The Reformed doctrine of preterition says that God elects some people to salvation and leaves the rest of humanity in their fallen condition. The word preterition means “passing over” and, in the context of theology, “omission from God’s elect.” The word implies that God chose to “pass over” some people and save others. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches preterition: “The rest of mankind [not the elect] God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His Sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice” (Chapter III — Article VII).
Quite simply, preterition says that some people are not chosen for salvation. Preterition is the flip side of predestination. The doctrine of predestination emphasizes the positive aspect of election—some are chosen for heaven. The doctrine of preterition emphasizes the negative aspect of the same doctrine—some are not chosen. It is a logical doctrine. Since not everyone goes to heaven, there must be some who are not elected. Those who are not elected for salvation must perforce be “passed over” in the choosing. If preterition were false, then everyone would be in heaven and no one would be in hell.
It is important to differentiate preterition from double predestination. Double predestination teaches that God proactively elects some to heaven and proactively elects some to hell—it is a balanced predestination in that God is as equally active in choosing people for hell as He is in choosing people for heaven. The problem is that double predestination is not taught in Scripture. The Bible nowhere says that God “elects” people to go to hell; the only election mentioned in the Bible is that which sends people to heaven. Preterition, in contrast, teaches that God actively elects some to heaven and passively allows others to remain in their sin—it is an unbalanced predestination in that God is active toward some and inactive toward others. The doctrine of preterition is careful not to go beyond what the Bible teaches about predestination.
The doctrine of preterition seeks to preserve God’s justice while upholding His sovereignty in election. Since mankind chose to rebel in Eden (and continues to choose to sin), their condemnation is perfectly just. Everyone “stands condemned already” (John 3:18). God cannot be accused of injustice simply because He “passes by” a condemned person and leaves him to the punishment he deserves any more than a governor who “passes by” the last-minute appeal of a death-row inmate and declines to commute the just sentence.
The Bible is clear that God elects or chooses the saved (John 6:37; Romans 9:10–13; Titus 1:1). The dispute over election centers on the basis for it: is election based on God’s foreknowledge of who will respond to the gospel, or is it based solely on God’s sovereign extension of mercy? The relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will has been debated ad infinitum for centuries. The fact is that the Bible teaches God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and mercy in salvation (John 15:16); and it also teaches man’s responsibility to repent and believe (Mark 1:15). We should ultimately be okay with not fully understanding every nuance of God’s work, in the knowledge that His thoughts and ways are infinitely higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8–9).
The doctrine of preterition teaches that election is one-sided. God extended mercy to some whom He chose (Romans 9:18), leaving others to their fate. Meanwhile, the gospel is to be extended to all people (Matthew 28:1 –20). Those who believe in Christ are saved, and those who refuse God’s merciful offer are not (Romans 3:10–11, 20–24). Reconciling God’s proactivity in salvation with the need for human faith is something that finite human minds will continue to struggle with.