The Biblical Background
This is by no means a history of the doctrine of Election. It is an attempt to provide the reader with some sense of continuity. For the doctrine of Predestination and Election is not a new thing that began with Calvin and has since gradually lost favour with the passing of the years until today it is believed by only a few and understood by even fewer. It is synonymous with the Gospel of salvation by grace. It is the Gospel, in fact.
Every departure from the doctrine of Election in any degree has been a departure from the Gospel, for such departure always involves the introduction of some obligation on man's part to make a contribution towards his own salvation, a contribution he simply cannot make. This is unrealistic with respect to man and dishonoring with respect to God. There are no shades of truth here. This is an all-or-nothing doctrine. Election and the Gospel are alike in this. There are no halfway positions that are not a total betrayal of the truth of God. Paul is very explicit and completely logical when he says regarding the method by which man is to be saved, "If [it is] by grace, then it is no more works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work" (Rom. 11:6). There simply is no way out of this equation. If man contributes anything whatever to his salvation, even his own responsiveness of heart or the exercise of his own faith, then salvation is no longer by grace. For it becomes a co-operative effort between man and God in which the decision of man and not of God determines the issue.
Mention of the words Election or Predestination today, in any but a theological environment, almost inevitably brings to people's minds the name of Calvin as though it all began with him and was an unheard-of doctrine before his time. Very few are aware of the continuity of the tradition during the centuries following the close of the New Testament. Even fewer people are aware of the fact that John's Gospel probably contains the most explicit and most frequent statements on the subject to be found in the Bible. And perhaps almost no one who has not studied the subject in depth will be aware that the Old Testament is also full of it. It is, in very truth, the kernel of the Gospel and thus is common to the whole of Scripture in symbol, parable, and plain declaration.
It is not my intention to trace the history of the doctrine in detail as it was subsequently developed in Christian theology since apostolic times. But it may be helpful to establish a kind of framework in order that the serious but historically uninformed reader will be able to see the various nuances of interpretation as they were developed by succeeding generations. Calvin by no means stands alone except perhaps in the thoroughness with which he worked out the implications, and in the lucidity of his reasoning. John Owen, among others who followed Calvin, wrote almost as much on the subject; but Owen seems to have felt that the use of any kind of literary device (even simple eloquence!) for the communicating of such truths was unworthy of the subject. His writing is somewhat stilted as a consequence and requires considerable dedication on the part of the reader to pursue his reasoning to the end. He is as exhausting to read, in many places, as his argument is exhaustive. He has accordingly suffered the penalty of too much erudition by being less well known.
But let us make a quick survey of the evidence in the Old Testament, and the New, in order to establish just for the moment the fact that Calvin was indeed continuing a very scriptural tradition by his insistence on the absolute sovereignty of God in the matter of man's salvation. What I propose to do first of all is to draw attention to passages of Scripture which are unequivocal and which need few words of explanation. They represent the tips of icebergs. Just below the surface is a mass of evidence that only the perceptive reader will be likely to recognize for himself. For most of us, much of the supporting evidence has to be drawn to our attention. Once it has been, we may wonder how we could have been reading the Word of God for so many years without becoming aware of the true nature of its message.
In the Old Testament there are numerous references to the basic doctrines of the Reformers, to the Total Depravity of man, to the absolute sovereignty of God in the life of the individual even as God is sovereign in the history of the human race, and to the necessity of divine initiative in salvation as an act of pure grace on the part of God. Frequently these statements are categorical. Sometimes they are veiled in language appropriate to the spirit of the Old Testament Scriptures in which theology remains largely unstructured, the basic objective being the elucidation of religious (it would perhaps be appropriate and better to use the term Christian) experience. For the Old Testament is experience spelled out within the framework of history at large. It is not until we reach the Epistles that we enter the arena of Christian theology in the reasoned, step-by-step, formal sense of the term, characteristic of Paul's letters.
Consider, then, the following passages from the Old Testament. First, those which underscore the total sinfulness of human nature:
And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Gen. 6:5).Then we have those passages which declare the sovereignty of God not only in the general sweep of history but in the particulars of individual lives:
Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? (Job 14:4).
