The Five Points of Calvinism – Part 3 by R. L. Dabney


III. God’s Election.

In our Confession, Chapter III., Section iii., verses 4 and 7, we have this description of it: 3d. ‘By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life and others foreordained to everlasting death.’ IV. ‘These angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished.’ VII. ‘ The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.’ The first and second sections of this tract prove absolutely this sad but stubborn fact, that no sinner ever truly regenerates himself. One sufficient reason is, that none ever wish to do it, but always prefer, while left to themselves by God, to remain as they are, self-willed and worldly. That is to say, no sinner ever makes himself choose God and holiness, because every principle of his soul goes infallibly to decide the opposite preference.

Therefore, whenever a sinner is truly regenerated, it must be God that has done it. Take notice, after God has done it, this new-born sinner will, in his subsequent course of repentance and conversion, freely put forth many choices for God and holiness; but it is impossible that this sinner can have put forth the first choice to reverse his own natural principles of choice. Can a child beget its own father ? It must have been God that changed the sinner. Then, when he did it he meant to do it. When was this intention to do it born into the divine mind? That same day? The day that sinner was born? The day Adam was made? No! These answers are all foolish. Because God is omniscient and unchangeable he must have known from eternity his own intention to do it. This suggests, second, that no man can date any of God’s purposes in time without virtually denying his perfections of omniscience, wisdom, omnipotence, and immutability. Being omniscient, it is impossible he should ever find out afterwards anything he did not know from the first Being all-wise, it is impossible he should take up a purpose for which his knowledge does not see a reason. Being all-powerful, it is impossible he should ever fail in trying to effect one of his purposes. Hence, whatever God does in nature or grace, he intended to do that thing from eternity. Being unchangeable, it is impossible that he should change his mind to a different purpose after he had once made it up aright under the guidance of infinite knowledge, wisdom, and holiness.

All the inferior wisdom of good men but illustrates this. Here is a wise and righteous general conducting a defensive war to save his country. At mid-summer an observer says to him, ‘General, have you not changed your plan of campaign since you began it?’ He replies, ‘I have.’ Says the observer, ‘Then you must be a fickle person?’ He replies, ‘No, I have changed it not because I was fickle, but for these two reasons: because I have been unable and have failed in some of the necessary points of my first plan; and second, I have found out things I did not know when I began.’ We say that is perfect common sense, and clears the general from all charge of fickleness. But suppose he were, in fact, almighty and omniscient? Then he could not use those excuses, and if he changed his plan after the beginning he would be fickle. Reader, dare you charge God with fickleness? This is a sublime conception of God’s nature and actions, as far above the wisest man’s as the heavens above the earth. But it is the one taught us everywhere in Scripture. Let us beware how in our pride of self-will we blaspheme God by denying it. Third. Arminians themselves virtually admit the force of these views and scriptures; for their doctrinal books expressly admit God’s particular personal election of every sinner that reaches heaven. A great many ignorant persons suppose that the Arminian theology denies all particular election. This is a stupid mistake. Nobody can deny it without attacking the Scripture, God’s perfections, and common sense.

The whole difference between Presbyterians and intelligent Arminians is this: We believe that God’s election of individuals is unconditioned and sovereign. They believe that while eternal and particular, it is on account of God’s eternal, omniscient foresight of the given sinner’s future faith and repentance, and perseverance in holy living. But we Presbyterians must dissent for these reasons: It is inconsistent with the eternity, omnipotence, and sovereignty of the great first cause to represent his eternal purposes thus, as grounded in, or conditioned on, anything which one of his dependent creatures would hereafter contingently do or leave undone.

Will or will not that creature ever exist in the future to do or to leave undone any particular thing? That itself must depend on God’s sovereign creative power. We must not make an independent God depend upon his own dependent creature. But does not Scripture often represent a salvation or ruin of sinners as conditioned on their own faith or unbelief? Yes. But do not confound two different things. The result ordained by God may depend for its rise upon the suitable means. But the acts of God’s mind in ordaining it does not depend on these means, because God’s very purpose is this, to bring about the means without fail and the result by the means.

