John Wesley called it the “horrible decree.” Many Christians today won’t hear of it. And for many who are not believers, at best the notion is absurd, at worst the epitome of self-righteous arrogance.
I’m talking about election, the doctrine that God chose in eternity those, and only those, whom he would grant eternal life. It’s a shame this teaching is much maligned and misunderstood, for God has revealed it in the Scriptures for our comfort and encouragement in Christ. At the same time, election is a truth that must be handled with all reverence and humility. God’s purpose in predestination, by which he has determined the eternal destiny of all people – heaven or hell, is an awesome mystery. Here we must bow before a God who is wise and good in all his ways, even when the reason for his ways remains hidden from human understanding (Isaiah 55:9).
Here are three truths concerning election:
1. Election is biblical.
Many people associate election almost exclusively with the name John Calvin, as though he alone believed in it. Worse, the popular caricature of Calvin is of a grim man obsessed with a dark and utterly bleak notion of predestination. But Calvin was not unique in teaching election, nor did he invent it. Many Christians have embraced election. When Calvin wrote of it in his Institutes, he quoted liberally from Augustine, the church father who preceded him by over a millennium. And Augustine learned the doctrine from the Scriptures.
Election isn’t a marginal doctrine taught here and there in the Bible. Rather, it is pervasive throughout the Scriptures. Abraham was just another idolater in Ur when God called him, took him, and led him to Canaan (Joshua 24:2-3). God chose Abraham’s son Isaac over Ishmael, and then Isaac’s son Jacob over Esau, to inherit the promises of the covenant (Romans 9:6-12). Israel was chosen “out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” to be God’s people, his “treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you…” (John 15:16). And he said that only those whom the Father gives him, come to him (John 6:37). A sinner cannot come to Christ for salvation, unless he has first been given to Christ by the Father. When Paul preached in Antioch, only those believed who were “appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:48). And Paul declares in Ephesians 1 that Christians have been chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world,” and have been “predestined… for adoption as sons” (Ephesians 1:4, 5).
The fact is, election is so clearly present in the Bible that every theological system and tradition has some sort of understanding of it.
The question is, what is Scripture’s understanding of it?
2. Election is unconditional.
The answer to that is: the Bible plainly teaches that God’s election is unconditional. This means there was no condition in a person that served as the grounds for God’s election of him or her to eternal life. In other words, God did not base his choice upon his prior knowledge of a person’s good works or righteousness. Not even foreseen faith was the reason for God’s electing a sinner to salvation. If we take seriously the Bible’s teaching on human sin, or total depravity, then we know it’s impossible for anyone, apart from God’s grace, to do good or even to believe in Christ for salvation. So what possible condition could exist in a person who is “dead in…trespasses” (Ephesians 2:5), that might serve as the basis for God’s choice? There is none.
Rather, God’s sovereign choice of his people was an act of pure grace and love. It is unconditional. As Paul says in Romans 9:11, God loved Jacob over Esau “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad.” And he goes on in vs. 15 & 16: “For [God] 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.”
But is this just? Is this fair? No, it isn’t “fair” – but not because God is unfair. Election is not a matter of fairness or justice. If God dealt with the human race on the basis of pure justice, we’d all be condemned and lost forever. That’s what all of us deserve (again, see total depravity). But if God chooses not to deal with some according to what is strictly fair and just, not to deal with some according to their sins, then he is showing mercy. But how can God overlook the sins of his elect? He doesn’t. Rather, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for them on the cross.
So God chooses his own for reasons entirely his, and having entirely nothing to do with a person’s righteousness, or works, or faith. From all eternity, he set apart a people for himself and loved them. What amazing grace!
3. Election is for our growth in grace.
If you are a Christian, God’s decree of election means at least three things for you.
A. Confidence. Election means your salvation is rooted in something greater than yourself, greater than your power to will or decide, and greater than your strength to persevere. If your salvation was ultimately God’s choice, and not your own, will he not guard and keep you in his love and care throughout this life (Philippians 1:6)?
B. Humility. Election means you have no reason to boast in yourself. You did not possess the superior morality or wisdom to choose to follow Christ. Apart from God’s grace, the last thing you’d ever do in this life is put your trust in Jesus. But God chose you, and gave you a new heart, that you might put your faith in him. Your salvation, from beginning to end, is the work of a merciful God who loved you despite your unworthiness and sin.
So if you are a Christian, be humble. Salvation was not your idea or choice, but God’s.
C. Thanksgiving. If you truly take to heart the Bible’s teaching on election, you’ll respond with praise and gratitude to God for his sovereign, saving grace towards you.
Let this wonderful doctrine encourage you, and lead you to greater faithfulness to God and love for Christ.
(Why did I choose a picture of tulips for this post, you ask? Not because I really like flowers! But because this doctrine of election is one of the “Five Points of Calvinism,” or “doctrines of grace” that are usually set forth with the acronym TULIP – Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.)