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God’s Eternal Decree and Preaching

Category Articles
Date May 22, 2008

A discussion of chapter 3 of The Westminster Confession of Faith, presented at the Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in December 2007 by Rev Hugh Cartwright.

R B Kuiper comments that

it behoves us to remember that we are dealing with a profound mystery, that we are here on holy ground where angels fear to tread, that finite man cannot begin to comprehend the infinite God, and that therefore we must be sober, scrupulously avoiding human speculation and abiding strictly by the sure Word of God.1

In beginning their Confession with a chapter on The Holy Scripture, the Westminster Assembly made it clear that they sought to formulate their doctrines under the authority and in the light of the Word of God. It is most appropriate and logical that the chapter on God’s Eternal Decree should immediately follow that on God and the Holy Trinity, for the decree of God is intimately bound up with the being and glory of God and is fundamental to everything that God has revealed and to everything that has taken place in time.

In this paper2, after a brief introductory summary of the doctrine set forth in the third chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we shall concentrate attention on particular aspects of the teaching. Then we shall try to consider the relation between the doctrine and preaching – the place which preaching has in God’s decree and the place which God’s decree has in preaching.

1. Introductory Summary

The gist of the chapter is summed up in the statement of the Shorter Catechism that ‘the decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass’ (answer 7). This traces everything which takes place in time, without exception, to God’s purpose – a purpose as eternal as himself, a purpose characterised by the sovereignty of his own will and by his infinite wisdom, a purpose which aims at and secures the manifestation of his own glory.

The Confession deals with these matters in more detail and particularly deals with the predestination of some men and angels to everlasting life and the foreordination of others to everlasting death. In doing so it draws attention to some of the characteristics of God’s decree and of the divine will coming to expression in it – such as wisdom, holiness, freeness, unchangeableness. It asserts that the decree is such that it does not make God the author of sin, it does not do violence to the will of the creature, and it does not take away from the liberty of second causes and the real dependence of one event on another, but rather secures these. It clearly affirms that God does not decree things because he foresees what is going to happen, though he knows all that is going to happen and all that could possibly happen on any given condition.

In dealing with predestination and foreordination it emphasises how particular and unchangeable God’s purpose is. The decree which provides for the eternal salvation of those whom God has chosen unto salvation in Christ ‘out of his mere free grace and love’, and not on account of anything in those elected, also provides for all the means, objective and subjective, necessary to bring about their salvation. In dealing with that aspect of the decree according to which God passes by those whom he does not elect and ordains them to dishonour and wrath, the Confession ascribes the passing by to God’s sovereign will but ascribes the consequences of that to their own sin, though these consequences also belong to God’s ordination.

2. Particular Aspects of the Teaching

2(a) The fact and nature of God’s decree.

The title and content of this chapter speak of God’s decree in the singular. The Larger and Shorter Catechisms speak of God’s decrees in the plural. This may suggest that the question of whether we speak of the decree or the decrees was not regarded as significant. It may also suggest that the different documents had in view different aspects of the subject. The distinction may be useful when we take account of differences in what people believe concerning what they call ‘the order of the decrees’ – the difference between the Supralapsarian and Infralapsarian schemes.

We have to bear in mind the unity of the divine decree. As Dabney puts it, ‘It is one act of the divine mind; and not many . . . prothesis, a “purpose”, a “counsel”. It follows from the nature of God . . . the whole decree is eternal and immutable. All therefore must co-exist together always in God’s mind. . . . God’s plan is shown, in its effectuation, to be one; cause is linked with effect, and what was effect becomes cause.’ As he goes on to say, ‘All who call themselves Calvinists admit that God’s decree is, in His mind, a cotemporaneous unit’.3 But as Herman Bavinck explains, ‘The one and only and eternal decree of God is gradually and little by little unfolded before the eye of the creature, unfurling itself in many events and happenings, each of which in turn points back to a definite moment in the single decree of God, so that in our human language we speak of the decrees of God in the plural. This manner of speech should not be condemned as long as we maintain and recognise the close relation that obtains between the several decrees and the fact that in God the decree is one.’4

As another Dutch theologian puts it: ‘In considering God’s decree we must differentiate between viewing this decree relative to the decreeing God, it being a singular act of His will, or relative to the matters which have been decreed. In the latter there are as many dimensions to this decree as there are matters to which this decree relates’.5 Decree describes God’s eternal will, purpose, good pleasure, plan, as the single unit that it is in the mind of the eternal and unchangeable God. Decrees describes that purpose as it comes to expression in all its variety in its outworking and in the observation of finite creatures of time.

