The Grace of Predestination
When the Remonstrants or followers of Jacobus Arminius wrote their Remonstrance in 1610, they began with the doctrine of predestination, reflecting the language of Ephesians 1: “That God by an eternal and immutable decree has in Jesus Christ his Son determined before the foundation of the world to save out of the fallen sinful human race those in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ who by the grace of the Holy Spirit.” So far; so good. From Heidelberg David Paraeus (1548–1622) even advised the synod, “At first sight, this Article seemes to have no question or inconvenience in it, but to deliver the summe of the Gospell.”1
It’s the next statement, though, that was the issue: “who . . . shall believe in this his Son Jesus Christ and [shall] persevere in this faith and obedience of faith.”2 The key issue was that election to salvation was conditional. God’s eternal and immutable purpose in Christ to save was conditioned and dependent on those whom God foreknew “shall believe . . . and [shall] persevere.”3 The Remonstrants defended this position at the synod in a list of theses. The first said, “God has not decided to elect anyone to eternal life, or to reject anyone from the same . . . without any consideration of preceding obedience or disobedience.” The seventh said, “The election of particular persons is decisive, out of consideration of faith in Jesus Christ and of perseverance; not, however, apart from a consideration of faith and perseverance in the true faith, as a condition prerequisite for electing.”4 In other words, God took into account a person’s obedience when he elected.
At the synod, the English delegation considered the Remonstrant thesis of election to salvation under the condition of faith the fundamental issue.5 This is still the issue between us and those who identify as non-Reformed, who even use illustrations like a horse race in which God knew ahead of time who was going to win; in the same way he saw us “win” so he chose us.6
This brings us to the first counter-point or head (caput) of doctrine in the Canons of Dort on predestination. Gulp! Christians need to talk about it; pastors need to preach it. You may know there’s no more surefire way to create awkward silence among family and friends than to say, “Hey everyone, let’s talk about predestination.” It’s offensive to unbelievers; it’s even offensive to believers. I don’t want you to have that awkwardness. I want you to be effective witnesses for Jesus Christ and his grace. We need to grow in the knowledge of his truth; we also need to grow in the wisdom of “speaking [his] truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
Common Christian Convictions
Predestination is like a beautiful painting. Before an artist applies paint he or she needs a canvas. Then the painting can begin. The first point of doctrine opens with a canvas of six articles that are the common inheritance of all Christians. After this canvas is laid out, the paint of predestination is applied. Before saying a word about predestination, the canons emphasize humanity’s sin and God’s justice because of it (art. 1), the love of God that he manifested in the sending of his Son (art. 2), that God ordains the end of our salvation as well as the means of our salvation through preaching (art. 3), the necessity of faith for sinners to receive Christ in the gospel proclaimed (art. 4), that faith is a gift of God’s grace (art. 5), and the connection between faith and predestination as the eternal source of faith (art. 6).
With the basic biblical teachings of articles 1–6 laid out as a canvas, we’re finally ready to paint on God’s predestinating work in article 7, which we’ll focus on here. One of the reasons this is so important to highlight is that it keeps us from over-focusing on predestination. The Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) had one short article on predestination that says God “delivers and preserves from this perdition [of Adam’s fall] 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” while “leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves” (art. 16).7 As Andreas Beck writes, “Indeed there is little is anything at all in this article of the Belgic Confession that would be specific to the Reformed tradition.”8 It was the Arminians who made a mountain out of a molehill. Another reason this is so important to highlight is the catholic context of predestination. In the words of Willem van Asselt, “Dordt did not invent the doctrine of predestination and the opposition against it is not new either . . . [they] did not have the intention to be original or introduce something new into the Christian tradition—original are only the heretics.”9 There was a whole history of Christian reflection brought to the fore by Augustine culminating in the Second Council of Orange in 529. This Augustinian consensus continued through the centuries in men like Isidore of Seville (ca. 560–636), Peter Lombard (ca. 1095–1160), Bonaventure (ca. 1217–1274), Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), Nicholas of Lyra (1270–1349), and in the schola Augustiniana moderna of Thomas Bradwardine (ca. 1300–1349), Gregory of Rimini (ca. 1300–1358), and even Martin Luther’s nemesis, John Eck (1486–1543).10
The biblical truth of God’s eternal predestination to salvation passed down through the ages reveals to us the glorious grace of our triune God here in article 7.11
It Is Unchangeable
What makes the doctrine of election so glorious? “Election [or choosing] is God’s unchangeable purpose.” Nowhere in any biblical passage do we ever get any idea that what God planned either God himself has changed or can be changed by us. God’s eternal plans are always described as certain, fixed, and immovable—“the unchangeable character of [God’s] purpose” (Heb. 6:17–18). The followers of Arminius taught that there were various kinds of election, including a revocable kind. Scripture does speak of God “changing,” but this is accommodated language. What this highlights for us practically is that it’s so easy for us to judge God on the basis of our experience. Dad would make promises, dad would break promises; God is a Father, therefore he, too, changes. It’s easy for us to see people in church and then not and to think that somehow they were genuinely saved but then lost that salvation. Election is glorious because it is unchangeable.
