Augustine: Refuting the Pelagians

‘But these brethren of ours, about whom and on whose behalf we are now discoursing, say, perhaps, that the Pelagians are refuted by this apostolical testimony in which it is said that we are chosen in Christ and predestinated before the foundation of the world, in order that we should be holy and immaculate in His sight in love. For they think that “having received God’s commands we are of ourselves by the choice of our free will made holy and immaculate in His sight in love; and since God foresaw that this would be the case,” they say, “He therefore chose and predestinated us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” Although the apostle says that it was not because He foreknew that we should be such, but in order that we might be such by the same election of His grace, by which He showed us favour in His beloved Son. When, therefore, He predestinated us, He foreknew His own work by which He makes us holy and immaculate. Whence the Pelagian error is rightly refuted by this testimony. “But we say,” say they, “that God did not foreknow anything as ours except that faith by which we begin to believe, and that He chose and predestinated us before the foundation of the world, in order that we might be holy and immaculate by His grace and by His work.” But let them also hear in this testimony the words where he says, “We have obtained a lot, being predestinated according to His purpose who worketh all things.” He, therefore, worketh the beginning of our belief who worketh all things; because faith itself does not precede that calling of which it is said: “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance;” and of which it is said: “Not of works, but of Him that calleth” (although He might have said, “of Him that believeth”); and the election which the Lord signified when He said: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” For He chose us, not because we believed, but that we might believe, lest we should be said first to have chosen Him, and so His word be false (which be it far from us to think possible), “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” Neither are we called because we believed, but that we may believe; and by that calling which is without repentance it is effected and carried through that we should believe. But all the many things which we have said concerning this matter need not to be repeated.’

— St. Augustine

Does God Predestine Sin?

God brought the greatest good the world has ever known out of the most horrifying sin the world has ever seen. And it was His plan from before creation.

Audio Transcript

So we want a handle on how to manage this paradox or mystery, that God forbids things he brings about, and God commands things that he hinders from happening — that in one sense something is the will of God and in another sense that same something is not the will of God. Without this category of thought, I don’t think you can make sense out of the Bible or the God of the Bible, so let’s look at these two kinds of “willing.”

God’s Will of Decree

Here’s number one. Let’s call it either the sovereign will of God or his will of decree. It means God’s sovereign control of everything that comes to pass. It’s one of the clearest teachings of the bible. Let’s look at some verses. Matthew 26:39, Jesus is in Gethsemane and he prays like this: “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

What does “as you will” mean? What kind of “will” of God is that? Well, it means His plan for Jesus to be crucified. “If there’s no other way, Father, if that is the infinitely wise way, the infinitely loving way, the infinitely just way, do what you must do.” And he did it.

A Script with Sin

And here’s the crucial thing to observe: it was shot through with sin and could not have happened without sin. It’s a sin to kill the son of God. It’s a sin to mock the son of God. It’s a sin to whip the son of God with the stripes prophesied in the Old Testament (Isaiah 53:5). It’s a sin to be expedient and wash your hands and hand Jesus over (Matthew 27:24).

And yet we all know from Acts 4:27: “Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your purpose predestined to take place.”

The script was written for Jesus’s betrayal in Gethsemane and Good Friday in great detail in Isaiah 53, and Psalm 22, and in many other passages. The script was written. The will of God is a fixed, determinant purpose to bring about the death of his son. Isaiah 53:10, “It was the will of the Lord to bruise him,” and it was full of sin, which means we must have a category of thinking that says God can ordain that sin happen without being a sinner.

If you don’t have that category in your mind, you can’t handle the cross and the prophecies. God ordains that there be sin in the particulars of the death of his son because he couldn’t have been crucified without it, and he is not himself a sinner in ordaining that sin be.

