Chapter 1 - Divine Election and Reprobation : Articles 16-18
RESPONSES TO THE DOCTRINE OF REPROBATION
In the Articles 7-11, the fathers at the Synod of Dort made confession of God's one, unchangeable decree of election which is based on God's good pleasure. Articles 12 and 13 continued with an important confession concerning believers' assurance of election, stating that "the elect in due time ... are made certain of ... their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation". Believers attain this assurance by observing within themselves "with spiritual joy and holy delight ... true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, and a hungering and thirsting after righteousness." This assurance is most valuable to believers for it causes them to humble themselves before God, to adore God's mercy, to strive against sin and to love God fervently in response to the love He first showed them. In Article 15 the marvel of our election is pointed up by noting the fact that God has passed others by (reprobation), leaving them in their misery and subjected to His just judgment.
This mention of reprobation can leave one uncomfortable. Specifically, to mention God's eternal decree to pass some by can lead one to wonder whether perchance God has passed me by. That thought can lead to much unrest. For that reason, the fathers devoted an article to pastoral elements brought up by the mention of the doctrine of reprobation. In a pastoral manner they sought to reach out to people, offering guidance in how they should digest their doubts and questions concerning their growth in faith and their election.
Article 16 speaks of three different responses to the doctrine of reprobation:
- those who do not clearly discern within themselves the fruits of election;
- those who cannot reach the degree of godliness and faith they desire and strive for;
- those who disregard God and live in sin.
"Some do not yet clearly discern in themselves a living faith in Christ, an assured confidence of heart, peace of conscience, a zeal for childlike obedience, and a glorying in God through Christ; nevertheless, they use the means through which God has promised to work in us."
These people want to serve the Lord, and do serve the Lord, but when it comes to the assurance of their election, they are uncertain. When they look at themselves, they do not discern within themselves an adequately living faith. They wish for more zeal, and consider that they do not sufficiently praise God in their lives. Hence doubt enters their minds. Am I elect?? Or do I belong to the reprobate after all?? They live in uncertainty and unrest, while they look for evidence that they are indeed elect. We can relate to such self-examination. We too ask ourselves, "Do I have enough zeal for God?" and "Am I at peace with God?"
With great sensitivity, the fathers at the Synod of Dort reached out to those believers who struggled with doubts about their election. Their counsel to those who used the means of grace and yet did not see to their satisfaction the fruits of election was that they ought not to 'throw in the towel' and conclude "I must be reprobate after all". Instead, they advised that "they ought not to be alarmed when reprobation is mentioned, nor to count themselves among the reprobate. Rather, they must diligently continue in the use of (the) means, fervently desire a time of more abundant grace, and expect it reverently and humbly".
The point here is that the Holy Spirit is pleased to use a particular means to work and strengthen faith. Faith comes through the preaching of the gospel, says the apostle Paul in Romans 10:14-17 (see LD 25, Q&A 65). Accordingly, in Chapter V, Article 14, the fathers confessed what God revealed concerning the use of 'the means' as follows: "as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the preaching of the gospel, so He maintains, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation upon it, by its exhortations, threatenings and promises, and by the use of the sacraments". Those who use these 'means of grace' will grow.
It is important to bear in mind that faith, like plants, needs time in order to grow to maturity and produce fruits. No one who comes to faith bears mature fruit instantly. Further, just as the one plant variety produces fruit sooner than another, so too different persons reach maturity in the Lord at different times in their lives. Growth in faith is a process. Faith, like a plant, needs cultivation and nurturing. Hence our fathers' advice to those who doubted their election was: continue working with the means God has given. That is: stay busy with His Word, study it and meditate upon it. God, in His time, will give the fruit.
God in His Word assures us of the fruits He works at His time by the means of His Word. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul addressed his readers as saints (1:1), i.e. believers, God's chosen ones whom God has rescued from Satan's side in order to return them to Himself. Concerning these saints, Paul says in verses 3 and 6, "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, ... being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ." Are we, on reading this, to think that the Philippians are all perfect believers who are ever confident of themselves as Christians; believers who 'have arrived'? No! They, like us today, were sinners and needed God's grace as much as we do. So, in order to encourage them, Paul tells them that whatever works God begins He also completes. God will not just drop anyone halfway. God brought the Gospel to the Philippians and He also worked within them a keen desire to hear it, yes, worked faith. God will not discontinue the work He began, but He will build on it and in His time will cause fruits of faith to grow. What God has begun He will complete. See also Psalm 138:8.
The Lord offers His children the same assurance in Isaiah 14:32. The Lord's answer to the messengers of Philistia will be, "the Lord has founded Zion, and the poor of His people shall take refuge in it." Here 'poor' is a reference to those who are poor in spirit, the weak, the little; they shall find a refuge in Zion. One does not need to be a pillar or a giant in the Lord before one can say he belongs to the Lord.
