Scriptural Election: The Third Way
Robert J. Hillman
In a day of unprecedented opportunity for proclamation, preaching ought not to be put under restraint by a somber doctrine of predestination which limits the offer of salvation. Nor should it be hindered by an anthropocentric form of the doctrine which reduces the power of the gospel by obscuring the principle of sola gratia.
A pervasive silence has settled over the reformed and non-reformed churches on the subject of election. There is, it seems, an intuitive feeling that predestination in its classical form is not "good news." If, however, some form of this doctrine is an essential element of the kerygma (Greek word meaning—the basic apostolic message of salvation through Jesus Christ), then the church's preaching must be the weaker for this omission.
Differences of opinion on election may often be due to misunderstanding and prejudice. The ecumenical climate of our day, however, may afford opportunity for discussion of key issues in a non-polemical atmosphere. Various parts of the Body of Christ may be able to contribute insights that will enable the whole church to understand its own election better and to proclaim the full gospel of God's Chosen One. There are a number of reformed theologians who have been able to begin a process of disentangling reformed theology from its rationalistic framework.1 This is of particular importance for the whole church. The result is a doctrine of election in its dynamic biblical context.
I wish to present a number of theses which I believe will restore the biblical doctrine of predestination to the pulpit.
Thesis 1: Preaching the "whole counsel of God" involves preaching election.
Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation in Christ (2 Tim 3:14-17). Because of this, Christian preaching consists of proclaiming the whole sweep of biblical truth, especially as it relates to the revelation in Christ.
One cannot deal with the main themes of the Old Testament without being confronted very early by the doctrine of election in the call of Abraham and the choice of Israel. Nor can one do justice to the main themes of John's Gospel, Romans or Ephesians without dealing with this doctrine. In fact, the election of Christ dominates the whole of Scripture. It is particularly evident in the Gospels. Election is an integral part of the biblical revelation and a necessary element in the scriptural doctrine of salvation in Christ. Preaching which aims at declaring "the whole counsel of God" may not pass it by.
Thesis 2: The preaching of election must remain within the "boundaries of faith."
If a large section of the church preaches less than the whole counsel of God, another section of the church believes (if it cannot preach!) more than the counsel of God.
Seeing clearly that the Bible teaches a doctrine of election which leaves God as the initiator of salvation, scholastic reformed theology added to this revelation a whole series of logical implications. Often seeking to reduce the workings of God to a single principle of absolute sovereignty, predestination was hardened into a realistic doctrine referring to the arbitrary decisions of the hidden, omnipotent God. The "single decree" had little relation to the revelation in Christ. The doctrine was moved from soteriology, as in Calvin, to the doctrine of God. Predestination became a rational doctrine of absolute sovereignty having little association with Israel, the election of Christ, or the election of the church, but dealing with the eternal decree as it determined the destiny of individuals.
This decretal theology reinterpreted the whole of the biblical material on predestination and related themes (e.g., the atonement) in terms of this rationalistic doctrine. In some cases the sense of urgency in evangelism was lost. Lack of assurance was often reflected in poor attendance at the Lord's Table. The emphasis was on deterministic sovereignty and on the quest to discover whether or not the individual was "of the elect."
The reformed churches need to return to the exposition of the plain meaning of Scripture in its dynamic context. Rationalism has often taken these churches beyond the boundaries of faith so that election is conceived of as a self-evident presupposition. They need to return to Scripture so that this doctrine may be presented in its living religious context. It will then bring comfort and challenge, elicit praise, and inspire Christian living and Christian preaching. Drawing afresh from the well of Scripture means to live and theologize within the boundaries of faith.
The practical question arises, however: where are the boundaries of faith? To enunciate the concept of boundary is not automatically to solve all the problems of predestination. "The boundary-concept is not a simple solution that can be employed as if it were a priori clear to everyone."2 The important thing here is our total comprehension of the biblical message. Any propositional formulation which flies against the essential message of Scripture is to be forsaken in favor of "the marvelous and inexhaustible liveliness which is so typical of the message Scripture brings and in which we hear the message of the sovereignly electing God."3
Thesis 3: The doctrine of election must be proclaimed in the biblical context of the election of Israel.
Clearly the Old Testament is about Israel, God's chosen son through whom he will bless the whole world. Old Testament election was "God's electing Israel on his way to the others"4
The preaching of the church must take this dominant Old Testament theme seriously. Preaching must not confine itself to the New Testament, but must present the New Testament material against its Old Testament background. The New Testament church ate from Israel's table and we must too.
No biblical teaching can confine itself to a crass individualism. God's concern is certainly for persons, but it is in the context of the people of God through whom he would bless all men.
We see in Romans 8-11 that God's elective purpose for Israel still stands, despite unbelief. It is indeed through unbelief that the Gentiles come to faith. Biblical preaching of election must continue to proclaim Israel's election.
Thesis 4: Election must be viewed primarily as election in Christ.
Israel waited for its Messiah, God's Chosen One:
I have set my king
The perimeter of God's elect people can be thought of as widening from Abraham to Israel, narrowing to the Remnant, and eventually becoming One Man, the seed of Abraham. The ultimate purpose is that the perimeter should widen again: "I will make the nations your heritage."
on Zion, my holy hill.
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, You are my son, today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession. (Ps 2:6-8)
The Lord's servant in Isaiah is probably to be interpreted as Israel and the Messiah. The voice which declares Jesus at his baptism to be God's Son uses words from the first Messianic Psalm and the first Servant Passage of Isaiah (Matt 3:17; Ps 2:7; Isa 42:1). He commences his ministry in Nazareth by reading from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news." Then he declares: "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:18f.). Matthew declares that he fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah: "Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased" (Matt 12:18). On the Mount of Transfiguration a voice declares from the cloud: "This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!" (Luke 9:35).