What if I am not Elect?

by Dr. David Murray

Some opponents of Reformed theology argue that the doctrine of election produces unfeeling and fatalistic preachers: “If God has already chosen who will believe, what’s the point in preaching passionate and persuasive evangelistic sermons?” However, although that’s (usually) an unfair caricature of Reformed truth, there’s no question that Reformed pastors sometimes have to counsel people who will say something like, “But if I’m not in the elect, there’s no point in believing in Christ. If my name’s not written in the Book of Life, then all my believing is in vain.” Some of those will be simply using election to excuse their inaction. However, others are genuinely concerned and confused.

Ralph Erskine deals with this pastoral challenge in his sermon on Isaiah 53:6: “I will give you for a covenant to the people” [Works, Vol 1, 128]. After some words on the covenant in general, Erskine shows how Christ is the covenant of the people, and then asks: “For whose benefit is He a covenant?”

Erskine is at pains to emphasize that “whosoever of all the people will subscribe to this covenant, and go into it by faith, shall have the everlasting benefit of it.” Then, as was commonly done in his day, he imagines a hearer asking, “But if I am not among the elect whose names are in that covenant, then surely my subscribing of it will be in vain.”

It’s here that Erskine provides wise and helpful guidelines for pastors to follow in counseling such anxious souls. In summary:

There are two copies of this covenant, two writs of this charter: the original and an extract.

The original is in heaven and contains all the names of all the elect that ever were, are, or shall be (Eph. 1:4). This original is locked up in the cabinet of God’s secret purpose and is marked “For God’s eyes only” (Deut. 29:29).

The extract is in the Bible, which God has revealed and put in your hands. “This copy of the covenant is sent open to you all to sign and subscribe, by giving faith’s assent and consent to the covenant of the people, Christ, as he is offered in the Gospel.”

In order to gather in the elect and to leave all others inexcusable, this faithful extract is “directed to all, and every one of you, giving you full and sufficient warrant to sign and subscribe for yourselves.” Christ is “a covenant of the people” as it is put in the verse.

You cannot possibly “see” your name in the original, till you have signed your consent to the copy which has been let down to earth.
If you sign the extract, then you may lay claim to the original, and “see” your name there (by “seeing” Erskine is referring to assurance of faith).

Although some who, by faith, subscribe the extract copy, are kept in the dark about their names being in the original, yet none shall “see” their names there (the original), but those who subscribe their names here (the extract).

Erskine does a great job here of balancing God’s sovereignty with human responsibility, and also of illustrating a difficult concept with a memorable image. I especially like the way that he leaves hearers without excuse, yet also inspires and motivates faith in Christ. May his counsel make us better counselors.

The Works of Ralph Erskine, Vol. 1, (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1991), 128-197. See especially pages 142-143.

God Raised You From the Dead

Dr. John Piper: You came into this world dead. Not sort of “hard of hearing” towards the gospel, not simply crippled in good works, not struggling to keep your head above the waters of sin. You were dead: spiritually lifeless and unmoving. Everything that a dead corpse can contribute to becoming alive, you could do, spiritually, to believe in Christ. Nothing. Dead means dead (Ephesians 2:1–3).

But God, because of the wealth of mercy in his being, loving dead corpses such as we are, said to us, “Live.” And as surely as the voice of God raised the Son of God from the tomb outside Jerusalem, he raised us up from death, and set us about the works of Christ, by the same power that breathed in our souls from the beginning of our first cries of faith (Ephesians 2:4–7).

This is the good news of Jesus. No boasting, no claim of contribution to our own resurrection — we boast, but say nothing but “useless” of ourselves. Our boasting is in the Lord who raises the dead, for his glory (Ephesians 2:8–9).

Scripture: Ephesians 2:1–10

LAB_PDX_10 from Desiring God on Vimeo.

Ephesians 1

Steven Lawson: To the Praise of His Glory: God’s Grand Design of Redemption

A biblical view of salvation centers on God. Before the foundation of the world, He graciously chose a people for Himself while justly passing over others “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:3–6). This session will demonstrate why the doctrine of God forms the heart of our understanding of the gospel and the doctrines of grace.

This message is from Ligonier’s 2015 Fall Conference, So Great a Salvation.

