In a previous article outlining the background to the calling of the Synod of Dort in 1618 and introducing the Canons of Dort, I noted that the Canons were written expressly to reply to the "five articles" of the Remonstrance of 1610. They were written to affirm the Scriptural teaching of election and to reject the errors of the Arminian party in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands. This accounts for the way the Canons are structured. They address in succession the "five articles" of the Arminians or the Remonstrants, first presenting a positive statement of the Scriptural teaching, and then rejecting the errors of the Arminians.
Consequently, the first main point of doctrine set forth in the Canons, written in reply to the first article of the Remonstrance of 1610, deals with the subject of "unconditional election." Whereas the Remonstrant/Arminian position taught that God's election to save His people was based upon foreseen faith, the Canons affirm that God's election to save His people is based solely upon His sovereign grace and mercy.
Since I will be following the order of the Canons in this and subsequent articles, I will begin by summarizing the position of the Canons on the Scriptural teaching of unconditional election. After setting forth this position, I will consider the Scriptural basis for the Canon's teaching. In conclusion, two matters that have been much discussed in the history of the Reformed churches will be addressed briefly — the doctrine of reprobation and the preaching of the gospel of election.
The Position of the Canons
The title given to the "first main point of doctrine" by the Synod of Dort reads as follows: "Divine Election and Reprobation: The judgment concerning divine predestination which the synod declares to be in agreement with the Word of God and accepted till now in the Reformed Churches, set forth in several articles." This title clearly shows that the framers of the Canons wanted to articulate the historic view of unconditional election, long held in the Reformed churches, and to oppose the "innovations" of the Arminians.
After noting in the opening articles of the confession that "all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death" (Article 1),1 that God has manifested His love in the sending of His only-begotten Son (Article 2), and that God's anger continues to rest upon those who do not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ (Article 3), the Canons raise directly the crucial question — how is it that some believe in Christ and are saved, while others continue in their sin and unbelief? Or, to put the question differently, the confession asks, why do some believe and repent at the preaching of the gospel, but others remain in their sins and under the just condemnation of God?
To this question — why are some men saved through the gospel, while others perish in unbelief? — the Canons answer: some are saved because God elects to save them and give them faith through the preaching of the gospel; others are not saved because God leaves them in their sin and chooses not to give them faith. Before the foundation of the world, God sovereignly chose, out of mere grace and mercy, certain individuals from among the fallen human race to be the recipients of His favor and grace.
In order to capture the heart of the Canon's teaching in this first main point of doctrine, the following affirmations are especially important:
- The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from (God's) eternal decision. For all His works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18; Ephesians 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. (Article 6)
- Election is God's unchangeable purpose by which He did the following: Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the 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. (Article 7)
- This sovereign and gracious purpose of God in the election of His people is the source and basis of faith, and cannot therefore be based upon faith. As the confession adds in Article 8:
- 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.
- Thus, the single basis of God's election is His good pleasure to save His people (Article 10). In His sovereign grace and mercy, the Father has been pleased to save a special people for the sake of His Son. This alone is the foundation upon which our salvation is built.
After having articulated the Scriptural teaching of unconditional election, the Canons further note that this sovereign and gracious election of a particular number of persons unto salvation means that some sinners have been "passed by" and "left" in their sins.
- Moreover, Holy Scripture 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 the 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. (Article 15)
In summary, then, this is the teaching of the Canons on unconditional election: before the foundation of the world, God was pleased to elect His people unto salvation from among the fallen human race, leaving others in their sin and misery. Faith is, accordingly, not the basis or foundation of the salvation of the elect; faith is rather the fruit of God's gracious purpose to save His people and to produce such faith through the gospel. Though the Canons proceed in subsequent articles to consider several further aspects of God's saving purpose and work — including the redeeming and atoning work of the Son and the renewing work of the Spirit through the gospel — they properly insist that God's purpose of election is the wellspring and fountain from whence flow all of the redemptive works of the Triune God in history.
For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
The Scriptural Support for this Position
In Reformed churches, the authority of the confessions is always subordinate to and derived from the Scriptures. The confessions are understood to be summaries of the teachings of the written Word of God. They are therefore always subject to the test of Scripture — do they indeed faithfully set forth what the Word of God teaches? This question holds as well, therefore, for the Canons of Dort and their statement of the doctrine of unconditional election. Is this position Biblical?
Rather than attempting to address all of the Biblical passages which support the position of the Canons, it will be enough to cite only some of those passages explicitly appealed to in the confession itself.2
One of the first passages cited in this part of the Canons is Ephesians 1:4-6: "He (the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ) chose us in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved."
In this passage, the apostle Paul, within the setting of a doxology of blessing and praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, confesses that the believing children of God in Ephesus were the beneficiaries of God's electing love in Christ. Among the many blessings which were theirs in Christ — adoption, the forgiveness of sins, holiness, redemption — this blessing deserves pride of place. Indeed, all of these blessings flow from God's gracious election! Before the foundation of the world, God the Father set His eye upon His own people in and for the sake of His Son. From all eternity He elected and predestined in love a peculiar people for His own possession. This purpose of election, far from being based upon a foreseen faith or holiness, is an election "unto" faith and holiness (vs. 4). Because this electing purpose is founded solely upon the good pleasure of God, it is also solely "unto the praise of the glory of His grace" (vs. 6).
