If there is one doctrine for which the Reformed churches are known, it is the doctrine of election or predestination. Many people, who know next to nothing about the Reformed faith and the writings of John Calvin, have at least heard that Reformed believers emphasize the sovereignty of God in salvation. This emphasis upon God’s sovereignty comes to its most dramatic expression in the “horrible decree” (Calvin) of God whereby He has predestined from eternity to save some people and not to save others.1 Reformed Christians are adamant that sinners can do absolutely nothing to contribute to their own salvation. Everything depends upon God’s choice and the sovereign realization of His saving purposes in history.
So far as evangelism is concerned, this doctrine seems problematic for several reasons. According to its critics, it amounts to a kind of “fatalism” in which all things have been predetermined. No matter what we do or what choices we make in life, God’s choices always prevail. As a practical matter, this encourages a passive approach to the preaching of the gospel and the work of evangelism. If our choices and actions are ultimately the fruit of God’s sovereign counsel or decree, and if no one can alter or change what God has previously determined regarding the salvation of the elect—then there seems to be no compelling reason to preach the gospel earnestly and urgently to all sinners. In the case of the elect, God will bring them to salvation without fail, irrespective of our action or inaction in seeking their salvation. And in the case of the non-elect, no strategy or means of evangelism that we might devise, holds out any prospect for success. The doctrine of election, in short, is a formula for inaction so far as the work of evangelism is concerned. Indeed, this constitutes one of the principal reasons Reformed churches are so often lacking in their evangelistic interest and activity.
Not only does the doctrine of election inhibit evangelistic activity. It also discourages an approach to gospel preaching that genuinely offers Christ with the promise of salvation to all sinners who choose to embrace Him in faith and repentance. Since the design of the gospel is to save the elect alone, it cannot be proclaimed to all as good news. Furthermore, inasmuch as God has no sovereign intention to save the non-elect, He cannot possibly express any goodwill or desire for the salvation of all sinners in the gospel’s presentation. What is true of God must surely be as true for those who speak in His name. If it is inconsistent with God’s sovereign purpose to express any divine benevolence or compassion toward the non-elect, then it is equally inconsistent for a faithful gospel preacher to entreat sinners with a heartfelt compassion that desires the salvation of all. Viewed from the vantage point of God’s sovereign decrees of election and non-election, the preaching of the gospel becomes an indifferent affair. The gospel promise is announced, but this promise is, strictly speaking, only addressed to the elect. Since the bearer of the gospel does not know, as God alone knows, who are the elect, he may not seek equally the salvation of all to whom the gospel is extended. This can only make the work of evangelism a dispassionate one, absent the kind of motivating love for sinners that is necessary to vigorous evangelistic effort.
No doubt other, related objections to the doctrine of election could be mentioned. These, however, are the most common and principal objections voiced by critics of the Reformed understanding of sovereign election. I mention them here to set a context for the following exposition, in summary form, of the main lines of the Reformed view. For I will argue in this and subsequent articles that, far from constituting a discouragement or hindrance to the work of evangelism, the biblical teaching of election discloses the source, effectiveness, and measure of proper evangelism. There would be no gospel, as a matter of fact, were it not for God’s electing grace in Christ. Nor would there be any reasonable expectation of evangelism’s success, were it not for God’s faithfulness in bringing His saving purposes to effect. Moreover, as the Author and Effector of the gospel unto the salvation of His people, God’s glory must be the measure of any biblically responsible evangelistic effort.
The confession of election in the Reformed confessions is consistent and clear. One of the finest statements is found in Article 16 of the Belgic Confession:
We believe that, all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of our first parents, God then did manifest Himself such as He is; that is to say, merciful and just; merciful, since He delivers and preserves from this perdition all whom He in His eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness has elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works; just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.
Similar statements are found in the
Westminster Confession of Faith,2 and in the Canons of Dort, which are an extended exposition and elucidation of Article 16 of the Belgic Confession in answer to the errors of Arminius and the Remonstrants.3 The Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, says that “[b]y the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death” (Chap. III, iii). In its definition of election, the Canons of Dort affirm that “[b]efore the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the good pleasure of His will, [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” (I, 7).
