Election Preaching and the Demand for Repentance

As the doctrine of divine election by the most wise counsel of God, was declared by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the apostles, and is clearly revealed in the Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament, so it is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed . . . .

Thus do the Canons of Dordt (I, 14) teach the necessity of election-preaching from the examples of the apostles and prophets and of the chief cornerstone Himself. For the most part, however, the doctrine of election is treated with silence, even among those Churches which subscribe to the Canons. To excuse such insolent conduct over against the confessions of the Church and the Scriptures, all sorts of objections are made against the doctrine of election. One very common objection is that the preaching of sovereign election leaves no room either in the established Church or on the mission field for the call to repentance and to faith in the saving power of Jesus Christ. So, it is said, the doctrine is useless and even dangerous in that it encourages carelessness in Christian living. 

On the other hand, there are those who claim to be firmly committed to the doctrine of election, who demand that it be preached, and who claim to find all their comfort in it, but who at the same time object to the Gospel call for repentance and confession of sin. Sometimes their objection is that of the antinomian against the preaching of the Law of God with its sharp call for the mortifying of the old man of sin and the quickening of the new man in Christ. Or it may be the objection of the fatalist who hears in the call to repentance overtones of Arminianism or free-willism. More often it is simply a practical objection by way of self-justification when the demand for repentance is brought by the Church through her officebearers to those who walk in sin. The evil of these objections is that they give occasion for slander against the doctrine of election and against the sovereign God of election. 

It might seem from this, however, that election-preaching and a sharp, clear demand for repentance cannot be reconciled: that sound, biblical preaching of election does away with the Gospel call for repentance, since election means nothing else than that God’s elect will infallibly be lead to repentance and faith by the sovereign hand and irresistible grace of their God. Or, it might seem true that when the Church comes to the sinner demanding repentance, she is not taking the doctrine of election seriously—not taking into account the fact that the sinner, as long as he continues in sin, has not received the irresistible grace of God which alone can lead him to repentance, and that his continuing in sin is according to the sovereign decree of God Himself. 

What are we to say to this? Is it true that election preaching and the demand for repentance are unable to stand together? Is one or the other unscriptural?

It is interesting, to say the least, that wherever and whenever the truth of sovereign predestination has been preached these objections have arisen from one side or the other. Always there have been those who sought to set the Gospel-call and the doctrine of sovereign predestination at odds. Already in the early Church, Augustine, that great defender of the faith, was moved to write a treatise with the title, Concerning Rebuke and Grace, in answer to those who used the doctrine of predestination to say:

“Wherefore is it preached and prescribed to us that we should turn away from evil and do good, if it is not we that do this, but ‘God Who worketh in us to will and to do it'”? Chapter 4.

John Calvin, too, had to defend the doctrine of predestination against “another impudent and malicious calumny . . . that it destroys all exhortations to a pious life” (Institutes, III, 23, xiii). Nor were the fathers at Dordt free from such charges, as is evident from Canons 1, 13; III, IV, 17; and V, 13, 14. 

That both the doctrine of sovereign election and the call to repentance are Scriptural is not difficult to show. The Apostle Paul who writes so powerfully of election in Ephesians 1 is the same Paul who preached in Ephesus “both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). And in doing so, he only followed the example of his master. Jesus did not hesitate to preach election. He said that He had come to lay down His life for none other than the sheep which His Father had given Him (John 10:14, 15); and He knew His sheep so well that He could tell the unbelieving Jews, “Ye believe not because ye are not of My sheep” (John 10:46). Nor did He have any scruples about the call to repentance, but in the days of His ministry came “preaching the gospel of the Kingdom and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the Gospel'” (Mark 2:14, 15). 

It must be admitted that on such grounds there is not the least possibility of setting the two in conflict. If both are Scriptural, both can and must be preached. The only question is, then, how are the preaching of sovereign election and the demand for repentance to be reconciled according to Scripture and the Confessions? A careful examination of this question will lead to the conclusion, perhaps a surprising conclusion, that not only are the two to be reconciled, but that they are inseparable. Election- preaching without an accompanying call to repentance and faith is empty and useless, and likewise, the demand for repentance is a voice in the wilderness apart from the doctrine of election. The explanation lies in a proper understanding of the nature of Gospel preaching. 