"Others seriously desire to be converted to God, to please Him only, and to be delivered from the body of death. Yet they cannot reach that point on the way of godliness and faith which they would like".
We all, on a daily basis, battle with sin, be it a bad temper, a loose tongue, an urge to steal, sins of a sexual nature, etc. To our dismay, we find ourselves falling into the same sins again and again. The sins which continue to cling to us bother us so much, and we don't like the person we have to call 'me'. We see so much sin in ourselves, see so little evidence of triumph over sin, and we wonder: "is election really for me?" And doubt creeps in….
It is as if Paul has taken the words out of our mouths when he, in Romans 7, describes himself and his battle against sin. Paul is an apostle of the Lord, has received from the Lord a new heart, has been born again, been changed by the Holy Spirit. Yet he has this to say of himself to fellow saints (persons also changed by the Holy Spirit), "I am carnal, sold under sin" (verse 14). 'Carnal' means to be flesh, sinfully human, incapable of withstanding the temptation of sin. "For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will (desire) to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do" (verse 15). It bothers the apostle to find himself so enslaved to sin. "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice" (verses 18, 19). One senses his frustration: "I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members." (verse 23). Paul recognises that there is a war raging within him; with his mind he serves the law of God but in his flesh he serves the law of sin. He cries out his despair, "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (verse 24). There is but one answer: there is redemption in the blood of Jesus Christ! This Saviour forgives sins today through His blood and tomorrow renews sinners totally through His Holy Spirit. Paul's reference in verse 24 to "the body of death" has found its way into Article 16. Believers, faced as they are with the continuing (and evidently futile) struggle against sin, cry out with Paul "to be delivered from the body of death". These believers seek escape; they desire to be delivered. They don't want to fall into sin again and again.
Paul, a believer, elect, chosen by God, rescued from Satan's side and brought to God's side, has described himself as a sinful man who wills to do what is right but cannot do it. We are no different than Paul. Do our sins then mean that we are reprobate? No! "Those converted to God (cannot) keep these commandments perfectly (for) in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience" (see LD 44, Q&A 114 and the accompanying proof texts). I may try ever so hard to resist sin. Nevertheless I fail. Should this hurt and bother me? Yes, indeed it should. Should I be surprised that I fail? No. The Lord has changed His people and renewed their hearts, but He has not as yet perfected them. In the meantime I must battle on. I need not be surprised at sin, and the fact that I keep falling into sin must not lead me to conclude that I do not belong to the Lord.
The "Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper" (Book of Praise, p. 595) also reckons with this very real (and repeatedly unsuccessful) battle against sin in the life of the believer. Before attending the supper of our Lord, we are called to examine ourselves, taking into consideration whether we are humble before God on account of our sinfulness, whether we believe in the forgiveness of sins which Christ has obtained for us and whether we strive to live lives of thankful service to God. The Form then continues, "God will certainly receive in grace all who are thus minded and count them worthy to partake of the supper of our Lord Jesus Christ. But those who do not feel this testimony in their hearts, eat and drink judgment upon themselves. Therefore, according to the command of Christ and of the apostle Paul, we admonish all those who know themselves to be guilty of the following offensive sins to abstain from the table of the Lord, and we declare to them that they have no part in the kingdom of Christ ..." and there follows a list of sins based on God's ten commandments.
When we read this list, honesty compels us to admit that we are guilty of the very sins mentioned in the Form. That conclusion in turn prompts us to consider ourselves addressed by those words of the Form: "we admonish all those who know themselves to be guilty of the following offensive sins to abstain from the table of the Lord, and we declare to them that they have no part in the kingdom of Christ .…" Especially the last words can make us so uncomfortable: 'I must be reprobate after all….' Here is the same doubt as the fathers mentioned in Article 16.
The same "Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper", though, would not leave us discouraged and doubting. On p. 596 the Form says this, "all this ... is not meant to discourage broken and contrite hearts, as if only those who are without sin may come to the table of the Lord. For we do not come to this supper to declare that we are perfect and righteous in ourselves. On the contrary, we seek our life outside of ourselves in Jesus Christ and, in doing so, we acknowledge that we are dead in ourselves. We also are aware of our many sins and shortcomings. We do not have perfect faith and we do not serve God with such zeal as He requires. Daily we have to contend with the weakness of our faith and with the evil desires of our flesh." How our sins and lack of faith bother us! How we wish we could get beyond the fight! However, that is a grace God does not grant in this life. Each day of our lives here on earth sees us contend with the weaknesses of our flesh. "Yet, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are heartily sorry for these shortcomings and desire to fight against our unbelief and to live according to all the commandments of God." Even in our sorrow for sin we are confronted with our sinfulness, for we cannot bring up a perfect sorrow. Even in this respect we have but "only a small beginning" of the righteousness God desires of us. Nevertheless, we do have sorrow for sin. We are then comforted by the following words of this Form: "Therefore we may be fully assured that no sin or weakness which still remains in us against our will can prevent us from being received by God in grace and from being made worthy partakers of this heavenly food and drink."
