Unconditional Election and Ineffable Grace (Augustine)

Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers First Series, Volume VII Augustine clearly taught unconditional election; it did not originate with Calvin.  They both rejected the teaching of conditional election, that God elects people because he foresaw faith in them.  Furthermore, both Calvin and Augustine found unconditional election in Scripture.  Here are Augustine’s comments on John 15:16 (You did not choose Me but I chose you – NASB):

Ineffable grace! For what were we before Christ had chosen us, but wicked, and lost? We did not believe in Him, so as to be chosen by Him: for had He chosen us believing, He would have chosen us choosing.

This passage refutes the vain opinion of those who say that we were chosen before the foundation of the world because God foreknew that we should be good, not that He Himself would make us good.

For had He chosen us because He foreknew that we should be good, He would have foreknown also that we should first choose Him, for without choosing Him we cannot be good; unless indeed he can be called good who hath not chosen good.

What then hath He chosen in them who are not good? Thou canst not say, ‘I am chosen because I believed’; for hadst thou believed in Him, thou hadst chosen Him. Nor canst thou say, ‘Before I believed I did good works, and therefore was chosen.’ For what good work is there before faith?

What is there for us to say then, but that we were wicked, and were chosen, [so] that by the grace of the chosen we might become good?

This quote can be found in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.7, tractate LXXXVI.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI



The Distinctive Characteristics of Predestination (Brakel)

In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible talks about election and predestination.  He has in mercy chosen some sinners to salvation and in justice has passed by others.  God didn’t elect some to salvation because he knew they’d believe, or because they were more worthy than others.  He chose to save some sinners because of his own sovereign will: I will have mercy on whom I have mercy (Rom. 9:15 NASB).  Wilhelmus a Brakel (d. 1711) explained unconditional election quite well in book one of The Christian’s Reasonable Service.  Here are part of his notes on predestination:

1) Predestination is eternal, that is, from before the foundation of the world. “…whom He did predestinate (Rom. 8:30).

 2) Predestination is volitional. God was not moved by external or internal causes to predetermine man’s destiny, but was solely moved by His good pleasure. “For so it seemed good in Thy sight” ( Mat. 9:22). The fact that God has ordained to lead one individual unto salvation through Christ and to damn another individual for his sins is solely to be attributed to the free exercise of His sovereignty. “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” (Rom. 9:21). This is infinitely more true of God.
3) Predestination is an act of wisdom whereby God ordains suitable means to accomplish His end. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom 11:33). The apostle exclaims this concerning predestination, which he discussed in this chapter.

(4) Predestination is independent, absolute , and unconditional. God accomplishes His decree by the use of means, but the means are not the conditions. The decree is not contingent upon the means.  Thus, the means neither establish nor unsettle this decree. God Himself governs the means to accomplish His certain, immutable, and immovable purpose – a purpose which proceeds from within Himself according to His good pleasure. All means are subordinate to this good pleasure (Brakel quotes Romans 9:11-13 here).

5) Predestination is an immutable decree. Since God’s purpose originates in eternity, it is not contingent upon the condition of goodness or evil within man, but proceeds solely from the good pleasure of God. It is thus impossible for this purpose to change. God Himself is immutable, wise, and omnipotent. Therefore Rom 8:30 states, “Moreover whom He did predestinate… them He also glorified” (cf. Rom 9:21-23).

Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, book 1, pages 216-217.

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

Augustine on Unconditional Election

Here are some excellent lines from Augustine on the doctrine of election – specifically unconditional election.  Augustine wrote these words in his comments on John 15:15-16.

“Ye have not chosen me,” He says, “but I have chosen you.” Grace such as that is ineffable. For what were we so long as Christ had not yet chosen us, and we were therefore still destitute of love? For he who hath chosen Him, how can he love Him? Were we, think you, in that condition which is sung of in the psalm: “I had rather be an abject in the house of the Lord, than dwell in the tents of wickedness”?  Certainly not. What were we then, but sinful and lost? We had not yet come to believe on Him, in order to lead to His choosing us; for if it were those who already believed that He chose, then was He chosen Himself, prior to His choosing. But how could He say, “Ye have not chosen me,” save only because His mercy anticipated us?

