Predestination: The Heart of the Gospel

The truth of predestination, as taught in the Scriptures, is rarely heard from the majority of pulpits—even in churches which claim to be Reformed. Dr. James Daane has made a point of this in some of his latest writings. He has said that predestination is no insisted that sovereign, double predestination cannotbe preached. He writes in his book, “The Freedom of God”:

The combination of election and reprobation created considerable intellectual difficulties for theologians, as the long history of Christian thought reveals. But for those called to preach the gospel, it created an even greater practical problem. How could one preach election? 

The difficulty here stems not from election, but from reprobation. (p. 19.)

Referring especially to the doctrine of sovereign, double predestination as taught by Rev. H. Hoeksema, Daane writes:

Can the gospel of Hoeksema’s theology be preached? Hardly . . . . Such a gospel can be announced . . . but it cannot be preached . . . . 

Hoeksema brought election and reprobation into the pulpit and in the process, theologically speaking, lost the gospel and came up with a form of the gospel that the pulpit could not preach. (pp. 27, 28.)

It is my thesis tonight that predestination not only canbe preached, but that it must be preached. The argument is very simple. The doctrine of sovereign predestination is taught in Scripture, and a faithful minister of the Word must preach the whole counsel of God. Furthermore, the truth of predestination is the heart of the gospel. If predestination is not preached, or is preached in a corrupted form, the gospel is not preached. When one cuts the heart out, the whole organism dies. 

What do we mean when we speak of sovereign and double predestination? 

While it is not our purpose to enter into detail on the question of predestination, we notice the following points. 

In the first place, it is the decree of God according to which God determines the final destiny of all his rational creatures. Thus Calvin writes in his Institutes:

Predestination is 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 to death. (III, xxi, 5).

In the second place, because predestination belongs to the counsel of God, all that Scripture says concerning that counsel applies also to the decree of predestination. Scripture tells us that God’s counsel is eternal. Predestination as a part of that counsel is also eternal. But because God’s counsel and the decree of predestination are eternal, they are also unchangeable. What God has determined to do from all eternity remains unchangeably His purpose and will. Nothing can alter this; no human choice, no human decision, no contingency unanticipated can change in the minutest degree God’s own counsel and His decree of predestination. It is in this sense of the word that Scripture speaks of our election in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” (Eph. 1:4

In the third place, God’s decree of predestination is sovereign. It is sovereign in that, first of all, it is in no sense dependent upon man. It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. And, secondly, it is sovereign because it is God’s decree which He executes by His own power and according to His own will. He is the Lord; He does all His good pleasure. Predestination is eternal because God ordained the destiny of all men before the foundation of the world, before men were born, and, therefore, before they had done good or evil. 

Finally, predestination is double because it includes both election and reprobation. It includes the loving of Jacob and the hating of Esau. 

It is this predestination which is the heart of the gospel. 

Our Reformed fathers have spoken of predestination as cor ecclesiae, the heart of the church. But repeatedly the expression was also used: predestination is the heart of the gospel. Hoeksema used this as a title of a series of radio sermons, e.g., on Romans 9

By the gospel we mean particularly, the preaching of the Word. It is the authoritative proclamation of the Scriptures by the called and ordained clergy in the Church of Christ and on the mission field. It is emphatically the ministry of the Word. This ought to be emphasized in our day when within the Church there are all kinds of ministries: ministry of education, ministry of youth, ministry of music, etc. The ministry is in the service of the Word of God. It is the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. It is the ministry in which you, graduates, will be engaged; the Lord willing, the rest of your life. 

Of the gospel predestination is the heart. 

This is, of course, a figure of speech. The reference is to the human heart. From both a physical and a spiritual point of view, the heart is the source of all life. From the heart are the issues of life. The heart is the deepest center of the life of the organism. From it life flows into the whole of man. A man is dead when his heart ceases to beat. And indeed, a man is dead spiritually when his heart is dead and when from it are only issues of death. Thus if the heart is gone or does not function, the whole organism dies. 

