Where angels fear to tread

Book 3 Chapter 23 Section 1-14

I would doubt that there is any other topic in Christianity that draws forth such strong emotions as the topic of election. Love it or hate it it is the doctrine with which the name of Calvin has become synonymous. After reading these chapters in the Institutes I can see why! The few chapters which speak of election and reprobation must have been revolutionary at the time and even today their impact is undiminished. Election is a double-sided coin – on one side the comforting thought that God chooses a people for himself, but on the other side, the disturbing question of what happens to those outside this group?  Whatever our answer to this question (if we attempt to provide one) it is certainly a deep mystery.

In this chapter Calvin addresses the issue of those outside the family of God and various solutions that have been proposed to how God treats them before the world began:

  • Admit election but deny reprobation. Firstly, Calvin speaks to those who believe in saving election but deny that God intentionally predestines anyone to destruction. Calvin believes this is inconsistent with how the bible speaks of God’s actions on the wicked. For example the hardening that is spoken of in Romans 9 of Pharaoh’s heart. Here God is active in confirming Pharaoh’s stubbornness and sealing his condemnation. Calvin extrapolates this case to apply to the rest of the non-elect – but is this a fair deduction? Is this going further than Paul in Romans 9? If not then what alternatives are there in how God acts?
  • God waits in suspense. Calvin next deals with those who think this issue can be solved by proposing that God purposefully elects some to salvation, but leaves the others to make their own way. God is portrayed here as a bystander, with no final decision on the non-elect, but waiting to see if any seek him. But this implies that some who have not been elected could, by some unknown means, find their way to God. But this is at odds with everything we know of man’s inability to seek for God. It is also at odds with what we understand of God’s providence, where nothing is uncertain.
  • Permits but doesn’t will. Well perhaps God allows the non-elect to die without Christ, but doesn’t purposefully decree it. This view would say that the Pharaoh example mentioned above is a unique event and normally God would not actively harden the hearts of unbelievers – he just doesn’t intervene to stop them being condemned. Again this view does not sit with what we know of God’s providence – particularly our previous discussion on suffering. There is nothing in all of creation that is simply “allowed” to happen.
  • Intentionally decrees. So we are back to where we started, does God elect some to death before they are even born? The human logic of a biblical theologian may say that this is the most logical given what we read in Romans 9 and what we know of God’s providence. But is it beyond what the bible itself teaches? Even Paul does not go this far – he puts the question out there (Romans 9.22-24, assuming it is a question in the original!!) but then doesn’t answer it as far as I can see. Paul challenges us to consider the implications of God creating objects of wrath, whose destruction glorifies his name amongst the elect, but then moves on to the gathering of the Gentiles (v25-33).

I find myself agreeing with Calvin’s statement that “believing ignorance is better than presumptuous knowledge.” There are some things that remain hidden in the mind of God that it is best not to delve into too far or speculate about too excessively, based only on logic and not scripture. In a wonderful section Calvin directly addresses the reader and is lost in wonder and amazement at the height and depth of the hidden counsel of God – “O the height! Peter denies, a thief believes. O the height! Do you ask the reason? I will tremble at the height. Reason you, I will wonder; dispute you, I will believe. I see the height, I cannot sound the depth. Paul found rest because he found wonder.”


Consider the following illustration. What is there was a ship sinking in the sea and you had a lifeboat with room for 50 people. You can choose any 50 to rescue from the ship but have to leave the rest behind. How would you choose who to bring – it wouldn’t be based on the character of their lives for you don’t know them. You would have to make a quick decision who to rescue. But as you sail away from the thousands left on the boat you would feel that you did all you could – you only had limited resources and acted in kindness to rescue innocent victims of a disaster. This is a completely understandable human action – nobody would blame you for not helping the ones left for you only had space for 50 people.

But what if you did have the resources? What if instead of being “innocent” the people needing rescuing were actually your sworn enemies? Imagine a U-boat sinking in the North Sea during WWII, and you are passing by on your British Destroyer. As you near them there are thousands swimming away from the sinking ship – those same soldiers that hours before were killing your friends. How would we react now? Would we be unjust to keep on sailing by? Would we stop and save every last enemy? In the spectrum of human reaction, both could be justified from a certain perspective. Both responses would incite criticism from people on shore – what would we do in the heat of battle? This is a flawed illustration, but it begins to put the question in context.

Does God have the ability to save everyone? Certainly it is within his power to save all if he so chose. By having the ability to save all and not doing so God is leaving many to their destruction. The question is – does God do this by default or intentionally? I.e. does he deliberately determine that some will be lost or is this just a by-product of his saving of others (as in the lifeboat example above)? As Paul I leave the question out there.

“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.” Ecclesiastes 5.2-3

Amen! Give us a healthy fear of you Father, for your wisdom is immeasurable, your justice unfathomable and your love unscalable.

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