Dispensationalism and TULIP – Unconditional Election

Introduction: My goal here is the same as in the post on Total Depravity.  I want to ask whether a Dispensational Theology built on its own principles can endorse the 5 points of Calvinism, especially as they are defined by Reformed theologians themselves in their classic works.  I am not concerned with a full scale exposition of the doctrine of election.  I am only asking whether certain expositions sit within the hermeneutical modus operandi of dispensationalism.

Of all the five points of Calvinism, possibly this one has the least baggage attached to it.  That is, as long as we include the proviso that the doctrine of election should never be “ascertained” by snooping around in the secret decrees of God prior to laying out the Bible’s teaching on salvation! Calvin got that, Beza didn’t.

1. Election, Yes; Double Predestination, No

Most dispensationalists would feel comfortable with the following declaration:

Before the world was made, God’s eternal, immutable purpose, which originated in the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, moved Him to choose (or to elect), in Christ, certain of mankind to everlasting glory.  Out of His mere free grace and love He predestinated these chosen ones to life, although there was nothing in them to cause Him to choose them.  Rom. 8:30; 9:13, 16; Eph. 1:4, 9,11; 1 Thess. 5:9; 2 Tim. 1:9.A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, “God’s Decree,” Chapter 3. 5, (21).

They would not, however, feel quite as comfortable with this statement:

The Reformed Faith has held to the existence of an eternal, divine decree which, antecedently to any difference or desert in men themselves, separates the human race into two portions and ordains one to everlasting life and the other to everlasting death. – Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, P & R, 1976, 83

This is the teaching known as “double predestination” and is taught by most five point Calvinists and many of the confessions they endorse (Boettner himself appeals to the Westminster Confession).  There is no passage in Scripture that I am aware of that teaches that God “ordains…[the non-elect] to everlasting death” in eternity past.  I read that God created hell for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41), not, it would seem, with man originally in view.  This ought to have put paid to speculations about the order of the decrees, at least until the data of soteriology was considered.

I do not see how anyone using the hermeneutics of dispensationalism can agree with double predestination.  For instance, this would mean that verses such as 2 Peter 3:9; Matthew 23:37 and Ezekiel 33:11 would have to be interpreted with a hermeneutics other than a plain-sense one (since these verses certainly make sense when taken at face value, but cannot be taken as such by someone bent on teaching a decree of reprobation).  This other hermeneutics would need to be qualified by theological presuppositions, which would put it at variance with the hermeneutics of DT (in fact, all the new interpretations of these verses would have to be classified as C4‘s).  And beating a retreat to Romans 9 does no good unless one is intent on forgetting Paul’s argument about the sinner in Romans 1.

Any dogma which forces its devotees to disengage themselves from plain verses must be held up to suspicion – by a dispensationalist.  In just the same way as DT’s object to the false construal of the Church as “New Israel”, so they ought to object to the doctrine of double predestination taught by men like Boettner, Pink, Sproul and other 5 pointers.

2. Dordt and the Election of the People of God

Likewise no DT could endorse this statement from the Canons of Dort:

FIRST HEAD: ARTICLE 8. There are not various decrees of election, but one and the same decree respecting all those who shall be saved, both under the Old and New Testament; since the Scripture declares the good pleasure, purpose, and counsel of the divine will to be one, according to which He has chosen us from eternity, both to grace and to glory, to salvation and to the way of salvation, which He has ordained that we should walk therein (Eph 1:4, 5; 2:10).

This article, taken with Article 9 makes it clear that Dort believed that there is just one people of God.  Acceptance of these Articles is thus implicit rejection of the Israel/Church dichotomy which is so central to DT!  What is more, where does Scripture talk about “the covenant of grace”?  (I realize Chafer and Walvoord signed the Westminster Confession, but they really had no place for the covenant of grace and basically muted it so much it could no longer service any theology).

True plain sense hermeneutics does not yield the covenant of grace.  In fact, it yields several vital biblical covenants which must be heard in full if one is concerned with literal interpretation.  Just as plain-sense interpretation ought to have made Chafer a baptist (despite his referrals to Dale’s work on infant baptism, one cannot discover it through plain sense hermeneutics), so the same approach would reveal quickly that belief in “the covenant of grace” does not gel with DT.  This means the 1689 Second London (Baptist) Confession is out for a dispensationalist (see e.g., Chs.7, 14, 15, 17.  Ch. 7 also refers to “the covenant of redemption”, while Ch. 20 speaks of “the covenant of works”).