Here surely is at fault the vain reasoning of those who defend the foreknowledge of God in opposition to His grace, and with this view declare that we were chosen before the foundation of the world, because God foreknew that we should be good, but not that He Himself would make us good. So says not He, who declares, “Ye have not chosen me.” For had He chosen us on the ground that He foreknew that we should be good, then would He also have foreknown that we would not be the first to make choice of Him. For in no other way could we possibly be good: unless, forsooth, one could be called good who has never made good his choice.

What was it then that He chose in those who were not good? For they were not chosen because of their goodness, inasmuch as they could not be good without being chosen. Otherwise grace is no more grace, if we maintain the priority of merit. Such, certainly, is the election of grace, whereof the apostle says: “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant saved according to the election of grace.” To which he adds: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace.”

Listen, thou ungrateful one, listen: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” Not that thou mayest say, I am chosen because I already believed. For if thou wert believing in Him, then hadst thou already chosen Him. But listen: “Ye have not chosen me.” Not that thou mayest say, Before I believed I was already doing good works, and therefore was I chosen. For what good work can be prior to faith, when the apostle says, “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin”?  What, then, are we to say on hearing such words, “Ye have not chosen me,” but that we were evil, and were chosen in order that we might be good through the grace of Him who chose us? For it is not by grace, if merit preceded: but it is of grace: and therefore that grace did not find, but effected the merit.

Augustine of Hippo. “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John.” St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies. Ed. Philip Schaff. Trans. John Gibb and James Innes. Vol. 7. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888. 353.

rev shane lems
hammond, wi

Problem with Election – or Depravity?

 Boice’s commentary on Ephesians is a masterpiece.

“When people have trouble with election – and many do – their real problem is not with the doctrine of election, although they think it is, but with the doctrine of depravity that makes election necessary.”

“The question to settle is: How far did the human race fall when it fell?  Did man fall upward?  That is the view of secular evolutionists….  Did man fall part way but not the whole way, so that he is damaged by sin but not ruined?  That is the view of Pelagians or Arminians.  It affirms that we are affected by sin but insists that we nevertheless possess the ability to turn from it and believe in Christ when the gospel is offered – by our own power.  Or did man fall the whole way so that he is no longer capable of making even the smallest movement back toward God unless God first reaches down and performs the miracle of the new birth in him?  That is the view of Scripture.”

“The Bible says that we are ‘dead in…transgressions and sins’ (Eph. 2:11).  It says, ‘There is no one…who seeks God’ (Rom. 3:11).  Jesus declared, ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44).  It is written in Genesis: ‘The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time’ (Gen. 6:5).”

“What good could God possibly foresee in hearts that are dead in transgressions and sins and inclined only to evil all the time?  What good could God anticipate in people who cannot come to him and do not even seek him unless he first draws them to himself.  If that is the situation, as the Bible says it is, then the only way any man or woman can be saved is by the sovereign election of God by which he first chooses some for salvation and then leads them to faith” (p. 16-17).

J. M. Boice, Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997).

rev shane lems
hammond wi

Unconditional Election and Assurance

What's So Great About the Doctrines of Grace?If you want a short, biblical, and edifying explanation of the doctrines of grace (aka TULIP), you’ll want to start with Richard Phillips’ What’s So Great About The Doctrines Of Grace?  At the end of each doctrine, he gives several points of application. 

For example, here’s one way that unconditional election is great: “Because it promotes assurance of salvation but not presumption.”  The quote is worth posting in full.

“The Bible establishes salvation on the basis of saving faith in Jesus Christ.  No one who does not display credible faith in Christ should ever think himself elect.  Election, like salvation, is only ‘in Christ.’  But what a comfort it is to know that if I do believe in Christ, the Bible tells me I was chosen by God from before the foundation of the world.”

“Here is where the doctrine of election so greatly helps.  It tells us that if we can say to God that we trust in Jesus, then God tells us our faith is grounded on the solid rock of his eternal election.  We are not saved by believing we are elect; rather, we realize we are elect because we have faith in Christ.”

“Faith assures us that we are secure in God’s eternally strong hands.  How many Christians stumble on in weakness, burdened with doubts that would be erased if only they knew their salvation rested not in themselves but in God?  Election tells us that it was God who sought us and not we who sought him, that God called us to himself because he chose us long ago.”

“I don’t know about you, but that changes everything in my struggle for assurance of salvation, and therefore gives me peace about my eternal soul.  Calvin speaks with characteristic understatement when he write, ‘If we find no certainty in things on earth, we must know that our salvation rests upon God, and that he holds it in such a manner that it can never vanish away.  This is a happy consideration.’”

