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The Purdent and Profitable Handling of the Doctrine of Predestination

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The Prudent and Profitable Use of the Doctrine of Predestination

by Richard W. Daniels, Ph.D.

I. Introduction

A.  The Doctrine of Predestination as stated by the Savoy Declaration and Westminster Confession of Faith.

 It is the purpose of this paper to examine the “prudent and profitable” handling of the doctrine of predestination.  While most readers will be familiar with the term “predestination,” there is wide disagreement over the meaning.  By “predestination,” we assume the definition and explanation provided in the classic Reformed confessions, such as the Savoy Declaration (the topic of this conference[1]) and the Westminster Confession quoted here: 

1.       God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: (Eph. 1:11, Rom. 11:33, Heb. 6:17, Rom. 9:15,18) yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, (James 1:13,17, 1 John 1:5) nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (Acts 2:23, Matt. 17:12, Acts 4:27–28, John 19:11, Prov. 16:33)

2.       Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, (Acts 15:18, 1 Sam. 23:11–12, Matt. 11:21,23) yet hath He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions. (Rom. 9:11,13,16,18)

3.       By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels (1 Tim. 5:21, Matt. 25:41) are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. (Rom. 9:22–23, Eph. 1:5–6, Prov. 16:4)

4.       These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished. (2 Tim. 2:19, John 13:18)

5.       Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, (Eph. 1:4,9,11, Rom. 8:30, 2 Tim. 1:9, 1 Thess. 5:9) out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto: (Rom. 9:11,13,16, Eph. 1:4,9) and all to the praise of His glorious grace. (Eph. 1:6,12)

6.       As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the mans thereunto. (1 Pet. 1:2, Eph. 1:4–5, Eph. 2:10, 2 Thess. 2:13) Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, (1 Thess. 5:9–10, 1 Tit. 2:14) are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, (Rom. 8:30, Eph. 1:5, 2 Thess. 2:13) and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. (1 Pet. 1:5) Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. (John 17:9, Rom. 8:28, John 6:64–65, John 10:26, John 8:47, 1 John 2:19)

7.       The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or witholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice. (Matt. 11:25–26, Rom. 9:17–18,21–22, 2 Tim. 2:19–20, Jude 4, 1 Pet. 2:8)

8.       The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, (Rom. 9:20, Rom. 11:33, Deut. 29:29) that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. (2 Pet. 1:10) So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; (Eph. 1:6, Rom. 11:33) and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel. (Rom. 11:5,6,20, 2 Pet. 1:10, Rom. 8:33, Luke 10:20)

The doctrine as stated in the first seven paragraphs has been repeatedly, clearly and, we believe, irrefutably demonstrated to be the truth of God as taught in Holy Scripture.  We turn our attention now to paragraph eight, where we are cautioned regarding our exposition and encouraged to make a due application of this high mystery.

II. Principle for Application: “The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, (Rom. 9:20, Rom. 11:33, Deut. 29:29)”

A.  Reason for “prudence and care:” it is a “high mystery.”

1.        It is “high.” 

The stream of time-bound providence[2] arises from a spring in the highest heaven, in the heart of the infinite and incomprehensible God, back in the measureless eternity.  As such, it will inevitably be misinterpreted and misapplied by those who will not recognize that they are mere men on the earth, and sinful men at that.  They must humble themselves in recognition that God’s thoughts are higher then theirs, and must pray the Holy Spirit to graciously open their eyes to behold the things that He has been pleased to reveal, and to shut their mouths where God has been silent.   

2.        It is a “mystery.” 

It is known via special revelation.  Men speculate and entertain idolatrous notions of fate and necessity, or atheistically resign all to “chance.” The Christian doctrine of predestination, however, is unique, not derived from any man’s private interpretation or speculation, but known only through special revelation, written by holy men of God who were carried along by the Holy Spirit. 

Predestination has the entire extent and duration of created being as its scope.  It binds such disparate realities as absolute control, contingency, and genuine liberty in a union too seamless for human dissection.  It is the revelation of that which by its very nature, even when revealed, is beyond our understanding in its essence, knowable only by its effects and even then truly known only by their Divine explanation.

3.        As a mystery, it is an insult to fallen human reason.

Proud fallen man rejects the theological concept of mystery, feeling that nothing is truly beyond his grasp.  Predestination is particularly offensive to fallen human reason because it is a denial of autonomy, and a denial of freedom with respect to ultimate destiny.  It is commonly misunderstood as constituting a denial of freedom per se, resulting in the loss of responsibility, the denial of dignity to our persons and the loss of the significance of our actions. 

It appears to many to make God the author of sin and a “respecter of persons,” which further makes it appear that the “God of Calvinists” is unjust.  When to this are added misunderstandings of other Biblical teachings (such as original sin and eternal damnation) the frequent result is the slanderous accusation that God is cruel.  This perverse misrepresentation of predestination provides material for blasphemers, and presents an obstacle for sincere believers, who cannot reconcile it with what they know of God.

