learned, devoted, or zealous in our midst, could somehow force their way into the throne room of God and get a peek at the Deus nudus (the “naked God”). God revealed this doctrine to us to promote his own glory, not to satisfy our musing and speculation.
In fact, it was none other than Calvin himself, who cautions us about the dangers of such undue speculation about the subject of election and predestination:
The subject of predestination, which in itself is attended with considerable difficulty is rendered very perplexed and hence perilous by human curiosity, which cannot be restrained from wandering into forbidden paths and climbing to the clouds determined if it can that none of the secret things of God shall remain unexplored. When we see many, some of them in other respects not bad men, every where rushing into this audacity and wickedness, it is necessary to remind them of the course of duty in this matter. First, then, when they inquire into predestination, let then remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity will enter in inextricable labyrinth. For it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear. Those secrets of his will, which he has seen it meet to manifest, are revealed in his word-revealed in so far as he knew to be conducive to our interest and welfare (Institutes, III.xxi.1).
This is exactly the same point that the Canons are making. The reason why we must wrestle with the doctrine of election is not to satisfy our own curiosity, but to promote God’s honor and glory, and so that we might find comfort in the midst of the tumultuous nature of life in a world full of sin and doubt.
We teach and proclaim the doctrine of election only because God has revealed this doctrine to us in the Holy Scriptures by his prophets, by Christ himself, and by all the apostles. And since this teaching is given by God to his church, we must proclaim, teach, and defend this truth without any compromise.
Yet, at the same time, the Canons point out, “this teaching must be set forth—with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High.” Here is where wisdom and prudence enter the discussion. The Canons exhort us to teach and discuss these matters with the utmost of discretion and care, at the appropriate time, and in an appropriate manner. In other words, we should exercise a fair bit of tact, compassion, and discernment here. Someone who has just lost an unbelieving loved one is not likely to be too receptive to the biblical teaching on reprobation—for good reason. And yet, presented at the right time, and in the right way, the subject should be broached as part of the normal catechesis of all Christian believers without compromise.
One of the main reasons that the doctrines of election and predestination are so difficult to discuss with others is not because the doctrine is unbiblical, and there is not much evidence for it in the Scriptures. Rather, this is a difficult subject to discuss, precisely because it is a difficult subject!
The doctrine of election can also be a touchy subject because so many Reformed folk have been so obnoxious about the subject to those outside the Reformed faith. Far too often, Reformed Christians use the doctrine of election solely to “evangelize” their Arminian friends, or to win an argument, or make a point, and not, as the Canons urge, for the glory of God's most holy name, and for the lively comfort of his people. Our sinful nature wants to be right, and as we all know, the flesh is not interested in God’s honor and glory.
In this regard, the focus of our efforts should be where the Biblical teaching places it, upon the graciousness of God in choosing to save some out of the fallen mass of sinful humanity to glorify his name—namely, those of us who believe in Christ—and to leave the rest under God’s just condemnation for their own sin, so as to magnify his justice.
This doctrine is revealed to us, God's people, so that we who are sinful, weak, and full of fear and doubt, might instead place our sole confidence in God, who is gracious, almighty, and merciful beyond words. As Paul says in the opening of his letter to the Philippians, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” God comforts us with the knowledge that he will not start something, and then quit in the middle of it!
As Reformed Christians, we believe, teach, and preach the doctrine of election because of God’s glory and honor, and for the comfort of the saints.
Article 15: Reprobation
Moreover, Holy Scripture most especially highlights this eternal and undeserved grace of our election and brings it out more clearly for us, in that it further bears witness that not all people have been chosen but that some have not been chosen or have been passed by in God's eternal election-- those, that is, concerning whom God, on the basis of his entirely free, most just, irreproachable, and unchangeable good pleasure, made the following decision:
to leave them in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves; not to grant them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but finally to condemn and eternally punish them (having been left in their own ways and under his just judgment), not only for their unbelief but also for all their other sins, in order to display his justice.