More important still are the many references to Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament types and prophecies. He is the chosen King of Israel, born in the city of David, declared by the Magi to be King of the Jews (Matt 2:2, 6). Significantly, he dies under the three-language inscription "King of the Jews."
He is God's chosen prophet (Deut 18:15; Acts 3:22), who declares the word of God (Matt 17:5). He is the embodiment of all that Israel was chosen to be. He goes to the Cross as Israel, the Servant of the Lord, and yet, as Israel's substitute (Isa 53).
The election of Israel and the election of Jesus are related through fulfillment. The New Testament emphasizes continuity through fulfillment. We must also relate the church's election and the election of individuals to his election. There is only one election; the election of Christ. Election apart from him is meaningless. The election of Israel anticipates his election and finds its fulfillment in it. Individual election and the election of the church are not independent of him or of his election. Election is in him.
[God] chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world . . . He destined us . . . through Jesus Christ . . . In him we have redemption. . . . [The mystery of his will has been revealed] according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ... to unite all things in him.... In him... we who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory. In him you also . . . were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:4-13).
The first step in moving away from a rationalistic concept of predestination is taken when we begin to interpret this doctrine in terms of the election of Christ. No longer will predestination be a threat to the faithful, having its source in the arbitrary decision of an absolute sovereign power. The election of which we speak is that which has been revealed in Jesus Christ. The God who has chosen us we know and love as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, his Chosen One.
Christian preaching is the proclamation of Christ. Until and unless election is conceived of as basically Christological then our preaching of election will be less than Christian.
Thesis 5: The church must be seen as the object of God's election in Christ.
Election in the Old Testament has to do with the election (creation) of a nation: "It would appear then, that election, as we first encounter it in the Old Testament is national not merely individual. . . . In the New Testament, this form of election is not atomised and undone but fulfilled."5
Christians today need to be delivered from excessive individualism, discover their election in community, and discover the church as God's elect.
This elect community is never independent of Christ. Its cohesion depends on its election in him. It is the body of Christ.
Peter calls his readers to "Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious'... and 'a stone that will make men stumble' . . . because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do." In contrast, "you are a chosen race [genos like Israel?], a royal priesthood, a holy nation [ethnos], God's own people [laos].... Once you were no people but now you are God's people." (1 Pet 2:4-10). These words echo Exodus 19:5f.:"... if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all people... a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
In Romans 8, Paul describes the purpose of predestination in terms of Christ becoming the "first-born among many brethren" (v 29). Predestination created the church, the community of the brethren. Scholastic decretal theology does little with the concept of the church's election. Berkhof does not mention it6 in and no section is devoted to it in Boettner's Doctrine of Predestination.7
Expository preaching is the preaching of the church to the church as well as to the world. This preaching must not omit the doctrine of election both in explanation and proclamation, for it is this dynamic truth which has created the church, and it is its continued proclamation which assists in building up the body of Christ.
Thesis 6: The preaching of election "in Christ" relates to the individual as well as the church.
Preaching is weakened if it loses its personal element and its individual challenge. There ought to be no tension between Christian and church, individual and community: "The pro me has its place in the fellowship, as it does in the Psalms of the Old Testament and in the creed of the Church."8 It is interesting that here again Berkouwer brings us back to the election in Christ: "Because He is the elect cornerstone (1 Pet 2:6) there is an elect people. The one is no longer without the other, and yet the life of the individual does not dissolve into the community. That is why the election in Christ can never be placed in an individualistic or collectivistic framework."9
Barth strongly affirms the order of election to be: Christ, Israel and the church, the individual. Nevertheless he states: "There are no predestined families and no predestined nations—even the Israelite nation is simply the first (transitory) form of the community—nor is there a predestined humanity. There are only predestined men predestined in Jesus Christ and by way of the community."'10
The gospel of the elected Christ who unites persons to one another in his body speaks to the individual, then, in terms of grace and assurance. The concept of election, according to Barth, means that grace is truly grace.'11 The Christian (in community) also gains assurance from the preaching of election. Election in Christ assures the believer of God's gracious attitude to him.
True biblical preaching is intensely personal but it never panders to individualism. Preaching which avoids the personal application has lost the dimension of directness. It is adrift on a sea of generality and has become irrelevant. The Church is a fellowship of individual persons bound together by the Christ who has elected them and in whom their authentic individuality and their true corporateness find their meaning.
Thesis 7: Preaching on election must emphasize sanctification and witness as the goals of predestination.
We must understand sanctification as Christlikeness. In Romans 8, believers are "predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son" (v 29). Ephesians says we are predestined to be his sons (1:5). Paul goes on: "We who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory" (v 12). In 2 Thessalonians we read: "God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit . . "(2:13). "Election," says Maury, "is always a call to obedience, thanksgiving, and brotherly love." 12
Election therefore is an intensely practical doctrine. It is not a matter for speculation. It does not belong to the realm of theory but of practice. It is not a philosophical doctrine belonging to the area of rational thought, but a religious teaching having immense practical application. Biblical election is profoundly Christological. It not only has its origin in Christ, it has its goal in him. It is "from him" and "for him." Election then is not an end in itself. The goal is Christ. Salvation produces service. Justification issues in sanctification. He has chosen us "in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him" (Eph. 1:4).
God's overarching purpose is that he may have mercy on all (Rom. 11:32). Israel was chosen that through her, all the nations of the earth should be blessed. Christ was chosen to be "the light of the world". The church was brought into being to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. "Election envisions the salvation of the world."13
The elect were chosen that they might be authentic witnesses to Jesus the Christ. Through life and lip they proclaim the unsearchable riches of him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Thesis 8: The general offer of salvation which is preached along with election must be a genuine offer.