Though these statements in the Reformed confessions are set within the context of a more full and comprehensive summary of the teaching of Scripture, we will only isolate several of the key elements of the doctrine of election. To do so risks oversimplifying matters, but for our purpose we need only treat those aspects of the doctrine that are of particular significance to the work of evangelism.
One of the most striking features of the biblical teaching regarding election is its stress upon God’s determination “from before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4; compare 1 Cor. 2:7; Rev. 13:8) to save His people in Christ. The gospel has, quite literally, its roots in eternity. The good news of God’s good pleasure to save His elect people is not a kind of “emergency measure,” a backup or secondary plan, which He only introduced after the first one failed. However mysterious and unfathomable it may be to us, the Triune God’s love for His people is not a temporary or newfound love. Rather, at the first of all of God’s purposes and intentions for His creatures stands His intention to save His people in and through Christ, His beloved Son. Though God’s electing purpose presupposes human sinfulness—the confessions speak of God’s election “out of” all those who had fallen in Adam—it finds its ultimate source in the eternal counsel and purpose of the Triune God.4 God alone from all eternity is the Author of the gospel that biblical evangelism assumes and proclaims.
Furthermore, God’s eternal purpose to save His people in Christ is grounded upon His own free love and mercy. Election is sovereign and therefore unconditional. God does not choose to save those whose faith He foresees, as though His choice were conditional upon the sinner’s believing response to the gospel. Faith itself is a free gift of God’s grace to those whom He draws into fellowship with himself (Eph. 2:8). Nor does God choose to save those whose holiness or obedience distinguishes them from others and makes them worthy of His favor. The believer’s election is “unto” holiness and blamelessness, not on account of His holiness or blamelessness (Eph. 1:4). No human works, whether good or bad, distinguish the elect from the nonelect. Only God’s purpose of election accounts for the salvation of the one and not the other (Rom. 9:11). Thus, election is nothing if it is not free. Sovereign election compels the recognition that, far from our choosing God and thereby obtaining salvation, God has chosen us and thereby secured our salvation. The doctrine of election completely strips away any pretense that the salvation of sinners rests upon their own willing or running (Rom. 9:16).
Lest this sovereign or free election of God be misunderstood as an arbitrary and groundless act of God’s freedom, it must also be understood to be an act that springs from God’s love and mercy. In God’s free decision to grant salvation to His people in Christ, He gloriously displays His overflowing goodness and compassion. Though God could have justly left sinners in their sins, He chooses to do otherwise. He loves His own in Christ, His beloved Son (Eph. 1:4–6). The love with which the Father eternally embraces His own dear Son is a love that He determines to share with and communicate to His elect people. Those who are the elect of God are therefore properly called the “beloved of God,” chosen and precious to him (Col. 3:12).
God’s electing love is also deeply personal. He knows those whom He chooses by name (John 10:27; Rev. 13:8). In His immutable and unwavering purpose (Ps. 33:11; Isa. 46:9b,10; Eph. 1:11), He determines to grant salvation to a particular people. Just as a bridegroom sets His affection upon His bride in faithfulness and exclusive devotion, so God sets His affection upon His peculiar people. God’s electing love, therefore, is a distinguishing and special affection for those whom He chooses to save. Though it remains a mystery to us why God should be pleased to save the elect, and not the nonelect, God’s ways are just and good. No mere creature has the right to contest God’s ways, which are higher than our ways (Isa. 55:8–9). Nor is there any basis for challenging the justice of God, who owes the creature nothing and who could justly punish all sinners on account of their disobedience and unfaithfulness (Rom. 9:14–23). The doctrine of particular election, therefore, summons us to praise God for His mercy and compassion toward His people, rather than complaining against or questioning His purposes.
The evangel, accordingly, that forms the heart of the work of evangelism, finds its source and vitality in the free and electing love of the Triune God. Apart from God’s sovereign counsel to save His people, there would be no gospel to preach, nor any reason to believe that gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe (Rom. 1:16).
