Sovereignty of Grace
FROM THE NEW TESTAMENT
TO THE REFORMATION:
A HISTORICAL SURVEY
1 of 10
The Biblical Background
by no means a history of the doctrine of Election. It
is an attempt to provide the reader with some sense of continuity.
For the doctrine of Predestination and Election is not a new
thing that began with Calvin and has since gradually lost favour
with the passing of the years until, today, it is believed by
only a few and understood by even fewer. It is synonymous with
the Gospel of salvation by grace. It is the Gospel, in fact.
Every departure from the
doctrine of Election in any degree has been a departure from
the Gospel, for such departure always involves the introduction
of some obligation on man's part to make a contribution towards
his own salvation, a contribution he simply cannot make. This
is unrealistic with respect to man and dishonouring with respect
to God. There are no shades of truth here. This is an all-or-nothing
doctrine. Election and the Gospel are alike in this. There are
no halfway positions that are not a total betrayal of the truth
of God. Paul is very explicit and completely logical when he
says regarding the method by which man is to be saved, "If
[it is] by grace, then it is no more works: otherwise grace is
no more grace. But if it be works, then it is no more grace:
otherwise work is no more work" (Romans 11:6). There simply
is no way out of this equation. If man contributes anything whatever
to his salvation, even his own responsiveness of heart or the
exercise of his own faith, then salvation is no longer by grace.
For it becomes a co-operative effort between man and God in which
the decision of man and not of God determines the issue.
Mention of the words Election
or Predestination today, in any but a theological
environment, almost inevitably brings to people's minds the name
of Calvin as though it all began with him and was an unheard-of
doctrine before his time. Very few are aware of the continuity
of the tradition during the centuries following the close of
the New Testament. Even fewer people are aware of the fact that
John's Gospel probably contains the most explicit and most frequent
statements on the subject to be found in the Bible. And perhaps
almost no one who has not studied the subject in depth
will be aware that the
Old Testament is also full of it. It is, in very truth, the kernel
of the Gospel and thus is common to the whole of Scripture in
symbol, parable, and plain declaration.
It is not my intention to trace
in detail the history of the doctrine as it was subsequently
developed in Christian theology since apostolic times. But it
may be helpful to establish a kind of framework in order that
the serious but historically uninformed reader will be able to
see the various nuances of interpretation as they were developed
by succeeding generations. Calvin by no means stands alone
except perhaps in the thoroughness with which he worked out the
implications, and in the lucidity of his reasoning. John Owen,
among others who followed Calvin, wrote almost as much on the
subject; but Owen seems to have felt that the use of any kind
of literary device (even simple eloquence!) for the communicating
of such truths was unworthy of the subject. His writing is somewhat
stilted as a consequence and requires considerable dedication
on the part of the reader to pursue his reasoning to the end.
He is as exhausting to read, in many places, as his argument
is exhaustive. He has accordingly suffered the penalty of too
much erudition by being less well known.
But let us make a quick survey
of the evidence in the Old Testament, and the New, in order to
establish just for the moment the fact that Calvin was indeed
continuing a very scriptural tradition by his insistence on the
absolute sovereignty of God in the matter of man's salvation.
What I propose to do, first of all, is to draw attention to passages
of Scripture which are unequivocal and which need few words of
explanation. They represent the tips of icebergs. Just below
the surface is a mass of evidence that only the perceptive reader
will be likely to recognize for himself. For most of us, much
of the supporting evidence has to be drawn to our attention.
Once it has been, we may wonder how we could have been reading
the Word of God for so many years without becoming aware of the
true nature of its message.
In the Old Testament there are
numerous references to the basic doctrines of the Reformers
to the Total Depravity of man, to the absolute sovereignty of
God in the life of the individual even as God is sovereign in
the history of the human race, and to the necessity of divine
initiative in salvation as an act of pure grace on the part of
God. Frequently these statements are categorical. Sometimes they
are veiled in language appropriate to the spirit of the Old Testament
Scriptures in which theology remains largely unstructured, the
basic objective being the elucidation of religious (it would
perhaps be appropriate and better to use the term Christian)
experience. For the Old Testament is experience spelled out
within the framework of history at large. It is not until we
reach the Epistles that we enter the arena of Christian
theology in the reasoned,
step-by-step, formal sense of the term, characteristic of Paul's
Consider, then, the following passages
from the Old Testament. First, those which underscore the total
sinfulness of human nature:
And God saw that the wickedness
of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of
the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Genesis
Who can bring a clean thing
out of an unclean? (Job 14:4).
What is man, that he should
be clean? And he who is born of a woman. that he should be righteous?
. . . How much more abominable and filthy is man, who drinks
iniquity like water? (Job 15:14, 16).
