First of all, I will attempt to trace briefly the development of this tremendous dogma throughout the ages of the development of God’s Church in the New Dispensation. And we set out by declaring immediately that there are, fundamentally, but two conceptions of the counsel of God: God or man. Generally speaking, this principle may be applied to the presentation of any phase of the truth. Whether one is speaking of the counsel of God, the sufferings and death of our Lord, the application of this salvation unto or the receiving of it by the sinner, he always proceeds either from the living God or the impotent sinner. Man has been attempting throughout the ages to maintain himself and to deny the absolute sovereignty of the living God. And this same evil attempt has been creeping into and operating within the Church from the beginning of time. In various ways the attempt has been made to frighten the Church of God into submission and to renounce the sublime truth that the Lord is God alone. And, of course, none of these attempts is characterized by a desire for and an interest in the truth. One of the most common of these devices on the part of those who love not the truth of the Word of God is the accusation that we make God the Author of sin and strip the sinner of his responsibility. Also this accusation is hypocritical. Man is neither concerned about God’s sovereignty nor about the sinner’s responsibility. That the former is true is perfectly obvious. Nothing would or does afford the world greater delight than to deprive the living God of His absolute sovereignty and authority. However, the latter is also true. We must be on our guard against this apparent interest in the responsibility of the sinner. That the sinner is responsible surely means that he always stands in the presence of the living God, that he must always deal with Him Who knoweth and trieth the hearts of men, that he is continuously answerable to the living God and must always give an account of himself and all his actions exactly because the Lord is God alone and therefore always maintains Himself. To maintain the responsibility of the sinner we must, therefore, advocate, strictly, the full and unadulterated sovereignty of the Lord. And this is exactly what the sinner does not want. This is exactly what he opposes with all the powers at his disposal and command. And, therefore, when he emphasizes the responsibility of man, he does not do so because he is really interested in the maintaining of this truth in the Scriptural sense of the word, but what he actually has in mind is the maintaining, not of man’s responsibility, but simply of man and that over against the living God. This also applies to the historical development of the truth of the counsel of the Lord. There are, fundamentally, but two views of this concept. Some present the counsel of God as based upon foreknowledge. This means that the Lord saw beforehand what would happen and decided accordingly. And the other presentation of the Lord’s eternal decrees would maintain that they are wholly unconditional, sovereign, not based upon that which the Lord saw beforehand, and that the counsel of the Lord is therefore the divine, sovereign cause of all things.
Until the time of Augustine there was little development of the Scriptural doctrine of the counsel of God. We may say, however, that also among the Mohammedans the struggle raged between predestination and the freedom of the human will. Whereas m the Islam (the religion of Mohammed) the emphasis was laid upon the absolute power of God and man’s utter passiveness, opposition arose which defended the free will of man and regarded not the power but the righteousness of God as the essence of the Lord. In the early Christian Church, because of heathen superstition and Gnosticism (the word is derived from the Greek word, “to know”, and refers to a sect which claimed knowledge of things apart from the Scriptures), emphasis was laid upon man’s ethical nature and the freedom and responsibility of man. One can easily understand that the doctrine of the counsel of God could not receive its due emphasis when all attention was focused upon man’s ethical nature and responsibility. We are, therefore, not surprised that there was little development of this Scriptural concept until the time of Augustine.
We may say, however, that this teaching of the freedom of man received ever greater attention and finally developed into the conception which even today characterizes essentially the Greek church (in distinction from the Latin or Western Church. The early Church was split into an Eastern and a Western, the Eastern becoming the Greek Orthodox and the-Western the Roman Catholic Church). Man, then, was more or less polluted by sin but remained free and could accept the offered grace of God. An absolute predestination and an irresistible grace were not taught; the counsel of God consisted of foreknowledge, and the resultant determination of punishment or reward was regarded as dependent upon this foreknowledge of the Lord. We should note here the striking resemblance between this teaching to later Arminianism, and also to the Three Points of 1924. We should note the development of the teaching that man is more or less polluted by sin but remained free and could accept the offered grace of God. We may indeed be judged by the company in which we historically find ourselves. The Three Points of 1924 may also be judged by the company in which they historically find themselves.
With Augustine, however, the doctrine of God’s counsel came into greater prominence. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was born in 354 and died in 430, at the age of seventy six years. Of the early Church Fathers none has exerted greater influence within the Church since the apostles than Augustine. He was a tremendous writer. Augustine is also held in high esteem by the Roman Catholic Church. The views of Augustine which were developed particularly in the Middle Ages and which are to this day cherished by the Roman Catholic Church this Church Father expressed in his controversy with the Donatists. The Donatists consisted of several contending groups which had broken away from the Church. Augustine contended that the Church must be bound together by the bond of love, must be one, and when we separate from the Church we show that we lack the love and also the grace of God. If then, these Donatists remain outside the Church, they may have the form of Baptism but they do not have the grace of the sacrament. Augustine, therefore, labored for the unity of the Church, and is therefore highly regarded particularly from this aspect, by the Roman Catholic Church. We esteem him, however, because of his defence of the truth, especially against Pelagianism.
