A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
It’s All Messed Up
February 7, 2019
Two weeks ago I entitled my weekly letter “It’s All Good,” noting that the original beauty and goodness of the created order is what prompts Presbyterians to respond reflexively as we do to the world around us. It leads us to welcome all regardless of their creed or condition, which is why Presbyterians are always at the forefront of ecumenical and interfaith relations. It also leads us to be on the vanguard of calls for protection of the vulnerable among us, as well as for the fragile earth entrusted to our care.
Yet Presbyterians also take with utmost seriousness the pervasive sinfulness of humanity. We are under no illusion about ourselves or others; we all are sinners in need of forgiveness, amendment, and redemption. (Romans 3:23) This is reflected in the nearly-universal Presbyterian practice of confessing our sin together in worship. We know that it is impossible to honor God’s sovereign majesty rightly if we fail to take our sin seriously.
We are a realistic people. We know we all are sinners, and expect nothing else from anyone. That realism gets expressed in our polity, where our wariness of the waywardness of both despots and masses leads us to a middle way of governance by wise, constrained representatives. We deny absolute power to any individual or group, insisting on a balance of powers because of our human inclination to favor ourselves above others.
Given the ubiquity of human sin, we may find ourselves wondering with Jesus’ disciples, “Then who then can be saved?” Jesus responds that it is impossible for us – but with God, “all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-26) Apart from God, we are without hope.
In the Reformed tradition, the good news of God choosing us for salvation and service despite our sinfulness is cast as the doctrine of “election.” God chooses us to be saints even while we are still sinners. (Romans 5:8) This is good news indeed! But our forebears also cast a dark side to a doctrine that ought to produce in us gratitude and joy. Instead, it has sometimes become a fountain of fear, as expressed in the doctrine of “double predestination,” which contends that if God has chosen some to be “elect,” God has thereby chosen others to be not elect. They called it divine “reprobation.” My, what a happy doctrinal heritage we have!
The Reformers who taught this, including John Calvin, did so because they thought it was the most faithful way of expressing what the Bible teaches. When Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he allotted but a few pages to predestination. It elicited enough pushback that with each subsequent edition he devoted it increasing attention as he responded to his many critics. By the time he published the final edition more than twenty years later, it had swelled into one of the lengthiest sections of all.
The doctrine of double predestination, despite its robust early expressions, has fared poorly among Presbyterians of later generations. Most Presbyterians today are unaware it’s part of their tradition. Even Calvin didn’t like the doctrine, calling it a “dreadful decree,” while remaining convinced that Scripture required him to affirm it. (Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.23.7)
Yet Calvin refused to grant us any grounds to label anyone as “reprobate” (and thus justify our breaking fellowship with them). In his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, Calvin’s Reformed DNA of generosity toward all others prevails. Commenting on “Our Father,” he considers the question of who we are praying with, as well as who we are praying to. The answer to the first question must be, “Those who belong to God’s family.” Or, one could say, all the “elect.” From its first word forward, the Lord’s Prayer directs us to pray in company with our brothers and sisters.
Who all does that include? For sure, it means praying with members of our church. But it goes further to include all who belong to the family of God. And since only God knows who are truly elect, we ought to treat as family not only those who seem Christian to us, but “all men who dwell on earth. For what God has determined concerning them is beyond our knowing except that it is no less godly than humane to wish and hope the best for them.” (Institutes 3.20.38)
Assume the best of everyone, sinful like us though they may be. Stand with them in prayer, even if they are not ready to do the same with us.
Recognizing the universality of sin in the human family leads us to realize the greater pervasiveness of God’s mercy to sinners, of whom we ought to consider our own selves foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15) Here lies something central to our DNA – a healthy humility and acknowledgment of our own sinfulness, coupled with a generosity to all others that depend on the same mercy upon which our own hope rests. It leads inevitably to hope. At our truest and best, Presbyterians are a people of unshakable hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Yours in shared hope,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister