God’s decree is his eternal purpose in governing the universe he made to unite all things in Christ. This includes his electing a people to be united to Christ while leaving others to the consequences of their sin.
God is sovereign over the entire universe, which he created. Governing all things, he determined from eternity to become incarnate in Christ and to deliver from sin and death a people who were to be united to Christ. In so doing, he decreed to pass by others on account of their sin. His eternal determinations respect the liberty of creaturely agency; God’s predestinating purposes are far removed from fatalism.
The Decrees of God
God’s decrees are eternal. Since God is eternal, transcending time and space, his decree has logical priority over its execution in time. Moreover, they are comprehensive. God governs all things. In his providence he preserves and governs the universe (Eph. 1:11). Predestination, as Aquinas argued, is part of providence. Providence refers to God’s purpose for the entire universe. Predestination is generally used for his determination of the eternal destinies of particular humans, although this must be viewed in the wider context of his plan for the church.
God’s purpose is settled and sure. There is nothing over which God does not have control. His decree is immutable (Psa. 33:9–11, Isa. 14:14,27, 46:9–10, Dan. 4:34–5, Rom. 9:11–2, 19–21, Heb. 6.17–18). However, this does not mean that God is implicated in human sin and evils, which result from the fall. His effectual determinations respect the liberty of secondary causality, the actions of creatures in accordance with their particular natures. Hence, some decrees include and embrace the actions of the creatures. In that subsidiary sense, they are conditional. For instance, God offers salvation on condition of faith in Jesus Christ. Suppose God has decreed to save Fred. From one perspective, whether Fred receives salvation depends on whether he exercises faith in Christ. However, Fred’s faith is also decreed in eternity by God as an aspect of his decree to save him.1
Predestination, Election, Reprobation
Predestination differs from foreknowledge. The latter is an aspect of God’s omniscience and refers to God knowing all things comprehensively in one instantaneous act of cognition (Psa. 139:1-4). However, sometimes “to foreknow” is the equivalent of “to foreordain,” as in Romans 8:29–30.2
Election is that aspect of predestination that refers to those whom God ordains to salvation in Christ. Election is made by the Father in Christ the Son (Eph. 1:3–4; 2Tim. 1:9; Rom. 8:29; 9:16, 18, John 6:37). The whole tenor of Scripture testifies to election. God’s call of Abraham, his choosing Isaac and rejecting Ishmael, his choice of Jacob and rejection of Esau, his election of Israel and rejection of the nations until the new covenant are all aspects of his electing purpose. Election is made by the good, wise God. It is made in Christ. It is an act of grace and love; it is a miracle that he chose us since we had done nothing to warrant it.
Reprobation refers to God’s passing by the non-elect and ordaining them to wrath on account of their sins (Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF] 3:7). The wrath is on account of sin and in accord with God’s justice.
Election: Biblical Teaching
Both election and reprobation equally depend on will of God. However, there is a disparity between them. Election is in Christ, and is according to God’s grace, whereas reprobation is according to God’s justice and on account of God’s just and holy wrath against sin (WCF, 3:5–7).
Paul discusses these themes in considering Israel’s unbelief. He traces them back to God’s choice of Isaac not Ishmael, of Jacob not Esau. Inevitable questions arise; is God just? Is he fair? Paul’s emphatic retort is “silence!” God has a perfect right to do as he chooses with his creatures. We have no place to question his eternal decrees (Rom. 9:6–24).
Election is a trinitarian event, seen against the back-drop of sin and its consequences; it is an eternal, gracious, sovereign, and loving determination (Jer. 31:3, Mal. 1:2–3). It entails the election and reprobation of individuals but goes beyond that, for it is also the point where Christ is constituted mediator and redeemer, God choosing not to be in isolation but to be incarnate in his Son. Hence, Scripture teaches election from beginning to end. Bucer described it as “the first locus of theology.”3
The separate lines of Seth and Cain (Gen. 4:17–5:32) vividly contrast the godly and the wicked. The genealogies are parallel, the names similar, yet the conduct glaringly different. This chasm remains throughout the Old Testament. Out of the whole race, God called one man, Abram, who simply responded; the active subject throughout is “the Lord” (Gen. 12:1–3). God’s covenant was made with Abraham and his offspring, by-passing millions. Later come distinctions in Abraham’s own family – between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau – not of human devising, nor based on the characters of the human agents but on God’s determination. Yahweh’s choice of Israel as his people left the rest of the nations aside. This is put memorably in Amos 3:2; “you only have I known of all the families of the earth.”
