The Legal and Moral Aspects of Salvation
Part 3: In the Matter of Election
In Parts 1 and 2 of this series we showed:
1. Sin is guilt (legal) as well as pollution (moral).
2. The atonement is a penal satisfaction to the law (legal) as well as a revelation of God's love to the sinner (moral).
3. Salvation consists in justification with its verdict that a man stands right in the eyes of the law (legal) as well as sanctification with its transformation of man's character (moral).
We also saw that in correctly relating these two aspects of redemption the legal must not only be given the primacy, but it must take precedence over the moral. This was the genius and brilliant light of the Reformation. The moral renewal of man was not denied or even devalued by the Reformers, but they knew that man's salvation must rest on the acts of God in Jesus Christ. The legal view of sin, the legal view of the atonement, and the legal view of justification did not give life to legalism. Rather, they gave legalism its "deadly wound."
These legal aspects of redemption, comprehended by the Pauline and Reformation doctrine of justification by faith, became a great central truth which explained other truths. Luther said:
If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time . . . It alone makes a person a theologian . . . For with it comes the Holy Spirit, who enlightens the heart by it and keeps it in the true certain understanding so that it is able precisely and plainly to distinguish and judge all other articles of faith, and forcefully to sustain them. —What Luther Says, ed. E. Plass (Concordia), Vol.2, pp.702-714, 715-718.
In past issues of Present Truth Magazine we have stated our position that the doctrine of justification must become the great center, the strategic vantage point from which we view all other doctrines. Of all sections of the Protestant movement, none see themselves as greater defenders of the Reformation heritage than those who take the name "Reformed." The legal aspects of sin and salvation are forthrightly expressed by all good Reformed theologians. The inflexible demands of God's law, the satisfaction of its claims by Christ's death on the cross, the forensic meaning of justification, and the "third use of the law" all find their place in Reformed theology. There are some solid substance and sound divinity here which are sadly lacking in most other forms of "wishy-washy" evangelicalism. Folk too used to a diet of evangelical cotton candy would be well advised to read some divinity and theological substance found in such Reformed "heavyweights" as Berkhof, Warfield, Hodge, Buchanan, Denney, Smeaton, etc.
Yet, in a very important area, has there been a failure on the part of Reformed theology to carry through with the principle of rightly relating the legal and moral aspects of redemption? Has the doctrine of justification in Christ been kept at the center of the theological system? What about the whole matter of predestination?
It often happens that in the heat of controversy a disputed point is bolstered up to such an extent that it becomes the virtual center of theology. Has this evolutionary process also befallen some of those great Protestant stalwarts called Calvinists? Is there a difference here between Calvin and the Calvinists? Reformed scholar James Daane points out in his recent book, The Freedom of God (Eerdmans), that Calvin dealt with predestination in his Institutes under the section on soteriology — after he had thoroughly dealt with the central issue of justification. Predestination was not his starting point. He did not deal with it in the earlier chapters on theology proper. However, in the seventeenth century the Calvinist theologians developed a concept of "the divine decrees" which made a certain view of predestination the starting point and center of a whole theological system. This has saddled the Reformed branch of the church with some knotty and embarrassing theological problems from which it has never been able to extricate itself.
At this juncture we do not draw attention to the arguments used by the avowed opponents of the Reformed faith, but we mention some of the difficulties in the Reformed system which have been commented upon by Reformed scholars themselves:
1. The idea of a pretemporal decree to elect some and reprobate others "unconditionally" is not really an election "in Christ." True, "in Christ" is sometimes brought into this theory of election, but only as a method of effecting God's decision. Behind this "in Christ" there is the still deeper ground of election and reprobation. The act of election itself is outside of Jesus Christ.
2. Jesus Christ is not the starting point of theological thinking in this Reformed system. Instead, the starting point is an abstract, philosophical and speculative view that intrudes directly into the unveiled divine glory and makes the Almighty subject to the scrutiny of human logic.
