There’s a story about a minister who preached the truth about Election to his church. He gradually began to see the consequences of it in terms of his own congregation, which was like the mixed crowd that went up out of Egypt when Israel was "born" as a people of God. He saw many of them taking offense when this truth was brought up and began to fear for them lest they leave the church. The result of this, of course, would be a dangerous reduction in the church's finances. This would also harm his reputation as a pleasant, sensitive and open-minded man. Slowly he began to turn from the Word of God and one day said with strong emphasis, "If teaching doctrine is going to split my congregation, I'll never preach doctrine again."
What did this really indicate? What is "doctrine"? Doctrine is teaching, instruction; and Biblical doctrine is teaching what the Bible says. So here we have a minister of the Gospel who determines in his heart and promises publicly that he will never again teach what the Bible teaches about the true nature of man, about the true meaning of the Gospel, and about the real significance of God’s sovereign grace. How long can the Church of God remain a force in the world when its pastors depart so far from following the pattern set by the Shepherd of souls?
But when does one meet the topic of Election head on and proclaim it as an essential part of the Gospel? How does one present it? Traditionally, Calvinism starts with the Total Depravity of man and not as Arminianism does with man's alleged capability to exercise saving faith on his own. Such a capacity, Arminians have held, is what God foresees and makes the basis of Election. But this places man in the position of being able to cooperate with God, actually of being needed by God in a cooperative capacity before his salvation can be effected. In a very real sense man becomes his own savior, though not without God's help. This is patently false!
On the contrary, the Biblical view of man is best epitomized by the term Total Spiritual Inability. If we start here we will most reasonably move on to the question of why God should be interested in man at all. From this we ask, “If man's salvation is wholly dependent upon the will of God, on what basis did God then decide to save certain individuals but not others?” You see, there is a certain logic to the ordering of the questions in the whole Calvinist position and above all it is a system so deeply rooted in Scripture that it can justifiably be identified with the Gospel itself. Calvinism is the Gospel and to teach Calvinism is in fact to preach the Gospel.
The opinion of the great Christian warriors of the past 1900 years has been amazingly consistent in this. They have never questioned the aptness or the need of openly proclaiming the sovereignty of God's grace. Certainly Paul's Epistles make no apology, nor does Peter. John's Gospel is equally unequivocal in the matter.
Augustine was straightforward indeed. In his De Bono Perseveratiae he affirms that the preaching of the Gospel and the preaching of Predestination are but two sides of the same coin. (1) He is very explicit in this matter. In his correspondence with Prosper and Hilary, written about 428/9 A.D., he acknowledges (2) that people were saying that since the doctrine of Predestination clearly implies that some will receive the Word and will obey and will come into the faith and persevere in it, while others "are lingering in the delight of their sins."…If one is predestinated to be chosen though as yet still unsaved he will receive the necessary grace to believe in any case, and therefore won't need exhortation. If, on the other hand, a man is predestinated to be rejected he will not receive the strength to obey the Gospel and threatenings will serve no purpose. Augustine replies: “Although these things are true, they ought not to deter us from confessing the grace of God…For if on the hearing of this some should be turned to torpor and slothfulness, and from striving should go headlong into lust after their own desires, is it therefore to be counted that what has been said about the foreknowledge of God is false? If God has foreknown that they will be good, will they not be good whatever the depth of evil in which they now engage? And if He has foreknown them for evil, will they not be evil whatever goodness may now be discerned in them?”