A necessary corollary of the doctrine of sovereign and merciful election is the biblical teaching of human inability. Apart from God’s electing determination to save fallen sinners, no one would be saved. Consequently, in the historic dispute with the teaching of Arminius and his followers, the Reformed churches confessed not only the doctrine of unconditional election but also the doctrine of (what has come to be known as) total depravity.5 The good news of God’s electing love answers to the predicament in which all fallen sons and daughters of Adam find themselves. Or, to state the matter negatively, the denial of sovereign election always correlates with an attenuated view of human sinfulness and inability. If we are able to do some saving good, whether in our own native ability (Pelagianism) or with the assistance of God’s grace (semi-Pelagianism), then our salvation rests in part upon our willing and running. The denial of sovereign election invariably requires the denial of the radical implications of human sinfulness.
The Scriptures are clear in their teaching that fallen sinners have no spiritual ability to contribute anything to their salvation. They do this in two ways. On the one hand, the Scriptures teach that God alone can grant the rebirth, spiritual renewal and sanctification necessary to the salvation of any sinner. And on the other hand, the Scriptures teach that fallen sinners are slaves to sin (Rom. 6:22), blind to the truth (1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 4:17–19), and dead spiritually (Eph. 2:1–3).
By virtue of the sin of Adam and its consequences for the human race, all men and women are born in sin, and are by nature in a circumstance of spiritual death (Gen. 2:16,17; Rom. 5:12; Ps. 51:5). Nothing less, therefore, than a new birth by the mighty working of the Holy Spirit is necessary to enable sinners to see and enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5–7). Perhaps one of the most remarkable statements of this truth is found in Ephesians 2: “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air …. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (vv. 1-2,4-5). Similarly, in Colossians 2:13 we read, “And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with [Christ] ….” When God saves His people, He acts in a way that can only be compared to His work of creation—He calls into existence things that otherwise would not be (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10; 2 Cor. 4:4). When the Spirit breathes new life into dead sinners, it is comparable to a valley of dried up bones being given new flesh and life (Ezek. 37).
This Scriptural understanding of the spiritual inability of fallen sinners is of great importance to the work of evangelism. If salvation ultimately depends upon human ability, then the prospects for success in the preaching of the gospel would be dismal indeed. If, however, salvation ultimately depends upon God’s ability to realize His electing purpose, then there is every reason to be confident that otherwise helpless sinners will be brought to faith and repentance.
1The language is John Calvin’s in his Institutes (ed. John T. McNeill, 2 vols.; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), III.xxiii.7: “The decree is dreadful [decretum horribile] indeed, I confess. Yet no one can deny that God foreknew what end man was to have before He created him, and consequently foreknew because He so ordained by his decree.” Regrettably, the term Calvin uses has the connotation in our usage of something terrible, even repugnant. This, of course, serves well the purpose of those who oppose the biblical teaching regarding God’s decree. For Calvin the term suggests something “awesome” and divinely holy, inapprehensible and above anything creaturely.
2Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter III, “Of God’s Eternal Decree.”
3For an exposition of the historical background and content of the Canons of Dort, see my But for the Grace of God (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 1994); and De Jong, Peter Y., ed., Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dort, 161801619 (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, Inc., 1968).
4In the history of reflection upon the decree of God, a long debate has been carried on between those who take an “infra-lapsarian” and a “supralapsarian” position on the order of the various aspects of God’s decree. According to the supralapsarian (lit. “before the fall”) position, the election and of individuals are logically prior to or before the divine purpose to create the world and to permit the fall. In this position, the “first” purpose of God is the revelation of his glory in the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the nonelect; the purposes of God in creation and the fall are “secondary” as “means” to effect this primary purpose. According to the infralapsarian (lit., “after the fall”) position, the order of God’s decree parallels the historical order of creation, fall and redemption. The infralapsarian position teaches that God’s decree to create the world and to permit the fall is prior to the decree to save the elect. For our purpose, it is only necessary to recognize that God’s decree to elect, whether understood in an infra- or supra-lapsarian manner, is pretemporal; it concerns God’s eternal purpose in Christ to save his people.
5The so-called “five points of Calvinism,” which are the five Heads of doctrine set forth in the Canons of Dort, stand or fall together. The confession of human inability, for example, demands the confession of unconditional election, limited atonement (particular redemption), irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. What is sometimes called “four point” Calvinism (all points but that of particular redemption) is an incoherent position.
Dr. Cornel Venema serves as President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana where he teaches Doctrinal Studies. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.