[Note: In the previous issue attention was called to the symbolism of the heart, to the identity of the heart—sovereign predestination,—and to the importance of the heart and its beat.]
The Heart-Beat In The Reformation
Some might be inclined to question the position taken and to challenge the claim that the very heart of the Reformation is to be discovered in the truth of sovereign predestination.
After all, some might think, the Reformation began in 1517 with Luther, not with John Calvin. And as is well known, there were two principles involved in that Reformation under Luther. There was the so-called formal principle of the authority and perspicuity of the Scriptures; and there was the material principle of justification by faith only. Perhaps in the light of these principles of Luther, some might be ready to ask: where, then, in the Reformation under Luther was that heart-beat of sovereign predestination?
To find the answer to this question, we must take into consideration, in the first place, certain facts with respect to Luther personally and with respect to the Reformation as it was brought about through the instrumentality of God’s servant, Martin Luther.
First of all, recall the fact that at the time of the Reformation Luther did not simply announce bluntly the dogmatic principle of justification by faith. But he arrived at his position in the way of a very real and poignant personal struggle: he wanted peace with God! That is the background of the Reformation. To put it briefly, in that quest after personal peace with God, Luther learned by painful experience that there was no justification to be found by mere natural man, and therefore no peace. There was no justification possible in the way of man. Justification—and he found this out by experience—justification by works was a myth. Try as he might, along that impossible way of justification by works, he could find no peace. And the Lord led Luther personally, by way of the Scriptures, to the rediscovery of the precious truth of justification by faith only. Then he found peace; not before that.
Now this is significant.
If we understand a little of this personal struggle of Martin Luther and of the miracle of his finding peace with God, then it becomes plain, in the first place, that for Luther faith was not another work of some kind. No, he had desperately tried that way of justification by works; and he had found it utterly wanting! Faith, to Luther, was not his achievement, as is the common presentation today. That very common and superficial presentation which forevermore prates about accepting Jesus Christ, presents salvation as God’s work and faith as our work. Then the matter of salvation and peace still devolves upon man. And then salvation is still a matter of human achievement. If such had been Luther’s understanding of faith, he would have found himself in the same hopeless situation. He would have had no peace!
For Luther, faith, in distinction from works, is the power and the act which stands diametrically over against works as far as righteousness is concerned. It is the God-given power and the God-wrought activity which clings to God in Christ, which clings to the power of the justifying God; for all its righteousness.
In other words, Luther’s “by faith only” was at the same time the principle of “by grace only.” And the heart-beat of “by grace only” is the heart-beat of sovereign predestination. It is that predestination which determines the answer to the question: upon whom does God bestow His grace, and upon whom does God bestow the gift of saving faith whereby in themselves lost sinners are justified and have peace with Him?
We must, therefore, view the Reformation as one. It was begun through Luther, and it ripened and came to fruition through the labors of John Calvin. And viewing it in proper historical perspective, we must view it against the background of the tide of Semi-Pelagianism which, after the time of Augustine, had swept the; church during the Middle Ages and which at the time of the Reformation well-nigh threatened to destroy the church. Put in terms of doctrine, put in terms of the historical development of doctrine, that entire idea of work-righteousness which troubled Luther so sorely was nothing but that vicious error of Semi-Pelagianism.
Semi-Pelagianism was an attempted, but utterly unsuccessful, attempt at a compromise between strict Pelagianism (which really denies grace altogether) and strict Augustinianism (which really maintains grace altogether). And it is characteristic of compromises between the truth and the lie in the broad movement of the history of the church that the lie always wins out. Men sometimes try to speak in this connection of Semi-Augustinianism. That is a “nothing.” Semi- Augustinianism is only a euphemism for Semi-Pelagianism; and Semi-Pelagianism is nothing, at bottom, but Pelagianism—with a nice face. Pelagianism held that man is sound. Semi-Pelagianism held that man is not totally depraved, dead, but that he is spiritually alive, though crippled and sick as to his power of will. Semi-Pelagianism held that grace is a power that can be resisted and is, therefore, limited; and yet it is a power which can be appropriated and used by man and which supplements and helps man’s native power of will to seek after God through Christ and to be saved. That is the position of Semi-Pelagianism on the doctrine of grace. It always reminds me of a favorite Dutch expression of a good friend I had in Northwest Iowa. He liked to say, “De genade komt achteraan als een hinkende paard. (Grace comes on behind like a lame horse.)” An accurate description!
But the heart of the matter lies in the doctrine of predestination. Semi-Pelagianism had something to say about that too. It struck a blow at the very heart, of the truth! It taught that predestination takes place according to divine foreknowledge of man’s faith, a foreknowledge which is wholly independent of God’s determination, and which is rather determinative of that divine determination. Finally, as you might expect, Semi-Pelagianism taught with respect to Christ that He died for all men promiscuously.
