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Predestination and the Will of Man

By Prof. Herman C. Hanko

The Protestant Reformed Churches have not changed in their position concerning the sovereignty of God and the decree of predestination as they relate to the will of man. But the doctrine has fallen on hard times in our day.A number of years ago, when Prof. Homer Hoeksema was still alive, he and I were sitting on a Friday afternoon in the faculty room of the seminary, as we frequently did, going over the affairs of the week, discussing the problems in the seminary and in general relaxing after a busy week’s work. We were talking about how the church in our day has come to a point where even though it claims to be Reformed and Calvinistic, it in effect denies these fundamental doctrines of Scripture and the Reformed faith. Prof. Hoeksema made the remark: You know, if you stop to think about it, it is only infrequently in the history of the church that the church has consistently maintained the doctrines of sovereign grace. In those infrequent times when the church has maintained without compromise and with consistency the doctrines of sovereign grace, those times never lasted very long. Soon the church reverted to the age-old errors of Pelagianism and Arminianism. That struck me at the time. And while teaching Church History in our Protestant Reformed Seminary, the point was more and more forcibly driven home.

The question arises: Why is this so? Why are the great and grand truths of the sovereignty of God, of eternal predestination, and of particular and sovereign grace so infrequently maintained throughout the history of the church, and when they are, why are they maintained only for very short periods of time? I can come to only one conclusion: Their unpopularity is due to the fact that these doctrines are thoroughly and completely God-centered and God-glorifying. Men, even in the church, will not have it that way. They want glory for themselves. They do not want God alone to receive glory. Man insists on his own place, his own prerogatives, his own importance. He wants to retain some of the tattered remnants of a pride that burns white-hot in his heart and is shattered only by the blow of the truth of the absolute sovereignty of God. So he attacks those doctrines, attacks them vigorously in one way or another. He attacks them by denying them. He attacks them by trying to kill them with silence. It would be interesting to ask a thousand people in any Reformed church, “When is the last time you have heard a sermon that was devoted exclusively to the doctrine of sovereign election or, much less, to the doctrine of sovereign reprobation? How many have you heard over the past year or two?” Silence is an effective weapon, it seems, to destroy these doctrines.

These doctrines are also openly attacked by those who profess to be Reformed and Calvinistic but introduce doctrines into the confession of the church that are at odds with and ultimately destroy the doctrines of the sovereignty of God. I refer to such teachings as God’s love for all men without distinction; Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross for the whole world, head for head; a desire on God’s part, expressed in the preaching of the gospel, to save everyone who hears the gospel — better known as the well-meant gospel offer, which has become a sacred cow in countless circles. In the British Isles, for example, it has repeatedly come to my attention that one can teach any heresy under the face of the heavens and no one will turn a hair. But let someone deny the well-meant gospel offer and the wrath of the entire evangelical and Presbyterian world comes crashing down on his head, as if the only heresy that is of any account in today’s world is the truth of sovereign and particular grace.

That is the situation in the church world. It is sad.

The Reformed may have won a mighty and powerful victory at the Synod of Dordt, destroying Arminianism and defeating its nefarious purposes. But the simple fact of the matter is, and no one can deny it — I say it with shame and sorrow — Arminius won!

It is, therefore, important that we address this subject: “Predestination and the Will of Man.” It is here that the battle lines are drawn. Those who will not ascribe to God the sole sovereignty in His own universe are those who insist that all things turn on the will of man. That is precisely and totally contrary to the doctrine of sovereign predestination. It is to that that I call your attention in this pamphlet.

The Truth of Predestination

We must ask ourselves, first of all, what is meant by the doctrine of predestination? We must be brief, although it would be very easy to devote an entire lecture just to this subject.

The word “predestination” itself is not used very frequently in Scripture. When it is used, it is used to refer to God’s sovereign purpose with regard to the elect only. Nevertheless, in the history of the church, going all the way back to Augustine, the bishop of Hippo who lived in the last part of the fourth century and the first part of the fifth century, predestination has generally been defined as including both election and reprobation. The term “double-predestination” has been the battle-cry of those who have maintained the sovereignty of God. And by “double predestination” is meant that God is sovereign in election and sovereign in reprobation.

