According to the flesh, both Ishmael and Isaac, both Esau and Jacob were children of Abraham. Yet, only the children of the promise are counted as the seed: “In Isaac shall thy seed be called”; and again: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” Not the will of man, neither the worthiness of man, but God’s sovereign predestination makes the distinction between children of the promise and children of the flesh, even in the historical line of the covenant.
The question might arise, and frequently does arise, in the heart of man, whether, in making this distinction between men, there is unrighteousness with God. And the apostle, too, considers this question. But he answers it, not in the way of human argumentation, not by drawing the Lord of heaven and earth before the bar of human justice, but by appealing once more to the Word of God Himself. “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Here again, the words refer to the people of Israel, as they were encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, in the wilderness, had committed the wanton sin of making and worshipping the golden calf, and were threatened with God’s wrath and destruction in the desert. Moses could not understand this. Was not Israel the people of God? And had not God promised to lead them into the rest of the land of Canaan? (How, then, could they, or many of them perish? The divine answer is that God is sovereign to save whom He will, even out of Israel. He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and compassion on whom He will have compassion. And the apostle concludes: “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” Rom. 9:14-16.
But even here the apostle does not close his inspired contemplation of the mystery of God’s sovereign predestination.
God is and remains free and sovereign, not only to bestow His mercy and compassion on whomsoever He will, but He is equally the sovereign Lord in regard to reprobation. “For the Scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.” More clearly and forcefully no mere human philosophy of predestination could possibly express it. Pharaoh, in all his pride and rebellion against the Lord, may not for a moment imagine that he is sovereign, and that even his opposition to the Word of God and refusal to let Israel go, can possibly thwart God’s purpose. On the contrary, in his vain rebellion he serves God’s purpose. That purpose is that, through Pharaoh’s perversion and obduracy, God might show His power, and His name might be declared throughout all the earth. And it is for this very purpose that God raised up the wicked king. And again, the apostle concludes, this time emphasizing both aspects of sovereign predestination: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.” Rom. 9:17, 18.
How many and who of all mankind shall constitute the membership of the Church is determined by free grace, according to sovereign election.
That is the clear and current teaching of Holy Writ.
Consider the remarkable words of our Savior in Matt. 11:25-27: “At that time Jesus answered and said, 1 thank thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.”
Notice here that Jesus “answered” although there is nothing in the context to which this reply of the Lord would seem to refer. Besides, He is addressing His Father. To what, then, is this thanksgiving an answer?
The Savior had been laboring in Galilee. He had preached the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, and performed many wonderful works. And as He now surveys the field of His labors, and takes inventory of the fruit upon His work, He recognizes a twofold effect of His preaching. There were those that received the gospel, and were eager and even impatient to see the kingdom of heaven come and to enter it: “from the days of John the Baptist even until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.” vs. 12. And there were others, who never entered in, no matter who preached, and in what form the gospel of the kingdom was delivered to them. These are compared to “children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.” vss, 16, 17. John had come and preached the gospel to them as the last of the Nazarites, neither eating nor drinking; and they had not received his gospel, saying that he had a devil. Christ had come, the Nazarene, eating and drinking, for He had power to overcome the world; and again, they refused to enter into the kingdom on the pretext that He was a glutton and a winebibber. Before John they piped, and he would not dance; before Jesus they mourned, and He would not lament. And each time they found an excuse to reject the gospel. And the Lord had concluded His survey by pronouncing His terrible woe over “the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not.” vs. 20ff.
Now, evidently, in this twofold result of His labors, the Lord recognizes a “word” of His Father to Him, and to this He replies in His thanksgiving. While He preached and labored, there had been a twofold operation of God’s power, a revealing and saving operation, but also a hiding and hardening operation of the Father: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth that thou hast hid these things. . . . and revealed them.” And a special cause of thanksgiving it was for the Savior that the gospel had been hid to the wise and prudent of this world, and that it had been revealed unto babes. Moreover, this result the Lord traces to the good pleasure of the Father, the sovereign dispensation of Him Who is the Lord of heaven and earth: “Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.” Ultimately, it is the good pleasure of the Father that determines who shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Consider, too, John 6:37: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” These words are directed to, and spoken in contrast with the unbelieving multitude of Capernaum, that had been wonderfully fed with five loaves and two fishes on the preceding day, but had not seen the sign, would have nothing of the bread of life, and would, presently, leave the Lord to walk no more with Him. In the preceding verse the Lord said to them: “Ye also have seen me, and believe not.” However, although they all leave Him, their unbelief cannot have any effect upon the final fruit of His labors, for all that the Father gives Him shall surely come, and will surely be received by Him. The Church, in God’s election, is one whole, a completeness, a body, not one of whose members may be lost. Hence, the Lord says: “all that”, not: “all those” the Father giveth me.” And the gathering of every last one of this whole depends not on the will of man, but on the good pleasure of the Father, who gives His own to Christ.
The same contrast and emphasis on God’s election is found in John 10:26-30: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Fathers hand. I and my Father are one.”
Notice the first verse of this passage. We would, probably, be inclined to turn cause and effect mentioned there about, and read: “Ye are not of my sheep because ye believe not.” The Savior, however, ascribes the fact of their unbelief to their being not of His sheep. His sheep shall surely believe. They are those that are given unto the Good Shepherd by the Father, from before the foundation of the world. They hear His voice. They surely follow Him. They may not, they can never perish, for they are preserved by the mighty power of the Father through Jesus Christ His Son. It is the eternal good pleasure of the Father that determines our being Jesus’ sheep.
Much more can be quoted.
Unto the disobedient, “the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, and a stone of stumbling, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.” And in contrast with them, they which believe, are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” I Pet. 2:8, 9.
The Church appears in God’s eternal counsel as perfected, called, justified, and glorified; 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.” Rom. 8:29, 80.