Luther rightly said that we must not presume to gaze upon God's unveiled glory but be content to know Him only as He is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. All that we may know about God and election has been revealed in His Son. Christ is the truth. The Christ event is the truth about the future, for in His death and resurrection the events of the last judgment have already been disclosed. He is also the truth about the past. Jesus Christ is the full disclosure of what God planned from eternity. In this matter of election it is important that we determine to know nothing save Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).
For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. 1 Corinthians 2:2
3. When it is asserted that God has decreed to pass some by and withhold from them the gift of faith, this makes God the cause behind some not receiving faith. Although Calvinists will hotly deny that God is the cause of sin, it has not been easy for them to avoid the charge altogether. How can they when men like Peter Y. De Jong flatly state, "God clearly foreordaines evil." —Crisis in the Reformed Churches (Reformed Fellowship, Inc.), p.148.
4. Reformed scholar James Daane (The Freedom of God) [Eerdmans] says that the Reformed doctrine of election (and reprobation) is unpreachable. He reminds us of the arguments over whether or not the gospel should be preached to all men and shows how that question has tortured the Reformed communities for centuries. Despite herculean efforts by one after another of their scholars, they still cannot lay the vexing question to rest. Daane says that while the Reformed theory of election can be argued about or discussed apologetically, it is unpreachable. No one can preach reprobation, since only that which is the object of faith can be preached. Daane also points out that it is a fact that election is not preached from Reformed pulpits:
Hoeksema and Van Til have made the most comprehensive and sophisticated attempts to bridge the gap between election and preaching. None tried harder, none wrestled more seriously and vigorously with this problem. Compared to their efforts, those of the seventeenth-century Scottish and the eighteenth-century Dutch Reformed theologians were simplistic and naive. Yet for all their effort, Hoeksema and Van Ti were no more successful than their Scottish and Dutch predecessors. Once one commits himself to the decree of decretal theology, it is theologically impossible for him to allow, justify, or explain preaching the gospel to all men. So, too, it is impossible for him to bring election into the pulpit. —Ibid., p.33.
5. In order to justify the Reformed doctrine of predestination, Hoeksema argues that God is not affected in any way by events outside of Himself. God's love, for instance, is not a response to man's plight, and divine mercy is not called into exercise by man's need. When God loves, says Hoeksema, He is really only loving to Himself. When He is merciful, He is only merciful to Himself. Christianity is hereby reduced to cold, hard logic where there is neither pathos nor tears. Add to this the bold claims that God does not love all men, and there emerges an image of a cruel, hardfisted determinism that is absolutely unmoved by human tragedy.
6. The theory of predestination that, by God's pretemporal decree, objectivizes two fixed groups called "elect" and "reprobate" may not be as bad as fatalism, but it still comes through with the image of a rigid predeterminism. Despite all the efforts of well-meaning scholars to soften the fixed expression of the face of Calvinistic predeterminism, they cannot get rid of that cold, frozen decree which determines everything that comes to pass—whether, as Daane laments, it is the price of rhubarb on tomorrow's market or today's football score. Human responsibility may be loudly affirmed, but if everything has been programmed beforehand, human freedom is still an illusion.
7. If all events have been determined beforehand by divine decree, how can we, or even God, take history seriously? And since the gospel is history, how can we take the gospel seriously? Does not a deterministic view of history empty history of any real content?
8. One who follows the Reformed view of election is led to seek his sense of security in his own piety. This, it has been pointed out, is inevitable since the "perseverance of the saints" is the only real evidence that the Calvinist has of his election. Despite the much vaunted objectivity of the Calvinistic view of election, the Reformed believer can only ground his certainty of election on his subjective experience.
These are just some of the difficulties that Reformed scholars themselves have drawn attention to in the Reformed system of theology. But when they look around at other alternatives — generally the Arminian view of election on the ground of foreseen faith and obedience together with the denial of the sinner's "total depravity" — Reformed scholars are prepared to live with these difficulties rather than accept the intolerable consequences of the alternative system. In other words, if the Calvinist is pressed hard on any of the difficulties arising from his system of theology, he says that he is not going to jump out of the frying pan of Calvinism into the fire of Arminianism. Looking at the difficulties of another system makes it easier for him to live with his own difficulties.
