Saturday, January 02, 2010

A Vindication of Reformed Piety

God chose Christ's members in Him before the foundation of the world; and how should He choose those who as yet did not exist, except by predestinating them? Therefore He chose us by predestinating us. Would he choose the unholy and the unclean? Now if the question be proposed, whether He would choose such, or rather the holy and unstained, who can ask which of these he may answer, and not give his opinion at once in favour of the holy and pure?
-Saint Augustine of Hippo[1]

There is no shortage of criticism directed at those who adhere to the doctrines of grace, especially as it pertains to the reformed doctrine of predestination. It is a common complaint that if the Sovereign Lord has predestined one to eternal life irrespective of our personal merits (or lack thereof), then there is no reason to live virtuously. This is based on only a partial understanding of the Calvinist view of election and justification. The main problem is that one important factor is left out: the doctrine of sanctification. Simply put, when God has elected one to eternal life, He declares them righteous. But it does not end there, as God also places His Spirit upon those whom He justifies, and it is the Holy Spirit’s work on the elect that brings about an inward renewal of the heart and mind, which ultimately leads to glorification. “And these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Romans 8:30 ). It is described as such:

As appears from the immediately preceding, sanctification is a work of which God and not man is the author. Only the advocates of the so-called free will can claim that it is a work of man. Nevertheless, it differs from regeneration in that man can, and is in duty bound to, strive for ever-increasing sanctification by using the means which God has placed at his disposal. This is clearly taught in Scripture, II Cor. 7:1; Col. 3:5-14; I Pet. 1:22.[2]

Thus, we do good works because those who are elected by God are gradually brought into conformity to His image, and renewal is the sign of this. As it is written, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Or, to put it in Calvin’s terms,

Christ, therefore, justifies no man without also sanctifying him. These blessings are conjoined by a perpetual and inseparable tie. Those whom he enlightens by his wisdom he redeems; whom he redeems he justifies; whom he justifies he sanctifies. But as the question relates only to justification and sanctification, to them let us confine ourselves. Though we distinguish between them, they are both inseparably comprehended in Christ. Would ye then obtain justification in Christ? You must previously possess Christ. But you cannot possess him without being made a partaker of his sanctification: for Christ cannot be divided. Since the Lord, therefore, does not grant us the enjoyment of these blessings without bestowing himself, he bestows both at once but never the one without the other. Thus it appears how true it is that we are justified not without, and yet not by works, since in the participation of Christ, by which we are justified, is contained not less sanctification than justification.[3]

Nevertheless, it seems that the criticisms persist. In recent article in Philosophy Now, Philosophy Professor Robert Howell from the Southern Methodist University in Dallas attempts to naturalize and explain away inward renewal by appealing to a somewhat complex theory involving God’s being the master predictor. Howell illustrates it this way:

In Newcomb’s problem, we’re asked to imagine the following scenario. An immensely intelligent fellow, christened by reputation The Predictor, is able with astounding accuracy, approaching perfection, to predict the actions of others. The predictor sets you the following game. There are in front of you two boxes; one opaque and the other translucent. The game allows you two options: you can either take both boxes and keep the contents of both, or you can take only the opaque box, keeping only its contents. In the translucent box, there is $50,000. In the opaque box, the predictor (who has amassed quite a fortune by his forecasting excellence) will have placed either $1 million or nothing at all. He places the money within the box an hour before you make your choice. His decision about what to place in the box is determined by the following rule: if he predicts that you will take only the opaque box, he will place $1 million within it; if he predicts you will take both, he will place nothing inside the opaque box.[4]

As the theory goes, God is The Predictor, the box with $50,000 represents earthly sins and the opaque box represents one’s eternal destiny, which will have $1 million if it is heaven and nothing at all if it is hell. Unfortunately, it seems Prof. Howell gets the reformed Ordo Salutis backwards. Howell states that, “God chooses the Elect based upon his infallible prediction as to whether or not they partake of earthly sins.”[5] Actually, salvation does not depend on whether or not one partakes of sins. If that was the case, then nobody would make it into heaven, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Rather, salvation is a free gift of God, given by grace, and received with the empty hand of faith, as it is written, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9), and, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