4.        Understood correctly, it glorifies the God of sovereign grace, and preserves the purely gracious nature of the gospel.

Consequently, it is especially the target of the enemy, who from the beginning has endeavored to dethrone God from the hearts of men by flattering them regarding their autonomy and self-righteousness.   

5.        As it is pervasive in its scope, it is likewise capable of widespread misapplication.

The enemy has not failed to exploit this fact to the raising of contention and confusion in the church, the undermining of evangelistic zeal, coldness and formality in prayer, discouragement for seekers of salvation and its assurance, the troubling of the tender consciences of the faithful, and the incitement of contempt by the ungodly. 

B.   Despite these considerations, the Doctrine of Predestination must be taught: It is “doctrine”.  Proof:

1.        It is plainly taught in the words of Scripture.

It is directly and forcefully asserted as a fact, and more pervasively presupposed as a fact, throughout the Scriptures.  The doctrine is found in many passages which employ terms such as “predestinate,” “purpose,” “ordained,” “determined,” “foresee,” “foreknow,” “pre-determinate,” “set,” “appoint,” and phrases such as God’s “plan,” “decree,” “counsel,” “book,” and “will.”[3] 

Moreover, whenever we read of the workings of God’s providence we must regard all of these as the outworking of His predestination, for “known unto God are all his works from the foundation of the world.”[4]  Predictive prophecy, then, is not a forecast made after observing the future through the telescope of omniscience, but the announcement of what an all-controlling Sovereign plans to bring about, at His appointed time and by His chosen means.[5]        

1.        It is taught as foundational to other doctrines.

As should be clear from Dr. Vickers’ paper on “The Possibility of Redemption,”[6] it lies at the foundation of the entire gospel.  In particular, it provides us with the purpose of the creation of the world and man, the purpose for the incarnation and work of Christ, the purpose for the coming and work of the Spirit, --that we should be to the praise of the glory of his grace, and that Christ might be the firstborn of many brethren who are conformed to His likeness.  It is the basis for preaching, the foundation for all ministry.[7]  It supplies the guarantee of effectual calling, justification, sanctification and perseverance, as God is committed righteously and effectually to bring his purpose to pass, even when it appears that God’s purpose has failed (Romans 8-11).  It provides the motivation and design behind all God’s acts of providence, and insures that those acts, regardless of how thorny and perplexing they may be to us, are directed most wisely toward the highest pre-determined ends.  Without predestination, which provides its objective and motivation, providence is reduced to the divine control of events with no certain, particular, long range result in view, which is unworthy of the Divine wisdom.  The point here is that if it is fundamental to other doctrines, then our confidence in those doctrines is stronger or weaker to the extent we hold to this foundation.

2.        It is taught in Scripture as something to be believed

That is, it is not merely present in the background, for the speculation of “ivory tower” theologians, but most often appears in contexts that require it to be received and applied, with due alterations of attitudes and behavior.  For a Christian to argue that he need only concern himself with the “simple gospel,” and that he has no need to think about the doctrine of predestination, is to be guilty of rejecting much of the light which God has given for his doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness.   It is not humble simplicity to reject what God has given; it is arrogant laziness, which tells God that treasures laid up in His word are not profitable enough to merit my careful study.  If I cannot comprehend it all, I need not be concerned with it at all.  This is not an attitude for Christ’s disciples.   

3.        It is taught in a variety of situations and contexts.

 Not only does it provide the basis for Old and New Testament prophesy, but supplies the explanation of present events.  Thus, the bottom-line answer to the question “Why?” is “because it seemed good in Thy sight.”[8]  Together with its closely related doctrines of election and providence, it is assumed or pleaded in precept, history, proverb, psalm and prayer, and employed in exhortations.[9]  In Scripture, predestination is not some secret doctrine seldom acknowledged, and then only in hushed tones to the initiated, but a truth that belongs inseparably to the Scripture’s depiction of the reign of Jehovah, and the faith of His people.  This will be observed in section III below.

4.        It is taught explicitly vs. arguments to the contrary

This is unassailably clear from Paul’s remarks in the ninth chapter of Romans.[10]  It is a question of the greatest significance to the doctrine of assurance and ultimately to the doctrine of the power and faithfulness of God.  In Romans 8, Paul has argued for the certainty of final salvation from the faithfulness and power of God to accomplish his purpose.   In Romans 9 he addresses the question of the unbelief of the Jews, which calls into question this whole matter of God’s faithfulness and power to fulfill his promise and accomplish his purpose.  Paul’s reply is that God has not failed, for His purpose and promise are accomplished upon His elect.  The point here is that Paul anticipates and frankly answers the common challenges to predestination in ways that leave no room for misunderstanding.   

5.        The belief of it is found in Scripture to have all the effects listed in the next section, which it could not have without it being understood by the Lord’s people. 

III. Prudent and Careful Handling: General Description

A.  Introduction

What comprises the prudent and careful handling of the doctrine of predestination?  Perhaps that may best be answered by a consideration of the type of handling which results in the biblically expected results.  According to the confession, these are 

. . . that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. (2 Pet. 1:10) So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; (Eph. 1:6; Rom. 11:33) and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel. (Rom. 11:5,6,20; 2 Pet. 1:10; Rom. 8:33; Luke 10:20).

