"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
NOTE: to understand the material confessed in Article 16, the reader is encouraged to read the Canons of Dort. In that confession, the material of Article 16 is explained and defended in the face of heresy.
Article 15 confessed that all people are guilty of original sin. God had created man perfect and capable of performing God's will perfectly. However, with the fall into sin, man fell from his high position. Through the fall man broke the bond with God and established a bond with Satan. Why, though, did man fall into sin? Had man been created with a deficiency by the Creator? Was man compelled to sin? Both these questions must be answered in the negative. Man fell into sin by his own free will. The blame lies with no one but man himself; it was man's own fault; all are guilty.
As a result of the fall into sin, man lost all his good qualities; man became dead in sin. "And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1). To be dead is to be lifeless, inactive. A dead person does nothing and is not capable of doing anything. Man, because of his 'deadness,' made himself unattractive to God. In not a single person was there anything positive which motivated God to say, "I'll save that person." Rather than imaging God, all men imaged Satan. The Canons of Dort use the phrase 'Total Depravity' to describe man's state of death after the Fall (see Figure 1).
This death rendered man even incapable of reaching out to God for help. The dead simply cannot reach out. What did God then do? The surprise of the Gospel is this: God reached out to man! This is mercy indeed. God came to us in Christ. What makes this mercy even more profound is that God showed His mercy to ME! The wealth and the marvel of this mercy I can appreciate only if I first acknowledge my guilt in falling into sin and making myself 'dead in sin.' That is: I can appreciate this mercy only if I first acknowledge my total depravity.
Christ was sent by God to save people from sin, to deliver people from Satan's side and return them to God's side. But who does Christ save? After the fall into sin, the entire human race was on Satan's side. Did Christ deliver the entire human race from Satan? No, He did not. Concerning Mary's expected Son, the angel said to Joseph, "you shall call his name JESUS, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). We do not read here that Jesus will save people, or good people, or all people; no, He will save His people. Hence some people will be saved, while others will not be saved. This is the doctrine of election: that those may be saved whom the Father has given to Jesus (John 17).
To elect is to choose.
In the context of our fall into sin, the term refers to God choosing for salvation
some from the total world population that had fallen into sin and joined Satan.
The notion of election to salvation is taught in Scripture. In Ephesians 1:4
and 5, we read that God has chosen, predestined certain persons; "Just
as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world ... having predestined
us ..." Likewise, in Romans 8:28-30 we read about "those
who are the called according to His purpose ... whom He foreknew He
also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son ... whom He
predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these
He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified."
In these verses we repeatedly read what God does for some, not
all. Similarly, in Acts 13:48 we read that not all in Antioch believed the
Gospel delivered to them by Paul and Barnabas, but only "as many
as had been appointed to eternal life believed." Only as many
believed as had previously been designated for receiving eternal life.
The Canons of Dort, chapter 1, article 7 defines election as follows, "Election is the unchangeable purpose of God whereby...He has...chosen in Christ to salvation a definite number of persons." Election is God's deed of choosing some from Satan's side with the purpose of bringing these limited number of persons back to His side again.
Whereas election is God's act of choosing and taking some from Satan's side and returning them to Himself, reprobation refers to God passing others by. These persons are consequently left in the misery into which they had plunged themselves. "Holy Scripture .. further declares that not all men are elect but that some have not been elected, or have been passed by in the eternal election of God. Out of His most free, most just, blameless, and unchangeable good pleasure, God has decreed to leave them in the common misery into which they have by their own fault plunged themselves, and not to give them saving faith and the grace of conversion" (Canons of Dort, chapter 1, article 16). Whereas election is God's active deed of choosing, reprobation is God's passive act of leaving people, passing them by (see Figure 2).
Although our salvation is a consequence of our election, we cannot argue that people are lost because they are reprobate, or that some are destined for hell because God sent them there. Through our own fault, we all joined Satan's side and so were all destined for hell. God, though, was pleased to save some from hell - and so point up His mercy and His justice.
Article 16 speaks in terms of "mercy and justice." Election, that God chose some, is mercy. Given that we fell into sin by our own fault, God did not have to save any. That He saved some is most profound mercy. That God left others with Satan is justice. We of our own accord joined Satan, and it is just of God to leave us where we put ourselves. We would have only ourselves to thank if God had passed us by and left us with Satan, but the credit for ending up back with God is God's alone, for it is He that brought us back.
SCRIPTURAL EVIDENCE FOR REPROBATION
Revelation 13:8, "And all who dwell on the earth will worship him (the beast), whose names have not been written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." The book of life contains only the names of the elect, those chosen to life. The fact that some names do not appear in the book of life means nothing else than that these persons shall not receive life. They have been passed by. See also Revelation 17:8.
In 1 Peter 2: 8 we read of people being offended at the gospel of Christ. In connection with this offence, Peter quotes from Isaiah, saying, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner-stone," and "A stone of stumbling and a rock of offence." Why do they stumble? Says Peter, "They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed." That they should stumble at the Gospel was God's divine will for them; God appointed that reaction. This is reprobation.