There appear to be three options open to the Reformed Christian at this point:
1. He can surrender his system in favor of the Arminian system. Knowing the grave difficulties in the Arminian system, most Reformed people would rather live with their own theological difficulties.
2. He can stay unmovable and dead true to his tradition and spend the rest of his days polishing up the "five points" and zealously guarding them against people who would in any way tarnish them. This appears to be the avowed purpose of some Reformed groups (and publications) which seem to do nothing except go around like an orthodoxy patrol in defense of "TULIP."1 This gets as dry as the hills of Gilboa, which had neither dew nor rain. We are reminded of what Spurgeon said of Gill:
The portrait of him . . . turning up his nose in a most expressive manner, as if he could not endure even the smell of free will. In some such vein he wrote his commentary. He hunts Arminianism throughout the whole of it . . . he falls upon a text which is not congenial to his creed, and hacks and hews terribly to bring the Word of God into a more systematic shape. —Commenting and Commentaries, Kregel ed., p.9.
And it could be added, some self-styled followers of Spurgeon seem to do the same!
3. He can take seriously the challenge of being "reformed and always reforming." While he appreciates the great Reformation heritage, there is no reason for him to take the position that Luther or Calvin, Westminster or Dort, fixed the canon of theological truth.
We hope that our Reformed readers will take this third option. If so, we can together go on and try to plow some new ground. Accordingly, we now want to take the Reformation insights into the legal and moral aspects of redemption and apply them to the doctrine of election. Or to put this another way, we will look at certain aspects of Reformed theology in the light of justification by faith.
The starting point of "TULIP" is total depravity. In this it is truly a reflection of Augustine's system of theology. Augustine's thinking about predestination and grace was conditioned by his understanding of the condition of fallen man. Against Pelagius he had argued convincingly that fallen man is totally enslaved. In himself he has no desire to repent, no ability to believe, no inclination to come to God, and therefore no free will. The Reformers revived Augustine's insight into "total depravity."2 Even Luther, who outgrew Augustine in most areas of thought, said that Augustine was good on one thing, and that was his doctrine of sin and the fallenness of man.
Augustine reasoned out his doctrine of predestination anthropologically — that is to say, his doctrine of predestination was determined by his view of man's moral condition. Augustine reasoned if sinners are totally lost and without free will then the positive or negative response of men to the gospel has to be due to a predestination decree to elect some and pass others by. So the doctrines peculiar to the Augustinian system are logically deduced from the sinner's moral condition.
It is generally thought that the only way to avoid the logic of Augustinianism (or Calvinism) is to deny the sinner's enslavement (total depravity) and posit some free will in man. But our objection at this point is that Augustine did not take the concept of the sinner's enslavement far enough. He only saw man's enslavement as based on his inward, moral condition. But man is not just a slave due to his moral condition. More fundamentally, he is a slave due to his legal position. This is Paul's theology of law, sin and human freedom. According to Paul, man is a legal debtor and therefore a prisoner to the law. It is the power of the law which binds the sinner to the service of sin (1 Cor. 15:56; Rom. 7:1-8).
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 1 Corinthians 15:56
Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? 2 For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. 3 So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man. 4 Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another -- to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. 5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. 6 But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. 7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." 8 But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. Romans 7:1-8 NKJ
As we saw in Part 2 of this series, the sinner cannot be delivered from the law (and hence from his enslavement to sin) by any moral transformation. Nothing which happens in the sinner (moral change) can affect his standing before the law as a condemned sinner.
What we are again affirming here is that the legal position of a man takes precedence over his moral condition. Man is not just a slave due to his moral disease. He is guilty before the law. He is a slave legally. The power that holds him in prison is not just a moral disease. It is the power of an omnipotent law.
The Pauline doctrine magnifies grace and the salvation provided by God. Man could not be saved simply by being cured of his moral disease. God Himself had to provide a remedy by an act which was legal — an act completely outside of man.
