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The Canons of Dort, First Head of Doctrine, Article Nine

Synod%20of%20Dort.jpgArticle 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.

Reader Comments (2)

Great article. I am currently teaching this subject to high schoolers, many of whom come from Arminian/Pelagian backgrounds. Your comments on the Canons of Dordt have been invaluable to my own ministry.

Matt Holst
February 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermholst
You've taught on this, but I still have a hard time grasping it. How does a Christian's prayers relate to God's determining will? Also, I just thought of this;-) If the Holy Spirit is the initiator of our prayers( when they are on mark) does this of necessity mean the prayer will be answered? For instance, if I have it on my heart to pray for my parent's salvation, and this is a good prayer, will it be accomplished? Or is it that the Holy Spirit brings all our prayers to God( since He is God this is strange to say), but edits them of sorts?
February 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterinfinately confused

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