"Notes" to THE CANONS OF DORT - Rev. C. Bouwman
ELECTION AND REPROBATION
THE ASSURANCE OF ELECTION
In the preceding articles we have confessed Scripture to teach that God has elected certain persons to life and passed others by. That confession cannot remain theoretical. The obvious question flowing from this confession is this: where do I fit in? Am I elect? Can I know whether I am elect? The Arminians answered these questions in the negative. According to the Arminians there is no certainty of election. They teach that "In this life there is no fruit, consciousness, or certainty of the … election to glory…" ("Rejection of Errors" No 7 - Error, Book of Praise, p. 543). One can talk of election, said the Arminians, but one cannot be certain that one is elect.
Our fathers searched the Scriptures on this point and learned that the believer can be certain of his election. For example, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, "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, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will" (Ephesians 1:4,5). Who is Paul referring to when he speaks of 'us' and 'we'? The apostle was not thinking of some indefinite crowd, but rather of himself and his addressees in Ephesus. Paul is certain, convinced: "God chose us". Paul speaks in a similar manner in Romans 8:15-17 where we read, "For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, "Abba, Father." The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ .…" Paul himself and the Roman saints with him called God 'Father', and that is a work of God the Holy Spirit. More, that Spirit works in Paul's heart, and in the hearts of the Romans, the conviction that they are children of God, heirs to life eternal. Paul is certain, very certain that he and the Roman saints are children of God, heirs of God. That is: he was certain God had chosen himself and these saints to life eternal. If, then, Paul could be certain of his election, surely we can be also.
But how can I be certain of my election? Some say that in the course of one's life one gets a dream to confirm one's election, or a message in the heart, or a certain Bible text may speak powerfully - and that's how you know whether or not you are elect. We should be aware, though, that this certainty is something which is rooted in experience. However, the problem with experience is that I am a sinful person and all my experiences have to come through my sinful being. I cannot, then, build anything on such experiences. How then do I know if I belong to God?
In Matthew 12 we read how the Pharisees accused Jesus of being in league with the demons. In reaction to this Jesus warns them of the consequences of sinning against the Holy Spirit, and then adds the words of verses 33-35, "Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things." A tree is known by its fruits. The Pharisees claimed to be God's people, yet accuse God's Son of being in league with Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons (verse 24). What of themselves then, for the mouth voices what is in the heart. If the heart is pure, then pure talk will proceed from the mouth. Conversely, if the heart is foul, the mouth will utter foul talk. The regenerate heart does not produce the works of an unregenerate heart. A person who is born again does not do the works of the devil. How can I know, then, if I am elect? In order to answer this question I need to look at what sort of fruits do I produce.
The apostle Peter takes this notion one step further. In 2 Peter 1:4, he writes "by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust." Here Peter describes our election as our having been made God's partakers by means of the promises He gave us. However, the apostle does not leave it at that, but continues in the verses 5-8, "But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ". Here Peter encourages his readers to be diligent in pursuing these things because they will produce fruits of faith, which in themselves provide one with the evidence that one belongs to the Lord. If one does these things one will be fruitful, and consequently be sure of one's election. "Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble" (verse 10). To make one's election sure means to pin it down, to tie it fast, to be extra sure. How can one do this? By what one observes in one's life: growth in faith in the Lord.
We find this material echoed by Article 12: "The elect in due time ... are made certain of this their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation. They attain this assurance ... 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". "
How does a young man know whether he loves a particular girl? Surely, what he does with a letter he receives from her says something. Does he throw it in the bin without reading it? To do that is to say a lot about his feelings for her! Similarly, to tear it open and read it immediately also is very telling. For what's in the heart cannot be hidden.
Likewise, if I love the Lord I busy myself with His Word. I love what He did for me in Jesus Christ, whom He sent to earth to die in payment for my sins. What, then, do I see in myself? Do I delight in sin? Or do I resist it? Do my sins bother me, or could I not care less that I've offended God? It's the fruits I bear that demonstrate whether there is faith in my heart or not. And God does not work faith in the hearts of the reprobate.
How can I know whether I am elect? I know my life, and therefore I must first ask myself, "What sort of a tree am I? What motivates me? What makes me 'tick'? Do I love God? If I sin, does it bother me? Am I busy with God's Word?" My election is evident to me by the fruits of election.
