To those who murmur at the free grace of election, and just severity of reprobation, we answer with the apostle: “Nay, but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” Rom. 9:20, and quote the language of our Savior: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” Matt. 20:15. And therefore with holy adoration of these mysteries, we exclaim in the, words of the apostle: “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 counselor? 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 forever. Amen.”
This translation is in need of correction in its opening clause, where the adjectives “free” and “just” are misplaced. The translation should be, as also the Dutch has it: “To those who murmur at the grace of free election, and the severity of just reprobation . . . .”
In this concluding article of the First Head of Doctrine the fathers deal with two subjects. The first is that of our answer to those that murmur against this doctrine of sovereign predestination. And the second is that of our own attitude toward this doctrine, and that too, in contrast with those who murmur against it. At the same time this first and most important chapter of theCanons is closed with a most fitting and Scriptural doxology, a hymn of praise to the predestinating God of our salvation. At the conclusion of the Fifth Head of Doctrine we find a doxology once more, but already now it is as though the fathers could restrain themselves no longer, but in contemplation of the very doctrine which they have been busy formulating and defending must needs break forth into the well-known words of the closing verses of Romans 11. And indeed, it is to be observed that it is exactly such a doctrine as they have expounded that can and does occasion the adoring worship that is expressed in these words.
The article speaks of those who “murmur” against this doctrine. And by the very mention of them it presupposes, of course, that there are those who so murmur. And we know too that this presupposition is very realistic. There have always been, and still are, those who murmur against the grace of gratuitous election and the severity of a just reprobation. In fact, so common is such murmuring that it is indeed true that one may well judge the orthodoxy of his doctrine of predestination by the criterion of this murmuring. You may be certain that if you preach and teach and maintain the pure, Scriptural doctrine of sovereign predestination, men will murmur against you and your doctrine. The apostle Paul knew such murmuring in his day; Augustine knew of it; Gottschalk had to suffer it; Calvin had to hear it and answer it; the fathers of Dordt had to do battle against these murmurers. And those who will be Reformed today, and adhere strictly to this same doctrine, will have to face these same murmurers. And that such murmuring can be a criterion of orthodoxy is due to the fact that to be the object of such murmuring is the exclusive prerogative of the true doctrine of predestination. Change it a bit, compromise on the subject of its sovereignty, soften it by adopting a “double track theology,”—and you will no longer hear the murmurings.
The fathers also indicate the nature of these murmurings. The objections are against the grace of free election and the severity of just reprobation. Carefully and wisely do they choose their words. They are words that point out clearly the gross wickedness of those who object against the doctrine. It is exactly against grace, the grace of God, that they murmur. And it is especially against the grace of free election that they object. If only you insist that all the other blessings of salvation are gifts of God’s grace, that they are all free, they may probably let your doctrine pass. But the moment you insist that election is free, gratuitous, that it is unmerited, and that therefore it is grace, not works, they will murmur against your doctrine. For, you see, election is the end, the anchor end, of the chain of salvation. Or, to use the figure which the Canonsemploy, election is the fountain and cause of all saving good. And if, then, that election is free, unmerited, a matter of grace, then there is absolutely no room left for man and his “free will.” Hence, they murmur against the grace of election. This murmuring may assume more than one form. Usually men object, as we well know, that “this doctrine makes men careless and profane.” Or the kindred objection is raised that this doctrine makes passive Christians. Much more frequently, however, men murmur against the severityof just reprobation. A doctrine of election they claim to be able to endure; but they cannot stand the severity of reprobation. It is, so they say, a horrible doctrine. Some of these matters we have already discussed in our treatment of previous articles. But it is well that we see clearly the nature of these murmurings. Actually, of course, when they object against the severity of reprobation, they also oppose, and mean to oppose, the grace of free election also, and even primarily. Make no mistake about that! But remember too what the Canons mean by a “just reprobation.” That is not a reprobation on the basis of foreseen sin and unbelief. It is not a reprobation on account of sin. If such is your doctrine of reprobation, you will never hear these murmurers. That is exactly the doctrine that they want, and concerning which they claim that it does justice to the doctrine of human responsibility. But the “just reprobation” of which the Canons here speak is that described in Article 15. It is not a reprobation on account of sin, but a reprobation unto condemnation in the way of man’s own sin. And while it is unblameably just, its severity nevertheless remains. For that severity is not in the condemnation, but in the fact that this decree of reprobation has its source in God’s “sovereign, most just, irreprehensible and unchangeable good pleasure.” In other words, you may make it ever so clear that reprobation is just, and that the decree of reprobation does not violate man’s nature as a .responsible, moral, rational creature, and that therefore this decree of reprobation is realized in history in the way of perfect justice. As long as you insist on that which makes this decree of reprobation so inexorably severe, namely, its absolute sovereignty, wicked men will murmur against your doctrine. If you ask, therefore, what it is that occasions these murmurings, the answer is: the goodness and severity of God. But it is the goodness and severity, of God, Who is really GOD, that is assailed by these murmurers. And that is the same as saying that the stumbling block for these murmurers is God’ssovereignty!
