IV. Locating the Mystery

NEXT we must consider the locus, so clearly stated by Professor Pieper, as to just where the mystery of election lies. He locates it in God’s diverse ways of treating men — electing some and leaving others to their fate. It is not that God does not want the finally obdurate to be saved; that Dr. Pieper asserts and re- asserts many times. We are thankful that our Missouri brethren take this view, and insist upon it so strongly. It is the chief thing that differentiates them from the Calvinists. However, the mystery is, why some are saved and others are not, seeing all are alike guilty and all alike under spiritual disability. That, according to our Missouri brethren, is the inexplicable mystery of the divine election. God alone knows why some are elected and others are not, and He has kept the secret in the inner chamber of His own counsels.

Now we venture to say, humbly and honestly, that by their speculations on the eternal decree, our good brethren have confused matters, and have placed the mystery where the Bible does not place it, but where, on the contrary, the Bible gives the very clearest reason why some people are saved and others lost. For a time let us try to forget what God may have done in eternity, and let us see what He has said and done in time through His gracious revelation. Thus we may be able to determine the ground of His discriminations between the finally saved and the finally lost. What does the Bible say? We might cite hundreds of proof-texts, but a few of the outstanding ones will suffice.

Note, first, how Jesus Christ Himself makes the distinction in John 3:16-19: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. . . . He that believeth on Him is not judged; he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.” Here Christ makes it very clear why some are saved and others lost; the former believe on Christ; the latter do not believe on Him. So our Lord does not seem to make any mystery over the difference of treatment that God accords to the two classes of men. Why, then, should men go back to something that occurred in the eternal counsels of God, and find a mystery?

Let us note some other passages. We know that faith and repentance always go together; one connotes the other. At the beginning of Christ’s ministry He said : “Repent ye ; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In Mark’s gospel it is put in this way: “Now after John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand : repent ye, and believe the gospel.” So again the conditions of salvation are made repentance and faith. Why cannot we preach this truth in all its simplicity just as Jesus did? At another place our Saviour said: “Except ye repent, ye shall all like- wise perish.” So those who perish are those who do not repent, implying clearly that those who do repent shall be saved. Here is another classical passage (Mark 16:15, 16): “And He said unto them. Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” Then what? “He that believeth, and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be condemned.” Here again it is faith and un faith that make the differ- ence. Our point is that Christ does not posit the differ- ence in the destiny of saints and sinners in God’s eternal decree, but in man’s acceptance or rejection of the gospel.

When the Philippian jailer exclaimed in his terror, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas took no time to speculate about the mysteries either of faith or of election, but simply answered : “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house.” And we know the sequel. Oh ! we need more simple, childlike faith, and less refined speculation.

Let us look at another classical passage, a veritable sedes doctrinae, in the language of theology. It is found in Paul’s famous foreordination thesis, on which the advocates of election depend for many of their arguments, Rom. 8-11. One should read all these chapters, not only the eighth and ninth ; indeed, it is best to begin at Rom. 1, and read on through Rom. 11. Paul’s argument here refers to the rejection of Israel and the acceptance of the Gentiles. After all he says about the election of some and the rejection of others, he closes the discussion of his great theme in Rom. 11:17-36, a part of which we will quote according to the beautiful version of the Twentieth Century New Testament. We should note that the “cultivated olive” refers to the Jews, and the “wild olive” to the Gentiles. Says Paul: “Some, however, of the branches were broken off, and you, who were only a wild olive, were grafted in among them, and came to share with them the root which is the source of the rich- ness of the cultivated olive. Yet do not exult over the other branches. But, if you do exult over them, remember that you do not support the root, but the root sup- ports you. But some branches, you will say, were broken off, so that I might be grafted in. True ; it was because of their want of faith that they were broken off, and it is because of your faith that you are standing. Do not think too highly of yourself, but beware. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. See, then, both the goodness and the severity of God — his severity toward those who fell, and his good- ness toward you, provided you continue to confide in that goodness ; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they, too, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in ; for God has it in His power to graft them in again.”