In Romans 9-11, election relates to universal grace; "that he might have mercy on all" (11:32). Barth is correct when he says election's "function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God."14 Any doctrine of election, therefore, which casts a shadow over God's love and limits its universal scope is to be unequivocally rejected as unbiblical.
The theology which particularizes God's love such that the offer of salvation is only for the elect (as distinct from the reprobate) is a caricature of biblical love. In such theology, the general offer of salvation and the general preaching of the gospel are meaningless.
It is easy to see why a rationalistic interpretation of election raises a question mark over the general offer of salvation. Daane puts it well: "Grace has a redemptive bias. Logic has no bias."15 If God loves only the divine image in man, rather than as the Bible emphasizes, the sinner, then mercy becomes something which God shows toward himself. This "divine soliloquy" is in fact a deviation from the gospel understanding of the love of the Father for the prodigal.
Throughout Scripture, God is love in his relationships with all men (e.g., Deut 10:18; Matt. 5:45; 1 John 2:2). This universal love issues in a universal, genuine offer of salvation which is real and which suffers from no hesitancy and no withholding on God's part. (See e.g., Isa 45:22). Once this love is limited, the basic motive for mission, evangelism, and preaching is reduced. And this limiting can result from positing a qualitative difference in God's love toward the elect and the non-elect. Harold Dekker in a very significant article says: "God's love is love. It cannot be something else."16 Such distinctions are foreign to the whole tenor of biblical divine unlimited love.
The central affirmation of Scripture is: "God is love." The outworking of this love is expressed in the gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." We must not limit the nature of God which is love, nor the expression of that love in Christ, but we must proclaim both in fullness.
Thesis 9: The concept of "limited atonement" ought to be abandoned as it places an unbiblical restriction on preaching.
Although the doctrine of limited atonement takes the fact of unbelief seriously and seeks to do justice to the eternal destruction of unbelievers and to the sovereignty of God, it compromises the gospel by paring it down to suit the facts. It is a glaring example of rationalism which makes logical deductions from Scripture to suit the observed "facts." The death of Christ, which is especially for the church is rationalistically conceived as being only for the church. To be sure, the efficacy of Christ's death is generally thought of as being unlimited in the sense that it is sufficient for all, but efficient for those who believe (i.e., the elect). We have no quarrel with this formulation except that it does not say enough. We wish to say that the statement "Christ died for all" says more than something about the merit of Christ. It speaks about his motive as well. Dekker is correct when he says that the doctrine of limited atonement is contrary to the church's confession: "God is love"—for limited atonement ultimately limits love.17
We may believe that when Paul spoke of Christ dying for all he placed no restriction whatever on our Lord's atonement. The Wesleyan protest against rational predestination was not unfounded. The universal significance of Christ's atonement was a constant theme in Methodism's triumphant hymns. It is not surprising that this aspect of the Wesley's teaching was preachable. If we can sing Christian truth we can preach it. Further, limited atonement is a "textless doctrine." No biblical text either explicitly or in its intention supports it. It is the creation of a rationalistic dogmatic. On the contrary, Scripture often emphasizes the pro omnibus of Christ's death (Isa 53:6; Matt 20:28; John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Tim 2:6; 1 John 2:2; Heb. 2:9). We must insist that the "for allness" of Christ's death is an integral part of the kerygmatic teaching. It must be proclaimed without limitation: "Christ died for all and Christ died for you!"
The problem is not minimized by confining the "limit" to the atoning aspect of the death of Christ. It is to move further into abstraction, for Christ himself, and not some limited aspect of his work, is our atonement.18 As Harry Boer has expressed it: "Christ is offered in that gospel. The whole Christ, with all His benefits. He is not offered to sinners who repent. He is not offered to the elect. He is offered to sinners, period."19
We must unhesitatingly affirm that there is no contradiction between "Christ died for the church" and "Christ died for the world". We do not have to select one or the other, "they cannot contradict each other, because they belong to different contexts."20
Paul urges that prayers be made for all men. "This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved. ... For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men [all men?], the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all... For THIS I was appointed a preacher... "(1 Tim 2:1-7). The plain meaning is that Christ died for all without exception. This was an essential element in the preached message.
Thesis 10: The doctrine of reprobation, running parallel to that of election to life, must be rejected as contrary to the gospel.
Boettner speaks of "an eternal, divine decree which, antecedently to any difference or desert in men themselves, separates the human race into two portions and ordains one to everlasting life and the other to everlasting death."21 Election to eternal life is clearly scriptural but we must insist that there is no corresponding predestination, eoden modo, to damnation. Jesus is God's elect par excellence. There is, however, no corresponding parallel rejection. Decretal theology has developed its doctrine of reprobation as a logical construct partly because it has focused its attention almost entirely on individual election. It has no unified doctrine of election incorporating election of Israel, Christ, and the church. Thus a corresponding rejection of Israel, Christ and the church is not a problem. The unified doctrine of biblical election calls reprobation into question because it removes decretal theology's beloved symmetry.
Christ is the reason why men are saved but not the reason why some are lost. Maury speaks of reprobation as being full of false windows, like those painted on facades in order to achieve an apparent symmetry.22
Whereas Scripture speaks of the "book of life" it never suggests there is a "book of death." Simplistic parallelism does not come from Scripture but has its origin in "a metaphysical determinism which leaves no room for variations and differences but which subsumes everything under the one causality of God."23 To make a symmetrical and transparent doctrine of double predestination is to make God the author of unbelief and therefore of sin. Such is blasphemy.