Next, whether God’s election of a given sinner, say, Saul of Tarsus, be conditioned or not upon the foresight of his faith, if it is an eternal and omniscient: foresight it must be a certain one. Common sense says: no cause, no effect; an uncertain cause can only give an uncertain effect. Says the Arminian: God certainly foresaw that Saul of Tarsus would believe and repent, and, therefore, elected him. But I say, that if God certainly foresaw Saul’s faith, it must have been certain to take place, for the Omniscient cannot make mistakes. Then, if this sinner’s faith was certain to take place, there must have been some certain cause insuring that it would take place. Now, no certain cause could be in the ‘free-will’ of this sinner, Saul, even as aided by ‘ common sufficient grace.’ For Arminians say, that this makes and leaves the sinner’s will contingent. Then, whatever made God think that this sinner, Saul, would ever be certain to believe and repent? Nothing but God’s own sovereign eternal will to renew him unto faith and repentance.

This leads to the crowning argument. This Saul was by nature ‘dead in trespasses and in sins’ (Eph. ii. 1), and, therefore, would never have in him any faith or repentance to be foreseen, except as the result of God’s purpose to put them in him. But the effect cannot be the cause of its own cause. The cart cannot pull the horse; why, it is the horse that pulls the cart. This is expressly confirmed by Scripture. Christ says (John xv. 16): ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain.’ Romans ix. 11–13 : ‘For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth; It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated;’ and verse 16: ‘So then, it is not of him that: willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.’ What is not? The connection shows that it is the election of the man that willeth and runneth, of which the apostle here speaks. Paul here goes so dead against the notion of conditional election, that learned Arminians see that they must find some evasion, or squarely take the ground of infidels. This is their evasion: that by the names Esau and Jacob the individual patriarchs are not meant, but the two nations, Edom and Israel, and that the predestination was only unto the privation or enjoyment of the means of grace. But this is utterly futile: First, Because certainly the individual patriarchs went along with the two posterities whom they represented. Second, Because Paul’s discussion in this ninth chapter all relates to individuals and not to races, and to salvation or perdition, and not to mere church privileges. Third, Because the perdition of the Edomite race from all gospel means must have resulted in the perdition of the individuals. For, says Paul: ‘How could they believe on him of whom they have not heard?’

This is the right place to notice the frequent mistake when we say that God’s election is sovereign and not conditioned on his foresight of the elected man’s piety. Many pretend to think that we teach God has no reason at all for his choice; that we make it an instance of sovereign divine caprice! We teach no such thing. It would be impiety. Our God is too wise and righteous to have any caprices. He has a reasonable motive for every one of his purposes; and his omniscience shows him it is always the best reason. But he is not bound to publish it to us. God knew he had a reason for preferring the sinner, Jacob, to the sinner Esau. But this reason could not have been any foreseeing merit of Jacob’s piety by two arguments: The choice was made before the children were born. There never was any piety in Jacob to foresee, except what was to follow after as an effect of Jacob’s election. Esau appears to have been an open, hard-mouthed, profane person. Jacob, by nature, a mean, sneaking hypocrite and supplanter. Probably God judged their personal merits as I do, that personally Jacob was a more detestable sinner than Esau. Therefore, on grounds of foreseen personal deserts, God could never have elected either of them. But his omniscience saw a separate, independent reason why it was wisest to make the worse man the object of his infinite mercy, while leaving the other to his own profane choice. Does the Arminian now say that I must tell him what that reason was? I answer, I do not know, God has not told me. But I know He had a good reason, because he is God. Will any man dare to say that because omniscience could not find its reason in the foreseen merits of Jacob, therefore it could find none at all in the whole infinite sweep of its Providence and wisdom ? This would be arrogance run mad and near to blasphemy.