It Is Eternal
What makes the doctrine of election so glorious? It is eternal.12 “Election [or choosing] is God’s unchangeable purpose by which he did the following: Before the foundation of the world.” This language comes right from Ephesians 1:4. We are used to going into the polling station or sending in an absentee ballot during election season. We are used to having a say in things. Yet Scripture reveals to us that before anything was, there was only God. Before he actually made anything, he had a plan. Since he is eternal, so are his plans. His eternal plan for us was a gracious plan, saving us according to “his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9). This is why Paul praises God for this, saying, “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” (Rom. 11:34–35). This is not only glorious, but also it should be inspiring to you and me. Have you come to realize that the eternal and glorious God had a plan for you in particular from all of eternity and for all of eternity?
It Is Gracious
What makes the doctrine of election so glorious? In his unchangeable purpose before the foundation of the world “by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, he chose in Christ . . .” Paul says that at the heart of our praise to God the Father is his love for us. His love is an eternal love “as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world”(Eph. 1:4). His love for us is the cause of his predestining us (Eph. 1:5). His eternal love for us was that we would know his love in time, as his predestining love was “for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ”(Eph. 1:5). And his love for us was rooted in his prior love for his Son, “the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6).
This eternal grace was initiated, executed, and purposed in God himself, and not in us. “Hechose us”(Eph. 1:4), “he predestined” us (Eph. 1:5), and this was “according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:5). That word purpose eudoki can also be translated as “good pleasure” (NIV; NKJV) or “kind intention” (NASB).13 The cause of election is God’s love. It is not arbitrary or capricious but rooted in a deep love for us. As Moses revealed to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7, it was not because they were more in number or greater than anyone else that he chose them, but it was merely because the Lord loved them!
So why did God chose one person and not another? More personally, why did God choose you and not another? God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.” Then we read why: “that we should be holy and blameless before him.” In other words, it was not because we were holy and blameless. Again, we read that “in love [the Father] predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:5–6). His predestining us made us sons; we were not predestined because he saw us becoming sons. Have you ever heard a preacher use the illustration of a parade, where God, as it were, was in the broadcast booth watching the entire parade; from that vantage point he could see all humanity pass before him, believing or not, and then he reacts to this with his choice. Ephesians 1 says otherwise, that it was according to the riches of grace in God before time began that he chose you, not because of your faith in time.
The graciousness of God’s electing work is particularly glorious when we realize that he chose “us”as sinners. We were chosen “out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin” not because we were “better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery.”Because he chose us of all people, we sing at the top of our lungs from the bottom of our hearts, “O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be!” Why did God choose you and not another? It was not because of you!
This is so important for us, because it keeps grace gracious. Therefore, we are humbled to the core, not being puffed up because we were better. Grace is gracious.
Let me pause and anticipate a concern you may have. You may be thinking, “This sounds arbitrary.” But here’s the answer to that. If it were arbitrary, it would be for no reason. Like a bunch of ping pong balls in a lottery machine, one just comes up out of chance, luck, or odds. If all we said about election was that it was based on nothing in us, then yes, it would be arbitrary. You would be like one of billions and billions of white ping pong balls with absolutely nothing to distinguish you. But election is not arbitrary, as it is based on something in God. He gives it purpose and reason. Instead of what is in us, God elects on what is in him: grace and love. The simplicity of Scripture demands this.
It Is Definite
What makes the doctrine of election so glorious? In his unchangeable, eternal, and gracious purpose “he chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race.” The doxology of Ephesians 1 is that “we” bless God because he has blessed “us” (Eph. 1:4). This is not an indefinite mass or class of people, but real people like you and me. Augustine said the “number [of the predestined] is so certain that one can neither be added to them nor taken away . . . neither to be increased nor diminished.”14
Why is this so important to debate over? If predestination were indefinite and impersonal we would ever be in doubt as to our participation in it. On the contrary, because it is definitely of particular persons, John Calvin said Paul’s intention in Ephesians 1 was “to rouse [our] hearts to gratitude, to set [us] all on flame, to occupy and fill [us] with this thought . . . No doctrine is more useful . . . [to] stir us up to give thanks.”15
It Is Christ-Centered
Another aspect article 7 points out that makes the doctrine of election so glorious is that we were chosen “in Christ.”16 This is one of the areas we need to grow in appreciation for. We can so often speak abstractly of “predestination,” forgetting that this doctrine is Christ-centered. In Ephesians 1, before he even says a word about predestination, Paul roots everything in Jesus Christ. How so? We bless “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”; God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (v. 3); God chose us “in him,” that is, Jesus Christ; God “blessed us in the Beloved” (v. 6). “In Christ” doesn’t mean that Christ’s foreseen merit was the basis of our then being chosen in him, as the Remonstrants taught, but that “even before [we] are fully united with Christ through faith, there is some specific connection and mutual relationship between him, as the head, and the elect, as the members destined for and given to him.”17 Paul also told Timothy that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9). Article 7 summarizes what it means to have been chosen “in Christ” saying of those whom God predestined, “And so he decided to give the chosen ones to Christ to be saved, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ’s fellowship through his Word and Spirit.” How? The article goes on: “In other words, he decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of his Son, to glorify them.” Our Lord can do all this because he was “appointed from eternity to be the mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation.”
