Studying the Confession: The Doctrine of Decree
One of the landmark documents of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (1643-1653) is the Confession of Faith. This confession was created to provide a doctrinal basis for unity across the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Although in God’s inscrutable providence the confession did not ultimately achieve this status, at least not permanently, it has become the gold standard for churches within the Presbyterian circle and is widely respected beyond those Reformed denominations that hold to the Westminster Standards.
The confession serves to give substance to one’s profession of trust in the Bible as God’s Word. It is absolutely essential that we recognize the Scriptures for what they are: the infallible, inerrant, incomparable Word of the living Triune God. But it is equally essential that we understand the content of that same Word. The Westminster Confession of Faith provides what is arguably the best, most biblical articulation of the Christian faith. The confession is comprised of thirty-three chapters which provide memorable summaries of the whole of Scriptural teaching on the selected topics. These topics or themes are interrelated to one another. This is the nature of systematic theology or dogmatics. While the confession is not a systematic theology in the fullest sense of that expression, it is certainly systematic or organized.
In this post we want to look at the third chapter on the eternal decree. If there is one doctrine for which Calvinism or Reformed theology is best known, it is election or predestination. That is what this chapter of the WCF is all about. It is included in the confession because, quite frankly, God has included teaching about the eternal decree in his Word. In fact, as we look at the eight brief paragraphs of this chapter we will discover that we will find biblical expressions, turns of phrase, and clear-cut citations throughout.
WCF 3.1 begins by reminding us that God has brought about his will in all things while at the same time upholding the integrity and properly understood freedom of his creatures. Right here in the beginning we discover the language of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 1:3-10. In WCF 3.2 the divines reject the idea advocated by Arminians that God has chosen the elect based upon a foreseen act of faith or more specifically, the divines reject that God has chosen his elect based upon them acting in certain ways under certain conditions. This kind of language was used by the Roman Catholic theologian Luis de Molina in his advocacy of so-called divine middle knowledge. On the contrary, the elect have exercised faith in time because the Father had chosen them in Christ from before the foundation of the world.
The divines in WCF 3.3 remind us that God has elected some angels and men to salvation and everlasting life, and has left other angels and men for everlasting destruction. WCF 3.4 continues by noting that God has elected a certain number of elect angels and men that can neither be increased nor decreased. In WCF 3.5 the divines restate their rejection of the idea that God has chosen the elect based upon their faith, but they go further and note that God does not chose us because of our good works either, or perseverance. God chooses the elect out of his mere grace and good pleasure to the praise of his own glory.
WCF 3.6 explains that God has not only ordained the end of the salvation of the elect but that he has also ordained the means so that sinners might come to be saved. In God’s time, sinners who are among the elect come to faith in Christ, are regenerated, believe, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and glorified because of God’s free grace alone and it is the elect alone who will be saved. WCF 3.7 likewise reminds us that God in his glorious freedom and justice and righteousness has determined to allow other sinners to remain in their sin. These, commonly called reprobate, will suffer eternal destruction under God’s holy wrath.
WCF 3.8, the final paragraph of this chapter, reminds the church that this doctrine is to be handled with wisdom and great care. But it must be handled all the same. As John Calvin noted in the previous century, what God has revealed we must meditate upon and what he has not revealed we must avoid speculation about. The divines remind us that the doctrine of predestination ought to be the basis of trust in our great and gracious God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All glory is ascribed to God and this doctrine rightly understood ought to inculcate in all of us who trust in Christ a healthy humility. While it is true that this doctrine has been abused in the history of the church and has been used to beat people about their ears and used to deny the assurance of salvation, these are clear abuses and misuses of the doctrine. Once again I refer to Calvin. When we meditate on whether we are among the elect, the only way to know that we are is that we have trusted and are trusting in Christ Jesus for our salvation. To try to fathom the immense mystery of our election apart from faith in Christ is to fall into a deep, dark, dank pit from which it would be, humanly speaking, impossible to extricate ourselves. Are you among the elect of God? Do you receive and rest upon Christ alone for your salvation? In order to answer yes to the first question, you need to answer yes to the second. It’s that straightforward. Our salvation rests in God’s strong hands, not in our feeble ones.
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.