The Lord looked down from
heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that
did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are
all together become filthy: there is none that does good, no,
(Psalm 14: 2, 3).
Behold, I was shaped in
iniquity; in sin did my mother conceive me (Psalm 51:5).
God looked down from heaven
upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand,
that did seek God. Every one of them is gone back; they are altogether
become filthy. There is none that does good, no, not one (Psalm
Because sentence against
an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of
the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil (Ecclesiastes
Why should you be stricken
any more? You will revolt more and more: the whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even unto
the head there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises,
and putrefying sores. They have not been closed, nor bound up,
neither mollified with ointment (Isaiah 1:5, 6).
All we like sheep have
gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the
Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6).
But we are all as an unclean
thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags, and we
do all fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have
taken us away (Isaiah 64:6).
The heart is deceitful above
all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah
The good man perisheth out of
the earth, and there is none upright among men; they all lie
in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net.
That they may do evil with both
hands earnestly, the prince asks, and the judge asks for a reward;
and the great man, he uttereth his mischievous desires, so they
weave it together.
The best of them is like a brier;
the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge. . . . (Micah
Then we have those passages which declare the sovereignty
of God not only in the general sweep of history but in the particulars
of individual lives:
The kingdom is the Lord's:
and He is governor among the nations (Psalm 22:28).
For promotion cometh neither
from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God
is the judge:
He puts down one and sets up another (Psalm 75:6, 7).
Surely the wrath of man shall
praise You: the remainder of wrath shalt You restrain (Psalm
The Lord has prepared his throne
in the heavens; and his kingdom rules over all (Psalm 103:19).
Our God is in the heavens; He
has done whatsoever He has pleased (Psalm 115:3).
Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that
He did in heaven, and in the earth, in the seas, and all deep
places. (Psalm 135:6).
A man's heart devises his way:
but the Lord directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9).
There are many devices in a man's
heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand
Man's goings are of the Lord;
how can a man then understand his own way? (Proverbs 20:24).
The king's heart is in the hand
of the Lord, as the rivers of water: He turns it whithersoever
There is none that can deliver
out of my hand: I will work and who shall hinder it? Thus says
Who is he that says, and it
comes to pass, when the Lord commanded it not? (Lamentations
Son of man, Nebuchadnezzar,
king of Babylon, caused his army to serve a great service against
Tyre; and every head was made bald, and every shoulder was peeled:
yet had he no wages, nor his army, for Tyre, for the service
that he had served against it: Therefore, thus says the Lord
God; Behold, I will give the land of Egypt unto Nebuchadnezzar,
king of Babylon, and he shall take her multitude, and take her
spoil and take her prey; and it shall be wages for his army.
I have given him the land of Egypt for his labour wherewith he
served against it, because they wrought [worked] for Me, says
the Lord GOD (Ezekiel 29:18-20).
Daniel said, Blessed be
the name of God for ever and ever, for wisdom and might are his.
And He changea the times and seasons; He removes kings and sets
up kings (Daniel 2:20, 21a).
. . . . that the living may know
that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to
whomsoever He will and sets up over it the basest of men (Daniel
[Nebuchadnezzar blessed and
honoured Him] whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and
[whose] kingdom is from generation to generation. And all the
inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and He does
according to his will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants
of the earth, and none can stay his hand, or say unto Him, What
are You doing? (Daniel 4:34, 35).
The Most High God rules in the
kingdom of men, and He appoints over it whosoever He will
are not selective in their application but seem clearly to apply
to saved and unsaved alike. Turning more specifically to the
matter of Election to salvation, consider the following:
. . . the Lord will show who are his, and
who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto Him: even him
whom He has chosen will He cause to come near unto Him (Numbers
I have reserved to Myself seven
thousand which have not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).
Blessed is the man whom Thou chooses,
and causest to approach unto Thee (Psalm 65:4).
Quicken [revive] us and we will call
upon thy name. Turn us again, O LORD God
of hosts . . . and we shall be saved (Psalm 80:18b,
Thy people shall be willing
in the day of thy power (Psalm 110:3).
The preparation of the heart
in man, and the response [answer] of the tongue, is from the
Lord, Thou will ordain peace
for us: for Thou have wrought all our works in us (Isaiah 26:12).
Oh Lord, I know that the way
of a man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct
Turn Thou me, and I shall
be turned; for Thou art the LORD my God.
Surely after that I was turned, I repented. . . (Jeremiah 31:18,
I will pardon whom I reserve
Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord,
and we shall be turned (Lamentations 5:21).
A new heart also will I give
you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take
away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a
heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause
you to walk in my statutes, and you shall keep my judgments,
and do them (Ezekiel 36:26, 27).
It should not be too surprising, in the light of such
passages as these that the Gospels should reflect the same truth.