One more argument for election remains: Many human beings have their salvation or ruin practically decided by providential events in their lives. The argument is, that since these events are sovereignly determined by God’s providence, the election, or preterition of their souls is thereby virtually decided, Take two instances: Here is a willful, impenitent man who is down with fever and is already delirious. Will he die or get well? God’s providence will decide that. ‘ In his hands our breath is, and his are all our ways.’ (Dan. v. 23.) If he dies this time he is too delirious to believe and repent; if he recovers, he may attend revival meetings and return to God. The other instance is, that of dying infants. This is peculiarly deadly to the Arminian theory, because they say so positively that all humans who die in infancy are saved. (And they slander us Presbyterians by charging that we are not positive enough on that point, and that we believe in the ‘damnation of infants.’) Well, here is a human infant three months old. Will it die of croup, or will it live to be a man? God’s providence will decide that. If it dies, the Arminian is certain its soul is gone to heaven, and therefore was elected of God to go there. If it is to grow to be a man, the Arminian says he may exercise his freewill to be a Korah, Dalthan, Abiram, or Judas. But the election of the baby who dies cannot be grounded in God’s foresight of its faith and repentance, because there was none to foresee before it entered glory; the little soul having redeemed by sovereign grace without these means.

But there is that sentence in our Confession, Chapter X., Section iii.: ‘Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when and where and how he pleaseth.’ Our charitable accusers will have it that the antithesis which we imply to the words ‘elect infants dying in infancy’ is, that there are non-elect infants dying in infancy are so damned. This we always deny. But they seem to know what we think better than we know ourselves. The implied antithesis we hold is this: There are elect infants not dying in infancy, and such must experience effectual calling through rational means, and freely believe and repent according to Chapter X. There were once two Jewish babies, John and Judas; John an elect infant, Judas a non-elect one. Had John the Baptist died of croup he would have been redeemed without personal faith and repentance; but he was predestinated to live to man’s estate, so he had to be saved through effectual calling. Judas, being a non-elect infant, was also predestinated to live to manhood and receive his own fate freely by his own contumacy. Presbyterians do not believe that the Bible or their Confession teaches that there are non-elect infants dying in infancy and so damned. Had they thought this of their Confession, they would have changed this section long ago.

When an intelligent being makes a selection of some out of a number of objects, he therein unavoidably makes a preterition (a passing by) of the others; we cannot deny this without imputing ignorance or inattention to the agent; but omniscience can neither be ignorant nor inattentive. Hence, God’s preordination must: extend to the saved and the lost.

But here we must understand the difference between God’s effective decree and his permissive decree, the latter is just as definite and certain as the former; but the distinction is this: The objects of God’s effective decree are effects which he himself works, without employing or including the free-agency of any other rational responsible person, such as his creations, miracles, regenerations of souls, resurrections of bodies, and all those results which his providence brings to pass, through the blind, compulsory powers of second causes, brutish or material. The nature of his purpose here is by his own power to determine these results to come to pass.

But the nature of his permissive decree is this: He resolves to allow or permit some creature free-agent freely and certainly to do the thing decreed without impulsion from God’s power. To this class of actions belong all the indifferent, and especially all the sinful, deeds of natural men, and all those final results where such persons throw away their own salvation by their own disobedience. In all these results God does not himself do the thing, nor help to do it, but intentionally lets it be done. Does one ask how then a permissive decree can have entire certainty? The answer is, because God knows that men’s natural disposition certainly prompts them to evil; for instance, I know it is the nature of lambs to eat grass. If I intentionally leave open the gate between the fold and the pasture I know that the grass will be eaten, and I intend to allow it just as clearly as if I had myself driven them upon the pasture.

Now, it is vain for those to object that God’s will cannot have anything to do with sinful results, even in this permissive sense, without making God an author of the sin, unless these cavilers mean to take the square infidel ground. For the Bible is full of assertions that God does thus foreordain sin without being an author of sin. He foreordained Pharaoh’s tyranny and rebellion, and then punished him for it. In Isaiah x. he foreordains Nebuchadnezzar’s sack of Jerusalem, and then punishes him for it. In Acts ii. 23 the wicked Judas betrays his Lord by the determinate purpose and foreknowledge of God. In Romans ix. 18, ‘he hath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth,’ so in many other places. But our Confession, Chapter X., Section vii., makes this express difference between God’s decree of election and of preterition. The former is purely gracious, not grounded in any foresight of any piety in them because they have none to foresee, except as they are elected and called, and in consequence thereof. But the non-elect are passed by and foreordained to destruction ‘for their sins, and for the glory of God’s justice.’

