Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word.

John 17:6

Behind the question of the place of children in the covenant which so preoccupied the Reformed churches in the 1940s, there were several other disjunctives (propositions that appear to be mutually exclusive of each other) which had troubled the Dutch churches for many years: the question of whether regeneration is mediate or immediate (brought about by means of the preaching of the Word or not); whether justification takes place in eternity or in time; and, perhaps most basic of all, that of Infra and Supralapsarianism (the question of whether election or the fall is first in the counsel of God). These questions have carried on through the years, and in contemporary theology the Liberated churches are possibly the strongest proponents of the one position, and the Protestant Reformed of the other. Accordingly it is perhaps not surprising that, in spite of our affinity on church political matters in the 1940s, there arose inevitable differences between us theologically. Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff were quite right when they said that we had to come to some kind of an understanding on these matters before we could possibly draw closer together ecclesiastically.

Of these differences the problem of Infralapsarianism and Supralapsarianism is probably the most difficult to grasp, and yet the most basic; and, as difficult as it is, we should try to understand this, considering first the idea of Infralapsarianism, then Supralapsarianism, and finally their relationship to each other and to the counsel of God.

The word “infralapsarian” is based on the Latin prefix infra, meaning “under,” and lapsus, meaning “the fall.” The idea is that the fall comes after or under the fall of Adam in the counsel of God; that is, that God first decided that the man whom He had determined to create should fall into sin, and after that determined to elect some of them to salvation and to leave others in the end to be damned for their sin. Furthermore, we cannot escape the fact that the Bible, as well as the creeds, often speak of it as taking place after the fall in a rather infralapsarian way.

In the Old Testament this is true almost exclusively. Take, for example, some of the very earliest references to election. They were made by Moses in his final, great discourses to the children of Israel shortly before his death. “And because he loved thy fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them, and brought thee out in his sight with his mighty power out of Egypt” (Deut. 4:33). And in greater detail, in Deuteronomy 7:6- 8: “For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The Lord did not set his love upon you nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: but because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

It is not our purpose to exegete these passages in detail, but there are several things we should note:

1. To begin with, these passages speak of election in a very warm and personal way. There is nothing academic or abstract about them. Election is not a harsh and tyrannical imposition by a God whose only interest is in proving His own power, but rather it reflects the love and warm tenderness of a God who knows His people and whose concern is with maintaining a relationship of friendship with them, as He had begun to do with their fathers.2. This elective love is causal as to the manner in which Jehovah would deal with Israel thereafter. It is a causality, however, not in terms of a calculating philosophical argument, but in the old Hebraic, biblical sense of the word. It is based on the responsibility of a personal faithfulness which God in His unconditional immutability provides, and from which He will not turn away.

3. For us, however, the important thing is that this revelation of divine election appears within historical context. Very easily and naturally these texts ascribe the divine election and choosing to nothing more than a prior commitment to their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – a commitment made unconditionally, long before these Israelites were born, but distinctly nevertheless, after the fan. In short, it is what we might call an infralapsarian presentation of election.

Again, much the same can be seen in a variety of Old Testament references which in their own beautiful and historically dramatic way speak of God’s election of His People, as, for example, Psalm 65:4: “Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and causest to approach unto thee, that he may dwell in thy courts.” Or, Isaiah 43:4: “Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honorable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life.” Each of these texts in its own way speaks of election as taking place at a certain point in time, unconditional and founded purely on love, but within an historical context after the fall.

And the same may be said of many New Testament passages.

In John’s presentation of the gospel, for example, the idea of election would seem to be inherent to the whole structure of the book, particularly when it speaks of “those whom the Father hath given me” directly or in a related variation.2 In a smooth and natural way this thought runs through the various discourses of Jesus.

Of these, John 6:38, 39 is perhaps the most significant example: “For I came down from heaven,” says Jesus, “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.” In this passage we have one of those great summary statements of Reformed theology. Jesus takes predestination and relates it to the reason for His incarnation, for His coming “down from heaven,” as well as to the “Father’s will which hath sent me,” relating the whole matter very closely to the purpose of the divine decrees, and yet in what w e might well consider an infralapsarian way. Election is related to the redemption of a people already lost in sin and in need of salvation, and thus after (infra) the fall (lapsus).