Am I reprobate? I know that my sins are many and that I fall into the same sins repeatedly. However, by the grace of God I am sorry for my sins (however imperfect my sorrow is!). How can I know for certain if I am elect or reprobate? "The elect ... attain this assurance ... 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" (Article 12). It is true that sin remains a reality in my life, but God works within me a sorrow for sin. If God has begun a work in me, He will not give up on it. God is ever faithful; He persists. Hence our fathers offer this encouragement to those who become discouraged by the fact that they cannot reach the degree of godliness and faith they desire and strive for: "they should be even less terrified (than those of Response 1) since a merciful God has promised not to quench the smoking flax nor to break the bruised reed" (see Isaiah 42:3).
"Still others disregard God and the Saviour Jesus Christ and have completely given themselves over to the cares of the world and the lusts of the flesh."
Here 'others' is a reference not to those outside the Church but to people within the Church. In Article 29 of the Belgic Confession we confess that within the Church there are also hypocrites (see the parable of Jesus in Matthew 13 about the Sower and the Seeds). These people too hear of election and reprobation. Mention of reprobation can engender a guilty conscience within them, which is no bad thing, for this is a warning to repent from sin while God still gives the opportunity. Such repentance is distinctly necessary, since it remains a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31). As the fathers also said: "For them this doctrine of reprobation is rightly fearsome as long as they are not seriously converted".
THE DOCTRINE OF REPROBATION: A CHALLENGE TO ALL BELIEVERS
The doctrine of reprobation challenges us all. I am to see to it that I make diligent use of the means God has given to me i.e. His holy Word, in order to encourage growth in Him. It also challenges me to derive comfort and reassurance from the knowledge that though my sins and imperfections remain many, this does not mean that I have to despair. God Himself works within me a sorrow for sin. The very presence of this sorrow is a fruit of His having elected me.
CHILDREN OF BELIEVERS WHO DIE IN INFANCY
Article 16 dealt with the pastoral problem of how mature believers respond to the doctrine of reprobation. Our fathers also saw need to devote attention to the matter of whether children of believers are saved if they die in infancy. That there was a need to address the issue is demonstrated by the relatively high infant mortality rates prevalent at the time of the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619. Though the infant mortality rate in our society today is very low, we today too want to know where our children go if they die in infancy.
The Arminians had said that God elects to salvation on the basis of foreseen faith, and destines others to hell on the basis of foreseen unbelief. Infants, however, neither believe nor dis-believe; they are too young to choose the one or the other. God, then, said the Arminians, merciful as He is, grants salvation to all children who die. Infants, then, are saved 'automatically', but the destiny of adults is determined by their own choice of whether to believe or not believe.
The fathers turned to Scripture in order to find what out the Lord says concerning the position of children. Scripture speaks of the whole human race having fallen into sin when Adam sinned, and so the whole human race joined Satan's side. Paul in Romans 5:12 makes reference to the fall into sin of Genesis 3 when he states, "therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned". This text insists that when Adam sinned, I sinned; we all sinned. If I fell with Adam -as this text insists- then my children also fell with Adam. In a way we cannot understand, the entire human race sinned with Adam. So the entire human race is guilty before God. This is true of the adults of any given generation, and is equally true of the children of any given generation. So the anger of the Lord rests upon all men, irrespective of age or talent or tribe or location on the globe.
THE LORD DISCRIMINATES BETWEEN CHILDREN
All children, then, are by nature children of wrath. Can we believe that any are saved, and if so, on what basis? The fathers at the Synod of Dort understood from Scripture that the Lord discriminates between children, treating the one child differently than another. The Lord makes a distinction between the children of believers on the one hand and the children of unbelievers on the other. The children of believers belong to God; the children of unbelievers do not. Our fathers concluded this on the basis of God's Word as we read it in Genesis 17:7. There the Lord says to Abraham, "And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you." Whatever God said in this passage concerning Abraham, God said equally concerning Abraham's offspring. God promised to be Abraham's God; He equally promised to be God to Abraham's children. That is the thrust of the words: "and your descendants after you". So God viewed Abraham's children differently than He viewed the children of Abraham's neighbour. That is to say: God discriminated between these children. Those of the one family He claimed for Himself; those of the other family He did not.
