Article 16 - Divine Election
We believe that, when the entire offspring of Adam plunged into perdition and ruin by the transgression of the first man, God manifested Himself to be as He is: merciful and just. Merciful, in rescuing and saving from this perdition those whom in His eternal and unchangeable counsel He has elected in Jesus Christ our Lord by His pure goodness, without any consideration of their works. Just, in leaving the others in the fall and perdition into which they have plunged themselves.
NOTE: to understand the material confessed in Article 16, the reader is encouraged to read the Canons of Dort. In that confession, the material of Article 16 is explained and defended in detail in the face of heresy. An explanation of that confessional form is available in my Notes on the Canons of Dort.
Article 15 confessed that all people are guilty of original sin. God had created man “very good” and capable of performing God’s will perfectly. However, with the fall into sin, man fell from his exalted position. Through the fall man broke the bond with God and established a bond with Satan. Man’s fall was not due to a deficiency in the way the Creator had fashioned him. Man’s fall was not due either to some compulsion exerted on man that was too great for us to handle. Rather, man fell into sin by his own free will. The blame for the fall lies with man alone; all people are guilty before God on account of our fall.
As a result of the fall into sin, man lost all the good qualities with which God created him. This condition of ‘sinfulness’ is termed in Scripture ‘dead in sin’. “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Though his heart still beat, fallen man was spiritually dead, void of the God-directed life granted in Paradise. As the dead can do nothing, so fallen man was not capable of carrying out the tasks for which he was created, and certainly could not give glory to his Maker. In fact, because of his ‘deadness-in-sin,’ man had made himself odious to God. In not a single person was there anything positive which motivated God to say, “I’ll save that person.” Rather than imaging God, all men imaged Satan. The Canons of Dort use the phrase ‘Total Depravity’ to describe man’s state of being after the Fall.
This spiritual death rendered man even incapable of reaching out to God for help, for a dead man cannot reach out for help. The surprise of the Gospel, now, is that God reached out to man – to the very creature that snubbed Him! This is mercy indeed! What makes this mercy even more profound is that God showed His mercy to ME! I am no better, or more attractive to God, than any of the other millions upon millions of sinners on this earth; in my deadness I am as odious to God as the next sinner. Yet God showed mercy to me, reached out in Jesus Christ to save me! How inexplicably marvelous is this gospel! I cannot begin to appreciate its wealth unless I first acknowledge my guilt in falling into sin and making myself ‘dead in sin.’ That is: I cannot appreciate this mercy unless I first acknowledge my total depravity.
God sent His only Son into the world to save people from sin, to deliver people from Satan’s side and return them to God’s side. But whom does Christ save? After the fall into sin, the entire human race was on Satan’s side. Did Christ deliver the entire human race from Satan? No, He did not. Concerning the baby in Mary’s womb, the angel said to Joseph, “you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). We do not read here that Jesus will save people, or good people, or all people; no, He will save His people. Hence some people will be saved, while others will not be saved. This is the doctrine of election: that those may be saved whom the Father has given to Jesus (John 17).
To elect is to choose. In the context of our fall into sin, the term refers to God choosing for salvation some from the total world population that had joined Satan through their fall into sin. The Scriptural foundation for confessing election is as follows:
- In Ephesians 1:4,5 we read that God has chosen certain persons. “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world ... having predestined us...”
- Likewise, in Romans 8:28-30 we read about “those who are the called according to His purpose ... whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son ... whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” In these verses we repeatedly read what God does for some, not for all.
- Similarly, in Acts 13:48 we read that not all in Antioch believed the Gospel delivered to them by Paul and Barnabas, but only “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Only as many believed as God had previously designated to receive eternal life.
The Canons of Dort gives us a workable description of election. “Election is the unchangeable purpose of God whereby ... He has ... chosen in Christ to salvation a definite number of persons” (I.7). Election is God’s deed of choosing some from the millions on Satan’s side, with the purpose of returning these limited number of persons back to His side.
Whereas election is God’s act of choosing and taking some from Satan’s side and returning them to Himself, reprobation refers to God passing others by. These persons are consequently left in the misery into which they had plunged themselves through their fall into sin in Paradise. “Holy Scripture … further declares that not all men are elect but that some have not been elected, or have been passed by in the eternal election of God. Out of His most free, most just, blameless, and unchangeable good pleasure, God has decreed to leave them in the common misery into which they have by their own fault plunged themselves, and not to give them saving faith and the grace of conversion” (Canons of Dort, I.15). Whereas election is God’s active deed of choosing, reprobation is God’s passive act of leaving people, passing them by.
