A Coordinated Double Decree? Predestination, the Pulpit, and the People

The Synod of Dort convened on November 13, 1618. It was, however, January 18, 1619, before they addressed themselves to the intricate problems posed by the five articles of the Remonstrants. One big reason for this long delay was the subtle strategy of Episcopius. As a clever parliamentarian he wanted to formulate the problems to be discussed. He wanted to focus the debate on the fact of reprobation. With deceptive inuendo and careless formulation he could easily distort this decree into a grotesque caricature. Episcopius knew this well enough and tried to focus discussion around this matter. The sabotage of such strategy was a happy fact. The Canons would have lost their biblical soundness and their delicate sobriety had Episcopius succeeded.

Others since have learned from Episcopius. They, too, pull the decree of reprobation out of its biblical focus by insisting that predestination necessarily involves the coordination of election and reprobation. The biblical picture is completely distorted by balancing election and reprobation over against each other and claiming equal significance for them. This distortion of a coordinated double decree includes the following.

1. Election and reprobation express God’s sovereign agency in the same way. There is a exact parallel between the election-faith relation and the reprobation unbelief relation. God’s sovereign activity in both cases is viewed as working in the same manner.

2. Election and reprobation are of equal significance in revealing God’s perfections and will. The heart of God’s perfections is his sovereign will which gives birth to an arbitrary divine love revealed to a select clique of favorites and an equally arbitrary divine wrath displayed to a hopeless mass of unfortunates. Sovereign predestination means that God is as indifferently disposed to damn sinners as he is to save them.

3. Election and reprobation are of equal value in defining God’s final purposes with respect to all men. God is as vitally interested in obtaining a hell full of reprobates as a heaven full of elect. A full hell and a full heaven balanced over against each other in delicate poise is the definitive description of God’s counsel.

I am not imagining such grotesque distortions. The framers of the Canons took the trouble to write a conclusion in which they warn against those who wished to persuade the public that the same doctrine teaches, that God, by a mere arbitrary act of his will, without the least respect or view to any sin, has pre-destinated the greatest part of the world to  eternal damnation; and has created these for this very purpose; that in the same manner in which election is the fountain and the cause of fait h and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and piety.



They conclude by saying that the Reformed Churches detest such ideas with their whole soul Their strong aversion to such coordination arose out of their loyalty to the Scriptures. We now proceed to examine this coordinated double decree a bit more carefully.

The Bible consistently pictures God as sovereign in all of his activities. Nothing escapes his sovereign control. He clothes the grass of the field, feeds the birds of the heavens, not even a sparrow falls from a house without his knowledge and will, Matthew 6:25ff. He enthrones kings and effects their abdication, Daniel 5:18ff Assyria is the rod of God’s anger, Isaiah 10:5 and the Chaldeans are ordained by Jehovah, the Holy One, for purposes of judgment and correction, Hebrews 1:12.

His sovereign agency also extends to men’s evil deeds. He is Jehovah and there is none else. “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am Jehovah, that doeth all these things” (lsa. 45:7). “Shall evil befall a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6). In his sovereign judicial activity he makes the heart of the people fat, makes their ears heavy, and shuts their eyes, Isaiah 6:9ff. In Matthew 13, John 12 and Acts 28 there is reference to Isaiah’s words. It should be noticed that in Matthew and Acts the people are pictured as blinding their own eyes and in John it is God’s sovereign activity which is emphasized. This serves notice on us that we may not abstract this divine activity from the moral situation in which the objects of such sovereign activity lived.

Furthermore, it is a sound biblical truth that whatever God does in time he planned to do in eternity. He never acts on the spur of the moment. He worketh all things after the counsel of his will. Warfield puts this whole matter in one magnificent summary statement.(1)

Because, over against all dualistic conceptions, there is but one God, and He is indeed God; and because, over against all cosmotheistic conceptions, this God is a PERSON who acts purposefully; there is nothing that is, and no thing that comes to pass, that He has not first decreed and then brought to pass by His creation and providence. Thus all things find their unity in His eternal plan; and not their unity merely, but their justification as well; even the evil, though retaining its quality as evil and hateful to the holy God, and certain to be dealt with as hateful, yet does not occur apart from His provision or against His will, but appears ill the world which He made only as the instrument by means of which He works the higher good.

