Tuesday, August 08, 2006

God's sovereign choice in salvation

This past Thursday was election day and I hope you were able to participate. We went to the voting polls and chose men and women for consideration of public offices like governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, Tennessee State Supreme Court, Tennessee State Senate and House of Representatives. I think politics is one of those “love it or hate it” things in life. But on voting day we have a chance to choose people. We participate individually but it is our voice collectively that decides who wins. Those whom we don’t vote for and elect are left to find other means of work. Those whom we choose are granted responsibilities, rights, and privileges.

There are some obvious parallels here to the Christian doctrine of election. It has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with God’s sovereignty. You might be sitting there saying, “I’ve never heard anything about election.” Let me tell you that it is important to understanding how God has worked on your behalf before you ever knew him.

If I could give two word pictures to illustrate how election fits in God’s great plan. Election is really one chapter in God’s book of sovereignty. Or you might think of it like this: Election is a bright and shining star in the heavens of God’s sovereignty.

I. Difficulties of approaching this topic

First, let me say that there are some difficulties in approaching this topic. Good Christian people who cherish Christ have hated this doctrine. Most notable is John Wesley who said these words. “I reject the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination...I would sooner be a Turk, a Deist, yea an atheist, that I could believe this.” He also said that this doctrine “has a tendency to destroy holiness; for it wholly takes away those first motives to follow after it...the hope of future reward and punishment, the hope of heaven and the fear of hell.”

On the other side of the coin, there are notable Christians who have taken the doctrine too far; men like Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, and Zwingli. Their understanding could be called “predestination in both directions” or hyper-Calvinism. What I am advocating today is something that, in my humble opinion, takes the full scope of biblical information into account.

II. What does election mean?

Romans 8:28-30 (NIV)
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

I want to begin by looking at some key passages from the New Testament and then to offer a definition that sums it up.

From the very beginning of Romans, the apostle Paul outlines a carefully thought out argument to show the need, the provision, and the application of God’s righteousness to man. He tells us how all are sinners and in need of a Savior, how God made a way for us to be righteous in his sight through the death of Christ, how justification by faith has always been God’s plan, and how the believer is to relate to sin and the Spirit. Here in Chapter 8 he appeals to those who are presently undergoing suffering. It is the climax of the entire book. Paul assures us that whatever comes into our life whether it be painful or pretty, it is always purposeful. He speaks as if from a mountain top and looks back into eternity past. He says, “friend, long ago God foreknew you in the sense of having a relationship with you. In that knowledge he predestined you to something. What is that? He predestined you to be conformed to the image of His son. This pain that you are enduring now is for that purpose. Now only that but God has called you. Not only that but God has justified you. Not only that but God has glorified you. It is still a future event but the down payment has been made now. So it is as certain as if it were already accomplished.

Ephesians 1:4-5
4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will,

In this the prelude to Ephesians, Paul teaches us about the wonderful spiritual blessings that are ours in Christ. We have such blessings as adoption [being brought into the family of God], redemption [being purchased from slavery to sin], forgiveness [having our sin debt toward God paid in full], an inheritance [having riches in Christ stored up for us], and the Holy Spirit [which among other things is God’s guarantee that we will be safely brought into glory]. He uses two words in verses 4, 5, and 11 that refer to us having been chosen and predestined to these blessings in Christ. What is interesting about the Greek word for “chose” is that it is always used in the middle voice. Active voice verbs describe action being done by the subject. Passive voice verbs describe action being done to the subject. Middle voice verbs (in Greek) describe action being done for the benefit or the sake of the subject. We would say God chose us for himself

Several things need to be noted here. First, we were chosen in Christ. All of the blessings of salvation come through Christ. He is the one through whom the blessings are given. Second, we were chosen before time began. Election is an act of God that took place far in eternity past. Third, we were chosen for the end goal of being holy and blameless in God’s sight. Verse 5 adds that the basis of our being predestined had nothing to do with us! We were predestined “according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace”. Not on the basis of future faith or something good in us that God wanted to redeem.

