A Rebuttal to George M. Ella’s “John Gill and Justification from Eternity”

On this site, I have posted a talk by George M. Ella titled “John Gill and Justification from Eternity.” The talk is of historical interest in showing the position of John Gill on this subject. I want to be clear, however, that I do not agree that justification from eternity as taught by John Gill and defended by Dr. Ella is taught in the Bible. Another defender of this theory is Peter L. Meney, who has written an article called “Ten Arguments for Justification from Eternity” (December/January 2007 New Focus, also available here). The present article also serves as a rebuttal to Mr. Meney, whose article I will occasionally reference, although most references to John Gill’s and George Ella’s arguments also apply to Mr. Meney’s. I also want to make clear here that, in rebutting justification from eternity as taught by Gill and explained by Ella, I am not necessarily defending the people Dr. Ella argues against, such as John Murray and Andrew Fuller. Neither am I condemning Dr. Ella or Mr. Meney. I am, instead, trying to defend what the Scripture teaches. But before discussing Scripture, I want to have a brief philosophical discussion. I hope the reason for this will become apparent.

A Philosophical Discussion of Time and Eternity

Dr. Ella, following John Gill, wants us to believe that we have been justified from eternity. Peter Meney also seems to be following Gill’s arguments, although he does not state this. I hope to prove in this article that what Gill, Ella, and Meney teach concerning justification from eternity contradicts what Scripture teaches about our justification. But, is there ANY way in which we can speak of justification in eternity that does not contradict Scripture? Well, perhaps. I am certainly not going to be dogmatic about the philosophical part of this discussion, but I don’t believe it disagrees with Scripture.

What is eternity?

First, we must try to understand eternity. We often read or hear people say something like, Back in eternity, or, We are elect from eternity, or, We are justified from eternity. But this, I believe, is misleading. Eternity is not, as we often hear, eternity past. We also sometimes hear the phrase, eternity future. But these terms contradict the meaning of eternity.

Eternity is not the distant past before the Creation or the distant future when the universe will be changed. Time is not a parenthesis in eternity. Eternity is timeless. God is in eternity, and eternity is outside of time. It is better to talk of in eternity, elect in eternity, justified in eternity.

What is time?

Next, we must understand time. Time is a creation. God created time. Being in eternity, God is not at all limited by time. Time being His creation, God can see all of time while He remains in eternity. A very rough analogy would be a DVD. The movie on the DVD might take 90 minutes to play. But I can hold the DVD in my hand and see the DVD all at once. Only with God, He would see the actual movie, not just the disk, all at once. Not only that, but He created the movie. In other words, God created time and everything that takes place in it. He determined every bit of it from the movement of the least particle of an atom to the courses of the galaxies. He has created it all to work logically to an end, as you might reach a goal by first setting your goal and planning your steps back to get there.

In God’s creation of time, if you are a Christian, God has determined that you will be glorified. To be glorified, He has determined that you will be saved. To be saved, He has determined that you will be justified. To be justified, He has determined to give you faith in the death and resurrection of His Son for your sins. He has determined that you will be regenerated, that you will be a sinner, and He has determined that you will be physically born. Naturally, He has also determined that His Son must die for your sins and be resurrected, and He has determined His incarnation. He has also determined that Adam and Eve will sin and that their offspring will inherit that sin and sinfulness. And so on, and including much more detail in between. It is God’s determination of you as one of those who will be glorified that makes you elect.

As He has determined all of time, it is all in His mind. As a creation, He can see it all. Therefore, you are justified in eternity. But in eternity, you are also regenerated; in eternity, you are still in your sins; in eternity, you are not yet born; in eternity, you are dead. In eternity, all is present.

So, are you justified in eternity (not from eternity)? Yes. But why speak of it this way? It is one of countless events in time that God has determined, has in His mind, and sees in eternity. Why single out this one? All time is present in God’s mind as a creation in eternity. Since everything is similarly in eternity, it has no real meaning for us, except for us to rest assured that God knows the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and is working all things for our good (Romans 8:28).

Speaking of justification from eternity distorts our understanding of justification

In fact, to speak of justification from eternity, as some theologians have and do, can distort our understanding of justification. It makes us think of justification as something peculiarly in eternity in a way that other things in time are not. Although, in eternity, God decrees and sees our justification, what He sees and decrees is an event in time that takes place when we exercise the gift of faith. The doctrine of justification from eternity causes us to see our justification as taking place in eternity so that we might assume we are justified prior in time to our exercising faith. But this simply is not so and is a gross distortion of the Gospel message and the ordo salutis, or logical sequence of events in salvation. For this reason, the Bible never speaks of our justification as from eternity.

Some objections

Some objections to my arguments: Dr. Ella makes the point that just as God decreed “let there be light: and there was light,” so God’s decree to justify is justification. God’s decree to do something is its doing. The problem with this reasoning is that God’s decree to justify is a decree to justify upon the exercising of the gift of saving faith in time. So, yes, God decreed, Let John Jones be justified. And, in time, John Jones is justified. In fact, God’s decree that there would be light is the same. His decree is in eternity, but He spoke it in time, and in time there was light.

Another objection concerns election. Ephesians 1:4 says, “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” Does this not show election as a prior event to the Creation? My answer is that this verse shows election as logically prior to the Creation. In God’s mind, God decreed that John Jones would be glorified. For John Jones to be glorified, God had to decree the entire Creation and all events in it. So, John Jones’ election is logically prior to the foundation of the world. Election is rightly spoken of this way, as opposed to justification, because election is God’s determination to save. God’s decree to glorify John Jones is John Jones election. Election is not an event in time. But justification is one of the means by which God accomplishes John Jones’ glorification, and is an event in time. Therefore, we should not speak of justification from eternity.

Another objection is that Revelation 13:8 says, “And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Isn’t Jesus’ death an event in time, so why is it spoken of as from the foundation of the world? Well, Revelation 13:8 more probably says, “And all dwelling on the earth will worship it, those whose names have not been written from the foundation of the world in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain.” This is actually the preferable translation of the Greek and its use of “Lamb slain” perfectly agrees with the use of that term in Revelation 5:6 and 12, where there is no mention of Him being slain from the foundation of the world. Being written in the book of life from the foundation of the world is another way of speaking of election, which, as I explain above, is rightly spoken of this way. The Lamb, Christ, was slain at a particular point in time. As Jesus said, “The hour [time] has come that the Son of Man should be glorified.”

Now let’s take a more detailed look at Dr. Ella’s talk and examine the pertinent Scriptures.

Copyright © 2009 Peter Ditzel