Teaching Election Properly (The Canons of Dort)

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It is often said that there is a right way to do things, and a wrong way to do things. And that is true even when it comes to how we are to teach and preach the doctrine of election.

The 1st point of doctrine in the Canons of Dort is “Divine Election and Reprobation.” It then further breaks out the various aspects of this point of doctrine into no less than 18 “articles” (or sub-points).  Article 14 is about the proper way to teach the doctrine of election.  It says,

As the doctrine of divine election by the most wise counsel of God was declared by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the Apostles, and is clearly revealed in the Scriptures both of the Old and the New Testament, so it is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed, provided it be done with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety, for the glory of God’s most holy Name, and for the enlivening and comforting His people, without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the Most High.

Notice that the first thing this article establishes is that the doctrine of election is thoroughly biblical, and so because of that it is most certainly to be taught. So the first thing about teaching the doctrine of election properly is, well, to teach it. It is to be taught. If we fail to teach it, we are failing to teach the whole counsel of God. If we fail to teach it we are failing to teach what was “declared by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the Apostles.”

The second thing we see in this article is that there is a proper time and place for teaching the doctrine of election.  It is still to be taught in the church of God. It is clearly taught in Scripture, and is clearly taught throughout Scripture, but it is not found in every text. If it is in the text, preach it, and preach it plainly. But don’t look for it under every bush, so to speak.

The third thing that this article tells us about the right way to teach the doctrine of election is that it is to be done “with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety.”  Election is an act of the grace and mercy of the most holy God in saving sinners, and so it should be preached in such a way that it reflects that truth properly. It should not be used as a means to show how wise or learned we are (or how foolish or unlearned those who disagree with us on this issue are).

It should also be taught “for the glory of God’s most holy Name.” At times the doctrine of election can be taught in such a way that the glory actually seems to go to us for having believed it properly or for teaching it unashamedly. (There is something highly ironic about someone being proud of a right understanding of God’s sovereign grace, isn’t there?) If we are guilty of that, we are not teaching the doctrine of election properly, not by a long shot. The doctrine of election, whereby God has chosen us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) is to be taught “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6). This doctrine should lead to doxology!

The doctrine of election is also to be taught “for enlivening and comforting” God’s people.  In other words, for believers in Christ election and predestination have to do with comfort and assurance. If we are teaching election in such a way that we are in effect beating people over the head with it, we are doing something wrong. Genuine believers may find the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace confusing at times, but they should never find the manner of our preaching and teaching of it to be deflating or disturbing. It should be clear that we are seeking their growth in holiness and godly comfort in teaching it. If our teaching of election leads to laziness or discouragement, there is  something amiss.

The last thing that article 14 tells us is that we are to teach the doctrine of election, but not in such a way that we go beyond what the Scriptures actually tell us about it. We should not use it as a springboard to vainly attempt “to investigate the secret ways of the Most High.” This is probably most often done with regard to the implications of the doctrine. For example, we might wrongly suppose that if God chooses whom He is going to save, then we do not then need to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). If our understanding of election leads us to disregard or downplay the clear commands of God to His church, we are doing something wrong.

So while we must certainly be careful that we are understanding and stating the doctrine of election accurately as it is taught in Scripture, we must also be careful to teach it properly, in the correct context, and with the right purposes in mind as well. To simply teach it in the first place is certainly a good start (and is doing more than most), but that is not nearly enough.

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