Faith in Focus


How can you possibly believe that? Is man no more than just a puppet, and God pulling all the strings? Is that what the Bible teaches? Well, then I guess you can count me out, he said to me. Election? Predestination? What kind of a Christian message is that? Is that what this suffering, agonizing world needs to hear? Why don't you tell them about the love of Jesus? Am I really to believe that: "whatever will be will be"

That we don't have any say. That you can be lucky, or not. God chooses some to be saved, and He chooses others for hell? That sounds very much like a celestial tattslotto. It all depends on the luck of the draw.

Now that imaginary conversation is how many people react to what is known as the Second Point of Calvinism: Unconditional Election (the First Point: Total Depravity, was discussed in last month's issue of T&S). As a matter of fact, I can think of a better term than "the Second Point of Calvinism". That better term would be: the second great fundamental of the Christian faith. Does that startle you a little, to make such a bold claim? I'd like to suggest that it shouldn't. The fact that the God of the Scriptures is a God who chooses is indeed a great fundamental of the Christian faith.

Reformed people ought not to make apologies for the truth of predestination, nor be embarrassed about the teaching of unconditional election. Yes, it has been ridiculed, caricatured, misunderstood, as many readers will know. One of the reasons for that may well be that we have not always managed to explain this doctrine well. As a matter of fact, Calvinists have often muddled along somewhat in trying to explain it, which may well have resulted in hot heads and cold hearts. But that does not take away the fact that it is and remains a great fundamental of the Christian faith.

Rediscovered at the Reformation

The Reformers powerfully preached it; everyone of them did. After a thousand years of silence, darkness, and spiritual bondage there was a return to the faith of the Bible.

The Spirit of God began once more to open the eyes of many, and the churches of the Reformation did not turn to Arminianism, but to the doctrines of unconditional election and predestination. Luther, Melanchton, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox: wherever the Reformation went, unconditional election followed. We find it in the Westminster Confession; the confessions that came out of Basel, Zurich, Bern, Geneva; it is in the Heidelberg Catechism; the Second Helvetic Confession; the confessions of the Reformed churches of France, Scotland, Poland, and Hungary.

Yes, the teaching of unconditional election was at the heart of the Reformation, because it is at the heart of Scripture! It was only in the 17th century that it began to be denied by Arminius and his followers, and the Canons of Dort were a strong reaction to that.

What it is not

Some say unconditional election is simply fatalism; to believe in predestination is nothing more than accepting fatalism. Like the imaginary person at the beginning of this article: "I don't know how anyone can believe this: Whatever will be will be. We don't have any say. God handles everything. Well, that destroys free will. It's just ... fatalism." I checked my dictionary on the word fatalism, and one of the meanings it gives is: the acceptance of all things and events as inevitable; submitting to fate.

But "fate" has to do with: fortune; lot; destiny. I have no intention nor desire to submit to fate. But I do have the desire to submit to my heavenly Father in Jesus Christ.

Fate is cold, hard, impersonal. How different that is, totally different, from those warm and jubilant words in Ephesians 1:

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ... For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ ..."

* * *

But probably the most fundamental misconception of the doctrine of predestination is the idea that God foresaw who would believe in Christ, and on that basis He elected them to eternal life. That's the Arminian view. For them, faith comes before election; for the Calvinist, election comes before faith. For them, faith causes election; for the Calvinist, election causes faith. For them, faith moves God; for the Calvinist, God moves faith. For them, salvation depends partly on man; for the Calvinist, salvation depends wholly on God. For them, salvation rests partly on man's merits; for the Calvinist, salvation rests wholly on grace. For them, salvation is in part man-centered; for the Calvinist, salvation is wholly God-centered.