When we assert that the legal takes precedence over the moral, we do not only mean this in the matter of enslavement. We mean it also in the matter of liberation. For instance, if a sinner is justified by God, he is righteous in the eyes of the law despite the fact that he is still a very imperfect and sinful creature. When Jesus Christ was numbered with the transgressors, He was treated as a sinner, treated as if He were not in fact righteous, treated as if His moral righteousness did not exist. So God treats the justified sinner as if his moral disease did not exist.
We have seen that if an enslaved sinner were morally transformed, the law would still treat him as if such moral transformation did not exist (just as a converted murderer in the criminal court is guilty all the same and must still pay for his crime). But on the other hand, if the sinner is legally freed, he is free indeed and may act as if his moral disease were nonexistent.
These are the implications of justification by faith (the legal aspects of redemption). But Augustine did not clearly distinguish between justification and sanctification. In Augustine's thought the sinner was justified by moral renewal, and in this Augustine's teaching was the forerunner of the Catholic Church's doctrine of justification by infused righteousness.
Calvin, of course, did clearly apprehend the truth of justification by a forensic (legal) righteousness, and he did clearly distinguish between the legal and moral aspects of redemption. But in the system known as Calvinism this insight into justification by faith was not carried through and did not determine the view of the related doctrines of grace such as predestination. This has thrown the Calvinists into some utterly impossible and indefensible difficulties:
1. Calvinism (contrary to John Calvin himself) claims that the sinner must be regenerated by the Holy Spirit before he can believe and be justified. A typical Reformed publication The Grace of God [The Banner of Truth Trust] says, "He must be born again (which is a sovereign act of God) before he can repent and believe."
How does the Calvinist arrive at this position? By applying logic rather than revelation to man's moral condition. He reasons that since man has no free will due to his moral condition, his inward condition must be changed before he can be free to choose to accept the gospel and be justified.
In this the Calvinist has put the moral before the legal. He admits that justification is a legal freedom, but he is forced to place the acquisition of moral freedom before his acquisition of legal freedom. This placing of regeneration before justification is a Romanizing tendency in the Reformed church — and it is indefensible. The Calvinist at this point says that freedom to believe and accept the gospel is based on a regenerating act within man, while the Catholic says that justification is based on a transforming act within man. In both cases the moral change in man precedes and leads to the legal change. The Calvinist has betrayed John Calvin and the heart of the great Reformation right at this point.
2. The Calvinist at this point posits some sort of residual freedom (howbeit by grace) in the regenerate. Here is one area of his being about which he thinks he can pray, "God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men." This differs radically from the great apostle who confessed, even after his conversion,
". . . I am carnal, sold under sin . . . I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing . . ." (Rom. 7:14, 18).
Is not the Calvinist's position at this point a denial of the Reformation's insight into simul justus et peccator (at the same time totally righteous and totally a sinner)? Does not "total depravity" of nature apply to the believer as well as to the unbeliever? Is there any part of the believer's existence which is not defiled by his fallen condition? Is not the believer bound to uninhibitedly confess his sinnerhood? (1 John 1:8).
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8
In order to be true to the Reformation the believer must confess that in himself he is a sinner, and only in Christ is he righteous. That means, if it means anything at all, that in himself he is not free, and only in Christ is he free.
It is misleading and erroneous, as well as conducive to pride, for anyone to imagine that he now has some permanent (residual) donation of freedom that sets him apart from the rest of mankind. In himself man — every man — is a sinner and not free. Like righteousness and immortality, freedom is found only in Jesus Christ and is communicated to man only in the gospel, which must come to him not just once but continually. The idea of some residual freedom given to the regenerate belongs to the same stock as the idea of inherent righteousness and innate immortality. What an anomaly that this idea of regeneration before justification and the innate freedom of some men should be held in a system collectively and fondly called "the doctrines of grace"!
3. In Part 2 of this series we showed that not only must the legal aspects of salvation take precedence over the moral, but the moral must be based on the legal. "Sanctification" which is not based on justification is no true sanctification at all. It is not moral but immoral for the simple reason that it is not legal (lawful). Referring again to the illustration of marriage, legal union must precede conjugal union. Otherwise it is immoral. God will never be a party to spiritual fornication. Or to change the figure, the sinner has to be adopted as a son (legal) before he is made a son vitally (Gal. 4:5-6).
