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.


seeker said...

The "Elected" doctrine continues to puzzle me. How can I know that my salavation is sure, i.e. that I can rest knowing that I am one fortunate to have been chosen, or that I am deluded into thinking I am saved when, perhaps, I am one onto whom he has imposed his wrath, i.e., chosen to demonstrate His justice and not save?

Anonymous said...

That's a good question and a natural one which arises (among many others) as folk consider this teaching. I have found J.I. Packer's remarks on election (from his book "Concise Theology") to be helpful here:

"The doctrine of election, like every truth about God, involves mystery and sometimes stirs controversy. But in Scripture it is a pastoral doctrine, brought in to help Christians see how great is the grace that saves them, and to move them to humility, confidence, joy, praise, faithfulness, and holiness in response. It is the family secret of the children of God. We do not know who else he has chosen among those who do not yet believe, nor why it was his good pleasure to choose us in particular. What we do know is, first, that had we not been chosen for life we would not be believers now (for only the elect are brought to faith), and, second, that as elect believers we may rely on God to finish in us the good work that he started (1 Cor. 1:8-9; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:23-24; 2 Tim. 1:12; 4:18). Knowledge of one’s election thus brings comfort and joy.

Peter tells us we should be “eager to make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10)—that is, certain to us. Election is known by its fruits. Paul knew the election of the Thessalonians from their faith, hope, and love, the inward and outward transformation of their lives that the gospel had brought about (1 Thess. 1:3-6). The more that the qualities to which Peter has been exhorting his readers appear in our lives (goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, love: 2 Pet. 1:5-7), the surer of our own election we are entitled to be."

To ask, "How can I know if I am one of the elect?" is really to ask, "How can I know if I am saved?," for election is unto salvation. We know we are saved by the presence of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. The same is true regarding assurance of our election. We were chosen and predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. Are we growing in His likeness? This is the ultimate test leading to assurance and joy.

Hope this helps.

Matt Smart said...

I tend to think of it this way: I can have assurance based on the fruit of my Christian life. As a new believer, what is the fruit? That I have believed the gospel and placed my trust for forgiveness of sins and salvation in Christ alone. As I continue in faith, is there a continuing of fruit, i.e., ongoing obedience and perseverance. 1 John is a good book to read in this respect. "By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments." (1 Jn 2:3); "And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life." (1 Jn 5:11, 12). Believing the gospel is essential; living according to it is the proof that we have truly believed it.