Comfort For The Called

jerome-zanchius_0 (1)Jerome Zanchius, 1516-1590: Comfort For Those Who are Called According to His Purpose

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, what is ed to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son!” Romans 8:28-29

The sovereignty of God is a comfort for suffering saints, acting to remove anxiety. How sweet must the following considerations be to a distressed believer!

1. There most certainly exists an almighty, all-wise and infinitely gracious God (Hebrews 11:6).

2. His love for His elect people is immutable; He never repents of it nor withdraws it (Jeremiah 31:3).

3. Whatever comes to pass in time, is the result of His sovereign will from everlasting (1 Corinthians 8:6).

4. Consequently my afflictions are a part of His sovereign will, and are all ordered in number, weight, and measure (Psalm 22:24).

5. The very hairs of my head (every one) are counted by Him; nor can a single hair fall to the ground but in consequence of His wise determination (Luke 12:7).

6. Hence my afflictions and distresses are not the result of chance, accident, or a fortuitous combination of circumstances (Psalm 56:8).

7. They are the providential accomplishment of God’s eternal purpose (Romans 8:28), and are designed to answer some wise and gracious ends (James 5:10-11).

8. Nor shall my affliction continue a moment longer than God sees fit (2 Corinthians 7:6-7).

9. He who brought the affliction to me — has promised to support me under it and to carry me through it (Psalm 34:15-17).

10. All shall, most assuredly, work together for His glory and my good.

11. Therefore, “Shall I not drink from the cup of suffering the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).

However keenly afflictions might wound us on their first access — yet, under the impression of such animating views, we should quickly come to ourselves again, and the arrows of affliction, would, in great measure lose their sharpness.

Christians need nothing but absolute resignation to God’s wise and gracious Providence, to render them perfectly happy in every possible circumstance. And absolute resignation can only flow from an absolute belief of, and an absolute acquiescence in, God’s absolute Providence, founded on His absolute predestination (1 Thessalonians 1:2-4).

HT: John Hendryx

Acts 13:46-48 – God’s Dealings with His Chosen Ones

Dr. John Piper:

v. 46-48 – Unconditional election means that God chose his people without them first meeting any conditions. In this lab, faith, or worth.

Acts 13:48 // Unconditional Election from Desiring God on Vimeo.

v. 48 – In this lab, John Piper reminds us that if God has chosen you, no scheme of Satan can keep you from choosing him.

Acts 13:48 // The Chosen Choose God from Desiring God on Vimeo.

A Gift From the Father to the Son

with a great flood? Why did God order Israel to exterminate the Canaanites from the face of the earth? Why is the reality of hell and eternal punishment taught in Scripture? Why does the Apostle Paul say that “neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10)?

These are difficult doctrines, and only the naïve or ignorant would deny it. But there is one doctrine found throughout the Bible that more so than all the others combined causes people to object. It is undoubtedly the most controversial and emotionally explosive subject in the history of the Christian church. I’m talking about the notion of divine election or predestination, specifically the teaching in John’s gospel that the Father has “given” hell-deserving sinners to the Son in order that they might inherit eternal life.

We must reckon with the words of Jesus in John 17:2 that he has authority over all flesh, that is, over all of the human race in every age, “to give eternal life to all whom you [the Father] have given him.” What we read in John 17:2 is neither the first nor the last time this language is found in John’s gospel and on the lips of Jesus. Look at John 17:6 where twice we read of this “gift” from the Father to the Son:

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.”

Look at John 17:9 –

“I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.”

Once more in John 17:24 we read this,

“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

And it isn’t just in John 17 that Jesus speaks this way. In John 6 Jesus said this:

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).

“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).

Again, a bit later in John 10 Jesus says much the same thing:

“I give them [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29).

Thus, no fewer than 8 times in the gospel of John alone do we find this notion of the Father “giving” men and women to the Son. This act of the Father in “giving” men and women to Jesus is the same as what we read in Ephesians 1:4-6 where Paul says that God

“chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4-6).

Perhaps one more passage from Paul will be enough for us today. This is what we read in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14,

“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14).