And the spiritual blessings of salvation are bestowed upon the Church according to the scheme and standard of election: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” Eph. 1:3, 4.
And throughout the first part of this same chapter, as the apostle mentions the glorious blessings of salvation believers have in Christ, the adoption of children, redemption, the forgiveness of sins, the gathering together of all things in Christ, he repeatedly and strongly emphasizes that they all have their ground and fountain in God’s sovereign predestination, vss. 5, 11, the good pleasure of his will, vs. 5, the good pleasure which he hath purpose in himself, vs. 9, and the purpose of him who worketh all things according to the counsel of his own will, vs. 11.
But why quote more? The doctrine of God’s sovereign predestination, the truth that the Church is the gathering of those chosen unto everlasting life, as the Catechism teaches us, runs like a golden thread through the whole of Holy Writ.
Moreover, this truth occupies such a central place in the entire system of the Christian faith, that one cannot deny or distort it, without perverting and pulling awry the entire structure.
It is the cor ecclesiae, the heart of the Church.
When, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, the followers of Arminius that undermined the truth of sovereign predestination made an attempt to restate the truth on this point, as they would have it, it was inevitable that they should find themselves involved in a departure from the Reformed truth along the entire line. When they had so restated the truth of election that God’s determination was based on and motivated by man’s will to believe and to persevere, they were compelled to make a similar restatement with respect to Christ’s atonement, man’s depravity, his conversion, and the perseverance of the saints. And they adulterated the pure truth of the Christian faith in every part.
The denial of sovereign election involves a denial of particular atonement, that is, of the truth that Christ shed His lifeblood only for those whom the Father had given Him. And the denial of particular atonement must ultimately lead to a denial of the truth that Christ’s death is vicarious, a payment for the guilt of our sins. For if Christ actually shed His life-blood for all men, head for head, and soul for soul, in the sense that, by His death, He blotted out the guilt of all men’s sins, then all are redeemed and justified, and all must be saved. If, however, Christ died for all, and all are not saved, as, in fact, they are not, it follows inexorably, that the death of Christ was not vicarious, that by His death He did not pay the price that made them all righteous before God. Hence, some other theory of atonement must be invented, such as the governmental theory, or the moral idea, or the mystical conception of the power of the cross.
Again, if one denies absolute predestination, he is bound to change his conception of the depravity of the sinner. He cannot be wholly without any capability to do good. For he must have the power to determine his own salvation. If God chose those unto salvation of whom (He foreknew that they would believe in Christ, man must have the will to believe. There must be some good, some positive inclination left in him whereby he is capable, of himself, to turn to Christ and to accept the gospel. And thus the plain teaching of Scripture that man is, by nature, nothing but an enemy of God, minding the things of the flesh, dead through trespasses and sins; and that he is incapable of coming to Christ unless the Father draw him, is distorted.
It follows, too, that a new theory of regeneration and of the conversion of man must be invented. For, according to the Scriptural and Reformed presentation of the truth, the sinner is saved by the power of free and sovereign grace. Not man, but God is first. But if sovereign election is denied, and to man is ascribed the power to believe in Christ, or the will to believe, God’s saving grace must wait for man’s determination. Man must give God “the green light.” If he gives the red light, God cannot pass. Hence, all the hawking of Christ in modern preaching, and the attempts to persuade the sinner to come to Christ. Deny election, and you must deny sovereign grace. Yet, Scripture teaches us plainly that it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.
And if man is first in his regeneration and conversion, he must needs remain first all the way of salvation, even to the hour of his death. Then the true relation between preservation and perseverance is inevitably perverted. According to the Scriptural presentation of the truth on this point, God is first along the whole line: the saints persevere because of and through God’s power of preservation. They are preserved in the power of God, and no man can pluck them out of the Father’s hand. And the assuring and comforting knowledge of this preservation does not render them passive and careless, but on the contrary, it is in and through that power of God that they fight the good fight, walk in the sanctification of life, and persevere unto the end. But if you distort the doctrine of election, and so present it that God chose those that would believe in Christ and persevere unto the end, you must needs pervert the relation between preservation and perseverance in such a manner that the latter is first, the former follows. God preserves those that persevere in desiring the grace to persevere. Man is first in the matter of his salvation, to the very end.
Thus all certainty is lost.
Man stands in the center of things, and God is dependent upon him.
The whole system of truth is perverted.
And it is evident that the doctrine of sovereign predestination is of fundamental and central importance. It is the cor ecclesiae indeed!
The second question we mentioned in this connection is: what is the relation between the church and the old organism of the human race?
This question concerns the old controversy between the infra- and supralapsarian conception of predestination.
In its pure, abstract form, this question is of little interest to us, and we shall but briefly present it. It concerns the question as to the order of the various steps or decrees in God’s eternal good pleasure. All
Reformed theologians were agreed on the main elements of the doctrine of predestination. They all proceeded from the principle that in all the works of God, and, therefore, also in the eternal counsel of the Most High, the purpose is the will of God to glorify Himself. They also agreed that, in the decree of predestination, there are two elements or parts: election and reprobation. Some, indeed, preferred to speak of reprobation as a “passing by”, a non-election, while others, more boldly, spoke of predestination unto damnation. But essentially this makes no difference, and all agreed that Scripture teaches a double predestination, election and reprobation. All were agreed, too, that predestination is free and sovereign. The motive of neither election nor reprobation may be found in man, but is solely in God’s own good pleasure. God did not choose the elect on the basis of foreseen faith, nor reject the reprobate on the ground of foreseen unbelief. His decree is free and sovereign.
But there was often a sharp controversy between them, when they confronted the problem concerning the order in the decrees of God. And this difference of view is expressed in the names: supralapsarian and infralapsarian.