Although our salvation is a consequence of our election, we cannot argue that people are lost because they are reprobate, or that some are destined for hell because God sent them there. We are not to imagine mankind on neutral ground and God (for reasons of His own) sending the one to heaven and the other to hell. Rather, we are to acknowledge that all mankind through our willful disobedience in Paradise placed ourselves squarely in Satan’s camp. So we all put ourselves on the road to hell. God in turn determined to save some from Satan’s side (that’s election), and leave others there (that’s reprobation).
Article 16 speaks in terms of “mercy and justice.” Election, that God chose some, is mercy. Our fall into sin was our own doing, and so God did not have to save any of us. That He nevertheless chose some for salvation and restored them to Himself is mercy most profound. On the other hand, that God left others with Satan is justice, is the sentence rightly deserved. We of our own accord rejected the Creator in favor of Satan, and there is no compulsion on the Creator to rescue us. We would have only ourselves to thank if God had passed us by and left us with Satan, but the credit for ending up back with God is God’s alone, for it is He that brought us back.
SCRIPTURAL EVIDENCE FOR REPROBATION
That God leaves some sinners in the misery into which they plunged themselves is shown by passages of Scripture as the following:
- Revelation 13:8, “And all who dwell on the earth will worship him (the beast), whose names have not been written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” The book of life contains only the names of the elect, those chosen to life. The fact that some names do not appear in the book of life means nothing else than that these persons shall not receive life. They have been passed by. This book is mentioned also in Revelation 17:8.
- In 1 Peter 2: 8 we read of people being offended at the gospel of Christ. In connection with this offence, Peter quotes from Isaiah, saying, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner-stone,” and “A stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.” Why do they stumble? Says Peter, “They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed.” That they should stumble at the Gospel was God’s divine will for them; God appointed that reaction. This is reprobation.
- Romans 9:22, “What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Verse 23 on the other hand speaks of “vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory.” The imagery of “vessels” refers to persons created by God for purposes of His own choosing, be it for salvation or for damnation.
IS THE DOCTRINE OF ELECTION FAIR?
In Romans 9 we read, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated” (vs 13). Yet, Paul says, this election of the one on God’s part does not mean that there is unrighteousness with God (vs 14). To prove the point, the apostle quotes the words God spoke to Moses (in Ex 33): “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (vs 15). The credit for salvation does not belong to the saved; it belongs rather to the “God who shows mercy” (vs 16). That all is geared to God’s glory (Paul continues) is pointed up in what Scripture says concerning Pharaoh: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘Even for this same purpose I have raised you up, that I might show My power in you, and that My name might be declared in all the earth’” (vs 17). Through Pharaoh hardening his heart so stubbornly that it wasn’t broken until ten plagues had devastated Egypt, God’s name was praised the more. The lesson of Scripture, then, says Paul, is this: Sovereignly, God “has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens” (vs 18). We are left with the conclusion: God is God, and so may do with guilty sinners what He wills.
Romans 9:14 expresses our very own question of whether or not election and reprobation is fair. We ask, “Isn’t God unfair in taking one and leaving the other?” “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!” Why not? Verses 20 and 21 direct us to consider Whose ways and counsel we are questioning and challenging. “O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?” Were man on a level with God, man might be in a position to challenge God. But if God is God, and I a mere creature (sinful too yet!), then it is not for me to challenge God. I am to know my place in relation to God. It will not do for me to complain that God chose me but not another. It was I who protested against God in Paradise, I who broke the bond with God, I who rejected God. The attitude of Job after God displayed to him His majesty is so appropriate for me: “Job answered the Lord and said: ‘Behold, I am vile; What shall I answer You? I lay my hand on my mouth...” (Job 40:3f). It simply is not fitting for me to challenge why God saves the one and not the other.
As it is, the Lord tells us why He chose the one and passed the other by. The grounds for His actions lie not in man at all. Romans 9:11 states this in the context of explaining why God loved Jacob and not Esau: “…for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls.” God’s grounds are simply His good pleasure. “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace...” (Ephesians 1:4-6). One is elect and the other is not simply because God wanted it so. I will never understand why God chose me and not my neighbor. However, the fact that God did choose me leads me to a deep sense of humility and gratitude. For what am I, that I should receive such grace?! Yet God was pleased to make me, a mortal sinner, His child. Surely it will take us an eternity to give to God the honor He is due on account of such saving work!
