Sweet, Pleasant, and Unspeakable Comfort: The Anglican View of Predestination (Part IV)

The classical Anglican teaching on election is beautiful and comforting because it teaches us that we are the chosen of God, saved by the blood of the cross through the grace that we receive by faith in Jesus Christ. God is the one who saves us. It is not dependent on us at all, not on our actions or our intentions. Scripture is silent about those who are not chosen, but the promise that God makes in Jesus Christ He makes to all people, dying for all people, because He loves all people. Nevertheless, when we come to faith in Christ, we can rest in the promise that we were elected to salvation by God before the foundations of the world. We do not have to fear that we will not be able to work hard enough to be saved, to act righteously enough to be saved, or even to have a strong enough faith to be saved. Faith itself is a gift that God gives to His elect. It is all a gift that He gives to us, free of charge, expecting nothing from us in return. It is total, pure love.

How Can We Know?

So election is clearly a wonderful thing, and to know you are elect is to rest assured of God’s mercy towards you, but how can you know that you are elect? According to Holy Scripture, there is a sure and certain means for knowing, and it does not require you to read the tea leaves of your heart in search of some sign that you have become the super apostle you always knew you could be. It is an objective assurance, wholly independent of you and your actions, that is completely verifiable, and it comes directly from Our Lord. “Make disciples of all nations,” says Jesus, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). If you want to know whether you are elect, all you need to know is whether or not you have been baptized.

This is, of course, a scandalous teaching to those who have come to view Baptism merely as a human work done to show honor to God, but Scripture is clear that Baptism is much more. In fact, Scripture tells us, quite literally, that “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism is not a human work. Baptism is a holy mystery–a sacrament–in which we become united with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14). When we are baptized, we receive the Holy Spirit. The grace of the cross is poured out upon us, forgiving our sins and making us one with Christ. We are joined to Him by a sacred, irrevocable bond. We are regenerated, given the new life of Christ to replace the old life that was terminally poisoned by sin. As the 1979 BCP puts it, we are “marked as Christ’s own forever.” Or better yet, as Mark 16:16 puts it, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” Not might be saved. Not has the potential to be saved. Will be saved. If you are baptized, you are among the elect of God.

Anglican Teaching on Baptism

That this is the teaching of Scripture is apparent. That it is also the teaching of classical Anglicanism is equally apparent, given the structure of the classical baptismal liturgy. As the priest is about to baptize a person, he blesses the water to sanctify it “for the mystical washing away of sin” and then prays that in this washing the person to be baptized will “receive the fulness of thy grace, and ever remain in the number of thy faithful and elect children.” In 1662, when the liturgy was split into separate versions for infants and for “those of riper years,” this prayer was retained in both places, indicating that even infants who could not make any sort of declaration for themselves were nevertheless recognized to be elect post Baptism.

Immediately after the priest baptizes a person and makes the sign of the cross upon his or her forehead, the priest says the following (with my emphasis added):

SEEING now, dearly beloved brethren, that these persons are regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits, and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that they may lead the rest of their life according to this beginning.

There is no question, at least within the confines of the rite itself, that the person who has been baptized has been regenerated by Christ. This again is the same for infants as for adults. Baptism is not something we accomplish for ourselves, nor is it an empty sign which simply shows God your intention to be faithful, but it is rather a divine act through which God grants to us the grace of the cross. It is Christ’s work to save us made manifest in our lives.

This in no way invalidates the teaching that our justification comes to us through faith alone. Rather, this is the fruition and logical extension of that same teaching. Faith is not a work that we perform. It is the trust that we have in Christ that is given to us by God. Baptism is where we receive the grace that allows us to have faith in Christ. Understood in this way, there is no reason why infants cannot have the same kind of saving faith as adults. Faith is not an intellectual process. It is a response to grace freely given.

Falling Away

Baptism is the mark of our election. It is an objective sign, independent of us, that God has chosen us and will never abandon us. Yet there are many people who are baptized who reject the Christian faith. How can this be? Doesn’t this violate the promise? Not at all. God does not abandon those whom He has chosen. A person who has been baptized has already been given the saving grace of Jesus Christ, even if that person walks away from the faith. Nevertheless, if a person rejects that grace, they effectively reject their election. This does not mean that God has abandoned them. Far from it! They have, however, chosen to abandon God. There is no work that you can do to earn your salvation. It is given to you absolutely freely by God. The only work you can choose to do, if you wish, is to reject the free gift that you have been given. We are not required to say “yes” to God or to cast a vote in favor of our own salvation. If we want to cast a vote at all, the only one available to us is “no.” We are either the passive recipients of God’s saving grace or we actively reject it.

While this way of understanding election leaves a great deal unexplained, it does accord with the teaching of Scripture and the Church. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the seeds, indicating that there are some who will fall away. In Hebrews 6, we hear about how difficult, even impossible, it is to be returned to repentance if you have “fallen away.” And throughout the New Testament, there is language about perseverance and following the course to the end. None of this makes any sense if it is impossible for a person to reject the grace given in election.

Don’t Worry, Be Baptized

Nevertheless, election remains a comfort, because we can know for sure that it has been given to us simply by knowing that we have been baptized. We need not worry that our faith is insufficient. The only way to reject the promises given to us in Baptism is to reject them outright, to literally say, “No, God, I will have nothing to do with you.” The very fact that you are worried about the insufficiency of your faith is likely a sign that you have been given saving faith. And if you are worried about your children, the best comfort you can have is in their baptism. Do not worry that you will screw your kids up by not teaching them the faith adequately–you will screw them up by teaching the faith inadequately. But their salvation is not up to you, it is up to God, and if you have had your children baptized then you can rest assured that the promises of Christ have been delivered to them, no matter how imperfect your parenting may be.

Rejoice, friends! Rejoice to know that you are a beloved child of God who has received His promises of mercy and forgiveness! Properly understood, election and predestination are nothing more than the blessed assurance of the Gospel. Jesus Christ died for you, His grace is available to you, and you can know for certain that you have received it. I cannot imagine a greater comfort than that.

Photo at top of Bishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt baptizing an infant taken from here.

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2 Responses to Sweet, Pleasant, and Unspeakable Comfort: The Anglican View of Predestination (Part IV)

  1. Whit says:

    It’s interesting that the right Rev. Dr. Anis appears to be immersing the infant rather than sprinkling him. I wonder if that’s his own personal custom or that of the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Was Egypt SPG rather than CMS? I had always understood immersion of infants to be an old-high-church thing.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Isn’t that fascinating? I sort of wonder about it myself, and I’m not sure which missionary group founded the Church in Egypt. I would guess that the prevalence of Coptic Christianity has something to do with it though. Notice the head covering on the woman next to the font as well.

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