With the above general observations in mind we may well profit from the stipulations set forth in this article. In the first place, we are told that the spirit of discretion must characterize our preaching of election. Discretion is prudence, or the practical application of wisdom. It takes into consideration reality. And in this case, discretion takes into consideration the reality of the earthly existence and manifestation of the church for which the truth of election “was peculiarly designed.” That church is, of course, essentially the gathering, the assembly, of the elect. And in the positive sense of the word, the doctrine of election was certainly designed for those elect. However, there are all kinds of differences to be found in the membership of that church on earth. And the preaching must surely take these differences into consideration. There are, in the first place, hypocrites. We know this both from Scripture and from experience. And especially in the preaching of election, therefore, one cannot proceed on the false assumption that all the members of the church on earth are elect, have a right to the comfort afforded by this truth, and can actually be comforted by it. The contrary is true. The truth of election,—and this implies the preaching of the truth of reprobation necessarily,—must be so preached that the hypocrite cannot possibly feel at ease in Zion. The keys of the kingdom must be employed to shut as well as to open. Furthermore, there are converted and unconverted elect. And the preaching of election must-reckon with this fact. To be sure, this does not mean that for the converted the preaching follows the “track” of sovereign election, while for the unconverted the divergent “track” of human responsibility must be followed. But it certainly implies that election-preaching must take place not in separation from, but in its proper relation to the calling, to repent and believe. And thus there are many distinctions in the visible church which must be reckon with. There are strong believers, who are genuinely and clearly assured of their own personal election; and there are weak believers, who are inclined toward doubt. There are differences of age. There are the young children, lambs who must according to their capacity be instructed in this truth, but who have not yet even the mental capacity for the deeper aspects of the truth. But there are also the full-grown sheep, who must no more be fed with a bottle, but must have solid food. There may also be adult believers who never progress any further than a very simple apprehension of this truth: while there are others who love to be led into this truth in all its marvelous ramifications. And therefore, discretion must certainly characterize the preaching of the truth of election, whether in the services for public worship or in the catechism classes.
In the second place, the preaching of the truth of election must be marked by “piety,” as the English rendering has it. The original may probably be rendered by “piously and holily.” Negatively, this certainly means that the truth of election must be proclaimed not simply in a cold and dead manner, as a mere academic truth, not as a matter of philosophy and debate and mental exercise. Sometimes the expression “cold doctrine” is employed in this connection. Nor is this possibility to be shrugged off. Preaching is more than mere exposition of a certain doctrine, and more than a logical and clear defense of the truth over against the lie. And while the latter are necessary especially in respect to this truth of predestination, the danger of bringing nothing more than these is not exactly imaginary. In this connection it is worthwhile to note that the Scriptures always present the doctrine of election as a living truth and as an integral part, not only of a scheme of doctrine, but of the whole comforting gospel of our salvation in Christ. Think, for example, of the direct connection that is established in Ephesians 1 between our election and our forgiveness and adoption and sanctification. And positively, this piety and holiness implies a large measure of humility before God and the brethren: a deep reverence, because we stand face to face with the thoughts of God’s unfathomable and eternal good pleasure: and love toward the flock, which is the object of that good pleasure. In this connection, we may cite not only that wonderful doxology at the close of Romans 11, and the warning of Romans 12:3 that by grace a man should not think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but also the notable example of the apostle Paul himself in his attitude toward his kinsmen according to the flesh, Romans 9:1-5.
In the third place, this article stipulates that the truth of election must still be published in the church “in due time and place.” And that “due time and place” must be understood,—as a literal translation of the article would bring out,—as “its own time and place.” This stands in close connection with what we have written previously about an apparent slothfulness in preaching the truth of election. Here again we must remind ourselves that this stipulation is not due to the fact that the fathers actually found that there were some who preached election outside of its own time and place. But there quarrel was with the Arminians. And these Arminians accused the faithful preachers of the Reformed truth that they “were always preaching election,” and that “when they preached, they were forevermore in the counsel of God.” And against these accusers the fathers answer, as it were: No, if you mean that we are always preaching the truth of election in the narrower sense of the term, so that all the content of our sermons is election, then you are mistaken. That is not our position at all. We maintain that the truth of election has its own time and place in the whole system of the truth, and that therefore it has its own time and place in the preaching. And with that stipulation, we insist, nevertheless, that it must be preached,—something that you Arminians do not want.” As we have already indicated, therefore, this article of the Canons certainly condemns those who would maintain a total silence about the truth of election in the proclamation of the gospel. Such are not only non-Reformed; they are anti-Reformed.