What is election? Briefly, election is that eternal and unchangeable decree of God to choose unto Himself from before the foundations of the world a church in Christ as the object of His grace and love and to glorify that church in everlasting blessedness in heaven.

Election is, first of all, a decree of God’s counsel that He determined before He began the work of creation and providence and the ultimate redemption of all things. It is a part, a decree, of His eternal plan and purpose. In the second place, election is the choice of a specific people. It is not a vague and indefinable determination on God’s part to save some people. It is a definite and specific decree to save certain, specific people whom He knew before they were ever born or before they had ever done good or evil. In the third place, that decree of election is a choice of a people in Christ. I cannot emphasize that strongly enough. Christ and the elect in the decree and purpose of God are one. There are no elect apart from Christ. But there is no Christ apart from the elect. They go together. Christ is the elect, par excellence. Say “Jesus Christ” and you have said “election,” an elect church, for they are one in the decree and they are destined to be one in everlasting glory and blessedness in heaven. In the fourth place, that decree of election is absolutely free and sovereign. It does not depend on what man does. It does not depend on what God is able to predict men will do. It is simply, without any modification whatsoever, God’s decision to save a certain, definite number of people. And if you should look for the reason why God chose some and not others, the only reason that Scripture gives is God’s own sovereign good pleasure. He decided to do it. It is His own determination. It is His will. Let it be driven home to our consciousness, because that is extraordinarily humbling. And that is what the doctrine of election ought to do to you and to me — it ought to humble us!

Finally, election, as the decree of God, is, according to our Reformed standards and particularly the Canons of Dordrecht, the fountain and cause of all salvation. All of the blessings of salvation, including faith, holiness, justification, and everlasting glory, and all the good works that the believers do in time, have their origin, their cause, and their efficacy in the decree of election. Election is the fountain from which flows all the salvation of the people of God, including all their good works. Ephesians 2:10 says: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” This text follows hard upon Ephesians 2:8, 9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” In verse 10, Paul anticipates someone in his audience saying, “Yes, that’s all right, Paul, but what about our good works?” Paul says, All right, you want to talk about good works? This is the explanation for our good works: We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which good works God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. That is, God determined those works before we were born, each good work for each one of us. God determined from before the foundations of the world that we would walk in them. Christ merited every last one of them on the cross. And each good work is worked within the hearts of the elect by the irresistible power of the Spirit. That includes also faith, the faith whereby the believer confesses the truth of the Scriptures and lays hold on Christ as the fullness of his salvation.

Election, I say, is the fountain and cause (I use the word “cause” deliberately) of all good works.

Reprobation, on the other hand, is that sovereign, eternal, and unchangeable decree of God according to which He determines to reveal the infinite justice of His own divine being, His supreme holiness, and His fury against sin by creating vessels of wrath that are everlastingly punished for their sins in hell.

The enemies of sovereign grace and those who are intent on salvaging out of the wreckage of man’s fall some elements of human good and some reasons for man to boast, and who do that by attacking the truth that God alone is sovereign, always make predestination the object of their attack. If you are interested in some of the attacks that have been made over the years against the doctrine of predestination, I urge you to read the Conclusion to the Canons of Dordrecht. Our fathers sum up there, in a brief statement, all the caricatures of the doctrine of predestination, all the arguments that have been raised against it, all the vicious slanders that were brought during the time when the Arminian conflict was going on — all directed against the doctrine of predestination. But when the doctrine of predestination is attacked, reprobation is without fail attacked first. Men hate reprobation. Men especially deny and attack reprobation because they consider it to be the Achilles’ heel of the church; they are persuaded that the church will be reluctant at best, and frequently unwilling, to defend the sovereignty of God in reprobation. You will find, therefore, if you read the history of the church, that it is reprobation, first of all, that must suffer the fiercest attacks.

