Ralph Wardlaw (1779-1853) on Supralapsarianism

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in God who Ordains


(3.) We must repeat it, amongst our important general principles, necessary to the full clearing of our way, that predestination ought, in strict propriety, to be regarded as relating to one side only of the alternative of life or death. The sovereign right of God to bestow His favors on whom He will among the universally undeserving, we have seen to be unequivocally affirmed in the portion of God’s word already considered.1 Predestination to life is an act of sovereignty infinitely honorable to every attribute of the divine character and every principle of the divine government. But predestination to death, if the phrase be admissible at all (and I own my dislike to it), can mean no more than the published determination of the Supreme and Righteous Governor to punish transgressors for their sins. Now sovereignty has nothing to do with this. It comes under the category of equity. It has no freedom of selection. It proceeds in every case on the principle of desert, and bears to the desert a scrupulously just proportion. Sovereignty is the supreme right to do whatever is not inconsistent with equity. It has, therefore, and can have, no application to punishment. " The punishment of the guilty is not an object of divine sovereignty. To punish the guilty is the office of equity, which gives to all their due. For mercy to punish, or justice to confer undeserved favour, is discordant in thought and language; but not more so than sovereign punishment, without assuming another meaning of the term, or disputing about words. In brief, as equity never disapproves of any creature, especially a moral agent, where there is nothing wrong or no desert, so divine sovereignty is in no case displayed but for the welfare of its objects. In proportion as any creature has no equitable claim upon God, all he is and possesses, that may be denominated good, must be the effect of sovereignty."2 The Bishop of Lincoln (Tomlin) lays down the following extraordinary position: "It is not denied that God had a right, founded on the incontrovertible will of the Creator over His creatures, to consign the far greater part of men to eternal misery, and to bestow eternal happiness on a select few, although there was in themselves no ground whatever for such distinction. But the question is, whether such conduct would have been consistent with the principles of infinite justice and of infinite mercy."3 I have called this an extraordinary position; and from such a quarter most extraordinary it is ; the abhorrer and refuter of Calvinism asserting what Dr. Williams justly denominates "the most exceptionable part of hyper-Calvinism." " That must be a very anomalous and strange kind of right," observes Dr. Williams,

which is not consistent with infinite justice. If men were consigned to eternal misery without desert, and this founded in right, what is it but saying that the Creator had a right to be unjust? But if men so consigned deserved it by previous delinquency, how could it be inconsistent with justice? Is it not of the essence of justice to give every one his due ? To ascribe to the Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor of His creatures a right, an arbitrary right of conferring benefits upon them beyond their due, is infinitely worthy of Him; but to ascribe to Him the same right to render the undeserving miserable is to offer Him ‘a compliment which He must needs reject with infinite disdain; a right to be unjust, were He not infinitely just, wise, and merciful!4

It is manifest that right without justice cannot possess even an abstract existence, an existence in imagination itself; for it is a flat and irreconcilable contradiction in terms. It is a right to do wrong. Power without right, experience, alas! teaches us, is sadly capable of much more than an imaginary existence amongst men ; but it cannot, any more than the other, have any place in the Infinite Jehovah. The following paragraph gives a fair and succinct view of the nature of the doctrine: "What we maintain is, that all mankind are in a state of guilt and sinful imbecility; that God foresaw this from eternity; that He therefore predestinated an adequate remedy in the sacrifice of Christ; that this should be announced to men as commensurate to the evil. We further maintain that there was not in the present state of man any ground of certainty that any one, without preventing gracious influence, would avail himself of the proposed remedy; and, therefore, that God predestinated, under the direction of infinite wisdom, to influence the hearts of some, i.e., those who are finally glorified, to repent, believe, obey, and persevere in a holy course, as the way to everlasting happiness. Heaven is the end, but holy obedience is the way to it. We hold no predestination that separates the end and the means. We do not presume to conjecture a priori who are predestinated to eternal life, but rather infer, from the imbecility of man, that if any one is penitent, faithful, diligent, persevering, and finally glorified, these great events are from the special and distinguishing energy of God ; and that whatever He does in time He purposed to do from eternity." "This is our predestination."5

I am anxious, in the outset, to remove out of the way of our argument the impression that predestination to life necessarily involves, as its counterpart, predestination to death, that I may not be obliged to recur to this point again, as forming the first and leading objection to our doctrine. The two have been regarded as inseparable; and objectors, in directing their arguments against the latter, have considered themselves as effectually overthrowing the former. Thus: "There is no possibility of asserting the one of these decrees without owning the other also; and so, whatever arguments hold good against an absolute decree of reprobation must certainly destroy the opposite decree of absolute election."6 Thus: "If reprobation be unfounded, which some modern Calvinists allow, it follows, upon their own principles, that election also is unfounded; since the latter cannot exist without the former."7