2(b) Freedom within the absolute and totally comprehensive decree.

God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established ( Westminster Confession 3:1).

The absolute and totally comprehensive nature of the divine decree could not be stated more unambiguously. Every single thing which takes place takes place in accordance with the purpose of God, a purpose determined by himself in the exercise of his own free will, characterised by infinite wisdom, and put into effect inevitably and in every detail. Nothing is excluded from this positive foreordination of God. And it is free from all change. As A A Hodge says in his Outlines of Theology: ‘There can never be any addition to his wisdom, nor surprise to his foreknowledge, nor resistance to his power; and therefore there never can be any occasion to reverse or modify that infinitely wise and righteous purpose which, from the perfection of his nature, he formed from eternity’.6

This is something quite different from the heathenish doctrine of fate. It is different in that, instead of being the product of the blind necessity of material causes, all that comes to pass is determined by the living and true God, who is ‘a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth’.7 It is also quite different from fate in that it does not deprive agents of responsibility for what they will and do and in that it does not do away with the meaningfulness of second causes or the reality of the connection between second causes and their effects. As A A Hodge says in The Confession of Faith: God’s decree ‘is in all things consistent with his own most wise, benevolent, and holy nature’ and ‘is in all things perfectly consistent with the nature and mode of action of the creatures severally embraced within it’.8

A wide and very important field of enquiry opens up here in which we have to tread warily, as it is full of man-made pitfalls. Whatever attempts may be made by theologians or philosophers to try to explain, or explain away, how that which is infallibly and unchangeably decreed by God can yet be the free action of the person who does it, we have ultimately to accept both sides of the proposition because they are affirmed in Scripture.

Three classic expressions of this truth are found in what we may think is one of the least theological books of the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles: ‘Him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain’ (2:23); ‘The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done’ (4:26-28); ‘And now I exhort you to be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God hath given thee all them that sail with thee. Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God that it shall be even as it was told me . . . And Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved’ (27:22-26,31).

A A Hodge affirms that ‘all the decrees of God are equally efficacious in the sense that they all infallibly determine the certain futurition of the event decreed. Theologians, however, classify the decrees of God thus: 1st. As efficacious, in as far as they respect those events which he has determined to effect through necessary causes, or by his own immediate agency. 2nd. As permissive, as far as they respect those events which he has determined to allow dependent free agents to effect.’ These references to ‘permission’ and ‘allowing’ are attempts to conserve the biblical truth that God is not the author of sin and that intelligent creatures act according to their own will and on their own responsibility.

Hodge goes on to say: ‘All the sins which men commit, the Scriptures attribute wholly to the man himself. Yet God’s permissive decree does truly determine the certain futurition of the act; because God, knowing certainly that the man in question would in the given circumstances so act, did place that very man in precisely those circumstances that he should so act. But in neither case, whether in working the good in us, or in placing us where we will certainly do the wrong, does God in executing his purpose ever violate or restrict the perfect freedom of the agent’.9

In Evangelical Theology A A Hodge says that ‘the decree at the same time determines that man shall be a free agent, shall possess a certain character, shall be surrounded by a certain environment, shall be specifically solicited by certain external influences, shall be internally moved by certain spontaneous affections, shall deliberately canvass certain reasons, and shall freely make certain choices. The man thus is, as far as a finite creature may be, entirely self-moved and self-determined, and therefore he is free.’10 James Fisher, in The Assembly’s Shorter Catechism Explained asks, ‘Is the permissive decree a bare inactive permitting of evil? No, it determines the event of the evil permitted, and overrules it to a good end, contrary to the intention of the work and worker . . . It is permissive with respect to the sinfulness of the action as a moral evil; and efficacious with respect to the matter of it as a natural act’.11