Reprobation and election are one decree of God. Our Canons make that clear in I, 6: “That some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God’s eternal decree (in the singular), according to which decree He graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe, (and now the rest of that decree) while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy.” So, there is one decree that includes election and reprobation; that is, contrary to the insistence of some, it is impossible to believe in election without maintaining at the same time reprobation. The two are one decree. If you deny reprobation, you deny election. That God chooses some means, necessarily, that He damns others. The two belong together. They are two sides of the same coin.

Reprobation is sovereign. Reprobation does not mean that God determines to punish in hell those whom He foresees will not believe. That was and is the Arminian position. Strangely enough, insofar as Reformed churches still talk about reprobation today, that is what they make of it. They make reprobation conditional, dependent upon whether or not man accepts or rejects the gospel. If he rejects the gospel, he makes himself by his rejection a reprobate. That is contrary to Scripture and the Reformed confessions. God is sovereign in determining who are reprobate.

There is a relationship between reprobation and election that is important. The relationship between the reprobate and the elect is the same as the relationship between the stalk, chaff, and straw of a wheat field and the kernel of wheat itself. The relation between reprobate and elect is identical to the relationship of a cornstalk, a tassel, a root, the husks of the ear, and the cob, to the kernels of corn — the kernels of corn being the elect and all the rest the reprobate. What is true in God’s eternal purpose is true also in creation. The reprobate are to the elect as the scaffolding is to the building — necessary for its erection, built for the purpose of erecting the building, but useless, torn down, and destroyed when the building is completed. In the purpose of God reprobation serves election.

The Sovereignty of God in Predestination

Now, in both election and reprobation God is sovereign, absolutely and without qualification, sovereign. The sovereignty of God is rooted, first of all, in the truth of creation and providence. God created all things, according to the Scriptures, in six normal days. He created all things by the word of His power. He spoke and the creatures came into existence by His efficacious and creative word. He said, “Elm tree,” and it came into existence by the power of His creative word.

God speaks that same word to give the creatures He formed their continuing existence. That is God’s providence. Providence means that God not only created all things, but He continues to uphold all things by the same word of His power. He not only says in the beginning of time “Elm tree,” which gives existence to that tree, but He continues to say that word throughout all the history of the world. And when the elm tree is redeemed and brought to the glories of the new heavens and the new earth, God will continue to speak that word forever and ever, world without end. The existence of that elm tree depends absolutely on the continuous word of God which He speaks.

This is true of every creature. This is true of man, whom God created by the same word of His mouth. Man is upheld by the continuous word of God. Even Satan is upheld by the word of God continuously spoken. Reprobate angels, demons, are upheld by the word of God. If God speaks the word that continues to give to every creature its existence, one cannot deny sovereignty. How can one deny that God is sovereign over one’s life when every breath he breathes is God causing one’s lungs to expand and contract by the word of His power? God’s sovereignty rests foursquare on the truth of creation and providence.

All things, therefore, that exist in heaven and on earth, in the world of angels and in this universe in which we live, are created and upheld by God. Over them all God is sovereign. He rules over them all. He upholds them every moment. If He would cease to speak the word that causes them to exist, they would simply cease to exist at that very moment.

But that same word of God that continuously upholds all creatures is the word of God by which God rules and governs all creatures, so that the whole counsel of God’s will, which He has determined from all eternity, is carried out perfectly and without mistake. The creation is like a mighty ship, set afloat by God’s creative power, guided infallibly according to His eternal plan, and brought at last to its eternal destination, the new heavens and the new earth.

It is a marvelous truth, in all its ramifications. One stands in awe on a clear winter night when he gazes into the heavens and knows with absolute conviction that every star has its place because it is set there by the hand of God and that the trillions of stars, the millions of solar systems and galaxies, are created by His almighty hand and move at His command. One is humbled that all is a part of God’s eternal purpose.

This is not just abstract doctrine for the child of God. It is a truth that is the tower to which the believer flees and in which he finds a refuge in all the storms of life. When troubles mount, when sorrows increase, when the wicked grow strong and bold, when Satan goes about as a roaring lion, when everything seems to be going wrong in this topsy-turvy and upside-down world, and even when the chastening hand of God is on us, we flee to the rock of the absolute sovereignty of God. Nothing happens without His will! The devil cannot so much as move a finger without the will of God. All is subject to His rule.