To murmur is different than acknowledging that we cannot comprehend God’s works and ways. In fact, contemplating God’s work of sovereign predestination, the believer will exactly confess: “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” To murmur is to contradict and to rebel. It is the work of pride. He who murmurs presumes to know better than God, against whose work he murmurs. Murmuring is unbelief!
And now notice how the fathers, with the Scriptures in hand, teach the believers to answer these murmurers. They refer in both passages which they quote to instances of murmuring. In the first instance, from Romans 9, the apostle is answering an objector against the doctrine that God has mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will bet hardeneth: “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” And the article quotes only the first part of the apostle’s answer: “Nay, but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” Notice the following elements: 1) That by quoting this answer and instructing the believers to answer the murmurers in this language the Canons point to the real nature of the murmurers’ objections. The trouble is not that they misunderstand. The trouble is not intellectual at all. It is ethical; it is a matter of the will and of the heart. Their murmurings partake of the sin of answering against God! 2) That the Canons, with the Scriptures, tacitly assume that the major premise of these objectors is correct, namely, that free election is indeed grace, sovereign grace, and that just reprobation is indeed severity, sovereign severity. 3) That the fathers, with the apostle Paul, insist that man, infinitesimally small speck of dust that he is, a priori has no right to contradict and to rebel against the infinite and sovereign God. When God speaks, there is only one attitude for man to assume: let him lay his hand upon his mouth, maintain utter silence, and simply listen! Aught else is nothing short of blasphemous rebellion!
The article might well have quoted the rest of the apostle’s reply in Romans 9. But they turn instead to the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and quote from it, Matthew 20:15. In the context the Savior tells of the laborer who objects when all those who are hired by the lord of the vineyard deceive the penny’s wages, whether they have labored only one hour or whether they have born the burden and the heat of the day. Without going into a detailed explanation of the parable, we may notice: 1) That apparently, but only apparently, there is an element of justice in the objection here. And this fact emphasizes the Lord’s point all the more strongly. 2) That the lord of the vineyard answers in the parable: “Friend I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?” And he then insists on granting unto the last servants even as unto the first. 3) ‘That the reason which in this case overrules all objection, the reason that cannot be answered, is: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” Although therefore, you find in this instance not an objection against predestination, the principle of the reply is certainly applicable. If the lord of the vineyard may do as he pleases with his own money, then it is certainly true that the Lord of heaven and earth is not beholden to account for His actions to mere men, but is sovereignly free to do as He pleases with His own,—His own creatures, His own salvation, His own damnation, His own heaven, and His own hell. Hence, let never the church flinch in the face of those murmurers. But let them reply in harmony with the Scriptures.
And then let their own attitude be that of adorable worship, expressed in the words of Romans 11:33-36. This is neither the time nor the place to give an exposition of these words. Suffice it to say: 1) That in the light of the context, both in the epistle to the Romans and in the Canons, no more fitting words could have been chosen. For certainly, although this doxology speaks of “all things,” the narrower context is that of the truth of eternal predestination with a view to Israel and the Gentiles. 2) That in these words is truly expressed the attitude of holy adoration of these mysteries. For notice that this doxology is pre-eminently theological: “Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen.” 3) That this doxology is at the same time a humble confession that when we contemplate the truths of election and reprobation, as they are mysteries revealed to us by God Himself, we come face to face with the incomprehensible, unsearchable, and unfathomable God of our salvation.
Ever, therefore, let the church confess the truth in such a way that it may end with the language of this doxology, in holy adoration!