The Doctrine of Election
Its Importance and Relevance for the Church Today (Part II)
By David Samuel
The Teaching of the Church of England
We have in the previous part of this article traced the doctrine of predestination and election through the Bible, Augustine and Wycliffe. I need not trace it through the Reformers, it is unquestionably there. It was present in them all in some form or other, simply because the cry of Sola gratia cannot be sustained without it. If salvation is of grace not of works, then the ground of distinguishing grace must be found outside man not within him. It is found in the secret and inscrutable purpose of God who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will (Ephesians 1: 11). As to the doctrine of the Church of England, we see that it preserves the same two-sidedness, the same double aspect of the church, that is, its visible and invisible sides that we have noticed before. The proper understanding of its visible and institutional character is found in Article XIX Of the Church.
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
Where is the Article on the invisible church? There are those who have contended that we have not got one, that our Articles speak only of the visible church, and do not mention the distinction that was universal amongst the Reformers. But this is not the case. The Article concerning the invisible church is found in Article XVII Of Predestination and Election.
Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour…
This is ‘the little flock’ of which our Saviour speaks, to whom it is the Father’s good pleasure to give them the kingdom. There is the invisible church, which is related to, but not commensurable with, the visible, outward, institutional church. Moreover, as Article XVII Of Predestination comes before Article XIX Of the Church it is intended to be understood as having logical priority over it. The concept of election is, as in the Bible, Augustine, Wycliffe and the Reformers, the controlling doctrine, which governs and presupposes our thinking about the visible church, its preaching, sacraments, and fellowship.
The Value of the Doctrine of Predestination for Today
We must turn now to the usefulness and relevance of the doctrine of election for the church today, and its importance too, for many of the ills we suffer are attributable to the neglect, or contempt of this doctrine by those who ought to know better.
First, it should if properly attended to preserve us from unworthy views of God. J.B. Phillips wrote a book a number of years ago with the intriguing title, ‘Your God is too Small’. It epitomises the particular affliction of the church and its leaders today. We have partial, limited and unworthy views of God. Our thinking about God is anthropocentric. The categories we use are subjective rather than Biblical. It would come as just such a great surprise to many within the church today to discover that God is at the centre of things, as it came to the contemporaries of Galileo to learn that the earth revolved around the sun. We are in the age of ‘flat earth’ theology. God in the present church scene is reduced to a benevolent and interested spectator. We make our plans for the church and then ask God to bless them. We are now so confident that we can predict how many people will join the church in the next twelve months and have devised just the right teaching and marketing research. Where God fits into all this it is difficult to see, except in the role of an observer.
This is the consequence of the Arminian theology that has taken control of the church, though most would not be able to give it a name at all. What is happening in the church today is not happening by accident. It has causes, theological causes. The practice of the church today has been determined by the theology it adopted yesterday, and that theology was Arminian.
Arminianism is essentially man-centred, and it reduces God to the role of an observer or spectator in his own universe. This can be demonstrated. Arminianism makes a distinction between God’s foreknowledge and his foreordination. It recognises that God must foreknow events, but denies that he ordains them to come to pass. But by the nature of the case, if God foreknows what will be done in the future, it follows that those events must be certain, otherwise he would have no knowledge of them. However, Arminianism has already denied that the certainty of events is attributable to God. He has not ordained them. Therefore their certainty must be attributed to some other course, or causes, outside God – to the working of blind fate or necessity. Thus God becomes a mere spectator in his own universe. He is made dependent for his knowledge upon the things known, instead of all things being dependent upon him. The only way of escape from this conclusion is to lapse into Socinianism or Unitarianism, and deny also that God even knows what will come to pass.