The second mistake Prof. Howell makes is assuming that God makes His choice based on a “prediction.” This is the old “looking down the corridors of time” approach that is taken by Arminians and other synergistic Christians, but is rejected by those who adhere to the Calvinist view of predestination. The reason has everything to do with the depravity of human nature: “the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). It is also said that nobody seeks after God (cf. Romans 3:10 ff), as human nature is not capable of choosing God unless God first causes an inward change, “and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Therefore, predestination has nothing to do with God making a prediction as to whether an individual will choose Him and everything to do with God taking the initiative to turn rebellious sinners away from their natural tendency to reject Him and give them the grace to come towards Him. As Jesus Christ Himself has said, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). Election, however, is not the end, because those who are chosen by God are also changed inwardly so that they would desire spiritual things rather than worldly things. As Jesus again says, “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain” (John 15:16). To quote Augustine,

God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, predestinating us to the adoption of children, not because we were going to be of ourselves holy and immaculate, but He chose and predestinated us that we might be so.[6]

Now, to continue with Prof. Howell’s comments,

God already knows if someone is a member of the Elect – he has already decided the matter , and it’s irrevocable. Now suppose Satan, a two-boxer to the bitter end, knows of Jacob whether or not he is a member of the Elect. It seems that no matter whether Jacob was a member of the Elect or not, Satan would recommend that he partake of whatever carnal sin tickled his fancy. Despite Satan’s wily ways, it seems that in this case he would have Jacob’s best interests at heart, and that any angel who wasn’t completely under the thumb of the Old Man would also recommend the same. It furthermore seems that pious Jacob, once in Heaven, would be right to kick himself and say “I was one of the Elect all along! I should’ve gone for Goody Whitfield when I had the chance!” So anyway, suggests the Protestant two-boxer.[7]

As has already been explained, inward renewal comes with election. This inward renewal changes the disposition of the elect, so that they no longer the things of the world but seek spiritual things instead. Needless to say, the elect would not even think such a thing as Prof. Howell has suggested. If anybody should think in such a manner, then it becomes questionable whether the inward work of the spirit is really in them. Calvin says as much when he speaks on election in his Institutes. Commenting on the parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22, Calvin writes,

It is perfectly clear, that thus far the parable is to be understood of external calling. He afterwards adds, that God acts the part of a kind entertainer, who goes round his table and affably receives his guests; but still if he finds any one not adorned with the nuptial garment, he will by no means allow him to insult the festivity by his sordid dress. I admit that this branch of the parable is to be understood of those who, by a profession of faith, enter the Church, but are not at all invested with the sanctification of Christ. Such disgraces to his Church, such cankers God will not always tolerate, but will cast them forth as their turpitude deserves. Few, then, out of the great number of called are chosen; the calling, however, not being of that kind which enables believers to judge of their election.[8]

This is why the statement just quoted from Prof. Howell does not really make any sense when taking the actual reformed view on election and sanctification into account. Anybody who wishes to produce a cogent criticism of the reformed doctrine of predestination and the sanctification which flows forth from it ought to address the topic on terms set forth in the scriptures, rather than tearing down a popular but badly deceptive straw man.

And finally, as a word of warning for those who have been chosen in the Lord Christ:

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

  1. Augustine. On the Predestination of the Saints. ch 35.
  2. Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology (New Combined Edition). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996. p 534.
  3. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 3:16:1
  4. Howell, Robert. "Predestination and the Wagers of Sin". Philosophy Now July/August 2009: p 24.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Augustine. On the Predestination of the Saints. ch 37.
  7. Howell, Robert. "Predestination and the Wagers of Sin". Philosophy Now July/August 2009: p 25.
  8. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. 3:24:8.

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