The basic problem is whether the abuse of the truth should encourage us to prefer error. Will not error be a greater evil in the long run? And so Augustine’s solution is: Weigh in the balance what will cause the greatest harm: to deny a truth to one able to bear it and be greatly profited thereby merely to prevent further harm to one who is already injured by ignorance of the truth, or alternatively, to do such good to the understanding of the one able to bear it that it outweighs the harm done to the one without understanding. And if it is a matter of permanently benefiting the saved while possibly causing temporary harm to the unsaved, our first responsibility must be to the saved. If there is a choice of doing good to the one or the other, the saved or the unsaved, and it is not possible to do good to both at the same time, we must follow Paul's injunction to do good as far as possible to all men, but "especially unto them who are of the household of faith" (3)
Luther was equally convinced that God did not plan the truth of Predestination and Election to be buried in secrecy. He said to Erasmus: “Where, alas, are your fear and reverence of the Deity when you roundly declare that this branch of truth which He has revealed from heaven is, at best, useless and unnecessary to be known. What? Shall the glorious Creator be taught by you his creature what is fit to be preached and what to be suppressed? Is the adorable God so very defective in wisdom and prudence as not to know till you instruct Him what would be useful and what pernicious? Or could not He whose understanding is infinite, foresee, previous to His revelation of this doctrine, what would be the consequence of his revealing it until these consequences were pointed out by you? You cannot dare to say this!” (4)
Luther's contemporary, Martin Bucer, shared his views concerning the preaching of this doctrine. In his Commentary on Ephesians Bucer wrote: "There are some who affirm that election is not to be mentioned publicly to the people. But they judge wrongly.... Take away the remembrance and consideration of our election, and then, good God! What weapons would be left to us wherewith to resist the temptations of Satan?"
Even Melancthon, one of the less dogmatic of the Reformers, in his work entitled The Common Places (5) treats of free will and predestination by first of all establishing that it is both a necessary and a useful doctrine in many ways, both to be asserted and believed. In fact, he goes so far as to say: "A right fear of God and a true confidence in Him can be learned more assuredly from no other source than from the doctrine of predestination."
Calvin no doubt believed this doctrine was to be preached and not merely believed. In a tract entitled The Eternal Predestination of God, which he published in 1552 in reply to certain criticisms of his openness in declaring his faith, he wrote: ”I would in the first place entreat my readers carefully to bear in mind the admonition which I offer [in the Institutes]: that this great subject is not as many imagine a mere thorny disputation, nor a speculation which wearies the minds of men without any profit; but a solid discussion eminently adapted to the service of the godly, because it builds us up soundly in the faith, trains us to humility, and lifts us up into an admiration of the unbounded goodness of God towards us, while it elevates us to praise this goodness in our highest strains.”
Benjamin B. Warfield wrote: “The biblical writers are as far as possible from obscuring the doctrine of election because of any seemingly unpleasant corollaries that flow from it. On the contrary, they expressly draw the corollaries which have often been so designated, and make them part of their explicit teaching. Their doctrine of election, they are free to tell us for example, does certainly involve a corresponding doctrine of preterition (i.e., of the omission of those not elect).” (6)
J. I. Packer has many prudent things to say on this matter. He argues that, “...so far from making evangelism pointless, the sovereignty of God in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility – indeed, the certainty - that evangelism will be fruitful. Were it not for the sovereign grace of God, evangelism would be the most futile and useless enterprise that the world has ever seen… Regarded as a human enterprise evangelism is a hopeless task. (7)
And though Augustine rightly said that some of the Lord's people are not yet ready to receive the deeper things of God, he also held firmly to the principle that the harm done by withholding this doctrine from the Lord's people is far greater than the danger of exposing the unregenerate to it. If a choice must be made, Election must be taught – for God has most certainly not concealed it in Scripture. Augustine was perfectly right when he said, "We must preach, we must reprove, we must pray, because they to whom grace is given will hear and act accordingly, though they to whom grace is not given will do neither." (8)
Such a spurious Gospel as we hear so often preached today leads to unreal conversions. The kind of conversions we often see passed off as the result of successful evangelism are more like the kind of conversion experiences which William James, the famous psychologist wrote about as occurring among unbelievers all over the world and throughout history. It is psychological rather than spiritual, and as long as it is initiated humanly this is all it will ever be. The best defense against such artificial forms of conversion is absolute faithfulness in the preaching of Election and the sovereign grace of God. In our present disturbed social setting the need for such faithfulness is greater than ever, and to suppose that falsehood is safer than the truth in such a crucial matter as Election is surely absurd.
1. Chapter 36
2. Chapter 38
3. Gal. 6:10
4. Quoted in Jerome Zanchius, Absolute Predestination, p. 97
5. Chapter 1
6. Biblical and Theological Studies ("On Predestination")
7. Packer, The Sovereignty of God in Evangelism pp. 106, 109
8. On the Gift of Perseverance, XIV.