Canons Of Dort (9): The God Who Elects Unconditionally Does Not Change

One of the most remarkable developments in late modern evangelical theology was the rise of the so-called doctrine of “Open Theism.” This doctrine holds that the future is genuinely unknown to God. It is “open” to him and he to it. According to the Open Theists, God is contingent upon the free, unknown choices of humans. To understand how far askew things have become in late-modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice, in this context, those who hold to the doctrine of Middle Knowledge (Molinism; media scientia) are considered relatively conservative. When the Evangelical Theological Society met to consider the status of Open Theism, whether it may be considered a legitimate evangelical theological option, the case was argued that it implicitly denies latter of the two articles that ETS members must uphold, the Trinity and the Inerrancy of Scripture. The society was not persuaded. Clark Pinnock was perhaps the leading advocate of Open Theism. Late in his career, he also argued explicitly that the Mormons might be right, that God might have a body. See Most Moved Mover for more. It does not seem too much to say that the doctrine of God is crisis among Bible-believing evangelicals and perhaps even in Presbyterian and Reformed circles where some are arguing that the unity in the Trinity is not one of being but of a personal, social relationship. The doctrine of “Social Trinitarianism” at least verges upon (and in my view, crosses over into) the heresy of Trithesism, the doctrine that God is three rather than one. There has been hardly a peep about this nor has much been said about the proposal that, when he enters into covenant with us, God may be said to take on “covenantal properties” such as mutability. On this see the terrific work of James Dolezal, God Without Parts. The ecumenical Christian doctrine that God is sovereign remains deeply offensive. Recently David Bentley Hart, a theologian in the (Greek) Orthodox tradition declared that he should rather be an atheist than believe in a sovereign God who elects unconditionally and who reprobates sinners.

So, it behooves us to re-learn our doctrine God because, contrary to the cliched account of the history of Reformed theology, our doctrines do not descend out of the doctrine of the divine decree (the so-called “Central Dogma” theory) but our doctrine of God is, as it is for all Christians, at the headwaters of our theology, piety, and practice. This is so for every Christian tradition. Consider the first line of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The first thing we say about God is, implicitly, that he is triune and second that he is almighty. The ancient Christian church knew nothing of a God who is contingent upon creatures. I doubt that the heretics Arius and Pelagius would agree that God is contingent upon creatures. The Athanasian Creed (probably from the 5th century) is quite clear about the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is one, not merely by social relation but in being, and three in person.

We worship as we do because God is what he is: holy. We live our life before God (coram Deo). It is he, our sovereign covenant-making and covenant-keeping God who has saved us by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide).

The Synod of Dort knew that behind the attempt of the Remonstrants to revise Reformed theology lay a revised doctrine of God. Arminius was greatly troubled by the problem of evil and he thought that in the doctrine of Middle Knowledge, the doctrine that God knows what` our free choices might be and even that he has arranged circumstances so that we will only choose one thing, he had found the solution to the problem of evil. This solution, however, was worse than the disease. As the Reformed theologian Gijsbertus Voetius (1589–1676) and Francis Turretin (1623–87) both argued, the doctrine of Middle Knowledge makes God contingent (dependent) upon the free choices of humans. Saying that he knows what they could be is not the same as saying that he knows what they shall be. Under Middle Knowledge, the God of the Bible is no longer saying, “Let there be” but rather, “There might be or there might not be.” He is less Yahweh Elohim and more Hamlet.

It was in light of the Remonstrant attempt to revise the doctrine of God that Synod re-asserted the ecumenical doctrine of God. Election, we confess, is not grounded in anything (e.g., faith and good works) that God foresees in us (CD 1.9). Rather, the ground of our election is the beneplacitum of God, i.e., his good pleasure.

Art. X. The good pleasure of God is the sole cause of this gracious election; which doth not consist herein that God, foreseeing all possible qualities of human actions, elected certain of these as a condition of salvation, but that he was pleased out of the common mass of sinners to adopt some certain persons as a peculiar people to himself, as it is written, ‘For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil,’ etc., ‘it was said [namely, to Rebecca] the elder shall serve the younger; as it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’ (Rom. 9:11–13); and, ‘As many as were ordained to eternal life believed’ (Acts 13:48).