The question of where God and man stand in relation to each other is central to the doctrine of election. This is highlighted by the errors of Arminian theology, which forms the background to the defense of the faith as found in the Canons of Dort.
Arminian theology says that man is not dead, but rather is injured. Man, we’re told, did not fall from a 70-story building (so that he lies crushed and broken on the sidewalk, very dead); man fell instead from a three-story building, and now lies injured on the ground. His injuries still permit him to call out for help, even permit him to decide what kind of help he’ll receive, and perhaps even contribute to getting himself on the stretcher. This presentation of things, however, does not do justice to Scripture’s teaching of man as dead in sin. More, it does not do justice to the radical distance the Bible presents between the sovereign, holy Creator and finite, sinful man. To speak of man as injured (or sick) instead of dead shrinks the infinite distance between God and man, and denies the reality of man’s total dependence on God for salvation. Instead, man is elevated (and God proportionally reduced) so that man’s thoughts and contributions amount to something before God, and God is ultimately dependent on man’s willingness to be saved.
If I am only injured or sick (not totally depraved), I can have input into the question of whether or not I shall be helped. Hence Arminius said that election is conditional; God’s decision to elect me is conditional on whether or not I choose to receive help – which is to say that I decide to believe. God, Arminius taught, saw before hand that I would believe, and so He chose me – knowing that I would eventually come to faith. Christ’s death, he continued, was not meant for a fixed number of persons only. Since the individual can choose whether or not he will believe, God intended Christ’s death for anybody and everybody – all who would choose to believe: universal atonement. Again, since a person can choose whether or not he will believe in Christ (and so be saved), he can also choose to refuse God’s gift of salvation. Then God can plead with the sinner to take hold of God’s offer, but God may be disappointed – for the decision is up to man. Grace, then, is resistible, for I can choose to refuse God’s offer. Once more, the believer can decide, after believing for many years, to reject God’s offer of the gospel, and fall away from the truth; the saint does not necessarily persevere.
Arminianism gives to man the credit for salvation. God has to wait for man to grab hold of what He offers. It is even possible, Arminius taught, that no man wishes to receive what God gives and that heaven will be empty on the last day. Arminianism has shrunk the distance between God and man so that the population of the New Jerusalem depends ultimately on man’s decision to accept God’s offer of salvation. This is distinctly contrary to Scripture. At the heart of Reformed thinking is the conviction that God is God and I but a sinful creature, and so I am completely dependent on the grace of sovereign God. It all comes down to who I think God is and who I think man is.
THE COMFORT OF ELECTION
What comfort do we receive in the doctrine of election? Why would deBres, in his time of persecution, devote an article of his confession to election?
Timothy and Paul both knew what it was to suffer on account of the Gospel. 2 Timothy 1:3-10 relates that life was far from easy for them. Yet Paul encouraged Timothy with these words, “share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began” (vss 8-10). It is of election that Paul reminds Timothy here, the comfort being that if God calls, there is absolutely no one who can tear God’s own away from Him. Despite the fury and rage of Satan and hell on account of God’s work of election, God will bring to completion the work He began when He chose sinners for Himself. Satan cannot take anyone away from God (see also John 10:27,28). We appreciate that here was encouragement for Timothy in the midst of his suffering.
Again, in Romans 8:28-39 Paul draws out the comfort believers may experience in the knowledge of election. Paul describes the golden chain of salvation, beginning with the reality of election: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son…. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (vss 29,30). Consider the comfort of Paul’s statement:
- He dares to write that the predestined of Rome were not just called, but also justified and glorified. We can understand that the word ‘justified’ is in the past tense, for Paul writes to saints who believed the gospel and so stood righteous before God. But how do you account for the past tense of the word ‘glorified’? The term describes the crown the saints receive after they die or after Christ’s return! Though Paul’s reference is to the future, he puts the word ‘glorified’ in the past tense in order to drive home for the Romans the absolute certainty of God’s saving work. Though the saints do not yet have this glorification, they may without a doubt consider it theirs already because God invariably completes the work He began. Election guarantees glorification.
- Similarly, Paul can be bold in his conviction: “If God is for us, who can be against us? ... Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (vs 31, 33). If God chose me, no one can sustain a charge against me!