Now the demoralising consequences of this theology must be apparent. They are all about us in the church today, in the way in which modern Christians set about, not only their own salvation, but the ordering of the church, its bureaucracy, planning and focus groups. God is brought in almost as an afterthought, when some ultimate justification is required for the system. Is the God of the General Synod of the Church of England less remote and passive than the God of eighteenth century Deism? I suggest that the doctrine of predestination and election and all that it means in terms of the power and sovereignty of God is the necessary corrective that is needed to these unworthy and limited views of God. The remedy lies close at hand in its very own Articles of Religion.
Secondly, it should serve to preserve the church from popery. Against the medieval system of the papacy, clad like Goliath in helmet and greaves of brass and bearing spear and shield, Wycliffe advanced with, as it were a stone and a sling, that is, with the Biblical doctrine of predestination. It was sufficient to break its power and write its doom, for this doctrine is, as we have said, fatal to all ecclesiastical pretensions. It strips every manifestation of priestcraft of its power, for it reveals the truth, that the grace of God is not tied to any order of men, be they in the so-called apostolic succession or not, but is dispensed by him who says, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. (Exodus 33.19). Before the brilliance of that light the claims of Romanism and every other sacerdotal system melt as the shades of night before the rays of the sun.
Let us be under no illusion about the growing cult of the papacy and priestly religion in the popular mind today, in this so-called age of secularism. Hardly a day passes without the pope being featured in the newspapers. Wherever he goes he draws millions of people and the news media behind him in popular acclamation. They do not know what they are following. They have no real comprehension of the claims of the papacy. But the popular appeal and the potential power that goes with it are there. The essence of Roman Catholicism lies in the power of the priest who is regarded as mediator, the exclusive channel of God’s grace to man. Without this claim the whole sacerdotal system loses its raison d’être. The influence of such teaching is growing in the Church of England. Once only esoteric groups of Anglo-catholic clergy used to visit Walsingham. Now the image of Our Lady of Walsingham is taken on tour of the dioceses. With the decay of Protestant principles and Reformation teaching in the national church, its clergy and people slide inexorably into unreformed concepts of ministry.
As the ecumenical movement gathers pace, the orientation of the churches is towards the papacy, and the goal towards which it aspires is the exaltation of the visible, institutional church with its consequent claim to exclusiveness and authority over the souls of men. Many Protestants feel dispirited and defeated as this movement gathers momentum. With what can we oppose this Colossus? Let us remember the words of Paul: For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; (2 Cor 10.4,5). The churches of the Reformation have in their armoury the weapon that can overthrow all such false claims and teaching. It is their disregard and neglect of it that has made them a prey to sacerdotalism and the growing influence of Rome. If we have the courage to proclaim the whole counsel of God we shall have nothing to fear.
Thirdly, it should preserve evangelicals from incipient sacramentalism. By incipient sacramentalism I mean the tendency to attribute to the sacraments a power to work of themselves, regardless of the spiritual condition of the recipient, whether he has faith or not. At the time of the Reformation all the Reformers opposed this ex opere operato doctrine of the sacraments. In more recent years some evangelicals have chosen to speak in exaggerated language about the efficacy of the sacraments. In a book called “Growing into Union” written by two evangelical and two Anglo-catholic authors, the expression “the sheer, unqualified efficacy of the sacrament” was used, and the claim made that “the sacrament effects what it signifies”, brushing aside the Biblical warning on the need for worthy reception. This tendency is a dangerous one. It has been justly, and to my mind, unanswerably criticised by Dr Scales in the ‘Evangelical Succession’ published by James Clark. All I want to say here is, that the teaching and the tendency to ascribe such power to the sacraments would not arise amongst evangelicals if they held the doctrine of election in due regard, and gave it its rightful place in their doctrinal system. It is, as we have seen, the controlling doctrine regarding the church. It should govern our understanding of the visible, institutional church, its preaching, sacraments and fellowship. When this is recognised, the language of ‘sheer, unqualified efficacy’ in regard to the sacraments, as indeed to the preaching of the Word, is quite unjustifiable and inapposite. “The sacraments,” wrote Calvin, “duly perform their office only when accompanied by the Spirit, the internal Master, whose energy alone penetrates the heart, stirs the affections, and procures access for the sacrament into our soul. If he is wanting, the sacraments can avail us no more than the sun shining upon the eyeballs of the blind, or sounds uttered in the ears of the deaf.” This is the proper theological milieu in which the Reformers did all their thinking and writing about the sacraments. It follows that the sacraments can only be truly efficacious, or operative, in the elect, in those to whom the Holy Spirit is imparted.
