What We Believe (4): Our Sovereign God

This is the fourth in a series of articles on Reformed Doctrine, under the heading What We Believe. The familiar question-and-answer method, used so effectively by Bosma’s Reformed Doctrine of a bygone day, is being followed. Rev. Elco H. Oostendorp of Hudsonville, Michigan, is the writer.

What is meant by the decrees of God?

The decrees of God are His eternal purpose and plan according to which He created all things and in His providence directs all things. The Bible speaks of the Lord having determined things from before the foundation of the world, and repeatedly mentions His eternal purpose. It describes many events as the outworking of God‘s plan. An outstanding example is the central event of all history, namely the death of Christ of which Peter says in Acts 2:23, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Should the decrees of God be discussed under the first division (locus) of theology?

It has often been pointed out that John Calvin in his Institutes writes about predestination in the third book which is about the Holy Spirit and the application of salvation. Also the Belgic Confession Article XVI introduces it after speaking of the fall of man into sin. The Heidelberg Catechism mentions election in the answer concerning the holy catholic church, very much in the same context as Calvin does. In view of these facts it is asserted that placing the doctrine of the decrees under theology, or the doctrine of God, transfers the emphasis from where the Reformers placed it and introduces a “decretal theology” which is scholastic and theoretical rather than biblical and practical. In an article such as this we cannot discuss this at length, but point out that this can easily be exaggerated. Although Calvin discusses it in another context, his language about election and reprobation is very similar to that of the Westminster Confession which places it in chapter III after discussing the Holy Scriptures and the Trinity.

Where do we find the main confessional statement about God‘s decrees concerning predestination?

In the First Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort concerning Divine Election and Reprobation. This is the official confession of the Reformed Churches on this vital subject. The Synod of Dart represented not only the Dutch churches, but Reformed churches from several other European nations; and, even though these churches did not adopt the Canons, their confessional standards agree with their teaching (e.g., Westminster Confession).

What is meant by Predestination?

In The Institutes (III, xxi, 5 ) John Calvin states: “Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which he has determined in himself, what he would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they were not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others. Every man, therefore, being created for one or the other of these ends, we say, he is predestinated either to life or to death.” Thus we believe in double predestination. There are those (e.g., the Lutherans) who confess that God elects men to salvation, but refuse to accept the teaching of Scripture that He also decided from eternity to pass others by and decreed their condemnation. It would seem only logical that if some of the fallen human race are chosen by God to “inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34) those not so chosen are not elect and are the objects of wrath instead of grace and love. The Reformed faith is not based on this deduction, however, but on the teaching of Scripture. As Paul teaches in Romans 9–11, God said, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated.” Election conferred salvation on some, while the rest were hardened.

Are election and reprobation alike in every respect?

No, for while God’s election conveys saving grace to His people in a positive way, it cannot be said that reprobation produces sin in those who are lost. As the Conclusion of the Canons of Dort say among other things, the Reformed Churches “detest with their whole soul” the idea that the doctrine of Predestination “makes God the author of sin,” or that “in the same manner in which election is the fountain and cause of faith and good works, reprobation is the cause of unbelief and impiety.” While our main interest is in election, and Scripture stresses it much more than reprobation, it is important to maintain the double nature of predestination. As L. Boettner points out in his The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, Arminians and others who object to this doctrine always center their attacks upon reprobation. This is true historically, and is so today. Those who claim to retain belief in election while rejecting reprobation end lip by believing in and teaching a different concept of election than that confessed by the Reformed faith.

Does the Bible always speak of election or choice in the same sense?

No, there is a national election of Israel from all other nations, election for special offices and privileges. Election does not always mean election to salvation and eternal life. It is important to bear these differences in mind; Judas Iscariot, for example, was chosen as one of the twelve, yet he was “the son of perdition” and was lost John 17:12; NIV “the child of hell”).

Israel is the chosen nation, but “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6).

Why do we believe that election to salvation is “unconditional”?

Election is God’s choice of those whom He has ordained to eternal life in Christ from before the foundation of the world. In choosing some to be saved and passing others by God was not moved by anything in men. Election is not based on faith and good works, but these are the gifts of grace to those whom God has elected to receive them. So the ground of election is to be found in the good pleasure of God. Election is an act of sovereign choice. The Canons of Dort teach this very clearly, not only in a positive way, but also in the rejection of errors, where several teachings basing election on some kind of human condition are rejected. Arminianism teaches that election is based on foreseen faith. There are also many who make election a matter of God’s choice of faith as the way of salvation, and not a selection of persons at all. There are those who appeal to texts like I Corinthians 1:26–31 to maintain that God does not elect persons, but certain classes of men as the special objects of His favor and concern. All such conditional views of election are rejected by the Synod of Dort on the basis of Scripture, and unconditional election is taught very positively in Article 9 of Chapter I: “Election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: He hath chosen us (not because we were, but) that we should be holy, and without blemish before him in love” (Eph. 1:4).

Is the doctrine of sovereign, unconditional election a source of comfort for the believer?

Indeed it is!Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” (Rom. 8:33). Compare also Romans 8:28–30. In Ephesians 1 Paul makes election the theme of a doxology of praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, as does Peter in I Peter 1:3–5. Christ’s death is the manifestation of God’s electing love which is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:1–11). One who realizes that as dead in sin he would never have chosen God, sings with the poet: “Tis not that I did choose Thee, For Lord, that could not be; This heart would still refuse Thee, Hadst Thou not chosen me. Thou from the sin that stained me Hast cleansed and set me free; Of old Thou hast ordained me, That I should live for Thee” (Psalter Hymnal, No. 385:1).