This is not to say that everybody can be equally sure, in equal measure. In the first sentence of Article 12 we read that the elect are made certain of their election "in various stages and in different measure". The one person is not the other. Each person differs in character, ability, and also in growth in the Lord. The one person may be mature at the age of eighteen while another person may still have much growing up to do at the age of thirty. The same applies when it comes to faith; the one person may be more mature in faith at the age of thirty than someone at the age of fifty. Different people, all with different circumstances, are made certain of their election in different degrees. Yet the principle remains the same. The tree is known by its fruit. I must look at the fruits that I produce. Do I bear godly fruit, or not? Then No, I am not to compare myself to others and then, on the basis of my observing that others bear more or better fruit than I, conclude that I am not elect. I must look at myself, focussing on what God has done in my heart. So I must examine myself to see what fruits I produce. Do I find faith or unbelief? Do the things I say and do reflect a regenerate or an unregenerate heart? Do I bear the kind of fruit I should bear; 'do I bear apples or oranges'?
However, we must remain aware of two things. Firstly, God has not made His people perfect in this life and hence we must not expect ourselves to bear perfect fruit. If we looked for perfect fruit, we could never be sure of our election. The fruit we bear will always reflect our sinfulness, because we remain sinful. The fruit we produce may be stunted and damaged, but one can still tell whether it's an apple or an orange, a fruit from heaven or from hell. Despite remaining sin, the principle holds: you know a tree by its fruit. Secondly, Article 12 confesses that the elect "are made certain". Man is passive and God active. The fruit we bear is God's work, and He also works the certainty. God causes us in differing measures to draw our conclusions from the fruits of election which He works in our lives.
THE VALUE OF THIS ASSURANCE
Whereas Article 12 explained how I can know whether I am elect, Article 13 describes why I should know. What am I going to do with the knowledge and assurance that I am elect? The Arminians reasoned that an assurance of election removes from the believer's life the catalyst for careful living and so encourages the attitude, 'If I am elect anyway, I may as well live it up!' On the basis of what they read in Scripture, though, our fathers rejected such reasoning. Jesus said that a tree is known by its fruits. If the heart of a person is changed because God has chosen that person, then that person will no longer produce evil fruit but good fruit. Therefore our fathers wrote in Article 13, "The awareness 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."
An awareness and an assurance of election leave no room for arrogance, pride, or for looking down on others, but instead give the believer every reason to humble himself before God. It makes the believer ask of himself in a spirit of humility, "why should God do this for me?" That God has done this remarkable deed of electing me incites me to adore God, to praise Him for saving me. It incites me too to cleanse myself from evil and all works of the flesh. I respond, not by 'living it up' but by loving the Lord. In 1 John 4:19 Scripture says that loving God is a fruit of Him first loving us. "We love Him because He first loved us". Election is that God loved me first, and I respond to this by loving God in return. The deeds of the believer always follow those of the Father, as we also read in 1 John 3:3, "And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure."
No, the value of this assurance lies not in giving me license to become sloppy. If I am sure of my election, I value and treasure it, and so I the more earnestly and eagerly strive to produce fruits of thankfulness for God and to live diligently for my Lord and Saviour. This is the same material which we read in LD 24, Q&A 64. There we read, "Does this teaching (righteousness by God's grace and not my good works) not make people careless and wicked? No. It is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness". The assurance of election and bringing forth fruits of faith are inevitable consequences in the lives of those God has elected. Therefore we read in Article 13, "It is therefore not true at all that this doctrine of election and the reflection on it makes (the elect) lax in observing the commands of God or falsely secure".
In Christ's Church there are also hypocrites (see Article 29, Belgic Confession). These persons can be very sure of their election, and even build much on the fact that they've been to church for so many years, served as officebearer for so many years, been complimented by so many people over the years, etc. Yet these of themselves are not the evidences of election. The fruits of election as mentioned in Article 12 are decisive. Where there is not "a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for … sins, and a hungering and thirsting after righteousness" one has no right to assume election - no matter how long and with what distinction he's served in the church.