So, after all Paul’s discussion of foreordination, he concludes that it was Israel’s unbelief that cut them off, and it was through faith that the Gentiles were grafted in. Paul’s reason for turning from the Jews to the Gentiles is given plainly in Acts 13 :46. “Seeing ye thrust it (the Word) from you . . . lo, we turn to the Gentiles.”

So our point is that the Bible does not make a mystery out of the fact that some people are saved. It reveals that just as clearly as it reveals why the reprobate are finally condemned. Why should the Missourians say that one is clearly revealed and the other is a profound mystery, when the Bible tells us just as clearly why some are saved as why others are lost? “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved ; he that believeth not shall be condemned.” Ponder the two statements; is not one just as expHcit as the other? Again: “He that believeth on Him is not condemned ; he that believeth not is condemned already.” Compare the two statements. Is not the one as unmistakable as the other? Why locate the mystery here where God speaks plainly. (Missouri accepts the Apology of the Augsburg Confession as part of her creed. This is what the Apology says (Jacobs’ edition, page 150) : “And this faith makes a distinction between those by whom salvation is attained, and those by whom it is not attained. Faith makes the distinction between the worthy and the unworthy, because eternal life has been promised to the justified; and faith justifies.” The Formula of Concord says (page 527): “In Him (Christ), therefore, we should seek the eternal election of the Father, who, in His eternal divine counsel, determined that He would save no one except those who acknowledge His Son, Christ, and truly believe on Him.”) It is because, instead of accepting the Bible’s simple teaching, we have tried to cipher out some things that are too deep for our limited capacities. We have tried to posit mystery at a certain point, as if, in the ultimate analysis, the whole world of both nature and grace were not beyond our understanding. Who can understand the eternal decrees of the absolute God? Ah, yes, true enough! But you need not go so far afield to find the inscrutable. Who knows what matter is? Who knows what mind is? Who can figure out the mysterious connection between the mind and the brain? Who can tell how the mind can determine itself in liberty, how it can initiate motion and action ? So in regard to faith. Who can tell how we can lay hold on Christ by faith? Who can define the precise point where grace and freedom meet and coalesce, and where faith is sufficiently enabled by the power of God to become self-active? Yes, there are mysteries all along the line. (At one place Dr. Pieper declares that no man is a “good theologian” who tries to explain the mystery of the decrees relative to election. We maintain that we have attempted to explain no mystery in the foregoing argument, but have simply stated what is the plain teaching of God’s Word. How God can foreknow contingent events, and yet leave a moral agent free, is a matter we leave to His omniscience.)

And yet how plain some things are — the things that are practical and that we need to know. We know that we have bodies and that we have souls ; that we feel with our nerves of sensation ; that we cognize, feel and will with our minds ; that, if we are Christians, we have accepted salvation by faith, and that not in our strength, and yet that we were not compelled to believe; that, if we had not accepted God’s gift, we could not have had it: that it was all by grace, even the enabling of our faith. Some dialectician may come along and challenge us thus: “Prove all these things.” We reply, we can- not prove them; we know them; they are part of our consciousness and experience. So it is with the plan of salvation ; God has clearly taught in His word that the dividing line between the justified and the lost is faith and unbelief. What He has revealed in time must have been predetermined in eternity. If God in time makes faith — or, at least, the willingness to have faith, as we shall show later — the turning-point in the sinner’s career. He must have foreseen this contingency in eternity and chosen accordingly. This would not be inconsistent with His exalted character, nor detract from His glory, nor nullify sola gratia.