There has been too much ground given by Calvin himself, and by Calvinists generally, for this representation. Their modes of expression have at times been inconsiderate and revolting. Now it is evident that non-election is something merely negative, not properly the subject of positive decree. The choice is to life. They who are not chosen are merely left to the power and to the punishment of their sins. And in this sense after all, however improper their expressions may occasionally have been, do most Calvinists, when they oppose a decree of reprobation or preterition to a decree of election, seem, when they explain themselves, to understand their own words. While they consider the decree as consisting of two branches, election and reprobation, they describe the latter of the two in such terms as these: "That, according to His sovereign power, and the unsearchable counsel of His will, He hath passed by and foreordained the rest" (i.e., the non-elect) "to dishonor and wrath, to be for their sin inflicted, to the praise of the glory of His justice."8 What, then, is this reprobation more than the righteous and declared determination of God to punish unrepented and unforsaken sin? Might He not have acted on this principle as to all? Assuredly He might. When He chooses some, then, to life, this sovereign purpose of grace makes no alteration with regard to the rest. There is no more of positive decree respecting them than if none had been chosen, than if others as well as they had been left to perish.

This is the proper place for a very brief notice of the difference between what has, in systematic theology, been termed supralapsarianism and sublapsarianism. The designations convey the distinction clearly enough when the subject on which they are used is understood. The supralapsarian holding, if he properly understands his designation, that God, in His decrees, regarded men as creatures antecedently to their fall; the sublapsarian that He regarded them as sinners subsequently to their fall. The former consider God as having, previously to creation, determined to glorify His infinite perfections, that is, to give a display of them in their infinite extent and variety; and as having, in order to this, purposed to create man, purposed his fall, purposed the recovery of some, and the damnation of others the former simply for the sake of manifesting His mercy, and the latter of making known His justice. In short, that the whole scheme, in all its parts, both of blessing and of curse, was a sovereign determination of God to glorify Himself in these different ways in the creatures, whom He is conceived to have purposed to make for these respective ends, and to glorify Himself especially in the manifestation of His absolute and uncontrollable dominion, as having a supreme right to do what He will with the work of His hands. The supralapsarian, therefore, would, if consistent, apply the apostle’s illustration from the potter and the clay to the sovereign right of God to make creatures for whatever ends He pleases. His system including a decree of reprobation regarding men as creatures rather than as sinners: only that it is through the intermediate step of a purposed fall. It seems to assume a kind of sovereign love and sovereign hatred of creatures as such a distinction made in the sovereignty of God between them in this capacity alone. The sublapsarian, again, conceives of God in His purposes relative to the salvation of men as regarding them in their fallen state, as designing to glorify His mercy in the recovery of those of the fallen race who have been chosen by Him to life, and His justice in the condemnation and punishment of the rest; and, at the same time, His sovereignty in saving any when He might have left all to perish. The terms of the supralapsarian hypothesis are exceedingly revolting, and express ideas relative to divine sovereignty which would effectually rob our minds of every feeling of satisfaction or complacency in the divine procedure. Each party, however, has refused the legitimacy of consequences deduced from their respective schemes; and in the refusal of them, and in their mutual qualifications, explanations, and concessions, have come much nearer to each other in reality than they are in words (a case far from uncommon in the melancholy history of the heresies and controversies of the church). Most heartily do we concur with Dr. Ridgely when he says, speaking of the supralapsarians:

I cannot approve of any thing advanced by them which seems to represent God as purposing to create man, and then to suffer him to fall, as a means by which He designed to demonstrate the glory of His vindictive justice; which hath given occasion to many to entertain rooted prejudices against the doctrine of predestination, as though it necessarily involved in it this supposition, that God made man to damn him.

Ralph Wardlaw, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1857), 2:517-523. [Some spelling modernized; some reformatting; footnote values modified; and underlining mine.]


1Rom. ix.

2Dr. Williams’s Essay, etc., 2d Ed. pp. 126, 127.

3Refut. of Calvinism, pp. 258, 259, quoted by Williams, 2d Ed. pp. 200, 201.

4Defense of Mod. Calv. pp. 201, 202.

5Dr. Williams, ut supra.


7Tomlin’s Refut. of Calv. 255, 256.

8Bidgely’s Body of Divinity, vol. i. p. 387.

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