And this is the decision of reprobation, which does not at all make God the author of sin (a blasphemous thought!) but rather its fearful, irreproachable, just judge and avenger.
If the biblical teaching about election is difficult for us to grasp, the biblical teaching about reprobation is that much more difficult. Like it or not, we must face the fact that if God chooses to save some, and not all, of Adam’s fallen children, then God must also in some manner deal with those whom he has not chosen. Although many try to avoid the subject at all costs, the fact of the matter is that we must wrestle with the biblical teaching about reprobation (cf. Romans 9:1-23). This is a revealed doctrine every bit as much as is election.
It is good to begin by pointing out if sinful human curiosity is a problem when we talk about election, such speculation is a far greater problem when we come to the subject of reprobation. Here, of all places, we must be very careful to teach only what Scripture teaches, and we must go no further.
This limit is important for several very important and practical reasons. For one thing, there are many in our midst who are weak in faith, or who, perhaps, are struggling with certain besetting sins. Often times, such people, upon hearing any discussion of reprobation, will immediately wonder if, somehow, they are numbered among the reprobate. They take their weak faith, or their struggle with sin, as a reason to assume the worst–they are not Christ’s and can do nothing to change that. Sadly, such people are unduly robbed of the assurance of their salvation.
A second group who must be cautioned, are those who are prone to speculation, and who, perhaps inadvertently, communicate to others that they take great delight in the fact that God has not chosen all, and that the reprobate will ultimately get what is coming to them in the end. There are indeed people in our churches who seem to take some sort of smug satisfaction that they are numbered among the elect and others are not.
But let us not forget that God takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). Although God’s justice and glory are manifest in the eternal punishment of those who have rebelled against him, and who willingly die in sin rather than confess “Jesus Christ is Lord,” the famous saying is indeed true–“there, but the grace of God go I.” The biblical teaching about reprobation cannot be seen as a matter of pride on the part of the elect. For apart from the grace of God, we too, would remain enslaved to sin and death. The teaching of election and reprobation should absolutely humble us, because it removes from beneath our feet any and every ground for boasting.
What do we mean when we speak of reprobation? Here it is important that we carefully define our terms. There are three aspects to the biblical teaching about reprobation set forth in the Canons.
First, as the Canons note, reprobation means that God does not chose all to receive eternal life, and these not chosen are left “in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves.” This fact is important to grasp, because it means that God does not prevent those not chosen from believing. This also means that God does not prevent people from coming to faith in Christ, who otherwise would do so. The Canons have already established the fact that if left to themselves, all those fallen in Adam do not want to believe the gospel and come to faith in Christ. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, his lament was “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not” (Matthew 23:37). God passes over the non-elect and he leaves them where they are—dead in sins and trespasses (cf. Ephesians 2:1). He does not treat them unjustly. In fact, all those not chosen get exactly that they deserve.
The second aspect of this is that God does not “grant them saving faith and the grace of conversion.” Again, by not choosing them, God is not preventing those already fallen in Adam from believing. He is not robbing people of something to which they would otherwise be entitled. Rather, God wills not to incline their sinful hearts to believe the gospel. He chooses not to effectively call them to faith when the gospel is preached to them. God leaves them where they already are–in sin. Such people will not believe because they remain sinful by nature and by choice. They won’t come to Christ, because they do not want to come to Christ.
Third, since such people are not chosen, nor are they inclined to believe, they are finally condemned. God will “eternally punish them (having been left in their own ways and under his just judgment), not only for their unbelief but also for all their other sins, in order to display his justice.” This point is vital to grasp because it means that those not chosen do indeed get what their actions deserve! God does not treat them unjustly. He does not show them mercy, nor in any sense is he obligated to do so–or else grace would not be grace (cf. Romans 4:16).
Finally, it should also be pointed out that this teaching in no way makes God the author of sin—which the Canons note would indeed be a blasphemous thought. God is Holy. In him there is no shadow of turning. As James says (1:13-15), “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” We must never even entertain the thought that God is the author of sin.