Because of the liability to misconceptions, it is best to keep clear of the terminology of permission, as the Confession itself does here, unless carefully guarded and qualified, and just to recognise the truth which it is seeking to conserve, which is well expressed by Dabney: ‘God’s decree “foreordains whatsoever comes to pass”; there was no event in the womb of the future, the futurition of which was not made certain to God by it. But we believe that this certainty is effectuated in different ways, according to the different natures of God’s creatures. One class of effects God produces by his own immediate agency . . . The other class of effects is the spontaneous acts of rational free agents other than God.’12 As A A Hodge says of these free acts of free agents: ‘If the plan of God did not determine events of this class, he could make nothing certain, and his government of the world would be made contingent and dependent, and all his purposes fallible and mutable’.13

We have to be content to assert the fundamental teaching of the first section on the basis of the biblical revelation, and agree with John Dick that ‘upon such a subject no man should be ashamed to acknowledge his ignorance. We are not required to reconcile the divine decrees and human liberty. It is enough to know that God has decreed all things which come to pass, and that men are answerable for their actions. Of both these truths we are assured by the Scriptures; and the latter is confirmed by the testimony of conscience’.14 This first section enforces Calvin’s advice in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: ‘Let it, therefore, be our first principle that to desire any other knowledge of predestination than that which is expounded by the Word of God is no less infatuated than to walk where there is no path, or to seek light in darkness. Let us not be ashamed to be ignorant in a matter in which ignorance is learning’ (3.21.2).

2(c) The relation between God’s decree and his knowledge.

Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet hath he not decreed any thing because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions (Westminster Confession 3:2).

This section is reminding us that God’s foreordination of all things does not depend upon his foresight. What he purposed was not conditioned by what he saw his creatures would do. God’s foresight depends upon his foreordination, and his foreordination does not depend upon conditions to which he has to adapt his purpose. There are events in God’s purpose which are dependent upon certain conditions, but the conditions are secured by the decree of God just as surely as the events depending on them. He does not foreordain certain persons to life because he foresees that they will believe, but he ordains that those whom he intends to bring to life eternal shall believe. There are no conditional decrees, although there are conditions which are provided for within the decrees of God.

God’s knowledge is infinite. He knows everything that is possible. What actually happens comes to pass because he has determined it, but it is not conditioned by anything that he has not decreed and does not control.

2(d) The use of the terms predestination and foreordination.

By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death Westminster Confession 3:3).

The fact that God’s purpose in all that he has decreed is ‘the manifestation of his glory’ is underlined throughout this chapter. Being God, God could have no other ultimate aim than his own glory – and the decree proceeds upon the basis that God willed that there should be creatures in and through and to whom his glory would be manifested.

This is particularly to be accomplished through the predestination of some men and angels unto everlasting life and the foreordination of others to everlasting death. It has often been remarked that while foreordination is a term which can be used of everything that is in the purpose of God, the Westminster Divines in their discussion of the working out of the decree in the salvation of some and the damnation of others refer to the purpose regarding the elect as predestination and to the purpose regarding the non-elect as foreordination. There does not seem to be any intrinsic difference in the meaning of the words. It was just probably common at the time of the Westminster Assembly to think of predestination in connection with the elect. Certainly the use of these different terms here and throughout the Confession is, as John Murray points out, not intended to express greater or less efficacy in the decree concerning either of these two parties, but does contribute to the recognition of the differentiation between them.15

2(e) The particularity and unchangeableness of the decree with regard to those who are saved and those who perish.

These angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished (Westminster Confession 3:4).

God’s predestination and foreordination have to do with individuals and not with classes or nations. And what God has purposed with regard to each individual cannot be changed. As Calvin says, ‘Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined, once for all, those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction’.16 It is, as we read in Romans 9:11, ‘that the purpose of God according to election might stand’.

