The Reformation and Election (Van Dixhoorn)

I recently started reading this resource in my Logos library: T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology.  One article that stands out is Chad Van Dixhoorn’s work on election.  In this essay, Van Dixhoorn talks about the historical background of election, the definition, the various views, the Synod of Dort, Amraldianism, and so forth.  I appreciate how he summarized the Reformed view of election, which is drawn exclusively from Scripture:

At this juncture in Protestant history the precise nature of divine foreknowledge was not yet contested; each side in the dispute would agree that Scripture indicates that God has known all things “from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18). Indeed, the Reformed were willing to press further the extent of God’s knowledge. In his arguments against Pighius, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562) argues that God does not only know all that has happened and will happen. He also knows all that could happen. His knowledge is more extensive than His foreknowledge. Vermigli does not supply scriptural support for his argument, but others would, reflecting on passages like 1 Samuel 23. There David posed a series of questions to God, first about King Saul, and then about the townspeople of Keilah, querying whether they would hand him over to Saul if the despot demanded it. The point made by Reformed exegetes is that this line of questioning was not too hard for God, for there is no scenario or counterfactual which God does not already know.

But when debating Pighius, the Reformers could not help but turn to the locus classicus of predestination, Romans 9. There the divine announcement is heard, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” even “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad.” And “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” The passage was particularly useful because it brings up the question of human responsibility as Paul anticipates his readers’ response: “why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” And Paul provides the divine response in the form of two questions: “Who are we to talk back to God?” And “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ” They concluded that election is God’s free choice only, and that the number of His elect is immune to addition or subtraction. God did not peer into the future in order to find sparks of faith that He could fan into flame. He did not predestine people to salvation because He predicted their good works, or knew they would persevere in the Christian life. There is nothing in human beings that motivated His choice. He set no conditions that He needed to foresee before He would choose the objects of his grace. There was no cause other than His own love that set God in motion toward the salvation of sinners.

Chad Van Dixhoorn, “Election,” in T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology, ed. David M. Whitford, T&T Clark Companion (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 91–92.

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

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God’s Free Grace Made the Difference (Henry)

Matthew Henry's Commentary There’s an old hymn called, “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.” When we sang it last Sunday during worship, the following lines stuck out:

Why was I made to hear Your voice, and enter while there’s room,
when thousands make a wretched choice, and rather starve than come?

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast that sweetly drew us in;
else we had still refused to taste and perished in our sin.

Scripture says it this way: In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4-5 NIV).  Paul also talks about this extensively in Romans 9, where he says that God’s election of some to salvation has nothing to do with their merit, but his mercy: I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Rom. 9:15).  Election is unconditional!  Matthew Henry wrote well on this theme as he commented on Romans 9:

All God’s reasons of mercy are taken from within himself. All the children of men being plunged alike into a state of sin and misery, equally under guilt and wrath, God, in a way of sovereignty, picks out some from this fallen apostatized race, to be vessels of grace and glory. He dispenses his gifts to whom he will, without giving us any reason: according to his own good pleasure he pitches upon some to be monuments of mercy and grace, preventing grace, effectual grace, while he passes by others.

The various dealings of God, by which he makes some to differ from others, must be resolved into his absolute sovereignty. He is debtor to no man, his grace is his own, and he may give it or withhold it as it pleaseth him; we have none of us deserved it, nay, we have all justly forfeited it a thousand times, so that herein the work of our salvation is admirably well ordered that those who are saved must thank God only, and those who perish must thank themselves only, Hos. 13:9.

Applying this general rule to the particular case that Paul has before him, the reason why the unworthy, undeserving, ill-deserving Gentiles are called, and grafted into the church, while the greatest part of the Jews are left to perish in unbelief, is not because those Gentiles were better deserving or better disposed for such a favour, but because of God’s free grace that made that difference.

