Answering Your Question: Horrible Decree or Doctrine of Hope

October 24, 2014
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One of the criticisms of Calvinism and Reformed Theology is the “L”–Limited Atonement–in TULIP. It is commonly perceived as double predestination–that God chooses who is going to heaven and who is going to hell ahead of time. This makes God out to be arbitrary and cruel, and has led people to reject Calvinism as a system of belief, and also to reject Christianity. Can you address this issue?


Much to the chagrin of many a Reformed Christian, predestination and the related concept of election have been infamously identified with the Reformed tradition, and John Calvin in particular. Calvin himself recognized the difficulty of the doctrine, calling it the Decretum Horribile—the horrible decree. The misinterpretation and misuse of predestination has made God out to be an “arbitrary and cruel” Lordly dispenser of salvation to only the chosen few. The doctrine of election has prompted some to draw a line between the reprobate and the saved, speculating about which souls were “lost,” and setting up a hierarchy of value between the elect and non-elect. In light of this history of abuse, there is urgency to the question: To what extent is it helpful for twenty-first century Reformed Christians to endorse a theology of election? Is predestination simply a “horrible decree”? Or is it potentially a doctrine of hope?

Since Calvin is the foremost proponent of predestination, let’s begin with his explication. It’s important to pause here, however, and note that the sixteenth-century reformer was not the first to espouse the doctrine. As he lays out the intricacies of the teaching in his Institutes, Calvin cites the work of Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux as instructive sources for his theology. In addition to these resources, he, of course, draws his explication from Scripture (although his use of it is not without problems!). And, Calvin also appeals to his own experience as a source for the development of the doctrine. In regard to the latter, he wonders, “Why is it that some accept the gospel while others reject it?” The experience of this phenomenon—that some are open to God, and others seem closed off to the Spirit—causes “great and difficult questions spring up,” Calvin notes, “ explicable only when reverent minds regard as settled what they may suitably hold concerning election and predestination.”1

Calvin’s deep concern for the situation of Protestant refugees (of which he was one himself) was another factor that prompted his articulation of election. Calvin offers the doctrine as a source of hope and courage for those who experienced exile, separation from their families, torture, and even faced martyrdom for their Protestant faith. The assurance of God’s eternal election, Calvin claimed, inspires confidence and perseverance in those who face great difficulties in life. Situated within his soteriology, (“The Way we Receive the Grace of Christ”), predestination is connected to Christ’s protection of his people. Calvin urges, “And as Christ teaches, here is our only ground for firmness and confidence: in order to free us of all fear and render us victorious amid so many dangers, snares, and mortal struggles, he promises that whatever the Father has entrusted into his keeping will be safe.”2

A third practical concern of Calvin’s was also a pastoral one. As pastors throughout the centuries have observed, a great many people—especially those who face the end of life or the death of a loved one—experience inner turmoil and anxiety over their own eternal future. They wonder, “Will I have eternal life? Am I really saved?” We do not need to be troubled with this question, Calvin claims, because the answer lies not in us but in God. In other words, the conviction that God has chosen us before time takes the responsibility for our salvation ultimately off of us, and instead locates it in the actual source of our salvation—the sovereign God. God’s eternal election assures us of our salvation.

This makes clear another distinguishing feature of Calvin’s doctrine of election: its most basic theological premise is that the grace of God is behind all things. The purpose of the doctrine of election is to illumine the depth of God’s grace. “We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election.”3 And how deep and wide is God’s grace? Well, we all deserve death, Calvin claims, but some—and this is the sticking point—are chosen and are given the unwarranted and unparalleled gift of salvation. Although Calvin warned about speculating who is included among the chosen, his followers have largely ignored his injunction. Regrettably, the question of who is saved has led to all kinds of manipulation, abuse and, violence by and in the church.