The emphasis of Scripture is that God's rejection is the answer to man's sin not the cause of it. (An example is Romans 11, where the "trespass" (v 11) is apparently the reason for the "hardening" (v 7)). This is God's response in history to willful and blameable unbelief. It is not the result of an arbitrary decree. It is punishment, not fate. It is true that this unbelief does not frustrate the plan of God. This is most clearly seen in the death of Christ which was at once the diabolical deed of wickedness and the action of the sovereign Father. It can be said that what happens against God's will does not happen apart from it. However the relationship between the two is not one of simple causality.
The rejection of symmetrical double predestination is necessary if we are to preach the gospel without restraint and if we are to retain the scriptural emphasis on the truth of grace that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world (John 3:17). We must insist that the divine purpose in sending Christ was redemptive even as it was in the choice of Israel. In fact, there is nothing which approaches symmetry on the side of judgment: He did not come to condemn the world. Berkouwer is therefore correct when he says, "The Gospel can be understood and preached only if balance, symmetry and parallelism are excluded."24
The preaching of judgment is an important element in the kerygma. However Berkouwer is right, I believe, when he says, "The kerygma does not require the preaching of rejection alongside that of judgment."25 Every attempt to bring forth a healthy offspring from a marriage between election and reprobation is futile. The child is still-born.
Harry Boer sees the doctrine of reprobation as ambiguous and so not lending itself to being taught or preached: "I am not aware that it occupies any meaningful place either in the pulpit or in the pastoral work of our ministers. . .Reprobation does not seem to be a doctrine by which the church lives."26
Nor will a balanced antinomy satisfy Scripture. It is not sufficient to speak of God leaving the reprobate in his common misery. In the last analysis there is little to distinguish this from a full-orbed decree of God. Boer is correct when he says: "It would seem to be clear that prior and subsequent protestations of the Canons [of Dort] that the guilt of unbelief inheres in man alone can no longer claim an unqualified and unequivocal character.27
I have argued that the teaching of "limited atonement" is a textless doctrine. We may say the same of reprobation: "There is not, to my knowledge, any text in the Bible indicating a single and eternal will to damnation in the Almighty."28 Christian preaching is based on the text of Scripture. Reprobation is therefore excluded from the preaching of the whole counsel of God.
Thesis 11: In the preaching of election, history must be taken seriously.
We must affirm: "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4). However we must not conceive of election simply in terms of an eternal decree. It has a historical dimension. The life and death of the Chosen One, the call of Israel and the Church, and the faith of the elect all take place in history. A rationalism which passes lightly over history strikes at the very root of the Christian faith which is rooted in the soil of history. And preaching must not be a mere recitation of naked theological truth. It must be presented in the context of personal historical revelation.
How is God related to the world? "God's relationship to the world", says Daane, "is neither that of his eternality in its relationship to time, nor of time in its relationship to eternity. The clue to the nature of God's relationship to the temporal world lies in his creation of a world time." He adds: "The peculiar weakness of decretal theology appears in the fact that it has no room for transition, for movement, for a 'history'29
One of the characteristics of grace is freedom. Israel overlooked God's freedom when it viewed election in static terms. They regarded God's grace as assured because they were the elect nation. God was thus under obligation. He was imprisoned in a concept of necessity. Israel wished to disregard unfaithfulness in the historical situation. When certain Jews were presuming upon their status as God's elect race Jesus told them that God was able to make sons of Abraham out of the stones. The initiative remains with God. Man is under obligation, the obligation of faith. The Bible is the account of God's personal, gracious, and free dealings with unworthy man in the dynamic context of history. God is never a prisoner of his own decree.
The doctrine of the single decree does not allow us to take history seriously.30 Thus, Daane argues, it cannot absorb biblical eschatology. Nor has it been able to develop a doctrine of the election of Israel, of the church, and of Jesus.31
Decretal theology's denial that anything can occur in time which is contrary to the eternal decree is to make a rationalistic speculation which is quite contrary to the whole religious tenor of the Scriptures which take sin so seriously.
This preoccupation with the single decree robs history of significance because everything "happens" in eternity. History is statically conceived and there is no concept of God working out his purposes in his world and bringing them to their eschatological fulfillment in Christ.
The kind of rationalism which came to the fore in seventeenth-century scholasticism made God the cause of all things. This tended to rob history of its reality and goal and reduce events to equal significance. The God of the Bible, however, is related to the world through creation, providence, and recreation. He is thus related to his world in its historical movement and not just as first cause.
We must not evaporate the waters of history with the sun of eternity. Nor must we create a discrepancy between what happened in eternity and what happens in time. God's historical act in time (the Christ event) and his calling through the gospel are linked to God's decision in eternity not through a rational concept of causality and necessity but through the merciful intention of the Father-God.
This raises the question of the status of the words "before [pro] the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4). Once we have liberated ourselves from a rationalistic schema which entirely separates eternity from time, we are free to see that Paul is not speaking of absolute sovereignty here, but of infinite grace with its determined purpose. This passage is a hymn of praise to the God of grace:
"Blessed [eulogetos] be the God . . . who has blessed [eulogesas] us in Christ with every spiritual blessing [eulogia]... even as he chose us in him... He destined us in love... to the praise of his glorious grace [charitos] which he freely bestowed [echaritosen] on us... according to the riches of his grace. . . ." Ephesians 1:3-11 is a single Greek sentence with many complex thoughts. Basically, however, it is a doxology to the God of grace who works out his gracious purposes in history. Pietersma argues that eternity does not refer to an unknown beyond or to an unalterable decree as such "but to the whence (and the whereto) of our salvation."32
In the last analysis it is the doctrine of the Trinity which is at stake here. The eternal decree in its rationalistic formulation is a threat to the doctrine of the Trinity, especially to the Father-Son relationship. It is a threat to election "in Christ." The all-inclusive eternal decree minimizes the truth that Christ has entered history, i.e., that he has come in the flesh (1 John 4:2). History and, therefore, the historical Christ are rendered insignificant and the Persons of the Trinity lose their distinctiveness in the all-inclusive all-significant eternal decree. In contrast, authentic preaching, which is itself an event in history, centers on the eternal Word (John 1:1) which dwelt among us in time and space (John 1:14).