In addition to this beautiful statement of God's unconditional election of His own people in Christ, the Canons also appeal to the affirmation of Romans 8:30: "those whom (God) predestined, these He also called; and those whom He called, these He also justified; and those whom He justified, these He also glorified." This affirmation occurs within the context of the apostle's declaration that "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). Since God has predestined to save His people in Christ, all those who have been "called according to His purpose" may be fully confident that God will invincibly achieve what He has purposed. So certain of accomplishment is God's purpose, according to this passage, that the calling, justification and glorification of those whom God has predestined is virtually assured.3
When the Canons proceed to show from Scripture that this electing purpose of God is solely founded upon His good pleasure, and not upon anything in the believer, they appeal particularly to Romans 9:11-13. In this passage, the apostle Paul answers the question, why are some and not others of those who belong to "Israel" saved? After having noted in Romans 9:1-5 that many of the children of Israel "according to the flesh" had rejected Christ, the apostle raises the question, has the "Word of God ... failed" (vs. 6)? His answer, in brief, is: "Certainly not!" Throughout the history of God's dealings with His people, God has been accomplishing His "purpose according to election," saving those whom He wills and not saving others.
To illustrate the manner in which God has been working out His electing purpose, the apostle cites the example of Jacob and Esau: "for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God's purpose according to His choice (election) might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, 'The older will serve the younger.' Just as it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'" (Romans 9:11-13). In the context of the argument in Romans 9-11, the point the apostle wishes to make in these verses is clear. The one is saved and the other is lost, not because the one is worthy and the other unworthy, not because the one has done good and the other evil, but merely because of God's gracious and electing choice!
There are several other passages cited by the Canons in support of their confession of unconditional election. Among them are the following:
- Ephesians 2:8: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God";
- Philippians 1:29: "For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake";
- Ephesians 1:11: "also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will";
- Acts 13:48: "And when the Gentiles heard this (Paul and Barnabas' preaching concerning God's purpose to save the Gentiles), they began rejoicing and glorifying the Word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed";
- John 17:6: "I (Jesus) manifested Thy name to the men whom Thou gayest Me out of the world; Thine they were, and Thou gayest them to Me, and they have kept Thy Word";
- and 2 Timothy 1:9: "Who (God) has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity."
This sampling of passages cited in the text of the Canons is enough to show the ample Scriptural testimony which undergirds its teaching. The united testimony of Scripture is that the believer is who he is "merely of grace." Were it not for God's electing favor in Christ, he would still be in his sins.
The Debate concerning "Reprobation"
In the recent history of the Reformed churches, a considerable debate has been carried on in the Netherlands and in North America regarding the doctrine of "double predestination," particularly the decree of "reprobation." A number of voices have been raised against the alleged "Scholasticism" of the Canons of Dort, and against what is often disparagingly termed the "decretal theology" of this confession. Often it is argued that we should speak of God's eternal purpose of election, His good pleasure to save His people in Christ, but we should not speak of God's eternal purpose to pass others by, "leaving" them in their sin and misery, not granting to them faith and conversion and finally condemning them to suffer eternal punishment for their unbelief and other sins (Article 15). Those who advocate this approach want to insist that the electing purpose of God is solely and singularly gracious. We should avoid, therefore, speaking of God's purpose not to save or to reprobate those whom He passes by in His eternal counsel.4
Though the arguments of those who oppose the doctrine of "double" predestination, particularly the doctrine of reprobation, are diverse, three arguments stand out.
- The first argument claims that the Scriptures nowhere teach reprobation, but that it is simply a "logical" conclusion from the doctrine of election.
- The second argument insists that the doctrine of reprobation makes God the "author of sin," since it ascribes the fact that some do not believe and repent at the preaching of the gospel to God's counsel.
- The third argument claims that Scripture only knows a divine election of the church as a corporate body, not an election, to use the language of the Canons, of a "definite number of particular people." According to this argument, we should only speak of the historical-redemptive "election" of a people, and not of God's "eternal decree(s)."
How Should We Reply to These Objections?
With respect to the first argument, it should be noted that the Scriptural argument for a doctrine of particular election holds equally well for a doctrine of particular non-election or reprobation. The authors of the Canons correctly noted, for this reason, that the Scripture "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" (Article 15). Unless words no longer have an identifiable meaning, any Scriptural passage which teaches God's election of a particular people unto salvation, teaches equally God's non-election of others. To say that God "elects" to save some is only to say that some are non-elect. This is not simply a "logical inference" from the Scriptural teaching of particular election. The Scriptural teaching that not all are elect means that some are non-elect.