3. Dordt, the Covenant of Grace, and Infant Salvation

So far I have tried to show that double predestination and “the covenant of grace,” (CoG) which figure so largely in Reformed discussions of unconditional election, do not comport with any possible DT understanding of the doctrine.  Next we see what the CoG does in regard to a related matter; the matter of infant salvation.  We must explore these areas a bit because once one accepts the definitions of election proffered by the Reformed community these issues arise.

Here again is Dordtrecht:

FIRST HEAD: ARTICLE 17. Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy(Gen 17:7; Acts 2:39; 1 Cor 7:14).

How could any dispensationalist assent to this?  How could these statements be proven from plain-sense hermeneutics? Again, where do we find the Covenant of Grace in Scripture, and where did it get such hermeneutical clout?  With what kind of hermeneutics do we extract it from the Bible?  And if we affirm such a “covenant”, let it be admitted that we have handed our objectors a powerful weapon to ruin us with!

Along with its demand for just one people of God (the Church) from Adam to the Second Advent, the CoG houses awkward implications for the issue of infant salvation.  Look again at this reference to elect infants.  The Canons seem to give a clear answer to the question, ‘Are all infants that die young elect?   They answer,  ‘only those of godly believing parents.’  (Boettner quotes the Westminster Confession to the same effect).  Where is that declared in the Bible?  What dispensationalist can produce clear texts in its defense?

4. The Assent of God’s “Wills”

Furthermore, in employing 2 Peter 3:9 or Matthew 23:36 it is important to realize that the dispensationalist cannot have the “two wills” of God pointing in opposite directions; one revealed will saying “Yes” to the non-elect and the  other secret will saying “No.”  The dispensationalist doctrine of election must take up these kinds of texts in their plain sense and formulate election with their “hermeneutical consent.”  If a set of passages state that God wills the salvation of all men (e.g. Jn 3:16-17; 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:14), then that is what He wills.  If all men do not get saved because God has willed the final salvation of only the elect (e.g. Acts 13:48; Jn. 6:44; 2 Thess. 2:13), then that is what God has done!  These propositions will have to be harmonized by light thrown upon them from other texts (beyond my purpose here, but Rom. 1 plays a large part).  The first thing would of course be to recognize that even though God is not stopping anyone from coming to Him, He has chosen to bring to salvation only those chosen “in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).  This requires that we interpret the “two wills” differently.  Nevertheless, we do not reduce the will for all to be saved to the level of some innocuous sentiment in God for the non-elect in this life.  We admit that we do not know why God elected some sinners but yet wants all to be saved.  Provided we have dismissed the charge of contradiction we have done about as much as we can (see below).

We should also note that dispensationalists need to take care not to use texts which relate to sanctification of the saints to ground unconditional election (e.g. Rom. 8:28-30, in which Paul has the believer’s final glory in mind).  These passages might have something to say, but they are scarcely decisive.

4. The Sinner Will Not Come

One of the crucial matters to get a handle on is the responsibility of the sinner to accept Christ.  In line with something I read in Van Til once I developed the following aphorism:

“It is not that the sinner won’t come to God because he cannot; but he cannot come to Christ because he will not.”

What this approach does is summarize nicely the Bible’s teaching on human responsibility while showing how God can justly elect some while leaving others to their rightful condemnation.  If we reverse this aphorism and start teaching a sinner won’t come to God because he cannot come to God, then we are in the soup.  For then we must import once more the mantra that “regeneration precedes faith.”  This teaching, which is highly questionable on a number of fronts (e.g., 1. no passage says it; 2. some passages strongly imply just the opposite; 3. this would cause a theological difficulty with God giving eternal life (regeneration) to a sinner before he has been justified and declared righteous; and, 4. even a logical order creates a contradiction between God’s thoughts and God’s Words).

Verses like 1 Pet. 5:9; 2 Pet. 3:9 and Matt. 23:36, not to mention Jn. 1:12-13; 3:3, 5, 16-17, must be allowed to speak with a their own voice without being drowned out by the concerns of our adopted theologies.  If they are not allowed to say what they say, what is that but a tacit admission of the interpreter that he is employing theological hermeneutics?  And if that is so then no dispensationalist who does it can argue anymore that they use one consistent set of hermeneutics.

A theology which involves a person in backing off the declarations of plain scriptures for the all too apparent reason that these verses clash with that chosen theology is a theology in violation of its biblical permit.

