What a clear and lovely thought in the midst of the hopeless confusion of Pelagianism! The church of Christ is the company of the elect! A ray of hope it was in the theological darkness of the fourteenth century church, which in effect construed the church as a man-made institution, what with a man as its head and salvation dependent on the works of men. Over against that is the heartening word, the church is the company of the elect!
It was the 1370s in England, and John Wycliffe was engaged in a fierce controversy with the hierarchy of the church. He was not alone. There was an increasing awareness of the vile corruption in the clergy at all levels. Wycliffe and others denounced the selling of offices in the church and the immorality, ignorance, and unfaithfulness to the office of the great majority of the clergy. Wycliffe questioned the papacy’s claim of infallibility and the assertion that the pope was the vicar of Christ and the head of the church on the earth. He decried the church’s involvement in secular affairs and rejected the claim that the pope could grant indulgences for forgiveness of sins.
However, what distinguished Wycliffe from the overwhelming majority of the church’s critics was the doctrinal foundation for his attacks on the hierarchy. That doctrinal foundation is predestination, God’s sovereign and free election of every member of the church of Christ. Wycliffe’s theology of the church was so governed by election that his standard definition of the church was “the company of the elect.” He recognized that the evils in the church ran deeper than merely corruption among priests, cardinals, and popes. His pointed attacks on the evil monstrosity that prefigured the whore of the Antichrist were grounded in God’s eternal decree of sovereign predestination. This, more than anything else, qualifies Wycliffe to be called a forerunner of the great sixteenth century Reformation.
Wycliffe’s ecclesiology, therefore, is worthy of our attention. It was, to be sure, a mixture of medieval theology with Augustinian teaching, along with some elements of his own. Wycliffe believed in purgatory. He followed the scholastic division of the church into three parts—the overcoming part already in heaven, the sleeping part that no longer sins but is being purified in purgatory, and the fighting church on earth. On a better note, he emphasized that the church is one, with Christ as its only head. And he confidently affirmed that “the church is the mother of every man who shall be saved, and containeth no other.”¹ The church is nothing other than the total number of the elect.
Wycliffe’s teachings opposed the conception of the church that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Martin Luther was still contending against the erroneous view of the church 150 years after Wycliffe. That error is that the clergy constitute the church. The clergy insisted that the visible Catholic Church, that is, the organized hierarchy of the clergy with the pope at its head, is the church of God. The ordinary members are not the church, but are dependent on the church for their salvation. The theologians maintained that this Catholic Church is the repository of grace, and the church dispensed this grace to the people through the sacraments. The clergy are the mediators between God and the people.
Wycliffe’s understanding was radically different. He distinguished the visible church on earth, manifest in his day in the Catholic Church, from the church of Christ. Since the true body of Christ is determined by election, not all the clergy were necessarily included in that true church. Concerning the immoral and worldly clergy Wycliffe wrote, “They are indisputably no members of the Holy Church but members of Satan, disciples of Antichrist, and children of the synagogue of Satan.”² Since the reprobate are excluded from the “company of the elect,” any members of the visible church who are unbelievers, be they hypocrites or openly ungodly, are not part of the church of Christ, the “Holy Church.”
Wycliffe carried the principle of election through. He insisted that the individual soul is not incorporated into Christ by any act of man or by any earthly means or visible signs. Rather, this union with Christ, also described as a betrothal, is by God’s decree, according to His election in eternity. Each Christian owes all his spiritual gifts to regeneration, and that is the first fruit of election. Lechler summarizes Wycliffe’s position: “It is only by virtue of the gracious election of God that the individual belongs to the number of the saved, and is a member of the body of Christ, a child of the Holy Mother Church, of which Christ is the Husband” (p. 289).
Because Wycliffe’s doctrine of election governed the doctrine of the church, it prepared the way for later development of the truth over against the errors of Rome. It implies that the clergy are not the mediators between God and man, the mediators who dispense the grace of God to the believer. Implied in Wycliffe’s view is the truth that every believer has direct access to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. This would be set forth by Luther as the truth of the priesthood of believers.
Wycliffe based this doctrine of predestination squarely on the sovereignty of God. Wycliffe taught double predestination. God foreordains some to salvation and glory by the decree of predestination. Wycliffe ordinarily refers to the non-elect with the term “foreknown,” by which he did not mean that the decree of God is due to His knowing before who would reject Him. Rather, by this he means that God appointed them to everlasting punishment, and the ground for their punishment would be their sins, which God foreknew. Wycliffe is thus careful to maintain that the cause of the condemnation of the reprobate is their own sin, something that the Reformed theologians at Dordt would later be equally careful to explain (I, 5, 6). Wycliffe does not in the least minimize the sovereignty of God. Only those predestined to eternal life are saved.
Wycliffe recognized that the church as manifest on the earth contains both elect and reprobate. He writes, “There are here two manner of church, Holy Church or Church of God,…and the church of the fiend [Satan, RJD] that for a time is good, and lasteth not; and this was never Holy Church, no part thereof.”³
Wycliffe maintained, therefore, that the real members of the church, or of the true body of Christ, are exclusively those who have been chosen by God unto salvation. These persevere to the end by God’s grace. All is of God, all of grace, rooted in the decree of predestination. An election doctrine of the church, it might be called.