Thesis 12: The doctrine of the single eternal decree in its classical formulation is unable to deal with the reality of sin.
If everything that happens has its origin in the decree, then unbelief and sin have their origin in God. This conclusion is denied by decretal theology. It is argued that the ultimate cause and source of sin (God) is not the author of sin. We may ask with Daane: "Why the ultimate cause and source is not its ultimate author or even its secondary author, and how there can be ultimate causation of sin without any responsibility, are not explained."33
In Scripture God is seen as totally opposed to sin. To be sure, God is able to make the sinful actions of man serve his eschatological purposes. But this is far removed from any assertion that they are initiated by God (in any sense) in an eternal decree: God "brings light out of darkness, turns death into life, and creates beauty out of chaos. But these are acts of divine accomplishment. Life and death, war and peace, chaos and beauty are not decreed by God in the same manner....34
One of the main objections which may be levelled against the single decree, especially in its supralapsarian formulation,35 is its rejection of the thought that God responds to the events of history, especially to the fall and sin of man. The man who reads Scripture from a religious point of view, unrestricted by rationalistic presuppositions, gains the distinct impression that the Father responds to the wayward prodigal. That God is not free to be moved with pity for the sinner, one feels, is at variance with the essential message of the gospel.
We thus see that one of the basic defects of the single decree is its all-inclusiveness. Boettner states:
His decree . . . extends not merely to the course of the physical world but to every event in human history from the creation to the judgment, and includes all the activities of saints and angels in heaven and of reprobates and demons in hell. . . . Everything outside of God himself is included in this all-embracing decree. . .36
Barth argues that we cannot deduce election from one basic principle of naked sovereignty.37 Election soon deteriorates into determinism (despite our resorting to antinomy to save the sovereign God from authorship of sin) if it is removed from soteriology (where Calvin placed it) into the doctrine of God.
Unable to deal adequately with sin, decretal theology is thus unable to deal adequately with salvation. For salvation in Scripture is presented as the response of the Father's heart to the sin of man. It is provided for us in his elect Son who became sin for us in a definite and real historical incarnation. He thus conquered sin to which he was utterly opposed (Heb. 9:26).
Thesis 13: Any doctrine of predestination which makes God arbitrary in his judgments is unbiblical.
There is no arbitrariness in God's election:
It does not turn out to be an election—as realization of God's plan—of obscure arbitrariness, changeable and irrational, accidental and inaccessible, but an election which, while resting in God's freedom and sovereignty, is clear, irrefutable, and consistent in content and definiteness.38
On the other hand, a theology which subjects everything to the "single decree" of absolute sovereignty, makes God arbitrary. The acts of divine will have no certain relation to the nature of God and stand in isolation from his character as revealed in Jesus Christ.
The revelation of God in Christ assures us that God is reliable rather than arbitrary, that he is dependable and consistent. He works "all things according to the counsel of his will," but he has revealed his essential plan to man in Christ. With him there is "no shadow of turning."
Thus God's power may not be separated from his justice and holiness, nor from his love. The stability and trustworthiness of all God's actions are keynotes of biblical revelation. Omnipotence in abstracto is quite foreign to Scripture. Man is not the victim of the fickle whims of an arbitrary amoral dictator, but the object of the purposeful, consistent and dependable love of the Father.
Thesis 14: The rationalistic concept which centers on the hiddenness of God in his eternal decree rather than on the revelation of God in Christ is biblically inadequate.
A theology which focuses on the deus absconditus rather than on the deus revelatus in Christ may easily cast a shadow over the doctrine of election. The church must never think that what has not been revealed may contradict, and so prove a threat to what is revealed.
Scripture declares: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deut 29:29). Even with the added light of the New Covenant we "see through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). There are the "secret things" and the "revealed things," but there can be no tension between them. The light that is revealed is not in the least threatened by that which remains obscured, for the hidden God is the same God who has revealed himself in Christ. God dwells in "unapproachable light" (1 Tim 6:16). But it is light. We do not therefore respond to God's election with a mysterious shrug of the shoulders.39 Inscrutable election is in reality, fatalism.
Mystery in the doctrine of election must be freed from an all-prevailing obscurity, not by peering beyond the boundaries of faith, but by fixing the gaze on Jesus Christ.
Thesis 15: The doctrine of election which opens the door to universalism is to be rejected.
If we emphasize "election in Christ" and deny reprobation are we not thereby opting for some kind of universalism? Karl Barth is often regarded as having taken this route. Barth ties the universal love of God (with its genuine offer of salvation) to the election of God in a relationship of equality and states: "This, then, is the message with which the elect community . . . has to approach every man—the promise, that he, too, is an elect man." The only truly rejected man is Jesus Christ and by "permitting the life of a rejected man to be the life of his own Son God has made such a life objectively impossible for all others."40 The rejected are taken up into the rejected Christ who is "not reprobate but eternally loved and justified and sanctified by God." Thus the rejected man can only have been rejected. He cannot be rejected.41
There is tension throughout Barth's treatment of election. Grace is sovereign but faith is necessary. God's "determination is that, as the rejected man which he is, he should hear the proclamation of truth and come to faith."42
It is Barth's state of suspense on the question of universalism which is such a threat to the preaching of the gospel. The urgency of the gospel is now not so urgent. "Necessary faith" is perhaps not quite "necessary." In the end grace will conquer all—even unbelief. "Grace alone through faith alone" is overturned. Grace is alone.
