On February 23, 1975, Dr. S. Woudstra preached a sermon on Ephesians 1:3, 4 in the Reformed Church of Geelong. For some time prior to last year’s visit to Geelong I had had a tape recording of this sermon; and later I received a typewritten transcript of the same sermon which I checked very carefully for accuracy by comparing it with the recording. The date of this sermon is significant, because it was after Woudstra’s dismissal from Geelong, but before his going to the Reformed Church of Hobart, Tasmania. The text of the sermon is important: for it meant that Dr. Woudstra was bound to preach on the subject of election.
This was a very bold move.
It was a bold move, in the first place, because Dr. Woudstra had just been dismissed from the Reformed Theological College because of errant views conceming predestination, especially reprobation. It could, of course, have been a very good move: Dr. Woudstra could have purged himself of every suspicion of heresy by preaching a thoroughly Reformed sermon on this text. Then this would have been a bold move which would have been to his credit. This, however, he exactly did not do, as we shall see.
But it was a bold move, in the second place, because this very text (Ephesians 1:4) is referred to no less than four times in the First Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dordrecht. Article 7, where election is defined, quotes this passage for proof. Article 9 quotes this passage as proof that holiness is not a condition of election, but the fruit and effect of election, which is “the fountain of every saving good.” Article 1 of the Rejection of Errors quotes this text again as proof that. God “has from eternity chosen certain particular persons to whom above others he in time will grant both faith in Christ and perseverance.” And Article 5 of the Rejection of Errors cites this passage once more over against the Arminian error of conditional election and in favor of eternal and unconditional erection.
However, it was a bold move, in the third place, because, Dr. Woudstra took this opportunity to preach a very bad sermon. No, I do not mean a poor sermon: for even a professor can preach a sermon that is homiletically and exegetically poor. I mean a badsermon. It is a sermon which no Reformed man should get in his head or in his heart to preach. The whole sermon is bad. It is not Reformed. There is not a Reformed note in it—though one might expect a ringing Reformed sermon on a text like this. It casts aspersions on the Reformed truth of election by caricaturing that truth and then criticizing the caricature, that is, criticizing things which no one believes, but which Reformed people have often been wrongly accused of believing. And it positively teaches a wrong view of election, and that, too, in more than one respect.
I wish that space permitted quoting the entire sermon: for any discerning Reformed believer would be compelled to agree with my characterization of the sermon. But I will limit myself to some specifics.
Before I point out these specifics, however, I must make two more remarks. In the first place, let me prevent in advance any counter-argument by emphasizing that what I write has nothing to do with the difference between supra- and infralapsarianism. I prefer the former, but I can shake hands with a true infra- any day. Our Canons are infra-, too. And Woudstra’s sermon stands condemned in the light of the Canons. In the second place, let me point out that we are talking about a sermon, about preaching. This sermon illustrates a very real, practical, spiritual danger to the church, therefore. And the danger is two-fold: this kind of preaching robs God’s people of their comfort, and it robs God of His honor. For, mind you, the text of Woudstra’s sermon speaks of these two items. The text puts the language of praise, of doxology, to the electing God in the mouth of God’s people. And it attributes “every spiritual blessing” of God’s people to their being elect in Christ from before the foundation of the world. Here is the text in the version which Dr. Woudstra was using: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”
Let us ask and answer some pertinent questions with respect to this sermon, especially in the light of the Canons of Dordrecht, which every Reformed minister vows to uphold, teach, and defend.
1. Does the Reformed doctrine of an eternal and unchangeable election come to expression in this sermon?
No. This doctrine is plainly taught in Canons I, and the text on which Dr. Woudstra preached is cited as Scriptural proof, the reference being, of course, to the well-known expression “before the foundation of the world.” But nowhere in the sermon is this taught.
On the contrary, the sermon teaches a strange doctrine of election in time. With respect to Abraham, Dr. Woudstra says: “Of all the people who were in the world at that time, God came down and picked just one lone individual, Abraham.” With respect to Israel he says: “Many years later, in fact, many generations later, God was doing the same thing. But this time God entered into this kind of relationship with one people that had sprung from the loins of Abraham . . . . But of all the people who could look back to Abraham as their father, God chose only one people, Israel.” And with respect to Christ he says: “And then history rolls on, hundreds of years pass by. But after hundreds of years, the Lord God did the same thing. And this time God elected again an individual, Jesus of Nazareth.”
When he comes to the crucial expression “before the foundation of the world,” one would expect that here, at last, he would somewhat set matters straight and that the idea of election from eternity would be preached. But he lightly tosses that idea off as follows: “Paul also says here, ‘Chosen in him before the foundation of the world.’ What does Paul mean? I don’t think that Paul was here interested in giving an exact date or time when God did something, when election took place. Or Paul does not say here that election somehow can be dated, whether it be in our own calendar or, say, a heavenly calendar. What do we know about these things anyway? With this phrase the Apostle Paul manages to say that our election has nothing to do with anything that is in me, anything that I have been able to accomplish or perhaps in the future will accomplish. It means that God’s choice of me and many others is purely His sovereign love decision. It also expresses, I believe, that election is not an arbitrary kind of thing, a decision by which God, so to speak, simply arbitrarily elects some and rejects others.”
2. Does theReformed doctrine, taught in Canons I 10, that God “was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to himself” come to expression in this sermon?