Scripture too warns those who are at ease, content, falsely secure, in a passage as Luke 6:24-26. There the Saviour speaks to the people of Israel, covenant people, possibly leaders highly esteemed and spoken well of among the people. Yet Jesus speaks His woe concerning them, saying, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets".
The point is this: each of us are to look at the fruits we bear. It is for me to look at myself! My assurance of my election lies not in what others say to or concerning me, for that does not prove my election. What fruits do I bear? Am I content with thinking 'I'm all right', or am I driven by the opposing attitude of gratitude and humility, earnestly loving God, fearing Him, and being sorrowful on account of my sins? Do I marvel at what God has done for me, and praise Him for it?
HOW ELECTION IS TO BE TAUGHT
At times we are tempted to gloss over the doctrine of election or to relegate it to the 'too hard basket'. One can start to feel uncomfortable speaking about the assurance of election, false security, fruits of election, for it leads to the questions, "where do I fit in? Am I where I'd like to be?" We are easily tempted to turn the page and speak of something more 'comfortable', such as God's love. Hence in compiling Article 14, our fathers first busied themselves with the question whether we should speak of election. They were adamant that the answer is Yes, on the grounds that God Himself speaks of it in His Word. Therefore they wrote, "This doctrine of divine election, according to the most wise counsel of God, was preached by the prophets, by Christ Himself, and by the apostles, under the Old as well as the New Testament, and was then committed to writing in the Holy Scriptures."
If God has revealed the doctrine of election, it is not for me to say it's too hard and so ignore it, or to say too that it's not important. Having established that it is only by a true faith that one can be saved, LD 7, Q&A 22 continues, "What, then, must a Christian believe? All that is promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary". Therefore my attitude should be, if God has revealed the doctrine of election in His gospel, and since a Christian must believe all that God has revealed, then I must busy myself with all of it. What God has promised in the gospel has been summarised in the Articles of the Christian faith. However, even though the Apostles' Creed does not include an article concerning the doctrine of angels, the covenant, or election, that does not excuse me from believing these doctrines and studying them, no matter how difficult they might be. These are all parts of God's revelation, and therefore none may be passed by. "Therefore, also today this doctrine should be taught in the Church of God, for which it was particularly intended, in its proper time and place …." It is the duty of all ministers of the Word to preach election and it is the duty of all children of the Lord to believe what God has revealed concerning it and to be busy with it.
How, then, is the doctrine of election to be taught? How, for that matter, am I to be busy with this doctrine? "Therefore ... this doctrine should be taught ... with a spirit of discretion, in a reverent and holy manner, without inquisitively prying into the ways of the Most High, to the glory of God's most holy Name, and for the living comfort of His people." So much of the doctrine of election remains beyond human comprehension. Doesn't God say in His Word that His ways are higher than our ways, (Isaiah 55:9) and that the secret things belong to Him? (Deuteronomy 29:29). It is not for me to confine God and His revelation to a neat and tidy package of knowledge which I can totally comprehend. Therefore our article also warns against "inquisitively prying into the ways of the Most High". There are some things I must simply believe with a heart of faith even though I do not understand them. So a spirit of humility is needful as we busy our minds and discussions with the subject of God's election. At the same time, discretion is needed lest weaker brothers and sisters are made to doubt their election. Election may not be taught in haughtiness or with callousness, judging others to be reprobate in the absence of evidence of fruits of faith in their lives. It should also be taught "in its proper time and place", i.e., bearing in mind the maturity of the faith of the person being taught.
Our first motive for teaching and studying the doctrine of election must be "the glory of God's most holy name." Election prompts us to praise God, that He would actually choose sinners to be His children, yes, even me. Election points up the infinite grace of God on the totally unworthy. Election therefore focuses our attention on what God does. Hence, our second motive for teaching and studying the doctrine of election is "for the living comfort of His people". Where God works, there is comfort for His children.
The very word "reprobation" in the heading of our article prompts us to think we are to begin a new topic. However, this is not the case. Our article, in its opening sentence, draws our attention to the greater marvel of God's grace in electing some by recalling the fact that some not having been elected. "Holy Scripture illustrates and recommends to us this eternal and undeserved grace of our election, especially when it further declares that not all men are elect but that some have not been elected…." That God would choose some, that God has chosen me, is made the more exciting by the realisation that some others have been left with Satan: reprobation. I am no better than anyone else; yet God chose me. What a miracle and a marvel this is!! Reprobation accentuates how marvellous it is that I am allowed to be elect.