Why should it derogate from God’s glory and grace for Him to elect in foresight of faith? Is faith so small and insignificant a thing in God’s eyes? Not according to the Bible: “Without faith it is impossible to please Him;” “Being justified by faith;” “That whosoever believeth on Him might not perish;” “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent ;” “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, but faith, which worketh by love;” “This is the victory that over- cometh the world, even our faith ;” “Faith is the sub- stance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen ;” “By faith” Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and all the rest were sustained and performed their mighty works. The Lutheran Church also gives to faith this exalted place. It is not belittling to God to elect in view of faith. In any case He must have had faith in mind in eternity, for He elected to justify and save sinners through faith.

Further, if election is an inscrutable mystery, kept secret in God’s eternal counsel, how does Missouri know that it was not made in view of faith? That would imply a good deal of knowledge about an inscrutable mystery. Again, according to Missouri, each individual who is finally saved was predestined unto faith, which must mean that when he was elected, his faith was elected with him. That view eliminates every vestige of freedom from faith, and therefore spells “irresistible grace.” Missouri also teaches — at least, she did some years ago — that “God gives richer grace to the elect than to the non-elect” (see Tressel’s work, page 600). The conclusion must be unconditional election.

The St. Louis theologians are, we think, in error when they set up an antinomy between election and freedom; for since God in eternity elected to create free beings, He must have also in eternity elected to respect their freedom, and relate Himself thereto. This principle does not subtract from His glory, grace and power ; it only exalts them, for a God who can respect and permit a moral agent’s autonomy, and at the same time carry out his own vast plans, must be infinite in all His perfections.

There is always an element of freedom in faith. Otherwise it would not be the gift of God, but would be something forcibly imposed. While no man can believe on Christ by his own natural powers (for man is dead in trespasses and sins), yet when faith is enabled by God’s grace in regeneration, it must lay hold upon Christ freely. God will not force any man to accept Christ by faith ; nor will God do man’s believing for him. When faith is empowered by God’s Spirit, man must exercise that power. Even Dr. Walter once said: “He who opposes not merely his natural resistance to the operation of the Holy Spirit, but also obstinate and obdurate resistance, him God Himself cannot then help; for God will force no one to conversion; a forced conversion is no conversion.” (Tressel’s work, page 171, quoted from Walters “Postille,” p. 91.)

Looking upon faith as a matter of merit is the fatal error of Missouri. It colors her whole theology. How a body of Lutherans, studying the Bible, the confessions and the Lutheran dogmaticians, could get such a mistaken conception of simple saving faith is indeed a mystery to us. We need not go back to the eternal divine decrees to find mysteries. If faith is the free gift of God, as the Bible maintains, how can it be a matter of merit? And if, after it has been divinely bestowed or enabled, it simply takes God’s gratuity, it surely can claim no desert.

Whether we have gathered up all the links in our argument or not, this is sure : we have made faith in Christ the central and regulative principle, just as Paul did, just as Luther did, just as the Augustana and all other Lutheran Symbols do. If anything in our Lutheran system of doctrine must bend, or step aside, it cannot be faith in Christ; for He is the express image of God’s person, His perfect revelation, and faith in Him is our only hope.

At this point, and while we think of it, we wish to commend a gracious statement by Dr. Pieper. He says that his opponents are not as self-righteous as their theories would seem to imply; that their hearts are better than their heads. Down in their Christian hearts, he says, they are not Pharisaical, saying: “We thank thee. Lord, that we are not as other men are.” They do not think that they have been elected and saved be- cause they are better than others either by nature or practice, but solely on account of the goodness and grace of God and the merits of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Pieper has estimated his fellow-Christians correctly, and is to be commended for his gentle and generous judgment. However, while he thinks their hearts are right, though their heads are wrong, we think both their heads and hearts are right. First, they know that they have been saved by grace through faith; and that not of themselves; it is the gift of God; second, they would not want God to elect them out of the mass of mankind by an arbitrary decision, whether in time or eternity; but if he gave the others also an equal and sufficient chance (gratia sufficiens), the redeemed can have all the more faith in Him, because of the very fact that He is just and impartial, as well as plenteous in mercy and grace.