Attention needs to be directed to the opening words of the Article: “Predestination to Life”. Two of the Articles begin with a limiting definition. Article 19 speaks of “The Visible Church of Christ”. Neither Article excludes a further reference to the concept but limits its own range to the particular aspect defined. It is important to notice this careful demarcation.
Volumes have been written on the vexed questions that pass under the name of supra-lapsarianism and infra-lapsarianism. There is not much interest to-day in these profound speculations. As a consequence, very many mistaken notions cluster round the term Predestination. It may be worthwhile briefly to examine the older controversy which has been indicated.
The supra-lapsarian, jealous for what he regarded as a necessity, if the supreme sovereignty of God were to be maintained, conceived the idea that God determined that man should fall and that a section of the fallen race should be redeemed from sin.
The infra-lapsarian, jealous for the absolute freedom of the Divine from all suggestion of evil, conceived that the divine decree followed upon man’s transgression and had in view a purpose of redemption for the “mass of the condemned” as Augustine expressed it.
Hence the words “supra-lapsarian” meaning above the fall of man and “infra-lapsarian” below the fall of man. The Article does not seek to determine this question. It confines itself to the positive explication of the aspect spoken about, “Predestination to life”. It is remarkable that “The Westminster Confession” which is usually regarded as peculiarly Calvinistic, leans, if we may so express is, more definitely towards infra-lapsarianism. It reads “Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam are redeemed by Christ”. The Articles are designed to indicate such necessary doctrine as must be accepted by candidates for the ministry of the Church of England and those who are commissioned to teach. There is a measure of freedom in speculation still offered to such. For this reason the Article confines itself to plainly revealed truth on this awe-inspiring topic and declines to wander into the related questions however important. There are several factors indicated regarding Predestination. It is an everlasting purpose. Nothing can change the immutable counsel of God. This is an echo of the book of Ecclesiastes, “1 know that whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever; nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him” (3:14).
This is a subduing thought. We are not living in a world exposed to chance. We are in the hands of an Omnipotent God. No matter how difficult it may be to realise it in the changes and chances of this mortal life, there is a Divine determination that must reach its true conclusion. The second factor emphasized is that the Divine purpose operated “Before the foundations of the world were laid.” This warns us that the important discussion between the supra-lapsarians and the infra-lapsarians to which we have referred is not to be considered as indicating any distinction in time between the decrees of God. It related to distinction in thought not in time. Did God decree man’s fall, and dependant on that man’s redemption, or did God decree man’s redemption consequent upon the fact of his fall?
But the thought in the Article carries us further than the discussions of the Schools. It sets out forcibly that creation itself is included in the eternal purpose of God and therefore cannot affect that purpose. That which is immutable is eternal. That which changes belongs to time. If we are in the purpose of God nothing can deflect us finally from the course He has marked out for us, nor from the destiny to which He has appointed us. That is behind Paul’s triumphant declaration: – “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). It is significant that this high optimism forms the prelude to Paul’s distinct enunciation of the doctrine of predestination. This is very different from the popular idea that the predestinarian gloomily counts over and over the number of the elect, lest by any chance an unsuspected goal might insinuate itself into the ranks of the sheep. It led Paul, on the contrary, to cry exultingly, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). We need to bear this in mind. Here, however, the Article inserts a warning which, perhaps, was not wisely heeded in the discussions of the Schools. It tells us that while God’s decree is constant, it is “by his counsel secret to us”. Job of old recognized human incompetence when he said, “Lo, these are parts of his ways: but how little a portion is heard of him? But the thunder of his power who can understand” (Job 26:14). Calvin was deeply sensible of human infirmity in this regard: He wrote “we represent not God as lawless, who is a law to himself: because, as Plato says, laws are necessary to men who are the subjects of evil desires; but the will of God is not only pure from every fault, but the highest standard of perfection, even the law of all laws. But we deny that he is liable to be called to any account; we deny also that we are proper judges, deciding in this cause according to our own apprehension. Wherefore, if we attempt to go beyond what is lawful, let us be deterred by the Psalmist, who tells us that God will be clear when he is judged by mortal man” (Psalm 11:4). (Calvin Institutes Bk. 3, CXXIII:2). The purpose of God is clearly revealed, the moving causes of that purpose are amongst the secret things that belong unto the Lord Himself. It is well for us as children to allow the Divine Revelation to take us by the hand in this matter, leading us as far as our feeble steps permit and keeping us back from untrodden and, to us, unsafe ground.
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, April 11, 1957.This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.