So what are we to make of these biblical texts, together with dozens of others that say much the same thing? Should we ignore them? Deny them? Pretend they don’t exist? Or should we honestly and forthrightly, with great humility, try to understand them? Surely the latter is the only proper approach. Perhaps I can defuse your concerns about divine election or predestination by articulating several principles that are an essential part of this biblical truth.

(1) First, let’s begin with a definition. Election is a pre-temporal decision by God, a choice he made before any of us ever existed. God chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). God “saved us,” said Paul, “and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9).

(2) One reason people tend to react negatively to the idea of divine election is that they have an unbiblical view of the condition of sinful humanity. All human beings deserve hell and eternal condemnation. We are by nature and by choice rebellious, morally corrupt, spiritually blind, God-defying, Christ-rejecting sinners (Eph. 2:1-3). As such, God doesn’t owe us anything, other than judgment. Continue reading

“Make Your Calling and Election Sure” Predestination and Assurance In Reformation Theology

hortonArticle by Dr. Michael Horton

According to the most lengthy of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:

The godly consideration of Predestination and our Election in Christ is full of sweet, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh in their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God. And yet, the study of the subject has most dangerous effects on the “carnal professor.”1

Speaking of the doctrine of election as “a comforting article when it is correctly treated,” the Formula of Concord (Lutheran) offers a similar caution:

Accordingly we believe and maintain that if anybody teaches the doctrine of the gracious election of God to eternal life in such a way that disconsolate Christians can find no comfort in this doctrine but are driven to doubt and despair, or in such a way that the impenitent are strengthened in their self-will, he is not teaching the doctrine according to the Word and will of God…2

During the magisterial Reformation, the doctrine of election was regarded as a corollary to justification, the nail in the coffin of synergism (justification and regeneration by human cooperation with grace). Pastorally, election was used to drive away despair and anxiety over one’s salvation. John Bradford, an Edwardian divine who was martyred under “bloody Mary,” wrote that this doctrine was a “most principal” tenet since it places our salvation entirely in God’s hands. “This, I say, let us do, and not be too busybodies in searching the majesty and glory of God, or in nourishing doubting of salvation: whereto we all are ready enough.”3 As we will see, all of this is carefully expounded by Calvin as well.

Did Calvin Invent Predestination?
More than anything else, Calvin and Calvinism are known for this doctrine. In one sense, that is quite surprising. First, the doctrine held by Calvin–namely, predestination to both salvation (election) and damnation (reprobation)–was insisted upon by many of the church fathers. Augustine took it for granted as the catholic teaching, in opposition especially to Pelagius. Aquinas wrote,

From all eternity some are preordained and directed to heaven; they are called the predestined ones: “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children according to the good pleasure of his will” [Eph. 1:5]. From all eternity, too, it has been settled that others will not be given grace, and these are called the reprobate or rejected ones: “I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau” [Mal. 1:2-3]. Divine choice is the reason for the distinction: “…according as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world.”… God predestines because he loves… The choice is not dictated by any goodness to be discovered in those who are chosen; there is no antecedent prompting of God’s love [Rom. 9:11-13].4

Lodging the cause of election in the foreknowledge of human decision and action, says Aquinas, is the fountainhead of Pelagianism.5 Thomas Bradwardine, the fourteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, recalled his discovery of this great truth:

Idle and a fool in God’s wisdom, I was misled by an unorthodox error at a time when I was still pursuing philosophical studies. Sometimes I went to listen to the theologians discussing this matter [of grace and free will], and the school of Pelagius seemed to me nearest the truth… In this philosophical faculty I seldom heard a reference to grace, except for some ambiguous remarks. What I heard day in and day out was that we are masters of our own free acts, that ours is the choice to act well or badly, to have virtues or sins, and much more along this line… But every time I listened to the Epistle reading in church and heard how Paul magnified grace and belittled free will–as in the case in Romans 9, “It is obviously not a question of human will and effort, but of divine mercy,” and its many parallels–grace displeased me, ungrateful as I was… However, even before I transferred to the faculty of theology, the text mentioned came to me as a beam of grace and, captured by a vision of the truth, it seemed I saw from afar how the grace of God precedes all good works… That is why I express my gratitude to Him who has given me this grace as a gift.6 Continue reading

Chosen Before Time

but never Christmas.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the land of Narnia was under the cruel reign of the White Witch. But Aslan was on the move. When the witch and lion finally meet, the witch says to Aslan that one of the children, Edmund, has been found to be a traitor. The law of Narnia is that anyone who is a traitor belongs to the White Witch, and will be punished with death.

So Aslan strikes a deal with the witch and agrees to die in Edmund’s place. But then Aslan comes back from the dead. After he returns, the children are confused.

“But what does it all mean?” asked Edmund’s sister, Susan.

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know: Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

Behind the Curtain of Eternity

In this children’s tale, Lewis masterfully gets to the heart of our redemption. And he helps us see the love of the triune God toward us in “the stillness before time dawned.” There, in eternity past, Father and Son and Spirit conspired to love a people for themselves. They determined both to create us and — knowing that we would bring their good creation to ruin — also decided to set their loving and eternal gaze on us, as particular, chosen, and treasured children.

It’s unfortunate that the biblical teaching of “God’s decree” (as theologians have called it) and his predestinating glory has turned sour among so many Christians. When something so biblically rich and spiritually nourishing becomes so distasteful that we refuse to consume it, we need to reconsider our diet.

In the Stillness Before Time

In the first chapter of Ephesians, the apostle Paul is so overtaken with the majesty of our redemption that he can hardly stop to put a period behind his statements. So, his one long sentence runs from verse 3 through to verse 11. But what infuses every pore of that one, long sentence is its beginning:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. (Ephesians 1:3–5)

God’s servant is inspired by God’s Spirit to show us what God was doing before the world began. In these verses, we have what only God can give: a glimpse into the eternal moment of his glorious plan. The triune God prepared every detail of the blueprint for his eternal kingdom. Not only did he plan it all, but he himself would work the entirety of that blueprint according to the counsel of his own sovereign will (Ephesians 1:11).

Without the solid meat of this biblical truth, our souls eventually will falter. Unless we eavesdrop on eternity, we will develop spiritual cataracts. In order to see clearly, we first need to hear clearly. We must set our minds on the transcendent so that the immanent can take its proper place in our lives.

Not to Us, O Lord

Paul begins by ascribing blessing to God the Father because of what he has accomplished in his Son. But Paul won’t let us focus that accomplishment on us. His immediate interest is not in the benefits we receive from Christ, important as those are. His mind moves immediately from praising God to God’s eternal choice. Paul’s interest is to help us see that what we have from the Father, through the Son, is a result of the Father’s determination “before the foundation of the world” to so love us that he would save us from our sin.

We’ve just finished another Olympic year. American athletes earned a record number of medals. These athletes committed the entirety of their lives to their athletic tasks. It is natural, then, that they take pride in their accomplishments.

But the Christian can never think that the salvation that we have in Christ is anything like the rigors of athletic training. Not only have we earned nothing of what we have in Christ, but what we have is a result of decisions made by the triune God before we, or anything else in creation, even existed.

Who Gets the Glory?

Most Christians recognize that, apart from Christ, there is no salvation. But far fewer recognize that our salvation had its beginning before time began. It was there that the triune God determined to love you for eternity. It was there that the Son did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, being obedient to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:6–8).

Until we see this divine determination as the eternal “ground zero” of our salvation, we simply cannot engage in wholehearted worship of God. If God did not unilaterally, from eternity, instigate his sovereign plan of salvation for me, then my salvation must, even if in some small way, be “up to me.” If we contribute anything to our salvation, our songs of praise to the glory of God will always be playing our own tune in a minor key.

Paul will not let us speak into eternity past; we can look, but not touch. Only in that way will the light shine in the proper place, on the stage and not the audience. Only in that way is it possible to say, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” without whispering on the side, “And me, too.”