And yet at the same time, we must clearly grasp the fact that God is the holy avenger of Sin. The reprobate get is what is due them as a matter of divine justice. The elect, on the other hand, do not get is due them, because God chose them in Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ satisfied God’s holy justice on their behalf in suffering and dying for his elect upon Calvary’s cross.
Article 16: Responses to the Teaching of Reprobation
Those who do not yet actively experience within themselves a living faith in Christ or an assured confidence of heart, peace of conscience, a zeal for childlike obedience, and a glorying in God through Christ, but who nevertheless use the means by which God has promised to work these things in us–such people ought not to be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor to count themselves among the reprobate; rather they ought to continue diligently in the use of the means, to desire fervently a time of more abundant grace, and to wait for it in reverence and humility. On the other hand, those who seriously desire to turn to God, to be pleasing to him alone, and to be delivered from the body of death, but are not yet able to make such progress along the way of godliness and faith as they would like–such people ought much less to stand in fear of the teaching concerning reprobation, since our merciful God has promised that he will not snuff out a smoldering wick and that he will not break a bruised reed. However, those who have forgotten God and their Savior Jesus Christ and have abandoned themselves wholly to the cares of the world and the pleasures of the flesh–such people have every reason to stand in fear of this teaching, as long as they do not seriously turn to God.
There are a number of possible responses people can have to the teaching of reprobation. The Canons deal with three of them. The first group of people identified by the Canons are “those who do not yet actively experience within themselves a living faith in Christ or an assured confidence of heart, peace of conscience, a zeal for childlike obedience, and a glorying in God through Christ, but who nevertheless use the means by which God has promised to work these things in us.” This category refers to those who have not yet come to saving faith in Christ. These people cannot yet say that they are trusting in Christ, although they may be wrestling with the guilt of their sins, and are convinced of the truth of Christianity.
This group includes the older children of believers who have been baptized, but have not yet made profession of faith. But there are others we need to consider–not mentioned by the Canons–who, at this point in time, appear to have no interest in Christ. Although this is currently the case does not mean that all such people are numbered among the reprobate, nor can we treat them as such, even if they appear to be notorious evil doers.
If we were Christians suffering under the persecution of one Saul of Tarsus, we would find it very difficult to believe when we heard that such a notorious persectutor of the church was now proclaiming Christ crucified. But God can save anyone he pleases. There is also every possibility that we will see deathbed and foxhole conversions, in the cases of those people who do not embrace the Savior—either through sin or through carelessness—until the last possible moment. The critical point here is that we cannot regard anyone from a worldly point of view, and declare them as “reprobate” until such time as they die rejecting the Savior.
And so, as the authors of the Canons point out—“such people [those who have yet come to saving faith] ought not to be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor to count themselves among the reprobate; rather they ought to continue diligently in the use of the means, to desire fervently a time of more abundant grace, and to wait for it in reverence and humility.” We should exhort all those who do not yet profess faith in the Savior, to continue to attend to the means of grace, especially the proclamation of the word of God, to the end that they may make profession of faith in Christ and thereby be regarded as “professing members” of Christ’s church.
A second group of people identified by the Canons are those, who, “on the other hand, those who seriously desire to turn to God, to be pleasing to him alone, and to be delivered from the body of death, but are not yet able to make such progress along the way of godliness and faith as they would like.” This group includes those who have made a “profession of faith,” but who still struggle with the assurance of salvation. These are people with habitual sins, weak consciences, improper theological views of justification and sanctification, and who because of these circumstances, take the biblical teaching about reprobation to mean that they are not numbered among the elect. Despite all of their efforts, because of the struggle with indwelling sin, they assume that they are in jeopardy of perishing eternally. Such people live in constant fear and introspection.
Our response to such people is set out as follows: “Such people ought much less to stand in fear of the teaching concerning reprobation, since our merciful God has promised that he will not snuff out a smoldering wick and that he will not break a bruised reed.” Indeed, as we have pointed out earlier, the struggle with sin, the dissatisfaction with our present level of sanctification, are actually signs that we are numbered among the elect, since those whom God has not chosen, and whom he has left in sin, never struggle with these questions.