However, it may be observed that while the fathers stipulate that this truth must be published “in its own time and place,” they do not define that proper time and place. And about this way we may make a few observations. There are those who think they have fulfilled their obligation in this respect if they occasionally, very occasionally, preach about this truth, or even if they occasionally say a few words about it in the course of a sermon, if they “bring it into” the sermon. And, incidentally, since this article is not only for the instruction of preachers, but for the whole church, we may also mention the fact that there are those who are satisfied if the preacher “brings it into” his sermon occasionally, or if he occasionally preaches an election sermon. They will assure you that their minister is Reformed. “Why,” they say, “he even preaches an election.” In the light of all that the Canonssay about this truth, however, it cannot possibly be maintained that such preachers have actually met the stipulation, “in its own time and place.”
Of course, the standard of the truth also in this respect is holy Scripture. If it is true, therefore, that holy Scripture is characterized by this, that it does nothing more than occasionally mention election or occasionally “bring it in” or occasionally and in a disjointed fashion teach this truth, then, to be sure, the preaching of the gospel must be characterized by the very same thing. And then we must not seek to answer this question by determining the ration of so-called “election texts” to the total number of Scripture verses, in order then to determine accordingly the “due time and place” of election preaching. For then you would come to the conclusion that if eternal election is taught in only one or two passages of Scripture, it would have to be preached indeed, very, very rarely. But the importance of any one truth in relation to the whole system of the truth is not to be measured by the number of words devoted to it in Scripture. It is not to be measured by volume and numbers. Hence, even if eternal election were taught definitely only once in Scripture,—something which is by no means the case,—even then the relative importance of this truth for the whole system of the truth would be unchanged. And then, if the question be asked, “What place does Scripture allot to the truth of election?” the answer is: “First place.” The truth of election is of prime importance. It is the cor ecclesiae, the heart of the church. Take it away, and the whole body of the truth dies. For there is not a single element of the entire truth of holy writ that can stand ultimately without the truth of sovereign election. And therefore, we may conclude concerning this proper time and place: 1) This does not mean that the preaching always devotes all its attention to this “heart.” If a man is sick, it would be a foolish doctor indeed who would limit his examination to the heart. His patient may be seriously ill of a burst appendix, and die even while the doctor devotes all his attention to his patient’s heart. So also in the body of the truth: there is much more than the heart. And this must also be preached. 2) It does mean that sound preaching will always take care that the heart is in good condition, and will therefore surely emphasize the truth of election, and strive to have the believers thoroughly founded in this most fundamental of all truths. 3) And in the broad sense of the word, “its own time and place” means that the heartbeat, the pulse, of this heart of the church will beat healthy and strongly in all of the preaching. Even while the church is busy with the task of proclaiming in the narrower sense of the word such truths as vicarious atonement, or regeneration, or conversion, for example, that truth of election will pulsate regularly and strongly through the preaching. If it does not, then the truth of election is being deprived of its proper time and place.
And finally, the fathers make the negative stipulation: “without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the most high.” This is stated, of course, not in the spirit of those who object to the preaching of election by a mistaken citing of the text, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God;” nor with the idea that we may not penetrate as far as possible, in the light of Scripture, into this truth. For then the fathers of Dordrecht were themselves guilty of this very thing. It does mean, however: 1) That in the consideration of this truth you finally come face to face with the mystery, beyond which you cannot penetrate and may not attempt to penetrate, No further answer can be given in our quest for the reason of election than this: “The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election.” 2) That you may not attempt to investigate this truth along any other course than that of Scripture itself. All rationalism and false mysticism also in respect to the truth of election is ruled out.
Along such lines, therefore, let this glorious truth be proclaimed.
That will be, as the Canons have it, first of all, “for the glory of God’s most holy name.” For it is exactly in this truth that God’s name as God, who is really GOD, is praised and glorified in the highest degree, while the sinner is by this same truth most deeply humbled. And that will be at the same time, as the Canons have it, “for the living comfort of His people.” Certainly, only His people can ever derive any comfort from this truth. For the reprobate there is never any comfort in the gospel. But then, let it be observed, this truth furnishes the ultimate in comfort. Such is the word of God: “Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.” Heb. 6:17, 18.