Election is not conditioned by anything us. It is conditioned by what is in God, who is one (simple), who does not change, i.e., who is immutable. Synod directly rejected Middle Knowledge. God does not elect on the basis of foreseen possible human qualities and actions. He did not look down the corridor of time, as it were, to see what we would be and do. Rather, the elect are considered as created and as fallen and it is out of that fallen mass of humanity that God elected his people, in Christ, those whom he gave to the Son, for whom the Son would come, obey, die, and rise. We take Romans 9:11–13 and Acts 13:48 as being quite plain. God elects sovereignly, freely, unconditionally. That is the prerequisite of grace. It is free. Were it conditioned upon our qualities or actions, grace would no longer be grace (Rom 11:6).

Art. XI. And as God himself is most wise, unchangeable, omniscient, and omnipotent, so the election made by him can neither be interrupted nor changed, recalled nor annulled; neither can the elect be cast away, nor their number diminished.

Behind our conviction about grace lies our conviction about God. He is what he is. In Exodus 3:14 he declared, “I am what I am.” He is not if do or say something. He simply is. He does not become. He does not decrease. He is. We were not. Then we were by God’s sovereign Word but God just is utterly what and all that he is all the time. Thus, his decision, his decree to elect is not dependent upon anything in us. It does not change as we change. God will never lose any of those whom he has given to his Son (John 10:28–29). No one can snatch us our his hand. The Father and the Son are one. This is God’s sovereign, mysterious, immutable, reliable, trustworthy promise and grace to us in Christ.

Rest in that.

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  1. Thanks for the series. Would you please consider discussing the differences between how Lutherans and Reformed treat unconditional election? I’ve long wrestled between both groups with angst. The one thing that keeps me from fully embracing Lutheranism is their insistence God grants saving faith to those not unconditionally elected. They affirm UE yet throw the objective justification and gift of faith to those not unconditionally elected to somehow satisfy the warning passages. My issue though is Jesus in Jn 6 and 10 was very clear that only those given to him from the father are given saving faith. I know Dordrecht used the term “temporary “ faith at one point which must be in contrast to genuine faith. Perhaps to satisfy the sower parable. Lutherans say no it’s genuine faith. But I would say unconditional election and saving faith are limited to the same group. What do you say? Lutherans are close to FV but pull the sola fide card, yet it’s “almost “taken back with a quasi ex opere operato regarding infant baptism when they affirm infants baptized are gifted faith via the regeneration they experience. They say no we hold to sola fide with infants because they believe, but it’s almost an irresistible grace for infants with a head for head guaranteed faith for infants contra to adults. In that sense I call it a quasi ex opere operato of “Faith” Either way the gifting of genuine faith extends beyond those unconditionally elected, whereas scripture seems to indicate only those unconditionally elected are granted saving faith. But what to do with the warnings since Paul warns corinthians they will be cut off “From” Christ seeking works righteousness. Lutherans say they must be united to be cut off, therefore more than elect have real faith. Your help is appreciated.

    • Hi Michial,

      Yes, I can do that. I would critique the Lutherans the same way I would critique the FV. Both have an “in by baptism, stay in by cooperation” (or, in the Lutheran case, by not rejecting) system. Neither is good news. So, we’re grateful for the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel and their affirmation of justification sola gratia, sola fide but sorry that they decided in 1577 and 1580 to modify Luther on election and reprobation.

      Here are some resources on the differences between the two traditions:

    • I began my Christian walk as a Lutheran, and I was practically convinced that Lutheran doctrine and the gospel were synonymous! For the first few years I sat under the preaching of some wonderful Luther’s pastors who had somehow missed the 1577 and 1580 memos to change Luther’s teaching on election and reprobation. Then I encountered a pastor who insisted that we must do our part to persevere or we will lose our salvation. When I objected that this was not what Luther taught, armed with passages from Luther’s writings, he said I would need to study in seminary to understand how to correctly interpret Luther! He insisted that I was not a Lutheran but a Calvinist, even though my proof texts came from Luther himself. Interestingly, Calvin did not believe there was any essential disagreement between himself and Luther. Calvin credited Luther with being the father of the Reformation and said that he was simply following Luther in recovering the true gospel. So, from my experience, I would say that there are Lutherans who differ from the Reformed on little else than the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ in both His human and divine nature, and there are others that might be described as sacerdotal Arminian.

    • Hello Dr Clark, I was going to ask something related to the above question by Michael: Re Hebrews 10:29 I’ve heard a few different Baptists say the Presbyterian view of the passage is faulty as the word used there for sanctified everywhere else in Hebrews refers to regeneration, and if the Presbyterians are correct they should say the individual involved lost their salvation. I personally base my arguments on peadobaptism almost wholly on covenant theology and not really on NT evidence as all sides read their presuppositions into it, but if you’re not offended please may I ask what you would say?