We thus see that usual fiery denunciations of this preterition are nothing but absurd follies and falsehoods. These vain-talkers rant as though it was God’s foreordination which makes these men go to perdition. In this there is not one word of truth. They alone make themselves go, and God’s purpose concerning the wretched result never goes a particle further than this, that in his justice he resolves to let them have their own preferred way. These men talk as though God’s decree of preterition was represented by us as a barrier preventing poor striving sinners from getting to heaven, no matter how they repent and pray and obey, only because they are not the secret pets of an unjust divine caprice.

The utter folly and wickedness of this cavil are made plain by this, that the Bible everywhere teaches none but the elect and effectually called ever work or try in earnest to get to heaven; that the lost never really wish nor try to be saints; that their whole souls are opposed to it, and they prefer freely to remain ungodly, and this is the sole cause of their ruin. If they would truly repent, believe, and obey, they would find no decree debarring them from grace and heaven, God can say this just as the shepherd might say of the wolves: if they will choose to eat my grass peaceably with my lambs they shall find no fence of mine keeping them from my grass. But the shepherd knows that it is always the nature of wolves to choose to devour the lambs instead of the grass, which former their own natures, and not the fence, assuredly prompts them to do, until almighty power new-creates them into lambs. The reason why godless men cavil so fiercely against this part of the doctrine, and so fully misrepresent it, is just this –that they hate to acknowledge to themselves that free yet stubborn godlessness of soul which leads them voluntarily to work their own ruin, and so they try to throw the blame on God or his doctrine instead of taking it on themselves.

In fine, unbelieving men are ever striving to paint the doctrine of election as the harsh, the exclusive, the terrible doctrine, erecting a hindrance between sinners and salvation. But properly viewed it is exactly the opposite. It is not the harsh doctrine, but the sweet one, not the exclusive doctrine, not the hindrance of our salvation, but the blessed inlet to all the salvation found in this universe. It is sin, man’s voluntary sin, which excludes him from salvation; and in this sin God has no responsibility. It is God’s grace alone which persuades men both to come in and remain within the region of salvation; and all this grace is the fruit of election. I repeat, then, it is our voluntary sin which is the source of all that is terrible in the fate of ruined men and angels. It is God’s election of grace which is the sweet and blessed source of all that is remedial, hopeful, and happy in earth and heaven. God can say to every angel and redeemed man in the universe: ‘ I have chosen thee in everlasting love; therefore in loving kindness have I drawn thee.’ And every angel, and saint on this earth and in glory responds, in accordance with our hymn:

‘Why was I made to hear his voice
And enter while there’s room,
While others make a wretched choice
And rather starve than come?
‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew me in;
Else I had still refused to taste
And perish in my sin.’

And now dare any sinner insolently press the question, why the same electing love and power in God did not also include and save all lost sinners? This is the sufficient and the awful answer: ‘Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God?’ (Romans ix. 20.) Hast thou any claim of right against God, O man, to force thee against thy preference and stubborn choice to embrace a redemption unto holiness which thou dost hate and wilfully reject in all the secret powers of thy soul? And if thou destroyest thyself, while holy creatures may lament thy ruin, all will say that thou art the last being in this universe to complain of injustice, since this would be only complaining against the God whom thou dost daily insult, that he did not make thee do the things and live the life which thou didst thyself willfully and utterly refuse!

Others urge this captious objection: that this doctrine of election places a fatal obstacle between the anxious sinner and saving faith. They ask, How can I exercise a sincere, appropriating faith, unless I have ascertained that I am elected? For the reprobate soul is not entitled to believe that Christ died for him, and as his salvation is impossible, the truest faith could not save him even if he felt it. But how can man as certain God’s secret purpose of election toward him?

