Election

“The Infallible Fruits of Election” (The Canons of Dort and Assurance)

The overarching concern of the Canons of Dort is not just a doctrinal or theological one, but a decidedly pastoral and experiential one as well. And that is demonstrated in the fact that a common theme throughout the First Head of Doctrine (i.e. unconditional election) is that of assurance.

In many ways the doctrines of Arminianism undermine assurance, and so the Canons here show how a right understanding of the biblical doctrine of election actually serves to establish and strengthen the assurance of believers.

Article 11

“And as God Himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent, so the election made by Him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled or annulled; neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.”

Arminianism teaches a conditional election from start to finish. Not only does it wrongly teach that God’s election of sinners to salvation is based on foreseen faith at the beginning, but it also holds that one can abandon the faith and lose his or her salvation in the end, rendering God’s decree of election in a sense temporary. Article 11 here clearly refutes that error.

Contrary to the errors of Arminianism, the Canons remind us that God is “most wise, unchangeable, omniscient and omnipotent,” so that the idea that His decree could change or be in need of revision is blasphemous. Nothing can change God’s gracious decree of election from all eternity, and so “neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.”

In his book, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, Robert Godfrey writes:

“Election reflects the very character of God. As God is immutable, so His purpose in election is immutable. Nothing can interfere with God’s implementing his decree of election. In particular, the specific number of the elect cannot be reduced. This conviction is foundational to the doctrine of God and to predestination as well as to the teaching on assurance found throughout the canons.” (p.93)

So the biblical doctrine of election, properly understood, is a matter of utmost importance, as it has to do not just with assurance of salvation, but even with our doctrine of God. Because God is immutable, so is His decree and purpose in election. And that should be a rather encouraging truth for believers.

Article 12

“The elect in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures, attain the assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election, not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves, with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God — such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”

Here in Article 12 we are taught the right way to understand the relationship between election and assurance. Believers are not to try to attain the assurance of their election by “inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God,” which is impossible for us to do. (See Deuteronomy 29:29.) Rather, we are to seek to observe in ourselves “the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God — such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.”

In other words, how do you know if you are one of God’s elect? You look to your true faith in Christ, repentance, desire to grow in holiness, etc. as the “infallible fruits” or evidence of God’s election. In this way we are to ‘make our calling and election sure’ (2 Peter 1:10). How often do sincere believers lack a sense of assurance because we look to the wrong things as evidence of our salvation?

Election is known by its fruits. And the “infallible” or unmistakable fruits of election consist not in some secret, hidden knowledge of God’s decree, nor in some kind of ecstatic spiritual experience, but rather in simple and sincere faith in Christ, repentance, etc. And so if you want to know whether or not you are one of God’s elect, the thing to ask is simply, “Am I a believer in Christ? Have I sincerely turned from sin and turned to Christ by faith?”

And notice that Article 12 points out that the elect attain the assurance of their eternal and unchangeable election “in due time, though in various degrees and in different measures.” Assurance is not just automatic and may take some time, and it may come “in varying degrees” rather than in completeness or perfection.

Article 13

“The sense and certainty of this election afford to the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation before Him, for adoring the depth of His mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to Him, who first manifested so great love towards them. The consideration of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness in the observance of the divine commands or from sinking men in carnal security, that these, in the just judgment of God, are the usual effects of rash presumption or of idle and wanton trifling with the grace of election in those who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect.”

Some who oppose the doctrine of election seem to confuse assurance with presumption, fearing that assurance would lead to loose living. But here we see the difference between assurance and presumption.

True faith and assurance lead to humility, adoration of God’s mercy and grace, and to seeking to grow in holiness and love for God because of His great love for us in Christ. It is sinful presumption (and not assurance) that rather leads to “remissness in the observance of the divine commands” and a neglect of holiness in the fear of God. And such as are remiss in these things will necessarily be lacking in any genuine assurance of salvation, as long as those “infallible fruits” of election are lacking or absent in their lives.

Election as “The Fountain of Every Saving Good” (Canons of Dort 1.9.)