In Acts 2 we read Peter's Pentecost sermon, preached to an audience of Jews who had come together in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Weeks. In verse 22 we read that he addressed a specific group of people, namely, "Men of Israel", i.e., God's covenant people. To them specifically Peter says in verse 39, "For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call." The promise was not to the children of the Greeks or the children of the Egyptians, but to the children of the Israelites: "and to your children."
Paul says to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 7:14, "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy." The fact that they are children of a believing parent makes these children special to God; they are holy, says the apostle.
On the other hand, the children of unbelievers are "unclean" (I Corinthians 7:14). That these children do not belong to God is pointed up in Paul's word to the saints at Ephesus. Paul reminds these saints of who they once were before the Holy Spirit had renewed them. "Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh - who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands - …were without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:11f). In their childhood, then, these Ephesian saints were not God's people, were "strangers from the covenants of promise". But later in life the Lord gave them faith and from then on they (and therefore their children too, see Genesis 17:7; see also Acts 11:14, 16:15,29ff, 18:8) were "no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God" (verse 19).
God, then, discriminates between the children of believers and the children of unbelievers. God has established His covenant with believers and the children He gives to believers; these children He claims for Himself. The children of my unbelieving neighbour do not belong to God and so his children are unclean.
BELIEVERS OUGHT NOT TO DOUBT THE ELECTION OF CHILDREN WHO DIE IN INFANCY
On the basis of the above texts from Scripture, our fathers concluded that God claims for Himself the children of believing parents. Therefore they wrote in Article 17 that the Word of God "declares that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they are included with their parents." Therefore if a child of believing parents dies, the parents, on the authority of what the Bible says, may believe that God's promises are fulfilled for their child. "Therefore, God-fearing parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in their infancy."
Believing parents are excited by the rich promises God bestows on their children, as signified and sealed in the sacrament of Baptism. Since God has revealed Himself in His Word to be ever faithful, is it possible that He would cause the same parents to be left with comfortless doubts as to the eternal destiny of a child of theirs which dies in infancy?! If God is faithful this cannot be so. By baptism God seals His promises to be Father to the child "and promises to provide (the child) with all good and avert all evil or turn it to (the child's) benefit." The child is also promised forgiveness of sins through the blood of God the Son and regeneration by God the Holy Spirit. Shall God then turn a sickness or an accident into the catalyst that places the child eternally in hell?! Is this the God we have?? No, God's promises to a child of believing parents are not empty promises. God is always true to His Word.
It is faith in this very promise of God which comforted David at the death of the child that was born to him and Bathsheba after their sin of adultery. On hearing that the baby died, "David arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the LORD and worshipped. Then he went into his own house; and when he requested, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, "What is this that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive, but when the child died, you arose and ate food." And he said, "While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, "Who can tell whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me" (2 Samuel 12:20-23). When a child of ours dies, we give ourselves to grief. David, however, responded to death by breaking his fast. In so doing, David expressed his conviction that God had taken his child to Himself. In other words, David did not grieve as one who had no hope. Further, that David was sure that God had taken the child to Himself is evident from David's words: "I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me" (verse 23). Where shall David go? David is a believer and he knows that at his death he shall go to be with the Lord; to where the Lord has taken his child ahead of him.
The children of believers belong to God. That is as true before birth as after their birth. Also through the womb the Lord gathers His Church. The child which dies of cot death is the Lord's, and so is the child which is still-born or the child which dies after three months of development in the womb. This knowledge contains a definite and very rich comfort for God-fearing parents.
NO PROTEST BUT ADORATION
In reaction to those who mock what is so clearly taught by Scripture, our fathers wrote this last article. It is the Lord Himself who teaches election and reprobation in His Word and therefore we confess in Article 18, "To those who argue against this grace of undeserved election and the severity of righteous reprobation, we reply with this word of the apostle: But who are you, a man, to answer back to God?" In other words, "who do you think you are?" The only truthful answer with which I can reply is, "I am but a man, and a sinful one at that".
Here I confess that the first fitting response on my part to what the Lord has revealed concerning election and reprobation is deep humility before God. Job, having contested before God the loss of his children, his possessions, his health, finds himself challenged by God. Said God to Job, "Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it." Job's response was this: "Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; yes, twice, but I will proceed no further" (Job 40:2-5). This is equally the attitude I am to assume before God in view of the doctrine of election and reprobation: humility. If it has pleased the Lord to save some and leave others, am I allowed to complain? No. As Paul said: "But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?" (see Romans 9:20ff). Humble I must be, and from that must flow praise and adoration for the Lord. "Lord, that You should choose people for Yourself , even me, is more than I fathom. What a God You are!" To say it with the words of the apostle as we read it in Romans 11:33-36, "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counsel? Or who has given a gift to Him that He might be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory for ever. Amen".