For the record, I do think, e.g., 2 Thess. 2:13 requires us to see that God’s election is prior to our decision.  Acts 13:48 (tasso – to “put in order or appoint or even enroll”), Rom. 16:13, Acts 18:10, 1 Pet. 1:2, 2 Tim. 1:9, Tit. 1:1 also encourage this conclusion.  If there is a condition we cannot meet the condition (belief).  Hence, election certainly presupposes total depravity, but not regeneration before faith.  And the hermeneutics owned by dispensationalists; the same hermeneutics that reveals a clear distinction between Israel and the Church; the same consistently applied hermeneutics which excludes infant baptism, will not support aspects of the doctrine of election espoused by 5 Point Calvinists.

P.S.  I’m quite tired and sunburned so it is possible I have missed something important.  Perhaps I shall have to amend things here and there when my head clears.  Howbeit, I don’t imagine there will be much to change.

I really was half asleep when I posted the first attempt.  This is a revision.

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19 comments

  1. Very good article. I hold to the election of national Israel as God’s earthly elect people while the Body of Christ the church is God’s heavenly people. I view both involving unconditional election in my discussions with others on this doctrine. My issue with the Reformed Creeds is their denial of the distinction of Israel and the Church in the plan of God which also does not give the full blown teaching on election due to their ” Replacment Theology “. The dispensationalist should logically have a better formulated doctrine of election which shows the election of Israel and the Church. This goes very well with the biblical covenants which dispensationalism teaches. A dispensational systematic theology set should have a larger section on the doctrine of election than standard Reformed ones since ours would include Israel and the Church in subdivisions in it. It appears our views on this are very close with one another.

  2. Bryan,

    I think we agree more than we disagree. However, I don’t accept the earthly/heavenly dichotomy, for the reason that in the New Creation it doesn’t exist. As that is the consummation of things I cannot hold to the Chaferian (or Darbyite) dichotomy.

    Further, I think we must deal with the election of Israel as a covenanted nation differently than the election of Christians in or to the Church. The NT language is particular to what happens “in Christ” and should be treated on its own terms. The reverse is true: Israel’s election should not be interpreted via NT ecclesial language, but should be studied in context.

    i am intrigued with your suggestion about the “longer section” for election in a dispensational systematics. Of course, it would be nice to actually have a good modern systematics from our perspective! 🙂

    Thanks for your comment. Sorry this reply is late.

    Paul

    1. I should add one thing: I DO believe in an eternal distinction between the Church, Israel and the nations. I just don’t go for the earthly/heavenly split. i think we will all intermingle in God’s eschatological society.

  3. Good article bringing out the issue of election. I’ve observed that Reformed (no future for Israel) have a very incomplete view of election — only for themselves, not for Israel; and they get just as upset as Arminians do over free will when others challenge them biblically. With the Reformed people I know, it’s the same issue with salvation for infants that die–the real issue is their problem with God’s sovereign election; every one of them also rejects the notion of salvation for such infants, because of their own ideas of “fairness” and that such infants “shouldn’t get a free pass.”

    Spurgeon pointed out a text that’s rather interesting — Ezekiel 16 — which contains a biblical answer to their idea that only dead infants of believing parents are saved. There, apostate Israelites had sacrificed their babies to pagan deities, and God charges them with the wrong, referring to their babies as “My children.”

  4. Lynda,

    I was taught at a Reformed seminary in England and I remember well a lecture in which the tutor insisted that not all infants that die are elect infants. Some go to hell.

    I liked the Ezek. 16 insight!

    Thanks,

    Paul

  5. The majority of Reformed believers and leaders I have known have stated that all infants that die go to heaven. If I recall correctly, that was Warfield’s position. But there are definitely exceptions, as noted here.

    Sometimes you will see Reformed paedobaptists ask Baptist Calvinists what grounds they have to believe all infants dying in infancy are saved since they are not “covenant children.” I pointed out recently that unless the paedobaptist is willing to assert some kind of baptismal regeneration, (something most Reformed consider to be anathema, except for those who affirm something like the Federal Vision) they are in no better position. I’ve found some who try to play these kinds of games with Baptists, but most often they believe all infants who die go to heaven, whether “covenant children” or not, although they may state they would have more confidence assuring a believer that his child is in heaven. In that case it’s a rather pointless discussion, IMO.

    But they may be on to something, their denial of baptismal regeneration notwithstanding. In my experience, most of those who are unwilling to say that all infants who die are saved have been Baptist Calvinists. But that may simply reflect the circles of fellowship I’ve been involved in over the past decade, in which some of the Baptists are maybe a little harder edged and less mainstream than the Presbyterians (OPC and PCA) I’ve known. In either case I doubt that it’s the majority view among Calvinists today, whether Baptist or Pres/Reformed.