In practical terms, this means that Jesus Christ is like the mirror of our election. If the knowledge of God’s good pleasure and powerful love before the foundation of the world still leaves you in doubt, then the only remedy is to gaze upon Christ, as in a mirror. Look at him, and you will see reflected back yourself, being renewed in his image and chosen to be so.
What a doctrine! It reveals the glory of our wonderful God! As it does, it leads us to respond in praise and in holiness: “that we should be holy and blameless before him”(v. 4). This is no hyper-Calvinism or fatalism that says, “God will do what God will do; therefore it doesn’t matter.” He did what he did in eternity and has made that real in your life so that your life would matter. He “chose us,” that is, he called us out (exelexato) of the mass of sinners deserving punishment. And having called us out from eternity past, in time we become his “sons through Jesus Christ” by adoption (v. 5).
When we mediate on his glory we burst forth in praise: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:3) and “to the praise of his glorious grace!” (Eph. 1:6). When we meditate on his glory we respond in seeking to be holy. We were chosen for this. Out of the mass of sinners deserving punishment we were called forth “that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4). What a God! What a life he has called us to!18
1. David Paraeus, “Epitome of Arminianisme: or, The Examination of the Five Articles of the Remonstrants, in the Netherlands,” in The Summe of Christian Religion, Delivered by Zacharius Ursinus, trans. A. R. (London, printed by James Young, 1645), 817.
2. As cited in “Appendix C: The Remonstrance of 1610,” in Crisis in the Reformed Churches, 208.
3. Paraeus, “Epitome of Arminianisme,” 817–18.
4. See Appendix 2:The Opinions of the Remonstrants (1619), as cited in “Appendix H: The Opinions of the Remonstrants,” in Crisis in the Reformed Churches, 222–29.
5. Thesis de electione huius vel illius ad salutem sub conditione fidei, fundamentalis est. Milton, The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort, 175 (4/13).
6. Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, “Ephesians 1,” https://calvarychapel.com/pastorchuck/c2k/ephesians-1, accessed May 9, 2018.
7. Dennison, ed., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries, vol. 2, 433–34.
8. Beck, “Reformed Confessions and Scholasticism,” 29.
9. W. J. van Asselt, “No Dordt Without Scholasticism: Willem Verboom on the Canons of Dordt,” Church History and Religious Culture 87:2 (2007): 204–5, 206.
10. See Heiko A. Oberman, Masters of the Reformation: The Emergence of a New Intellectual Climate in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (1963; rev. ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967); Donald W. Sinnema, “The Issue of Reprobation at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619) in the Light of the History of This Doctrine” (PhD diss., University of St Michael’s College, 1985), 8–51; David C. Steinmetz, Luther and Staupitz: An Essay in the Intellectual Origins of the Protestant Reformation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1980).
11. See how this definition was foundation in Synopsis Purioris Theologiae/Synopsis of a Purer Theology: vol. 2, ed. Henk van den Belt, trans. Riemer A. Faber (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 31.
12. Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, vol. 2, 31. εὐδοκία, ας, ἡ, in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 319.
14. Augustine, “On Rebuke and Grace,” 39, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, ed. Philip Schaff (1887; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson , 2004), 5:487 col. 2, 488 col. 1.
15. John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, trans. T. H. L. Parker, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries 11 (1965; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 123, 126.
16. Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, vol. 2, 39.
17. Synopsis Purioris Theologiae, vol. 2, 41.
18. In the notes on Ephesians 1:4–6, the Dutch Annotations virtually show how the points in article 7 flow directly from the biblical text: “God chose us in Christ, before the foundation of the world [Dutch Annotations “from everlasting”], so that we should be holy and blameless before him with love; he predestined us [Dutch Annotations “from eternity”] whom he adopted as his children through Jesus Christ, in himself, according to the good pleasure of his will [Dutch Annotations “not for any merit or worthiness of ours but only according to his undeserved favor, grace and pleasure”], to the praise of his glorious grace, by which he freely made us pleasing to himself in his beloved.” Dutch Annotations on Ephesians 1:4–6.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA. He is the author of Grace Worth Fighting For: Recapturing the Vision of God’s Grace in the Canons of Dort (Davenant Institute, forthcoming 2019).