If you are at all acquainted with Reformed doctrine and its history, you will recognize in those four points of the Semi-Pelagian position the heresy of Arminianism. That is why our fathers of Dordrecht accused the Arminians of bringing up the doctrine of Pelagius again out of hell—language which some people today cannot stomach.
But to return to our immediate subject, from a doctrinal point of view it was this Semi-Pelagianism which lay at the root of Luther’s personal struggle and which was the reason for his lack of peace. And the Reformation as a movement was the liberation of the church from this Semi-Pelagianism. It was a return to Augustinianism, based upon the Scriptures. It was a return to the whole body of the truth which has its heart in sovereign predestination.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that Martin Luther did not discern that sovereign predestination is indeed the heart of the truth of the gospel.
Mind you, already in 1515, two years before his more famous ninety-five theses, in his ninety-nine theses Luther sensed and stated that this was the heart of the whole truth of salvation: “The excellent, infallible and sole preparation for grace is the eternal election and predestination of God.”
It is indeed true that you do not find in Luther the degree of doctrinal clarity and full and systematic development which you find in Calvin. It is also true that with respect to God’s predestination Luther developed along different lines than did Calvin; this was connected, again, with his personal life and development. Luther speaks of predestination especially against the background of and in connection with man’s total depravity. If you want to discover what Luther thinks about sovereign predestination, then you must read what he wrote against Erasmus of Rotterdam on ‘The Bondage of the Will.’ But every church historian freely admits that Luther stood in the same position as Calvin as far as sovereign predestination is concerned. Even non-Calvinist historians must admit that the reformers were agreed in this respect. And Luther himself never changed his beliefs on this score essentially, although Lutheranism, especially under the influence of Philip Melanchthon, soon compromised and departed. As you might expect, Luther, with his strong emphasis upon the bondage of the will, upon total depravity, insists necessarily at the same time upon the truth of sovereign predestination.
Here is what Philip Schaff writes on this subject—and Schaff is certainly no Calvinist:
All the Reformers were originally Augustinians, that is, believers in the total depravity of man’s nature, and the absolute sovereignty of God’s grade. They had, like St. Paul and St. Augustine, passed through a terrible conflict with sin, and learned to feel in their hearts what ordinary Christians profess with their lips, that they were justly condemned, and saved only by the merits of Christ. They were men of intense experience and conviction of their own sinfulness and of God’s mercifulness; and if they saw others perish in unbelief, it was not because they were worse, but because of the inscrutable will of God, who gives to some, and withholds from others, the gift of saving faith. (History of the Christian Church, VII, 431)
But let us listen to Luther himself. The three following brief quotations are all from his The Bondage of the Will:
(1) It is especially necessary and healthful for the Christian to be aware that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that, with immutable and eternal and infallible will, He foresees, and proposes, and does all things. By this thunderbolt the free will is thrown down and ground to powder. . . , Immutable and infallible is the will of God which governs our mutable will. . . . Free will is plainly ‘a divine name, nor does it befit anything except the Divine Majesty alone, which is able to do and does all things which it pleases, in heaven and in earth.
(2) “‘Who (you say) will endeavor to amend his life?”—I answer, No man! no man can! For your self-amenders without the Spirit, God regardeth not, for they are hypocrites. But the Elect, and those that fear God, will be amended by the Holy Spirit; the rest will perish unamended. . . .
(3) “Who will believe (you say) that he is loved of God?”—I answer, No man will believe it! No man can! But the Elect shall believe it; the rest shall perish without believing it, filled with indignation and blaspheming, as you [Erasmus] here describe them.
Quotations like the above can be multiplied. And it is evident that when it comes to clear and sharp language on this subject Luther is not to be outdone by John Calvin. The clear heart-beat of the Reformation!
Calvin ought to be so well known when it comes to this subject that he should not even have to be quoted. This doctrine runs as a golden thread through all of Calvin’s teachings. In his Institutes and in his commentaries and in his controversial writings you come upon it at almost every turn: not, mind you, as something incidental, but something which constitutes the heart, the warp and woof, of Calvin’s teachings. For Calvin sovereign predestination was the heart of the church and the heart of the truth. He could not teach without it. He could not expound Scripture without it. He could not touch upon especially those passages of Scripture which opponents of the truth of sovereign predestination love to cite without insisting upon this doctrine. Everywhere in Calvin’s teachings you can feel the strong heart-beat of sovereign predestination.
