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.
Article 18: The Proper Attitude Toward Election and Reprobation