A third group, is also identified by the authors of the Canons, and this is “those who have forgotten God and their Savior Jesus Christ and have abandoned themselves wholly to the cares of the world and the pleasures of the flesh.” Here, the Canons are referring to those who after professing faith or joining Christ’s church, then fall away. These people are spoken of throughout the New Testament as follows. In 1 John 2:19, John speaks of those who “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
The implication is clear. They fell away because they were not “of us,” that is, they were not numbered among the elect. They for a time professed faith, but eventually this profession was proven false. In Galatians 5:4, Paul speaks of those “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” Here, the apostle is speaking of those who will not give up their confidence in the merit of human good works. In the worse case scenario, found in Hebrews 6:4-6, the author declares that “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” This is what our Lord is describing in the parable of the sower, recorded in Matthew 13:3ff,
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. . . . “Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Some of those who profess faith are of the poor soil that our Lord describes here. Faith may flourish for a time, but cannot ultimately take root because of sin and the cares of the world.
With this last category, it is important to notice that we are not counseled to exercise the care we would with the previous two groups, since the goal here is to make perfectly clear to them the consequences of their actions, lest they not repent—“such people have every reason to stand in fear of this teaching, as long as they do not seriously turn to God.” In this regard, we are to use the teaching of reprobation much as we would the preaching of the law, namely to terrify the conscience, and to drive them to Jesus Christ who is the mirror of election. People in this category are not to be comforted, but warned!
The diverse nature of these three categories of individuals make it clear to us why we must exercise great care when we teach, preach and reflect upon this very difficult subject (reprobation). But the general rule of thumb is clear. Those who are indifferent to their sin need to be confronted by the law and the fact of the final judgment. Those wrestling with the guilt of sin, need to hear the gospel, over and over again. They need to participate in the means of grace, because it is through these things that God strengthens faith and confirms our election.
Article 17: The Salvation of the Infants of Believers
Since we must make judgments about God's will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.
Because of human sin, and the fact that the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to all of his descendants, unspeakable tragedies occur. Ours is a sinful and fallen race. We are weakened in body because of the inherited corruption passed down to us from our first father. Furthermore, we are subject to the sinful actions of our fellow sinners. Because we are under the curse, we will all die. As one of the sages of popular culture puts it, “nobody gets out of here alive.”
One of the worst consequences of the Fall is the death of a child. It is bad enough that children, now grown, must bury those who brought them into the world, and who have cared and provided for them. It is even worse when parents are forced to bury a child who never lived to adulthood. If such a tragedy is not a graphic picture of the reality which is the imputation of Adam’s sin to all his progeny, then I don’t know what is.
Having raised the brutal reality of the consequences of original sin (guilt, death, and final judgment), the authors of the Canons have also spoken of election (the exercise of God’s mercy) and reprobation (the exercise of God’s justice).
But at this point, the Canons address the very difficult subject of what happens when infants and small children of believers die in infancy, or in their youth, without ever having made a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Are we to consider such children as elect (and saved)? Or as reprobate (and lost)? Even framing the question like this makes us shudder, but it is a question we have all asked (if the truth be known), and the Canons do not shirk from answering it.
While most American evangelicals can fall back upon their Pelagianism and argue for the innocence of such children, we have already seen that the Scriptures do not allow us such an unbiblical escape. If the Bible is clear about anything, it is clear that our children–however precious they are to us–are sinful from the time of their conception (Psalm 51:5; 58:3). Like their parents, they are by nature, children of wrath, and therefore subject to the curse, which is death (Romans 5:12).
Despite the widely accepted American dogma of an “age of accountability”–that unspecified moment when children supposedly become responsible for their sins, and for any possible rejection of Christ–there is no such doctrine taught anywhere in Scripture. Sadly, this unsupported dogma holds out the false promise of a salvation apart from Christ, and sets out the false hope that should our children die before they reach the age of accountability, they will automatically go to heaven, because they are “innocent” and never needed saving.
