So much attention has been paid to what we may call the problems of Predestination that sometimes the positive teaching of the Article is overlooked. It is worthwhile to devote some time to this obvious duty.
The Article asserts that God’s decree of salvation antedates time. Indeed the purport of the Article is to declare that God’s purposes are independent of the chances of time. It is difficult to apprehend this conception fully, yet it holds for us a very comforting assurance. That which is independent of time cannot be deflected by the vicissitudes of time. “What God doeth it is forever.” The Article was drafted by Cranmer in 1552 and with the exception of the clause “although the decrees of predestination are unknown to us” which has been deleted from the last section of the Article there has been no alteration in its wording. The clause was, most probably, omitted by Archbishop Parker as being redundant. The substance of it is retained in the words “By His counsel secret to us” in the opening portion. We may confidently say that the Article presents the consistent teaching of the Church of England at every stage of its development since the Reformation.
The words “The everlasting purpose of God whereby He hath constantly decreed” exclude any suggestion of an alteration of the Divine purpose dependent on the changing attitude of man. The line between fore-knowledge and fore-determination tends to merge in proportion to the accuracy of our fore-knowledge. Although we cannot penetrate to the inner secret of all motivation, we are frequently able to anticipate certain reactions and make provision for them. Infinite fore-knowledge would compass the whole range of human endeavour. This is a factor frequently ignored by those who attach themselves to the Arminian school of thought. Choice is not unmotivated. Given the secret springs of action we can quite accurately anticipate the choice. What we do imperfectly God does perfectly.
The Article is content to assert the irrevocability of God’s decree and does not enter into any philosophic defence of it such as we have cursorily indicated above. It proceeds at once to the purpose of the divine determination. This is stated in the words:
“To deliver from curse and damnation those He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind.”
The words “chosen out of mankind” deny directly the doctrine known as “Universalism.” The forty-second Article of 1552 condemns very emphatically this opinion. It describes it as “a pernicious opinion that all, however impious, shall at length be saved.” This Article was omitted in 1562 but offers contemporary evidence as to the purpose of the expression “chosen out of mankind.” The Article, therefore, asserts that pre-destination to life is not co-extensive with the entire human race. This is a distressing and important consideration which has led to acute controversy concerning what is called Double Predestination. Perhaps the strongest expression adduced in favour of this theory is Jude 4, “Certain men before of old ordained to this condemnation.” But it has been pointed out that Jude may be simply declaring that the Old Testament Scriptures long ago pointed out in writing that condemnation would rest on the ungodly.
Still the fact remains that God’s purpose of salvation does not include the whole human race. The ground of discrimination is part of a “counsel secret to us.”
The Article proceeds to declare that those who are endued with this benefit “be called…. obey the calling….be justified…. Made sons of God by, adoption ….walk religiously in good works, and at length…. they attain to everlasting felicity.”
The order of thought is important. The first movement is “by (God’s) Spirit working in due season.” The initial process is due solely to the working of the Spirit. As a consequence of His inner illumination the predestined “obey the calling.” The Article is again emphatic. This obedience, no more than the initial call, is not something which the better disposition of the individual secures for him in contrast to his bodless neighbour. It is an action attributable entirely to grace.
Paul warns the Corinthians not to pride themselves on any spiritual attainment. He writes: “For who maketh thee to differ? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive ?” (1 Cor 4:7)
The pre-eminence of God in salvation must be jealously guarded, This is further emphasised by the words “They be justified freely.” The final issue is as certain as the gracious beginning. The predestined are conformed to the Image of God’s Son. They walk religiously in good works, and, finally, they attain everlasting felicity.
The Article makes no suggestion of the distinction subsequently made by certain divines between predestination to privilege and predestination to life. Such a distinction can, of course, be made, but the Article firmly declares that those who obey God’s call finally attain everlasting life, proceeding steadily through the various stages of Christian experience.
There only remains to consider the very important warning on the possible misuse of this gracious revelation of God which will form the subject of our next Article.
The 39 Articles – Article 17: OF PREDESTINATION AND ELECTION.
Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us to deliver from curse and damnation those he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to his purpose by his Spirit working in due season; they through Grace obey the calling; they be justified freely; they be made sons of God by adoption; they be made like the image of his only begotten Son Jesus Christ; they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.
As the godly consideration of Predestination, and of our election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to Godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God; So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth trust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.
Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in Holy Scripture; and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, May 23, 1957.This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.