In Articles 1-7 of the First Head of Doctrine (Unconditional Election), we saw in some detail where Arminians and Calvinists both agree (Articles 1-4) and where their respective views begin to diverge (i.e. the source of saving faith in Christ, God’s eternal decree, and the definition of election – Articles 5-7), we now proceed to a brief examination of Articles 8-10.

In Articles 8-10 we get to the heart of the matter regarding the doctrine of unconditional election. For here we are plainly taught that God’s decree of election unto salvation in Christ is the same in both the Old and New Testaments (Article 8); that it was not based upon “foreseen faith” or anything else in us (Article 9); and that the sole cause of God’s gracious purposes in election is merely “the good pleasure of God” (Article 10).

Article 8

“There are not various decrees of election, but one and the same decree respecting all those who shall be saved, both under the Old and New Testament; since the Scripture declares the good pleasure, purpose and counsel of the divine will to be one, according to which He hath chosen us from eternity, both to grace and glory, to salvation and the way of salvation, which He hath ordained that we should walk therein.”

Here the argument is from the immutability of God as well as the unity of God’s decree. God does not change, and His purpose in election and salvation has not changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Later in the section of this Head of doctrine detailing the rejection of errors, the Synod notes that they “reject the error of those who teach” that “there are various kinds of election of God unto eternal life . . . .” (Rejection 2)

As to the unity of God’s decree, Ephesians 1:11 tells us, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” (ESV) The counsel of God’s will is singular or simple (i.e. one, unified), even as God Himself is One. Paul there does not speak of God’s purposes (i.e. plural), but rather of His “purpose” (i.e. singular).

That God’s decree of election is one and the same in both the Old and New Testament is clearly evident because in teaching and establishing the doctrine of divine election in the New Testament, Paul explicitly points us back to the Old Testament. In fact, he does so throughout Romans chapter 9, using Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as examples of God’s saving purpose in election. For example:

“And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10–13, ESV, Italics added)

God chose to save Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And Paul explicitly teaches us the Jacob was chosen by God before he was even born or “had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might continue” (or stand – KJV). And so God’s decree of election has not changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

Article 9

“This election was not founded upon foreseen faith, and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc.; therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceeds faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to that of the apostle: “He hath chosen us [not because we were but] that we should be holy, and without blame, before Him in love” (Eph. 1:4).”

Here we see the Canons beginning to explicitly address the heart of the Arminians’ error regarding election. Arminianism views God’s election as being in some ways conditional. That is, it holds that God’s election unto salvation was based on something that He foresaw in those whom He would choose, such as faith, obedience, holiness, etc. This makes something inherent in us the very basis for our election.

Contrary to this unbiblical idea, the Canons here affirm that God’s election of sinners unto salvation was in no way based or conditioned upon something foreseen in them, but rather that we are chosen unto those things. God’s gracious decree of election is rather the cause of such things as faith, holiness, etc. That is why the Canons speak of God’s decree of election as “the fountain of every saving good” in us. In his book, Saving the Reformation, W. Robert Godfrey puts it this way:

“Election does not flow from faith or holiness, but rather, faith and holiness flow from election.” (p.92)

And so we are not chosen by God because we will one day believe, but rather because we are chosen by God unto salvation before the foundation of the world, we will therefore believe, repent, and walk in holiness, etc. All of those gifts and graces flow from God’s gracious decree of election, not vice-versa. And this is clearly taught in Ephesians 1:4, where Paul tells us that God chose us in Christ, not because we already were or would be holy and without blame before Him, but rather so “that we should be holy, and without blame, before Him in love” (italics added).

Article 10

“The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election, which doth not consist herein, that out of all possible qualities and actions of men God has chosen some as a condition of salvation; but that He was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to Himself, as it is written, “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil,” etc., it was said (namely to Rebecca): “The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom. 9:11-13). “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).”

Article 10 teaches us that the mere “good pleasure of God” is the “sole cause” of God’s decree of election. The sole cause of election is in God Himself, and so all of the glory for our salvation, from beginning to end, belongs to Him alone.

The Arminian view basically teaches that God chose the conditions of salvation (faith, repentance, holiness, etc.) ahead of time, rather than choosing the individual sinners themselves unto salvation. Contrary to that, the Canons here teach and affirm that God “was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to Himself.”

Once again the Canons point us to Romans 9:11-13 (i.e. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau). Here we are also pointed to Acts 13:48, which tells us, “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” This verse does not teach us that they were ordained to eternal life because they believed (i.e. the Arminian view), but rather that the very reason that they believed and were saved is precisely because they had been previously “ordained to eternal life.”

Unconditional Election (Canons of Dort – First Head of Doctrine)

This first head of doctrine expounded and defended in the Canons of Dort is Divine predestination (or unconditional election). The Canons break down the biblical teaching on this heading or subject into 18 articles (basically sub-points), followed by 9 points of explicit rejection of errors which were (and in some cases still are) taught by those who hold to Arminianism. Rather than trying to deal with all 27 points in one study, we will simply highlight some of the more significant aspects of the Canons’ teaching over the span of a number of posts.

The first four (4) articles state truths of Scripture that are basic to any right understanding of the gospel, things which both Calvinists and Arminians would more or less equally affirm. These are summarized as follows:

1. All men have sinned in Adam and are deserving of eternal condemnation and wrath for our sins. (See Romans 3:23; 6:23.) 2. God’s love for lost sinners was manifested in Him sending His only-begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life. (See John 3:16; 1 John 4:9.) 3. In order that sinners may come to a saving faith in Christ, God has willed that messengers of the gospel be sent out to preach. (See Mark 16:15; Romans 10:14-15.) 4. The wrath of God abides upon those who do not believe in Christ, but to all who believe are assuredly delivered by Him from the wrath to come, and have the gift of eternal life. (See John 3:16-18; 36.)

Article 5

“The cause or guilt of this unbelief, as well as of all other sins, is no wise in God, but in man himself; whereas faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him is the free gift of God, as it is written: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him,” etc. (Phil. 1:29).”

Article 5 is where the real differences between Calvinism and Arminianism begin to be made clear. For Calvinism (unlike Arminianism) affirms the Scriptural teaching that the ultimate cause of unbelief, sin, and guilt is not to be found in God (as if He were the Author of Sin), but rather “in man himself.” But in contrast to that, “faith in Jesus Christ and salvation through Him is the gift of God.” In establishing this from Scripture, the Canons point us to Ephesians 2:8 and Philippians 1:29.

  • “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8, ESV)

  • “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” (Philippians 1:29, ESV)

In the former text, Paul teaches us that our being saved by grace and through faith is not our own doing, but is the gift of God. That is, not only our salvation itself, but even our faith in Christ unto salvation is not our own doing, but is the gift of God. Likewise in Philippians 1:29 Paul (in passing, no less – he makes no attempt to try to argue the point) tells us that it has been “granted” to us to believe in Christ.

Here we see the most basic difference between those who remain lost in their sins and those who are saved by the grace of God. If you are a believer in Christ, the only thing that distinguishes you from someone else who rejects Christ is the sovereign grace and mercy of God alone. In this way, all of the glory for our salvation is ascribed to God alone.

In the Arminian (i.e. free-will) view, at some point the real difference is to be found in the sinner himself. For Arminianism teaches that God elects the sinner unto salvation on the basis of “foreseen faith” (rather than electing the sinner unto saving faith – see Article 9 and Rejection of Error 5).

Article 6

“That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree, for “known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18). “Who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11). According to which decree, He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men, equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation revealed in the Word of God, which though men of perverse, impure and unstable minds wrest to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.”

In his book, Grace Defined & Defended, Kevin DeYoung writes,

“After explaining the what of judgment, gospel, and grace, Dort now brings us to the why. We can all see that some people believe in Christ and others do not. But why? What is the ultimate reason that some exercise faith, while others remain in unbelief? There are really only two possible answers: God or man.” (p.34) 

Here the writers of the Canons affirm the biblical teaching regarding the sovereignty of God over all things, which then necessarily includes such things as election and reprobation (sometimes referred to as double-predestination). All of these things are part of the sovereign decree of God from all eternity.

