Why is Reformed theology constructed on the basis of the doctrine of election?

Some people think that the teaching of GodТs Сeternal electionТ is the central teaching of Reformed theology. But this is not true for СclassicalТ authors like John Calvin and the Reformed confessions.

Of course we want to be faithful to what the Bible says about GodТs election (predestination). But we start our thinking from the historical situation of fallen mankind and not from GodТs secret plans. Here is the bottom-line of classical Reformed theology (see also the FAQ: What is Reformed Theology?):


We are sinners! We cannot do any good from ourselves (Mk. 10, 18 and Rom. 3, 12).

How can we be saved? Not by any good work from our side, but only through the work of Christ! How can we receive the blessings of the work of Christ?

Only by faith, which is a gracious gift of the Holy Spirit.

Thus: I am saved, because God wants to save me!

This humbles me Ц and it comforts me. He chose me to be His own so I can be sure of my salvation! This is called GodТs gracious unconditional СelectionТ.

But why do I believe Ц and my neighbor not (yet)?

Although Scripture does not give a full answer to this question, one thing is made very clear: I am not saved because I am better than my neighbor. There is no reason at all for me to boast!

I do not know if my unbelieving neighbor will become a believer.

But I do know that I have a responsibility to spread the Gospel to him and to everybody (Mat. 28, 19; 1Cor. 9, 16).

How will God use my preaching of the Gospel? That is His secret (Deut. 29, 29 and Romans 9).



For those who want to know a little bit moreЕ.

Historical approach

It is in the way I sketched above that the main documents of the Reformation speak about GodТs election.

a. Look at how the Heidelberg Catechism Ц a basic document of Reformed theology all over the world Ц starts:

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.


You see: it does not start with GodТs Сsecret plan of electionТ in heaven, but with GodТs grace that is revealed to us in our historical reality. Where does GodТs plan become visible? In the person and work of Jesus Christ who lived and worked on earth!


b. The Canons of Dort are often blamed for dealing with the question of election in a rude or speculative way. I doubt if those critics ever read the Canons! Because here we find the same historical approach: Yes, they surely speak very clearly about GodТs eternal election Ц but I think it is quite unfair to blame a confession for exposing a doctrine that is found clearly in the Bible itself!

See Canons chapter 1. How does it start? Not with GodТs eternal decree, but with our sinful historical reality:

As all men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are deserving of eternal death, God would have done no injustice by leaving them all to perish and delivering them over to condemnation on account of sin (Е).

But in this the love of God was manifested, that He sent his only begotten Son into the world, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life (I John 4:9; John 3:16).


c. The same is true for the Сgrand old manТ of Reformed theology John Calvin. See paragraph 1.1. of his Institutes:

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (Е) From the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and Ч what is more Ч depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone.


Calvin comes to discuss GodТs eternal election only in Book III, Ch. 21-24:

Ц         After he spoke about the splendid work of the Father in the creation and governing of the world

Ц         After he showed the glory of the work of Christ

Ц         After he described the СsecretТ work of the Holy Spirit, who gives personally to all believers what Christ gained for them.


Our first conclusion is that Reformed theology in its classical documents is not centered on the secret plan of GodТs election. It takes it starting point in the miracle of grace: the work of God in Christ for us!


Divine design

But of course we want to know moreЕ!

How is it possible that I believe and that my neighbor is an unbeliever?

Is it because I am better, because I answered with faith to the Gospel call?

We can also put the question this way: does salvation depend on me or on God?

Does salvation start with my faith and my choice for Christ?


Now we come to what Scripture says about GodТs divine election!


Look at these Biblical texts:

Ц         Christ is the Good Shepherd Ц He calls His own sheep by name (John 10, 3)

Ц         Christ died for me when I was still an enemy of God (Rom. 5, 20)

Ц         About GodТs sovereign grace Ц salvation Сdoes not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy; it is not because God knew that somebody will be a believer, but because He wanted to do so (Rom. 9, 11-16)

Ц         God is sovereign - we have no right to ask God to justify Himself (Rom. 11, 33-36)

Ц         Christ is the author and perfector of our salvation and our faith (Hebr. 2, 10; Hebr. 12, 2)


And look at this wonderful testimony of Paul in Eph. 1, 4-7: God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world, He chose us out of love, it was His choice, pleasure, and will that we are adopted as His sons Ц and it is possible only through Jesus Christ!


Second Conclusion. Scripture shows that salvation is a free gift of God Ц not deserved and not earned by man.



Why does Scripture speak about GodТs election?

Let me be very clear: it is not to give us a full explanation of why some are saved and others not! It is not to give us to give a СreasonableТ explanation of how God works.

As we see clearly from Rom. 9-11: God just reveals us a little bit of how He works in the hearts of man.

GodТs divine election is not an obscure and speculative doctrine which makes man a chess-piece in the hand of a whimsy God. But it is a comforting doctrine that assures GodТs children: God Himself saves us in Christ! I do not have to be afraid of my salvation - because my salvation is not founded on the unstable foundation of my good deeds or the strength of my faith! It is founded in the wounds of Christ!


General Conclusion

Although the doctrine of election is not central in Reformed theology is essential: through this teaching God wants to comfort us. We are saved by grace only. Through this teaching God and Christ are fully honored!

Sola gratia!

Soli Deo Gloria!

Solo Christo!




If you want to read more:

Ц         Heidelberg Catechism

Ц         Canons of Dort

Ц         Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, esp. Book III, ch. 21 - 24

Ц         J.I. Packer, Knowing God, ch. 18

Ц         A. McGrath, Reformation Thought, ch. 6


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