The Presbyterian denomination derives its name from its form of church polity in which elected lay leaders, or presbyters, govern along with ordained ministers. The faith tradition draws much of its theology from the teaching of the 16-century church reformer John Calvin. Calvin outlined his beliefs in a work entitled "The Institutes of the Christian Religion," which emphasized the authority of scripture, the majesty of God and embraced the doctrine of predestination.
The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms
Most Presbyterian bodies embrace as essential the doctrines outlined in three 17th-century confessional statements: the “Westminster Larger Catechism”, the “Westminster Shorter Catechism” and the “Westminster Confession of Faith”, all of which draw extensively from John Calvin's work. Each of these texts proclaim that, before creation, God predestined a select number of human beings to respond to his grace and receive eternal salvation. As the “Westminster Confession of Faith” states, “all those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed time, effectually to call, by his word and spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ.”
Justification by Grace
For Presbyterians, the doctrine of predestination is an important component to this denomination's idea of justification by grace alone. John Calvin stressed the idea that the sinner could not achieve salvation or earn God's favor through good works, receiving the sacraments or buying indulgences. Instead, he believed that salvation was a free and undeserved gift imparted by God to the sinner. Additionally, Calvin maintained that, as a result of the Fall, the sinner has no capacity to turn towards righteousness and turn away from wrongdoing apart from God's intervention. Calvinist theologians sometimes refer to this concept as the total depravity of humankind.
Presbyterians vigorously uphold the ultimate sovereignty of God as a central tenet of their faith and assert that the notion of predestination fortifies this doctrine. According to Calvin, salvation is solely the result of God's agency and action and human beings take no part in it other than to receive God's grace. This view supports the idea that God's sovereign will alone determines everything that happens. Additionally, Presbyterians take comfort in the belief that, since salvation is entirely unearned and an act of God, there is nothing that the believer can do to lose it.
The Problem of Double Predestination
If, as the doctrine of predestination states, God actively chooses before creation those he intends to offer his grace, it opens up the possibility that God also chooses those he intends to condemn. Theologians refer to this dilemma as double predestination or reprobation. Some segments of the denomination, such as the United Presbyterian Church, find the idea that God actively or by default condemns human beings to death at odds with the image of a loving and merciful God presented in the Bible. Other branches, such as the Presbyterian Church in America, embrace the idea. However, most would affirm that God's choices are not based on human virtue and that his purposes for the non-elect cannot be known.
- Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics: Westminster Shorter Catechism
- Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics: Westminster Longer Catechism
- Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics: Westminster Confession of Faith: Of Effectual Calling
- PCA Historical Center: What Presbyterians Believe
- Presbyterian Mission Board: What Do Presbyterians Believe About Predestination?
- Highland Presbyterian Church: What Presbyterians Believe About Predestination
- Patheos Library: Presbyterian and Reformed
- Encyclopedia of American Religions, J. Gordon Melton
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