by James Henley Thornwell
[This text is made available thanks to the work of Sean Wood]
I. OUTLINE OF THE COVENANT OF GRACE
In the original distribution of the topics embraced in Theology they
were reduced to three heads:
1. Those essential principles
of moral government which are involved in the relations of a rational,
responsible creature to its Creator and Ruler. These lie at the basis
of all religion. There can be neither duty, sin, holiness nor worship
without them. Under this head we consider man as he was created,
and only in those aspects which belong to his nature as rational and moral,
the product of supreme intelligence and righteousness. Here we discuss
the question of his original endowments, his knowledge, righteousness and
holiness; all that is implied in the notion of his being created in the
image of God; the moral law; the nature of moral government, its responsibilities,
promises and threatenings.
2. The second head includes
the dispensation under which man was placed after his creation, commonly
called the Covenant of Works. This dispensation involved the purpose
on the part of God to bring man into closer relations with Himself.
His natural position was that of a servant—God designs to make him a son.
In his natural estate, his will was mutable; his obedience was contingent;
he was liable to fall—God designed to establish him in holiness forever.
The means through which this was to be done was a limited probation of
the whole race in the person of one man—in other words, the justification
of all through one. This purpose introduced several important modifications
of moral government. The limitation of probation as to time introduces
the idea of justification ; the limitation as to persons introduces the
idea of federal representation; and both together necessitate indefectibility
of holiness. This dispensation had a threatening as well as a promise.
Hence, to understand it fully, we must know the state to which its breach
reduces us, that being the legal state in which the race now exists.
Hence, we were led to a full consideration of Sin, its nature, its consequences,
its origin in us.
3. The third great department
of Theology is that which relates to redemption, and that is the topic
on which we are to enter now. The scheme of redemption, otherwise
called the Covenant of Grace, is the answer which God gives to the question,
How shall a sinner be justified and established in holiness for ever? as
the Covenant of Works was an answer to the question, How shall a moral
creature be justified and confirmed? They are both evolutions of the same
purpose, the same grace in God. The difference in the provisions
is owing to a difference in the condition of the persons affected. The
principle on which these provisions are granted is precisely the same—federal
representation. But man's different state introduces three peculiarities
in its application: (1.) It gives occasion for the exercise of sovereignty
on the part of God in discriminating among the members of the human family.
All need not be represented. There is a positive desert of punishment
which may be respected and ought to be respected. Some must die that
it may be clearly seen that all were ruined. (2.) In the next place, man's
guilt requires a new element in righteousness—satisfaction to the justice
of God. The penalty of the law must be borne, and borne as a matter
of obedience. (3.) Man's nature now requires a change in its whole inward
state. Hence, the doctrine of sanctification is introduced.
The federal Head must be one who is competent to these exigencies in His
person, and in the offices which He undertakes to discharge.
According to this analysis
the doctrine of Redemption involves the discussion of the following topics:
1. The persons embraced in
the Divine purpose; that is, the doctrine of Election. This may also
be placed last, as Calvin has done. If we look at the thing in the
order of the Divine purpose, it is first; if in the order of execution,
it is last. One advantage of making it first is to show its regulative
influence upon the atonement. It is not an afterthought to save atonement
from being a failure.
2. The nature of a sinner's
justification; what is required in it; and upon what grounds it is possible.
3. The nature of sanctification,
or the whole of that internal work by which holiness is produced and perfected
in the heart.
4. The federal Headship of
Christ, including the conditions to His becoming such; the qualifications
necessary for the office; the duties He discharges in it; the work which
He actually performed; His birth, His life, His death, His resurrection
and ascension—that is, Christ in His person, His offices, and in both estates
of humiliation and exaltation.
5. The bond of union, the
tie betwixt us and Christ, involving the office of the Holy Spirit in the
application of redemption, and the specific acts on our parts responsive
to that office; effectual calling and faith.
6. The means: the Church,
the ministry, the ordinances.