When man approaches God in search of salvation in God's way,
it is only because he has first been called of God and inclined
towards Him in his search. What is perhaps more surprising is
that the clearest of all of the Gospels in this respect is John's,
which is pre-eminently the Gospel of love in most people's eyes.
In view of the fact that popular opinion holds Election to be
a cold if not actually a repugnant doctrine, reflecting the harshness
and unfairness of God rather than his love and graciousness,
a great many Christian readers never even look for evidences
of Election in John. But the doctrine is more firmly established
here than in any one of the synoptic Gospels, and it is for the
most part by reference to the words of our Lord Himself rather
than to the descriptive matter supplied by the evangelist that
the truth is best established.
We shall have occasion later to
examine this evidence much more fully, but consider only what
the Lord said as revealed in John 6. Putting together the words
of verses 37, 39, 40, 44, and 65, we have this clear enunciation
of Election to salvation by grace initiated entirely by the Father:
All that the Father gives Me
shall come to Me. . . . And this is the Father's will who
has sent Me, that of all whom He has given Me, I shall lose nothing.
. . . This is the will of Him that sent Me, that every one who
sees the Son, and believes on Him, may have everlasting life.
. . No man can come to Me, except the Father which has
sent Me draw him and I will raise him up at the last day.
The result of
these statements, made with such force and repetition by the
Lord, was that many of his disciples were highly offended. And
why not? These statements simply reduced the disciples' price
to zero, for if they were to be saved it was to be in no sense
to their personal credit. But how did Jesus respond to their
protestations of offence? He reiterated his words, in no uncertain
terms: "Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come
unto Me, except it were given unto him of my Father." How
this must have humbled them when it dawned upon them that He
really meant it. We are told, in fact, that "from that time
many of his disciples went back and walked no more with Him"
There is no doubt about it. The
chapters which precede bear out the implications of this pronouncement.
We are not born again by the will of man, nor by the will of
the flesh, nor by blood relationship but of God. It is
God, and God alone who gives us power to become his children
(John 1:12, 13).
Equally clear is the Lord's statement
in John 15:16: "You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen
Peter is no less positive in his
first sermon when he says in Acts 2:38, 39: "Repent and
be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for
the remission of sins
and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise
is unto you and to your children and to all that are afar off,
even as many as the Lord, our God, shall call." These words
were spoken in the Spirit of Numbers 16:5 ("The Lord will
show who are his, and who is holy: and will cause him to come
near unto Him: even him whom He has chosen will He cause to come
near unto Him") and in the spirit of Jeremiah 50:20 ("I
will pardon whom I reserve").
It is Paul who not merely proclaims
the sovereignty of God in this matter of Election unto salvation
but who formalizes and structures the doctrine, giving us by
revelation most of the light we have on other aspects of God's
elective grace such as, for example, why one is chosen
and another is not. It is Paul whose whole theology of salvation
by grace is presented as an equivalent to the Gospel itself by
showing that if man is saved entirely without making any contribution
himself, he must be saved by sovereign grace. For if man contributes
anything whatsoever, and that contribution is essential to his
salvation, he is in the final analysis saved by his contribution.
If we are saved by any kind of co-operative effort between man
and God, no matter how little is man's contribution and how much
is God's, then grace is no more grace (Romans 11:6). It is an
But man's contribution need not
be in the form of actual deeds to his credit; it could be merely
that he decides to respond favourably to the moving of the Holy
Spirit in his heart. Others don't, and they are lost. He does,
and he is saved. The decision is his. His responsiveness is his
contribution. But Paul is clear on this, for it too would at
once become the key, as indeed it is often said to be from the
pulpit today. It would make the salvation of the individual a
joint effort and immediately raises the question of why one man
responds and another does not. Does the responding individual
thereby demonstrate a superior soul? Is salvation then limited
to those of superior nature? Paul says, No! "It is not of
him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God whot shows mercy"
(Romans 9:16). John says that it is not by the will of man but
by the will of God that we become his children (John 1:11, 13):
and James says, "Of his own will begat he us" (James
The same is true of faith. It is
not even our faith that saves, but the faith of Jesus
Christ not the faith in Jesus Christ as some translators
would like it to be and interpret it accordingly. Thus we read
in Paul's letter to the Galatians (2:16): "A man is not
justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus
Christ." And again in Galatians 3:22, "The Scripture
has concluded [confined] all under sin, that the promise of [the]
faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe."
So much importance has been attached to the exercise of faith
as the basis of salvation that this has become our contribution
as though a dead man could exercise faith in his own resurrection
sufficient to guarantee it. Man is not saved by his own faith
any more than he is saved by his own decision not to resist the
Holy Spirit. Because the moment
we allow such a thing,
we give credit to those who have this ability in distinction
from those who do not. And the fortunate ones achieve salvation
simply because they are in some way different in themselves.