Divorced from the doctrine of election the understanding of the sacraments quickly degenerates into ex opere operato notions and the language of ‘sheer, unqualified efficacy’.
The doctrine of the visible church must always have the teaching of the invisible church of God’s elect to qualify and control it. Without this two-sidedness, the visible, institutional church assumes a dominant and oppressive role, and its rites and ceremonies are gradually invested with magical potency.
Fourthly, it gives the church a sense of purpose. Behind the flux and change of the world and its history in which the visible, institutional church is involved, there is the eternal and unchanging plan and purpose of God. Let us take an illustration from nature and experience. Our senses are continually bombarded by impressions of colour, sound and feeling from the world about us. What enables us to impose some order and coherence upon all this confusion? The mind; the human mind is so equipped that it is able to impose order upon all these random impressions and make sense of it all. If the mind did not perform this function, the world would be ‘buzzing, booming confusion’. When we look out upon the world and its history, we are confronted with a multiplicity of events, with the flux and change and passage of history. What sense can we make of it all? One historian claims that he discerns a purpose, only to be debunked by another, and the modern approach seems to be one of skepticism regarding any purpose at all. It seems to me that we can make no sense of the empirical data of the world and history and life unless we have the categories of the Bible, of revelation, with which to do it. And especially important among them is the doctrine of predestination and election. Across the tracts of time marches the unchanging, invincible purpose of God to call out a people for himself, to justify and glorify them.
Without this great plan I cannot make sense of the manifold facts of history and life. The history of the world often hangs literally by a thread. Think of the baby Moses adrift on the waters of the Nile. Think of Paul, before his great mission was properly begun, suspended from the walls of Damascus by a rope in a basket. Why was the Gospel first preached in the West rather than in the East? Why did Christ come into the world when he did rather than earlier or later? ‘How odd of God,’ says the cynic, ‘to choose the Jews.’ Why should this person believe the Gospel and not that person, when humanly speaking they have had the same opportunities and privileges? If we confine ourselves to the contingent facts and the secondary causes we can make no sense of it. The world becomes a ‘big, buzzing, booming confusion’. Indeed, the philosophy of chance and the absurd seems to be the only possible conclusion, which is where our generation has arrived.
We must view the facts of history and experience in relation to God and his purposes. This is what men of faith have always done, and it has brought order out of confusion. Joseph saw that what had fallen out for him was not accidental, but ordained by God to fulfil his purpose, not merely for himself but for the people of God. He said to his astonished brethren, when they met up with him in Egypt, where he had become the chief power in the land next to Pharaoh, God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:7,8). The same thing is true when the foreordination of God is applied to the contingent, historical facts relating to the crucifixion of our Lord, as it was by Peter and the church in Acts 4:27, 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. The same is true when the contingent facts of our own personal histories are brought into relation with the purposes of God in election. Truly, nothing happens by accident, And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son… (Romans 8: 28, 29).
All this has a practical application which I need hardly point out. I conclude with this observation. The trouble with the church and many Christians today is that they look only at the contingent facts. They view the events of the world and of their own lives only superficially and not in the light of the Bible and the context of the overarching purpose of God in election and predestination. This does not minister to faith. If we do this we allow the world to set the agenda. But the truth is that the agenda has already been set. The purpose and goal of history have been determined by the counsel of Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said to his disciples, Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. When the church and the Christian grasp that truth by faith they will know that they are not the victims of events, but “more than conquerors”.