...to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" Galatians 4:5-6
The primacy of justification is at stake here, and the Calvinists have compromised it. The great moral change called regeneration or the new birth is distorted into an immoral change when it is placed before justification. In order to consistently maintain this "illegal" ordo salutis, great scholars like Hodge have had to contend that regeneration or the new birth is only a subconscious change in man — something which takes place before the sinner knows anything about it, something done without the sinner's consent.
4. Then there is a further difficulty. The Reformers believed in mediate grace and not immediate grace. That is to say, the Holy Spirit only comes to man in the preaching of the gospel. But Calvinism at this point proposes that the Holy Spirit regenerates the sinner before he hears the gospel. The result of this theory of a subconscious regeneration is that the Reformed generally (there are exceptions) have a very weak regeneration, and in all too many cases among Reformed communities there is evidence that people need to experience that great moral change known in the Bible as regeneration or the new birth. The new birth is not some secret, quasi relationship between Christ and the believer, but accompanying the verdict of justification, it is a great change in the moral state of which the believer is very conscious (Rom. 8:16; Gal. 4:5-6).
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, Romans 8:16
...to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" Galatians 4:5-6
The historian Philip Schaff is right when he says that John Wesley's emphasis on a visible, conscious regeneration accompanying justification was his great contribution. And on this point Wesley was more in harmony with John Calvin than those who generally took the name "Calvinists."3
The Christological Basis of Human Freedom
We have already pointed out that the Augustinian system is anthropologically based — it starts from man's moral condition (total depravity) and reasons out its system from that starting point. It is preoccupied with the moral aspect of man's bondage and fails to appreciate the more primary feature — the legal aspects of human bondage and freedom. Or we could state the matter another way and say that the Augustinian system is not Christologically based. According to this system the ability of the believer to exercise free will is not based on what the believer has in Christ but upon what he is supposed to have imparted to him in regeneration. Further, Augustine's pretemporal decree to elect (select) some to salvation is not based on Jesus Christ—it is not an election in Christ.4
Since only that which is in Christ can stand in the judgment of God, it follows that everything which is outside of Christ must be disapproved. Because the Augustinian system of predestination is clearly outside of Christ, it cannot stand justified in the court of divine truth.
Here is a sinner. In himself he has no freedom at all. To begin with, he is in debt to the law. Because he has failed to render to it a life of perfect righteousness, his life is forfeited, and he is obligated to make full satisfaction to the law's penal claims. By the power of that omnipotent law he is bound to the service of sin (1 Cor. 15:56; Rom. 7:8).
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 1 Corinthians 15:56
But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. Romans 7:8
Or to put this another way, God's wrath ("the law worketh wrath" [Rom. 4:15]) has abandoned him to the control of sin. All this has come about by the sin of Adam, his legal representative (Rom. 5:16-19).
And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. 17 For if by the one man's offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.) 18 Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man's obedience many will be made righteous. Romans 5:16-19
Then too, his nature is disposed to hatred of God and to love of evil. So we may safely concede the Augustinian premise that in Adam man is totally lost. He is so enslaved to do evil that he is not free to live a life of righteousness.
But that is not all that needs to be said about human nature. God appointed His Son to be the second or last Adam, the new Representative to legally act for lost man. Jesus Christ assumed human nature. There is no justification for limiting or particularizing redemption at this point, for the fact of Christ's assumption of human nature will not allow it. The nature of all men is the same. Jesus did not take the nature of some men and redeem that, but he took the nature common to all men and redeemed that.
We must say that in Jesus Christ human nature has been legally set free as surely as Christ has been set free from the grave. In Christ human nature is not only legally reckoned free from depravity, but having legally fulfilled and satisfied the law by His life and death, it is free from all debt to the law (Rom. 7:4, etc.). The human nature which is in Christ is free to give everything to God which God requires and free to receive everything from God which God promises. All that happened to humanity in Adam has been more than reversed by what has taken place in Jesus Christ.