In this connection we may briefly review the teaching of Pelagianism. Pelagius was a British monk who came from the British Isles and settled in Rome about the year 400. He attempted to raise the moral standards of Rome, which were terrible, and appealed to man’s natural abilities, arguing that man must be able to do anything he ought to do. Pelagius ignored the power of sin and the utter depravity of our human nature, and made superfluous the regenerative grace of God. Man is able of himself to do good, and Christ is but an example; the Lord gives grace unto those who use their free will. Predestination, according to this British monk, was nothing else than a foreknowledge of God of the free acts and merits of men, and the resultant pre-determination of reward or punishment; actually, therefore, there is no predestination by God, either unto grace or unto salvation; it is wholly dependent upon the good deeds of man. This was the teaching of Pelagius.
Against this Pelagian heresy Augustine set himself with all the powers at his command. It is surely worthy of note that Augustine attempted to defend the freedom of the human will but was compelled to bow before the Scriptural teaching of the grace of God. In fact, long before the Pelagian struggle this Church Father has taught the doctrine of predestination. His study of the book of Romans had led him unto this conviction. According to Augustine predestination did not rest upon merit or worthiness but upon pure grace.
God did not predestinate because of man’s faith but unto faith and grace. Fact is, according to him, all men were equal, constituted a “massa damnata”, a “damnable mass”. Predestination, he taught, has Ls only cause in the sovereign will of God, in His absolute sovereignty. The Lord is obligated to none, could righteously condemn all, but, according to His good pleasure, makes vessels of honour and of others vessels of dishonour. It is true that Augustine regarded reprobation as an act of divine righteousness. To regard divine reprobation as an act of righteousness, we understand, would imply that this divine decree rests upon sin, and that the Lord, therefore, reprobated the sinner because of his sin. According to Augustine, man’s original sin is sufficient for his reprobation. However, man’s actual sins do not prompt God’s decree of reprobation, although they do influence the measure of punishment. This the Church Father taught because of what the Scriptures teach in regard to Jacob and Esau. Nevertheless, although Augustine regarded man’s original sin as sufficient ground for his reprobation, yet he did not consider it as its last and deepest cause. In answer to the question why God rejected some and elected others, he knew only one answer: the good pleasure and sovereign will of God, according to Romans 9:18. The Lord’s predestination of the elect is always adequate, that is, is always unto salvation, their total is sure and unchangeable. Augustine, therefore, taught the doctrine of unconditional and sovereign predestination.
After the death of Augustine the struggle in regard to the teaching of sovereign predestination continued. Although Pelagianism had been officially condemned at the Council of Ephesus, 431, the view of Augustine was compelled to fight bitterly and strenuously for its life and existence. Pelagianism was substituted by Semi-pelagianism. Semi-pelagianism did teach that man’s nature was corrupted by sin, but it also taught that man was not dead but sick. The natural man was like unto a sick person who could not cure himself, but was able to take the medicine and long for recovery, or unto one who had fallen into a pit, could not deliver and extricate himself, but was able to grasp the lifeline thrown out to him. Do we recognize this Semi-pelagianism with any teaching of the present day? Does it not recur in that sickening and miserable hymn: “Throw out the life-line”? Is it not a prevalent teaching of our modern age, our present church-world that man cannot save himself, must be saved by the grace of the living God, but also that he can accept the Lord Jesus and the salvation which is offered to him through the preaching of the gospel? Has not the doctrine (?) been taught in the Christian Reformed Churches for years that every child receives at baptism a certain grace, which does not regenerate him, but does enable him to accept the salvation which in due time will be offered to him, through the gospel and that by a living God Who does not desire anyone to perish but that all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, and this in the strictly universal sense of the word. Again we remark: a person may well be known by the company he keeps. This conception of a sinner, that he cannot save himself but must be saved by the mighty grace of God, but also that he can accept the offered salvation, places one in the company, historically, of the semi-pelagians. And also the semi-pelagians maintained a view of the counsel of God which was based upon foreknowledge. Let us note: also the semipelagians taught a counsel of the Lord which rested upon Divine foreknowledge.
At the Synod of Orange, 529, the struggle between the Augustinian view and Semi-Pelagianism was decided. This ecclesiastical gathering decided, on the one hand, that man is entirely corrupted by the sin of Adam, and that both, the beginning and the continuance of faith, are not to be ascribed to ourselves, to our natural powers, our free will, but to the grace of God. But, on the other hand, it was also declared at this synodical gathering that our free will was weakened by sin, mind you, merely weakened by sin, that all baptized persons can and must fulfill that grace which they receive at baptism, by which grace they can help and cooperate with Christ in the things which belong to their salvation; besides, the synod was completely silent on such matters as absolute predestination, irresistible and particular grace. It was evident, at this synod, that the followers of Augustine and of his conception of unconditional and sovereign predestination were hard pressed to maintain the Augustinian view of divine predestination. We should not fail to note that already at this synod mention was made of a certain grace which one receives at his baptism and which grace enables him to help and cooperate with the Christ. Compare this with the Heynsian conception of the covenant and of baptism to which we have already referred in the preceding paragraph.