 From this description, we may draw two parameters. 

B.   The benefits of the doctrine of predestination accrue to those described as “attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto.”

The authors of our confession are expressing no new insight here.  It was a significant part of the message of Luther to turn men from medieval theology’s preoccupation with the secret predestination of the hidden God, and turn their attention to the God who has revealed His mind and will in the Word of the gospel of Christ.[11]  (See Luther’s remarks in Appendix I)

What is the will of God, revealed in Scripture, which has any bearing upon our prudent handling of the doctrine of predestination?  The answer is, “All of it.”  The doctrine of predestination is perfectly consistent with the will of God as expressed in the declaration of His covenant, His law and gospel, His commands, and promises, warnings, exhortations, invitations, threatenings, assurances, and with the use of all the means of grace, including the word and prayer, sacraments, the fellowship of the saints, church discipline, etc. 

C.   Any explanation or application of the doctrine of predestination which disregards the importance of His revealed will is certain to be imprudent and careless.

 Some of the more familiar examples of this are “Hyper-Calvinism,” antinomianism, and Christianized Epicureanism, or “fatalism.”  Hyper-Calvinism, fails at just this point, of preaching the absoluteness of predestination and the particularity of the atonement, while apparently forgetting (or groundlessly denying) that God really does offer Christ to sinners as such, commanding them to hear him, believe on Him, and promising them that “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[12]  

Antinomianism results from a failure to recognize the continuing role of the law in the lives of those who are justified by grace.  Antinomianism within Reformed churches has sometimes, particularly under hyper-Calvinist tendencies, been the result of a separation of predestination from the means and objectives of the operation of the decree, which is to produce “a peculiar people, zealous for good works.”[13] 

Calvinists are often labeled “fatalists” because of their doctrine of predestination, but this is the result of serious misunderstanding, a misunderstanding that has sometimes been fostered by Reformed people themselves, as they make poor and misleading attempts at expressing the doctrine of unconditional election.  The idea that people are predestined to be saved or lost, regardless of what they do, is the result of corruption from paganism, from classical Greek, or Epicureanism.  It is not Christian predestination.  Another version of this, found alike in Evangelical churches and the popular culture is the glib assertion that “Everything works out for the good” without regard for the faith or obedience of the persons concerned.  Since “the good” is often confused with “what makes me happy,” God is alleged to have arranged, and, of course, to approve of, any course that results in one’s desire.  “I know it wasn’t what you would call a lawful divorce, but it worked out for the good (i.e., I’m happier now with my new husband than I was with the other bum).  It must have been what God meant for me all along.  Right?”

IV. Prudent and Careful Handling in Application

A.  Assurance

Assurance of final salvation is grounded in the purpose of God toward Christ, who was elected, predestined, and solemnly promised to receive glory and joy as the mediator, the champion, ever-living and sympathetic high priest, husband, savior, king, life, light, hope, firstborn of many brethren, and first fruits of His people.[14]  

The true disciples of Christ are assured that they were given to Him before the world began, to be redeemed, called, and preserved.  Assurance of final salvation (i.e. final perseverance) is grounded, then, in the covenant of redemption--the foundation of their union with Him.  It is God’s sovereign, infallible will that they who were given to Christ should not be lost, but raised up at the last day by Christ.[15]  In Romans 8:28-30, predestination is unbreakably linked to glorification because God’s purpose in predestination is that His elect shall be conformed unto Christ.  At regeneration, this work of conformity to Christ is initiated by the Holy Spirit, who perseveres in it to the very end.  For this purpose, God has sealed them by the same Spirit, who is the avrrabw;n, or “earnest money,” of their inheritance.[16]  

Thus, assurance of final perseverance is grounded in God’s purpose in predestination.  But what about assurance of election?  How can the doctrine of perseverance help me unless I have assurance of my own election?  Does not predestination present an obstacle to assurance?  When this objection was raised by John Wesley, George Whitefield gave the following response:   

In answer to this, let me observe, that none living, especially none who are desirous of salvation, can know that they are not of the number of God’s elect.  None, but the unconverted, can have any just reason, so much as to fear it.  And would dear Mr. Wesley give comfort, or dare you apply the precious promises of the gospel, being children’s bread, to men in a natural state, while they continue so? God forbid!  What if the doctrine of election and reprobation does put some upon doubting?  So does that of regeneration. But, is not this doubting a good means to put them upon searching and striving; and that striving, a good means to make their calling and their election sure? [17]

The answer of Scripture, as expressed also in the Confession, is that those who have been effectually called are assured of their eternal election.  Paul, for example, comforts himself in the knowledge of the election of the Thessalonians.  How does he conclude this? By their effectual calling, as he describes it in First Thessalonians 1:3-10, and 2:13f.

