The issue of the order of the decrees of God has been an issue for Reformed folks since the very first generation of reformers. Throughout the Reformed tradition, infralapsarianism has been the dominant position with supralapsarianism being in the minority. While a seemingly unimportant debate, I believe that the logical order of the decrees of God raise serious soteriological issues and bear on how we, as Christians, are to respond to the problem of evil. For the Reformed person, it is obvious that God elects some people to be saved. That point is not in contention. What is in contention is the order in which the elective decree comes and the extent of divine election. These issues are discussed at length in Romans 9, but we will content ourselves to look at the chapter briefly in order to offer an initial defense. Let us begin:
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10-13 ESV)
Here we should take note of some important points.
- Jacob and Esau had not yet done good or bad
- God decreed this in this manner so that “His purpose in election might continue”
- This was done to take away the ground of works as being the basis for obtaining God’s mercy
The first bullet is the most important. God, before the twins had done good or evil (surely Paul would also exclude them here from having the fallen nature inherited from Adam as we have all fallen through and participated in the sin of Adam [Romans 5:12]), selected the one who would serve and the one who would be served, or the one He loved and the one He hated. This was done on the basis of God’s elective decree. We can be sure that those God loves (His elect) will be saved and those God hates (reprobates) will be punished. Paul then goes on to respond to his potential objector.
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:14-18 ESV)
The answer here is simple: God will have mercy on whomever He chooses and He will harden whomever He chooses. How could God freely show mercy and freely harden if God’s decree of election logically proceeds His decree of the Fall, where all men are already rebel sinners who have hardened their hearts against God? God may decide to show mercy to some, but this is simply a theology of divine acceptance, not one of divine election as laid out in the previous passages of Scripture. Paul goes on to say:
Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— (Romans 9:21-23 ESV)
Here we have a rhetorical question on the part of the Apostle. Doesn’t God have the right to make, from the same lump, vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy? The question for the infralapsarian becomes this: How could God make vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy from the same lump if election proceeds the fall, where all are vessels of wrath? Infralapsarians must answer with a consistent interpretation of Romans 9 in order to even begin to get their case off the ground.