7. The actual result of all
in the different periods of the soul's history; the Christian's life now,
his condition hereafter.
8. The state of those not
embraced in the Covenant of Grace.
This is an outline of the
great and glorious topics which fall under the scheme of redemption in
their logical relations and dependence.
II. SUB- AND SUPRA-LAPSARIANS
1. The distinction between
these two parties has been represented as very unimportant, as a mere difference
in their mode of viewing the same things. But the question concerning
the order of the Divine decrees involves something more than a question
of logical method. It is really a question of the highest moral significance.
The order of a thing very frequently determines its righteousness and justice.
Conviction and hanging are parts of the same process, but it is something
more than a question of arrangement whether a man shall be hung before
he is convicted.
2. It is admitted that the
decrees, as they exist in the Divine mind, are not conditioned: this would
be to limit the absolute freedom of the Divine will. But the things
which those decrees relate to are conditioned, and these conditions are
regarded in the decrees. The things sustain relations to each other
of cause and effect, of antecedent and consequent, of means and end; they
are subordinate or co-ordinate, and all those relations are contemplated
and embraced in the decree. The determinations of God in regard to
them are determinations about things so and so connected.
3. There are three general
opinions as to the order of Divine decrees, founded on the condition in
which man, in the purpose of election and reprobation, was contemplated
(1.) There are those who
maintain that the end being to glorify God's grace and justice, the destination
to death and life was the first thing in the Divine mind, and creation
and the fall were only means ordained for the execution of this purpose.
Man is viewed as neither fallen nor created, but simply as capable of being
and as fallible—simply as an instrument that may be made and adapted to
the purpose. This is the Supralapsarian hypothesis. It is so
called because in fixing the object of election it ascends beyond creation
and the fall.
(2.) Others maintain that
election and reprobation are conditioned upon creation and the fall—that
is, that the purpose of salvation and grace contemplates man as lost and
ruined, and proposes to deliver him out of this state. This is the
Sublapsarian hypothesis, so called because in fixing the object of predestination
it presupposes creation and the fall.
(3.) Others think that the
decree contemplates man not only as created and fallen, but as redeemed
by Christ, and as actually believing in Him and persevering in grace.
This scheme we shall discount
for the present, and consider only the two first.
4. The state of the question
betwixt the Supra- and Sublapsarians is compendiously expressed by Turrettin.
It is not whether creation and the fall enter into the Divine decree—that
is confessed on all hands; but, whether they stand related to salvation
and damnation as means to an end—whether in the order of thought God first
conceived the purpose of life or death, and then the purpose of giving
being and fallibility.
Again, it is not the question
whether in predestination sin is taken into the account, for even Supralapsarians
admit that sin must precede condemnation; but the question is, whether
sin is in the Divine thought antecedent to condemnation, the real ground
of it, or only a providential means of executing the decree of reprobation
formed irrespective of it.
The question, further, is
not whether sin is the impulsive cause of predestination. All parties
are agreed that the distinction in the final states of men must be referred
to the sovereign pleasure of God; but the question is, whether sin must
not be presupposed as a quality in the objects of predestination; whether
it is not a state or condition in them, without which predestination could
not exist; whether sin must not be presupposed in order that a being may
be capable either of election or reprobation.
That the Sublapsarians are
right in their answers to these questions is apparent from several considerations:
(1.) The general impression
made by the other scheme is extremely revolting to our moral nature and
to our conceptions of the goodness and mercy of God. It represents
the universe as a vast clock of complicated machinery, wound up and set
to going for no other purpose but to strike throughout Eternity the dismal
sounds—Damnation and Glory! To these ends the hands point
upon the dial-plate of creation and Providence, and for these ends alone
God has stepped forth from the depths of His own immensity to create, to
order and to people worlds.
(2.) The Supralapsarians
proceed upon a hypothesis altogether groundless: What is last in execution
is first in intention. This is true only of things that stand related
directly as means and end. The man who constructs a particular kind
of plough has first in view the effect to be produced on the soil.