Realizing the myth of human innocence under any circumstances, the Canons point us to an even better source of comfort–not the supposed innocence of our children, but to the merciful God, who in Jesus Christ, provides the means of salvation for all of his elect, including the children of believers. God’s grace may even extend to all those who die in infancy, but since Scripture is silent on this matter, and all we have is human opinion, we’ll leave that discussion for another time, as the Canons themselves wisely do.
According to the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 7:14), the children of believers (even if only one parent is a Christian) are holy. They are “set apart” through the faith of a one believing parent, so that all promises made by God to his people under the covenant of grace apply to them. If we are believers in Jesus Christ, without hesitation we affirm that our children are members of the covenant of grace, the promises of which are signed and sealed unto them though baptism. As Christian parents, the Canons direct us to find comfort in the tragic case of the death of a child, in the fact that all of the promises of the covenant center in God’s unconditional promise, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” We need not count upon the false hope of the innocence of our child to save them. No, we count on something much, much, greater–the mercies of God in Christ!
It is because God is absolutely faithful to his covenant promises, and not because our children are somehow “innocent,” we can be confident that those children of believers who die in infancy are indeed numbered among the elect, and go to heaven when they die. The Canons wisely counsel us not to doubt the election of such children, but to be absolutely confident of being joined with them eternally in the “age to come.” Why? Because of God’s covenant promise! God's grace in Christ trumps human sin.
The promises God makes to us under the covenant of grace give us wonderful comfort in the darkest of moments. These same promises remind us that God is gracious, and that death and the grave do not have the final word. God will raise all his own from the dead, ensuring that all his people will one day bask in their promised inheritance together–the children with their parents–as they enjoy their eternal Sabbath rest in the presence of the Savior.
While the promise never removes the pain of death--this side of Christ's second coming--it certainly gives us a sure and certain hope. Far better to count on the blood and righteousness of Christ, than on the supposed “innocence” of those we love. And this is why we make our judgments from Scripture, where we find far better promises and a much greater hope. For it is Scripture which promises us, that should our children die, they are even now beholding the face of that one who redeemed them with his precious blood.
Article 18: The Proper Attitude Toward Election and Reprobation
To those who complain about this grace of an undeserved election and about the severity of a just reprobation, we reply with the words of the apostle, Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? (Rom. 9:20), and with the words of our Savior, Have I no right to do what I want with my own? (Matt. 20:15). We, however, with reverent adoration of these secret things, cry out with the apostle: Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways beyond tracing out! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has first given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen (Rom. 11:33-36).
We come to the final article of the First Head of Doctrine (the first point of the so-called five points of Calvinism), which is the article dealing with how we as the people of God are to think about election. There are at least four possible responses to this doctrine, though the canons take note only of two. Let us begin by dealing with the two responses identified by the Canons.
The first possible response one might have comes from those who when faced with this doctrine, react by calling God’s fairness into question. As the Canons note, “to those who complain about this grace of an undeserved election and about the severity of a just reprobation, we reply with the words of the apostle, Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? (Rom. 9:20), and with the words of our Savior, Have I no right to do what I want with my own? (Matt. 20:15).” Like it or not, we must deal with the fact that were it not for the electing grace of God, all of us would remain unbelievers, and under the just judgment of God.
Most of our contemporaries refuse to start with the premise that the entire human race is sinful and fallen in Adam, and will not come to Christ unless God first changes our hearts, and inclines us to believe. Starting with the egalitarian presupposition of American democracy–in this case that all of us are equally entitled to heaven until we do something to disqualify ourselves–of course, the doctrine of election sounds harsh and cruel. To someone who comes to the discussion of sin and grace with the assumption that all of us are equally entitled to God's mercy, the teaching of election sounds as though God were depriving us of something to which we were rightly entitled.
And so when such people complain about the “unfair” nature of election and reprobation, we ought to respond by reminding them that their starting point is incorrect—they have assumed something from the culture, which is not supported by biblical teaching (that all people are dead in sin and unable to come to faith on their own). In election, God acts in grace and mercy, saving a multitude who would otherwise leap headlong into eternal punishment. We must understand election as the act of gracious God, rescuing a countless multitude of people from eternal punishment, who, otherwise would not believe.