- Again, “who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (vs 35). The Old Testament is emphatic that troubles shall assail those whom God has chosen (for Satan does not readily let his slaves go!) “As it is written (in Psalm 44), ‘For your sake we are killed all day long: We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter’” (vs 36). But in spite of how things may look at times, the assurance of all believers may be that “yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vss 37-39).
Here is great comfort for the child of God living in a world with devils filled. God has elected, and so my salvation is assured, no matter the assaults of the devil and the weaknesses of my own flesh.
Should it, then, come to pass that I might stray from God at any time in my life, if God has called me, He will hold on to me. David, too, once went astray and refused to acknowledge his sin before God. Consequently he felt so alone, and so distant from God (see Psalm 32). Yet God was there all along, and He caused David to feel His heavy hand upon him in order that He might repent and once again live as God’s child in restored communion with Him. Once God is there in the life of His elect, He is always there. This is something I may believe at all times, even though I may not always experience it. At times it may feel as though God is so very far away. But here, too, it is ultimately a matter of what I think about God. Who do I believe God to be? If God claimed me for Himself, may I fear He will change His mind? No, for God does not change. God certainly knew when He chose me that I was a miserable wretch. Yet He chose me. I may at times feel alone; yet I may know myself to be safe with this God.
THE CERTAINTY OF ONE’S ELECTION
One thorny question remains. How do I know if I am among the elect? Can one even know?
The elect of God, those whom He has chosen and brought back to His side, were totally dead in sin when they were with Satan (see Figure 16.1). God justified the elect while they were still in this state of death. These justified persons, brought back to God’s side, do not remain dead but are raised to new life (see Article 24). “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love” (Ephesians 1:4). The elect were chosen in order that they might be renewed, made holy. The evidence of this renewal lies in the presence of faith in the elect, and the presence of the fruits of the Spirit. The Lord does not work this faith or the fruits of the Spirit in those who are still on Satan’s side and doomed to hell; God only works this faith in the elect. Therefore Jesus could say in Matthew 7:16-20, “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. ... Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” So, if I am to find out whether I am among God’s elect, I must ask myself: do I see evidence of Christ’s renewing work in my life? Do I see fruits of faith? Do I have a love for righteousness, a hatred for evil, a sorrow for sin? Do I delight in doing God’s will? If I can answer these questions in the affirmative, then I have evidence of God working in me by His Holy Spirit, and hence I have evidence of being chosen. For God does not work such evidence of election in the hearts of those destined for hell.
Not, let me hasten to add, that we can be assured of our election only when the fruits of faith within us are perfect. That day will not come as long as we live in this broken life. Rather, one recognizes that the tree is still an apple tree (and not a plum tree) not only when it produces unblemished apples, but also when its crop is infested with worms or been hit by hail. Those whom the Holy Spirit has renewed do not bring forth perfect fruit, but their fruit is distinctly that of the Holy Spirit and not of the devil. See further Article 24.
The Heidelberg Catechism asks in Lord’s Day 32,“Why must we yet do good works?” The answer is this: “…that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by its fruits ...” The Canons of Dort state the matter even more strongly: “The elect in due time, though in various stages and in different measure, are made certain of this their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation ... by observing in themselves, with spiritual joy and holy delight, the unfailing fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God – such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, and a hungering and thirsting after righteousness” (I.12).
THE FRUIT OF ELECTION
Possibly the Canons of Dort puts into words most aptly what the fruit of election invariably is. Chapter I.13 reads as follows:
“The awareness and assurance of this election provide the children of God with greater reason for daily humbling themselves before God, for adoring the depth of His mercies, for cleansing themselves, and for fervently loving Him in turn who first so greatly loved them.”
What a God this is! That He would choose to salvation persons who deserted Him in favor of Satan, and even number me among His chosen: how glorious this God! “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33).
Points for Discussion:
- What does ‘dead in sin’ mean?
- Did Christ come into the world for all men? Explain your answer.
- What is election? Consult Canons of Dort I.7.
- What is reprobation? Consult Canons of Dort I.15.
- Can we fault God with discrimination when He leaves some to perish eternally? Why or why not?
- The difference between Arminian thinking and reformed thinking revolves around the doctrine of Who God is and who man is. Explain. Evaluate Janet Oke’s depiction of God as described in her numerous novels. Can you think of other writers who describe God in a less than Biblical fashion?
- Do you receive comfort from the doctrine of election? Explain your answer.
- Are you certain that you will receive life eternal, and not damnation? Explain the grounds of your answer.
- What are the fruits of election?