    It would seem that the WCF’s statement about “elect infants” in Ch. 10 really doesn’t say anything one way or another on the issue since no one can be saved who isn’t elect, although the wording leaves the door open for those who aren’t sure all are saved. Those who believe all infants who die are saved believe they are all elect. It seems that it’s worded in such a way as to appease either side.

    Evidently that wasn’t clear enough for Mr. Spurgeon, who revised the 1689 London Confession to read “infants dying in infancy” instead of “elect infants.”

  6. Good comments Chris.

    I do think Warfield’s article influenced many Reformed Christians to revise their thinking on “elect infants,” but I cannot see that Warfield solved the problem which arises from a Federal reading of Rom. 5:12-21.

    Of course, my main issue is what a Dispensationalist can and cannot establish with his hermeneutics.

  7. Hi Brother Henebury,

    Its been ages since I last spoke with you on the phone. You probably don’t remember me, but I audited your Presuppositional Apologetics class at Tyndale when I was studying there.

    1. Re: reprobation, how about Proverbs 16:4, 1 Peter 2:8, Rom. 9:15-18, 22, & 11:8 for starters? After all, the Greek word for “He hardens” in Rom. 9:18 is σκληρυνει (sklêrunei) which is a present *active* indicative third person singular verb.

    Also, I don’t see how reprobation can be avoided given the following “plain reading” of the Scriptures:

    The LORD has made everything for its own purpose, Even the wicked for the day of evil. (Proverbs 16:4 NAU)

    and, “A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE”; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this [doom] they were also appointed. (1 Peter 2:8 NAU)

    Reprobation teaches that God indeed positively acts or decrees the damnation of men, but that he does so by means of secondary causation, and not direct influences (James 1:13-15).

    Thanks a bunch,

    May the Lord richly bless you!

    1. Hello Justin,

      I remember your Dutch name but not your face!

      Thank you for your questions. Here is how I would answer them:

      1. Prov. 16:4 involves an important theological decision. Namely, do we interpret God’s “making” of the wicked as a supralapsarian act of the will whereby God just decides to create certain millions of humans for the “purpose” of damning them eternally? If so, one must embrace supralapsarianism in the logical order, which has God decreeing to damn those He has yet not decreed to create – thus meaning there were two separate humanities (saved and lost) in the mind of God from the offset. That is both a heavy theological weight for the verse to hold up, and it creates real problems for a theodicy. First, it means God is the Author of sin (He “Creates the WICKED…”). Second, it means God is, to all appearances, cruel and arbitrary (He creates in order to damn).

      The verse so interpreted includes no secondary causes, nor indeed would it require them (since they would serve no apologetic purpose). Therefore, the verse should not be interpreted this way.

      Instead, the “wicked” are “purposed” for “destruction” because they are wicked! The wicked ones are already living out their wickedness before God and thus invite upon themselves the wrath of God. This preserves the poetic balance of the passage, with the second refrain answering the first, and it preserves the proverbial character too. God does not make wicked people in the sense that He forms people with evil hearts in order to later send them to Hell. Rather, He makes the wicked serve His purposes with regard to the “day of evil.” The verse is not a proof for reprobation, and if it is taken as such the fallout is massive.

      2. 1 Peter 2:18 again deals with those who stumbled because they would not believe. They were THERE to stumble and their doom was in consequence of their act. A person is appointed to destruction as a consequence of their own sin (“disobedient” v.7).

      3. The Romans 9 passage is a favorite for the teaching of reprobation, but it is quite otherwise. First, please note that both elect and reprobate come from “the same lump” (9:21). This overthrows supralapsarian schemes and nullifies the impact of Prov. 16:4 as a proof-text for reprobation. Both groups are part of the one humanity!

      Second, your use of vv.15-18 ignores Paul’s argument in the epistle. I always tell students “you cannot understand Rom.9 unless you understand Rom.1” What I mean is that Rom. 9 cannot be used in such a way that it renders null and void Paul’s crucial argument in Rom. 1:18-32. In Romans 1 Paul plainly says that all men are guilty and without excuse for their rejection of God’s [General] revelation. Bring that into his argument in Romans 9 and one sees straight away that Paul is not saying, “God can do what He wants whether it is right or not because He is God,” but “God has a perfect right to elect some and not others because we’re all wicked God-rejectors in the first place, so be quiet.” Pharaoh is a case in point. God raised him up (meaning that He brought him to prominence for His own purposes, not that He created him to damn him). In v. 22 God is said to “endure with much longsuffering” these non-elect. If He created them to damn them what “longsuffering” would there be worthy of the term? No, the wrath of God comes upon all those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” God puts up with them and often uses them to His purposes. That is what Paul is arguing in Romans 9. There is no doctrine of “double predestination” there. Rom. 11:8 again refers to those who are already guilty of rejecting revelation. Thus, God’s active hardening or active “stupification” of unbelievers answers to their sin.

      3. Your reference to James 1:13-15 only works if you reject preterition, not embrace it. You yourself point out that Rom.9:18 has God actively and IN PERSON hardening the non-elect. There is no secondary causation! Neither is there any in Proverbs 16:4! You cannot have your cake and eat it brother. If you want to make these texts teach reprobation you cannot appeal to secondary causation.

      The thing which causes men’s damnation is their own rejection of God’s revelation – general and special. This is what James is saying with regard to our sin. God has no hand in it. It is ours and God will punish it.

      Thank you for your stimulating inquiry. Whether you agree with my answer or not is another thing 🙂 I believe these verses, if taken as proof-texts for reprobation, present insurmountable theological and philosophical problems, some of which I have tried to demonstrate.

      God bless you and yours.

      Your brother,

      Paul

  8. It is reassuring that we can hold to unconditional election and yet not be Calvinists. I was wondering if you have come across many example of hostility towards unconditional election in dispensational land? I used to run into dispensationalists associated with the Calvary Chapel movement, and they are very majoring on the free will and hostile to unconditional election. (if you read Chuck Smith and Greorge Bryson, if you believe in unconditional election, that makes you a Calvinist)

    But having made this observation, I wonder whether you would still be grouped as a Calvinist even if you deny most of the 5-points? A search on the net concerning non-Calvinists who believe in unconditional election returns no results, strangely enough.

  9. Hi Joel. I have come across many dispensationalist today who are very hostile towards unconditional election. They basically in general are followers of Norman Geisler, George Bryson and Dave Hunt. Historical Calvinism and Historical and Wesleyan Arminianism are anti-dispensational due to their historical denial of the distinction between Israel and the Church. They do not define the church in the same manner as dispensatioanlist. Basically within dispensationalist there are ” modified Calvinist ” ( Chafer, Walvoord, Ryrie and Lightner ) who hold to most of Calvinism though made corrections in it and reject the idea of regeneration proceding faith and the equating of regeneration with efficacious grace and embracing a more proper biblical understanding of eternal security. The Arminian dispensationalist ( Thieeseen ) even modified their own Arminianism as well. They would only embrace the conditional view of election and prevenient grace from the Arminian system. The only non-Calvinist group that embrace unconditional election are confessional Luthernans. These Lutherans embrace just total depravity and unconditional election.

    I consider George Bryson and Dave Hunt as essentially semi-Pelagian in most areas in their soteriology based on their writings. While I consider Norman Geisler as basically Arminian in all areas except on the issue of eternal security. Followers of these men have made my interactions with fellow dispensationalist very difficult. One minute they will amen me while I am refuting Covenant Theology and Arminianism and then next minute I am being condemned for heresy for my views on unconditional election. It is very hard to go through the passages with them on this issue. I try and get them to follow the literal grammatical historical method of interpretation on this issue but they wont do so with me. Bryson, Hunt and Geisler created a big problem that dispensationalist as a whole must deal with sooner or later.

  10. “One minute they will amen me while I am refuting Covenant Theology and Arminianism and then next minute I am being condemned for heresy for my views on unconditional election. ”

    I made a typo. The word Arminianism was placed there accidently. What belongs there is Amillennialism.

  11. When I attended a Calvary Chapel for a few years quite a while back, I encountered a similar bewildering situation. Generally the Calvary Chapel movement could be counted on to let the biblical text speak for itself, but not s when it came to election it seemed. They also wanted little to do with NT teachings concerning church leadership (e.g., plural eldership) instead favoring a ‘Moses model’ drawn from the OT theocracy of Israel — which is surpassing strange for dispensationalists who recognize the church is not Israel. It seems to me that in both cases, personal experiences of influential men in the movement have colored their exegesis – such as it is – on these issues and their strong personal style tended to sway the rest of the sheep.

  12. Thanks guys for your feedback. It is helpful for me to see how man-centred some of the prominent dispensationalists of our day are.

  13. When you call Rolland McCune a 5-pointer, what are you basing that on? I’m not aware that he labels himself as that.

    1. Paul, I have checked McCune’s own Systematic Theology (Vol. 2), and I do believe you are right! I got my information from someone I assumed knew McCune’s view. Serves me right. I shall amend my mistake asap.

      Thank you for bringing this to my notice.

      God bless you and yours,

      P.

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