But in a co-ordinate series it does not hold. All men were not made
for the last man. Now, the works of God are manifold—each has its
independent sphere; and they are all connected by their common relation
to the Divine glory. Creation is one work, Redemption another.
(3.) That the creation and
fall are not means, but antecedent conditions, is plain from the nature
of the case. Sin is not in order to damnation, but damnation in order
(4.) The decree of Election
and Reprobation is unmeaning without the presupposition of sin. It
is an act without an object.
5. The true order of the
Decrees is—(l.) Creation; (2.) The Fall; (3.) Election; (4.) Redemption;
The New School order is—(l.)
Creation; (2.) Fall; (3.) Redemption; (4.) Election; (5.) Vocation.
III. TESTIMONIES TO SUBLAPSARIANISM
1. The Helvetic Confession,
Chapter X. Here the objects of election are said to be, "Sanctos; quos
vult salvos facere in Christo."
2. The Gallic Confession,
Section XII. The language is very explicit: Credimus ex hac corruptione
et damnatione universali, in qua omnes homines natura sunt submersi, Deum
alios quidem eripere, quos videlicet oeterno et immutabili suo consilio
sola sua bonitate et misericordia, nullo que operum ipsorum respectu, in
Jesu Christo elegit; alios vero in ea corruptione et damnatione relinquere,
in quibus nimirum juste suo tempore damnandis justitiam suam demonstret,
sicut in aliis divitias misericordioe suoe declarat.
3. The Anglican Confession,
Article XVII. They are chosen in Christ and to be delivered from
the curse of the Fall.
4. The Scotch Confession,
Section 8. The election is in Christ, and to grace and fraternity with
5. The Confession of Dort,
6. The Synod of Dort, Canons
VI. to XI.
IV. PREDESTINATION AS HELD BY SUBLAPSARIANS
Predestination, though sometimes
used in a wide sense as synonymous with decrees in general, is, for the
most part, restricted to the special decree concerning the final destiny
of men and angels. In this aspect it is subdivided according to the
nature of the destiny into Election and Reprobation. Election secures
the everlasting happiness, and Reprobation the everlasting misery of its
objects. Leaving angels out of view, we may resume the Scripture
doctrine of Predestination in relation to man under the following heads:
1. Man is viewed in the decree
as a fallen being. It is a purpose which contemplates him
under the character and in the condition of a lost sinner. He could
not be capable of election to life nor of reprobation to death unless he
were in a state which justly exposes him to the Divine displeasure and
to death. That cannot be found which is not lost, and that
cannot be saved which is in no danger. An election to salvation
or to deliverance from guilt and misery as necessarily presupposes guilt
and misery, in its objects as healing implies a disease or cooling implies
heat. The opposite theory, which makes the decree respect man not
as fallen nor even as existing, but only as capable of both, makes the
decree terminate upon an object which in relation to it is a nonentity.
It makes the decree involve a palpable contradiction—a purpose to save
what in the light of the decree is not lost, and is therefore not saveable.
Besides, that the Supralapsarians
have no object corresponding to the nature of the decree, their system
is liable to other and insurmountable objections:
(1.) It correlates things
as means and end which actually sustain no such relations. Creation
and the permission of the fall are made simply means for the execution
of the purpose of election and reprobation. They have taken place
of that purpose. The truth is, these are co-ordinate and not subordinate
works of God, and have their distinct and separate place in the Divine
plan as manifestations of the Divine glory. All God's works are correlated
to each as means for the expression of Himself. They all contain
some letters and syllables of His great Name, and it is because of this
relation to His glory that they all enter into the Divine decree.
(2.) The Supralapsarians,
by their arbitrary reduction of creation and the fall to the category of
means, really make sin the consequence of damnation and not its ground.
Man is not condemned because he sins, but sins that he may be condemned.