2 Thessalonians 2:13
13 But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth,

Acts 13:48
48 Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.

Acts 16:14
14 Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.

There are a few other places in the New Testament where election is mentioned almost in passing, as if it were something that everyone understood. [2 Thess 2:13; Acts 13:48, 16:14]

So how can we define election? Taking just the passages we have looked at, what can we say? Election is God’s sovereign choice before time began of some people to be saved from wrath and punishment for sins for no reason in themselves. The real reason behind God’s choice is a mystery hidden in his divine will.

III. What objections might you have to this doctrine?

A first objection might be stated this way: It is unfair for God to choose some people and not others. Our sense of fairness tells us that all people should be treated equally. For Americans, the issue of fairness is even more pronounced because our country was founded on the concept that all men are created equal and deserve the same freedoms. But I would say this: the question should not be “what is fair?” but “what is just?”. Our sense of fairness is subservient to God’s sense of justice. Two passages in the Gospels illustrate this. Matthew 20:1-16 tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard. A landowner goes out to hire men at different times of the day: some in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some at the end of the day. When it comes time for each to receive his pay, the landowner pays each person the same regardless of how many hours were worked. What complaint do the workers have? “That’s unfair!” But the landowner did not go back on his word. The workers hired early in the day received what was agreed to. They have not been shortchanged. Only the ones hired later received more pay than they deserved. The point is that what looks like unfairness is really generosity on the part of God.

A second objection to election is this: if God chooses who will be saved, then my choice to accept Christ or reject him is not a real choice.

What texts in the New Testament illustrate the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility?

Matthew 11:25-27 11:28-29
Matthew 13:10-11 13:53-58
Matthew 16:15-17 16:1-12

A third, common objection has to do with the clear statements that it is God’s will for all to be saved. First Timothy 2:4 says it is God “who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” And Second Peter 3:9 says, “the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” These are true Biblical statements. But we also know that since not everyone is actually saved, then God is either not able to effectively accomplish His will or we must refine our understanding of God’s will. Does these passages describe God’s heart for all people or God’s unchanging plan? It seems to me that these passages describe God’s heart (his will of desire) rather than his unchangeable plan (his will of decree).

The last objection I want to address is this: If God chooses to save some and passes over others, then his choice to overlook is really a choice to condemn. If this statement is true, then predestination works both ways. Some would support this by pointing out the case of Pharaoh. The Bible says that when God was about to free the Israelites from Egypt, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart. As a result, Pharaoh would not go along with Moses. There are other instances in the Psalms and in Romans 9 which use the language of hardening. Is God to blame when people are punished for their sins? The Bible never indicates this. Instead, it teaches that God simply permits sinful men to act upon their evil intentions, and by withdrawing this restraining grace, their evil hearts go unchecked [Rom 1:24, 26, 28]. In other words, God doesn’t hang them but He gives them enough rope to hang themselves. His hand upon them doesn’t create new evil in their heart but the withdrawal of his restraint lets them pursue the evil that is already there.

This is called the doctrine of reprobation and it can be summed up like this. Reprobation is God’s sovereign decision to pass over some persons, sorrowfully deciding not to save them, to punish them for their sins, and thereby manifest his justice. Several points need to be made here. First, reprobation never brings God joy. Ezekiel 33:11 reminds us that God does not delight in the death, the punishment, or the condemnation of sinners. Second, if this brings sorrow to God, then it should bring sorrow to us. How many people have been lost to eternity because they thought we didn’t care? Third, we must always remember that the basis of God’s election is grace while the basis of reprobation is God’s justice.

1. Reprobation is God’s sovereign decision to pass over some persons, sorrowfully deciding not to save them, to punish them for their sins, and thereby manifest his justice.
2. Jude 4, Romans 9:17-22, 1 Peter 2:8
3. Reprobation never brings God joy. [Ezek 33:11]
4. The cause of election lies with God while the cause of reprobation lies with the sinner. [John 3:18-19; 5:40]
5. The basis of election is God’s grace while the basis of reprobation is God’s justice.
6. The phrase “double predestination” is not a helpful phrase because it does not accurately describe the Bible’s teaching or the Reformed view.
7. Our sorrow when a person rejects Christ ought to mirror the sorrow that God feels.