No. In the entire sermon the doctrine of definite, personal election never comes to expression. The sermon speaks of God’s choosing a “multitude of people.” It speaks of God’s choosing a “whole world.” More than once that is confused by an expression such as, “in other words, a new heaven and a new earth.” And while it is true, of course, that God purposed to save an entire world, a whole creation, this is not in the text. The text speaks of “us.” Never once does the sermon define that “us” or limit it in any way. Never does the sermon hint that election is personal, definite, limited.
Further, the sermon teaches a national election of Israel, but it fails completely even to suggest that “all are not Israel that are of Israel.” Moreover, this election of Israel is’ not presented as an election unto salvation, but as a sort of election unto service. Notice: “Israel was chosen by God in order that she might make known to the world, the true character of God. God wished to make it known to the world, through Israel, that He is a God who freely gives Himself to man in covenantal union. God chose Israel so that through Israel He might elect the world. And then, of course, from Israel we turn to Israel’s greatest son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And in His election we see most clearly what the purpose of election is and what election is. For in and through the election of the Lord Jesus Christ, God achieved His purposes for the world, as we saw already, in His election of Abraham and in His election of Israel. God’s election of the Lord Jesus Christ meant the salvation of the world. And through His cross, through His resurrection, Jesus achieved what God intended to do through Israel. He achieved what Israel’s election was all about.” [The reader may wonder how in a sermon on this text this whole subject of Israel and Abraham can even arise; and I marvel, too, that it can be injected into the sermon. But that is not the point. The point is that this is a twisting of the Scriptural and Reformed doctrine of election.] But in close connection with this matter of definite, personal election stands the next question.
3. Does the Reformed doctrine that election is selection, that it implies reprobation, come to its own in this sermon, in harmony with the teaching of the Canons in I, 6 and I, 15, as well as other articles?
By no means. On the contrary it is contradicted by many expressions. Note the following: “You and I have a tendency to make of election a limiting concept. Somehow we tend to think, and there is a reason for it—and I will come back to it—somehow we tend to think that the election of one implies of necessity the rejection of the others. But this cannot be quite so. The Bible does not quite put it that way.” He then goes on to twist the fact that. in Abraham all the nations of the earth would be blessed into the idea that Abraham’s election does not imply the rejection of the rest of the world. The same is done with Israel. Even though he quotes the prophecy of Amos, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth,”—and what could be more exclusive than “only”?—he later states: “That (Israel) was the nation that God chose, but it should be quite clear that Israel’s election did not mean the rejection of the rest of the world. Israel’s election was never meant to be a narrow restricted privilege for a single isolated people.” I ask: what else was Israel’s election through all the ages of the old dispensation, when God dealt exclusively with the nation of Israel? Did not God know only Israel of all the families of the earth? Were not the Gentiles excluded? This is not only falsehood, but nonsensical falsehood!
But there is more.
As we have already quoted in another connection, Dr. Woudstra says: “It also expresses, I believe, that election is not an arbitrary kind of thing, a decision by which God, so to speak, simply arbitrarily elects some and rejects others.” Now it is surely true that neither election nor reprobation is arbitrary. But this idea of arbitrariness has been used wrongly as a stick to whip the doctrine that God predestinates solely according to His good pleasure. And Woudstra is not careful to define what he means by arbitrariness; nor is he careful to state that although God is not arbitrary, He does indeed sovereignly elect some and reject others.
Later in the sermon he puts what has always been an Arminian argument against sovereign predestination in the mouths of his audience. “We are inclined to think that if we are elect, we are going to make it anyway . . . But if, on the other hand, I am not elect, there is no force in heaven or on earth that can possibly change it. In other words, it would lead to utter passivity.” He merely calls this an irrelevant remark. He fails to point out that both election and reprobation are, indeed, eternal and unchangeable and sovereign, and that the flaw in this remark is that this doctrine “does not make men careless and profane.”
A bit later he again brings up the matter of arbitrariness in such a way as to cast aspersions on the Reformed truth of predestination: “We also tend to ask many wrong questions; and one of the most popular questions always is, ‘Why the one, why not the others?’ But the very answers we come up with are an indication that there is something wrong with the questions. Then our answer will always be either God is arbitrary, as the proverbial flip of the coin, or God is not quite powerful enough to save the whole world.” The whole tendency of a discussion like this is against the Reformed truth of sovereign election and reprobation by an eternal and unchangeable decree. There is nothing wrong, you see, with this question. It is perfectly legitimate. And there is a Scriptural and Reformed answer: God’s eternal and sovereign good pleasure. “He hath mercy on whom he will, and whom he will he hardeneth.”
Finally, he applies his sermon as follows: “Election means that there is salvation not for a few, but means that there is salvation for the whole world . . . No one need be lost.” That is a statement which no Reformed man would ever make. It is principally universalism! It is the blatant denial of sovereign reprobation, which excludes all but the elect from salvation and destines them to be lost.
The conclusion? Dr. Woudstra either teaches or leaves room in this sermon for the very same errors he was reported to have taught at the Theological College and for which he was dismissed.
And while he was dismissed from the college, he is left completely free to teach these errors in the churches which support the college. The Reformed Church of Australia has clasped the viper to its bosom, the venomous viper of the denial of sovereign predestination. And now it is reported that at the Synod in May there will be overtures and an appeal for the reinstatement of Woudstra in the Reformed Theological College! That will only compound the evil. What should be done? He should be kept from the college. He should be deposed from the ministry. And Classis Victoria should acknowledge the error of approving his admission to the ministry. If the Reformed Church of Australia ever hopes to retain anything at all of a Reformed character, this is the only way. Return to the truth, or perish as a Reformed church!