A word of caution is in order in this regard. It is often presented as though predestination has a very limited place in Calvin. Sometimes it is claimed that Calvin spoke of predestination only in connection with soteriology, the doctrine of the application of the benefits of salvation to God’s people. Besides, there is in some quarters a studied attempt today, by men who would give lip-service to Calvinism and who would claim the name of the great reformer without accepting his teachings,—a studied attempt to “de-Calvinize” Calvin. By some it is even claimed that our Canons of Dordrecht represent a different brand of Calvinism, a brand of Calvinism which is contrary to the true spirit of Calvin himself.
All of this is far from the truth. If you want to find out, then read Calvin, not what others say about Calvin.
Moreover, do not forget that two of Calvin’s major treatises were devoted to this subject. They are both included in the volume called Calvin’s Calvinism: Calvin’s The Eternal Predestination of God and A Defence of the Secret Providence of God.
But let us listen to Calvin himself.
First of all, here is what he writes in Calvin’s Calvinism, pp. 81, 82, concerning that crucial passage in John 12:39, 40: “Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.”
The secret and eternal purpose and counsel of God must be viewed as the original cause of their blindness and unbelief. . . . He says: ‘Therefore, they could not believe.’ Wherefore, let men torture themselves as long as they will with reasoning, the cause of the difference made—why God does not reveal His arm equally to all—lies hidden in His own eternal decree. . . . Hence, unless we would elude the plain and confessed meaning of the Evangelist, that few receive the Gospel, we must fully conclude that the cause is the will of God; and that the outward sound of the Gospel strikes the ear in vain until God is pleased to touch by it the heart within.
In his Institutes, III, 21-24, he writes the following:
We shall never be clearly convinced as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the fountain of God’s free mercy, till we are acquainted with His eternal election, which illustrates the grace of God by this comparison, that He adopts not all promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what He refuses to others. Ignorance of this principle evidently detracts from the Divine glory, and diminishes real humility. But according to Paul, what is so necessary to be known, never can be known, unless God, without any regard to works, chooses those whom He has decreed. . . .
Predestination, by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no zone, desirous of the credit of piety, dares absolutely to deny. But it is involved in many cavils, especially by those who make foreknowledge the cause of it. We maintain, that both belong to God; but it is preposterous to represent one as dependent on the other. When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things have ever been, and perpetually remain, before His eyes, so that to His knowledge nothing is future or past, but all things are present; and present in such a manner, that He does not merely conceive of them from ideas formed in His mind, as things remembered by us appear present to our minds, but really beholds and sees them as if actually placed before Him. And this foreknowledge extends to the whole world, and to all the creatures. Predestination we call the eternal decree of God by which He has determined in Himself what He would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others. Every man, therefore, being created for one or the other of these ends, we say, he is predestinated either to life or death. This God has not only testified in particular persons, but has given a specimen of it in the whole posterity of Abraham, which should evidently show the future condition of every nation to depend upon His decisions. . . .
In conformity, therefore, to the clear doctrine of the Scripture, we assert, that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God has once for all determined, both whom He would admit to salvation, and whom He would condemn to destruction. We affirm that this counsel, as far as concerns the elect, is founded on His gratuitous mercy, totally irrespective of human merit; but that to those whom He devotes to condemnation; the gate of life is closed by a just and reprehensible, but incomprehensible, judgment. . . .
The Heart Beating in the Canons
It was this “heart of the Reformation” which found expression especially in our Canons of Dordrecht, and found expression in such a way that the beat of that heart is clear and strong and unmistakable in the whole of the truth of salvation. Do not make the mistake of thinking that the first chapter of the Canons, on sovereign predestination, stands merely side-by-side with the other four chapters. On the contrary, in it you have the heart of all of the Canons. That this is true is plain from the fact that the truth of sovereign predestination literally runs through all the rest of the Canons. Thus, having approached the matter of salvation from the historical point of view of faith and unbelief, Canons I proceeds to explain this from sovereign predestination in Article 6:
That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree, “For known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world,”
“Who worketh all things after the counsel of his will,”
According to which decree, he graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while he leaves the non-elect in his just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men, equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation, revealed in the Word of God, which though men of perverse, impure and unstable minds wrest to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.
Then, in all the remaining articles of the first chapter, the Canons detailedly expound the above truth of sovereign election and reprobation as no other creed describes this “heart of the truth,” Articles 7 to 18.
But in the following chapters this “heart” beats strongly and healthily in the entire truth of salvation. Plainly, it is this truth of sovereign predestination which controls the Second Head of Doctrine, the chapter concerning the death of Christ and the atonement. This comes to expression in Article 8, that clear and beautifully stated article which was at stake in the recent “Dekker Case.” Listen to the heart-beat in this article:
For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever.