On account of this emphasis on predestination, Wycliffe is rightly regarded as a pre-Reformer, for predestination is a core doctrine of the Reformed faith. The Reformers called election the cor ecclesia—the heart of the church. The Reformed confessions confirm Wycliffe’s emphasis. The Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 21) confesses that the church is “chosen unto everlasting life.” The Westminster Confession (Chapter 25, Art. 1) describes the church in language that could almost have been written by Wycliffe. “The catholic or universal church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof….” In 1618-’19 in Dordrecht, the Reformed churches affirmed sovereign, double predestination as the first of the “five points of Calvinism”—unconditional election!
Wycliffe stands in a proud tradition of learned theologians who defended sovereign grace and sovereign predestination. He follows such stalwarts as the fifth century Augustine, who did valiant battle against Pelagius’ damnable heresy that man could save himself by his own efforts. He stands in the tradition of Gottschalk, who paid for his defense of double predestination with his life. Other, lesser known, theologians valiantly set forth this doctrine, passing on the torch to Wycliffe, who passed it on to John Hus, and he to Luther and to Calvin. Even to the present day the truth is maintained and defended by faithful, Reformed men.
As well it must be. Election is the key to the right doctrine of the church. Without it, the church becomes a work not of God, but of man.
In spite of its crucial importance, predestination is rarely maintained for very long by any given church. It is vilified and perverted by the open enemies of the Reformed faith; it is neglected by those in the Reformed camp who dare not stand for this hard doctrine. It conflicts with the well-meant offer of the gospel; it leaves no room for man to contribute to his salvation.
Predestination is, admittedly, a hard doctrine. No other doctrine in all of Reformed theology so clearly maintains the sovereignty of God as does predestination. God, altogether apart from any work of man, or any character traits good or bad, but only according to His own good pleasure, determines from eternity where each man, woman, and angel will spend eternity, whether in heaven or in hell. All for the glory of His own name. God is God.
That is Reformed because it is the teaching of the Bible. Every Reformed man confesses it. Election determines the members of the body of Christ.
Election determines who is saved. Election is the fountain of all the blessings of salvation, including faith, regeneration, and holiness.
One has to wonder, then, why it is so hard for Reformed churches to confess that sovereign, unconditional election also governs the covenant. The covenant is inseparable from the rest of God’s work of salvation. Why, then, at this point in the doctrine of salvation, would a Reformed man want to introduce man’s ability and man’s works? Why here, in God’s covenant of grace, do conditions suddenly appear? Election is unconditional. Salvation is unconditional. But the covenant is conditional?
Salvation, the blessed state of living eternally with God in heaven, is for those whom God has chosen, and for them only. But in time and on this earth, God supposedly establishes His covenant with and gives a life of friendship to all the Jacobs and the Esaus who are born in the sphere of the covenant?
Let God be God.
To all who struggle to know the relationship between election and the covenant, I urge you to follow the Reformed way. Let God be God. Follow the Reformed way of sovereign predestination. God’s unchangeable election determines not only the church members, but the covenant members. What is the church that God saves? The company of the elect. Who are the covenant people, that is, those with whom God establishes His everlasting(!) covenant of grace? The company of the elect.
As there were in Israel those who were not true Israelites (Rom. 9), so there are church members (i.e., members of the institute) who are not of the body of Christ. And so are there children and adults in the sphere of the covenant with whom God does not establish His covenant.
With thankful hearts we claim the legacy of John Wycliffe in his election theology of the church. In his desire for reform in the church, he saw the need for the proper doctrinal foundation of the church of Christ, a church determined by God. More would be needed. The great Reformation was not brought about through Wycliffe. In the plan of God, John Hus picked up this key element of Wycliffe’s teaching. Then a Martin Luther was needed to develop a doctrine of salvation in harmony with election—justification by faith alone. And John Calvin was God’s instrument to set forth a full-orbed theology consistent with sovereign predestination.
Yet, still more was needed to establish the complete doctrine of the Reformed truth—the doctrine of the covenant. Reformed theologians labored to set forth a doctrine of the covenant that was consistent with the whole of established Reformed theology. Not, you understand, because they simply wanted a tidy system. Rather, they were convicted that the Reformed truth is the truth of the Bible, and the doctrine of the covenant must be in harmony with the rest of Scripture.
Hence God raised up Reformed, covenantal theologians to face the question of the relationship between election and the covenant. Geerhardus Vos (“The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology”) maintained that “there must not only be a place in [the covenant] for the idea of election, but it must be permeated by that idea.”4 He demonstrates how that has been true in Reformed theology. Olevianus wrote a work entitled, Concerning the Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect. And Polanus wrote, “God made both covenants (old and new) only with the elect.” Likewise Bavinck insisted that “election is the basis and guarantee, the heart and core, of the covenant of grace.”5 Hoeksema and others insisted that God’s covenant of grace is established not with all children of believers head for head, but with the elect in Christ. The English divines made it confessional in the Larger Catechism when they answered the question, “With whom was the covenant of grace made?—The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.”
That is the legacy of John Wycliffe brought to its rightful, glorious conclusion in the Reformed faith. The company of the elect.
1. From a treatise of Wycliffe on the church entitled De Ecclesiae Domino, quoted in Tracts and Treatises of John De Wycliffe, D.D. (London: The Wycliffe Society, 1845) p. 74.
2. Saints Days Sermons, No. 2, quoted in Gotthard Lechler, John Wycliffe and His English Precursors, translated by Prof. Lorimer. (London: The Religious Tract Society: 1884), pp. 292-3.
3. From a sermon, quoted in Lechler, English Precursors. p. 293.
4. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.: 1980), p. 257.
5. Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co: 1956), p. 273.