Notice that the doctrine of unconditional election, rightly understood by “pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.” There is a great source of comfort and assurance for sincere believers in the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace in election. (And it could be said that Arminianism is actually contrary and even destructive to that comfort.) And so this is not just some cold academic issue, but a deeply theological and even pastoral one!

Article 7

“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.

“This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God hath decreed to give to Christ, to be saved by Him, and effectually to call and draw them to His communion by His Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith, justification and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of His Son, finally, to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy and for the praise of His glorious grace, as it is written: “According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, wherein He hath made us accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:4–6). And elsewhere: “Whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified them He also glorified” (Rom. 8:30).”

Here in the first paragraph of Article 7 we finally come to what amounts to a simple definition of the doctrine of election. It is “the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.” In other words, before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), and by His sheer grace and good pleasure of His will alone, God chose to save “a certain number of persons” in Christ. And that decree of election unto salvation is unchangeable. All of those and only those whom He has chosen to save will, in fact, be saved.

And not only has God chosen us in Christ for salvation (Ephesians 1:4), but He has also chosen both the means and the manner by which He saves us – drawing us irresistibly to faith in Christ by His Word and Spirit. And moreover, He has not just chosen to draw us to faith in Christ by His effectual calling, but has also then predestined us to justification, sanctification, and glorification as well (i.e. Romans 8:30). As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (ESV) God finishes what He starts in us because He chose to do all of this for our salvation from all eternity by the mere good pleasure of His will, “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).

A Brief Introduction to the Canons of Dort

The Background of the Canons of Dort

The Canons of Dort is a theological consensus document (or form of unity). The word “canon” here means a rule or a standard. And so the Canons of Dort are basically standards of doctrine.

The Canons were formulated by the members of the Synod of Dort, which was essentially the General Assembly of the Reformed church in the Netherlands. (There were also a good number of international delegates at the Synod as well.) It convened in the city of Dordrecht (often shortened simply to Dort), from which both the Synod and the Canons derive their respective names. This synod lasted from November 1618 to May 1619.

The circumstance which necessitated the calling of this Synod was a theological controversy involving the teachings and influence of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). His teachings on a number of things represented a clear departure from the Reformed faith, especially with regard to the sovereignty of God in salvation. For example, his peculiar teaching on the doctrine of election was such that God was said to have chosen to save sinners on the basis of foreseen faith, rather than simply on the basis of the free grace and good pleasure of God.

Sometime after his death, his followers (sometimes referred to as Arminians or Remonstrants) sought to avoid ecclesiastical discipline for their views from the Reformed Church in the Netherlands, and so they appealed to the civil government (the States General) for help. It is probably hard for many people in the church today to imagine such involvement between the church and state, but this has been much more common throughout the history of the church than it is in many places today.

They presented their views in summary form in a document called the “Five Articles of Remonstrance.” (A “remonstrance” is simply a protest or denunciation of some kind.) These five articles were in many ways the polar opposite of what we often refer to as the 5 points of Calvinism. The Five Heads (or chief points) of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort are the Synod’s response to and refutation of the teachings of the Arminians as articulated in the 5 Articles of Remonstrance. And so in an odd way you could say that we would not have the 5 points of Calvinism (at least not articulated as such) if it were not for the Arminians’ Articles of Remonstrance. As J.I. Packer notes in his Introductory Essay to John Owen’s book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

” . . .it should be observed that the “five points of Calvinism,” so-called, are simply the Calvinistic answer to a five-point manifesto (the Remonstrance) put out by certain “Belgic semi-Pelagians” [Owen’s words] in the early seventeenth century.” (p.3)

It should be noted that while we may speak of the so-called “5 Points of Calvinism,” those points are not a summary of the teachings of John Calvin, nor did Calvin himself ever articulate them in this way (i.e. as a system of 5 points). They do, of course, accurately represent his teachings concerning divine sovereignty in our salvation.