They would have every right to boast in heaven. But boasting
is excluded (Romans 3:27). We are saved by grace through faith
and that not of ourselves: it is the gift of God
(Ephesians 2:8, 9). We do not even contribute our own saving
faith. And so boasting is excluded indeed.
Otherwise we have to ask in what
way do men differ, for certainly some respond and some believe,
while others do neither and are lost. Paul asks accordingly:
"Who maks you to differ from another? And what do you have
thatyou did not receive? Now if you did receive it, why do you
glory as if you had not received it?" (1 Corinthians 4:7).
Of course, we don't overtly say, "I was a better man because
I was receptive and had faith." But this is tacitly accepted
by most of us as the essential difference between the saved and
the unsaved, that is, between the haves and the have-nots.
And from the pulpit we appeal to men on this basis. And so
we proclaim another Gospel which is not a Gospel at all, for
it assumes a capability in man that he simply does not have.
Saving faith is not offered to man by God: it is conferred
upon him. This is Paul's Gospel, and the corollary of such a
conferring is either an Election that is sovereign but limited
in extent to those who are saved, or it is a Gospel that is impotent,
the vast majority of those for whom salvation is intended being
able to thwart the purposes of God. Then is man stronger than
God? No, for Paul quotes the Lord's words to Moses regarding
God's own fixed intention: "I will have mercy on whom I
will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have
compassion" (Romans 9:15).
Of course the great difficulty
that many have with such a doctrine, presented as it is by Paul
with unrelenting logic and without apology, is that it seems
to make man a puppet as far as his salvation is concerned so
that superficially it seems as though he cannot possibly be blamed
for being lost. How could he be blamed if it is not God's intention
to grant him the initial responsiveness of soul and the final
requisite faith? Indeed! Even this problem Paul does not seek
to escape. "You will say then to me, why does He yet find
fault? For who has resisted his will?" (Romans 9:19). It
seemed to many thoughtful people, schooled in the exercise of
logic from the Greek masters, that Paul was undermining human
responsibility and thus weakening the effectiveness of the threat
of punishment in the world to come as an incentive to good behaviour
in this world. The sanction of the law was being removed, if
man was not responsible for having refused the offer of God's
mercy. It seemed essential to restore human responsibility in
order to ensure godliness of life.
It was partly because no answer
seemed at first to be forthcoming to this
question, and partly
because man likes to feel he is a free agent, and partly because
the influence of Greek philosophy persuaded men that human reason
could discover the truth without revelation, that the early Christian
apologists looked to their own minds for the answer and concluded
that Paul was being misunderstood. Little by little man's inner
resources were wrongly estimated and a more humanly reasonable
view of the way of salvation was substituted for the Pauline
theology, Man still needed salvation, but it was now seen as
something possible with God's help man co-operating by
a certain willingness to acknowledge his need and express his
faith. This much of human goodness had remained to him in spite
of his fallen nature.
The extent to which the adulteration
of the Gospel had proceeded by Augustine's time will be seen
in quotations from two of his contemporaries who were among the
great leaders (or "Fathers" as they are called) of
the Church. The first is Chrysostom (c. 350407), Bishop
of Constantinople, who wrote: "Since God has placed good
and evil in our power, He has granted free decision of choice
and does not restrain the unwilling but embraces the willing."
And "Just as we can never do anything rightly unless we
are aided by God's grace, so we cannot acquire heavenly favour
unless we bring our portion." And "In order that not
everything may depend on divine help, we must at the same time
bring something ourselves." "Let us bring what is ours:
God will furnish the rest." (1) The whole sentiment here is clear: man is required
to make a contribution towards his own salvation.
We meet with the same sentiment
in the work of Jerome (c. 345419), perhaps the greatest
linguistic scholar of his time and translator of the Vulgate
or Latin Version of the Bible from the Greek, which for centuries
was the "Authorized Version" of the Church of Rome.
Jerome wrote: "Ours is to begin, God's to fulfill; ours
to offer what we can, his to supply what we cannot." (2)
The writers who came after Chrysostom
and Jerome went from bad to worse until it came to the point
that man was commonly thought to be corrupted only in his sensual
nature while retaining a perfectly unblemished reason and a will
And it was into such a theological
climate that Augustine, later Bishop of Hippo in North Africa,
was introduced when, under the influence of Ambrose, he was wonderfully
converted. The story of his conversion is beautifully set forth
by himself in his Confessions. Let us see how it came
about, as far as possible in his own words, for he was a truly
1. Quoted in John Calvin, Institutes of
the Christian Religion, II. ii.4.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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