Another thing that must be considered is the question to which no one wants as answer-- “does not God have the right to do with his creatures as he sees fit?” It is simply amazing to me that so many of those who champion human “free-will” ( the teaching that sin does not effect the way in which we make choices), at the same time argue that while we have free will to do what we want, that God does not have free will to do what he wants! Thus, we do well when we kindly and charitably remind such people, “who are you--a sinful creature bound to time and space--to talk back to God?”
The second reaction that people may have to this teaching is identified by the Canons as that of humility before the sovereign God. This is the response of someone who knows the depths of their own sin, and who realizes how much they owe to God as a result. “We, however, with reverent adoration of these secret things, cry out with the apostle: Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways beyond tracing out! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has first given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen (Rom. 11:33-36).
Those who see that God's grace and mercy is wonderfully magnified by this doctrine, willingly bow the knee before God, and confess, “to him be glory forever!” If we believe that we are dead in sin and can do nothing to save ourselves, how else can we react when we look back at this from the perspective of faith? We realize that if this doctrine was not true, we too would be dead in sins and transgressions, and that we would have absolutely no interest in Jesus Christ. If this doctrine were not true, we would have no hope of heaven, and no possibility of eternal life. As Christians, we are to humbly bow the knee, and confess to our merciful God and savior, “not my will be done, but thine!”
A third reaction, which is not mentioned by the Canons, is one that we commonly find today, and that is apathy about the doctrine, or the denial of its importance. Many people simply find this subject so difficult, and the division among Christians over this doctrine so troubling, that they will go to the greatest of lengths to avoid the subject all together. Many are under the assumption that these are matters for debate among theologians, and that the doctrine of election has absolutely no bearing on the Christian life, one way or the other.
But as Luther correctly pointed out, if we attribute any part of our salvation to an act of our will, we will to that degree, be plagued by doubts and fears, since are weak, sinful, and prone to doubt. We will always wonder whether what we did was enough, or whether we have done it in the right way. Thus the doctrine of election is necessary to for us to believe, not only because it is clearly taught in the Scriptures, but because it is also the very foundation of sola gratia. Without being clear about who does what in the matter of our salvation, we will never be able to live in the comfort of God's grace, nor will we have the proper humility before God.
How can we bow before our God and worship him as we ought, if we think we are worshiping him because of something good in us, namely our free will, which in this scheme somehow remains untainted by the fall and sin? Only the justified sinner, who knows that he or she owes everything to God, can even begin to live a life of gratitude before him. It was Shakespeare who said, “that word `grace’ on the lips of an ungrateful person, is profanity.”
A fourth possible reaction that people might have is one of confusion and intellectual torment. This applies to those who are in the process of wrestling with these difficult issues and have not yet resolved them. They still see truth in both sides, or they see the issues as somehow irresolvable at a fundamental level. This is perhaps the worst condition of all, since it leaves a person in this position feeling as though the Scriptures are not clear, or as though they must live forever in the tension of not being able to solve the problem at hand.
As Reformed Christians we must be very careful with people caught in this position. We must take special care with them, answering their questions from the Scriptures as patiently, and as best we can. We must also remind people in such a position that they should cling to what they do know to be true—namely that Christ died for sinners and that the Bible is true because Jesus Christ rose again from the dead—while they work through issues where they do not see as much clarity. This is a very difficult position in which to find yourself. The reason that we get ourselves into these situations is because sin effects our ability to interpret God's word, and not because God's word is not clear.
We should always do as Calvin so wisely counseled, pray for illumination from the Holy Spirit so that we may read, understand, and handle the word of God correctly. But nevertheless, those caught in this situation need to resolve it to the best of their ability and satisfaction, and then move on quickly, not dwelling upon the matter any more than is necessary. Christians are most vulnerable to the whiles of Satan when they are in this very delicate position of doubt, and unresolved conviction about the deep matters of the Christian faith.