Previous article in this series: July 2021, p. 427.
We Are to Have a Good Hope For All.
And although God knows who are His, and here and there [in Scripture] mention is made of the small number of elect, yet we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be reprobate. For Paul says to the Philippians, “I thank my God for you all” (now he speaks of the whole church in Philippi), “because of your fellowship in the Gospel, being persuaded that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is also right that I have this opinion of you all” (Phil. 1:3-7).
The Swiss Reformer, Heinrich Bullinger, continues his treatment of the doctrine of predestination with a paragraph entitled, “We Are to Have a Good Hope For All.” This is an important practical aspect of the Reformed doctrine of election and reprobation. And it is a warning about presuming to ourselves the prerogative that belongs exclusively to God, the prerogative of determining who is elect and who is reprobate. There are two equally serious dangers that threaten the Reformed confession of the biblical truth of predestination. On the one hand, there is the error of keeping altogether silent about predestination in the preaching of the church. While it is often granted that there is such a thing as election and possibly even reprobation, these belong to the hidden things of God and we ought not to speak of them. Speaking of them will only have the effect of undermining assurance and stirring up doubt. The danger on the other hand is that people suppose that they are able to determine who is elect and who is reprobate. At the very least, they suppose that they are able to give a reasonable judgment regarding the eternal destiny of certain men and women.
The paragraph warns against both dangers. We may not be silent about predestination, the heart of the gospel and of the church. At the same time, Christians must be cautioned against presuming to determine the identity of the elect and reprobate. Apart from those few individuals who are identified as reprobate in Scripture, like Esau and Judas Iscariot, we must refrain from passing sentence on any human being. And although believers may be assured in themselves of their election, we must exercise care in identifying others as elect of God. This does not take away from the word of our Lord that “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). Nevertheless, in the end, “The Lord knoweth them that are his” (II Tim. 2:19).
There are two factors that enter into this discussion. The first is that we are called to make the judgment of charity. It is that principle that lies behind this paragraph of the SHC. As Christians, we are always to render the judgment of charity. The judgment of charity does not prevent us from calling someone to repentance who is walking in sin. Certainly not. The judgment of charity does not prevent us from warning the impenitent that unless they repent they are exposed to the judgment of God and eternal damnation. Certainly not. Instead, “we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a reprobate.” The judgment of charity prevents us from judging anyone as reprobate or presuming the right to deliver anyone to perdition because in our judgment they are reprobate.
The second factor that enters into this discussion is the organic principle. Bullinger appeals to Paul’s opening words to the Philippians in the epistle that he addressed to them. He might have appealed to any number of the words of introduction in Paul’s epistles. Paul addresses the whole congregation as “beloved of God,” as “saints,” and as “the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The apostle takes this approach not because he believes that every individual member of the congregation at Philippi, or any of the other congregations that he addressed in a similar way, was elect. He knew very well that “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6). He knew that there is always a carnal element in the church, as there was in Israel in the Old Testament. He knew that in God’s wheat field, there are always tares that are sown. But reprobation does not determine the apostle’s approach to the congregation. Fully aware of the presence of the reprobate, he addresses the congregation from the perspective of the positive element in the congregation, the elect of God. His approach was the “organic approach.” He approached the church from the perspective of those who form the living principle of the church, those who have been made alive with the new and heavenly life. They are beloved of God—the elect.
Whether Few Are Elect.
And when the Lord was asked whether there were few that should be saved, He does not answer and tell them that few or many should be saved or damned, but rather He exhorts every man to “strive to enter by the narrow door” (Luke 13:24): as if He should say, It is not for you curiously to inquire about these matters, but rather to endeavor that you may enter into heaven by the straight way.
In this paragraph, Bullinger takes up the matter that he had mentioned in the previous paragraph, that “here and there mention is made [in Scripture] of the small number of elect.”
Scripture does indicate that relative to the billions who have been born or will yet be brought into the world, there is a small number who are saved. In Luke 13:24, where Jesus exhorts “every man to ‘strive to enter by the narrow door,’” He adds: “for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” If “many” enter at the wide gate that leads to destruction, Jesus implies that “few” enter the strait gate that leads to life. In the parallel passage, Matthew 7:13 and 14, Jesus expressly says about the strait gate and narrow way that lead to life: “few there be that find it.”
In other ways Scripture teaches that relatively few are saved. Scripture speaks frequently of the faithful people of God as a remnant. One such passage is Isaiah 1:9: “Except the Lord of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.” Scripture speaks of the “remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5). In more than one place, Scripture compares the church to Israel. In the Old Testament, Israel was one tiny nation among all the other larger nations of the world.