So it is with predestination. This precious doctrine is the heart of the gospel. If the truth of predestination weakens, i.e., if this truth is not maintained in all its purity and power, the gospel which is preached weakens correspondingly. If the truth of predestination is lost, the gospel no longer is the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation. It is a lifeless, powerless word of man which accomplishes nothing—except the death of a church which has become apostate. 

But how is predestination the heart of the gospel? 

It is important to notice first of all that predestination is the heart of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are the written record, infallibly inspired, of God’s revelation of Himself in Christ. Christ stands at the very center of Scripture. All Scripture speaks only of Christ Who reveals God in all His works and ways. But predestination is in Christ. This is true in more than one sense of the word. First of all, election is in Christ. We are chosen in Christ from before the foundation of the world. But, more than this, Christ, as it were, is precisely the great dividing line in human history. His cross stands on Calvary as the separation between the elect and the reprobate thief who were crucified with Him. And so it is in all time. The cross is the rock of offense and the stone of stumbling. But to this stumbling, the wicked are, according to Peter, appointed. Yet, on the other hand, that same cross of Christ is the Rock of Ages to all who believe. Through the cross, Christ is exalted to the position of King of kings and Lord of lords. From that position in glory He rules over all things in such a way that all the purpose of God is accomplished through Him. He executes the sovereign will of God. He does so efficaciously and universally. Election is in Christ. Reprobation is also accomplished through Christ. 

This is the teaching of Scripture. Predestination is at the heart of Scripture. It is explicitly taught in many places throughout Holy Writ; but is impossible to understand any part of Scripture apart from this doctrine. All the history of the ante-flood world; all the development of man from the flood to Abraham; all the efforts exerted at Babel; the sovereign choice of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel; the constant distinction between the faithful and the carnal seed in the nation; the very small remnant according to the election of grace which God left Israel—all these and all Scripture remain a puzzle without solution apart from the truth of sovereign predestination. It is impossible to understand any part of God’s Word except against the background of God’s sovereign decrees. 

And the content of the gospel which is preached is this Scripture. 

Daane argues in his book (The Freedom of God) that the problem with preaching predestination does not lie with the doctrine of election, but lies with the doctrine of reprobation. “The difficulty here stems not from election, but from reprobation.” (p. 19) But Daane not only repudiates the Scriptural doctrine of reprobation; but in his repudiation of this doctrine, he corrupts the truth of sovereign election. How could it be any different? 

But predestination is the heart of the gospel. The gospel preaches Christ and Him crucified. It preaches Christ, not abstractly, but Christ as the Head of His people who were given to Him eternally. It preaches Christ in Whom the elect are saved and apart from Whom the reprobate perish. The preaching always includes this truth. That is to say, the truth of predestination must also include specifically both election and reprobation; and preaching must be instruction—explicit instruction—in this truth. 

But the preaching, though not always explicitly directing itself to this doctrine, nevertheless always implies and presupposes it. It has been said, in malice, that within the Protestant Reformed Churches all that is ever preached is the doctrine of election. I plead guilty to this charge. A sermon which does not have this truth at its center is not a sermon at all. A sermon which does not have the life of predestination in Christ flowing through it, has no life at all. 

There is good reason for this. The contents of the gospel include all the promises of God. But these promises are always very particular. They are promises made to those who are weary and heavy laden; to those who hunger and thirst; to those who are bowed down beneath the burden of their sin; to those who come to Christ. Along with these promises is always the command to repent of sin and believe in Christ. And the warning is very serious: God will punish in His wrath all those who will not obey. 

It is because of this very particular character of the gospel that predestination stands at its very heart. And it is only because this gospel is so particular that it is the power of God unto salvation and a savor of life unto life. But it is also this particular character of the gospel which makes it the power of hardening and a savor of death unto death. 

But the question must be answered: how is reprobation to be preached? Can it be said that reprobation, standing by itself, is the heart of the gospel? This is obviously not true. 