This biblical fact needs sharp accentuation today. Not a few men under the influence of existentialism want to relegate man’s sinful activities into the men of pure possibility. Man’s unbelieving rejection of the gospel offer becomes a bare existential possibility not under the control of God’s sovereign counsel. Anything outside the scope of God’s pre-cosmic and transtemporal counsel would be as eternal as God himself and would exist as a limit to divine sovereignty. But then the biblical picture of God becomes distorted. Our age with its frightening possibilities for woe, our time in which the hearts of thoughtful men fail with fear, needs to hear the happy refrain of those Christ confessors who bow before the sovereign God and sing, “Alleluia; for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth” (Rev. 19:6).

The full accent of this fact must not, however, blur another equally important truth. The manner in which this sovereign activity operates is not the same in all cases. In this connection we are concerned with the sovereign decree of predestination. In the case of both election and reprobation there is no difference as to the unconditioned sovereignty of God. There are, however, important differences in the manner in which this sovereign action is exercised. Our Reformed tradition not merely allows for these variations, but contends for such differences.

One way of expressing this difference led men to speak of two aspects in the decree of reprobation. The best Reformed traditions spoke of two acts of God involved in reprobation. The one act is called preterition. It is sovereign and negative. God sovereignly purposed and historically does leave some sinners in their natural situation of sin and misery. God decrees to without and actually abstains from imparting the insuperable gifts of the Holy Spirit to some sinners. It is God’s good pleasure, which is always good, to pass them by. This is the ultimate, final ground of reprobation. Their sin is not the ultimate ground for passing them by. If that were so all sinners would be passed by. In this sense reprobation as well as election is ultimate, both are equally ultimate. For both finally rest in God’s sovereign good pleasure. Dr. J. Daane obscures this fact and is historically incorrect when be asserts, “that Reformed theology has always rejected the principle of the equal ultimacy of election and reprobation.”(2) We must guard the biblical truth of God’s sovereignty at this point and his phrase of “equal ultimacy” is ambiguous in not allowing for the full accent on the sovereign character of preterition.

But this is not the whole story. There is a second act involved in reprobation. It is the positive and judicial act of God by virtue of which God ordains the by-passed sinner to outer darkness. This act is founded on man’s sin. Because the by-passed individuals are sinners they are set to endure God’s holy and righteous wrath. This act of God is founded on the foresight of man’s willful continuance in sin.

No such distinction is made with respect to the decree of election. This graciously sovereign purpose of God is the source or cause of man’s faith, justification, holiness and perseverance in faith. God chose us “in Christ…before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before him” (Eph. 1:4). We are chosen to be God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works “which God afore prepared that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). God chose us “from the beginning unto salvation in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (11 Thess. 2:13). The Bible nowhere remotely suggests that God predestined some to sin in the same manner as he predestined to holiness in Christ.

God’s sovereign act of preterition, the passing by of some, leaves men as they are. It puts nothing in man, effects no change for the worse in them. For his own good reasons God sovereignly leaves them where they are, in their guilt! and depravity, a situation which these sinners love. God does not prevent them from repenting and believing. He does not compel them to continue in sin. He sovereignly decides to withhold from them the efficient workings of his redeeming Spirit and righteously appoints them to his never-ending wrath on account of their sins.

In the cautious handling of these distinctions we can display our detestation of a coordinated double decree. The big problem here is the relation of man’s unbelief, the root of all sin, to the counsel of God, the will of his decree. The precise formulation of the manner in which God”s sovereign determination relates itself to man’s unbelief remains insoluble for us. Elsewhere I had occasion to speak of the direct relation which obtains between election and faith. and of an indirect relation which obtains between reprobation and unbelief. The term “relation” expressed the idea that such sin cannot be isolated from God’s counsel. The terms “direct and indirect” indicated an important difference in the mode in which God’s sovereign agency operates.(3) Wm. Cunningham says, “this agency is not exerted in the same manner, or in the same degree, in the permission of the bad, as in the production of the good, actions of men.”(4)

On the one hand we must not mute the basic tones of God’s omnipotence, self-sufficiency and sovereignty. On the other hand we must not stifle the screams of ow guilt. If we eclipse God’s sovereignty we cannot preach the dynamic presence of a perfectly procured salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord. Without the summons of ow sovereign Savior the preacher can only hold forth a feeble chance to be saved. If we obscure the differences in the mode of the actions of the sovereign God, we unwarrantedly lighten the awful load of our guilt. This would obscure the greatness of our sins and miseries, an essential ingredient of saving faith. The beauty of the gospel of sovereign grace in Jesus Christ lies precisely in removing the weight of this awful load of our guilt and bringing sinners into the abiding presence of the Bible’s sovereign God.