Of course, the doctrine arouses the wrath of the enemies of God’s sovereignty, and it has often been a stumbling-block to those genuinely concerned about the salvation of their souls. If the names and numbers are fixed, what is the point of someone who fears that he may not be of God’s elect seeking the Saviour? We shall return to this when we say a little about the decree and preaching, but we would meantime draw attention to Deuteronomy 29:29: ‘The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but the things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law’. The decree ordains means as well as ends, and those who have regard to the means will obtain the ends. The electing decree provides for the arousing of the sinner to concern to seek the Lord. And nothing in the secret counsel of God will ever be found to contradict the clear declarations of his gospel.

This section should bring us, as the truth it contains brought the woman of Canaan, to cast ourselves for mercy before the footstool of sovereign grace.

2(f) What accounts for sinners being ‘chosen in Christ’?

Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace (Westminster Confession 3:5).

The central phrase of this section is: ‘hath chosen in Christ’. Those who are to inherit ‘everlasting glory’ are chosen by God. That choice belongs to eternity. It is accounted for by the secret, wise and unchangeable purpose of God’s will. It is characterised by ‘his mere grace and love’ and so is to ‘the praise of his glorious grace’. It is not accounted for by anything in the creature or anything that might be in the creature. Romans 9:11 is also relevant here: ‘For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth’. And again, Romans 11:5,6: ‘Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace’.

We know that there is an inseparable connection between the elect and Christ which goes back to their election. What is the nature of that connection, which the Confession, following the inspired Scriptures, refers to as being chosen in Christ? Robert Shaw sums it up nicely: ‘The mediation of Christ was necessary, in order that the effects of electing love might be bestowed upon God’s chosen, in a consistency with the rights and honours of his justice; but election itself originated in divine sovereignty, and had no other cause than the good pleasure of God’s will (Eph. 1:5) . . . God had a respect to the mediation of Christ, not as the cause of their election, but as the means by which the purpose of election was to be executed.’17

All God’s thoughts with regard to his elect people are bound up with Christ. As à Brakel puts it, ‘The Lord Jesus Christ is calledthe Elect (Isa. 42:1), “who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 1:20) to be the Surety and Saviour of the elect’. He says again: ‘Christ, as far as the decree of election is concerned, is the Executor of this election. He is the meriting but not the moving cause of the salvation to which the elect are ordained . . . Christ has been chosen on behalf of the elect, to be their Mediator, Redeemer and Surety.’ This does not mean that Christ is an afterthought, subsequent to the election of a people to be saved, for they and Christ were never thought of by God apart, in his purpose to save his people. Francis Turretin puts it thus: ‘To be elected in Christ is nothing else than to be destined to salvation to be obtained in Christ or by him. Therefore Christ is the cause of salvation, not of election . . . The decree recognises no cause but his good pleasure . . . Although we are not elected on account of Christ, yet we are not elected without and apart from him. By the very decree which destined salvation to us, Christ was also destined to acquire it for us’.18

2(g) The question of Infralapsarianism and Supralapsarianism.

As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ; are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation (Westminster Confession 3:6).

This section clearly states that God’s ordination of his elect to glory includes all the means, objective and subjective, necessary to secure that end – redemption by Christ (redemption being used in the sense of ‘atonement, payment of the redemption price’), effectual calling to faith in Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit, justification, adoption, sanctification and being kept by the power of God unto salvation. Everything has been provided for to secure the efficacy of God’s predestinating decree.

It seems that it was around this section that most debate centred when the Westminster Divines were formulating this chapter. The points just referred to were not subjects of debate, but one of the subjects of debate was, as Warfield puts it, ‘the relation respectively of the decrees concerning the fall and redemption to the decree of election’. There was recognition that the one decree ordained both the end and the means to the end, but there was some division between men like Gillespie who wished ‘the inclusion of the fall of man explicitly in the means to glorification’ and the majority who ‘resolved to include man’s fall within the decree of God, but not to assert it to be means to the end of glorification’.19