 How, then, are we prudently and carefully to handle the doctrine of predestination with respect to assurance of election?  We must remember that assurance of election is grounded here, not on decisions, works, worldly success, or covenant membership.  The crucial question is, “Have I been effectually called unto the faith of Christ?”  Assurance of election is certainly to be gained from no other means than the application of Scriptural tests.  The text quoted in the confession directs us to the practical test of the faith-based pursuit of universal conformity to Christ.  How can I as a preacher help people come to assurance?  First and foremost, preach Christ in all his virtues as the due object of faith.  Expound the marks of effectual calling (repentance toward God, faith in Christ).  Visit, in order to pastorally examine whether hearers have been effectually called.  Privately and publicly, exhort your hearers to make their calling & election sure (i.e., demonstrate the reality of their repentance and faith) in the manner prescribed by Peter. 

   5But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, 6to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, 7to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love.  8For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. 10Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; 11for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-11).

This supports Jonathan Edwards’ dictum, “Assurance is not to be obtained so much by self-examination as by action.”  This means that he who “adds to” his faith, as prescribed, demonstrates that his faith is not a dead one.  He that has a living faith has it only because he was effectually called.  He that was effectually called was ordained to eternal life, predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ.[18]  Therefore, “men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election.”  We hasten to add, however, lest assurance become suspended until such a time as one is satisfied that his “action” has attained perfection, that assurance of life is not drawn from the maturity of its fruit, but from the presence of biblically authentic repentance and faith.      

B.   Worship & Piety

“So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God. (Eph. 1:6, Rom. 11:33)”

One needs only to meditate upon all the other reasons for praise, reverence, and admiration of God to realize that this is so.  His sovereign authority, power, wisdom, justice, and grace, in short, all that manifest His divinity, appear even greater when it is remembered that all is exercised infallibly, freely, and according to plan. 

It was an occasion of admiration in Christ, when He thanked His Father for keeping the true insight of the gospel from the “wise,” and delivering it unto “babes.”  When some Greeks inquired for Jesus, he was reminded that the unfolding of the mystery hidden since the world began, was about to commence through his death.  This prompted the prayer, “Father, glorify thy name.”    

Peter[19] and Paul, likewise, worship God for the grace of election, effectual calling and the certainty of final salvation to the saints.  Of the numerous and sublime spiritual blessings which move Paul to his grand doxology in Ephesians chapter one, the fountainhead is this, that God “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him.”  That entire passage is a hymn of the predestinating God.  Everything that God is praised for doing, He does for His own glory and pleasure, and purposed so to do before the foundation of the world.  This is the basis for Paul’s “Therefore,” in chapter four verse one, the motivation for all that is summed up in the next three chapters under the heading of walking “worthy of the calling with which you were called.”

Romans 11:33 is likewise a doxology to the God of sovereign grace.  In the previous verses, God is described as both hardening and blinding Israel for the sake of the calling of elect Gentiles, and preserving and calling His remnant of elect Israelites (Romans 11:28-33.)

Conversely, the denial of predestination diminishes God to one whose will is uncertain of fulfillment, who is dependent upon man, and even chance, whose most notable acts of providence are endeavors to make the best counters to the moves he observes in man.  The denial of predestination eviscerates the attributes of God of their glory.  God’s love is ineffectual, his power limited, his grace dependent upon the consent of those who by nature are at enmity with Him, and the charge that God’s promise has failed is left unanswered. 

C.   The impact of predestination upon Christian character

1.        “Humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel (Rom. 11:5,6,20, 2 Pet. 1:10, Rom. 8:33, Luke 10:20)”

Why humility?  Three reasons: First, because it asserts that God is God.  He who truly grasps the doctrine of predestination has shared in Job’s realization of the utter holiness and freedom of His creator:

I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee.  Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge?  Therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.  I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:1-6).

Secondly, because predestination establishes that all, absolutely ALL, is of grace.  This is the reason for the vigorous defense given the doctrine by the Reformers.  If justification is by grace, then it must be all of grace, and if all of grace, it must be by God’s free sovereign initiative, and if by God’s free sovereign initiative, it must be according to his pre-mundane purpose.   

Thirdly, because, for the faithful, predestination is such an inexpressible favor.  Upon God’s promise to build David a house, the king exclaimed two wonders: that God should regard him and his origin, and that God should have raised him to so glorious a privilege.[20]  Contrary to the opinion of those who equate confidence in one’s election with pride, one should rather conclude from one’s effectual calling that he was, foolish, weak, base, and despised, even nothing, for such are the objects of God’s calling (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).  Supposing, however, a man might, for the sake of argument, conceivably have something whereof to boast.  Nevertheless, nothing could conceivably, remotely, make him worthy of being raised to such a height of glory:  to be made a brother of the fellow of Jehovah, the bride of the Son of the Most High.  Therefore, whether one considers his origin, or his destiny (and we must consider both), “He that glorieth,” must “glory in the Lord.”