  • It should give you great comfort to know that God has chosen you for Himself long ago in ages past.
  • It should give you great assurance to know that God’s choice of you is one step in a larger series of steps to bring you to glory.
  • It should give you great sorrow to see some people who have (as far as you can tell) been left to themselves.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The grace of God begins the process of salvation

For my son’s birthday recently he received a 200-piece puzzle. It is a nice break from the video games. You know how puzzles work: lots of smaller pieces fit together to make a larger picture. All of the smaller pieces are given meaning when they fit together. One of the strategies of putting together larger puzzles is to work on smaller sections first and then connect those sections together.

We’ve been trying to put together the pieces of Bible doctrine this year. So far this year we have worked on the doctrines of God, the Bible, mankind, and Christ. Today we begin working on salvation. The individual pieces of salvation, which we are going to look at the next 3 months are GRACE, ELECTION, ATONEMENT, CALLING, CONVERSION, REGENERATION, UNION WITH CHRIST, JUSTIFICATION, SANCTIFICATION, PRESERVATION & PERSEVERANCE, and, GLORIFICATION.

One of the subjects which weighs on my heart is the subject of salvation. I believe most well-meaning Christians have a very narrow understanding of salvation. “You need to go to heaven. The way to heaven is trusting Christ. Trust Christ today.” The Bible, however, opens up for us a much broader view of the work of salvation, and usually it is only after we have trusted Christ that an investigation into this is made, if it is made at all.

Grace is a huge topic and I want to pain a picture for you in broad strokes. A good way to approach this might be to ask questions. What is God’s grace? Why do I need God’s grace? What does God’s grace look like in real life? How do I respond to God’s grace?

[*Note: I am indebted to Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, for the following outline.]

I. Grace is favor and lovingkindness granted to those who do not deserve it. [What is grace?] – Romans 5:8

A. Liberals hold it to be the natural capacity for doing good; being endowed with a rational mind, freewill to resist the power of evil, and choose to live sinlessly. All people are children of God but flawed by evolution. It champions natural growth, human education, natural morality, the human heroism of the cross.

B. Roman Catholics: the divine enablement that supplements human initiative. We did not inherit depravity from Adam, just moral and spiritual weakness. “You supply the faith, God supplies the grace.” Grace moves one to trust Christ and receive baptism. Baptismal grace assists the person in keeping the commands of God which advances their justification.

C. Arminian: prevenient grace erases the debilitating effects of sin on minds, restores moral free agency, convicts of sin, exerts a Godward influence on hearts. Thus, every human has the potential for salvation (universal). If people were unable to believe, then it would be unfair of God to condemn those who did not. Mankind’s free will can resist God’s grace. [John Wesley] Prevenient grace (the universal and unconditional benefit of the Atonement) enables the mind, emotion, and will to respond to God’s call through the modality of the conscience. One who responds to initial grace is granted more grace.

D. Reformed: Two forms of grace: common and special.
1. Common grace is God’s undeserved goodness to every person in the form of his general care (focus is universal, see p. 64 bottom).

Luke 6:35 (NIV)
35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

What does common grace do? Upholds the laws and processes of nature; all forms of life sustained in existence (Acts 17:28a); supplies food, water, shelter; restrains the power of sin through the Spirit; delays or withholds judgment; facilitates the good and true in the arts, sciences, technology; social and political order maintained; good gifts given to sinners as incentive to repent (Rom 2:4) and show that God does not delight in the death of the wicked. This accounts for "splendid pagans".

Abraham Kuyper said, “By His common grace God bridles the evil of fallen human nature, restrains the ruin which sin has produced and spread, and enables even the unregenerated men to do good in the broad, non-redemptive sense. It is the source of the good, the true, and the beautiful which remains, in spite of sin, in human life, even in human life which has not been regenerated.”