To put that another way, though it is not quite equivalent, the question was, to use Dabney’s words, whether ‘to represent God as planning man’s creation and fall as a means for carrying out his predestination’ or as ‘planning his election as a means for repairing his fall’.20 To put it yet another way, Did God, when he predestinated some to life and ordained others to death, view man as already fallen or not? Did the decree to elect some and pass by others come before or after the foreordination of the fall? Supralapsarians say that it came before the foreordination of the fall. Infra- or Sub-lapsarians say that it came after. Probably Dabney is right when he suggests that these are attempts to answer a question ‘which never ought to have been raised’, because such ideas have relevance only to a finite mind. ‘God’s decree has no succession; and to him no successive order of parts; because it is a cotemporaneous unit, comprehending altogether, by one infinite intuition . . . Neither part preceded any other part with God’.21 Nevertheless, the Infralapsarian view would seem to be truer to Scripture in respect of the fact that Scripture represents God’s people as being chosen out of the fallen world to which they belonged by nature.

The only clue to the existence of this debate at Westminster is in the introduction to the second sentence of Section 6: ‘They who are elected being fallen in Adam’. Warfield describes this as ‘the happy phrase – cutting all knots’.22 John Murray regards it as intentionally non-committal on the order of the decrees.23 Herman Bavinck includes our Confession in his assertion that ‘there is not a single Reformed Confession that offers’ the Supralapsarian ‘view’, although he concludes that ‘the Westminster Assembly purposely refrained from attempting to decide this question’.24

We can agree with John Brown of Haddington: ‘In God’s infinite mind his whole purpose of predestination is but one simple thought, which by our finite and weak minds, may be apprehended in . . . steps. . . . The glory of God’s perfection, as the last end of the whole purpose, is first presented to view; and the decree appears as whole and uniform as Supralapsarians need wish. And men, as sinners, are chosen to salvation in Christ, as Sublapsarians contend.’25

2(h) The particularity of the salvation provided for in the Decree.

Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only (Westminster Confession 3:6 continued).

This doctrine is stated again in a more positive form in chapter 8:8: To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them; and revealing unto them, in and by the Word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by his Spirit to believe and obey; and governing their hearts by his Word and Spirit; overcoming all their enemies by his almighty power and wisdom, in such manner and ways as are most consonant to his wonderful and unsearchable dispensation’.

This sentence is emphasising the unity within the decree of election, redemption, effectual calling etc, the same unity which we see in Romans 8:28-30, which David Dickson calls ‘the golden chain which cannot be loosed’.26 This was emphasised because there were a few in the Assembly, led by Edmund Calamy, who were not Arminians but who adopted a form of Hypothetical Universalism, which, as Warfield describes it, ‘affirmed a double intention on Christ’s part in his work of redemption – declaring that he died absolutely for the elect and conditionally for the reprobate’.27 This sentence in the Confession is intended definitely to exclude Hypothetical Universalism and Amyraldianism, which maintained an election which followed upon a universal love and a universal redemption. Westminster Calvinists may be Supralapsarians or Infralapsarians, but they cannot but believe in the particular redemption of those, all those, and only those, embraced in God’s eternal, electing love.

2(i) The relation between the sovereignty of God and the sin of man in the ruin of the reprobate.

The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice (Westminster Confession 3:7).

The Confession, no doubt intentionally, does not use the term reprobate, but this section refers to what we usually call reprobation.

The distinction between one sinner and another must be attributed to the sovereignty of God. The reasons for his extending or withholding mercy are unsearchable and are found within his own will and not in the creature. Being a sinner, the creature has no claim upon God, and one sinner has therefore no more claim than another. The dissolute man whom Scotland delights to honour as its national bard has popularised a perverted view of this doctrine. But ‘hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?’ (Rom. 9:21).

The passing by of those whom God has not predestinated unto everlasting life, but has foreordained to everlasting death, leaves them in their sins, so that justice demands their dishonour and their subjection to the wrath of God. God sovereignly elects his people and in his grace provides for their salvation. God equally sovereignly passes by others, and his justice secures their condemnation. ‘Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?’ (Rom. 9:18-20). As John Murray says, ‘The ground of dishonour and wrath is sin and sin alone. But the reason why the non-elect are ordained to this dishonour and wrath when others, the elect, are not, is solely due to the sovereign will of God.’28 As Warfield says, this seventh section ‘certainly does credit to the Assembly by the combined boldness and prudence, faithfulness and tenderness of its sonorous language’.29

3. The Relation between the Doctrine and Preaching

3(a) The place which preaching has in God’s eternal decree.