There is a very beautiful illustration of that in the book of Job. You recall how Satan was powerless unless God Himself gave Satan the right and the power to do what Satan wanted. Satan appeared in heaven. He had a criticism of Job. God brought up the subject, not Satan. God asked him: “Hast thou seen my servant Job, good and upright?” “Oh, yes,” Satan dismissed it with a wave of the hand. “Who wouldn’t serve you, when you make him rich. You give him everything he wants.” God said, “Take it away from him and see what happens.” Then, when that did not work, Satan was even given the power by God to take away Job’s health, so that his life was reduced to utter wretchedness. What was Job’s response? “The Lord gave, the Lord bath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And then we read: “And Job worshipped” (Job 1:20-22).

Luther comments somewhere on that whole fascinating and totally gripping story of Job and his three friends. He remarks that the three friends of Job had sinned so greatly in their conversations with Job that Job had to build an altar and make sacrifices for them so that their sins would be forgiven. Now Job had said some bad things, too. He had cursed the day of his birth. He had made a desperate effort to call God into account, to give justification to him for the terrible sufferings that he was called to endure. But, says Luther, even though in many ways the sins of Job were greater than the sins of the three friends, no sacrifices had to be made for Job. Why not? Because, said Luther, he believed in the sovereignty of God and the three friends did not. That was the difference. In all of Job’s misery and anguish, and even in his criticism of God, he always recognized that what had befallen him had come from the hand of God.

God is sovereign over man. That means, first of all, that God is sovereign in the work of salvation. He chose His people from all eternity, not on the basis of works but on the basis of His own good pleasure. He gave His people to Christ. Christ assumed full responsibility for their salvation. He did whatever was required of Him and whatever needed to be done in order that His people might be saved. That involved the terrible, shameful, horrible death on the cross. Christ willingly went to the cross in order to accomplish the purpose of God in election. There on Calvary election was carried out — pictured in the election of the thief on one side of Christ and the reprobation of the thief on the other side of Christ. The cross accomplishes election and reprobation. It accomplishes election because by means of that one perfect atoning sacrifice the elect are given all the blessings of salvation in this life and in the life to come. It is also the accomplishment of reprobation Jesus Himself said, just prior to going to the cross, “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). Or, if I may refer you to another text (I Pet. 2:4-8), Christ is the cornerstone of the church, on which the church is built, and in which all of the elect are living stones that compose the glorious structure of God’s temple. But Jesus Christ is also the stumbling block to those who perish. Then Peter adds, significantly, “unto which also they were appointed.” The cross accomplishes election and reprobation. It is as if that cross, planted on Calvary, is a cross that remains standing through the 6,000 years of the world’s history. All of humanity, from Adam to the last one that will ever be born, is a mighty stream that flows across Calvary, and the cross becomes the dividing line between elect who, on the crest of the blood of the cross are swept up into the everlasting glory of heaven, and the reprobate who, on the other hand, are consigned to everlasting judgment and condemnation according to the will of God.

Election, therefore, is the fountain and cause of all good: of all our good works, of all the blessings of salvation, of all that the elect are now by the grace of God, and of all they will be someday in heaven into all eternity when they see Christ face to face. The elect do nothing with respect to their salvation. It is all given sovereignly, by grace alone. Man contributes nothing.

But does not the child of God himself do good works because he wills to do them? Paul explains this in Philippians 2:11, 12: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Why? Because “it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Our will to do that which is right is God’s gift.

God’s Sovereignty and Free Will

God is sovereign also over sin. Here the baffle lines are finally drawn. Does man have a free will? The answer is, No! He does not have a free will.

One must understand that, when I talk about the free will of man, I am talking about the doctrine, current in our day, that fallen, sinful, depraved man retains that much good in him that he is able to make a choice for or against Christ. He is able to accept or reject the gospel with its offer of salvation in Christ. He retains a free will in his choice to do that which is right in God’s sight or that which is wrong. That is the doctrine of free will. It is almost everywhere taught. Where can you go today and not find that doctrine maintained and defended?

