In this series of posts on the Thirty-nine Articles, we are thinking about salvation. We have seen that we are saved by grace, not because of anything we have done (Articles 9-14). But what happens next? What will the Christian life look like? That is (very broadly) the theme of Articles 15-18.
15. Of Christ alone without Sin
Christ in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
The main point here seems to come at the end. After conversion, should we expect to live sinless lives? No, because ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1 John 1:8). Jesus was sinless in his earthly life, but the same is not true for us. As Gerald Bray explains, ‘Our sins are taken away, not in the sense that we become sinless in the way that Jesus was, but in the sense that they no longer stand as a barrier blocking our access to God. We go on being sinners and therefore we go on sinning’ (Bray, 85).
16. Of Sin after Baptism
Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.
Article 16 follows straightforwardly from Article 15. If Christians continue to be sinners, then there must be the opportunity for repentance and restoration for sins committed after baptism.
OK, deep breath…
17. Of Predestination and Election
Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.
As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfal, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.
Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.
Predestination goes hand in hand with justification by faith. If, as Article 11 puts it, ‘We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings’, then if person A attains everlasting life but person B does not, that cannot be because person A deserved it more than person B. But it must be because God, ‘by his counsel secret to us’, decreed that his grace and salvation should reach person A, and did not decree that his grace and salvation should reach person B. The alternative, it seems, is that person A should have some reason to boast before God, and to feel superior to person B. But this is a horrible idea. In eternity, a believer will look back on their life, their conversion, and all the good works they have done as a believer, and say to God, ‘Thank you for all you have done for me, not because I deserved anything, but despite the fact that I didn’t deserve anything.’
If the first paragraph of Article 17 expresses the doctrine of predestination, the second paragraph describes the uses (and misuses) of the doctrine, and the third paragraph cautions about the limits of the doctrine.
What then are the uses of the doctrine of predestination? The answer to this explains why Article 17 comes after the articles about justification, and not before them. The doctrine of predestination is helpful after someone has believed, but it can very easily be misunderstood before someone has believed. When speaking to unbelievers, it is the doctrine of justification by faith that is most helpful. Whoever you are, and whatever you have done, if you put your trust in Christ, you will be forgiven, and you will be welcomed into God’s family. To bring in the doctrine of predestination at this point is unlikely to be helpful. However, after someone has put their trust in Christ, the doctrine of predestination is ‘of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort’, because it says that, when you see fruit in your Christian life, ‘it is God who works in you’, and therefore you can be confident that ‘he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 2:13; 1:6, NIV).
The final paragraph warns against unbridled speculation about predestination. In fact, although Article 17 is quite lengthy, it is actually very modest in what it says about the doctrine.
18. Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ
They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.
Article 18 is, it seems, ‘even more relevant to us today than it was in the sixteenth century’ (Bray, 101). As Bray puts it, ‘Christians are not morally superior to anyone else – we are sinners saved by grace, after all – but we do know the truth, and the truth has set us free. To fail to say this, and to accept other beliefs as equivalent to ours, is to deny the truth and leave those who have not accepted it in bondage’ (Bray, 103).
This concludes the sections of the Articles about God, Scripture, and salvation; next we move on to consider the church, its ministry, and the sacraments.