Brunner, on the whole, agrees with Barth's presentation of election. However on some points he is strongly critical. While acknowledging that Barth rejects apokatastasis, he argues that Barth went much further than affirming this. He actually affirms that "through Jesus Christ, all, believers and unbelievers, are saved from the wrath of God and participate in redemption through Jesus Christ." Brunner objects to the concept of Jesus Christ as the only rejected one. He sees this as throwing on the "scrap heap the idea of a final divine Judgment, and the doctrine that a man may be 'lost'." He believes that in so doing Barth is in absolute opposition not only to the whole church tradition, "but—and this alone is the final objection to it—to the clear teaching of the New Testament."43
I cannot help feeling that Barth has fallen into the same trap into which the decretal theologians fell and which Barth himself wants to avoid. Brunner expresses it well: Augustinian decretal theology
was a speculation: Natural Theology on the basis of a statement which had a Biblical core. Karl Barth takes the opposite line. From the fact that according to the teaching of Scripture—Jesus Christ is the divine offer of salvation for all, he concludes that in consequence all are saved; this, too, is Natural Theology on the basis of a statement which has a Biblical core.44
Men are like people who appear to be perishing at sea. However in reality they are in shallow water where they cannot drown. Only they do not know it. In the last analysis one cannot see why preaching according to Barth is not simply announcing that we have been reconciled to God without calling men to be reconciled.
Thesis 16: Preaching which makes the decision of man primary over the election of God is a humanistic compromise of the gospel of grace.
Jesus said unequivocally: "You have not chosen me but I have chosen you" (John 15:16). An Arminian emphasis on human initiative reverses this plain statement and places priority on man's autonomy rather than on the grace of the Father-God. The sheer space given by the New Testament to dealing with those teachings which are contrary to sola gratia should convince us that human nature tends to highlight not only man's merits but also the value of his decisions.
To reject Arminian "decisionism" on the grounds of its deference to humanism does not lead us to a single alternative based on human rationalistic logic. That would be to exchange one humanism for another. There is a third way; it is the way of grace through faith as it is dynamically revealed in the Christ of the Scriptures. "By grace" makes both preacher and congregation dependent on divine initiative in election and calling. It makes the preacher a messenger rather than an innovator and saves the sinner (preacher as well as hearer) from despair. However salvation comes "through faith." Both preaching and listening are full of significance. Preaching is not merely an announcement. It demands a genuine response. It is "through faith" so that faith is not a work, nor a human component in salvation. It is trust. That is, the object of faith, Christ, is of primary concern. And faith is simply "the open hand which receives the free gift"—itself the gift of grace.
Only thus can we avoid the humanism of both decretal and Arminian theologies.
Thesis 17: To be biblical, election must promote the glory of God.
In Romans 8-11 the biblical doctrine of election which emphasizes God's gracious purpose for all men elicits praise: "To him be glory for ever. Amen" (11:36). Only salvation which is sola gratia, sola fide, and solus Christus will be soli Deo gloria.
Humanistic liberalism which focuses on man rather than on God as the initiator in salvation does not motivate spontaneous praise. The logically harmonious form of double predestination which bases itself on a concept of necessity "loses all need for the language of grace"45 and therefore for the response of praise. Praise is lost in the language of logic and in the humanism of synergism. In both, all mystery is removed. And without mystery there is no praise. The element of wonder has departed for everything has become transparent.
The proclamation of the Christocentric election of the church motivates praise. We see this in Ephesians 1-3 where Paul throughout relates "every spiritual blessing" to Christ (e.g., 1:3) and where he mounts to a mighty conclusion with the doxology: Unto "him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen."
Election, then, belongs to the life of the church and therefore to its worship. It prompts spontaneous praise. Having its origin in God it has its end also in him; it is "from" him and "unto" him. This is the "ebb and flow" of all vital proclamation. Coming from God it comes to man through preaching. It returns to its source in praise.
Thesis 18: The doctrine of election should enhance preaching and inspire evangelism.
An elective dogma which absolutizes the divine sovereignty and the eternal decree and which so emphasizes the divine prerogative that the human response is rendered meaningless or insignificant, calls into question the purpose and function of preaching. Preaching then labors under the pressure of causality. As we have seen, simplistic double predestination greatly limits preaching, for the offer of salvation to all is an empty one; symmetry casts its shadow over the kerygma.46
Wherever the identification of the elect became a sine qua non of proclamation (rather than mere explanation) it was inevitable that the identification had to be established independently of the gospel. As we have seen, this is an impossibility. Preaching was thus severely restricted by its presuppositions.
Scholasticism of the post-reformation era, unlike Calvin's theology, was refined in the rarified atmosphere of the theological schools rather than in the context of congregational life. Thus it often had a deadening effect on the pulpit.47 Preachers, often awed by the theologians, succumbed to the refined rationalism which restated the reformation doctrine as tidily as logic knew how. It became neat and lifeless.
On the other hand, far from restricting preaching, the biblical doctrine of election enhances it for it is the basis of the gospel of grace. Without election there would be no Christian preaching. It is thoroughly consistent for Paul, therefore, to have placed his important words concerning preaching (Rom. 10:14-15) in the context of his treatment of election and grace. Biblical election is no theorem, it is joyful proclamation.
As we have seen, Jesus Christ himself is at the center of the biblical doctrine of election. As Maury has stressed, we preach Christ, for he is the source and goal of all true preaching.48
Thesis 19: The electing God remains free and never becomes a prisoner of necessity.
Whenever God's single decree becomes eternal in the strict sense of the word such that God becomes equated with the decree and his will is his very essence (and elect people become necessary), then the freedom of God is lost.
Whenever God is viewed as absolutely immutable, never affected by anything outside himself (the Unmoved Mover), then God becomes a prisoner of his own attributes.