A coordinated double decree frightens the people and silences the pulpit. An unbalanced decree as described above gives power to the pulpit for then men declare the gospel of God which is his power unto salvation.

There is another fiction about a coordinated double decree which paralyzes the pulpit. Some think that predestination reveals a sovereign will, indifferently poised in bare power, which blasts some sinners into condemnation and blesses others into salvation. Nothing is farther removed front the Bible than such an idea. As I mentioned earlier, it is not the nude power of God which fixes the eternal destinies of all men. It is rather God in an act of his will, the God who ever wills in perfect harmony with his nature.

The unbiblical lines of such a coordinated decree are clearly seen when we trace those divine perfections displayed in the lives of those who die in unrepentance. Purposely I do not speak of the reprobate. After all we cannot and may not pinpoint a concrete sinner as a reprobate, as one sovereignty by-passed by God. This is an exclusive divine prerogative and any attempt so to define a sinner is a proud display of sin. Besides, we should never prejudice the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. God’s ways also in the converting of sinners are not our ways. The stories of Manasseh and Paul are clear demonstrations of this fact.

There are those, however, who never bring forth the fruits of faith. In such cases we behold the revelation of God’s wrath against sin. He that believeth not in disobedience shall not see life “out the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). There is an awful display of God’s punitive righteousness as he gives up sinners in the lusts of their hearts unto uncleanness, unto vile passions “receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was due” (Rom. 1:26). In the consuming passion of his holiness he gives them up unto a reprobate mind. This severity of God’s holy and righteous anger is in direct proportion to the abuse they make of his good gifts to them.

While they continue as members of the human race in this day of grace they share in the countless good gifts of God’s common grace. They receive the riches of God’s goodness and forebearance and longsuffering. Romans 2:4, 9:22. God does good to his enemies; how well do not we know just that! “For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Many not all of them since some never hear the preaching of the gospel—receive the well-meant gospel offer. Christ is tile administrator of God’s program of world salvation and in the preaching ministry of his church he confronts concrete sinners with an unsimulated and earnest offer of salvation. It is precisely the sinner’s willful and vicious rejection of Christ’s summons to salvation which gives weight to and ground for the righteous condemnation of God.

I have dealt with this matter in greater detail in my book The Well-Meant Gospel Offer. I regret that Dr. J. Daane in a review tried to create the impression that I do not accept the fact of a well-meant and serious offer of salvation made to concrete sinners. In commenting on my exegesis of I Timothy 2:4 he writes that my usage of the term “universal indefiniteness” apparently means “that the general offer is meaningful for everybody in general but not for anybody in particular. This seems a fair description of what De Jong thought.”(5)

With this generalization Daane confuses both my position and the issue under discussion at that paint in the book. The question I was dealing with concerned God’s intent involved in the ransom of Christ in connection with the term “all men” and not the fact of a well-meant gospel offer. The Bible does not teach that God’s intention with respect to the ransom given by Christ was universal in scope including every member of the human race. To use the words of The Canons of Dort the Bible teaches that it was “the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect.” Chapter II, Article 8.

Elsewhere I established the fact that the well-meant gospel offer comes to all concrete sinners personally without distinction, This blessed fact rests in the particularity and efficacy of Christ’s atoning work. For example, on page 110 I wrote,

The Son of God’s love, the Savior of the world, now meets the sinner who lives under the wrath of God and summons him to salvation. It is the sinner where he is, that is as a member of the world in the process of being saved by the reigning Christ, who is called to live in Christ…It is the transgressor of the old Adamic covenant who is offered salvation by the Mediator of the new and better covenant. He offers this sinner salvation in the way of faith because God keeps his word and deals with the postlapsarian (after the fall) sinner in the same way as he dealt with him in the prelapsarian (before the fall) situation of Paradise. Man must believe.

This is but one of many quotations which demonstrates that it is not “a fair description of what De Jong thought” to say that I refer to everybody in general but not to anybody in particular.

Such a well-meant offer of salvation together with all those other dealings of God with unrepentant sinners underscores the truth that God does not deal with sinners in terms of unmitigated and unrelieved wrath. Their lives are filled with varied tokens of God’s goodness and common favor. The caricature of a coordinated double decree must not obscure these patent facts.

In the case of those predestined to eternal life there is all this and much more, There is all this. Prior to their conversion they lived as unrepentant sinners, under God’s wrath as mitigated by his common grace. But when God’s Spirit bends their recalcitrant hearts and circumcises their uncircumcised hearts, they begin to see the wonders of God’s saving love revealed in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit removes the cataracts of sin and they are enabled to trace God’s insuperable ways with them. The pressure of God’s wrath against their sin as well as the gifts of his common grace are seen as parts of one magnificent chain of events under the direction of the predestinating God who determines the means us well as the end.

