Some opponents of Reformed theology argue that the doctrine of election produces unfeeling and fatalistic preachers: “If God has already chosen who will believe, what’s the point in preaching passionate and persuasive evangelistic sermons?”
However, although that’s (usually) an unfair caricature of Reformed truth, there’s no question that Reformed pastors sometimes have to counsel people who will say something like, “But if I’m not in the elect, there’s no point in believing in Christ. If my name’s not written in the Book of Life, then all my believing is in vain.” Some of those will be simply using election to excuse their inaction. However, others are genuinely concerned and confused.
Ralph Erskine deals with this pastoral challenge in his sermon on Isaiah 53v6: “I will give you for a covenant to the people” [Works, Vol 1, 128]. After some words on the covenant in general, Erskine shows how Christ is the covenant of the people, and then asks: “For whose benefit is He a covenant?”
Erskine is at pains to emphasize that “whosoever of all the people will subscribe to this covenant, and go into it by faith, shall have the everlasting benefit of it.” Then, as was commonly done in his day, he imagines a hearer asking, “But if I am not among the elect whose names are in that covenant, then surely my subscribing of it will be in vain.”
It’s here that Erskine provides wise and helpful guidelines for pastors to follow in counseling such anxious souls:
1. There are two copies of this covenant, two writs of this charter: the original and an extract.
2. The original is in heaven and contains all the names of all the elect that ever were, are, or shall be (Eph. 1:4). This original is locked up in the cabinet of God’s secret purpose and is marked “For God’s eyes only” (Deut. 29:29).
3. The extract is in the Bible, which God has revealed and put in your hands. “This copy of the covenant is sent open to you all to sign and subscribe, by giving faith’s assent and consent to the covenant of the people, Christ, as he is offered in the Gospel.”
4. In order to gather in the elect and to leave all others inexcusable, this faithful extract is “directed to all, and every one of you, giving you full and sufficient warrant to sign and subscribe for yourselves.” Christ is “a covenant of the people” as it is put in the verse.
5. You cannot possibly “see” your name in the original, till you have signed your consent to the copy which has been let down to earth.
6. If you sign the extract, then you may lay claim to the original, and “see” your name there (by “seeing” Erskine is referring to assurance of faith).
7. Although some who, by faith, subscribe the extract copy, are kept in the dark about their names being in the original, yet none shall “see” their names there (the original), but those who subscribe their names here (the extract).
I think Erskine does a great job here of balancing God’s sovereignty with human responsibility, and also of illustrating a difficult concept with a memorable image. I especially like the way that he leaves hearers without excuse, yet also inspires and motivates faith in Christ.
The Works of Ralph Erskine, Vol. 1, (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1991), 128-197. See especially pages 142-143.
If you can substitute “s” for “f” you’ll enjoy reading the sermon online here. See especially pages 189-191.