Election, Providence, and “All Things for Good” (Sibbes)

  When God says he will safely bring his children to their heavenly home, he means it!  Sometimes the way home is rough and rocky, but the Lord will carry them through everything and safely bring them to his kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18). In theological terms, this means that God orders his providence for the good of his elect.  We’ve heard Paul’s words before: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them” (Rom 8:28 NLT).  Whether he gives to us or takes from us, it all works towards our eternal salvation.  Here’s a great commentary on this truth by Richard Sibbes (I’ve edited it slightly):

Observation: Providence is serviceable to predestination and election

God in election has a purpose to call us out of the world and to save our souls. Providence is a general government of all things in the world. Election is in order to salvation; he has chosen us to a supernatural end and fits us for it by calling and sanctification.

Now, how does providence serve the decree of election? This way: whom God purposes to save he directs providence so that all things shall serve for that end.  Therefore he encourages them with outward things or takes outward things from them in his providence, as may serve his purpose in election to save their souls. He has a purpose to save them, therefore providence works all things for their good, Rom. 8:28. All things, by the overruling providence of God, are serviceable to a higher degree of love that God has for his children, to serve his purpose to bring them to heaven. Thereupon comes the dispensation of riches or poverty, honor or abasement. He takes liberty for outward things concerning this life, to give or take them as they may serve the spiritual and best good of his children.

Use/Application. Therefore God’s children, when they see God intends their good in taking away the things of this life, in letting them bleed, as it were, for their health, they should bless God as well for taking as for giving, as Job did, Job 1:21. And there is as great mercy and love hid in taking away blessings as in conveying of them. …Poverty of estate and poverty of spirit (the disposition of soul) come almost in one word, and indeed in God’s children they are joined together. For he sanctifies all situations and disposes himself towards them. When God has a purpose to save a man, everything shall help him homeward. And it is not a better outward argument to know a man’s state in grace than to see how the carriage of things serve God’s purpose to do good to his soul, when we ourselves are bettered in our inward man by whatsoever befalls us…. God’s children are as gold refined. Those that find themselves refined and bettered, it is evidence that they are God’s; because there is a providence serving their spiritual good, directing all things to that end.

 Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 6 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson, 1863), 241.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Election and Good Works (Toplady)

 When it comes to the doctrine of unconditional election, some have objected by saying this doctrine leads people to neglect to do good works.  They reason this way: if God doesn’t elect people based on good things they’ve done, why would anyone do good works?  It’s not a new objection!  Augustus Toplady (d. 1778) answered this objection in one of his sermons on sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:10).  He wrote that if election is unconditional and not dependent upon anything we do,

…Then (may some say) “farewell to gospel obedience; all good works are destroyed.” If by destroying good works you mean that the doctrine of unconditional election destroys the merit of good works and represents man as incapable of earning or deserving the favor and kingdom of God, I acknowledge the force of the objection.

Predestination does most certainly destroy the merit of our works and obedience, but not the performance of them since holiness is, itself, one end of election (Eph. 1:4), and since the elect are as much chosen to sanctification on their way as they are to that ultimate glory which crowns their journey’s end – and there is no coming at the one but through the other.

So that neither the value, nor the necessity, nor the practice of good works is superseded by this glorious truth of unconditional election.  Our acts of evangelical obedience are no more than assembled and consigned to their proper place and restrained from usurping that praise which is due to the alone grace of God.  And our acts of evangelical obedience are restrained from arrogating that office which only the Son of God was qualified to discharge.

The edited quote is found in Augustus M. Toplady, The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 3 (London: Richard Baynes, 1825), 21–22.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Aim of God’s Wisdom (VanMastricht)

Theoretical-Practical Theology Volume 2: Faith in the Triune God Paul’s well-known doxology in Romans 11 mentions the deep (βάθος) wisdom of God (σοφίας…θεοῦ).  In his excellent discussion of God’s wisdom, Peter Van Mastricht (d. 1706) listed eight “aims” of God’s wisdom that Scripture teaches.

