This article is written by Prof. Russell Dykstra and will be published in the September 15, 2019 issue of the Standard Bearer.
The covenant and Dordt: Election, the foundation
The doctrine of election is the foundation of the Reformed truth of salvation by grace alone. The first head of the Canons of Dordt establishes the doctrine of double predestination in answer to the first point of the Remonstrants. The Arminians placed this doctrine first in their five objections (remonstrances), knowing that if they could successfully change the Reformed teaching of election to a conditional election, the rest of their teaching (errors) would follow logically. If election (and therefore, salvation) depended on man’s choosing it, then Christ died for all to make that choice a possibility, and fallen man is not dead, and grace is resistible, and perseverance unto eternal life depends on man.
The fathers at the Synod of Dordt understood well that this doctrine was crucial for the entire doctrine of salvation, and accordingly, established the truth of sovereign, double predestination in the first head. The Canons define election in Head I, Article 7:
Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen, from the whole human race…a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.
Election governs the rest of the doctrines of grace, determining those for whom Christ died (the elect only, II, 8), those saved by irresistible grace (III/IV, 11-14), those who persevere to everlasting life (V, 9), as well as those left in their sin and guilt (the non-elect, I, 6). Eternal, sovereign election is the foundation of the salvation that is all of God, all of grace, and all in Christ. Christ is the Elect of God (Is. 42:1), and the Head of all those chosen in Him. Because of this headship, Christ legally represented the elect of God and accomplished salvation on their behalf.
Election, God’s eternal and unchangeable plan, is the certainty of the salvation, accomplished in and by Jesus Christ and worked in His own by Christ’s Spirit.
Election is also the foundation of God’s eternal covenant of grace.
Ephesians 1 is the classic passage on election, and there the Spirit ties election to the covenant. First, the passage indicates that election is 1) in Christ, and 2) from eternity, for God “hath chosen us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (v. 4). Then verse 5 connects election to the covenant—“Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself.” Having predestined some to adoption, God chose them in Christ. Adoption captures the heart of the covenant’s life of love and fellowship. God predestined (pre-determined) from eternity that His people chosen in Christ should be His adopted children. That adoption is “by Jesus Christ,” for in His cross Jesus made His people righteous, giving them the right to be called God’s children and His brethren. In time, Christ sends forth His Spirit to form the living union of faith, giving elect sinners the life of Christ and forming them in His image, thereby making them to be the living children of God. But all of that was pre-determined by God in His decree of election. God determined that His chosen would live in the sphere of His love, holy and without blame (v. 4) as His sons and daughters.
Election is the foundation of the covenant. Further biblical and confessional proof will be brought in a future article, but Ephesians 1 makes the direct connection.
Reprobation is also important in the doctrine of the covenant. For reprobation indicates that not all are predestined unto adoption. In fact, some are, out of God’s “sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure,” predetermined to destruction (Canons, I, 15). As regards the doctrine of the covenant, reprobation explains why some children are not chosen, though born to believing parents (parents who are elect in Christ). God does not establish His covenant of love and friendship with these non-elect children. They are in the sphere of the covenant by their birth, but it is not God’s intent to adopt them as His children. Therefore, He does not falsely offer to take them as His children, nor promise them the blessing of sonship. God is always faithful and His Word always true.
Election determines the covenant people not merely in a general way, that is, the group of elect people. Rather, election determines the specific people, the individuals whom God has chosen in Christ, adopts as His own, and brings into the eternal covenant of grace.
In order to understand election and reprobation in relation to the doctrine of the covenant, it is necessary to grasp the organic nature of the covenant.
Organic means living. A tree is organic, a stone is not. A corn plant is an organism, while a computer and car are not. How does this apply to the covenant?
An organism is a living thing, having one and the same life in every part, but having also a diversity of parts. A corn plan, for example, has roots that grow deep into the soil, a sturdy stalk, leaves, an ear, corn kernels, and the husk that covers the kernels. Although diverse, each part has the same life of the corn plant sustaining it. Each part of the plant has a specific function.
Notice that the function of each part ultimately serves one and the same purpose, namely, to feed and nourish the corn kernels. Roots draw the water and nutrients from the ground. The stalk supports the plant so that it stands erect; it does not lie on the ground and rot. The stalk also transports the water and nutrients from the roots to the rest of the plant. The leaves are the photosynthesis factories—using what the roots supply with the power of the sun to produce food for the plant. Leaves also protect the ear of corn from the harsh winds and burning sun. The cob supports the kernels as they grow, and the husk protects them.
Every part of the one living plant is perfectly planned and created by God to produce corn. At the same time, the whole plant is identified by its fruit, whether it is root, stalk, leaves, ear, or husk—it is corn.
Similarly, God’s covenant people must be seen as an organism. God establishes His covenant with believers and their seed. We speak of covenant parents and covenant children. We speak of our covenant schools, and identify the students there as covenant children. They are identified as covenant children because they are part of the “plant” of the covenant—children born to believing parents, many of whom were also born of believing parents. Others of these parents were grafted into the living “plant” of covenant people, coming to faith later in life. The whole group is identified with the term “covenant people” because of the elect seed with whom God does establish His covenant. It would be perverse at a Christian school program to address the students as covenant children and seed of the serpent, or reprobate. That the reprobate seed are among the students is almost a certainty. But the students are identified as “covenant” children with the group to which they belong organically.
This is not to be confused with presupposed regeneration. This theory wrongly assumes that all the children born to believers are regenerated and, on that basis, they are baptized. We are not given the biblical right to assume that all the children of believers are elect, nor that they are all regenerated. But we identify them as children of the covenant because of their organic connection to the covenant people.
This is biblical. In the Old Testament, Israel as a nation was called God’s chosen people. They were His children. Yet history demonstrates well that “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6). The nation of Israel was made up of an elect core and a reprobate shell. The elect core was sometimes so small that it was described as a remnant. Yet God called the nation His people.
When God spoke the promises of salvation to Israel, were those promises to every individual Israelite? Did God promise salvation and eternal life to Esau? To Dathan and Abiram? To Ahab? Of course not. The promises spoken to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel were for the elect core of the nation, and for them only. The entire nation might enjoy some of the earthly benefits that God rained upon the nation, but the true blessings were for the elect alone.
Similarly, when God pronounced terrible judgments on Israel because the nation forsook Jehovah and turned to idols, was God declaring that the entire nation would be cut off and cast from Him forever? No.1 But the judgment that God brought on Israel as a nation was God’s chastisement on the elect seed in Israel, sent to draw them from their sins and back to God. The same judgment on the nation of Israel was punishment on the reprobate seed, sent to destroy them.
Israel was God’s covenant people. But God established His covenant of love and friendship with the elect in Israel, and them only.
Why then were the reprobate seed included in the nation if they were not adopted as God’s children and not given the promises of an eternal inheritance? For the same reason that the corn has roots, stalk, leaves, ear, and husk. They serve the good of the corn kernels. Likewise the reprobate seed in Israel, in God’s perfect wisdom and power, serve the good of the elect seed—those with whom God does establish His covenant.
This, then, is foundational: election governs God’s covenant of grace. The elect are predestinated to the adoption of children and are heirs of eternal life in the covenant of grace. Because this is so crucial, the next article will demonstrate more completely from Scripture and the confessions (especially the Canons), that election governs the covenant.
1 Even after God turned away from Israel as a nation and began gathering His people from the Gentiles, Paul reminded the church in Rome that God had not cast away His people entirely. Romans 11:1, 2 “I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew.”