The subject of reprobation has led many over the years to think of God as being callous, hard, and cruel. They ask, how could God possibly take some poor, innocent people, and drop them into hell? See Figure 1. However, to speak this way is wrong and is nothing but a caricature of what the Bible says concerning election and reprobation. For the assumption in this caricature is that all people are neutral, innocent before God. IF all men were indeed innocent before God, then Yes, the doctrine of reprobation does not at all flatter God's reputation. But the Bible does not present people as standing before God on neutral ground, and then God in His good pleasure sending some to Heaven and some to hell. Instead, the Bible says that we all fell into sin. The Bible speaks about all being damned. All are under the wrath of God, all are dead in sin and consequently all are deserving of God's justice. We, the whole human race, put ourselves into Satan's camp. See Figure 2.
Election is that God chooses some who have purposefully deserted God in Paradise in favour of Satan, and returns them to His side. The reprobate on the other hand are not sent to hell but are left in the misery into which they plunged themselves. "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." God, in His good pleasure, passed them by. That is reprobation. In Revelation 13:8 we read, "All who dwell on the earth will worship him (i.e. the beast, vs 1), whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb ...". Those who will worship the beast (the beast being symbolic of the devil) are those who have been passed by, their names have not been written in the Book of the Lord, in the Book of Life. It is not that their names have been written in some Book of the Damned; they rather have been passed by, left where they placed themselves.
Both the fact that some should be passed, as well as which persons would be passed by, was also part of God's eternal decree. In 1 Peter 2:8 we read, "They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed". Those who are passed by may hear the Gospel. Indeed, those concerning whom Peter writes have heard it. But, Peter adds, they 'trip over Christ'. They do not believe, they are offended by the gospel. The fact that they reject the gospel does not catch God by surprise (or disappointment), for He had determined from way long ago that they would not believe. (See also the material of Article 6, about the sovereignty of God.) God passed them by in His eternal decree to choose to salvation. Similarly, Romans 9:22,23 speaks of two kinds of vessels when referring to the elect versus the reprobate. The context of the chapter demands that we understand the "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" to refer to the persons God has passed by, the reprobate, and the "vessels of mercy which He had prepared beforehand for glory" to refer to the elect. God has determined beforehand who would be saved, the elect, and who would not be saved, the reprobate.
The Arminians said that God has chosen to salvation those whom God saw ahead of time that they would believe (so-called "foreseen faith"), and He passed by those whom He saw ahead of time would not believe ("foreseen unbelief"). On the basis of Scripture our fathers refuted this as incorrect. God has not chosen a person because He saw ahead of time that he would believe. Nor has God passed a person by, left him in hell, because He saw ahead of time foreseen unbelief. Were election or reprobation dependent on whether or nor a person would believe or not believe, God's decree concerning election and reprobation would have depended on man. That is: God would be dependent on man's decision. No, God chose to salvation, and equally passed a person by (=left him where he put himself), because of His good pleasure. That some are saved can be attributed to God alone; it was God's good pleasure. That God passes others by is equally God's good pleasure. All went to Satan's side. That a person ends up in heaven is God's grace. That the reprobate end up in hell is God's just sentence on their misdeeds - both their original fall into sin and their daily sins. These (the reprobate) having been left in their own ways and under His just judgment, God has decreed finally to condemn and punish eternally not only on account of their unbelief but also on account of all their other sins, for the declaration of His justice. This is the decree of reprobation, which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought is blasphemous!), but rather declares Him an awesome, blameless, and just judge and avenger thereof". The reprobate (as did all mankind) fell and landed themselves in unbelief ; therefore God says they get what they deserve.
Those who see in themselves the fruits of election may not look down on a person who does not believe. I am no better than Judas Iscariot. That I am allowed to go to heaven is strictly God's doing. The Scripture speaks of election and of reprobation not with the intent of making us feel good about ourselves, but so that we are prompted to praise God the more. For what a God this is, that He chose some to be saved from their self chosen misery! More: what a God I have, that He chose me instead of the neighbour! The realisation of what God has done for me can lead only to deep gratitude and eternal praise of such a God.