Also in the doctrine of the application of the benefits of salvation, as set forth in Canons III and IV, it is this “heart” which is the determining and controlling factor. How clear this is in Articles 10 and 11!
Article 10. But that others who are called by the gospel, obey the call, and are converted, is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will, whereby one distinguishes himself above others, equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion, as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains; but it must be wholly ascribed to God, who as he has chosen his own from eternity in Christ, so he confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness, and translates them into the kingdom of his own Son, that they may show forth the praises of him, who hath called them out of darkness into his marvelous light; and may glory not in themselves, but in the Lord, according to the testimony of the apostles in various places.
Article 11. But when God accomplishes his good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion (notice the connection: the working of true conversion is the accomplishment of God’s good pleasure in the elect, HCH), he not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by his Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit, pervades the inmost recesses of the man; he opens the closed, and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised, infuses new qualities into the will, which though heretofore dead, he quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, he renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.
Again, in the doctrine of the preservation of the saints, Canons V, that “heart” beats. It is that heart which vitalizes and energizes the entire truth of preservation. This becomes evident in more than one article; but let us look only at Article 8:
Thus, it is not in consequence of their own merits, or strength, but of God’s free mercy, that they do not totally fall from faith and grace, nor continue and perish finally in their backslidings; which, with respect to themselves, is not only possible, but would undoubtedly happen; but with respect to God, it is utterly impossible, since his counsel cannot be changed, nor his promise fail, neither can the call according to his purpose be revoked, nor the merit, intercession and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated. (emphasis added)
The heart-beat of predestination!
Ecclesiastical Heart Trouble and Reformation
The church of today has heart trouble!
No stethoscope or cardiograph is needed to discover this. The fact is obvious. All the symptoms are there. No doctor of theology need be called in to make the diagnosis. How far away is the church of our times away from the high plane and the healthy state of Reformation times!
A long list of ills and of obvious symptoms could be mentioned. But who does not know these ills? Who today, whether liberal or conservative, is not complaining that there is something wrong, radically wrong, in the church? Men are not by any means agreed as to what is wrong and as to the cure. But thatsomething is wrong, on this all agree. In fact, there has never been a time in history when the church has been more troubled, more unsettled, than our time. And all, these symptoms and ills point to one thing: the church has heart trouble! Either the heart has been cut out of the truth completely, or—what amounts essentially to the same thing—the sovereignty of predestination is denied. Or mere lip-service is paid to that heart of the truth: it is hardly mentioned in the preaching, only occasionally touched upon, but never emphasized as the heart. The beat of that heart is not felt and heard and sensed in the whole body of the church’s confession and preaching.
Many false cures are proposed. Often the truth of sovereign predestination itself is blamed. And the cure is sought in another, essentially Pelagian, direction. We must relax our confessions. We must drum up more mission enthusiasm. We must have crusades and revivals. We must break out of our isolationist shell. We must show more openness toward society at large. We must become involved in the world’s and society’s problems. We must be more ecumenical-minded. The fact is that these proposed cures remind one of giving a cure for a headache or a Band-Aid for a cut on one’s finger when the real trouble is in the heart. The fact is, too, that many of these proposed cures for the church’s ills are themselves symptoms of serious heart trouble.
But the heart of the troubles is that the church today has ecclesiastical heart trouble.
Reformation is needed! And that reformation, from the point of view of its material principle, consists fundamentally in a return to this heart-truth of the Reformation, in harmony with the Scriptures. That is the only cure! The church must repent and return to the whole truth of the Scriptures, of which sovereign predestination is the heart, or perish!
This reformation, after all, is a very personal matter. It is a matter of personal repentance.
Where do you personally stand? Were our fathers right? Yes or No?
If we think that the fathers were not right, if we think that the Reformers were not right, if we think that Dordrecht was not right, then let us not call ourselves children of the Reformation any longer.
But if we are at heart children of the Reformation, if we love the church of Jesus Christ, if we love the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, then we must always be repenting and returning to this heart-truth of sovereign predestination and sovereign grace. And we must let the clarion call go forth: the call to purify, the call to purge the church, the call to return wholeheartedly and completely to Reformational truth!
Do not be deterred and frightened and disheartened by the cavils and the slanders of the enemies of this heart-truth of the Reformation, especially not by the slander that this doctrine is hard and cold and proud. Nothing could be farther from the truth!
The truth is this, that when you sense the beat of this “heart of the Reformation,” you sense the very beat of the heart of God! And then you enjoy the peace and comfort that can come only from the assurance that God’s eternal and sovereign love has flooded your soul!