The Doctrine of Election
Its Importance and Relevance for the Church Today
By David Samuel
In the New Testament we see the church under two aspects – the temporal and the eternal, the visible and the invisible. The visible church is recognised in its gospel, sacraments and professing members. The invisible church is known only to God, and is composed of those who are truly regenerate and predestined to everlasting life by the eternal decree of God the Father. Thus we have those two statements held in juxtaposition: As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27) and, Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his (II Tim. 2:19).
The visible church, according to this teaching, includes all who have been baptized and have made an open profession of faith. It includes Judas, Ananias and Sapphira, Demas, Simon Magus, and Hymenaeus and Philetus. The invisible church includes none but those who are truly faithful and endure to eternal life.
Thus the church is represented not by one circle, but by an ellipse of two different foci. The visible and the invisible church, the outward professors of Christian religion and the elect, are not commensurable. These two aspects and representations of the church have to be held in tension, and must never be separated. It is the invisible church – the New Testament concept of God’s elect – that governs and controls our understanding of the visible church, its sacraments, its membership and all its outward manifestations.
For example, when Paul speaks of the efficacy of the Word and the sacraments, it is never divorced from this understanding of election. The Word is only efficacious in God’s elect. But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: in whom the god of this world hath blinded the eyes of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them (2 Cor. 4:3, 4). Likewise, baptism is only efficacious in the elect. It cannot be otherwise. And, by the same token, God’s decree to save is not limited to the general means God has provided. He can disclose his saving purpose to Cornelius, a Gentile outside the church, and the baptism that follows is but the confirmation of the saving grace that has already been communicated.
So, then, we find that the eternal decree and purpose of God is the controlling factor which governs every other consideration in the teaching, activity and orientation of apostolic Christianity. To leave out election and predestination is not merely to leave out something that is incidental or peripheral to it, but to deprive it of its fundamental axiom. It is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
In any properly balanced doctrine of the church this element has always been present. Because we are dealing with the overlapping of two circles, as it were, it gives the doctrine a double-sided and paradoxical appearance, which to the minds of some amounts to a contradiction. Paradox, however, is inescapable when we are dealing with the penetration of time by eternity. The phenomenon of the visible church is both continuous and discontinuous with that of the invisible. Like a stick broken in water, the visible church gives the appearance of discontinuity with the visible. Yet there is a real and essential relationship which must be maintained, though the membership of the one is not commensurable with the other.
This paradoxical character of the church has been reflected in every truly great Christian theologian. They have never tried to resolve the paradox by eliminating one side of it, and they have never neglected or rejected the doctrine of election. Where the doctrine of election has been lost sight of the church has invariably fallen into error. An over-emphasis upon the doctrine of election is, if anything, safer than its neglect. But the soundest and best position is that where the Biblical balance and proportion is held.
Saint Augustine’s teaching of the church
I shall take two examples from church history. First we find in Augustine (354-430) this double aspect of the church brought out. In his controversy with the Donatists, who had separated from the rest of the church over the question of whether those who had lapsed under persecution should be readmitted, the question he sought to answer was Ubi ecclesia? Where is the church? He answered it in two ways. First, he sees the church as the universal institution which embraces all faithful Christians, and is led to the conclusion, “It is the sure judgment of the whole world that they are not good who cut themselves off from the whole world”. He attaches such a high importance to the visible, institutional church as to assert in his anti-Donatist treatise on baptism, that there is “no salvation outside the church”.
Yet those who think this is Augustine’s final word on the church are mistaken, as are those who interpret him one-sidedly. Augustine was too great a man and too profound a theologian to be so limited and circumscribed. This was the mistake of Cardinal Wiseman, who wrote in 1829, that the great Augustine (by his words on schism) was condemning Anglicans in advance.
Augustine has something else to say in answer to the question, Where is the church? which Cardinal Wiseman did not mention. It is found in the key word ‘predestination’, which Augustine derived from St. Paul, and which he hands on to his great disciple John Calvin.
The true Biblical complexity of Augustine’s understanding of the church is seen in his recognition of the fact that the church does not consist merely of the visible institution and its members, but in the company of the elect, the unknown company of the predestinated.
On the one side of the church is a visible society, an identifiable homogenous institution girdling the whole world as a unity, the only church of God’s redeeming grace, the one ark above the flood. On the other side the church is invisible, save to the eyes of God alone, and its true members the unpredictable monuments of his sovereign grace. Job, the great outsider from Idumea, is for Augustine, the type of the elect, for he reminds the empirical church as it strides the centuries, that, according to the predestination of God, there are many sheep outside the fold and many wolves inside.
It is this double-sidedness that preserves the balance in Augustine’s teaching and prevents him from descending into error. He never resolves the antinomy of the church which is both visible and invisible. For him, as for Calvin, God’s sovereign grace presupposes all the institutions of the church as its means, and they are ultimately of no significance without it.
Had Augustine succumbed to the temptation to eliminate one side of the paradox, i.e. either election or the institutional church, he would not have been the seminal influence upon subsequent theological thought which he afterwards became, but would have lapsed either into mysticism or sectarianism. This latter was the mistake of Augustine’s contemporaries, who in the controversy with the Donatists appealed to the authority of Rome “…Rome has spoken, the matter is settled”. This famous epigram, falsely attributed to Augustine, misrepresents his position. In his anti-Donatist treatise The Unity of the Church there is not a single reference to the Roman see as the divinely ordered centre of Christian unity, or to Rome’s Petrine claims.
