WHEN CALVINISM GETS IN THE WAY
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37, ESV)
Sometimes the doctrine of election can get in the way of experiencing God. How can truth, I hear you ask, get in the way of our relationship with God? An obvious answer is when either we don’t understand a given truth properly, or when we use it at the wrong time to answer the wrong questions. For example, at the very beginning of our Christian experience, how many of you found yourself worrying about whether or not you were elect? I know I did. The devil had me in the horns of a dilemma, and it went like this: If you are not elect then you can’t come to Christ. Even if you try to come, Christ will not save you. The gospel is, therefore, not really offered to you — at least, not sincerely. This is a classic example of someone using the doctrine of election at the wrong time to answer the wrong question. The doctrine of election has nothing to do with Christ’s offer of the gospel. The gospel is never, anywhere in Scripture offered to the elect. It is offered to sinners, pure and simple (E.G. Matthew 11:28-30). This offer is sincere and earnest, even when it is made to the non-elect reprobate. If such were to come to Christ, God would save them. Of course, they can’t come because they won’t come, but that’s another sermon for another day.
What good news this is for the sinner. There is no need to know you are elect before you come to Christ — how could anyone attain to such knowledge? — we come because we need to come, we come because Christ invites us to come, and we come because He promises to receive us when we do (John 6:37)!
In a similar sense, the doctrine of election can get in the way of our child rearing. Here’s how: Take a given Covenant child. What is their position before God? Well if we allow the doctrine of election to get in the way, we can rob them of the very real promises and privileges that are their birth right. Here’s how that happens. We begin by asking, is this child elect? Well again, we have no way of answering that question. It is one of the secret things belonging only to God. On the heels of that question, we find ourselves thinking, well if they are not elect, they are a child of wrath, and God’s posture must therefore only be hostile towards them. Think like this, and you will inevitably shrink back from assuring them of God’s very real kindness to them in the Covenant. Your invitations to worship God, to pray, to read their Bible will all be given with a secret and reluctant pessimism — a pessimism on which they will almost certainly pick up!
Let me suggest a better strategy for thinking about our covenant children: Would it not be better to begin with what you know about a child on the basis of the Covenant of grace? What do we know about every covenant child, regardless of their election? Just like the Old Testament Jew, we know…
“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” (Romans 9:4–5, ESV)
Or think about Hebrews 6 (Now, I realize this is a passage that we normally use to describe the dark reality of a person forsaking the visible Church and the Christ they used to profess. But read this passage from the perspective of the blessings such a person used to enjoy before they walked away):
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:4–6, ESV)
That’s astounding — these are reprobate members of the covenant community, who give no evidence of election, and every evidence of the contrary, and yet the inspired writer describes them as those who have been enlightened, who have tasted of the heavenly gift, who have shared of the Holy Spirit, and who have tasted the word of God and of the powers of the age to come, and for whom, in some sense, the Son of God has been crucified (Cf. Heb 10:29).
Remember, the OT type of this is the blood of the Covenant sprinkled on the whole covenant community. None of this, of course, undermines the precious doctrine of particular redemption, but it does underscore the special relationship the whole covenant community enjoys with the blood of the sacrifice. It is for them, offered to them, promised to them, and, like the Passover, applied to their households in a way not experienced by those outside in the world.
Such membership in the Covenant community affords real, temporary benefits even for the currently unconverted and the non-elect. Remember Paul’s sobering summary of excommunication as handing a person over into the hands of Satan? To some extent, before this act, like Ham in Noah’s ark, it seems they enjoyed some shelter from the Deceiver. But once they are beyond the pale of the Church, this shelter is taken away and they feel the full force of Satanic fury.
We might also think of Judas, who whilst a disciple enjoyed the presence and the teaching of Jesus. Jesus didn’t hold him at arms length. The other disciples certainly didn’t have the sense that Jesus gave him the cold shoulder. And yet, in the Upper Room, there is that awful moment when Judas moved beyond the pale. Up to that point, Satan had only put the idea of betrayal into Judas’ heart (John 13:2), but once he reached the point of no return, Satan himself entered his heart (John 13:27), and Judas’ relationship with Jesus changed forever.
I believe there is a similar analogy with covenant children. Before they come to faith, God doesn’t treat his non-elect children any differently from his elect ones. They all enjoy the same benefits. They all stand, as it were, paddling on the edge of the ocean of God’s covenant love, and just like with the free offer of the gospel, God sincerely invites them to wade in, deeper and deeper. He calls each to give themselves to Him, to seek Him while He may be found. This invitation is warm, sincere, and without reservation. When God approached Cain after his initial failed attempt at worship, God didn’t come with blazing and infinite wrath. Of course, He knew the conversation would be “pointless”, He knew what Cain would do. But He didn’t treat Cain as a reprobate murderer on the basis of foreknowledge, He waited until the deed had been done, and Cain’s guilt became real, not merely potential. Then Cain was cursed and cast out.
Can’t we draw a parallel here with the experience of Covenant children. Yes, there will come a day when a non-elect child will bar the door to God’s promised mercy and walk away from Christ for the last time, but until that day comes, God doesn’t hold them at arms length. He doesn’t ignore them. He doesn’t say, well, since I know the destiny of your soul beforehand, I’m not going to offer you the gospel, I am not going to speak tenderly to you, or assure you of my real interest, love, and affection. And even on the day when they walk away from Christ for the last time, could not Jesus weep over them, as he wept over Jerusalem, and cry out in heart-rending lament, “How I longed to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
Yes, I cannot deny all unconverted (elect and non-elect) are children of wrath while they are outside of Christ (Eph 2:1-3). But during their brief time of probation on earth, while their real iniquity fills up to completeness (Gen 15:6), God does not deal with any man according to his sins, nor does He reward him according to his iniquities (Ps 103:10). In fact, in the meantime, as with King Saul and Ahab, God very often allows sinners to enjoy interludes of remarkable mercy and grace.
So as parents, don’t let uncertainty regarding your children’s election lead you to doubt the longing heart of Jesus for your child. Because if you doubt it, you can be sure your children will too. And this is a poor strategy for drawing them to the Savior.