      • Toluwan,

        Fair question but the assumption upon which is rests is quite false. The crucial part of the verse says: “… Hebrews 10:29 (NA28): τὸ αἷμα τῆς διαθήκης κοινὸν ἡγησάμενος, ἐν ᾧ ἡγιάσθη, καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς χάριτος ἐνυβρίσας” [having considered common the blood of the covenant, by which he was sanctified and insulted the Spirit of grace?”

        The verb there simply means to be sanctified. It doesn’t mean “to be regenerated.” It’s the normal verb to signal “to sanctify.” It’s the same verb Paul uses in 1 Cor 7:14 to say that the unbelieving spouse is “sanctified” by the believing spouse.

        In both cases the writers are using OT categories of “clean” and “unclean” not “regenerate” and “unregenerate.” Paul is not saying that the unbeliever is regenerated (given new life) by the believing spouse!

        The point in Hebrews is that some were in danger of regarding what is holy (clean, set apart) as though it were common (not sanctified), namely the holy blood of Christ. The Baptist struggles with this and other places in Hebrews because he does not have (or have consistently) a distinction between an external (outward) relation to the covenant of grace and an internal (inward) relation to it. This distinction is essential to understanding Hebrews.

  2. Many thanks. You’re correct it is in by not rejecting. They say they have an incarnational assurance of saying I am baptized, more so than Reformed who can’t know Hesus even died for them. I said what good is a baptism that doesn’t keep you? If you claim monergism at the front end to get in yet you can get out, the system is null and void, especially in light of their strong simul Justus et peccator emphasis. At least monergism in the Reformed’s camp is a true eternal monergism. If Jesus says all the Father gives to me will come and I will lose none, that’s the end of it. None! To say he is also given another group of people who can come to him that he loses is absurd. It’s illogocal and contradictory. No pleading of paradox can cover that.

    • Thank you! “If Jesus says all the Father gives me will come and I will lose none, that’s the end of it. None!” Here is our comfort of assurance, through the election, in Divine monergism, by God’s grace alone, when we savingly trust and rest in what Christ alone imputes to us through His passive and active righteousness. And “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, no one shall snatch out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me, is greater than all, no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:28-30

  3. The Lutherans will affirm that regarding the elect Rom 8:28-39 but insist that the apostasy passages are about being cut off from Christ as well so those passages imply some do trust savingly and can be severed from Christ Gal 5:4; Heb 12:15. They say both truths are taught and to be confessed. They reject the apostasy warned about about isn’t from an external administration or relation to the covenant or a hypothetical that applies only to those making a false profession.

    • They, like the Federal Visionists, are forced to this view by their prior conviction that baptism necessarily regenerates. This forces them, like the FV, to deny Rom 2:28-29 and parts of Rom 9. Not all Israel is Israel. Esau was an outward member of the covenant community but he was never regenerated or inwardly united to Christ.

  4. In The Bondage of the Will, which Luther considered to be the greatest and most important of his works, Luther makes it clear that our assurance of salvation rests on God’s trustworthiness, because God cannot lie and God does not change. That is the basis for our trust in his promises. The gospel promise is that when we lean, trust, and rest on Christ’s imputed righteousness alone, that is by God the Holy Spirit’s spiritual regeneration, enabling us to believe God’s promises. That is what it takes to be inwardly in the covenant of grace. You must be born again of water and the Spirit to see the kingdom of God. Those who are outwardly in the covenant are members of the visible church who receive the means of grace, but cannot understand because they are dead spiritually. They have only their corrupt reason which looks to something in themselves, and not to what God alone, in Christ alone, through the Spirit alone does to save them. Unless God regenerates them, they fall away from the faith. They are dead branches, that is why they are cut off.

    It seems to me that the Lutheran Church made a fatal decision when it decided to deny Luther’s teaching on election and reprobation. I think it was motivated by rationalism. It was calculated to encourage those who do not really trust in God’s promises to remain in the visible church in the vain hope that the means of grace work automatically, and that by grace AND our cooperation with grace we can be judged worthy of eternal life, which is only reasonable to natural man. Ironically they insist that they are resisting rationalism by insisting that God contradicts His promises of eternal salvation in Christ alone, and that we must do our part to ensure eternal salvation. In this way they deny the gospel, and make the hope of eternal salvation to depend on our works.