Whenever God is seen as the cause and explanation of all things in an absolute sense, then the freedom is lost because the link between cause and effect becomes a necessary one.
According to Daane, wherever God is thought of as exhaustively rational there is no room for the freedom of God in any positive sense. Nor is there any room for God's will.49 We must assert that God was free to create the world or not, to redeem it or not. His actions are not merely the outcome of his essence. God cannot be imprisoned within his attributes so that in his electing (or non-electing) he could do no other.
Daane is no doubt correct when he speaks of the use here of a secularized theological method which, in seeking to protect the sovereignty of God, puts God at the mercy of an iron-clad necessity of cause and effect. "God's sovereignty is freedom to do with his own what he will."50
We must not interpret divine freedom, says Barth, merely as a definition and attribute of a supreme form of electing posited as absolute, but rather as the "freedom of the One who loves in freedom."51 What kind of love is it which is "necessary"? Love surely ceases to be love when it ceases to be free.
God is under no obligation, either to himself or us, to elect us. The freedom of God is not merely apparent. The sovereign Father elects because he is love and not because he is obliged to do so. He elects to salvation because of his character. God loves because God is love. The expression of this love is not restricted by rational necessity or by any other obligation.
Thesis 20: The biblical doctrine of election is foundational for sola gratia.
The offence of the gospel itself with its solus Christus and sola gratia often leads to a rejection of the biblical doctrine of predestination. The natural man is offended by this gospel of grace which rejects his works as meritorious.
Any attempts to separate sola gratia from election is doomed to lead us away from the New Testament witness. Thus the identifying of foreknowledge (prognosis) with predestination (from proorizo) is a humanistic interpretation of Scripture. Prescience, with its projection of synergism into the counsel of God, implies that salvation comes from man as well as God.52 The biblical doctrine of election, however, never detracts from sola gratia, but establishes and guarantees it.
Thesis 21: The doctrine of election ought to strengthen assurance of salvation.
There was something tragically at fault in those reformed churches of the post-reformation era in which a mere handful of a large membership attended communion. The very doctrine which ought to have been ground for assurance created widespread uncertainty. It was inevitable, however, that a rationalistic decretal theology should cast a shadow over the very willingness of God to save. God became Absolute Power and election became an ominous threat to salvation rather than a window to the Father's saving heart. The result was tormenting uncertainty.
Nowhere in Scripture is there any tension between election and certainty. The election of decretal theology, however, brings a menacing threat to sensitive believers.
The churchman seeks a sense of certainty: Does he belong to the numerus praedestinatorum? This question cannot be answered apart from the good news of salvation. The gospel itself is the source of assurance, for it affirms God's determination to save all who have faith. Predestination can only be a threat to assurance of salvation if it is severed from the gospel and from the preaching of Christ.
In this connection, Calvin speaks of a "bottomless whirlpool," "innumerable and inextricable snares" and "an abyss of sightless darkness." It is fatal, he says, to enquire into the eternal decree without the Word.53 This involves us in looking to Christ, for if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently strong that we are written in the Book of Life.54
Not nagging uncertainty but full assurance is the product of the biblical teaching on election: "In the very foreground of our existence in history we can and should cleave wholly and with full assurance to him because in the eternal background of history . . . the old decree which was passed . . . was the decision which was executed by him."55
We must also notice that assurance is impossible apart from the biblical doctrine of sola fide: "I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13). But as we have seen, the biblical doctrine of election establishes the doctrine of sola fide.
It is also impossible to walk the way of certainty apart from sanctification (1 John 3:14). The works of sanctification, which are also the works (fruit) of faith, are not the ground of salvation but its evidence. Thus "faith alone" is not overthrown by the works of assurance. Assurance does not come by peering into the hidden decree of God, but by observing (by faith) the evidence of salvation in the works of faith and love.
The biblical doctrines of assurance and sanctification, then, are closely associated with the doctrine of election in Christ: "He (Christ) was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake. Through him you have confidence in God.... Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren love one another earnestly" (1 Pet 1:20f). Election in Christ, assurance in God, and sanctification in the Spirit are never far removed from one another.
Thesis 22: The biblical doctrine of election does not render the human response meaningless.
Any doctrine which gives such priority to divine sovereignty that the human response is made unnecessary, unreal, or the product of sheer determinism drives a wedge between sola gratia and sola fide. Preaching loses its urgency and may be rendered altogether superfluous.
It is not easy to define the relationship between grace and faith. Berkouwer writes: "To be sure, there is a connection between the divine and the human act. The divine act makes room, leaves open the possibility for man's act. That possibility is not absorbed or destroyed by divine superiority, but created, called forth, by it. And within that 'room', that possibility, God's work is honored according to his sovereign pleasure."56 This response of man excludes cooperation and synergism. But it also excludes determinism and fatalism.
Scripture certainly stresses the divine initiative: "No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:44. See also v 37). Nevertheless Jesus adds: "Truly, truly I say to you, he who believes has eternal life" (v 47). What Scripture presents together we must not separate. Grace is certainly primary—it is by grace through faith that we are saved. However faith is necessary for salvation.
Thus election must be thought of in terms of the Trinity. Not even election in Christ can be abstracted from the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit who creates and draws forth a genuine response in the believer to the preaching of the Word.
Thesis 23: We must affirm that God creates what he elects rather than that he selects out of what exists.
Israel is called into existence. Election is tied to promise and the seed of Israel is not the product of selection but of creation. God created what he elected. Election is the creation of something out of its opposite—possibility out of impossibility. It is a matter of creation rather than a parallel to rejection.