(3.) Providence is the explicit
manifestation of God's plan and counsels. Now in Providence we recognize
the fact of creation, therefore we say that God decreed to create; the
fact of the fall, therefore that God decreed to permit the fall; the fact
of redemption, therefore that God decreed to redeem. In Providence
these are connected not as means and end, but as successive
developments, or rather as furnishing the occasions and conditions of successive
developments of the Divine perfections. Creation glorified God in
its sphere; the moral administration under which the fall occurred glorified
Him in still another aspect of His being; and the fall furnished the occasion
upon which a still more illustrious exhibition might be made. Here
is a plan, a progressive plan, a plan in which each part prepares the way
for something beyond, but in which each part has its own special and independent
(4.) The only support of
this theory is a logical crotchet which will not bear examination.
What is last in the execution is first in the intention. The maxim
applies only to things connected as means and ends, but is not applicable
to a co-ordinate series, or to a series in which the preceding is only
a condition, but not the cause—a sine qua non, but not the ground—of the
(5.) The hypothesis is contrary
to the Scriptures. They uniformly represent calling as the expression
of election—the first articulate proof of it. But calling is from
a state of sin and misery. Therefore, election must refer to the
same condition. Historically, too, the doctrine has been developed
in the Church from the experience of grace, and so connects itself necessarily
with the transition from darkness to light. In so many words, we
are said to be chosen out of the world.
(6.) The most matured Confessions
of Faith represent election as presupposing sin and misery. The Gallican,
the English, the Belgic, the Synod of Dort, may all be
This, then, is the first
point. Man is contemplated in the decree of predestination as a fallen
2. The decree respecting
man thus conditioned is absolutely sovereign. It is grounded exclusively
in the good pleasure of God's will. It is not arbitrary and without
reasons, but the reasons are all drawn from God Himself, and not from the
creature. He chooses one and passes by another, not because one is
better or worse than another, but because such is His sovereign will.
Here we encounter the Arminians, who make election depend upon faith, and
reprobation upon impenitence among men—that is, men are chosen to life
or ordained to death under the formal consideration of being believers
or unbelievers. The ground of distinction is in the creature and
not the sovereign will of God. The Arminian hypothesis is refuted
by all those Scriptures which make faith, repentance and holiness the gifts
of God and the results or fruits of election.
3. The election is to everlasting
life and all the means of attaining it. It includes grace and glory.
It is not an election to external privileges, but to the heavenly inheritance.
If grace and glory are the end to which election looks, then election is
prior in the order of thought to the scheme of redemption, and is the moving
cause of its institution. Here we encounter a section of the orthodox,
who undertook to conciliate the Arminians by postulating a general purpose
of mercy to the whole race, in consequence of which Christ was given as
the Saviour of the world and made a redemption intended for all under the
condition of a true faith. According to this scheme, election is
posterior to the introduction of the Gospel, and instead of contemplating
man simply as fallen, contemplates him as perverse under the general
call. It comes in, not as the impulsive cause of saving redemption,
but as the means of saving redemption from being a failure. This
scheme is the one to which all the advocates of general and indefinite
atonement are logically driven. But it is contradicted by the whole
tenor of Scripture. The elect are said to be given to Christ to be
redeemed, not given as redeemed. Christ is distinctly affirmed
to be the fruit of election. He is the head of the election of grace.
Then again the whole doctrine of atonement must be given up in any just
and proper sense of the term.
4. Election is eternal.
This is admitted by all but Socinians. Others dispute about its nature
and grounds, but admit that whatever it is, it is an eternal purpose.
5. The order of the Divine
decrees according to these views is—(1.) Creation; (2.) Permission of the
Fall; (3.) Predestination; (4.) Redemption; (5.) Vocation.
According to the Supralapsarians—(l.)Predestination;
(2.) Creation ; (3.) Fall; (4.) Redemption; (5.) Vocation.
According to general atonement
Calvinists—(1.) Creation; (2.) Fall; (3.) Redemption; (4.) Predestination;
Under redemption here must
be included the general dispensation of mercy by the proposition of salvation.