The Canons of Dort is not a Confession of Faith in the sense that it does not give us a full summary of all of the main points of doctrine inherent in the Christian Faith. For that, you would instead need to look to Reformed consensus documents like the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. Instead, what the Canons are is a robust statement and defense of the main points of biblical teaching regarding the sovereign grace of God in the salvation of sinners.

Dr. Cornelis P. Venema writes,

“On the basis of its deliberations, the Synod of Dort judged the five articles of the Remonstrants to be contrary to the Word of God and the confession of the Reformed churches. Against the Arminian teachings of election based on foreseen faith, human depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace, the Canons set forth the Reformed teachings of unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.” (But for the Grace of God: An Exposition of the Canons of Dort, p.13)

We may find it a bit strange that the Reformed church as a whole would respond in such a robust manner to the rising influence of Arminianism within her ranks, especially given that in many ways Arminianism seems to be the predominant view among American evangelicals today. (Calvinism would certainly seem to be in the minority in evangelicalism these days.) But when you consider what was (and is) at stake, both pastorally (re. the comfort and assurance of believers regarding the security of their salvation from beginning to end) as well as doxologically (i.e. that all of the glory for our salvation goes to God alone), it becomes quickly apparent why the work of this Synod was so vitally important, and remains just as relevant to the peace and purity of the church today, some 400 years after they were first written.

Outline of the Canons of Dort

The Five Heads of Doctrine are as follows:

  1. Of Divine Predestination

  2. Of the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby

  3. Of the Corruption of Man

  4. Of the Conversion of Man to God, and the Manner Thereof

  5. Of the Perseverance of the Saints

Incidentally, the third and fourth Heads of Doctrine are actually combined or treated together as a unit. You may also notice that these points of doctrine are not in the order commonly associated with the 5 points of Calvinism as expressed in the acronym,TULIP. (TULIP = Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) That is simply because the Five Heads of Doctrine contained in the Canons correspond point by point, in the same order as the 5 Articles of Remonstrance for which they were written as a response and refutation.

In the Canons each of the 5 Heads of Doctrine is divided further into numerous points or articles which expound the true doctrine at length, followed by various points in which the errors of Arminianism are explicitly rejected and condemned as being outside of the pale of Reformed orthodoxy. In this way there is abundant clarity about what the biblical and reformed teaching on these thing is as well as what it is not.

Lord willing, we hope to go through each Head of Doctrine at length in future posts, examining them in the light of Scriptures.

Teaching Election Properly (The Canons of Dort)

teacher

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.

Calvin on Why We Should not Avoid the Subject of Election

Calvin

What are we to make of the doctrine of election? Despite the fact that it is clearly taught in Scripture (and repeatedly so, I might add!), many sincere, well-meaning, Bible-believing people in the church today seem to be of the opinion that it is a doctrine (oops, that word is also on the ever-expanding list of things to be avoided in the preaching and teaching of the church) better left unsaid.  After all, many people find it to be confusing or even downright offensive.

If it is so sure to confuse some people or offend others, shouldn’t we just avoid the subject altogether? No doubt that is the approach taken by many today.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin gives us some helpful advice on the subject:

For Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know, so nothing is taught but what is expedient to know. Therefore we must guard against depriving believers of anything disclosed about predestination in Scripture, lest we seem either wickedly to defraud them of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what it is in any way profitable to suppress. (Vol.2, p.924)

Only a couple pages later, he writes:

Whoever, then, heaps odium upon the doctrine of predestination openly reproaches God, as if he had unadvisedly let slip something hurtful to the church. (Vol.2, p.926)

In other words,to avoid the subject is to cast aspersions upon God Himself for including the subject (and, frankly, for doing it so often!) in His Word. To ignore or downplay the doctrine of election when it is prevalent in the text is to accuse God Himself of either including something in His Word that is unnecessary (as if He intentionally gave us something we do not need), or (worse yet) even downright harmful to His people.

So let us not deprive God’s people of something that He gave us for our good; and (even more importantly), let us not insult our heavenly Father as if He would give His children a stone when they ask for bread (Matthew 7:9).