What is man, that he should be clean? And he who is born of a woman. that he should be righteous?...How much more abominable and filthy is man, who drinketh iniquity like water? (Job 15:14, 16).
The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one (Ps. 14: 2, 3).
Behold, I was shaped in iniquity; in sin did my mother conceive me (Ps. 51:5).
God looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek God. Every one of them is gone back; they are altogether become filthy. There is none that doeth good, no, not one (Ps. 53:2, 3).
Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil (Eccles. 8:11).
Why should ye be stricken any more7 Ye will revolt more and more the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises, and putrefying sores. They have not been closed, nor bound up, neither mollified with ointment (Isa. 1:5, 6).
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:6).
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags, and we do all fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away (Isa. 64:6).
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jer. 17:9).
The good man perisheth out of the earth, and there is none upright among men; they all lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net.
That they may do evil with both hands earnestly, the prince asketh, and the judge asketh for a reward; and the great man, he uttereth his mischievous desires, so they weave it together.
The best of them is like a brier; the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge...(Micah 7:2-4).
The kingdom is the Lord's: and He is governor among the nations (Ps. 22:28).These verses are not selective in their application but seem clearly to apply to saved and unsaved alike. Turning more specifically to the matter of Election to salvation, consider the following:
For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: He putteth down one and setteth up another (Ps. 75:6, 7).
Surely the wrath of man shall praise Thee: the remainder of wrath shalt Thou restrain (Ps. 76:10).
The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens; and his kingdom ruleth over all (Ps. 103:19).
Our God is in the heavens; He hath done whatsoever He hath pleased (Ps. 115:3).
Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that He did in heaven, and in the earth, in the seas, and all deep places. (Ps. 135:6).
A man's heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps (Prov. 16:9).
There are many devices in a man's heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand (Prov. 19:21).
Man's goings are of the Lord; how can a man then understand his own way? (Prov. 20:24).
The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will (Prov. 21:1).
There is none that can deliver out of my hand: I will work and who shall hinder it? Thus saith the Lord (Isa. 43:13).
Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when the Lord commanded it not? (Lam. 3:37).
Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, caused his army to serve a great service against Tyre; and every head was made bald, and every shoulder was peeled: yet had he no wages, nor his army, for Tyre, for the service that he had served against it: Therefore, thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will give the land of Egypt unto Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and he shall take her multitude, and take her spoil and take her prey; and it shall be wages for his army. I have given him the land of Egypt for his labour wherewith he served against it, because they wrought for Me, saith the Lord God (Ezek. 29:18-20).
Daniel said, Blessed be the name of God, for ever and ever, for wisdom and might are his. And He changeth the times and seasons; He removeth kings and setteth up kings (Dan. 2:20, 21).
...to the intent that the living may know that the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men and giveth it to whomsoever He will and setteth up over it the basest of men (Dan. 4:17).
[Nebuchadnezzar blessed and honoured Him] whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and [whose] kingdom is from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and He doeth according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay his hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou? (Dan. 4:34, 35).
The Most High God ruleth in the kingdom of men, and He appointeth over it whosoever He will (Dan. 5:21).
...the Lord will show who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto Him: even him whom He hath chosen will He cause to come near unto Him (Num. 16:5).It should not be too surprising, in the light of such passages as these that the Gospels should reflect the same truth. When man approaches God in search of salvation in God's way, it is only because he has first been called of God and inclined towards Him in his search. What is perhaps more surprising is that the clearest of all of the Gospels in this respect is John's, which is pre-eminently the Gospel of love in most people's eyes. In view of the fact that popular opinion holds Election to be a cold if not actually a repugnant doctrine, reflecting the harshness and unfairness of God rather than his love and graciousness, a great many Christian readers never even look for evidences of Election in John. But the doctrine is more firmly established here than in any one of the synoptic Gospels, and it is for the most part by reference to the words of our Lord Himself rather than to the descriptive matter supplied by the evangelist that the truth is best established.
I have reserved to Myself seven thousand which have not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).
"Blessed is the man whom Thou chooses," and causest to approach unto Thee (Ps. 65:4).
Quicken us and we will call upon thy name. Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts...and we shall be saved (Ps. 80:18, 19).
Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power (Ps. 110:3).