Jesus is the strongest of all proponents of election (John 6:37–40; 17:2–3, 6–12, 24), and connects it with an uninhibited appeal for faith and discipleship (Matt. 11:25-30)! Paul unfolds God’s sovereignty in salvation, including election (Rom. 8:28–11:36; Eph. 1:3–5, 11; 2Tim. 1:8–10). So does Peter (1Pet. 1:3–5, 17–21; 2:9–10; 2Pet. 1:3–10).
Implied and entailed is the obverse that in choosing some, others were passed by. From our perspective, we are not God, and so should entertain hope for all that they may believe in Christ. Can we say for certain that Esau or even Judas are reprobate? The content of the decrees of election and reprobation are hidden from us – Calvin frequently refers to them as secret – and are not the basis of faith and practice (Deut. 29:29).
That reprobation is taught in Scripture is evident not only in these entailments but in clear passages (Jude 4; 1Pet. 2:8; Rom. 9:17–23) and in Jesus’ prayer thanking the Father for hiding “these things” from the wise (Matt. 11:25–26). Notwithstanding, it is not prominent, since the message is focused on good news and salvation. Rejection and eventual condemnation is true but occurs incidentally to the main purpose.
Election is not based on God’s foreknowledge of our faith as Arminius held.4 As Jewett remarks, this would mean not that God chooses us but that he foresees we will choose him: “Instead of a free divine election in Christ, there is a free human election of Christ.”5 In Romans 8:29, where Paul says those God foreknew he foreordained to be conformed to the image of Christ, the verb proginosko, a derivative of ginosko (to know), does not refer to knowledge of future events but knowledge of persons. It is equivalent to Amos 3:2 where Yahweh’s knowledge of Israel is deeply personal.6
The Biblical doctrine of election is far removed from fatalism, in the Islamic sense. The Bible always affirms human responsibility as well as God’s sovereignty. The covenant brings these into focus with its blend of divine promises and consequent human obligations. Historically too Calvinism was associated with an outburst of unprecedented energy in society. Moreover, in contrast to fatalism, the Father’s love is the basis of our foreordination (Eph. 1:5); election is personal, not some blind force but the gracious decision of the loving Father to give us to his Son by the Spirit’s work. After reflecting on foreordination Paul immediately turns to the Father’s not sparing his Son but giving him up for us all (Rom. 8:29–32).
Critics commonly argue that election is unfair. On the contrary, fairness would demand that God send us all to hell, for that is what we deserve. Moreover, no one will go to hell against their will. Jesus confronts his opponents by exposing the fact that it is by their own choice that they do not believe (John 8:43–44). Election neither limits human choice nor shuts out of heaven a single person who wishes to repent. The sad reality is that humanity is given over to autonomous rebellion against its creator (Rom. 3:9–20).
In contrast to hyper-Calvinism, the decree of election in Scripture is not a basis for a line of logical deduction that controls other areas of theology and practice. The Bible presents it to reinforce assurance, to stress that salvation is of grace, and to bring praise to God. Wherever it surfaces the response is thanksgiving, praise, and prayer (Matt. 11:25–27; Rom. 11:33–36; John 17:1–26).