With respect to the second argument, those who claim that reprobation makes God the author of sin ignore not only the express rejections of this as "blasphemy" by the authors of the Canons. But they also ignore the all- important fact that God's counsel of election and reprobation discriminates between people, all of whom are contemplated as fallen in Adam and under the just condemnation of God. To put the matter differently, the fact that some people are not saved does indeed derive from the good pleasure of the Triune God. But this does not make God the author of their sin and unbelief! Neither does it make His final condemnation and eternal punishment of the unbelieving and impenitent any less just. For it must be remembered that all sinners fall short of God's glory and are deserving of His condemnation. And though God's good pleasure to save the elect or to pass by the reprobate may be inscrutable to us, it is nonetheless the confident confession of the believer that God only does what is in accord with the highest wisdom and justice.5
With respect to the third argument, it is true that we must avoid an individualistic and unhistorical doctrine of election. Scripturally considered, those whom God elects to save comprise the whole body of the church, the chosen bride of Christ. The elect are nothing less than the "organic unity" of the new humanity in Christ, whom God is pleased to call out of the world of fallen humanity by His Spirit and Word in the unity of the true faith. We should not, therefore, think of the elect as a composite or collective of isolated individuals, like so many "brands plucked from the burning."
However, this corporate and organic unity of the new, elect humanity whom God has chosen to save in Christ, is also comprised of individuals whom God gives to Christ. There is an inescapably particular and personal dimension to the Scriptural understanding of election. Indeed, to deny that God's election of His people amounts to the election of a definite number of particular persons robs us of the comfort of this teaching. For the comfort of election is identical with the comfort of the gospel, namely, "that I ... am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ who, with His precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins" (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 1).
The Preaching of Election
Before concluding this summary of the Canons' teaching on election, something needs to be said yet on the preaching of election. Frequently, it is alleged that it is not possible to preach what the Canons set forth as the Scriptural teaching of unconditional election. Because (so it is argued) this confession cannot be preached, it is not Biblical.
It is noteworthy that the authors of the Canons were aware of the need to preach election in a wise manner. In Article 14 of the first main point of doctrine, we read:
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.
Reflection upon this important affirmation of the confession yields the following guidelines for preaching election:
- First: In any ministry or preaching of the Word, the "whole counsel of God," including the teaching of unconditional election, must be preached. God has been pleased, for the edification and salvation of His people, to reveal the truth concerning His electing grace in Christ in the Scriptures. It would be unfaithfulness and ingratitude on our part, not to preach what the Word teaches on this subject.
- Second: The preaching of election must be carefully disciplined by the Word of God, declaring neither more nor less than God has been pleased to reveal to us in the Word. This means that we are not to pry "inquisitively" into the subject of election beyond the limits of Scriptural revelation.
- Third: Though the doctrine of election is at the heart of the gospel, the good news of God's gracious determination to save His people in Christ, it is not the whole of the gospel. All gospel preaching must clearly distinguish between God's eternal purpose to save His people and the concrete way, in the history of redemption, whereby He is pleased to accomplish this purpose. To use the traditional language, the preaching of election must not confuse the purpose of election with the covenantal means God uses to effect this purpose. Since God is pleased to draw His people to Himself: through the preaching of the gospel, the preaching of election may not displace or weaken the earnest call to the sinner to respond in faith and repentance.
- Fourth: Any preaching of the gospel of God's electing love and purpose in Christ which treats this gospel as a "puzzle," separating between God's eternal purpose and the revelation of His grace and kindness in the gospel of Christ, must be rejected. The preaching of election may never be divorced from the call to faith and repentance through the gospel. Nor may it be divorced from the summons that goes out through the gospel to "all" men without distinction, calling them to faith. Believers must be assured that "their election and calling" are confirmed and established in Christ, Whom Calvin aptly termed the "mirror" in Whom we may contemplate our election.
- Fifth: Though it is sometimes argued that reprobation, God's free decision to leave some men in their sin and misery, can not be preached, this is based upon the false assumption that the preaching of reprobation requires that the minister declare some of the congregation to be reprobate. But this is not true. It is every minister's duty to call all to whom the gospel is preached to faith and repentance, confident that the Lord will use this means to draw all whom He has chosen to Himself.6 This same message is preached to all men without discrimination. To employ the language of the Canons, the gospel must be "announced and declared without differentiation (lit. "promiscuously") or discrimination to all nations and people".
- Sixth: The twofold purpose of all preaching of election is God's glory and our comfort. This is the truest test of a Biblical pattern of preaching the doctrine of election. Does this preaching glorify God? Does it comfort the believing sinner? It is not the calling of the preacher or the congregation to inquire speculatively into the questions: Who is elect?, and, Who is reprobate? Certainly not! Rather, it is the calling of the preacher to exalt and magnify God's invincible grace in His unmerited favor toward His people in Christ Jesus. Such preaching glorifies God and brings solid comfort.
The Canons themselves conclude with a beautiful petition, appropriate to this subject and fitting as well to close our consideration of their teaching on election:
May God's Son Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of God and gives gifts to men, sanctify us in the truth, lead to the truth those who err, silence the mouths of those who lay false accusations against sound teaching, and equip faithful ministers of His Word with a spirit of wisdom and discretion, that all they say may be to the glory of God and the building up of their hearers. Amen.