In our series on the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, we come this morning to Article XVII. It is the longest and perhaps the most difficult to understand. But it is of great importance. Its title is 'Of Predestination and Election'. And, therefore, it presupposes the absolute sovereignty of God as it affects individual men and women. The opening words of Article XVII are:
"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 whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour."
But that immediately raises questions. What, therefore, I want to do this morning is to see what the Bible says about Predestination, and then help you see how wise, correct and helpful Article XVII really is. And our main Bible passage will be Romans 8.26-39. And my headings, after some remarks by way of introduction, are, first, The Reason for Thinking about Predestination; secondly, The Facts Concerning Predestination; and, thirdly, Our Response to Predestination and Article XVII.
By way of introduction let me just say this. We are dealing with a subject which in the history of the Christian church has led some to ask the wrong questions and draw wrong conclusions. For if the God of the Bible is there and real, then as the Apostle Paul says a little later on in Romans 11.33:
"How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways."
So it is easy to get things wrong if you go beyond what God has revealed. For God cannot reveal everything about his judgments and ways, because some things we would not understand, such is his greatness. And some things he does reveal are paradoxical truths, for example, in our subject this morning, the fact that we are both truly predestined by God but also free. For God sovereignly and mysteriously works along with our free choices. That was famously the case with Joseph in the Old Testament. He was sold by his brothers into Egyptian slavery, but then became Prime Minister. So later in life he could say to his brothers, Genesis 50.20:
"As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good."
Well, enough by way of introduction. So our first heading :
1. The Reason for Thinking about Predestination
We are looking at Romans 8 which among other things is about life in the Spirit. But such living will include suffering and difficulties. Listen to Romans 8.16-17:
"The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him."
So there will be present suffering, perhaps persecution. However, we can have hope and confidence among all the problems we experience. First, there is the hope of heaven. In verse 18 Paul writes:
"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed."
Secondly, there is the wonderful truth that the Holy Spirit will help us with our prayers, verse 26:
"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words."
And, thirdly, there is the fact that God is sovereign and so, verse 28…
"we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."
And that is why Paul is going to be talking about Predestination and being called according to God's purposes. For it will encourage those going through hard times of whatever sort, physical or spiritual. That then brings us secondly to:
2. The Facts Concerning Predestination
However, someone may already be saying, "does predestination really give you hope? If the future is all fixed, what can you do positively about your problems?" But that is why you must note the last paragraph of our Article XVII that says this:
"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."
For, as we've said, the Bible not only teaches God's absolute sovereignty but also your real freedom to act. So Article XVII says you are to obey God's "will" that is "expressly declared … in the Word of God." You must act positively, but in God's strength to solve your problems. Assuming, then, that freedom, what does the Bible actually teach about Predestination? Well, let me mention three things. First, the teaching in Romans 8.29-30:
"For those whom he [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified."
That is a great summary. And, note, you are predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus. Then, secondly, predestination is neither God knowing who would respond and then predestining them; nor is it that God is predestining an open community, for anyone to join. The biblical understanding of it is clear from Jeremiah's experience. In Jeremiah 1.4-5 we read:
"Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying: 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.'"
That was a clear individual choice by God of Jeremiah. The third thing relates to the issue of whether God predestines people to hell (or damnation to use the Article's word) as well as to heaven. To answer that, if you can, please turn on to Romans 9.17-19 where we read:
"For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.' So then he [God] has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, 'Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?'"
Yes, this is a somewhat harsh expression of the sovereignty of God. And, yes, verse 18 says that God "hardens whomever he wills". However, for the nuance of 'hardening' turn on again, if you can, to Romans 11.7, where you read "the elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened." This is referring to the faithless in Israel, not the chosen ones, being hardened and "stumbling". But then look on to Romans 11.11 where Paul goes on to say:
"So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles so as to make Israel jealous [and understand, be encouraged to turn back to God]."
So this hardening, as with Pharaoh, is part of God's merciful sovereign purpose for salvation. Now, please turn back to Romans 9.22-24 where you read (after the 'hardening' verses):
"What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us whom he had called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles."
Paul says there, "What if …" He hesitates about being dogmatic. But here, too, God's sovereignty is a sovereignty of "mercy". God is withholding his wrath. "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction." Then notice something else important. In verse 23, Paul speaks of the "vessels of mercy, which he [God] has prepared beforehand for glory". However, in verse 22, you simply read about "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction". It does not say that God prepared them for destruction. There is a hesitation. That parallels Jesus himself, where in Matthew 25 and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus is speaking of the final Judgement. In Matthew 25.34 Jesus says to the ones who have been faithful and obedient:
"Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
But in Matthew 25.41 Jesus says to the disobedient:
"Depart from me, you cursed, into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
So the obedient are described as "blessed by my Father." But the disobedient are described simply as "cursed", not 'cursed by my Father'. And the obedient are told in verse 34, "inherit the kingdom prepared for you." But the disobedient are told in verse 41 about "the eternal fire prepared [not for you, but] for the devil and his angels." What does all that mean? Answer, there is, indeed, hell. But there is no mention of the Father predestining men and women to it. The stress is all on men and women who choose it, by their freely rejecting God's will. And the Apostle Peter's first letter (1 Peter 2.4) and Jude 4 similarly do not say God is the one predestining men and women to hell.
Yes, the Bible teaches that hell awaits the lost, but it does not say that it is God's own desire or predestining purpose for them to go there. The Bible's focus is on God-defying sinners as the cause for damnation. Now I have laboured this point, because Article XVII does not teach what it is called, "double predestination". That is predestination to life and heaven and to death and hell. So the opening words of the Article are, "Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God," not "Predestination to life and death is the everlasting purpose of God." This was an issue at the Reformation and has been ever since. So in one famous Reformed Confession you read, I quote,
"By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death" (Westminster Confession).
That is logical; but beware of being more logical than the Bible. On this the Bible is cautious how it speaks, and so should we be. So Article XVII does not positively teach double predestination. It does not deny it. But it does not assert more than God has revealed. That brings us thirdly, to
3. Our Response to Predestination and Article XVII
Let me read more of Article XVII:
"Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God's 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."
That is a great description of a Christian believer according to New Testament teaching. But then Article XVII goes on to talk about the Response to Predestination and Election. And it talks of two responses. The one is by the believer who believes God's promises, and has, (to quote the Article) a "godly consideration of Predestination and our Election in Christ". The other, by contrast, is from what it calls "curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ".
And it says that in the case of such persons - non-believers who don't take into account all that we have been considering so far this morning - the Devil uses this doctrine of Predestination and Election, to, again I quote, "thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation." Either, they start to believe God had predestined them to go to hell, when they should have believed that if they trust Christ they won't. For God has famously said (John 3.16) that:
"God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever [and that means anyone and everyone - 'whoever'] believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
Or, for whatever reason, they reject God and then start living in a hell-bound way, or as the Article puts it in "wretchlessness of unclean living". That is why this doctrine of Predestination is for believers. It is not helpful for non-believers. For as the Article says – to give you the full text - for believers …
"… the godly consideration of Predestination, and 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 establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God."
I haven't time to go into all of that. But let me explain that section where it says, the doctrine of Predestination "doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ." As, we've seen Romans 8.30 teaches:
"those whom he [God] predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified."
So your justification was predestined. That means your faith was too! And don't get that wrong. "Faith" is not your contribution to your justification – it is not a good "work". Your sin was atoned for, and forgiveness made possible, by Christ's death alone, not by Christ on the Cross plus your faith. As the Article says "by his Spirit working in due season, you through Grace obeyed the calling: you were then justified freely and … made sons of God by adoption." Isn't that so true? If you look back on your life, you can see how you aren't ultimately responsible for being here this morning, believing in Jesus Christ – if you are a believer. I certainly am not. I just was in the right place at the right time with the right people with hundreds of right "coincidences" (the theological name for which are "providences of God"). As Paul's letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2.8-10) makes so clear, you are not saved by faith but by grace:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith [faith is the God created faculty of responding to grace]. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."
So the purpose of God's Predestination in your life is for living a godly life and doing good in your private life at home and in your public life outside in the wider-world. But the consciousness of God's Predestination in your life is that, according to Article XVII "it doth greatly establish and confirm our faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ." It gives you great assurance both for the present and for the future, when you fail as you will, or suffer as you will, or a host of problems come your way, as they will. That's why Paul, after introducing the subject of Predestination in Romans 8.29-30, concludes with Romans 8.31-39, and with that I conclude:
"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us [and his predestining purposes are evidence], who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
"For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered."
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."