 

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2217.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Calvinism Has No Use for Such Drivel (Bavinck)

Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 Some have said that the Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian view of God, evil, election, salvation, and damnation is more kind and loving than the Calvinist view.  If you’ve heard that, it’s completely false.  I usually like to keep posts shorter than this, but Herman Bavinck’s full section on the topic is worth reading.  After spending quite some time discussing the Scripture texts that talk about reprobation, God rejecting and hardening some people, using Pharoah to show his power, and displaying his absolute sovereignty in and through evil, Bavinck applies this truth:

These numerous strong pronouncements of Scripture are daily confirmed in the history of humankind. The defenders of reprobation, accordingly, have always appealed to these appalling facts, of which history is full. Present in this world there is so much that is irrational, so much undeserved suffering, so many inexplicable disasters, such unequal and incomprehensible apportionment of good and bad fortune, such a heartbreaking contrast between joy and sorrow, that any thinking person has to choose between interpreting it—as pessimism does—in terms of the blind will of some misbegotten deity, or on the basis of Scripture believingly trusting in the absolute, sovereign, and yet—however incomprehensible—wise and holy will of him who will some day cause the full light of heaven to shine on those riddles of our existence.

The acceptance or rejection of a decree of reprobation, therefore, should not be explained in terms of a person’s capacity for love and compassion. The difference between Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin or Castellio, Gomarus and Arminius is not that the latter were that much more gentle, loving, and tender-hearted than the former. On the contrary, it arises from the fact that the former accepted Scripture in its entirety, also including this doctrine; that they were and always wanted to be theistic and recognize the will and hand of the Lord also in these disturbing facts of life; that they were not afraid to look reality in the eye even when it was appalling.

Pelagianism scatters flowers over graves, turns death into an angel, regards sin as mere weakness, lectures on the uses of adversity, and considers this the best possible world. Calvinism has no use for such drivel. It refuses to be hoodwinked. It tolerates no such delusion, takes full account of the seriousness of life, champions the rights of the Lord of lords, and humbly bows in adoration before the inexplicable sovereign will of God Almighty. As a result it proves to be fundamentally more merciful than Pelagianism. How deeply Calvin felt the gravity of what he said is evident from his use of the expression “dreadful decree.” Totally without warrant, this expression has been held against him. In fact, it is to his credit, not to his discredit. The decree, as Calvin’s teaching, is not dreadful, but dreadful indeed is the reality that is the revelation of that decree of God, a reality that comes through both in Scripture and in history. To all thinking humans, whether they are followers of Pelagius or Augustine, that reality remains completely the same. It is not something that can in any way be undone by illusory notions of it.

Now, in the context of this dreadful reality, far from coming up with a solution, Calvinism comforts us by saying that in everything that happens, it recognizes the will and hand of an almighty God, who is also a merciful Father. While Calvinism does not offer a solution, it invites us humans to rest in him who lives in unapproachable light, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose paths are beyond tracing out. There lay Calvin’s comfort: “The Lord to whom my conscience is subject will be my witness that the daily meditation on his judgments leaves me so speechless that no curiosity tempts me to know anything more, no sneaking suspicion concerning his incomparable justice creeps over me, and in short, no desire to complain seduces me.” And in that peaceful state of mind he awaited the day when he would see [God] face to face and be shown the solution of these riddles.

Well said.  Agreed.

The quotes are from Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 394–395.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Election and Sovereign Grace (Boston)

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston, Volume 1: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 1 In Ephesians 1 and Romans 9-11 Paul teaches what has been called unconditional election.  That is, the reason God has chosen some for salvation in Christ but not others is found in him and in his sovereign will.  Election is not based on man’s choice or faith, but on God’s sovereign good pleasure (eudokia; Eph 1:5b).  Thomas Boston explained this aspect of God’s sovereign grace in election quite well (I’ve edited the quote slightly to make it more readable):

Behold here the freedom and glory of sovereign grace, which is the sole cause why God did not leave all mankind to perish in the state of sin and misery…. He was no more obliged to the one than the other. Why did he choose any of the fallen race of men to grace and glory? It was his mere good pleasure to select some, and pass by others. He could have been without them all, without any blemish either on his happiness or justice; but out of his mere good pleasure he set his love on a select number, in whom he will display the invincible efficacy of his sovereign grace, and thereby bring them to the fruition of glory.