2.        However, if we take “humility” as a synecdoche for all the fruits and graces of the Spirit, the same applies:

 “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; 13bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, . . .” (Colossians 3:12f.).  The realization of one’s election, i.e., that one is beloved, always has been loved (the meaning of foreknowledge) and always will be (because “predestined unto adoption as sons,”) and that one has therefore been set apart by the action of the Spirit as belonging to God[21] is a powerful incentive to spiritual mindedness and godly behavior.      

We love—because he first loved us.  We rejoice in hope, because even our tribulations are the predestined means of preserving and preparing us for an eternal weight of glory.  Peace, we have, because He has made us partakers of His covenant, predestined us to be reconciled to Him, and predestined all things to work for our good.  Patience—because He is patient in the outworking of his plan, which is certainly for our good.  He also bears patiently, is longsuffering toward, the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, so we are without excuse in bearing with them that offend us.  It was His purpose to show us the exceeding riches of His kindness, and, as His beloved elect, we are to put on kindness.  Similar points might be made for goodness, faithfulness, self-control, etc. 

1.        Imprudent handling of the doctrine of predestination:

Any handling which naturally tends against these results.  Even the most orthodox teaching may be, and has been, perverted this way.  I refer to any exposition which fails to bring out the truth which tends to piety.        

D.  Diligence in Universal Obedience

1.        Good works. 

The basis for our good works is predestination, according to Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”

1.        Why be diligent if the outcome is certain anyway? 

A fivefold answer to this common objection begins with the realization that the ends themselves are worthy of all diligence.  “Glory, honor, and immortality,” deserve “patient continuance in well doing.”  Paul writes to Timothy, “Therefore, I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).  The master’s approval is worth the servant’s diligence; the kingdom of heaven is priceless.  (2) The ends are not predestined apart from the means.  Again, it is pagan fatalism to think of life having a certain end, regardless of the way taken.  (3) The particular predestined means require diligence, and we are exhorted to exercise diligence in them.[22]  As the Puritans often put it, God does not deal with us as with “stocks and stones” but with those who have been created in His image.  Thus, the means are consistent with created principles of the mind and laws of the kingdom.  We live in a fallen world, face spiritual wickedness in high places, with indwelling sin, and are called to be overcomers against all of these through the operations of the grace that works mightily within us.  We work out, because He works in us.  All our good works (by definition), from the exercise of our callings as parents, students, preachers, craftsmen, to our acts of piety and our patience in affliction, are prepared by God and done for the glory of God.[23]  The fact that the means are predestined gives them an added dignity.  (4) Diligence is encouraged by the assurance of divine approval.  The confidence that labor shall not be in vain invigorates and gives stamina to persevere.[24]  (5) Underscoring what has just been said; Christ has demonstrated this by his own diligence as the Servant of the Lord.  What was it that insured that he would “not fail nor be discouraged?”  It was because he had been encouraged with the words of God’s predestination:

 Behold!  My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. . . .   I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, And will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the Gentiles,  To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the prison, Those who sit in darkness from the prison house (Isa. 42: 1-7, cf., Isa. 61 and Luke 4:18-27).

2.        Inappropriate handling.

Obviously, any preaching, in matter or manner, which fails to demonstrate diligence and its importance is misleading and false.  It is all too frequent in Reformed churches to allow confidence in the Lord’s Sovereignty to become an excuse for laziness, carelessness, and prayerlessness in pulpit and pew.  The preaching of Jonathan Edwards, particularly the care with which he crafted his sermons, so as to make his very language the finely honed instrument of God for the piercing of the hearts of his hearers, and the content of those messages as calling for diligence in those seeking salvation, is an example of proper application here. 

E.   Consolation

1.        Basis for all the consolations of Scripture.

They are, after all, the consolations of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:5).  What was the consolation he applied to Himself?  He was the Elect Servant whose life, qualities, works, sufferings, accomplishments had been foretold in detail, including things dependent upon the free and sinful acts of other men.  As the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the anointed servant of the Lord, and the Son of David, everything that he was doing in the exercise of his office as Mediator, from his incarnation, to his anticipated reception into glory was predestined for him.  This included the time, place, and circumstances of His birth, His exile into Egypt, the details of His preaching and healing ministry in terms of time, place, conditions and results, the hostility of, and rejection by, His enemies, and the resulting downfall of the nation, the betrayal and failures of His friends, the “hour” and precise details of His death, the duration of His entombment, His resurrection, ascension, exaltation, session, and return.  This has happened, is happening, will happen, according to the purpose and plan of the Father, and the result will be the chief and highest end--the glory and enjoyment of God.[25]   

Moreover, this was the very consolation that he gave to others.  Don’t be alarmed at the most alarming event in human history, when a friend will betray the Son of God into the hands of sinners who will scourge, beat, and crucify Him to death?  Where is consolation here?  “Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory?”  Why?  Because “all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.” It was all according to the plan of the Father, who has a plan for you also, plans for good and not evil, plans for a future, and a hope.  When facing evil and trouble, “consider Him.”    