The preparation of the heart in man, and the response [answer] of the tongue, is from the Lord (Prov. 16:1).
Lord, Thou wilt ordain peace for us: for Thou hast wrought all our works in us (Isa. 26:12).
Oh Lord, I know that the way of a man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps (Jer. 10:23).
Turn Thou me, and I shall be turned; for Thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned. I repented...(Jer. 31:18, 19).
I will pardon whom I reserve (Jer. 50:20).
Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord, and we shall be turned (Lam. 5:21).
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them (Ezek. 36:26, 27).
We shall have occasion later to examine this evidence much more fully, but consider only what the Lord said as revealed in John 6. Putting together the words of verses 37, 39, 40, 44, and 65, we have this clear enunciation of Election to salvation by grace initiated entirely by the Father:
All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me...And this is the Father's will which hath sent Me, that of all which He hath given Me, I shall lose nothing.... This is the will of Him that sent Me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on Him, may have everlasting life...No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him and I will raise him up at the last day.
The result of these statements made with such force and repetition by the Lord was that many of his disciples were highly offended. And why not? These statements simply reduced the disciples' price to zero, for if they were to be saved it was to be in no sense to their personal credit. But how did Jesus respond to their protestations of offence? He reiterated his words, in no uncertain terms: "Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto him of my Father." How this must have humbled them when it dawned upon them that He really meant it. We are told, in fact, that "from that time many of his disciples went back and walked no more with Him" (v. 66).
There is no doubt about it. The chapters which precede bear out the implications of this pronouncement. We are not born again by the will of man, nor by the will of the flesh, nor by blood relationship--but of God. It is God, and God alone who gives us power to become his children (John 1:12, 13).
Equally clear is the Lord's statement in John 15:16: "Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you."
Peter is no less positive in his first sermon when he says in Acts 2:38, 39: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you and to your children and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord, our God, shall call." These words were spoken in the Spirit of Numbers 16:5 ("The Lord will show who are his, and who is holy: and will cause him to come near unto Him: even him whom He hath chosen will He cause to come near unto Him") and in the spirit of Jeremiah 50:20 ("I will pardon whom I reserve").
It is Paul who not merely proclaims the sovereignty of God in this matter of Election unto salvation but who formalizes and structures the doctrine, giving us by revelation most of the light we have on other aspects of God's elective grace such as, for example, why one is chosen and another is not. It is Paul whose whole theology of salvation by grace is presented as an equivalent to the Gospel itself by showing that if man is saved entirely without making any contribution himself, he must be saved by sovereign grace. For if man contributes anything whatsoever, and that contribution is essential to his salvation, he is in the final analysis saved by his contribution. If we are saved by any kind of co-operative effort between man and God, no matter how little is man's contribution and how much is God's, then grace is no more grace (Rom. 11:6). It is an all-or-nothing situation.
But man's contribution need not be in the form of actual deeds to his credit; it could be merely that he decides to respond favorably to the moving of the Holy Spirit in his heart. Others don't, and they are lost. He does, and he is saved. The decision is his. His responsiveness is his contribution. But Paul is clear on this, for it too would at once become the key, as indeed it is often said to be from the pulpit today. It would make the salvation of the individual a joint effort and immediately raises the question of why one man responds and another does not. Does the responding individual thereby demonstrate a superior soul? Is salvation then limited to those of superior nature? Paul says, No! "It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy" (Rom. 9:16). John says that it is not by the will of man but by the will of God that we become his children (John 1:11, 13): and James says, "Of his own will begat he us" (James 1:18).
The same is true of faith. It is not even our faith that saves, but the faith of Jesus Christ--not the faith in Jesus Christ as some translators would like it to be and interpret it accordingly. Thus we read in Paul's letter to the Galatians (2:16): "A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ." And again in Galatians 3:22, "The Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise of [the] faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe." So much importance has been attached to the exercise of faith as the basis of salvation that this has become our contribution, as though a dead man could exercise faith in his own resurrection sufficient to guarantee it. Man is not saved by his own faith any more than he is saved by his own decision not to resist the Holy Spirit. Because the moment we allow such a thing, we give credit to those who have this ability in distinction from those who do not. And the fortunate ones achieve salvation simply because they are in some way different in themselves. They would have every right to boast in heaven. But boasting is excluded (Rom. 3:27). We are saved by grace through faith--and that not of ourselves: it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8, 9). We do not even contribute our own"saving faith. And so boasting is excluded indeed.