We do not need to say much on this subject but just to remind ourselves of the fact that ‘it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe’ (1 Cor. 1:21). ‘How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?’ (Rom. 10:14,15). The sending of the preacher with the gospel, which is the means of making known the mystery of his will, revealing Christ to his people and calling them effectually into union with the Saviour through faith, comes from the same decree which ordains them to eternal glory and provides for all the means of bringing them there. What a great privilege to be made useful in any way in helping sinners heavenwards. There is also the solemn thought that the preaching may be a witness against those whom God is pleased to pass by and ordain to dishonour and wrath for their sin.

The place which preaching has in God’s decree should encourage the preacher to see his calling in the context of eternity and of the tremendous purposes which God is working out in time according to his eternal decree.

3(b) The place which God’s eternal decree has in preaching.

The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation, to all that sincerely obey the gospel (Westminster Confession 3:8).

Only a few hints can be thrown out on this subject, which would need a paper to itself. That this doctrine is ‘to be handled with special prudence and care’ does not mean that it is not to be handled at all. Such a conclusion is surely an affront to God, in whose revelation through his prophets in the Old Testament and through his Son and his apostles in the New Testament, his sovereignty and his distinguishing grace have such a prominent place. Those who come to such a conclusion are making themselves wiser than God.

Handling it with special prudence and care is essential because mishandling it can bring harm to souls and dishonour to God. It is mishandled if it is presented in such a way as makes it seem more like the arbitrariness of a mindless fate and chance than the most wise and holy counsel of a personal God of absolute perfection and infinite justice and grace. It is mishandled if it is subjected to philosophical speculation in the pulpit or presented in a way which inevitably promotes such speculation. As A A Hodge says, ‘The philosophy of the relation of his sovereign purpose to the free agency of the creature, and to the permission of moral evil, is not revealed in the Scriptures, and cannot be discovered by human reason, and therefore ought not to be rashly meddled with’.30 It is mishandled if presented in such a way as makes the heart of the righteous sad, whom the Lord hath not made sad, and strengthens the hands of the wicked, that he should not return from his wicked way (see Ezek. 13:22). It is mishandled if it is presented in such a way as discourages sinners from making use of the means of grace and seeking the Saviour and believing the truth of the invitations and promises of the gospel to sinners as sinners. Perhaps the last is the most common danger among those who love the Lord and the doctrines of grace.

To handle this high mystery with special prudence and care involves presenting it in the proportions in which it is presented in the Bible and presenting it in the connections and for the practical purposes found in the biblical presentation.

This section does not deal directly with the preaching of this doctrine to the unconverted – preaching in which our Lord engaged – though no doubt they are included in those whom the preaching should encourage to attend the will of God revealed in his Word and to yield obedience thereto. An example of how those living around that time preached this high mystery of predestination, in conjunction with warrants given to sinners as sinners to believe in Christ, is found in The Sum of Saving Knowledge; or, A Brief Sum of Christian Doctrine, Contained in the Holy Scriptures, and holden forth in the foresaid Confession of Faith and Catechisms: together with the Practical Use Thereof. This is usually appended to the Confession of Faith and it has John 6:37 on its title page. The doctrine is useful for beating down human pride and extolling the sovereignty of the God of all grace, and is to be preached in such a way as does not deprive sinners of their encouragement nor relieve them of their sense of obligation to do what they cannot do without grace – repent and believe the gospel. They are to be shown that the decree which ordains the end also ordains the means.