It is said that that doctrine is absolutely essential to maintain man’s responsibility. I do not know why men say this. We will take a closer look at that question.

Today’s wretched, wishy-washy church world, with its doctrine of the free will of man, has not come up with anything new. That heresy is as old as the New Testament church. It was the heresy that was taught in the churches of Galatia when the apostle Paul fought against the Judaizers, who were destroying the faith of so many within these churches in Asia Minor, by teaching that man was capable of doing good works by keeping the works of the law, and that salvation depended upon his own ability to do this.

It was taught by the Pelagians, those evil Pelagians in the days of Augustine, who, contrary to the Scriptures and contrary to the clear teachings of Augustine, maintained that man has a free will. Augustine fought against that view and even wrote a book about it. Sad to say, the Roman Catholic Church, which has canonized Augustine and which claims today to have Augustine as one of its spiritual fathers, denies the very heart of the teachings of Augustine and has become itself Pelagian, teaching that we are saved on the basis of our good works, which we are able to do by a choice of our own free will and by which we merit with God. So imbedded in Roman Catholic theology is that vicious and God-mocking doctrine that in the ninth century the aged, godly monk Gotteschalk rotted in prison for denying it and defending the doctrines of the sovereign grace of God.

The Waldensians, that faithful group of saints who huddled in caves and holes of the Alps of Europe to escape the cruelties of Rome’s Inquisition, who saw their infant children hurled over cliffs and their wives and husbands burned at the stake, confessed that man has no free will. They insisted that salvation is by grace alone.

It was the issue at the time of the Reformation. Luther wrote his famous book, The Bondage of the Will, against Erasmus, a humanist before whom all of Europe bowed in adoration, but who taught the freedom of the will. Luther would have none of

That was the battle in the Netherlands in the days of the Arminian controversy, when Arminius maintained the same heresy. Arminius said man had a free will. The Reformed said, Nonsense! Man is totally depraved.

I say again: Dordt was a great victory, but Arminius won. This is evident in many ways. If one teaches a well-meant gospel offer that expresses God’s desire to save all men; if one teaches a universal atonement — that Christ died for all men; if one teaches that God loves all men; if one teaches a conditional salvation — that salvation in one sense or another depends upon conditions that we must fulfill; if one introduces man into the work of salvation (even a little) while leaving ninety-nine percent to God, one has chosen the accursed heresy of the free will of man. It is accursed. Why? It denies the sovereignty of God! Man is made sovereign. God waits for man to make his decision. God is dependent on man’s choice for what He will do next. God longs for all to come to salvation. Poor, helpless God stands wringing His hands in despair as man chooses to reject the gospel and to crucify Christ afresh. God would have it different, but He cannot do anything about it.

If you will not permit man to have a free will, it is argued, he cannot be responsible for his sin. I do not know why this is said.  It does not make sense to me to say that. But that is the argument.

It is free will or sovereignty — one or the other. You cannot have both. The doctrine of free will is an accursed blasphemy. It reduces God to an idol fashioned after man’s imaginations, helpless to do what He wills and longs to do.

God’s Sovereignty and Sin

The question arises: If God is sovereign, is He sovereign over sin? If His sovereignty is total, does not this include sin? The answer is emphatically, Yes. The Scriptures write this truth in large letters. Assyria, when it came storming against the northern kingdom to destroy it and then against Jerusalem to lay siege to it, is said to be an ax in God’s hand whereby God cuts down an apostate people who have turned from Him to serve the idols of the heathen. Assyria — an ax in God’s hand, that is all (Is. 10, especially vv. 5-19). Amos plaintively cries out: “Is there evil in the city and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6). David, when fleeing from Absalom and enduring the mockery of Shimei, was confronted with bloodthirsty Abishai, who wanted to cut off Shimei’s head. But David’s response was, “No! God said to Shimei: Curse David” (II Sam. 16:5-10). David received the cursing and blasphemy of Shimei as coming from God.