Perhaps another constructive way of thinking through the issues of election and predestination is by way of Karl Barth’s claim that Christ is the Elect One through whom we are elected. Barth, the twentieth century’s foremost Reformed theologian, takes issue with Calvin’s interpretation of the Bible on this issue, arguing that any claim that God eternally decrees who is damned is unwarranted. If we want to uphold any sense of the duplexity of predestination, Barth claims, it should be centered on Christ, not humans. As Barth sees it, Christ is both the rejected and the elect. And, it is through his rejection and election that we are saved. This modern revision of predestination is helpful in a number of ways. First, there is no longer any division among humans regarding who is “in” and who is “out.” Rather, we are all sinners, who have been elected through Christ, the Elect One. Second, it opens up the possibility that salvation comes to those who seem, at least right now, to be closed off to the faith. Barth suggests, “Yet these transgressors are the ones on whose behalf the eternal love of God for Jesus Christ is willed and extended. They knew nothing of this love. They did not even desire it. But for His part the Elect who stands at the head of the rejected elects only the rejected.”4 What good news this is to those who feel rejected, manipulated, and abused! I wonder what kind of courage this doctrine can offer those who are refugees or feel exiled today? Does it offer perseverance in the face of struggles? Can it illumine the depth of God’s grace? Can we come to a renewed understanding of predestination as a doctrine of hope rather than a horrible decree?

About the Author
  • Monica Schaap Pierce is the Ecumenical Associate for the Reformed Church in America and a Ph.D. candidate and Teaching Fellow in Theology at Fordham University in New York City.

  1. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion John T. McNeill, ed. Ford Lewis Battles, Trans. (Westminister John Knox Press, 1996) 2.21.1 

  2. Institutes 2.21.1 

  3. Institutes 2.21.1 

  4. Karl Barth. Church Dogmatics II/2:123 

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  1. “Can we come to a renewed understanding of predestination as a doctrine of hope rather than a horrible decree?”

    In light of 1 Timothy 2:4, which states that God WILLS (not “hopes,” “desires,” or “wishes”) that ALL be saved, then we have perfect assurance to rest in His will being accomplished, some in life dying and entering into eternal light, and others, who have loved sin, entering into remedial chastisement to accomplish their repentance.

    What then of those verses which state that God has predestined some to to wrath. Calvin’s error was to take St. Paul’s statements and apply them to the whole of all humanity, based on Augustine’s erroneous anthropological understanding. It took me decades to come to understand that Paul is writing about the Jewish nation in Romans 9-11. He is speaking of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, the curse of covenant-breaking which was shortly to fall upon Jerusalem and over 1 million Jews. Paul’s hope and heart is for the repentance of his people, so much so that he would accept himself as cursed if it would save all Israel.

    In other words, the doctrine of election as found in the Sacred Scriptures refers specifically and only to the Jews alive at Paul’s time. Paul is speaking of “the elect” who would come to believe that Jesus the Christ was the anointed Messiah, and those who were not elect. The “elect” would avoid the destruction of Jerusalem – indeed, not one single Christian who was in Jerusalem failed to escape the city before the entirety of Titus’s armies wiped it off the map.

    What then was the cause of one’s election? Jesus Himself speaks of how the light of the Gospel had been hidden from the eyes of the Jewish leaders by the Father. And the reason for this – the Jews were stubborn in rejecting Christ and turning away from the miracles that attested to Him being Messiah. In other words, election was entirely based in this instance on the Jewish rejection of the light they were given. It had nothing to do with a “mysterious council of God from the ages.”

    And finally, St. Paul gives the glorious news that Calvinists seem to miss as they read the Bible (I understand this, having read the Bible myself as a Calvinist and having missed so much of what was really being said). Romans 11:26

    Rom 11:26 and so all Israel shall be saved, according as it hath been written, ‘There shall come forth out of Sion he who is delivering, and he shall turn away impiety from Jacob,

    This verse, along with others, assures us that the idea of “election unto damnation” is a false idea from a false teacher who left the corrupt Roman Catholic Church, but in doing so, threw out the baby with the bathwater theologically.