And so the book continues throughout until we come to that great High Priestly prayer of Jesus in chapter 17, where in verse 6 He identifies the elect as “the men which thou gavest me out of the world,” as infralapsarian an expression as one can think to find.

And John is not alone in this. Possibly no passage identifies more closely with the doctrine of predestination in both its positive and negative dimensions than does the ninth chapter of Romans, as in that foundational passage in verses 10-13, “And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (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.” Here we have what is perhaps the classic scriptural passage as far as the equating of election and reprobation is concerned, and with emphasis on the fact that both are completely unconditional. Still this unconditionality is spoken of, not in terms of eternity, but as following the conception of the children in Rebecca’s womb, prior to their birth, to be sure, but at a point in time well after both creation and the fall of the human race into sin. Although the decree may have been in eternity, the context in which it is set forth is distinctly in time, after the fall, and thus in an infralapsarian way.

And, for the most part, although with somewhat less clarity, this can even be said of verse 21: “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” This passage is significant, of course, because it, perhaps more than any other, constituted the ground over which the lapsarian battle tended from the first to be fought. At least, it was certainly here that Theodore Beza, the successor of Calvin and often considered the father of Supralapsarianism, most frequently and most pronouncedly made his supralapsarian stand, insisting that the “same lump” of this passage is a clear reference to the undifferentiated human race prior to God’s choosing between the “vessels unto honor” and the “others unto dishonor,” and even more prior to the determination that there should be a fall. The problem is that this passage can be seen to fit into the infralapsarian scheme of thought equally well. The clay may easily, and perhaps even more naturally, be understood as referring to the human race as it is found after the fall, and out of which God by His own sovereign predestination determined to make two kinds of vessels, some of honor, and others of dishonor. With that, predestination is seen as being after (infra or sub) the fall (lapsus), providing an infralapsarian framework of thought. The passage by itself can be taken rather easily either way.

And, accordingly, it is noted that our confessions often speak in the same way. The Heidelberg Catechism, at the only point where it touches on predestination, in Lord’s Day 21, speaks of it in its own profoundly beautiful way: “The Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith, and that I am and forever shall remain, a living member thereof.” The statement is brief, but as much to the point and as personal as the doctrine of election can be. In one short sentence we see the working of election over the whole expanse of time, only to have it come to focus on the individual believer who finds himself living and confessing membership in the church of God. But it is in time and after the fall.

Even more directly we find the infralapsarian approach to election used in the Belgic Confession, Article 16: “We believe that all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin, by the sin of our first parents, 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 . . . leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.” Here again, addressing the subject of predestination more directly, we find it presented as taking place after the fall, in what might well be considered an infralapsarian manner.

And the same can be said most distinctly of the Canons of Dordt, which is certainly the most detailed and leading creedal statement concerning predestination in the history of the Christian church. It opens with a reference to the fall into sin, 1:1, “As all, men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death”; and from there it goes on to note with a simple historical statement similar to that of the other two creeds, “Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, he hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault, from their primitive state of rectitude, into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom he from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.” Once again, election is spoken of in terms of the, already existing fall, and would appear to be very much infralapsarian.

The point of all this is that the Scriptures are for the most part written from a historical perspective in time; and this is in turn the way in which we meet this great reality in our experience. We are born as part of a sinful world, and we do not know, and cannot know, the true reality of grace until God comes and chooses us out of the world, unconditionally and sovereignly, to gather us into His fellowship and love. And this is often the way in which we can best explain this truth to those who find it difficult, by expressing by our own confession and walk the wonder of the reality that God has chosen us, who are no better than the greatest of all sinners, to be gathered into His love.

In all of this, however, there is another thing which should be noted. While there are many instances in which the Scriptures and the confessions speak of election as taking place after the fall, they are not doing so in terms of the counsel of God. All of these passages are speaking of election as it enters into the experience of man, and that is of course after the fall. But the lapsarian controversy was not about that.

So, in turn, there are many other passages that speak of these things quite differently; and to these we must return. 

1 We see a reflection of this in our word “inferior.” Another variation of this, which was often used at the time of the Synod of Dort when this terminology originated, was “Sublapsarian,” in which the prefix sub was used with lapsus but meaning exactly the same thing. 

2 John 6:37-40, 44, 64, 65; 10:16, 25-29; 12:39-40; 13:l8; 15:16; 17:2, 8, 9