The focus in our doctrine of election, therefore, must not be on selection. Election is a creative act. In biblical thought Israel, Christ, and the Church are not "existing realities that God selectively chooses out of a number of extant Israels, Christs, or churches. . . . They are created by the dynamics of election, for they are what they are only by virtue of their election."57
Emphasis on a selective decree takes the attention away from the biblical emphasis on the Last Judgment and robs preaching of one of its powerful motives. In the teaching of Jesus, the division always occurs in the Last Day, not before creation (Matt 25:32). Selective election deprives preaching of its eschatological dimension and becomes a fait accompli rather than an incentive for repentance. Decretal theology is facing in exactly the opposite direction from biblical theology!!!
Maury argues that predestination has often become the doctrine of the predestined rather than the doctrine of the God who predestines. It is anthropological rather than theological doctrine. He says "it is turned into an agonizing business of preselection, since it takes place not at the Last Judgment, as has been proclaimed, but before all existence. . .58 But the God who predestines is the Father-Creator who elects his children in his only Son, who creates his church out of nothing, who calls all men to be saved and to flee from the wrath to come.
In the words of G. C. Berkouwer: "Scripture showed us that in the doctrine of God's election the issue is not a decretum absolutum, abstracted from Jesus Christ, neither a necessitus rerum which cannot be changed under any circumstances, nor a dark and irrational power of the potentia absoluta. Rather Scripture points in its doxologies and songs in praise of the free election of God to the deep, unfathomable source of salvation in Jesus Christ."59
We have seen that preaching has often labored under a caricatured doctrine of election; indeed sometimes it has been quite a monstrous one. The pulpit must free itself on the one hand from a rationalized and an externalized dogmatic system of deterministic causality, and on the other, from the pretentiousness of a humanistic Pelagianism.
Rationalism and humanism have had a debilitating effect on the pulpit. A revival of expository preaching would allow election to be proclaimed in its dynamic biblical context. There is also a need for non-polemical ecumenical dialogue between reformed and non-reformed churches, especially between those which seek a deeper scriptural understanding of the faith.
Throughout we have seen that Scripture rescues us from the necessity of deciding for rationalistic election or Arminian decisionism. What I have called the Third Way of Election is open to us. It is well summarized by Barth: "The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. .
Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God."60
From Robert J. Hillman, "Scriptural Election: The Third Way," Studia Biblica et Theologica 7, no.1 (Apr.1977): 46-68. Copyright (c) 1977 by the Associated Students of Fuller Theological Seminary. Reprinted by permission. Biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version.
1 E.g., G. C. Berkouwer, James Daane, and Karl Barth.
2 G. C. Berkouwer, Divine Election, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960) 23.
3 G. C. Berkouwer, 23.
4 H. Pietersma, "Predestination II," Reformed Journal 17 No.1 (1967(18.
5 James Daane, The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973) 104.
6 L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946).
7 Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (5th ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941).
8 Berkouwer, 309.
9 Berkouwer, 310.
10 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2 The Doctrine of God (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957) 313.
11 Karl Barth, 10.
12 Pierre Maury, Predestination and Other Papers (Richmond: John Knox, 1960) 68.
13 Harry Boer, "Suggestions for a Theology of Election," Reformed Journal 15 No.1 (1965) 5.
14 Barth, 3.
15 Daane, 200.
16 Harold Dekker, "God so loved—All men!," Reformed Journal 12 No.11 (1962) 6.
17 Dekker, Sf.
18 James Daane, "The Five Points of 1966," Reformed Journal 16 No.5 (1966) 16f.
19 Harry Boer, "For Whom Did Christ Die?" Reformed Journal 16 No.5 (1966) 19.
20 Henry Pietersma, "Predestination and the Trinity," Reformed Journal 17 No.9 (1967) 11.
21 Boettner, 83.
22 Maury, 61.
23 Berkouwer, 178.
24 Berkouwer, 202.
25 Berkouwer, 243.
26 Harry Boer, "The Doctrine of Reprobation and the Preaching of the Gospel," Reformed Journal 15 No.3 (1965) 13f.
27 Boer, "The Doctrine of Reprobation," 14f.
28 Maury, 58.
29 Daane, The Freedom of God, 64.
30 Daane likens rationalistic evangelicalism's concept of history to a kind of cosmic telephone conveying the eternal message but not part of it (The Freedom of God, 75). This of course is irreconcilable with the biblical doctrine of incarnation.
31 Daane, The Freedom of God, 72. eschatological fulfillment in Christ.
32 Henry Pietersma, "Predestination," Reformed Journal 16 No. 10 (1966) 22.
33 Daane, The Freedom of God, 80.
34 Daane, The Freedom of God, 85.
35 Supra—above; lapsare—to lapse, fall. Election is logically prior to the fall as far as God's purpose is concerned. Cf. infralapsarianism (infra—below); election is consequent upon the fall as far as the divine purpose is concerned.
36 Boettner, 13.
37 Barth, 10.
38 Berkouwer, 70.
39 Barth, 104.
40 Barth, 318, 346.
41 Barth, 451, 453.
42 Barth, 458.
43 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, Dogmatics I (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946) 348, 349.
44 Brunner, 350f.
45 Daane, The Freedom of God, 173.
46 Berkouwer, 223.
47 Daane, The Freedom of God, 152.
48 Maury, 69.
49 Daane, The Freedom of God, 161.
50 James Daane, "Christ's Atonement and God's Sovereignty," Reformed Journal 15 No.4 (1965)16, 17.
51 Barth, 25.
52 See Berkouwer, 35, 42.
53 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Library of Christian Classics; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960)111 xxiv 4.
54 Calvin, Institutes III xxiv 5.
55 Barth, 115.
56 Berkouwer, 46. Italics mine.
57 Daane, The Freedom of God, 150.
58 Maury, 37.
59 Berkouwer, 172.
60 Barth, 3.