Contemplating and Discussing Election (Digging into Dort, Point 1, Part 6)

I really wrestled with whether or not to write this series of posts on the Canons of Dort because the doctrine of election is one that is often misunderstood and debated among Christians. It can provoke quite a response, and I wasn’t sure if a blog would be the appropriate platform to discuss this topic. However, given that it is found in the Bible (which the Canons of Dort maintain), it is something that should be addressed. Interestingly enough, part of the discussion of election in the Canons of Dort deals with the importance of teaching election properly (Article 14) and having the proper attitude towards election and reprobation (Article 18).

When, How, and Why to Teach This Doctrine

Article 14 notes that “this teaching concerning divine election was proclaimed through the prophets, Christ himself, and the apostles, in Old and New Testament times. It was subsequently committed to writing in the Holy Scriptures. So also today in God's church, for which it was specifically intended, this teaching must be set forth.” It thus affirms that the doctrine is not found in one isolated passage but throughout the Scriptures. At the same time, though, it notes that “this teaching must be set forth with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High. This must be done for the glory of God's most holy name, and for the lively comfort of God's people.” Similarly, the last section of the Canons of Dort (Rejection of False Accusations) “urges all fellow ministers in the gospel of Christ to deal with this teaching in a godly and reverent manner, in the academic institutions as well as in the churches; to do so, both in their speaking and writing, with a view to the glory of God's name, holiness of life, and the comfort of anxious souls; to think and also speak with Scripture according to the analogy of faith; and, finally, to refrain from all those ways of speaking which go beyond the bounds set for us by the genuine sense of the Holy Scriptures and which could give impertinent sophists a just occasion to scoff at the teaching of the Reformed churches or even to bring false accusations against it.”

The Canons state that this doctrine must be taught with discretion -- it should probably not be the first doctrine to be taught to a new Christian. There are times when this doctrine will offer tremendous comfort, but there are other times when the doctrine might lead to confusion or controversy; one must know when to teach it and not be ashamed of teaching it in the right context but also know there are times when it might not be wise to teach it. The doctrine should not be taught for philosophical enjoyment but rather for the glory of God and comfort of people, and we should not go beyond the bounds of what has been revealed – there should not be “inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High”. The Canons noting these things indicates that there were issues and abuses in the teaching of the doctrine at the time.

Remember That There is Mystery

There is mystery in the doctrine of election, just as in other Christian doctrines. The Trinity says that there is one God in three persons; not that there are three parts of God or that there are three different gods. This is mysterious, and we often speak in terms of what it is not rather than what it is exactly because of this mystery. Similarly, the doctrine of the person of Christ also has mystery – he is fully God and fully man, one person in two natures. Those are the boundaries for this teaching, but the precise way it works seems beyond our understanding. Similarly, election states that God saves particular people from their sin and that their salvation is wholly from God, but that God is not the author or cause of evil nor is His decree the cause or basis of the rejection of whose whom He passes over. Those truths lead to questions, but when answers are not given, we need to let questions remain.

How to Respond

The final article of this first main point similarly does not discuss the doctrine itself but rather how we should respond to it. It recognizes that some people will take issue with the doctrine, noting that “To those who complain about this grace of an undeserved election and about the severity of a just reprobation, we reply with the words of the apostle, ‘Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?’ (Romans 9:20), and with the words of our Savior, ‘Have I no right to do what I want with my own?’ (Matthew 20:15).” The Canons here do not try to defend the doctrine, but rather direct people back to the words of Scripture (which is the basis for doctrine) in a couple of passages that deal with God’s right to give His grace to him He wishes. The reference to Matthew is particularly interesting, as this comes from the parable in which the people who worked all day received the same pay as those who only worked for a few hours -- the people who received a reward so should be thankful and not question how and why the master gives out the reward.

Rather than taking issue with this doctrine, we should be captivated by God’s grace that goes beyond our ability to understand. This final article in the First Point ends by quoting Romans 11:33-36 which says, “We, however, with reverent adoration of these secret things, cry out with the apostle: ‘Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways beyond tracing out! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has first given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.’” Rather than try to understand things completely, may we understand what we can and worship the God who understands all and whose knowledge (and grace!) is beyond our comprehension.

And with that we finish up “digging” into the First Main Point in the Canons of Dort; we’ll move to the Second Main Point next week.

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