This grace is resistible.
Isaiah 26:10 (NIV)10 Though grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil and regard not the majesty of the Lord.

Charles Ryrie gives this illustration of common grace. “If you offered to give one dollar to a man whom you knew needed one hundred dollars and if he rejected your one dollar gift, you would doubtless consider his refusal sufficient grounds for declining to give him further assistance. If, on the other hand, the needy man accepted the one dollar gift gratefully, you might try to give him more. The dollar would be insufficient to meet his need, but if he refused it would be sufficient to condemn him. That dollar is like common grace which is not able to save but which is able to condemn, if rejected. [Holy Spirit, p. 63]

2. Special grace is the exercise of God’s saving power toward sinners which enlightens the minds of alienated rebels, quickens the will and energizes their affections toward God (focus is individual). Once a person is renewed by the Spirit he believes the Gospel, repents of sin, and trusts Christ. Saving grace is both prevenient and effectual; that is, it effectively changes the heart of those the Father has given to the Son. God does not violate the will. He simply changes it to be willing. General and special grace are mediated by Christ’s person and work.

II. Grace is needed because sin has corrupted us completely. [Why is grace needed?]

A. Sin’s corruption is called DEPRAVITY [Jer 13:23, Rom 1:26-32] Sin has brought corruption to the human race to the extent that we are spiritually hopeless.

Jeremiah 13:23 (NIV) 23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.

Romans 1:28-32 (NIV)
28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

B. Intellectually, sinners are unable to discern spiritual truth; that is, they are unable to grasp the full significance of truth from a spiritual perspective [Eph 4:18; 2 Cor 4:4; Rom 8:7-8; 1 Cor 2:14].

Ephesians 4:18 (NIV)
18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.

2 Corinthians 4:4 (NIV)
4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

1 Corinthians 2:14 (NIV)
14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

C. Volitionally, the unregenerate can only exercise their wills against the purposes of God [2 Pet 2:19]. The unregenerate have lost true “free will” [the ability to do as we please and the ability to choose between moral alternatives] because rebellion against God has plunged them into sin-slavery. Their will is bound to sin.

2 Peter 2:19 (NIV)
19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him.

D. Emotionally, our affections take delight in evil rather than in God [Titus 3:3; Gal 5:16].

Titus 3:3 (NIV)
3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

E. Relationally, sin makes us alienated from God and our fellow human beings [Col 1:21].

Colossians 1:21 (NIV)
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.

III. The Bible teaches that there are many dimensions to grace. [What other dimensions of grace does the Bible teach?]

A. Grace is an attitude of God [Eph 2:4-8],

Ephesians 2:4-8 (NIV)
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—

B. Grace is an action of God [Jn 1:14; 1 Tim 1:14; Rom 3:24],

1 Timothy 1:14 (NIV)
14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:24 (NIV)
24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

C. Grace is the gift of God.
1. in the person of Christ
2. in righteousness and salvation
3. gift of God’s power
4. spiritual endowments [spiritual gifts]

D. Grace is the power of God at work [Acts 18:27; Rom 5:20-21; 2 Cor 12:9; Rom 16:20; Titus 2:11-12],

Romans 5:20-21 (NIV)
20 The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Titus 2:11-12 (NIV)
11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,

E. Grace is the method of God’s saving us [Eph 2:8-9],

F. Grace is a state or realm entered by faith [Rom 5:2]

Romans 5:2 (NIV)
2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.

IV. How should I respond to God’s grace?

A. Gratitude – this is why we “say grace” before meals!
B. Graciousness toward others
C. Tell the unbeliever that it is God who has been gracious to them by providing health, provisions for life, food, family, meaningful work, etc.
D. Recognize that it is God’s grace that works in you to choose to obey God. (Ph 2:13, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
E. Let it be the driving factor in your pursuit of holy living. [Titus 2:11-12]