How can you question election – since you were so bad (depravity), since God is so good (all his decisions are wise, just, good and holy), and since Christ is so central (so election is intimately tied to the gospel)? It is in the context of sin and grace, the character of the God who chooses, and the gospel (in Christ). It is a loving choice by the Father to rescue us in Christ his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Election and Union with Christ
That election takes place in Christ is clear in the New Testament. Paul attributes election to the God and Father of Christ, affirms that it was an eternal decision prior to creation, and is in Christ (Eph. 1:3-4). He then unfolds the panorama of salvation as occurring in Christ at every stage; it follows that election too is in union with Christ. Paul says the same in 2 Timothy 1:9. God’s electing us was so that we are “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29–30). This echoes Jesus’ words that the Father had given him certain people who in time come to him, and who he would never cast out (John 6:37–40). Election cannot be understood biblically and theologically in abstraction from Christ. It is a trinitarian decree, bears an inseparable connection to the person and work of Christ, cannot be severed from the gospel, and is the root of all the ways union with Christ is worked out in the life-experience of the faithful. It is as far from fatalism as could be imagined.7
Because election is in Christ assurance of salvation is to be sought in Christ. Any attempt to probe the mysteries of election is futile, for it is beyond us. However, God has revealed himself in his Son, in whom we have salvation. Calvin comments:
Accordingly, those whom God has adopted as his sons are said to have been chosen not in themselves but in his Christ [Eph. 1:4] for unless he could love them in him, he could not honor them with the inheritance of his Kingdom if they had not previously become partakers of him. But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election. For since it is into his body the Father has destined those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own, that he may hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members, we have a sufficiently clear and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of life [cf. Rev. 21:27] if we are in communion with Christ.8
The order of decrees
Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism
Supralapsarianism argues that first in God’s mind in eternity was his decree to elect to salvation. The order runs: election, creation, fall, grace (the work of salvation). The decree of election precedes the decree to permit the fall – hence supra (above) the fall. God elects those who are potentially creatable. They are not considered fallen at the point in eternity where the decree is made.
Infralapsarianism maintains the order: creation, fall, election, grace; the decree of election follows or is under (infra) the decree of the fall. This is an attempt to do justice to the historical outworking of redemption and so follows the order of the Biblical record. The elect are considered to be both created and fallen at the point of the decree.
All Reformed confessions adopt an infralapsarian position; none have chosen supralapsarianism. However, supralapsarians are not beyond the pale of orthodoxy. Franscisus Gomarus was a key participant at the Synod of Dort, while the first prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly was the supralapsarian William Twisse, while Samuel Rutherford, a Scots commissioner and not a member of the Assembly as such, was an active and influential participant in debates.
Supralapsarianism tends to govern the whole theological spectrum by the decree of election. This has an impact on creation, common grace, and the free offer of the gospel. Karl Barth came down in favor of a reconstituted form of supralapsarianism.9
Arminius (1560–1609) held to the order: creation, fall, grace, election; election follows grace as well as the fall. God elects those he foresees will respond to the gospel in repentance and faith. The outworking of grace has priority over the decree of election. God’s election of us is effectively to rubber stamp our election of him. Human action is effectively determinative.
Others, such as Moyse Amyraut (1596-1664) and various English hypothetical universalists had different constructions but in their case the question revolved more around the question of God’s intention in the atonement than on election itself.
This seems an obscure matter, conjured up by theologians with too much time on their hands. That may be so. The inner workings of the mind of God are beyond us. However, it indicates ultimate priorities in God’s plan and has quite extensive ramifications. Many supralapsarians, not all, are opposed to the free offer of the gospel, since it is governed by election. What supralapsarianism has in support is the principle that what is last in execution is first in intention. In planning to build a house, the first thing that comes to mind is the house that one intends to build. From that the various stages in planning and construction follow. It approaches the question from the side of God. Infralapsarianism, instead, looks from our side, from the historical outworking of the decree. The relationship between time and eternity is a large and perhaps unacknowledged factor in the debate. Both positions have strengths and weaknesses but only infralapsarianism has explicit confessional status.
- Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008.
- Richard A. Muller, Divine Will and Human Choice: Freedom, Contingency, and Necessity in Early Modern Reformed Thought. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. Advanced and highly specialized.
- Cornelis P. Venema. Chosen in Christ. Revised edition. Fearn: Mentor, 2019. This is by far the best book on the subject.