Romans 9:22, "What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction." Verse 23 on the other hand speaks of "vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory." The imagery of "vessels" refers to persons created by God for purposes of His own choosing, be it for salvation or for damnation.
IS THE DOCTRINE OF ELECTION FAIR?
In Romans 9 we read, "Jacob
have I loved, but Esau I have hated" (vs 13). Yet, Paul says, this
election of the one on God's part does not mean that there is unrighteousness
with God (vs 14). To prove the point, the apostle quotes the words God spoke
to Moses (in Ex 33):"I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (vs 15).
The credit for salvation does not belong to the saved; it belongs rather to
the "God who shows mercy" (vs 16). That all is geared to
God's glory (Paul continues) is pointed up in what Scripture says concerning
Pharaoh: "For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'Even for this same purpose
I have raised you up, that I might show My power in you, and that My name
might be declared in all the earth'" (vs 17). Through Pharaoh
hardening his heart so stubbornly that it wasn't broken until ten plagues
had devastated Egypt, God's name was praised the more. The lesson of Scripture,
says Paul, is then this: Sovereignly, God "has mercy on whom He wills,
and whom He wills He hardens" (vs 18). The point is this: God is
God, and so may do with guilty sinners what He wills.
Romans 9:14 expresses our very own question of whether or not election and reprobation is fair. We ask, "Isn't God unfair in taking one and leaving the other?" "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!" Why not? Verses 20 and 21 remind us to think about Whose ways and counsel we are questioning and challenging. " ... O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this?" Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honour and another for dishonour?" Were God and man equal, man might be in a position to challenge God. But if God is God, and I a mere creature (sinful too yet!), then it is not for me to challenge God. I am to know my place in relation to God. It will not do for me to complain that God chose me but not another. It was I who protested against God in Paradise; it was I who broke the bond with God; it was I who rejected God. Yet I (!) am saved by God! Hence the only appropriate action on my part is to cover my mouth with my hand and to admit that all I deserve is damnation. It simply is not fitting for me to challenge why God saves the one and not the other. The attitude of Job after God displayed to him His majesty is so appropriate: "Job answered the Lord and said: 'Behold, I am vile; What shall I answer You? I lay my hand on my mouth..." (Job 40:3f).
The grounds for God's choosing the one and passing the other by cannot be attributed to works on man's part. Romans 9:11 states this in the context of explaining why God loved Jacob and not Esau: "…for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls." God's grounds are simply His good pleasure. " ... He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace ..." (Ephesians 2:5,6). One is elect and the other is not simply because God wanted it so. I will never understand why God chose me and not my neighbour. However, the fact that God did choose me leads me to a deep sense of humility and gratitude. For what am I, that I should receive such grace?! Yet God was pleased to make me, a mortal sinner, His child. Surely it will take us an eternity to give to God the honour He is due on account of such saving work!
The whole notion of where God and man stand in relation to each other is central to the doctrine of election. This is highlighted by the errors of Arminian theology, which forms the background to the defence of the faith as found in the Canons of Dort.
Arminian theology says that man is not dead, but rather is sick. However, to say that man is sick is to elevate man and demote God; it amounts to shrinking the distance between God and man. To suggest that man is not dead but only sick is to challenge God and negates what Scripture teaches concerning election.
If I am only sick (not totally depraved), I can have an input in the matter of whether or not I am saved. Hence Arminius said that election is conditional; God's decision to elect me is conditional on whether or not I choose to believe. God, Arminius taught, saw before hand that I would believe, and so He chose me - knowing that I would eventually come to faith. Christ's death, he continued, was not meant for a fixed number of persons only. Since the individual can choose whether or not he will believe, God intended Christ's death for anybody and everybody - all who would choose to believe: universal atonement. Again, since a person can choose whether or not he will believe in Christ (and so be saved), he can also choose to refuse God's gift of salvation. Then God can plead with the sinner to take hold of God's offer, but God may be disappointed for the decision is up to man. Grace, then, is resistible, for I can choose to refuse God's offer. Once more, the believer can decide after many years to reject God's offer of the gospel, and fall away from the truth; the saint does not necessarily persevere.
Arminianism gives to man the credit for salvation. God has to wait for man to grab hold of what He offers. It is even possible, Arminius taught, that no man wishes to receive what God gives and that heaven will be empty on the last day. Arminianism has shrunk the distance between God and man so that the population of the New Jerusalem depends ultimately on man's decision to accept God's offer of salvation. This is distinctly contrary to Scripture. At the heart of Reformed thinking is the conviction that God is God and I but a sinful creature, and so I am completely dependent on the grace of sovereign God. It all comes down to who I think God is and who I think man is.