1.        In particular:

The chastened backslider, returning to God has this consolation, “The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you” (Jeremiah 31:3).  The persecuted Christian knows that the fury, malignity, strategies, and works of his enemies –“do whatsoever  thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:28).  Indeed, all the sufferings of all the saints, for manner, intensity, and duration, are not determined by men, the devil, or chance but by their Sovereign Lord, who knows and unwaveringly and unfailingly works all these things together for that very good which he has prepared for them from the foundation of the world.  Consider the history of Joseph.  His brothers hated him, and would have killed him.  The one who would have rescued him was deprived of his opportunity by the arrival of a caravan.  Joseph, the trustworthy steward was then falsely accused by his master’s wife, whereupon he was cast into prison, to be forgotten by the one human agent who could help him.  What does this victim of hate, circumstance, deceit and neglect have to say for his life? 

Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.  .  . .  And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.   So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:5-9).

It may sound trite, but it is true, “our disappointments are His appointments.”  Job knew this, even though at the time he failed to make the application of his own words which have since been precious to many: “But he is in one mind, and who can turn him? and what his soul desireth, even that he doeth. For he performeth the thing that is appointed for me: and many such things are with him” (Job 23:13f.).

Whitefield answers John Wesley’s allegation that the doctrine of predestination “tends to destroy the comforts of religion,” by appealing to the Anglican Church’s 17th article,

“That the godly consideration of predestination, and election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing their minds to high and heavenly things, as well because it does greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal salvation, to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God, &c.”   This plainly shows that our godly reformers did not think election destroyed holiness, or the comforts of religion.  As for my own part, this doctrine is my daily support: I should utterly sink under a dread of my impending trials, was I not firmly persuaded that God has chosen me in Christ from before the foundation of the world, and that now being effectually called, he will suffer none to pluck me out of his almighty hand. [26]

The disciples of Christ have this reason for joy, greater than the most remarkable spiritual gifts: their names are written in heaven.  They have been in the Lambs book of Life from the foundation of the world, when he was destined to die for their salvation.  It is the will of the Father that of all that He gave to the Son, the Son should lose none, but raise them up at the last day.  For this He sanctifies Himself, and takes to Himself the role of Lamb and High Priest, to which He has been predestined.  According to the promise of the Father, from the exalted Christ is sent the Holy Spirit whereby the elect are called out of the world and sealed unto the day of redemption.  Then, the creation, which has been groaning and waiting for that day shall obtain its destined regeneration, the powers and subjects of evil shall receive the end for which they have been appointed, and the saints, shall inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.    

2.        Inappropriate handling.

The doctrine of predestination is inappropriately handled when applied superficially, without sensitivity and prayer, and without earnest and compassionate endeavors as God’s instruments to help the grieving and troubled to lay hold of these realities. 

V. Conclusion: Pastoral Applications

The power of the doctrine of predestination must be felt.  It would seem that the preacher’s best prophylactic against careless and imprudent handling of predestination would be the habitual meditation, and deep, specific application of the doctrine to his own heart and life.  If the doctrine thus makes him humble and bold, pious and practical, content and diligent, holy and hopeful, as it should, its truth and power will brilliantly shine before his hearers.  If not, they will be unmoved by his most articulate expositions, and likely come to view the impractical dogma with disdain.  Mercifully, God has provided us with much help in this activity in the examples and instructions of our Reformed and Puritan forefathers.

Predestination should be taught.  After considering the pros and cons concerning  this question, Francis Turretin concluded,

Hence we think that this doctrine should be neither wholly suppressed  from a preposterous modesty nor curiously pried into by a rash presumption.  Rather it should be taught soberly and prudently from the word of God so that two dangerous rocks may be avoided: on the one hand, that of “affected ignorance” which wishes to see nothing and blinds itself purposely in things revealed; on the other, that of “unwarrantable curiosity” which busies itself to see and understand everything even in mysteries.  They strike upon the first who (sinning in defect) think that we should abstain from the proposition of this doctrine; and upon the latter who (sinning in excess) wish to make everything in this mystery scrupulously accurate . . . and hold that nothing should be left undiscovered . . . in it.  Against both, we maintain (with the orthodox) that predestination can be taught with profit, provided this is done soberly from the word of God.[27]

 Predestination should be preached openly.  It is not rare for reformed theologians to disagree about the recipients of this teaching, however.  Some argue that it may be profitably taught only to believers.  It is “the children’s bread” and others have no part in it.  We must not throw this pearl before swine, giving it to the scornful.  Clearly, however, the examples of Christ, preaching it clearly and directly to his opponents in John 6 and Matthew 11 seem to argue against this prohibition.  Calvin, Perkins, Bunyan, Edwards, Brainard, Whitefield, Spurgeon and others have preached it with great converting efficacy.  Whitefield argued,

This is one reason among many others, why I admire the doctrine of election, and am convinced that it should have a place in gospel ministrations, and should be insisted on with faithfulness and care.  It has a natural tendency to rouse the soul out of its carnal security.  And therefore, many carnal men cry out against it.  Whereas universal redemption is a notion sadly adapted to keep the soul in its lethargic sleepy condition, and therefore so many natural men admire and applaud it.[28]

While, as Whitefield says here, it rouses men out of carnal security, its efficacy is also due to the way it gives hope to souls who have, through the grace of God, come to the end of themselves, their strength and righteousness, and have been encouraged to cast themselves upon Christ who is held out for them in the gospel.