It must be understood in the first place, that reprobation stands in closest possible connection with the doctrine of election. Even as it is true that election implies the truth of reprobation, so it is also true that reprobation is, so to speak, the opposite side of the coin of election. It cannot and may not be preached apart from election. And this, in turn, is true because according to God’s sovereign decree reprobation does not stand alone, but rather serves the purpose of election. “For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Savior: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee. 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.” (Isaiah 43:3, 4

Election shines forth from the dark background of reprobation. It is the light which shines all the brighter against the darkness of reprobation and God’s sovereign decree with respect to the lost. 

This is specifically and emphatically true in the preaching. The decree of predestination is always comfort to God’s people. It teaches them that God is the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. It teaches them that though the kings of earth rise up and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His anointed, yet Christ sits on the holy hill of Zion. The wicked do not run rampant and uncontrolled in opposition to God. God carries out His decree. He has the right to vindicate His Name—also in the destruction of the wicked. 

This, I say, is comfort for the people of God; for it is the assurance that all that God sovereignly does in time is for their sakes that they may be brought to everlasting glory.

And it teaches, at the same time, that the decree of election is of pure grace and sovereign mercy. They have no reason to boast. All their glorying must be in the Lord. 

The truth of predestination is also the heart of the gospel because in this way alone God is maintained as God. 

As soon as predestination is abandoned or toned down, the gospel becomes humanistic and man-centered. And thus God no longer receives all the glory. Paul emphasizes this sharply when he contrasts salvation by grace alone with salvation by works. It is not of works lest any man should boast. If salvation is of works, then it is no more grace. But if it be of grace, then it is no more of works. Predestination alone assures that salvation is of grace alone. For in this way God’s absolute sovereignty is maintained in all His work. Predestination then holds fast to the truth that the salvation of the elect and the everlasting damnation of the reprobate is determined solely by God. It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. And thus, let him that glorieth, glory in the Lord. 

Predestination must be preached. Our Canons have no problem here. After defining the truth of election, our fathers write:

As the doctrine of divine election by the most wise counsel of God, was declared by the prophets, by Christ himself, and by the apostles, and is clearly revealed in the Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament, so it is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed. (I, 14.)

And if it be argued that reprobation cannot be preached, our fathers in the Canons assert that it can. In article 16 they presuppose that it is preached when they say:

Those who do not yet experience a lively faith in Christ, an assured confidence of soul, . . . ought not to be alarmed at the mention of reprobation . . . Much less cause have they to be terrified by the doctrine of reprobation . . . . But this doctrine is justly terrible to those, who,. . . have wholly given themselves up to the cares of the world. . . so long as they are not seriously converted to God.

It must be explicitly taught so that God’s people may be instructed in it and know it, for on its basis they find a sure refuge and hiding place in the God of their salvation. It must be, in a real sense, the heartbeat of every sermon. It must be the heartbeat so that the gospel is always sharply particular, sharply antithetical, emphasizing God and the glory of His Name. It must be a God-centered gospel, for of Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him is the glory forever and ever. 

It must be preached in humble dependence upon God Who works all things according to the good pleasure of His will. It must be preached so that it is a source of comfort to God’s elect. It must be preached so that it stirs up in them humility and reverence and awe, and so that it works in them the assurance of their faith. Or, to express what the Canons themselves say:

It must be done with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety, for the glory of God’s most holy name, and for enlivening and comforting his people, without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the Most High. (I, 14.)

We can do no better than to conclude with a statement from the Conclusion of the Canons:

Finally, this Synod exhorts all their brethren in the gospel of Christ, to conduct themselves piously and religiously in handling this doctrine, both in the universities and churches; to direct it, as well in discourse, as in writing, to the glory of the Divine Name, to holiness of life, and to the consolation of afflicted souls; to regulate, by Scripture, according to the analogy of faith, not only their sentiments, but also their language; and, to abstain from all those phrases which exceed the limits necessary to be observed in ascertaining the genuine sense of the holy Scriptures; and may furnish insolent sophists with a just pretext for violently assailing, or even vilifying, the doctrine of the Reformed Churches.

May God keep you faithful in your ministry of the Word!