This proceeds from his absolute sovereignty. …If he had pleased, he might have made all the objects of his love; and if he had pleased he might have chosen none, but have suffered Adam and all his numerous offspring to sink eternally into the pit of perdition. It was in his supreme power to have left all mankind under the rack of his justice; and, by the same right of dominion, he may pick out some men from the common mass, and lay aside others to bear the punishment of their crimes. There is no cause in the creature but all in God. It must be resolved into his sovereign will.

So it is said in Romans 9:15 & 16 where God speaks to Moses, ‘I will have mercy, on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy.’ And yet God did not will without wisdom. He did not choose hand over head and act by mere will without reason and understanding. An infinite wisdom is far from such a kind of procedure. But the reason of God’s proceedings is inscrutable to us, unless we could understand God as well as he understands himself. The rays of his infinite wisdom are too bright and dazzling for our weak and shallow capacities. The apostle acknowledges not only a wisdom in his proceeding, but riches and a treasure of wisdom; and not only that, but a depth and vastness of these riches of wisdom; but was wholly incapable to give a scheme and inventory of it. Hence he cries out in Romans 11:33, ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!’ Let us humbly adore the divine sovereignty. We should cast ourselves down at God’s feet, with a full resignation of ourselves to his sovereign pleasure.

Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 1, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 1 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 311–312.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Is Predestination Central in Calvinism?

There’s much more to Reformed theology than the doctrines of grace (TULIP).  Similarly, there’s more to the doctrines of grace than predestination.  This needs to be said and repeated since some say that the central dogma of Calvinism is predestination, that predestination is at the core of the doctrines of grace.  Michael Horton gave some helpful points to refute this error:

  1. Calvin was not the first Calvinist.  The standard medieval view affirmed unconditional election and reprobation and held that Christ’s redemptive work at the cross is ‘sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect alone.’  …On even the most controversial aspects of predestination, Calvin’s view can scarcely be distinguished from that of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, and Gregory of Rimini.  …In fact, some of Luther’s strong comments in ‘The Bondage of the Will’ make Calvin moderate by comparison.
  2. Calvin was not the only shaper of the Reformed tradition.  Although his formative influence is justly recognized, he regarded himself as a student of Luther.  The Strasbourg Reformer Martin Bucer also left a decisive imprint on Calvin, as on a whole generation, including Archbishop Thomas Cramner.  …Heinrich Bullinger, John Knox, Jan Laski, Girolamo Zanchi, and Peter Martyr Vermigli were also among the many contemporaries of Calvin who shaped Reformed teaching, not to mention the following generations of leaders who refined and consolidated the gains of the sixteenth century.
  3. It is interesting that John Calvin never identified predestination or election as a central dogma.  He spoke of the doctrine of justification as ‘the primary article of the Christian religion,’ ‘the main hinge on which religion turns,’ the principal article of the whole doctrine of salvation and the foundation of all religion.’  Obviously he considered predestination an important doctrine.  But he was not only unoriginal in his formulation; he did not raise it to the level of a central dogma.  As B.B. Warfield has pointed out, Calvin’s emphasis on God’s fatherly love and benevolence in Christ is more pervasive than his emphasis on God’s sovereign power and authority.

“None of this is to diminish the obvious importance of election in Reformed theology, but it does serve to dissuade us from regarding it as a central dogma or as a uniquely Calvinistic tenent. …The truth is, there isn’t a central dogma in Calvinism, although it is certainly God-centered – and, more specifically, Christ-centered, since it is only in the Son that God’s saving purposes and action in history are most clearly revealed. …With Melanchthon and Bullinger leading the way, covenant theology emerged as the very warp and woof of Reformed theology.  Even this is not a central dogma, however, but more like the architectural framework.”

Michael Horton, For Calvinism, pp 28-30.