And so it is on almost every page of Scripture.

God’s will is supreme. God’s will is sovereign in all the universe — in hell and in this world. Terrorists cannot do a thing apart from the will of God. Islam is carrying out the purposes of the Most High. All the evil that engulfs this country in its corruption is under the control of the Almighty!

Does that mean that man is not responsible for sin? Oh, no! Man is responsible. He goes to hell because of his sins. He is justly punished by God for his sins. He is accountable for them. Man is, by virtue of his creation, accountable. It is better to speak of accountability, for man must give an account of his sins before God; and accountability implies responsibility. By virtue of being rational and moral, man can do nothing else but “respond” to God. But because he is able to respond, that is, because he is responsible, he is also accountable. If God is sovereign even over evil, is man accountable for his sin? The answer of Scripture is, Yes! He goes to hell for his sin. He does not go to hell because he is reprobate. He goes to hell as the just judgment of God against sin. Why is he accountable? He is accountable because always, in everything he does, he sins willingly. It is man’s will that makes him accountable for what he does.

How can one harmonize that with God’s sovereignty? This question is repeatedly asked. The problem is frequently presented as if both God’s sovereignty over sin and man’s accountability exclude each other. Either God is sovereign or man is accountable. Both together are impossible. But Scripture speaks of both and thus both are true.

God’s will so controls and directs all things, that it even touches upon man’s will. But where God’s will touches upon man’s will, it touches it in such a way that man continues to do what he does willingly. God never takes the sinner by the scruff of the neck and says to him, “Pull the trigger of this gun and shoot your wife,” with the result that the man says, squirming and desperately trying to get out of God’s grasp, “I don’t want to do it!” God never works that way. A man shoots his wife… because he wills it.

The whole question is really an abstract question. There is not a wicked man in the whole world who would ever deny, and who will dare to deny in the judgment day, that he did what he did because he wanted to do it. All the wicked in hell will say, “We’re here…because we deserve it. We wanted to live our lives of sin. We chose the evil.” That was all they were able to choose, for they are totally depraved. They could not choose the good; but this is due to the corruption of their nature. And the corruption of their nature, which makes it impossible for them to do good, is also their fault, for they sinned in Adam. They are responsible for Adam’s sin, and their depravity is God’s punishment for their sin in Adam. But behind their sin is God’s sovereign work.

How can these things be? We cannot completely understand how these things are possible, but we ought not be troubled by them. I cannot understand anything about how God’s sovereign will is executed in this creation. What is the relationship between God’s sovereign will and the formation of a baby in the womb of its mother? How does God work that? How does God cause that to take place? How does God cause a blade of grass to grow? I do not know. And I do not know of a scientist in all the halls of the universities of the world that can explain that. What gives a creature its life? Can we understand anything about God’s relationships to the creation? Can we understand anywhere how God works and why He works the way He does?

Can one understand how God moves the stars in the millions of the galaxies in the star-studded heavens? Can one understand the way of a serpent on a rock? Can one understand the simplest things that take place in this creation? Everything fills us with awe. One sees the trillions upon trillions of snowflakes — each one formed delicately by the fingers of God, each one different from every other, each one formed in the skies, falling according to a path ordained by the Most High, directed to a destination that God alone determines — and one marvels at the ways of God. Someone asks to understand and explain how God sovereignly works His purpose in evil so that His will is accomplished, though man remains accountable. We ought not be surprised that we cannot understand that. There are no works of God that we understand. But Scripture is clear. Christ was condemned and with wicked hands crucified and slain according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). But that evil deed for which the nation of Israel was rejected is our redemption. God sovereignly brought about the cross, His Son’s cross, to save you and me. He used Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Sanhedrin and the mobs who mocked. He was sovereign at Calvary, in every aspect of that event. And through it all, He accomplished our salvation while the sin rests heavily on the heads of the perpetrators.

This is true for all that happens in this world, for “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Reprobation serves election. The heinous sin of the cross of Christ is our salvation. All things are for your sakes. Ye are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (I Cor. 3:21-23). And the sovereign God is glorified in all His works forever, world without end.

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