The preaching of the Gospel, including both the doctrine of election and the demand for repentance, is, by the ordinance of God Himself, the means which God sovereignly uses to bring to pass His eternal counsel of election. That is, God uses the demand for repentance, as it is brought by the Church through her ministry, to bring His elect to repentance. In the same way He uses the command to believe to lead them to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and the demand for conversion and good works to produce in His elect those fruits of their election. Thus He graciously gives what He demands, even while He demands it, and that is what we mean when we say that the preaching of the Gospel is a means of grace to God’s people. 

We understand, of course, that the preaching of the Gospel is not a means of grace mechanically, but that it is powerful and effectual through the inward operation of the regenerating Spirit. Nonetheless, the Spirit does not work arbitrarily, but in and through the preaching of the Gospel. Salvation by sovereign grace according to the election of grace and the preaching of the Gospel as a means of grace cannot and may not be separated. 

That was Augustine’s answer to those who misused the doctrine of predestination. He says,

Let then that damnable source be rebuked, that from the mortification of rebuke may spring the will of regeneration (i.e., the willing activity of the regenerated heart, R.H.),—if, indeed, he who is rebuked is a child of the promise,—in order that by the noise of the rebuke sounding and lashing from without, God may by His hidden inspiration work in him from within to will also. Concerning Rebuke and Grace, chapter 9.

He makes it clear in another place in the same treatise that this in no wise involves a denial of predestination:

Let men then suffer themselves to be rebuked when they sin, and not conclude against grace from the rebuke itself, nor from grace against the rebuke . . . so that if he who is rebuked belongs to the number of the predestinated, rebuke may be to him a wholesome medicine; and if he does not belong to that number, rebuke may be to him a penal infliction.

Calvin’s answer to his opponents is essentially the same:

Let preaching then have its free course, that it may lead men to faith, and dispose them to persevere with uninterrupted progress. Nor at any time let there be any obstacle to the knowledge of predestination, so that those who obey may not plume themselves on anything of their own, but glory only in the Lord. (Institutes, III, 23, xiii.)

Nor does the answer of the Synod of Dordt differ in the least particular from that of either Calvin or Augustine.

. . . The supernatural operation of God, by I which we are regenerated, in no wise excludes, or subverts the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration, and the food of the soul. Wherefore, as the apostles and teachers who succeeded them, piously instructed the people concerning this grace of God, to His glory and the abasement of all pride, and in the meantime, however, neglected not to keep them by the sacred precepts of the gospel in the exercise of the Word, sacraments and discipline; even so to this day, be it far from either instructors or instructed to presume to tempt God in the Church by separating what He of His good pleasure hath most intimately joined together. For grace is conferred by means of admonitions (Italics mine, R.H.); and the more readily we perform our duty (with respect to the use of the gospel, R.H.), the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working I in us, and the more directly is His work advanced; to Whom all the glory both of means, and of their saving fruit and efficacy is forever due. (Heads III, IV, 17; cf. also V, 14)

It might well be added here that the preaching is not only the means by which God’s counsel of election is realized, but also the way in which He sovereignly works out the decree of reprobation. The Word preached is not only a savor of life unto life, but also of death unto death, and a means of hardening (Isaiah 6:9, 10and II Corinthians 2:14, 15). 

The Word of God, according to the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 23:29), is like a fire and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces. It is this both to the elect and the reprobate alike and as a fire and a hammer it must be preached also. To the reprobate who hear the preaching it is like a hammer which beats upon and hardens their consciences and as a fire which has for them the smell of the fires of hell. In the elect it is also a hammer which breaks in pieces the work and dominion of sin, which cracks hard hearts, and breaks the rebellion of stubborn wills. In them it is like a fire which burns away the dross of sin until only the pure gold of God’s own work of grace is left incorruptible, undefiled, and imperishable. 

It ought to be obvious, in this light, that the objection which says that election-preaching leaves no room for the call of the Gospel is the objection of the Arminian, and that it is only part of a vicious attack upon the whole doctrine of sovereign grace and a vile attempt to cast the sovereign Lord down from His lofty throne. What is perhaps not so clear is the fact that this error of the Arminian is connected with a wholly unscriptural view of the preaching. The Arminian customarily makes the Gospel nothing more than an offer of salvation on God’s part to all men—an offer well-meant but dependent for its fruit upon the activity of man. The Arminian is blind to the sovereignty of God in election and blind to that same sovereignty in the preaching. Therefore, having changed the very nature of Gospel preaching he also has an excuse to discard the truth of predestination. 