The section concentrates attention on the benefits brought to the Lord’s people and the glory ascribed to God as a result of the biblical preaching of this precious biblical doctrine. As A A Hodge says, ‘The principle of the divine sovereignty in the distribution of grace is certainly revealed in Scripture, is not difficult of comprehension, and is of great practical use to convince men of the greatness and independence of God, of the certain efficacy of his grace and security of his promises, and of their own sin and absolute dependence’.31

In his Outlines of Theology, Hodge asks: ‘What are the proper practical effects of this doctrine? Humility, in view of the infinite greatness and sovereignty of God, and of the dependence of man; confidence and implicit reliance upon the wisdom, righteousness, goodness, and immutability of God’s purposes; and cheerful obedience to his commandments, always remembering that God’s precepts, as distinctly revealed, and not his decrees, are our rule of duty’.32 Later on he says that this doctrine, when truly held, ‘(1) Exalts the majesty and absolute sovereignty of God, while it illustrates the riches of his free grace and his just displeasure with sin. (2) It enforces upon us the essential truth that salvation is entirely of grace – that no one can either complain if passed over, or boast himself if saved. (3) It brings the inquirer to absolute self-despair, and the cordial embrace of the free offer of Christ. (4) In the case of the believer, who has the witness in himself, this doctrine at once deepens his humility and elevates his confidence to the full assurance of hope.’33

Calvin regarded God’s eternal decree, and especially the reprobation of the non-elect, as awe-inspiring. He warns that ‘it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear. Those secrets of his will, which he has seen it meet to manifest, are revealed in his Word – revealed in so far as he knew to be conducive to our interest and welfare.’ He goes on to say, ‘Everything, therefore, delivered in Scripture on the subject of predestination, we must beware of keeping from the faithful lest we seem either maliciously to deprive them of the blessing of God, or to accuse and scoff at the Spirit, as having divulged what ought on any account to be suppressed. Let us, I say, allow the Christian to unlock his mind and ears to all the words of God which are addressed to him, provided he do this with this moderation – namely, that whenever the Lord shuts his sacred mouth he also desists from inquiry’.

We conclude with Calvin’s comment on what he calls the utility of this doctrine and its most pleasant fruits: ‘We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election, the grace of God being illustrated by the contrast – namely, that he does not adopt promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others. It is plain how greatly ignorance of this principle detracts from the glory of God, and impairs true humility.’34


  1. In the chapter, ‘God’s Sovereign Election and Preaching’, in God Centred Evangelism, p. 33.
  2. This paper was presented at the Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in December 2007.
  3. Systematic Theology, pp. 214, 232.
  4. The Doctrine of God, p. 372.
  5. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol 1, pp. 196-7.
  6. Outlines of Theology, p. 204.
  7. Shorter Catechism, answer 4.
  8. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary, p. 63.
  9. Outlines of Theology, pp. 208, 210.
  10. Evangelical Theology, p. 130.
  11. His questions 28 and 30 on Question 7 of the Shorter Catechism.
  12. Systematic Theology, pp 213-4.
  13. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary, p. 64.
  14. Lectures on Theology, 1846 edition, p. 186.
  15. Collected Writings of John Murray, vol 4: Studies in Theology, p. 206.
  16. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.21.7.
  17. The Reformed Faith, p. 53.
  18. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol 1, pp. 353-4.
  19. The Westminster Assembly and its Work, pp. 134, 137.
  20. Systematic Theology, p. 232.
  21. ibid., p. 233.
  22. The Westminster Assembly and its Work, p. 138.
  23. Collected Writings of John Murray, vol 4: Studies in Theology, p. 209.
  24. The Doctrine of God, pp. 364-5.
  25. A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion, p. 151.
  26. Truth’s Victory over Error, p. 31.
  27. The Westminster Assembly and its Work, p. 139.
  28. Collected Writings of John Murray, vol 4: Studies in Theology, p. 251.
  29. The Westminster Assembly and its Work, p. 145.
  30. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary, pp. 76, 77.
  31. ibid., p. 76.
  32. Outlines of Theology, p. 213.
  33. ibid., p. 230.
  34. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.21.1, 3.21.3, 3.21.1.

The above article, a discussion of chapter 3 of The Westminster Confession of Faith, was presented at the Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in December 2007. It was printed in the March, April and May issues of The Free Presbyterian Magazine and is reproduced here by kind permission. Page numbers in the ‘Notes’ have been altered, where necessary, to those in the Banner of Truth editions of titles referenced, and links are provided for these to the online Book Catalogue.

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