Otherwise we have to ask in what way do men differ, for certainly some respond and some believe, while others do neither and are lost. Paul asks accordingly: "Who maketh thee to differ from another! And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?" (1 Cor. 4:7). Of course, we don't overtly say, "I was a better man because I was receptive and had faith." But t his is tacitly accepted by most of us as the essential difference between the saved and the unsaved, that is, between the haves and the have-nots. And from the pulpit we appeal to men on this basis. And so we proclaim another Gospel which is not a Gospel at all, for it assumes a capability in man that he simply does not have. Saving faith is not offered to man by God: it is conferred upon him. This is Paul's Gospel, and the corollary of such a conferring is either an Election that is sovereign but limited in extent to those who are saved, or it is a Gospel that is impotent, the vast majority of those for whom salvation is intended being able to thwart the purposes of God. Then is man stronger than God? No, for Paul quotes the Lord's words to Moses regarding God's own fixed intention: "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Rom. 9:15).
Of course the great difficulty that many have with such a doctrine, presented as it is by Paul with unrelenting logic and without apology, is that it seems to make man a puppet as far as his salvation is concerned so that superficially it seems as though he cannot possibly be blamed for being lost. How could he be blamed if it is not God's intention to grant him the initial responsiveness of soul and the final requisite faith? Indeed! Even this problem Paul does not seek to escape. "Thou wilt say then unto me, why doth He yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?" (Rom. 9:19). It seemed to many thoughtful people, schooled in the exercise of logic from the Greek masters, that Paul was undermining human responsibility and thus weakening the effectiveness of the threat of punishment in the world to come as an incentive to good behaviour in this world. The sanction of the law was being removed, if man was not responsible for having refused the offer of God's mercy. It seemed essential to restore human responsibility in order to ensure godliness of life.
It was partly because no answer seemed at first to be forthcoming to this question, and partly because man likes to feel he is a free agent, and partly because the influence of Greek philosophy persuaded men that human reason could discover the truth without revelation, that the early Christian apologists looked to their own minds for the answer and concluded that Paul was being misunderstood. Little by little man's inner resources were wrongly estimated and a more humanly reasonable view of the way of salvation was substituted for the Pauline theology, Man still needed salvation, but it was now seen as something possible with God's help--man cooperating by a certain willingness to acknowledge his need and express his faith. This much of human goodness had remained to him in spite of his fallen nature.
The extent to which the adulteration of the Gospel had proceeded by Augustine's time will be seen in quotations from two of his contemporaries who were among the great leaders (or "Fathers" as they are called) of the Church. The first is Chrysostom (c. 350-407), Bishop of Constantinople, who wrote: "Since God has placed good and evil in our power, He has granted free decision of choice and does not restrain the unwilling but embraces the willing." And "Just as we can never do anything rightly unless we are aided by God's grace, so we cannot acquire heavenly favour unless we bring our portion." And "In order that not everything may depend on divine help, we must at the same time bring something ourselves." "Let us bring what is ours: God will furnish the rest." (1) The whole sentiment here is clear: man is required to make a contribution towards his own salvation.
We meet with the same sentiment in the work of Jerome (c. 345 - 419), perhaps the greatest linguistic scholar of his time and translator of the Vulgate or Latin Version of the Bible, which for centuries was the "Authorized Version" of the Church of Rome. Jerome wrote: "Ours is to begin, God's to fulfill; ours to offer what we can, his to supply what we cannot." (2)
The writers who came after Chrysostom and Jerome went from bad to worse until it came to the point that man was commonly thought to be corrupted only in his sensual nature while retaining a perfectly unblemished reason and a will largely unimpaired.
And it was into such a theological climate that Augustine, later Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, was introduced when, under the influence of Ambrose, he was wonderfully converted. The story of his conversion is beautifully set forth by himself in his Confessions. Let us see how it came about, as far as possible in his own words, for he was a truly eloquent man.
1. Quoted in John Calvin, Institutes of
the Christian Religion, II. ii.4.