Supralapsarianism

Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will. 

Ephesians 1:5

A few days ago I received from Mr. Roelof Jansen of Inheritance Publications a copy of a new book he has published which includes within it a translation of Dr. Klaas Schilder’s booklet, Extra-Scriptural Binding – A New Danger. This work appeared originally as a series of articles in De Reformatie criticizing the “Brief Declaration of Principles” soon after it was drawn up by the Protestant Reformed Synod of 1950. I read through it with a high degree of fascination, finding it to be for me a most dramatic illustration of the difference between the thinking of Dr. Schilder and that of the Rev. Herman Hoeksema.

Had I received it earlier, before I wrote my previous article on infralapsarianism, I would no doubt have begun comment on it immediately; but now, for the sake of continuity, it is perhaps best that I first finish this treatment of basic doctrinal differences between us and the Liberated, and then return to comment on this work.


In dealing with the lapsarian controversy we are dealing with the subject of the counsel of God and the order of its decrees.

The counsel of God is His eternal thought or plan concerning everything that takes place in time, as He says of Himself in Isaiah 46:9, 10, “I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.” Clearly God is speaking here of His own distinctive nature, that which sets Him apart from every other being. He tells us that all things which exist apart from Him are known and ordained by Him in a totality of thought which was completed entirely before any of these things ever came to exist. But the important thing for us at this point is that, according to the Scriptures, there was a relationship which God had ordained between the various parts of this plan, that is, between the various decrees which constitute the elements of His counsel.

In our last article we took note of the fact that there are many passages in Scripture which speak of election in what might well be considered an infralapsarian way; that is, they speak of individuals being chosen or elected by God as they exist in time and are fallen into sin. Their election comes to them, therefore, after the fall, which is what the word infralapsarian would seem literally to mean. The thing to note, however, is that not one of these texts is speaking of the counsel of God, but they all speak rather in terms of the experience of man in time. But what we want to take note of now is that there are other passages in the Bible which do speak of the counsel of God, and give to its order quite a different perspective.

Among these passages there is, perhaps, none more basic than that which we find in Ephesians 1:5: “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.” Actually it was John Calvin in his Institutes [111:24:5], who first pointed to this text when dealing with the subject of what is primary in the counsel of God.

The point is that here, at the beginning of this most important chapter concerning the predestination of God, Paul is speaking of the first purpose of God; and he tells us that it is to be found in the will of God to have a people who may be adopted to be His children in Jesus Christ His Son. This is God’s first or original decree. God’s first purpose in creation was not simply to have a world, or to demonstrate His ability to make such a world. Neither was it, as was commonly thought Calvin taught, that God made a world primarily so that He would be able to demonstrate that He was a God of mercy and of justice. God’s first purpose was that He should have a people who would in the end be adopted into His own circle of Triune life, or, as Peter expressed it, II Peter 1:4, “that . . . ye might be partakers of the divine nature.” This is, in turn, the essence of election, for God knows from the beginning who these people personally and individually are.

Nor is this text unique in teaching this. It runs all through the Bible, as when Moses, as the ambassador of Jehovah, said to Pharaoh, “Israel is my son, even my firstborn. And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me” (Ex. 4:22, 23). And in Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” All through the Old Testament the nation of Israel, as representative of all God’s elect people, is looked upon as those who were chosen to be the children of God. And so, when we come to the New Testament, we have that beautiful doxological chorus found in Romans 8 and centering in verses 14-17: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” It is this appointment to be adopted as children of God which lies at the heart of Christianity, and runs throughout the Scriptures as God’s primary viewpoint toward those whom He is bringing to salvation, much as we read inIsaiah 43:21: “This people have I formed for myself; they shall show forth my praise.” It is what election is all about.

Nowhere, however, is this brought out more dramatically than at the conclusion of that great prayer of Jesus in John 17:22-24: “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.” In this chapter we are brought into the inmost circle of the divine life as the Son speaks in the Spirit to the Father and tells us of the first and foremost purpose of the divine mind. God from the beginning wills to have a people whom He may bring in the end into His inmost sacred circle of divine fellowship and love. And it is for this that He sent forth His Son.