The error of the fatalist with respect to the preaching is essentially the same. He too fails to recognize God’s sovereign right and power in using the preaching as the means of grace. So concerned is he (at least on the surface) to preserve the sovereignty of God in election and salvation that he denies not only the possibility of active obedience on the part of the unregenerate sinner but also on the part of the regenerated child of God. This lies at the root of his rejection of the Gospel call to repentance. He mistakenly supposes that the demand of the Gospel for repentance implies some ability on the part of the sinner to comply with that demand and conveniently forgets that God works in His people both the willing and the doing of repentance. 

The objection of the antinomian to the call for repentance is rooted in his antagonism to the law. He cannot believe that the preaching of the law can be a means of grace to the believer. He confuses the doctrines of justification and sanctification, and fails to see that, although the law is powerless and useless for our justification, nevertheless it is by God’s grace a lamp to guide our feet in the way of sorrow for sin, and conversion, that it is, in other words, a means of grace for our thankful sanctification. Both the antinomian and the fatalist turn the grace of God into an excuse for licentiousness with their objections. And it is not surprising that their objections are usually found among those who neglect and despise not only the means of grace, but also the institute of the Church and the authority of the offices in the Church. 

We must be clear, then, that the demand for repentance, and for faith and conversion, does not imply any ability on the part of the unregenerate to seek after God, but does imply that God-given and God-worked ability on the part of the believer. He alone has the spiritual ears to hear that call and the heart to obey it, and it is to him and for him first of all that the call to repentance comes. The officebearers of the Church must bring that demand, therefore, in the confidence that God will use it to do whatever He has pleased. They must not obscure its sharpness by pleading or arguing with the sinner but must say to him, “Thus saith the Lord.” 

Demanding repentance and faith of dead sinners may seem foolish to us, but when we remember that God in Christ speaks through the preaching with the same power by which He created the worlds, then we can understand how the preaching can be the means to produce fruits of repentance and faith in the elect. The preaching of the Gospel today is no more foolishness than Ezekiel’s preaching to the dry bones in the valley of vision. Just as the Spirit of God Who was present there in the wind did not work apart from the preaching, but by the Word of the prophet brought the dry bones together and clothed them with living flesh, so also does the Spirit work through the preaching today to clothe the spiritually dry bones of dead sinners with living and obedient flesh. 

Nor is the fact that the Gospel does not save many an argument against what we have said. It simply illustrates the fact that the Word is a two-edged sword which always accomplishes God’s purpose in one way or another and never returns to Him void. It shows us that the power of the preaching cannot be separated from the sovereign operation of the Spirit and from the power of God Himself. Those who do not obey are those who do not have the ears to hear and the hearts to understand, and the preaching of the Gospel with its hammering demand only serves to deafen those ears and harden those hearts according to the just judgment of God. Making the Gospel over into an offer does not change those ears and hearts, it only makes God a liar who offers what He has no intention of giving. 

The demand for repentance, then, must be an integral part of the preaching of the Gospel, and it must be brought sharply and clearly. That means nothing less than preaching sin, and preaching sin as transgression of God’s own law, committed against His everlasting holiness. God’s people must not only learn about sin, but must learn to see their own sins in the light of God’s glorious perfection. Only then will their repentance be specific and real. In other words, the “must” of the Gospel, which is the “must” of the Law, ought to be heard so clearly that it cannot be escaped. Only then will the Word be a fire and a hammer both on the mission field and in the institute of the Church.

Nor must repentance toward God ever be preached apart from the doctrine of election. But the doctrines of election must also be preached according to the Scriptures, which means the preaching of SOVEREIGN election, election which is unconditional, which separates between man and man, and which is the fountain from which flow to the child of God all the blessings of salvation, including heart-felt repentance and sorrow after God. Nor must election be preached grudgingly or rarely, but as the heart of the Gospel of grace. Only then will the grace of obedient repentance be ascribed to God and the glory given to His majestic name. 

All this teaches us, finally, that the spiritually healthy child of God is one who searches out the pure preaching of the Gospel and who actively, faithfully, and studiously uses it on the Lord’s Day and other occasions. He finds in it food for his soul that he may grow in grace, in the knowledge of sin and sorrow for sin, in faith and hope and love, and in the obedience of faith; and thereby he also learns the comfort of his eternal election. He is an enemy of truth, be he a wicked heretic or a wayward child of God, who attempts to set the teachings of Scripture in disorder, by bringing a Gospel which is not a fire and a hammer, or by separating election-preaching and the preaching of repentance toward God which God Himself in His good pleasure has joined together. Let us “not conclude against grace from the rebuke . . . nor from grace against the rebuke.”