This does not mean, as some have contended, that because of the death and resurrection of Christ all men, ipso facto, are free to accept salvation any time they choose. The freedom is in Jesus Christ alone. Christ's atonement was the fulfillment of the covenant between the Father and the Son. It was a legal transaction which gave Christ the legal rights and titles to man's lost inheritance. Christ did not only purchase some men by His blood, but He bought the whole race of men and thereby gained the right to be the Judge of all. The only right Christ has to judge all is because He has "bought" all — even those reprobates who deny Him (see 2 Peter 2:1).
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. 2 Peter 2:1 NKJ
If He has bought them, they belong to Him, and He has full rights to decide their fate.
The rights and titles gained by Christ's atonement are the basis of His intercession at the right hand of God. Unfortunately, the great Bible doctrine of intercession has largely slipped out of sight, and many Christians fail to rivet their attention on it (often preferring to concentrate on Christ's indwelling in the throne room of their own hearts). Christ's intercession is both God-ward and man-ward, since He is the Mediator of the covenant. Godward, He pleads that sinners be given another probation. As long as He pleads or intercedes, the door of salvation will remain open to "whosoever will." If Christ should cease His intercession at the right hand of God, human probation would close, and there would be no further opportunity to repent and come to God.
Christ's intercession is also manward. Every soul is His property, and He has purchased the freedom of human nature. Christ has the right to come to the sinner and to give him freedom. Christ comes to the sinner clothed in the gospel, and when the gospel is given to him, freedom is given to him. Only as he hears this gospel does he have freedom to break from his slavery to the kingdom of darkness. This freedom is not an inherent quality in the sinner. It does not even inhere in him by some mysterious act of quasi regeneration. The freedom is "an alien freedom" — it is in Jesus Christ. Yet it comes to the sinner and is given to him in the gospel, which is
"the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (Rom. 1:16).
At this point the Calvinist may ask, "How can the sinner, who is dead in sins and totally depraved, be free to accept Christ?" We simply answer that the legal aspect of redemption takes precedence over the moral condition of man. Calvary proves this, and the doctrine of justification proves it! If a sinner can be legally freed, then he is free irrespective of his moral condition. The legal so transcends the moral that even the dead can hear the voice of the Son of God and live. When our sins were imputed (legal) to Christ, God treated Him as if His moral righteousness did not exist; and when His righteousness is imputed to us (legal), God treats us as if our moral condition did not exist—and we can act as if it did not exist! Thus the objection about the total depravity of man's nature is, at this point, a denial of the power of the gospel.
In Christ humanity is already justified and freed (Rom. 5:18; 6:7).
Therefore, as through one man's offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. Romans 5:18
For he who has died has been freed from sin. Romans 6:7
When, by the power of His intercession and the agency of the Holy Spirit, Christ comes in the power of the gospel to the sinner, justification and freedom verily draw nigh to him, and — irrespective of his moral condition — he is given the right to exercise the freedom which humanity has in Christ.
If the sinner believes, we must say that his salvation and his ability to accept Christ are wholly of grace. That ability was given him of God in the coming of the gospel. We cannot, however, explain why any man rejects the gospel. To give a reason for unbelief would be to excuse it. There is no excuse.
"Why will ye die, O house of Israel?" (Ezek. 18:31).
God Himself has no answer to that question. Because unbelief is so inexcusable, it is so damnable.
Does man's unbelief mean that God stands helplessly on the sidelines? Does puny man checkmate the Almighty? No, for the Scripture teaches that even if no one believed what God has done, God's plan and purpose has already been carried out in Jesus Christ, and it is a glorious success whether men believe it or not.
" . . . what if some of them did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid . . . (Rom. 3:3-4).
" . . . it is not as though the Word of God had failed" (Rom. 9:6 RSV).