Van Mastricth wrote that the wisdom of God is chiefly occupied and concerned…

  1. With the counsels, decrees, predestination, election, and reprobation of God, to which points the text’s exclamation, ‘O the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom…!”
  2. With the works of creation, conservation, and governance, concerning which the psalmist says, “In wisdom you made them all” (Ps. 104:24; 136:5.
  3. Especially with the formation of man, the microcosm [little cosmos] (Ps. 139:14-15).
  4. With the uniting and ordering of creatures so different from each other, because of which he is called the God of peace (1 Cor. 14:33), who does all things in their own time and measure (Ecc. 3:11).
  5. Especially in the marvelous work of redemption through the Son and Holy Spirit, because of which the Savior is not only named the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1:24), but also called the manifold wisdom of God (Eph. 3:10) into which even angels long to look (1 Peter 1:12).
  6. In the mysteries of the Christian faith, which the apostle calls the wisdom of God, distinguished from the wisdom of this world (1 Cor. 2:6).
  7. In the gathering and defending of his church against the most cunning attacks of so many and such great enemies, whom by his wisdom he time and again catches in their own scheming (Ps. 59:12; 10:2).
  8. In his most wise direction and governance particular to individual believers.

In other words, God’s wisdom is not an impractical dogma for us to dissect.  Wisdom is an attribute of God that has to do with his decree(s).  Furthermore, God’s wisdom is also evident in creation, providence, salvation, and our own preservation.  And this all brings him glory.  Therefore, when we think about the depth of God’s wisdom, it makes us praise and adore him!

The above very slightly edited quote is found in Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 2, p. 262-3.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002


The Plan of Salvation (Hodge)

Hodge ST

I always appreciate Charles Hodge’s clear explanation of Christian doctrine and teaching.  I was recently reading volume two of his Systematic Theology – specifically his discussion of God’s sovereign plan of salvation.  After talking about other views, Hodge mentions the Augustinian view.  This is, of course, the view Hodge takes.  After he mentions this view he spends some time explaining it based on the sovereignty of God and the various Scriptures that talk about God’s great plan of salvation.  Here’s Hodge:

The Augustinian scheme includes the following points:
(1.) That the glory of God, or the manifestation of his perfections, is the highest and ultimate end of all things.
(2.) For that end God purposed the creation of the universe, and the whole plan of providence and redemption.
(3.) That He placed man in a state of probation, making Adam, their first parent, their head and representative.
(4.) That the fall of Adam brought all his posterity into a state of condemnation, sin, and misery, from which they are utterly unable to deliver themselves.
(5.) From the mass of fallen men God elected a number innumerable to eternal life, and left the rest of mankind to the just recompense of their sins.
(6.) That the ground of this election is not the foresight of anything in the one class to distinguish them favourably from the members of the other class, but the good pleasure of God.
(7.) That for the salvation of those thus chosen to eternal life, God gave his own Son, to become man, and to obey and suffer for his people, thus making a full satisfaction for sin and bringing in everlasting righteousness, rendering the ultimate salvation of the elect absolutely certain.
(8.) That while the Holy Spirit, in his common operations, is present with every man, so long as he lives, restraining evil and exciting good, his certainly efficacious and saving power is exercised only in behalf of the elect.
(9.) That all those whom God has thus chosen to life, and for whom Christ specially gave Himself in the covenant of redemption, shall certainly… be brought to the knowledge of the truth, to the exercise of faith, and to perseverance in holy living unto the end.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 333.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

“His Mercy Preceded Them” (Augustine on Election)

 The quote below is an outstanding section of Augustine’s “Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints.”  This selection is a little longer than I usually post and it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to read, but I’d encourage you to work through it.  I’m sure you can handle it – it’s for sure worth the effort!  Notice how Augustine explains what we now call “unconditional election” using John 15:16, Ephesians 1:4, and James 2:5:

Let us, then, understand the calling whereby they become elected,—not those who are elected because they have believed, but who are elected that they may believe. For the Lord Himself also sufficiently explains this calling when He says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” For if they had been elected because they had believed, they themselves would certainly have first chosen Him by believing in Him, so that they should deserve to be elected.

But He takes away this supposition altogether when He says “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” And yet they themselves, beyond a doubt, chose Him when they believed on Him. Whence it is not for any other reason that He says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” than because they did not choose Him that He should choose them, but He chose them that they might choose Him; because His mercy preceded them according to grace, not according to debt.

Therefore He chose them out of the word while He was wearing flesh, but as those who were already chosen in Himself before the foundation of the world. This is the changeless truth concerning predestination and grace. For what is it that the apostle says, “As He hath chosen us in Himself before the foundation of the world”? And assuredly, if this were said because God foreknew that they would believe, not because He Himself would make them believers, the Son is speaking against such a foreknowledge as that when He says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you;” when God should rather have foreknown this very thing, that they themselves would have chosen Him, so that they might deserve to be chosen by Him.

Therefore they were elected before the foundation of the world with that predestination in which God foreknew what He Himself would do; but they were elected out of the world with that calling whereby God fulfilled that which He predestinated. For whom He predestinated, them He also called, with that calling, to wit, which is according to the purpose. Not others, therefore, but those whom He predestinated, them He also called; nor other, but those whom He so called, them He also justified; nor others, but those whom He predestinated, called, and justified, them He also glorified; assuredly to that end which has no end.

Therefore God elected believers; but He chose them that they might be so, not because they were already so. The Apostle James says: “Has not God chosen the poor in this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which God hath promised to them that love Him?” By choosing them, therefore, He makes them rich in faith, as He makes them heirs of the kingdom; because He is rightly said to choose that in them, in order to make which in them He chose them. I ask, who can hear the Lord saying, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” and can dare to say that men believe in order to be elected, when they are rather elected to believe; lest against the judgment of truth they be found to have first chosen Christ to whom Christ says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you”?

 Augustine of Hippo, “A Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints,” in Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 514–515.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Election and Evangelism (Bucer)

Concerning the True Care of Souls Bucer, Martin cover image Some people say that the doctrine of election is a hindrance to evangelism.  I do admit that a hyper-calvinist view of election is a hindrance to evangelism.  However, a historic Reformed, biblical view of election does not get in the way of evangelism at all.  Martin Bucer (d. 1551) put it quite well when he was explaining the evangelistic side of the pastoral ministry:

…Sadly, however, not all are chosen by God and there are many who despise the salvation which the Lord offers them: this is shown in the parable quoted above [from Luke 14], where none of those who had been invited would get a taste of the Lord’s banquet.  But it is not the Lord’s will to reveal to us the secrets of his election; rather he commands us to go out into all the world and preach his gospel to every creature.  He says: ‘into all the world’ and ‘to every creature.’  The fact that all people have been made by God and are God’s creatures should therefore be reason enough to go to them, seeking with the utmost faithfulness to bring them to eternal life.

That is why the Lord has expressed it in general terms: ‘to every creature.’  He does not want to be invited to his banquet only those who show themselves to be citizens and inhabitants of his city, but he tells his servant: ‘Go out into the streets and alleys and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’  And again: ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in.’  From this the Lord teaches us that his ministers are simply to endeavor to lead to his church and to the perfect fellowship of his salvation all those who wish to come, no matter how wretched and corrupted they may be – indeed, not only to lead but urge and compel them.

Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, p. 77

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Predestination and Reformed Theology (Vos)

Vos The doctrine of election (predestination) is tied tightly to other aspects of Reformed theology.  Geerhardus Vos expresses this well in his Reformed Dogmatics (recently published in English for the first time thanks to Logos and Lexham Press – see here and here).  Vos asks this question (in vol. 1.5.4): “At what points is the doctrine of predestination or election related to the rest of Reformed doctrine as a whole?”  Here’s his answer (summarized):

1) It is a direct consequence of God’s sovereignty, as that has been shaped based on Scripture.  Luther came to predestination from man and his salvation.  Calvin did so from God.  God is everything and the creature is nothing, and the creature, even in its highest importance, remains subordinate to God and must serve him.  Whoever gives up the doctrine of predestination must therefore also drop the doctrine of the sovereignty of God and subsequently falsify biblical teaching at numerous places.

2) The doctrine of human inability after the fall is inseparably connected with predestination, so that one must maintain them both together or drop them both together.  One of the two; it depends on God or it depends on man who will be saved.  If one chooses the first, then one has accepted predestination.

3) Predestination is related to mystical union and the body of Christ.  The elect form a body.  In a body the members must be fitted to each other and are intended for each other.  If this body of Christ originated accidentally by the free-will choice of individual men, then there would be no guarantee that it would become a properly proportioned body.  God must decide in advance how many ought to belong to it, who those many shall be, and when they should be fitted into it.  Predestination is nothing other than the decision of God concerning these matters.

4) Predestination is no less related to the doctrine of the merits of Christ.  Christ earned for us 1) satisfaction of our debt of guilt by his passive obedience, 2) eternal life by his active obedience.  According to Scripture, the Holy Spirit applies the merits of Christ to his people.  If man himself decides by not believing or believing of himself, then faith is a work of man and no longer a fruit of the merits of Christ.  Christ cannot have merited for us what we ourselves provide.  And so it is, not only with faith but with all other parts of this application of salvation.  Denial of predestination includes, so viewed, a denial of the actual merits of the Mediator.

5) Predestination also relates to the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  God, by sovereign election, decides both the coming into the state of grace and the preserving of those who have once come into it.

Vos does say a bit more about these points – and they are worth reading for sure!  The full discussion is found in volume 1 of his Reformed Dogmatics.

(This is a repost from December, 2014)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015