“We believe that all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin, by the sin of our first parents, God did then manifest himself such as he is; that is to say, merciful and just: Merciful, since he delivers and preserves from this perdition all, whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness, hath elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works: Just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.”
Article XVI, The Belgic Confession
Very carefully and very firmly the Creed has shut the door to any possibility of man’s saving himself. The truth of God’s Word concerning man’s creation, fall, original sin, and incapacity to perform what is truly good is set forth in the clearest of terms in Articles fourteen and fifteen. Scripture teaches that God created man good: in His image and after His likeness. God made man able to will “agreeably to the will of God.” And man was righteous and holy. Thus man mirrored, though in a creaturely way, something of the glory of God, His Maker. But from this excellent honor man fell into the shame of sin. He willfully subjected himself to sin and consequently to death by giving ear to the lie of the devil. The tragic effect was that man became wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways. His light was changed into darkness. Man lost all his excellent gifts and retained just a few remains of them, and even these are sufficient only to leave him without excuse. Man has become liable to corporal and spiritual death. Man is a slave to sin, incapable of doing the good, and even incapable of willing the good. In a word, man has nothing of himself. What is more, this original sin, both from the point of view of its guilt and from the point of view of its corruption, has passed to all men because Adam stood as the representative head, the first father, and the root of the entire human race. There is, therefore, but one and only one possibility of salvation for man. God! God must save or man remains forever lost. God’s mercy is our only hope of salvation. This is the thrust of the teaching of our Confession at this point. “We believe that all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin, by the sin of our first parents, God did then manifest himself such as he is; that is to say, merciful and just.”
This knowledge has profound effects upon the believer. It humbles the child of God. He knows the terrible power of sin and his sinful nature against which he must strive every day. He knows his incapacity to perform what is truly good from daily experience. Out of this knowledge he is ever ready to pray: “God be merciful to me, the sinner.” The knowledge of his depravity and of God’s mercy causes the believer to wonder. In the consciousness of God’s mercy he exclaims with the prophet: “How wondrous are the ways of God and how marvelous are his doings.” (Isaiah 55:8, 9) Those ways of the Lord are certainly not our ways! How tremendously great is God’s grace and merciful His kindness. This knowledge also comforts the believer. Exactly because man lacks the ability to save himself or even to contribute toward his own salvation, and exactly because God saves, the believer may be and is assured of his salvation. God surely performs to the finish what He begins. Not only that but no one and nothing can frustrate the work of Almighty God. If God saves and God alone, and He does, then nothing can be against us but all things are for us. This beautiful truth is taught in that classic passage, Romans 8:28-39: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Why is this true and how is it that we know this? “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” Sovereign predestination in Jesus Christ is the deepest ground of the believer’s comfort. For this reason too the Scriptures exhort God’s people to: “. . .give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (II Peter 1:10, 11)
While the article is very brief it does capture the Bible’s teaching on election and reprobation.* Notice that theConfession speaks of predestination as amanifestation of God as merciful and just. God is merciful: “. . .since he delivers and preserves from this perdition all, whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness, hath elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works.” This is the decree of election. God is just: “. . .in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.” This is the decree of reprobation.
In its brief statement on election, our Creed mentions several of the characteristics of this decree. Notice that the Confession emphasizes that election is “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Never may the decree of election be conceived of apart from Jesus Christ. The decree of election is not some arbitrary determination on the part of God. Election always has to do with Christ. Election is the choosing of the organism of the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which the individual, chosen saints are the members. Election is in Christ and it is realized in the cross of Christ. The Scriptures make this abundantly plain. The holy Apostle breaks forth in the beautiful doxology: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:” (Eph. 1:3) God has done this, Paul continues; “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world. . . .” (vs. 4) We are predestinated unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ according to the good pleasure of God’s will and to the praise of the glory of His grace. (Eph. 1:5, 6) It is in Christ that we have obtained the inheritance: “. . .being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” (Eph. 1:11) In chapter two of this same epistle the Scripture speaks of the elect as the workmanship of God, who are created in Christ Jesus unto the good works which God has before ordained that they should walk in them (vs. 10) One finds the same emphasis inRomans 8:29, 30 where Scripture teaches that God predestinated His own “to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” Thus it is that the purpose and grace according to which God has saved us and called us with an holy calling was given us in Christ Jesusbefore the world began.” (II Timothy 1:9) Election according to the Word of God is in Christ. In fact, it may be said that Christ is THE Elect. Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone, elect and precious, Whom God has laid in Zion. (I Peter 2:6; Isaiah 28:16) The One Who is the Servant of Jehovah, in Whom Jehovah delights and upon Whom Jehovah has put His Spirit, God’s Elect is Christ. (Isaiah 42:1-4) He is the Lamb of God by Whose precious blood the saints have been redeemed and, “Who was verily foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.” (I Peter 1:19, 20) Still more, Christ is the firstborn of every creature, the image of the invisible God. He is that because all things were created by Christ; all things in heaven and in earth, visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, all things were created by Him and for Him. Thus Christ is before all things and all things consist by Him. He is the Head of the body which is the Church. Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead in order that in all things He might have the preeminence. The reason for this is simply that it pleased the Father that all fulness should dwell in Christ and that all things be reconciled to Him through the blood of His cross. (Colossians 1:15-20) From all these passages and more it is evident that God’s eternal purpose, of which election is a part, is to manifest His glory in Jesus Christ. Christ is first in God’s counsel. All things find their meaning and their significance in relationship to Jesus Christ.
The decree of election is confessed to be of God’s “mere goodness.” Election is a sovereign decree. No one and nothing outside of God prompted the Almighty to elect His Church. God elected us: “according to the good pleasure of His will.” (Eph. 1:4, 5) Furthermore, this decree of election is “eternal and unchangeable” according to our Confession. One must never imagine that God first determined to create the worlds and all things in them and then when mankind fell decided to elect some to eternal life. Election is not some desperate attempt on God’s part to repair what man had spoiled through his sin. God has chosen His own in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” From all eternity God out of mere goodness chose His people in Christ. And that decree is unchangeable. Nothing can frustrate God’s saving purpose in Christ. God has not merely provided the possibility of salvation to a fallen humanity. Neither is it the case that this decree depends upon the faith and obedience of men. They believe, and, only they, whom God has eternally and unchangeably ordained to eternal life in Christ. God “delivers and preserves from this perdition all, whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness, hath elected in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Of this blessed truth the Savior Himself assured us when He said: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me .I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.” (John 6:37-39)
Finally, the Creed characterizes election as being “without any respect to their works.” God’s elective choosing is not conditioned by works. Election is not even conditioned by the work of faith or man’s act of conversion. Listen to the powerful testimony of the Word of God: “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of him that calleth; It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. . .So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” (Romans 9:11-13, 16) Always salvation is “not of works lest any man should boast.” Always salvation is “by grace through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2:8, 9)
* It is my intention to devote four articles to this subject. This first article will concentrate on the subject of election. In our next installment we shall consider the decree of reprobation. The last two articles will be a study of John Calvin’s views on Divine Predestination and our Reformed Confessions’ presentation (especially the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession) of this truth.