The Biblical truth is: God chooses. Without condition. The initiative is always with God, never with man. Before we seek Him, God is out in search of us. Man does not have to perform first, or live up to this or that standard first. "When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly ... While we were still sinners Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6,8)

Last month we looked at the first point of Calvinism: Total Depravity. Man, lost in sin, dead in sin. If that is so - and the Bible says it is - then Unconditional Election is a truth that must follow. For if we are slaves of sin, dead in sin, depraved by nature, always in rebellion against God, then our salvation must begin with Him. For how can spiritually dead people save themselves? Our salvation can never begin with us. God must seek us because we will not seek Him. Maybe we do not sing that hymn all that often anymore, but how truthful it is:

'T'is not that I did choose Thee,

For, Lord, that could not be;

This heart would still refuse Thee,

Hadst Thou not chosen me.

Thou from the sin that stained me

Hast cleansed and set me free;

Of old Thou hast ordained me,

That I should live to Thee.

Or that other hymn:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew

He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.

It was not I that found, O Saviour true,

No, I was found of Thee.

A mystery, a secret

I think that these hymns express some of what we find in the first half of Ephesians 1, and that is the fact that predestination is a mystery related to the deepest essence of God's nature. Nobody is ever going to understand predestination. We are simply not able to understand it, because it flows from the eternal counsel and will of God.

It is rooted in God's exalted sovereignty, His divine right and ability to do as He wants to. It is rooted in His divine right to be divine.

In one of the sermons Joel Nederhood preached on the "Back to God Hour", he said: . . . when we start talking about the pleasure and will and purpose of God, we have to understand that we have made a giant leap outside ordinary ideas and language and that we are standing before realities and truths that are simply too much for us to understand.

In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 29:29 says: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us . . ." When we talk about God's pleasure and will and purpose, we are dealing with secret things . . . one of the reasons there is confusion about the teaching of predestination is that it is impossible for us, with our small minds, to describe it accurately and grasp it adequately."

I'd like to bring this article to a conclusion by quoting some New Testament Scripture, just half a dozen references:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. . . And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me . . . John 6: 37,39.

He went on to say, This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him. John 6:65.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit . . . John 15:16.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined he also called; those he called, he also justified, those he justified, he also glorified. Romans 8:28-30.

And then there are a few larger sections, such as Romans 9:14-24, and Ephesians 1:3-13.

* * *

Indeed, predestination is in the Bible. And when we study the Bible's teaching about it, we learn that there is simply no hope for salvation unless God takes the initiative and enables a person to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I read somewhere the story of a man who did not believe in predestination. He had grown up in a Christian home, but now he was leading a rather wicked sort of life. His theory was that if he were elected, he would be saved, and if not, he would be lost regardless of the way he lived, whether that was good or bad. Then there came a time that this man became critically ill. The doctor came, checked him over, and said that he was not going to give him any medication, for "if your number is up, it makes no difference whether I give you medicine or not. It won't help. If you are foreordained to die, what's the use of giving you help? And if you're not foreordained to die, then you will get better anyway. So what's the use?"

But the sick man knew that if he did not get the medicine he would surely die, whereas if he had medicine, the chances were good that he would live.

The same is true of salvation. If the man was to be saved, he had to believe in Christ, and if he did not, he would be lost. He could not sit back and say: "It doesn't matter whether I believe or not if I'm predestined." For if a man does not take hold of the means, he will not have the end either.

God's plan includes means as well as ends. If I am one of God's elect, He decreed that I would be saved, not because of my faith, yet not without my faith. Therefore I must believe.

Yet, all is of grace!

'Twas sovereign mercy called me

And taught my opening mind;

The world had else enthralled me,

To heavenly glories blind.

My heart owns none before Thee,

For Thy rich grace I thirst;

This knowing, if I love Thee,

Thou must have loved me first.

Is it not striking that the Bible, when it speaks about predestination in several places, bursts forth in a jubilant song of PRAISE AND ADORATION:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! Romans 11:33 ff.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1: 3-5.

Notice these last two words: Jesus Christ!

Predestination is tied into Jesus and His finished work on the cross of Calvary.

So what we have to do is to believe in Christ as Saviour. And then we look back and say: "This happened because God took the initiative, not I".

Prof. Keith V Warren (Principal of the Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Australia)

(This series first appeared in the Trowel and Sword and is reprinted by permission)

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised November 96 / Copyright 1996