  5. Thank you to you both. Dr. Clark, Lutherans tell me Rom 2:28-29 is affirmed in its typological context of the church prior to Pentecost. New Covenant church doesn’t have outward external only members. One is either in or out via baptism. They seem to be similar to Baptist’s that way yet extend salvation via baptism to infants. They say Rom 2:28-29 apply not to the New Testament but the old. I do agree with you though.

  6. Acts 16:3 Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. It has been said that there are only two religions in this world: one trusts in what Jesus Christ has done to reconcile us to God, and the other believes in anything else. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me. John 14:6 We are not justified by trusting in our baptism, church membership, or doing our part, but by what Christ alone has done for us. If we believe this, we will WANT to please Him by obeying Him out of gratitude and love for what He alone has done for us. Anyone who trusts in anything besides Christ ALONE, is not trusting in Christ alone. They are denying the gospel.

  7. Dr. Clark,
    Even though Luther adhered to baptismal regeneration, he didn’t believe it was in conflict with faith alone as the sole instrumental cause. He, along with Book of Concord Lutherans believe God gives salvation via baptism but it must be received sola fide. It is the promises in the word alone about what Christ gives in baptism that faith alone trusts in and clings to. How is that a denial of faith alone as the sole instrument?

    • Michial,

      I’m not ready to concede the premise that Luther taught baptismal regeneration. Even if he did as he confessed justification sola fide, it was a blessed inconsistency.

      If, however, we read the Large Catechism (1529) closely, I don’t think it teaches baptismal regeneration.

      We shouldn’t read the B o C (1580) back into Luther.

      As to the larger question, certainly baptismal regeneration is in tension with justification sola fide. We come into possession of Christ and his benefits through faith, not through baptism (or circumcision).

      I’ve addressed this at length here:

      Baptismal regeneration makes the instrument of possessing Christ rather than faith. Further, it turns baptism from a sacrament (a sign and seal) into the thing signified. In that case, we lose a sacrament. That’s not the intention but it is the result.

      • He seemed to in his SC
        What does Baptism give or profit?–Answer.

        It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

        Which are such words and promises of God? Answer.

        Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.


        How can water do such great things?–Answer.

        It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost, as St. Paul says, Titus, chapter three: By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.

        • Michial,

          It’s a long explanation but the verb “to seem” is important here. I’m well aware of the Small Catechism.

          Because he so identifies the sacraments with the gospel, partly in reaction to Zwingli and partly in reaction to Rome—both of whom, in Luther’s view, turned the sacraments into law—that it is easy to miss his qualification: Water doesn’t give new life.

  8. As a former Lutheran, I obtained most of Luther’s works early in my Christian walk, and studied them quite extensively over the years. I think it is tragic that the Lutheran Church has rejected Luther’s teaching on election and reprobation, and they adopted teachings more like those of the Roman Catholic Church and Pelagians\Arminians, but we need to be careful not to attribute those revisions back on Luther. As I understand Luther, he saw a very close connection with the sacrament as a sign and seal of the Word that is pronounced when the sacrament is administered, and it is always faith in the promises of the Word that seals it to the recipient, in keeping with Luther’s teaching that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone.

    • And yet the Formula of Concord 21)7 states: “That He will also strengthen, increase, and support to the end the good work which He had begun in them, IF they adhere to God’s Word, pray diligently, abide in God’s goodness (grace), and faithfully use the gifts received.” This is how the Lutherans change Luther’s teaching. On the one hand they assert that God keeps us and then they turn the tables by making it conditional our cooperation with grace, so it depends on us, IF we do…..

    • Luther himself would say that we persevere BECAUSE we are His workmanship while the Formula of Concord says we persevere IF we do our part. Luther attributes all to grace while the F of C makes perseverance conditional on our cooperation. That is the problem with the RC, Arminian, and FV, and Lutheran doctrine, they teach in by grace, stay in by cooperation with grace instead of salvation by grace ALONE, through faith ALONE, in Christ ALONE.

  9. Dear Dr. Clark and All who have shared on this Post,

    Thank you for all you have written. The post and the comments have been very helpful–especially in regard to the Lutheran position. It is great to hear people confirm what I have been observing.

    May God give each of us a blessed and joyful Christmas–knowing that we are eternally saved by unconditional, unchanging, sovereign grace! Praise to the Lord Jesus for His incarnation and obedience to the Law for our sakes (Galatians 4:4,5).

    Truly wondrous.

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