Christ declared through Isaiah, "And now, saith the Lord that formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob again to Him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and My God shall be My strength" (Isa. 49:5). Even the wrath of man praises God (Ps. 76:10), for in His unsearchable wisdom God causes even those who oppose the truth to work for the vindication of the truth (2 Cor. 13:8).
The Advantages of This Approach
We suggest that this approach to the problem of free will retains all that is really essential in the Reformation heritage while it avoids the difficulties of a rigid determinism:
1. It does not force us to put regeneration before justification.
2. It avoids the pitfall of positing some sort of residual free will in the regenerate as if they henceforth and forever have an automatic freedom within themselves. The truth is that in himself the believer is not one whit freer or better than the unbeliever (see Rom. 7:14, 18).
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin...18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. Romans 7:14, 18
3. It makes the believer just as dependent upon the gospel for his salvation and freedom as the unbeliever. For if the freedom is outside of man, in Jesus Christ, and comes to man only in the gospel, it follows that a man is made free and kept free only by continually hearing the gospel.
There is a tendency in Reformed circles to relegate salvation to something that happened "back there." Even justification is often regarded as a once-and-for-all event. In circles that are less sophisticated theologically, there is a slipping into a crude "once-saved-always-saved-ism" with its tendency to boast of personal election as if it had become a simple, historical reality.
4. This approach makes the believer conscious that salvation must be mediated to him constantly. Unless he keeps hearing the gospel, he will slip back into bondage. The biblical warnings about falling from grace (see Gal. 5:4, Rom. 11:20-22, and the numerous warnings in the book of Hebrews)
You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. Galatians 5:4
Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. 22 Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. Romans 11:20-22
are taken with the seriousness which God's Word demands. In the present existential situation the believer stands only by faith, and his salvation hangs in hope. Neither salvation nor election will become personal, empirical fact until the judgment and the last day.
5. This doctrine is truly preachable because it proclaims Jesus Christ as the elect Man (see Peter's sermon in Acts 2:22-36)
Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: 23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: 24 Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. 25 For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: 26 Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: 27 Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. 28 Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance. 29 Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. 30 Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; 31 He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. 32 This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. 33 Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. 34 For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, 35 Until I make thy foes thy footstool. 36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ. Acts 2:22-36 22
and exhorts even believers to make their calling and election sure by being diligent to be found in Him (2 Peter 1:5-11).
And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; 6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; 7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. 8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. 10 Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: 11 For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:5-11 5
6. Its view of man's free will is Christologically based, and its view of election is Christologically based. Both man's decision for Christ in time and God's decision for Christ in eternity are possible solely because of Jesus Christ.
7. It maintains the primacy of the legal or Christological aspects of redemption over the moral or anthropological aspects of redemption. Or to say this another way, it maintains the primacy of justification over regeneration and sanctification.
8. It can truly be proclaimed as good news to all men.
A Concluding Word
The thoughts and arguments suggested in this article are not put forward with the idea of overthrowing the Reformed faith, but they are suggested possibilities for its purification. Those who believe that the Reformed church should also be the church that is always reforming will be open to examine new lines of thought even as they cling (and should cling) to the precious old light passed on to us with no little toil and vigilance. So we conclude with Paul's appeal,
"Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thess. 5:21).
1 "TULlP" stands for the five points of Calvinism — Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perserverance of the saints. Click here to return to text.
2 "Total depravity" does not mean that man is as bad as he can be but that the whole man, even the best in man, is tainted with human sinfulness. Click here to return to text.
3 0n the doctrine of justification Wesley affirmed that he did not differ from Calvin "one hair's breadth." Click here to return to text.
4 "ln the beginning was the word ..." (John 1:1). ". He is before all things, and by Him all things [including election] consist" (Co. 1:17). Before election or anything else there stands Jesus Christ, God does nothing before Him, without Him, or apart from Him. All that God does He does on account of Him, for Him, and by Him. Christ is not just the means of effecting God's decision. He is the divine reason (Logos) and substance of God's decision.
From eternity God decreed that in all things Christ should be preeminent (Col. 1:18). Jesus Christ is the Man of God's own choosing. The Christ event is the disclosure of God's "decree." That is the good news of election. Click here to return to text.