Richard Phillips, What’s So Amazing About The Doctrines Of Grace?, p. 46-7.

rev shane lems

Unconditional Election: A Motive to Missions

 Sometimes people say that the doctrines of grace (aka Calvinism) are a hinderance to missions and evangelism.  The reasoning goes like this: why share the gospel with someone if he might not be elect?  Why share the gospel with someone if Jesus didn’t die for him?  While hypercalvinists might say “Good point!” to those questions, biblical Calvinists answer those questions something like J. M. Boice did:

“People suppose that if God is going to save certain individuals, then he will save them, and there is no point in our having anything to do with it.  But it does not work that way.  Election does not exclude the use of the means by which God works, and the proclamation of the gospel is one of those means (1 Cor. 1:21).”

“Moreover, it is only the truth of election that gives us any hope of success as we proclaim the gospel to unsaved men and women.  If the heart of a sinner is as opposed to God as the Bible declares it to be, and if God does not elect people to salvation, then what hope of success could we possibly have in witnessing?  If God does not call sinners to Christ effectively, it is certain that we cannot do so either.  Even more, if the effective agent in salvation is not God’s choice and call – if the choice is up to the individual or to us, because of our powers to persuade people to accept Christ – how could we even dare to witness?  For what if we make a mistake?  What if we give a wrong answer?  What if we are insensitive to the person’s real questions?  In that case, people will fail to believe.  They may eventually go to hell, and their eternal destiny will be partly our fault, and how could any thinking, feeling Christian live with that?”

“But on the other hand, if God has elected some to salvation and if he is calling those elected individuals to Christ, then we can go forth boldly, knowing that our witness does not have to be perfect, that God uses even weak and stuttering testimonies to his grace and, best of all, that all whom God has chosen for salvation will be saved.  We can be fearless, knowing that all who are called by God will come to him.”

This excellent quote was taken from Boice’s chapter on unconditional election in The Doctrines of Grace (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).

shane lems

Election, Perseverance, And A Pastoral Letter

 In Letter 12 of his Letters, John Newton wrote to a friend who was skeptical about the doctrines of unconditional election and the perseverance of the saints.  In a charitable and pastoral way, Newton gave his Christian friend some encouragement in thinking about these doctrines.

He opened by explaining that we don’t come to learn the truth through our own natural ability.  “It is not therefore by noisy disputation, but by humble waiting upon God in prayer, and a careful perusal of his holy word, that we are to expect a satisfactory, experimental, and efficacious knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus.”  In other words, these doctrines are not simply mathematical equations proven by some scientific method but truths God reveals to his people through personal, prayerful study of the Word.

He moved on and gave practical advice on how to study these doctrines.  First, he said, “[Do not] lay too great stress upon a few detached texts, but seek for that sense which is most agreeable to the general strain of the Scripture.”  By this he meant to let Scripture interpret itself by way of the analogy of faith.  Second, and subordinately, he said to compare experiences with the truths of Scripture.  For example, when Christians stand firm to the end of their trial filled lives, does experience show that it is by their own power and fortitude or by God’s power through his grace? 

Third, Newton told his friend not to hesitate embracing these doctrines simply because he had a few objections to them.  If we’d wait to believe a truth until all our objections are cleared, we would never believe!  “We are poor weak creatures; and the clearing up of every difficulty is not what we are immediately called to, but rather to seek that light which may strengthen and feed our souls.”  Finally, he wrote that “whatever is from God has a sure tendency to ascribe glory to him, to exclude boasting from the creature, to promote the love and practice of holiness, and increase our dependence upon his grace and faithfulness.”  Calvinism has everything to do with God’s glory in saving hell-bent, spiritually dead sinners and making them holy so they can give God glory by depending completely on his grace and mercy in life and in death.  This is thoroughly biblical!  Newton even ends the letter by saying, “the doctrines of grace are doctrines according to godliness.”

There is a bit more to this letter that I’ll have to mention later.  Newton goes on to explain from Scripture the comforting truths of election and perseverance.  This letter not only contains some solid advice on studying the doctrines of grace, it also explains them in a biblically edifying way.  Equally important is Newton’s pastoral approach in loving this Christian who was unsure that the doctrines of grace (Calvinism) were true.  Many of us could learn a thing or two from Newton’s method of teaching the truth in love, humility, and patience.

If you want to read the entire  letter, you’ll need to get The Letters of John Newton.

shane lems