As in all preaching, there is a need to be “rightly dividing the word of truth.”  There is a more natural order for coming to the knowledge of this mystery.  Since one cannot know his own election outside of faith in Christ, it would seem more logical to preach to the unconverted those things that more directly address the conscience and more plainly open the understanding of the hearer to the gospel.  He is a sinner, in need of a Savior, and God has given a Savior for sinners, Jesus Christ.  Christ went about preaching that men should repent and believe the gospel.  This included preaching about predestination on two types of occasions: to the obstinate, to crush their religious pride and self-confidence, and to the disciples, to encourage them.  Luther, Whitefield, and John Newton agree on this point: predestination is best learned, i.e., rightly received in the heart, by those who have undergone a humbling work of the Spirit.  As Whitefield put it,

I would be tender on this point, and leave persons to be taught it of God.  I am of the martyr Bradford’s mind.  Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance, before he goes to the university of election and predestination.  A bare head-knowledge of sound words availeth nothing.  I am quite tired of Christless talkers.  From such may I ever turn away.[29]

It is a high mystery, known duly only by those who know it in its power.  For this reason, it is a good practice to avoid talking about predestination as if it were a mere debating point.  We do not expect to convince worldly-minded men of it by rationalistic argument.[30]  What have we gained if, in the endeavor to convince him of predestination, we create a deterministic philosopher who lacks a genuine sense of sin, or a sense of total indebtedness to sovereign eternal love?  This is not to say that we cannot “answer the fool according to his folly,” demonstrating the irrationality of the non-predestinarian position[31] in the interest of an apologetic for biblical theism.  However, we must always remember, “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal.”  Let us use the sword of the Spirit, and not treat this doctrine as speculative, as if it were not clearly revealed in the word of truth.   

Similarly, one must question the wisdom of first presenting the doctrine as a mark of distinction, or making it a rallying cry.  This is not to say that we will not educate our congregations as to the controversy regarding it, nor equip them to respond to the errors that are endemic in contemporary evangelicalism.  Yet, Christians must never present their belief in this high mystery as if they were daring someone to step across our line in the sand.   

Let it rather be preached as a matter-of-fact constituent part of the glorious gospel of the blessed God, as it is presented in the Scriptures themselves.  Let it be for our ministrations as it was for John Newton, the sugar that sweetens the whole cup.


[1] Sixth in a series of messages delivered at the 2002 Reformed Confessional Conference, Sharon, Massachusetts, on the theme of “God’s Eternal Decree.”  Other messages by different speakers will be published in upcoming issues of the Journal.  The Reformed Confessional Conference is an annual event sponsored by the Reformed Congregational Fellowship, and dedicated to the exposition of the scriptural theology embodied in the Reformed Confessions. 

[2]For convenience sake, “predestination,” and “providence” are used somewhat interchangeably throughout this paper.  Therefore, a note of clarification is in order here.  The decree of God comprehends three things: the determination to create the universe, His will to control all parts of this creation according to His ends for them (this is what we understand by the word “providence”), and His determination of the ends of His rational creatures (which is what we understand by “predestination”).  These doctrines, though distinguishable, have the closest association.  For the demonstration of His grace, God providentially brings His elect to their predestined end of glory.  For the demonstration of His justice, God providentially brings the reprobate to the destruction He has prepared for them.  Generally, objections to one of these doctrines (predestination, providence, election, and reprobation) may be made against any.  Arguments in favor of one, conversely, address objections against any, for they all rest upon this foundation principle: “He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.  No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, “What have You done?” (Daniel 4: 35).  For a precise differentiation of predestination and providence, one might consider the definition provided by John Owen in A Display of Arminianism.  He writes,  “Predestination, in the usual sense [in which] it is taken, is a part of God’s providence concerning his creatures, distinguished from it by a double restriction: —First, In respect of their objects; for whereas the decree of providence comprehendeth his intentions towards all the works of his hands, predestination respecteth only rational creatures.  Secondly, In regard of their ends; for whereas his providence directeth all creatures in general to those several ends to which at length they are brought, whether they are proportioned unto their nature or exceeding the sphere of their natural activity, predestination is exercised only in directing rational creatures to supernatural ends: so that, in general, it is the counsel, decree, or purpose of Almighty God concerning the last and supernatural end of his rational creatures, to be accomplished for the praise of his glory.”  Since the particular acts of providence, the means of accomplishing the decree of predestination, are integral parts of the plan, they also are commonly said to be “predestined,” but this a broadening of the term.

[3] J. I. Packer’s article on “Predestination” in the New Bible Dictionary has a good brief introduction to the vocabulary.  See also “Predestination,” The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 2, pp. 3-67; Herman Bavink, The Doctrine of God, pp. 337-407.       