Once they are engrafted into Christ they see the full flowering of all God’s perfections in their Savior. There is the marvel of God’s saving love, the tenderness of his patience, the stern rigor of his justice, and the consuming passion of God’s wrath against sin. As they trace the blessed footsteps of Jesus Christ they come to see God as a Spirit infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection: all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth. God’s ways with the elect in Christ display a vastly more magnificent panorama of the workings of God’s perfections than does the doom of those bypassed and condemned. From this vantage point of believing commitment they detest with all their hearts a coordinated double decree as defined above.

Election and reprobation are not at all of equal significance in revealing God’s perfections. What we have seen puts the lie to the idea that God is as much glorified in the damnation of the impenitent as he is in the salvation of the believing. What the moon is to the sun is but an imperfect analogy of what reprobation is to election as far as the revelation of God’s attributes is concerned.

Election and reprobation are not of equal value in defining God’s final purposes with respect to all men. When the preacher stands in the pulpit he knows that God is not as vitally interested in obtaining a hell full of reprobates as a heaven full of elect. The thought of a coordinated decree could paralyze the preacher were he to imagine that heaven and hell balanced over against each other in delicate poise is a definitive description of God’s will with respect to mankind.

The Bible never remotely suggests that God is as much concerned about getting sinners into hell as he is in opening the doors of heaven. Jeremiah graphically pictures God as rising up early to send his prophets urging sinful Israel to repent. Jeremiah 35:14; 7:13, 25. Israel was not quickly or easily abandoned. She was rather pursued by divine love. “How shall I give up, Ephraim? how shall I cast thee off, Israel?…my heart is turned within me, my compassions are kindled together” (Hosea 11:8). God revealed the poignant concern of his love as it moved on to chastise and cleanse. He followed the sinner with his chesed, his patient, loyal, stedfast, covenant love. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Ezekiel 18:32. God’s final purpose with respect to the human race as revealed in the incarnate word, in the inscripturated word, and in the preached word is never one of simple balance between grace and in terms of a coordinated double decree.

The Bible tells us that “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” ( Luke 15:10). But we read nowhere of a similar joy in the damnation of sinners. The Lord delights in saving sinners as he redeems the whole human race. There is no sinner too lost that he may not be found by Christ and thus be found in him. The God and Father of Christ Jesus our Lord sent Jonah to Nineveh. Being slow to anger he saw the repentance of her citizens and “repented of the evil which he said he would do unto them” (Jonah 3:10). Our Savior allows the barren fig tree to stand one more year in response to the plea: “Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it and dung it: and if it bear fruit thenceforth, well; but if not, thou shalt cut it down” (Luke 13:8, 9). In patient constancy God gives new and undeserved opportunities to escape final destruction.

God wills to save the human race. For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. Because the opponents of predestination deny that God eternally fixes the destinies of concrete individuals, we must stress the Biblical truth that he chooses concrete sinners. He does not merely chose certain moral qualities in men as being worthy of his electing love. Nor does he only elect a class or group. God elects concrete sinners in Jesus Christ. But in our concern to stress this truth we must not obscure the fact that the elect are the new humanity. the recreated human race. The elect are not a few isolated individuals whom God rescues out of a perishing world, but are in Christ the new humanity which shall forever live in the new heaven and the new earth.

The reprobates, the impenitent sinners are always pictured as isolated individuals who have been cut out of the tree of humanity. They are the branches cast into the fire. They are thrust into outer darkness, the density of which forbids abnormal preoccupation with their awful pangs as if these are equally glorifying of God as the blessedness of recreated world.

We must lift our eyes to Christ. God’s definitive purpose with respect to our sinful world must be read in terms of Jesus Christ our Lord. “For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the fulness dwell; and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in heavens” (Col. 1:19. 20). God sent his Son that the world should be saved through him. As he moves on to save he sifts and those who refuse to believe are righteously pruned from the tree of humanity.

As we follow the Scriptures in defining God’s purpose for our world in terms of Jesus Christ we preach the best news this world has ever heard. We preach the gospel, God’s appointed means of grace. When we preach Jesus Christ we also preach predestination for we were chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). When we believe in Jesus Christ we believe in predestination for the grace of faith “was given us in Christ Jesus before times eternal” (II Tim. 1:9). It is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ our Lord which explodes the fiction of a coordinated double decree.