This indecisiveness of the Synod of Orange, 529, was not salutary but harmful. Compromise decisions are never salutary. We cannot expect the blessing of the Lord when we would stand on “both sides of the fence.” Such a person never aids the Church of the living God. Compromise decisions never solve anything. The foes of the truth are not satisfied with them because they are not strong enough; and the defenders and lovers of the truth are dissatisfied because such decisions are actually and really a repudiation of the truth. In the final analysis, a compromise decision is always prompted by the fear to give full expression to the sovereign truth of the Word of God. This was also the result of the compromise decision of the Synod of Orange, 529. This decision was not salutary but harmful. Many stood upon the Pelagian or Semi-pelagian standpoint. Only Gottschalk and a few of his friends maintained the strictly Augustinian view of the sovereign counsel and predestination of God, but his voice was soon silenced, and the result was that the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism gained the upper hand in the Church, which was then the Roman Catholic Church. This victory of the Semi-Pelagians was gained at the Synod of Quierzy, 853. Rome, or the Roman Catholic Church, drifted farther and farther away from Augustine and Paul. At this synod Rome adopted several noteworthy declarations, statements of truth or doctrine which are worthy of our consideration. This synod declared, e.g., that man’s free will was indeed affected by sin in its inclinations, but that it was not wholly extinguished, and that man, before justification, can perform many natural things which are not sinful but good. The natural man is not able to perform the good in the supernatural sense, such as faith, hope, love, justification, the meriting of eternal life. To obtain this he needs divine grace, the intervention of the Holy Spirit. This grace is bestowed upon the children of believers at their baptism, and, with respect to the adults, this grace consists herein that God calls them objectively through the gospel, and, subjectively, touches their hearts by the Holy Spirit of illumination. However, this grace, although unmerited, prevenient (which goes before, precedes) is not irresistible. Man can embrace and reject it. Hence, Rome rejects Augustine’s view of God’s absolute predestination. And they also taught that Christ was sent in order that all might receive the adoption of children; He satisfied for all; man can accept or reject grace, can retain or lose this grace of the Lord.
These statements of the Synod of Quierzy, 853, are worthy of note and of our consideration. Who can fail to note the striking resemblance between these declarations of Rome and later Arminianism? We will presently have opportunity to call attention to the system of thought as set forth by Arminius and Arminianism when we discuss the counsel of God as it lived in the hearts and minds of the Fathers of Dordrecht. In these synodical declarations of 853 we should note that the doctrine of absolute predestination as proclaimed by Augustine was rejected by Rome, and that Rome embraces a conditional predestination and foreknowledge of God. Any conception that man can either accept or reject grace and salvation is a denial of God’s absolute predestination. Fact is, such a presentation of the truth renders the salvation as dependent upon man’s free will, declares that he can either accept or reject it, proceeds, therefore, from the idea that the salvation of the sinner is offered to him, and that, therefore, the possibility of his salvation exists. If the Lord offers all the hearers of the gospel His grace and salvation, and He is sincere in this offer, then this must certainly imply that there is salvation for every sinner to whom the offer is made. And this is, of course, a denial of the truth of God’s absolute, sovereign, and unconditional predestination. The Lord, then, has not sovereignly determined who shall or shall not be saved, but His desire to save is universal and His presentation is based on divine foreknowledge. The Lord, then, has determined to save those that believe. We should also note in the above-mentioned articles of the Synod of Quierzy of 853 that man is not able to perform good in the spiritual, supernatural sense, such as faith, hope, and love. He cannot justify himself or merit eternal life for himself. Unto the performance of this spiritual, “supernatural” good he needs divine grace and the intervention of the Holy Spirit. However, although man’s free will was indeed affected by sin in its inclinations, it was not wholly extinguished and man is able to perform many natural things which are not sinful but good. Besides, the grace of God is offered to all through the gospel and it is not irresistible. Man can embrace or reject it. Reading these declarations of faith one must be reminded of three other declarations which were proclaimed by the Christian Reformed Synod of 1924; the resemblance between these Three Points and what the Roman Catholic Church declared in 853 is surely undeniable. Also in 1924 the Church declared that man is unable to perform spiritual, lasting good and that the Lord, in a certain sense, is favorable to all men, which general favorable inclination of the Lord He reveals in the preaching of the gospel. Also in 1924, therefore, the Church declared that salvation is offered to all the hearers of the gospel, and that man, although incapable of any spiritual good, can nevertheless perform in the realm of civic righteousness that which is good and pleasing in the sight of the Lord. Again we remark: the Christian Reformed Church ought to take inventory of the company in which she historically finds herself. And we may safely conclude that any conception that man can accept or reject the grace of God, any conception of a universal salvation or offer thereof, any conception of a Divine foreknowledge follows historically the line of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Roman Catholicism. In our following article we will call attention, the Lord willing, to the development of this doctrine of the counsel of God by the Reformers and the Fathers of Dordrecht.