[4] Though the text quoted (Acts 15:18) is poorly supported, the thought expressed is plainly taught elsewhere: See Psalm 33:11; Isaiah 46:5-7; Daniel 4:34f.; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 1:11 “. . . predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.”

[5] The entire Biblical history is God’s outworking of His purpose to fulfill the promise made in Genesis 3:15, a purpose which existed before the world began, a purpose which culminates not in the first coming of Christ, but in the final triumph of the Seed of the woman with the restoration of paradise and the glorification of the redeemed.  This is observable in the details of that history.  See Appendix II for a survey of redemptive history illustrating the providential execution of this divine plan.

[6] Dr. Douglas Vickers, The Possibility of Redemption, delivered at the 2002 Reformed Confessional Conference.

[7] “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory” (1 Cor. 2:7).  Cf., 2 Timothy 1:8-11; Ephesians 3:10f.; Titus 1:1-3.

[8] E.g., Luke 10:21; John 9:1-3; 11:4; Acts 2:23; Isaiah 45:5-10.

[9] Exodus 21:13; Prov. 21:1; 16:33; Psalm 61:4; 139:15f.; Genesis 24:10-27;  Matt. 6:10; Acts 4:28; Col. 3:12; 1 Thess. 4:3f.; 5:9; 1 Peter 3:17; 4:19.  See the texts listed under “Of Providence” in Chapter 5 of the Confession.

[10] See also, John 10; Matthew 11.

[11]  “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).

[12] Romans 10:13.  It is instructive to consider that Paul sees no conflict between the sovereign election defended in Romans 9 and the free offer asserted in Romans 10 and 11.  Rather, than limiting the free offer, the sovereignty of God serves as the ground of the free offer.

[13] Titus 2:14.  Scotland’s “Marrow Controversy” is an illustration of the antinomian tendency of Hyper-Calvinism.

[14] Isa. 42:1-7; 53:1-12;  Isa. 49:6; Luke 2:30-34; Psalm 2; 45; 110; Hebrews 7:11-28; John 17; Ephesians 5:25-32; Romans 8:29f.; Colossians 1:18, 27; 3:4; Revelation 1:5; 1 Cor. 15:20-23; Genesis 49:9f.; Revelation 5:5

[15] John 17; John 6:37-40; 10:11-30

[16] Philippians 1:6; Ephesians 1:13f.; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Revelation 7:2

[17] A Letter to Rev. Mr.  John Wesley, d. Dec.24, 1740. 

[18] Acts 13:48; Romans 8:30

[19] 1 Peter 1:2-5; 2:6-10. 

[20] 2 Samuel 7 (entire chapter).

[21] This is the meaning of “holy” here.  See 1 Peter 1:2., “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (my emphasis.)  See also 2 Thess. 2:13-15, and Ephesians 1:4, for strong parallels of language and significance.

[22] 2 Peter 1:10; 3:13f.; 1 John 3:2f.

[23] Ephesians 2:10

[24] 1 Cor. 16:58

[25] See Warfield, “The Foresight of Jesus,” Works, Vol. 2, pp. 71-97.

[26] “A Letter to the Reverend Mr. John Wesley,” Whitefield’s Works, Vol. 4, p. 72. 

[27] Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Three volumes. Translated by George Musgrave Giger, edited by James T. Dennison, Jr.  (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, Phillipsburg, NJ, 1992) I:329.

[28] “A Letter to the Reverened Mr. John Wesley,” Whitefield’s Works, Vol. 4 p. 640

[29] George Whitefield’s Journals, p. 537

[30] E.g., Arguing from the doctrine of philosophical necessity.  See William Cunningham’s critique of this in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, pp. 471-524.

[31] Cf., Jonathan Edwards: “I wish the reader to consider the unreasonableness of rejecting plain revelations, because they are puzzling to our reason.  There is no greater difficulty attending this doctrine than the contrary, nor so great.  So that though the doctrine of the decrees be mysterious, and attended with difficulties, yet the opposite doctrine is in itself more mysterious, and attended with greater difficulties, and with contradictions to reason more evident, to one who thoroughly considers things; so that even if the Scripture had made no revelation of it, we should have had reason to believe it.  But since the Scripture is so abundant in declaring it, the unreasonableness of rejecting it appears the more glaring.”  The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. II:543, quoted in John Gerstner, The Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards, Vol.II:188.  Also, Cornelius Van Til, “In answering Pighius and other critics who said that to speak of God as the ultimate cause of all things is to reduce both human rationality and morality to nonsense, Calvin replied that the exact reverse was true.  He argued in effect that unless God be thought of as the ultimate cause of all things, there is no significance or meaning to the thoughts and acts of man.  Unless there be back of the thoughts and deeds of man the all-inclusive and therefore also all-controlling plan of God, human thought and human action happens in a void.”  An Introduction to Systematic Theology,  (1997). The works of Cornelius Van Til, 1895-1987 (electronic ed.). New York: Labels Army Co.

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