Moreover, once we have grasped that truth, we begin to see that there are many passages of Scripture which explain the whole of human history in relation to this. All of history is related to this first purpose as a means relates to its end, much as Rev. Hoeksema explained in his Reformed Dogmatics (pp. 164-165):

We must emphasize not so much what is first or last in the decree of God, but much rather place ourselves before the question: what in those decrees is conceived as purpose, and what as means? What is the main object in those decrees, and what is subordinate and subservient to that main object? In this way we first of all escape the danger to leave the impression that there after all is a temporal order in the decrees of God. And, in the second place, open the way to find an answer to the question: why is there a reprobation? . . . We, therefore, would like to present the matter of God’s counsel of predestination as follows. God conceived and willed all things in His eternal decree for His own name’s sake, that is, to the glory of His name and the reflection of His divine, infinite virtues and life. And as the highest in God is His own covenant life, He willed to establish and to reveal His covenant in Christ; and all other things in the counsel of God as related to that main purpose of God as means.

There is always order and relationship in the works of God. His counsel is not a number of scattered decrees more or less loosely related to each other. Rather, as God Himself, it is one (Deut. 6:4), all the parts of His counsel are related together as a logical whole, serving that purpose which is first.

In the Old Testament one of the most beautiful texts relating this is Isaiah 43:4-7: “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. Fear not: for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory; I have formed him; yea, I have made him.” Israel was God’s chosen people, a nation representative of His elect in all ages; but Isaiah came to them in a most depressed situation. Among the nations of this world, few appeared to be of less importance than they. And yet Isaiah’s assurance to them: was that they were still first in the purposes of God. In fact, all of the other nations, which seemed to be great in themselves, were there only to serve the cause of Israelis salvation. It is a thought that runs through the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures, and sets forth the underlying design of the whole counsel of God.

No one, however, could translate this more succinctly into New Testament terms than did the apostle Paul, as when he said in I Corinthians 3:21-23, “Let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.” In Corinth, of course, there was a great deal of division which had arisen among various factors in the congregation over the question of who was most important; and each sought to establish his own preeminence by claiming association with a figure he thought most important in that early church. But Paul comes back in this text to scold them for their foolishness. All these people, he points out, who seemed so important to them, were but servants. Their purpose, like all other things in this world, is to bring salvation to those who are chosen of God; If one be a child of God, all things are there for his sake; for there is nothing more important to God than that His people be brought into the communion of His inner circle of love. All things are there for those who belong to Christ, even as Christ belongs to God.

Nor is this greatly different from what Paul says even more poetically in II Corinthians 4:15: “For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.” Once again, Paul distinctly lays it out that in the overall plan of God concerning this world, His first purpose is in His people. They have been first from the beginning; and all other things are there so that they may share eternally in the glory of God.

In a somewhat different way, it is this also that is brought out by Paul in Romans 9:22, 23: “What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory.” This passage is important because it is one of the relatively few passages in Scripture that speak particularly of reprobation, the fact that there are other people who are altogether like the elect except for the fact that God has not chosen them. They from the beginning were ordained for a different purpose. This purpose is not in them; God is not a sadist who created a people simply so that He might cast them into hell. Rather, they too, in that great mystery of the wisdom of God, like all other things, are there “that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory.” Even the reprobate serve the salvation of the people of God.

But possibly no text lays out this design of the counsel of God more beautifully and practically than the last part of Romans 8. There we have verse 28, which so often has been a comfort to so many of God’s little ones: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Here is that same thought again; all things are there for those who are chosen by Him. But the thought does not end there. Paul goes on to explain, verses 29, 30, “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.” When Paul speaks here of “whom he did foreknow,” he undoubtedly has in mind that great first purpose of God, as in the divine mind He envisions the end from the beginning (Is. 46:10), that goal of having a people adopted “by Jesus Christ to himself” (Eph. 1:5). And so, accordingly, He predestines them “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” It is this that He is bringing about with the “all things” of verse 28. And so He calls them, justifies them, and finally brings them into glory. It is simply the outworking of his original love with which He loved them.

And the surety of that love Paul goes on to exalt in that final triumphant refrain, verses 35-39: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all; the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

If then this is true of “all things,” it certainly includes also the fall into sin. We certainly don’t understand all the workings of God; but the plan is clear. The fall, like everything else, was ordained to bring about God’s first decree. In fact, as we have seen, even the reprobate are there for that purpose. Election is above (supra) the fall (the lapsus). Supralapsarianism is found directly laid out in the Scriptures when it speaks of the counsel of God.

And with that we have one of the most beautiful truths of the Bible, introducing us to a dimension of existence which we could never discover by ourselves (Job 11:17). Behind this world which we observe, there is another reality which brings it all together, the counsel of God. And in that there is a direction and purpose that comprehends all things, and does so in a way that serves the purpose of “them that love God, … the called according to his purpose.” It alone brings meaning to this world, and to those who are being prepared unto eternity, as Paul so beautifully expressed it (Rom. 11:33-36): “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”