Shane Lems

Comfort on the Deathbed (Or: A Pastor’s Most Important Resource)

Simon Goulart was a Reformed theologian and pastor from France who served in Geneva in the middle of the 16th century.  His preaching and teaching were solidly biblical, clearly doctrinal, and very applicable.  One example of this is his biblical comfort he gave to Christians on their deathbed.  Scott Manetsch gives a good summary of Goulart’s pastoral care:

As Christians approach death, Goulart recognizes, they are frequently tempted to doubt God’s promised salvation and despair of their future hope.  In this spiritual drama, Satan is especially active.  Goulart’s discourse ‘Remedies Against Satan’s Temptations in our Final Hour’ enumerates the stinging accusations and doubts that Satan launches against God’s children as they struggle on their deathbeds.  The voice of Satan accuses: ‘You are a miserable sinner, worthy of damnation.’  ‘Your sins are too great to be forgiven.’  ‘How do you know that the promise of the gospel pertains to you?’  ‘Are you certain that your repentance and faith are genuine?’  ‘How do you know that you are among God’s elect?’  In response to each of these attacks, Goulart provides the faithful Christian a ready answer, drawn from the pages of Scripture.

For example, when Satan questions the believer’s election, the Christian responds: ‘All true believers are sheep of Jesus Christ, elected in him to eternal life.  Psalm 23 says that ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’  And Psalm 100 says ‘Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.’  So too, Jesus Christ says in John 10, ‘My sheep hear my voice.’  I have heard this voice and heeded it.  Thus, I am one of the sheep of this Great Shepherd, who has given his life to bring me into his sheepfold, having rescued me from your jaws, O roaring lion.’

Clearly, Goulart believed that God’s Word was to serve as the pastor’s most important resource in caring for Christians on their deathbeds.  Scripture is like a ‘pharmacy’ for wounded souls, he asserted.  It offers a ‘secure harbor for agitated consciences.’

The above quotes were taken from Scott Matnetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, p 297-298.

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

Hypercalvinism, Election, and Godliness (Zanchi)

The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, vol. 5 Hypercalvinism is a serious distortion of the gospel and the grace of God.  In hypercalvinist circles you’ll hear sermons on election and reprobation, but you’ll rarely hear calls to faith and repentance.  Hypercalvinists don’t want to sound Arminian so they usually don’t use terms like “receive Christ” or “flee to Jesus.”  Hypercalvinism shows up in practice too: if someone is elect, no need to worry about how he or she lives, speaks, or acts.  He’s elect, all is well – we need not be too concerned if he sleeps through sermons, swears like a sailor, or drinks too much on days that end with “y”.  So goes unbiblical the hypercalvinist logic.

Biblical preaching, however, not only explains election and reprobation, it also calls people (including professing believers) to repentance and faith.  Biblical, Calvinistic preachers are not afraid to use terms like “receive Christ,” and “flee to Jesus; come to the Lord!” True Calvinists bow to Scripture and admonish professing believers who are not living according to Scripture.  In fact, in Reformed theology, we teach that the doctrine of election leads to godly – not godless – living (see WCF 3.6, 8).  G. Zanchi, a 16th century Protestant Reformer, said one argument (among others) for the preaching of predestination is this:

..Namely, that, by it, we may be excited to the practice of universal godliness. The knowledge of God’s love to you, will make you an ardent lover of God: and, the more love you have to God, the more will you excel in all the duties and offices of love. Add to this, that the scripture view of predestination includes the means, as well as the end. Christian predestinarians are for keeping together what God hath joined. He who is for attaining the end, without going to it through the means, is a self-deluding enthusiast. He, on the other hand, who carefully and conscientiously, uses the means of salvation, as steps to the end, is the true Calvinist.

Now, eternal life being that, to which the elect are ultimately destined; faith (the effect of saving grace), and sanctification (the effect of faith), are blessings, to which the elect are intermediately appointed.  “According as he hath chosen us in him, before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (Eph. 1:4). “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).  “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God – Ye became followers of us and of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1:4, 6).  “God hath chosen you to salvation, through sanctification of the spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13).  “Elect, according to the foreknowledge [or, ancient love] of God the Father, through sanctification of the spirit, unto obedience” (1 Pet. 1:2).

I appreciate Zanchi’s words and Scripture quotes: the biblical view of predestination includes the means as well as the end.  Election and godly living go hand in hand.  God has lovingly and graciously chosen his people not so they can live however they selfishly see fit, but so that they love him and obey him.  Obedience to God is one fruit of election.

The above quotation is taken from Augustus Toplady’s translation of G. Zanchi’s The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination found on p. 294 of volume 5 of Toplady’s Works.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI