The doctrine of unconditional election and conditional reprobation has often met with resistance in the church. The early post-apostolic church spoke of the elect and of God’s election and found opposition to it. Augustine rather innocently wrote, “Command what you will, give what you command” and stirred up tremendous resistance fro Pelagius and Coelestius. When, in the 9th century, Gottschalk of Orbais taught the high-Augustinian (anti-Pelagian) doctrines of unconditional election, reprobation, and definite atonement, he was placed under house arrest by is monastic order for the rest of his life. In the 16th century Luther was opposed by Erasmus and and Calvin by Pighius and Bolsec. The opponents of the high, Augustinian doctrines have often caricatured them. We see this today in the opposition to them in the Southern Baptist Convention.
One of the caricatures of the Augustinian-Reformed position is that the elect are given a special revelation—indeed, some Reformed folk have held this but none of our churches confesses such a thing—whereby they knew with infallible certainty that they are elect. This is not what we confess. We do believe that assurance is of the essence of faith. Certainly doubt is not of the essence of faith. Those among the Reformed who are waiting for “the blessing” (a sort of second blessing) before they receive assurance (or before going to the Lord’s Table) are missing a great truth. One essential aspect of faith is a “heartfelt trust,” or a confidence (fiducia) in the Lord’s promises. Yet, faith as it is in itself is one thing and faith as we sinners experience it, in this life, is often something else. We stop looking to Christ and to his promises. We refuse to see the ways that he has worked in us. Too often we are tempted to try to discern the Lord’s secret will even though Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us explicitly not to do it. “The revealed things” are for us and for our children.
When we do struggle with assurance, the temptation is to look to the extraordinary but the pastors who gathered at the Synod of Dort knew that to be a mistake. Faith believes what it does not see.
ART. XVI. Those who do not yet experience a lively faith in Christ, an assured confidence of soul, peace of conscience, an earnest endeavor after filial obedience, and glorying in God through Christ, efficaciously wrought in them, and do nevertheless persist in the use of the means which God hath appointed for working these graces in us, ought not to be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor to rank themselves among the reprobate, but diligently to persevere in the use of means, and with ardent desires devoutly and humbly to wait for a season of richer grace. Much less cause have they to be terrified by the doctrine of reprobation, who, though they seriously desire to be turned to God, to please him only, and to be delivered from the body of death, can not yet reach that measure of holiness and faith to which they aspire; since a merciful God has promised that he will not quench the smoking flax, nor break the bruised reed. But this doctrine is justly terrible to those who, regardless of God and of the Saviour Jesus Christ, have wholly given themselves up to the cares of the world and the pleasures of the flesh, so long as they are not seriously converted to God.
The counter-intuitive response to doubt and uncertainty is to press on in trust, to make use of the ordinary means instituted by the Lord: the preaching of the holy gospel and the use of the holy sacraments. Too often, when we struggle, we abandon the very things that the Lord has instituted to help us. Were one hungry, should he fast to cure his hunger? No. He should eat. When one thirsts, he takes a drink of water. When we struggle is exactly the time that we should be most attendant to public worship, to the preached gospel, to the Lord’s Supper, and to prayer. It is in the communion of the saints that the Lord has promised to meet us and to bless us and to encourage us. Isolation is a breeding ground for unhealthy introspection and doubt.
One of the fears that sensitive consciences have is that one has been reprobated. They need to trust God’s promises. Reprobates do not fear that they are reprobate. Believers have no cause to be terrified that they are reprobate. Rather, their sensitive conscience should lead them to trust the Lord’s promises. They need especially to lean on the mercy of God in Christ. Remember how wicked David was. Did God abandon him because of his great sins of adultery and conspiracy to commit murder? No. Did God reprobate Abraham for lying about his wife? No. When we think this way we have effectively tried to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works but we are not under works but grace. This is why Synod quoted Isaiah:
Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. He will not cry, nor lift up his voice, nor cause it to be heard in the street. A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench: he will bring forth justice in truth. He will not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set justice in the earth; and the isles shall wait for his law (Isa 42:1–4; ASV).
Matthew quotes this passage and applies it to Jesus (Matt 12:15–21). The last verse says, “And in his name shall the Gentiles hope.” Indeed. We look to Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, who is gracious and merciful and gentle with his people. This verse is no comfort, of course, to unbelievers who presumptuously think that they can be unbelieving and impenitent. This is a quite different class of people than those whom Synod (and our Lord in his Word) is addressing.
Synod directs us away from ourselves and our experience to the Word of God, which is not dependent upon our feelings and ever-changing experiences:
ART. XVII. 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, pious parents have no reason to doubt of the election and salvation of their children whom it pleaseth God to call out of this life in their infancy.
One of the uglier allegations by the Remonstrants was that the orthodox doctrine—remember that, because they thought it favored them, they only addressed the Suprlapsarian view, whereby God is said to consider the elect and the reprobate not as fallen but as mere potentials—sent innocent infants to hell. Whereas for the Synod, election is unconditioned by anything in us or done by us, reprobation was said to be in view of our sin. The Remonstrants, however, made bth election and reprobation conditional. Thus, they argued:
1.9 All the children of believers are sanctified in Christ, so that no one of them who leaves this life before the use of reason will perish. By no means, however, are to be considered among the number of the reprobate certain children of believers who leave this life in infancy before they have committed any actual sin in their own persons, so that neither the holy bath of baptism nor the prayers of the church for them in any way be profitable for their salvation.
1.10.No children of believers who have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, living in the state of infancy, are reckoned among the reprobate by an absolute decree.
As the reader can see, the Remonstrants argued that all infants who die in infancy are without actual sin and therefore without guilt. Here we see their Pelagianism. They broke the link between all humans and our first parents. They made each of us Adam, without guilt until we actually sin. The Remonstrants were not Augustinians on fundamental doctrines of sin and salvation.
Further, like the Federal Visionists today, they made all baptized infants elect. This view has been argued at length by Federal Visionists. On this see this explanation. The self-described Federal Visionists argue that baptism confers upon all infants all the benefits of Christ conditionally, so long as they cooperate sufficiently with grace unto final salvation.
The Reformed responded by re-affirming Paul’s doctrine of Adam’s federal headship of all humanity (Rom 5:12–21) and the doctrine of unconditional election. Further, they turned to the Reformed covenant theology to reassure grieving, believing parents that their covenant children who died in infancy go to be with the Lord. This was David’s statement when he was told that his son had died.
And Yahweh afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick. David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they said, “Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us. How then can we say to him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.” But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David understood that the child was dead. And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of Yahweh and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether Yahweh will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam 12:15–23)
David was a believer. He knew the covenant promises that God had made to believers and to their children. He applied that promise concretely to his child. Synod did the same thing. Note that CD 1.17 does not say “professing parents” but “pious” or believing parents have no reason to doubt the election of their children who die in infancy. We are not to speculate. We are not to seek to climb into heaven to know the secret will and mind of God. We are to judge things by the Word of God, which says, in Genesis 17:7: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
Here we see a significant difference between Reformed theology and all Baptist theologies. They cannot affirm this promise this way because, most often they refuse to distinguish between Abraham and Moses. Some of their Particular Baptist theologians (e.g., Nehemiah Coxe) go to great lengths to identify Abraham with Moses and to turn the Abrahamic covenant of grace into a covenant of works. This is why some of their writers affirm one that the covenant of grace was revealed under the types and shadows but not actually administered. In short, in one way or another, all Baptist theologies divorce the Christian from Abraham and render this promise null. The Synod of Dort met just after the Modern Baptist movement began (c. 1611) but they were well familiar with these sorts of arguments from the Anabaptists, with whom they had much experience. So they were deliberately affirming the Abrahamic promise to believers and to their children contra the Anabaptists.
The great point to take away from CD 1.16 and 1.17 is that we do not turn to experience nor to a special blessing nor to the hidden will of God nor to speculation to resolve our doubts or to address the most difficult pastoral problem (what to say to grieving Christian parents who have lost a child in infancy) but to the Word and promises of God. The Abrahamic promises are our promises. We know this from Acts 2:39, where the Apostle Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said: “for the promise is to you and to your children…”. We rely on God’s Word. We look to Christ, the gentle, patient, Shepherd-Servant, who came for us, died for us, was raised for us, and intercedes for us even now.
—R. Scott Clark