Let me here try to illustrate what I mean by error arising from the elimination of one side of the paradox. If, for example, you have undue emphasis upon predestination to the neglect of the visible institution, then you lapse into mysticism regarding the church and the errors commonly associated with it. Some time ago I was at Speakers Corner, in Hyde Park. A large, burly man had set up his stand with the words on it ‘The Invisible Church’. A voice from the crowd said, “And that must be the invisible man”. At which everyone roared with laughter. Throughout the history of the church there have been those who, because of their insistence upon the invisible church, have been led to disparage the visible institution, and in consequence have failed to treat with the seriousness it deserves its ministry, sacraments and discipline.
Likewise, where you have an unqualified emphasis upon the visible church to the neglect of its mystical and transcendent nature, you have a narrow and exclusive sectarianism. Whatever appeal may be made to numbers, the Church of Rome is in fact the Roman sect. Newman argued against this in his Apologia, in an attempt to rebut the charge. He argues but does not convince. Rome exalts the institution and eliminates the invisible church by equating it with the visible – indeed eliminates Christ by making him interchangeable with the hierarchy, and so makes the institutional church fantastic and blasphemous in its claims.
As Bishop Ryle observed in his tract on The Church,
To give to the visible church the names, attributes, promises, and privileges which belong to the one true church, – the body of Christ; to confound the two things, the visible and the inward church, – the church professing and the church elect, – is an immense delusion … once confound the body of Christ with the outward professing church, and there is no amount of error into which you may not at last fall. Nearly all perverts to Rome begin with getting it wrong here.
And Bishop Ryle continues,
Once get hold of the idea that church government is of more importance than sound doctrine, and that a church with bishops teaching falsehood is better than a church without bishops teaching truth, and none can say what we may come to in religion.
His words need to be weighed very carefully in these ecumenical and spiritually perilous days, as well as the wise words of Hooker on the subject. “For the lack of the diligent observing of the difference … between the church of God mystical and visible … the oversights are neither few nor light that have been committed”.
Wycliffe’s View of Election and the Church
I come to Wycliffe, the second example I have chosen of a great man who discerned the antinomy or paradox of the nature of the church, and used the doctrine of predestination and the invisible church of God’s elect to oppose the excessive claims of the papacy and the institutional church of his time. Great man though he was we would not endorse everything he said. His teaching must be seen as corrective, and not as a norm to be followed. His position pushed to its extreme would tend to dissolve the institutional church altogether. However, he did not press his doctrine that far, and his emphasis was necessary at the time to offset the evil in the church, and quicken men’s minds to a higher concept of the true church and its spiritual nature.
There is no doubt as to the importance of predestination in his teaching. David Hume wrote in his History of England that Wycliffe asserted that everything was subject to fate and destiny, and that all men are predestined either to eternal salvation or reprobation. Wycliffe’s quarrel with the papacy and the hierarchy was over the powers which they had arrogated to themselves over men’s souls, and over their lives and property. Their power was universal and unchallenged. People went in superstitious dread of the Papal curse, and of excommunication. To be denied the sacraments and membership of the institutional church was to be denied salvation.
How could such overweening confidence on the part of the hierarchy, and such narrow exclusiveness in the visible church be combated, but by affirming the character of the invisible church, which consists of all God’s elect people? Membership of that church does not depend on the diktat of the pope and hierarchy, but upon the decree and command of Almighty God. Set in such a context the place and importance of the institutional church is properly understood. The doctrine of election must at all times be the controlling doctrine of the church.
This Wycliffe showed in his tracts and sermons. On the Lord’s Prayer Wycliffe wrote, “When we say, Thy kingdom come, we mean, that all men and women living in this world that shall be saved … come to the bliss of heaven … for all men and women that shall be saved be God’s kingdom and holy church”. None, he said, is a member of holy mother church, who is not a predestined person.
Thus, at a stroke, by the recovery of the Biblical doctrine of election, Wycliffe freed men from the tyranny of an overbearing institutional church, by teaching them that if they were God’s elect and saved by grace, then none could exclude them from the privileges of salvation, or from membership of the true church, whatever pretensions they might make to do so.
Concerning the decree of Innocent III making auricular confession to a priest binding for the forgiveness of sins, Wycliffe argues,
And thus it seemeth to many men, that Christian men might be saved without any such confession, as they were before Pope Innocent …Who is he that letteth (i.e. hinders) God to save men as he hath ordained before the Pope and the law came in, and before the world was made? Also God giveth freely his grace notwithstanding man’s law. Why may not God do his grace through his servants, that serve him well, as if there were no such priest or pope? As sometime there was none.
We should note here that the doctrine of predestination is seen in its practical application to a pastoral problem. “Christ had made his servants free, but antichrist had made them bound again”. The doctrine was not treated in a merely speculative manner, but related and applied to the Christian experience of freedom in Christ – the liberty of the Christian man – and it was seen to be indispensable to that end.
Today, many treat the doctrine of election as something purely speculative and irrelevant to the pastoral and practical side of Christianity. When this happens we should be on our guard, for we can be sure that something of the fulness of our salvation in Christ is being lost. The doctrines of Scripture are not given us to afford us academic pastimes and speculative indulgence. They have practical relevance for the Christian’s experience and life. None is superfluous. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works (II Tim. 3:16).
What part of Christian freedom is being lost today by the neglect of, or even contempt for, the doctrine of predestination? I shall return to this. I cannot do better than to sum up this section in the words of Professor Whale:
This doctrine of predestination in the hands of its exponents is fatal not only to hierarchical and sacerdotal, but also to all ecclesiastical pretensions and arrogance: indeed, to all human assumptions of superiority.
Dare we affect to ignore it, or despise such teaching in the church today? If we do so, we do it at our peril.