This cavil expressly falsifies God’s teachings concerning salvation by faith. As concerning his election the sinner is neither commanded nor invited to embrace as the object of his faith the proposition ‘I am elected.’ There is no such command in the Bible. The proposition he is invited and commanded to embrace is this: ‘ Whosoever believes shall be saved.’ (Rom. x. 11.) God has told this caviler expressly, ‘Secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to you and your children, that ye may do all the words of this law.’ (Deut. xxix. 29.) Let us not cavil, but obey. God’s promises also assure us ‘that whosoever cometh unto God through Christ, he will in no wise cast off’ (John vi. 37). So that it is impossible that any sinner really wishing to be saved can be kept from salvation by uncertainty about his own election. When we add that God’s decree in no wise infringes man’s free agency, our answer is complete. Confession, Chapter III., Section 1., by this decree, ‘No violence is offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

But it is stubbornly objected that those who are subject to a sovereign, immutable decree cannot be free agents; that the two propositions are contradictory, and the assertion of both an insult to reason. We explained that there are various means by which we see free agents prompted to action, which are not compulsory, and yet certain of effect, and that our God is a God of infinite wisdom and resources. God tells them that in governing his rational creatures according to his eternal purpose, he uses only such means as are consistent with their freedom. Still, the arrogant objectors are positive that it cannot be done, even by an infinite God! that if there is predestination, there cannot be free-agency. Surely the man who makes this denial should be himself infinite!

But, perhaps, the best answer to this folly is this: Mr. Arminian, you, a puny mortal, are actually doing, and that often, the very thing you say an almighty God cannot do! Predestining the acts of free-agents, certainly and efficiently, without their freedom. For instance : Mr. Arminian invites me to dine with him at one o’clock P. M. I reply, yes, provided dinner is punctual and certain, because I have to take a railroad train at two P. M. He promises positively that dinner shall be ready at one P. M. How so, will he cook it himself? Oh, no ! But he employs a steady cook, named Gretchen, and he has already instructed her that one P. M. must be the dinner hour.

That is predestination he tells me, certain and efficacious.

I now take up Mr. Arminian’s argument, and apply it to Gretchen thus: He says predestination and free-agency are contradictory. He predestinated you, Gretchen, to prepare dinner for one o’clock, therefore you were not a free agent in getting dinner. Moreover, as there can be no moral desert where there is no freedom, you have not deserved your promised wages for cooking, and Mr. Arminian thinks he is not at all bound to pay you.
Gretchen’s common sense replies thus: I know I am a free agent; I am no slave, no machine, but a free woman, and an honest woman, who got dinner at one o’clock because I chose to keep my word; and if Mr. Arminian robs me of my wages on this nasty pretext, I will know he is a rogue.

Gretchen’s logic is perfectly good.

My argument is, that men are perpetually predestinating and efficiently procuring free acts of free agents. How much more may an infinite God do likewise. But this reasoning need not, and does not, imply that God’s ways of doing it are the same as ours.

His resources of wisdom and power are manifold, infinite. Thus this popular cavil is shown to be as silly and superficial as it is common. It is men’s sinful pride of will which makes them repeat such shallow stuff:

Having exploded objections, I now close this argument for election with the strongest of all the testimonies, the Scriptures. The Bible is full of it; all of God’s prophecies imply predestination, because, unless he had foreordained the predicted events, he could not be certain they would come to pass. The Bible doctrine of God’s providence proves predestination, because the Bible says providence extends to everything, and is certain and omnipotent, and it only executes what predestination plans. Here are a few express texts among a hundred: Ps. xxxiii. 11 : ‘The counsel of the Lord standeth forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.’ Is. xlvi.10: God declareth ‘the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, my counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.’ God’s election of Israel was unconditional. See Ezek. xvi. 6: ”And when I passed by thee and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.’ Acts xiii. 48: ‘When the Gentiles heard this . . . as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.’ Rom. viii. 29, 30: ‘For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate. . .Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.’ Eph. I. 4-7 : ‘He hath chosen us in him (Christ) before the foundation of the world,’ etc. I Thess. I. 4: ‘Knowing, brethren, beloved, your election of God.’ Rev. xxi. 27 ‘. . . . They that are written in the Lamb’s book of life.’

Silly people try to say that election is the doctrine of that harsh apostle Paul. But the loving Savior teaches it more expressly if possible than Paul does. See, again, John xv. 16: ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ etc. John vi. 37 : ‘All that the Father giveth me shall come to me,’ etc.; see also verses 39, 44; Matt. xxiv. 22; Luke xviii. 7; John x. 14, 28; Mark xiii. 22; Matt. xx. 16.

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