That few are saved is also the testimony of biblical and world history. In the old dispensation, God suffered the nations to perish in their idolatry and ignorance. Salvation was almost exclusively among the Jews. In the New Testament, the vast majority of the human race has perished never having heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.
That God has chosen to save a few only, leaving the vast majority of mankind in its sin and unbelief, does not take away from the fact that considered by themselves the elect constitute a great host. That also is true. God’s promise to Abraham was that He would make his seed as great in number as the stars of the heavens and the sand by the seashore, Genesis 22:17. In Revelation 7:9, John beholds “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” standing before the throne of God and before the Lamb. Considered in themselves, the elect church is vast in number.
Nevertheless, Bullinger correctly warns against “curiously inquir[ing] about these matters.” He appropriately calls attention to Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question, “Lord, are there few that be saved?” Jesus’ response was not to answer their question directly, but to exhort them: “Strive to enter in at the strait gate” (Luke 13:24). The point of Jesus’ response, as Bullinger indicates, is that rather than to be concerned with their question, the far more important question is, “Are you striving to enter into the kingdom?” We ought not to worry about anyone else as much as ourselves.
What in This Matter Is to Be Condemned.
Therefore we do not approve of the impious speeches of some who say, “Few are chosen, and since I do not know whether I am among the number of the few, I will enjoy myself.” Others say, “If I am predestined and elected by God, nothing can hinder me from salvation, which is already certainly appointed for me, no matter what I do. But if I am in the number of the reprobate, no faith or repentance will help me, since the decree of God cannot be changed. Therefore all doctrines and admonitions are useless.” Now the saying of the apostle contradicts these men: “The Lord’s servant must be ready to teach, instructing those who oppose him, so that if God should grant that they repent to know the truth, they may recover from the snare of the devil, after being held captive by him to do his will” (II Tim. 2:23-26).
As wicked men wrest the truth of God generally to their destruction, so do they pervert the particular truth of sovereign predestination. At the same time, their perversion of the truth includes a wicked caricature of the truth. As was true in the days of the Reformation, so also in our day, the most frequent caricature of the truth of predestination is likening it to pagan fatalism. “What will be, will be; everything has been foreordained. We can do nothing for or against what has been determined, so we might as well live as we please.”
Although the term “hyper-Calvinism” was not yet in use and “antinomianism” was not widely used, these are the closely related errors that are addressed in this paragraph of the SHC. These twin errors, the one focusing on the gospel and the other on the law, have ever been a threat to the Reformed faith. The threat may never be minimized and the church may never let down her guard. Bullinger was sensitive to the threat in his day; we ought to be vigilant in our day.
The fundamental error is separating the goal that God has determined from the way and means that He has ordained with a view to attaining the goal. There are two sides to this issue, corresponding to the two aspects of predestination.
With regard to the reprobate, God who has rejected them also withholds from them belief of the truth and repentance unto life. It is never the case that there are those who would believe and repent, but that despite their faith and turning from sin, God damns them eternally. The Synod of Dordt refers to this caricature of the Reformed faith in the “Conclusion” to the Canons of Dordt: “and that, if the reprobate should even perform truly all the works of the saints, their obedience would not in the least contribute to their salvation.” But the truth is that those whom God has reprobated are not given the gifts of faith and repentance. And at the same time, their wickedness is that they reject Christ in willful unbelief and refuse to turn from their sins. They are reprobated by God, but they are condemned in the way of their own sin.
With regard to the elect, it never happens that that they assume the attitude that “if I am predestinated and elected by God, nothing can hinder me from salvation, which is already certainly appointed for me, no matter what I do.” This wicked caricature of the Reformed faith the Canons of Dordt also repudiate in the “Conclusion.” Election does not “render men carnally secure, since they are persuaded by it that nothing can hinder the salvation of the elect, let them live as they please.” Once again, the God who elects men unto salvation also ordains the means and way unto that salvation, which is belief of the truth and holiness of life. An elect child of God, living in the joy and assurance of election, is never going to assume the attitude that he may live as he pleases because he is elect. But the child of God who lives in the knowledge of his election by God will believe the gospel and will bring forth fruits of thankfulness. God Himself sees to that.
One important error of hyper-Calvinism and antinomianism is indicated in this paragraph. It is the contention that admonitions and warnings are useless: “Therefore all doctrines [that is, doctrinal instruction] and admonitions are useless.” Bullinger will take up this error more fully in the next paragraph, entitled: “Admonitions Are Not in Vain Because Salvation Proceeds from Election.” That is where we will begin next time.