The Doctrine of Election (Blogging the Belgic: Article 16)
The doctrine of election is one of the most controversial and debated doctrines when it comes to Christian theology. Some find great comfort in the truth, while others abhor it and speak against it. Article 16 of the Belgic Confession shows where the Reformed tradition stands regarding this doctrine, as it notes that it is taught in the Bible (in fact, one finds it is in many places in Scripture, such as Ephesians 1:4-11; Romans 8:29-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:1-2 to name a few). Both the placement of the discussion as well as the things that the article discusses addresses some of the common objections to the doctrine of election.
The most common complaint against the doctrine of election - and to be honest, my first thought when I heard the idea both in the context of history when I encountered John Calvin and then in the context of theology when I started learning about different traditions - is that this idea that God has chosen to save some people, but not all people, is not fair. There are people then who do not even have a chance. In addition to being unjust, the idea of election seems arrogant - who are you to say that you are one of the elect?
The placement of this article after the idea of the fall of humankind and original sin, doctrines that highlight that every person is under the curse of sin, shows that the issue is not that only some people are saved but that anyone is saved at all because of the effects of the fall. The opening words of article 16 remind us of those ideas: “We believe that—all Adam's descendants having thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of Adam.” All have fallen into sin and are ruined, under the wrath and curse of God. As we read in Ephesians 2:1-3, we are dead in our sins and by nature objects of wrath (also see Romans 1-3, that shows all are trapped in sin). We do not begin with the doctrine of election, but go from the doctrines of God and man and then sin; election is a solution to the problem of sin.
The confession continues and demonstrates how God responds to the problem of sin: “God showed himself to be as he is: merciful and just” and then discusses each of these ideas in the next sections of this article.
First, it looks at God’s mercy: “God is merciful in withdrawing and saving from this perdition those who, in the eternal and unchangeable divine counsel, have been elected and chosen in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness, without any consideration of their works.” Notice keywords like “his pure goodness” (God is good) and that this is an “eternal and unchangeable” decree; it depends on a good God who does not change or waver. God is merciful in that he has elected and chosen some to be saved in Christ; we don’t know who that is but we know that it is an unchangeable will. Note that it mentions that there is no consideration of their works. Sometimes, people think of God’s decree of election stemming from his knowledge of those who would choose him. This fails on two accounts. First, it fails because no one can choose God because of the sin of Adam; our natural, default state is only to reject God. All reject God, so if God is choosing those who would choose him, well, his team is going to empty because no one will! In fact, Jesus teaches that no one can come to him unless drawn by the Father (John 6:44); the Scriptures speak about God opening up people’s hearts to understand his truth (see Acts 16:14). You still might say, “Well, God can give people some grace so that they are able to choose him.” This leads to the second issue, which is that this would then be based on work and merit: God chooses us because of something that we have done or would do, but that goes against the statement “without any consideration of their works.” People often think that election can lead to people being arrogant (“We are the elect so we are better than you”) but in reality, the idea that God chose to save some -- and for some reason included me in that number -- should lead to humility, while those who believe that God saved people because they would choose him, that leads to arrogance as I was able to make the good choice but the other fools around me were not as bright! In addition, this goes against what we see in the Scriptures in that God does not choose Israel because of any sort of goodness to them (see Deuteronomy 7:6-8; Romans 9:9-13), or even the fact that God chooses to use the weak (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
The confession continues, as it also notes that election, the idea that God chooses to save some to be saved and leave others to face the punishment that their sin desires, reveals God’s justice: “God is just in leaving the others in their ruin and fall into which they plunged themselves.” God saving some is not justice, it is mercy and grace (not giving us what we deserve and giving us what we don’t deserve, in salvation through the work of Christ), but the punishment that remains on others shows his justice. It is not unjust that God allows some to continue in their sin and face the judgment that they deserve. As C.S. Lewis said, no one goes to hell unwilling; everyone deserves hell and by their own actions and natural inclination choose to send themselves to hell, and it is only by the intervention of God that some are saved. Again, the mind-boggling element is why some are saved at all.
There is still mystery in this doctrine, as God chooses to have mercy on some (Romans 9:18). While we know how God saves people in Christ (which the following articles of the confession discuss), we don’t know why God chooses to save some and not all, other than the fact that we know that in so doing, God’s shows mercy and justice. Just as there is mystery in the doctrine of providence, as we don’t understand it all, there is mystery here. And that is fine, as we can once again come to that realization that we are not God and do not need (nor are able!) to comprehend all things. We should thus deepen our faith in a merciful and just God who has not left the world to rot but has come and through his Son, has saved some. The doctrine of election only makes sense when we have a good understanding of sin -- and when we understand sin, we see God’s glory and mercy in election. Glory be to God!
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