THE COMFORT OF ELECTION
What comfort do we receive in the doctrine of election? Timothy and Paul both know what it is to suffer on account of the Gospel. Read 2 Timothy 1:3-10. Life was far from easy for them. Yet Paul encourages Timothy with these words, "... share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began." It is of election that Paul reminds Timothy here, the comfort being that if God calls, there is absolutely no one who can tear God's own away from Him. Despite the ire and rage of Satan and hell on account of God's work of election, God will bring to completion the work which He began by choosing and calling some to Himself. Satan cannot take anyone away from God (see also John 10:27,28).
Romans 8:28-39 also points out the comfort believers may experience in the knowledge of election. The verses 28-30 relate the fact of election, "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, ... Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified." What is the comfort in this? This is the comfort, says Paul: "If God is for us, who can be against us? ... Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies" (vs 31, 33). If God chose me, who can then accuse and condemn me?? No one, for God has justified me, declared me not guilty before Him. No one can separate me from the love of God. No one can pull me away from the God who loved me, called me and chose me to be taken from Satan's side to be with Him again forever. No matter what may happen in this life, says God through Paul, NOTHING can separate me from His love. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" No, writes Paul, for God Himself has foretold that these various troubles would occur. Paul quotes from Psalm 44 to prove the point: "As it is written, "For your sake we are killed all day long: We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter" (vs 35,36). But in spite of how things may look at times, the assurance of all believers may be that "Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (vs 37-39).
If salvation were to depend on me, what certainty would I have of being saved when I get caught up in the storms of life, when my faith is not so strong? God's election however gives me this comfort that God is ever faithful and hence I am always safe in His hands. It is not for nothing that Paul, after he wrote in verse 30 that those who were predestined were also called and justified, continues to write in the past tense concerning the glorification of the elect. "... whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified." The elect will not be glorified until Christ shall return on His day. Nevertheless, this event is established so firmly in election, it is so certain for the elect, that the believer can rest assured that it is as good as his today already. Hence Paul can speak of glorification as a present reality; he uses the past tense.
Should it then come to pass that I might stray from God at any time in my life, if God has called me, He will hold on to me. David too once went astray and refused to acknowledge his sin before God. Consequently he felt so alone, and so distant from God (see Psalm 32). Yet God was there all along, and He caused David to feel His heavy hand upon him in order that He might repent and once again live as God's child in restored communion with Him. Once God is there in the life of His elect, He is always there. This is something I may believe at all times, even though I may not always experience it as such. At times it may feel as though God is so very far away. But here, too, it is ultimately a matter of what I think about God. Who do I believe God to be? If God saved me, and I am His, am I to think that He will change His mind? No, for God does not change. God certainly knew when He chose me that I was a miserable wretch. Yet He chose me. I may at times feel alone; yet I may know myself to be safe with this God.
THE CERTAINTY OF ONE'S ELECTION
How do I know if I am
among the elect? Those whom God has elected, those whom He has chosen and
brought back to His side, were totally dead in sin when they were with Satan.
God justified the elect while they were still in this state of death. Yet,
though the elect were dead, God when He saved them in Christ also raised them
to a new life (see Article 24). "Just as He chose us in Him before
the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before
Him in love" (Ephesians 1:4). The elect were chosen in order that
they might be renewed, made holy. This renewal is evidenced by the presence
of faith in the elect, presence of the fruits of the Spirit. This faith is
not worked by the Lord in those persons who are still on Satan's side and
doomed to hell. God only works this faith in the elect. Therefore Jesus
could say in Matthew 7:16-20, "You will know them by their fruits.
Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every
good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot
bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. ... Therefore by their
fruits you will know them." Hence, to know if I am among God's elect,
I must ask myself: do I see evidence of regeneration in my life? Do I see
fruits of faith? Do I see in myself evidence of being united in Christ? Do
I have a love for righteousness, a hatred for evil, a sorrow for sin? Do I
delight in doing God's will? If I can answer these questions in the affirmative,
then I have evidence of God working in me by His Holy Spirit, and hence I
have evidence of being elect. For God does not work these evidences of election
in the hearts of those destined for hell.
The Heidelberg Catechism asks in Lord's Day 32,"Why must we yet do good works?" The answer is this: "... that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by its fruits ..." This is stated even more strongly by the Canons of Dort in ch. 1 article 12. "The elect in due time, though in various stages and in different measure, are made certain of this their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation ... by observing in themselves, with spiritual joy and holy delight, the unfailing fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God - such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, and a hungering and thirsting after righteousness." See also Canons of Dort, chapter 5, article 12. "Scripture meanwhile testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various doubts of the flesh and, placed under severe temptation, do not always feel this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering. But God, the Father of all comfort, will ...by the Holy Spirit again revive in them the certainty of persevering" (Canons of Dort, ch. 5, article 11). What God has started He will also continue.
THE FRUIT OF ELECTION
Possibly the Canons of Dort themselves put into words most aptly what the fruit of election is. Chapter 1, Article 13, reads as follows:
and assurance of this election provide the children of God with greater reason
for daily humbling themselves before God, for adoring the depth of His mercies,
for cleansing themselves, and for fervently loving Him in turn who first so
greatly loved them."