Let me be honest. I hated the doctrine of election (and it’s brother, predestination). Any Calvinist who dared to speak of God’s sovereignty over an individual’s salvation was—in my mind—a fatalist whose views on the topic should be at best dismissed and at worst mocked. Perhaps you can relate. I saw the doctrine of election as:
- An intrusion upon my free will. I chose Christ, I believed in Jesus’ death and resurrection, I confessed and repented of my sins. It was all me. What was this strange, unbiblical teaching that God had chosen me to be saved? I chose him! As I saw it, He merely offered it to me as a gift.
- A reason to eisegete large portions God’s Word. Although I didn’t consider this to be true at the time, my reflections on my conversion were at odds with more than a few passages of Scripture that clearly teach election and predestination. I had to redefine the terms and reinterpret the Bible to suit my theology.
- A hindrance to evangelism. What is the point of evangelism if people are only saved by God’s electing them to salvation? What is the point of the Great Commission if human choice has nothing to do with individual salvation?
It is NOT Well With My Soul
So what caused me to go from thinking of the doctrine of election as a foul odor to embracing it as a treasure-house of joy? Well, it didn’t happen overnight. There was much mental anguish as my pride fought tooth-and-nail to maintain my perceived rights to the control of my destiny. But then by chance I came across this Psalm:
I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.
I could not escape the fact that election and predestination were in the Bible. They are not simply theological concepts invented by grumpy old men, but the actual terms are used repeatedly throughout the Bible. They are a part of God’s statutes, a part of God’s Word, a part of God’s self-revelation to mankind. I could not afford to not delight in them!
But therein laid the problem. I did not delight in them. I could not echo the words of the Psalmist with a clear conscience. I could not read certain verses without eisegeting the text. The goal in all Biblical study is exegesis, extracting meaning from the text, letting God’s word transform my thinking to be like Christ’s (Romans 12:2), but I was resisting. It was not well with my soul.
For example, here are a few passages that caused me to stumble in my theology of “choice”:
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…
2 Timothy 1:9
…who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began…
1 Thessalonians 1:4-5
For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.
For many are called, but few are chosen.
Who We Once Were
Another fact that (slowly) changed my mind was how the Bible describes our state of being before God saves us.
We were dead in our sins, but God made us alive
Since a dead person cannot cause himself to be alive, but God must give him life, so one who is dead in sin cannot make himself alive by choosing to believe in Jesus. In order to follow & believe, God must first cause to be made alive. (Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13; Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:43-44)
Jesus describes becoming a Christian as being “born again”
There’s a lot we can get out of this analogy. At the time of this writing I have one child with another on the way. Neither chooses when to be born or who his/her parents are. I think this is why Jesus used birth to describe salvation (John 3:1-8); it is God who causes and wills us to be born again (1 Peter 1:3; John 1:12-13) and makes himself our Father through adoption (Galatians 4:4-5).
We were like a lost sheep or coin
We do not “find Jesus” since Jesus isn’t the one who is lost. Instead, it is Jesus who finds us and saves us (Luke 15:1-10). In these parables it is important to note that repentance follows salvation; salvation is not a result of repentance, but the cause of it.
We were slaves
The same way a dead person cannot will himself alive, a child cannot will herself to be born or even conceived, and a lost coin/sheep cannot itself find its owner by its own power, so a slave to sin cannot free himself from bondage. (John 8:34; Romans 6:13-23; Titus 3:3)
We were in darkness
John 3:20 says, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” The psalmist says there is no one who does good (Psalm 53:1-3) and Paul writes that all are under sin (Romans 3:9). Therefore, it is necessary for God to deliver us from the kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:13), commanding “the light,” the knowledge of Jesus, to shine in our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6), and choosing us to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, a people of his own possession (1 Peter 2:9).
God’s Reasons for Election
One particular verse that the great debate seems to center around is Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”
I used to believe that God, knowing the future, saw my choice to follow Jesus from eternity past and based his electing me on that knowledge. The problem is, God’s foreknowledge of a person’s actions are never given as the reason for election. Rather, scripture declares that God saves a person
- …because of His mercy (1 Peter 1:3; Titus 3:5)
- …because of His love (Ephesians 1:4-5)
- …because of His grace (2 Timothy 1:9; Romans 11:5-6)
- …according to the purpose of His will (Ephesians 1:5)
With this understanding, it seemed more appropriate for me to interpret the “foreknew” in Romans 8:29 as not so much God’s knowledge of a fact (that I would choose Him), but God’s knowledge of a person (me). For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:3, “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (see also Galatians 4:9).
The context of Romans 8 also has a bearing on how I should interpret verse 29. First, God has set us free from sin and no longer condemns us (v. 1-4); God the Holy Spirit indwells us and gives us life (v. 9-11) and is proof of our adoption by God the Father (v. 14-17); our future glory promised by God makes present suffering in this world bearable (v. 18-25); God helps us in our human weakness, teaching us how to pray (v. 26-27); and finally, we are assured that God works everything together for our good (v. 28). We are assured of all these truths because we are foreknown by God, predestined by God, called by God, justified by God, and glorified by God (v. 29).
In other words, election—God’s choice—is the reason we can be assured of all the truths presented in the first twenty-eight verses. Indeed, Paul finishes the passage, “If God is for us, who can be against us? …Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? …Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? …For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39).
What Election Really Is
I used to think election was an intrusion upon my freedom; I needed to eisegete many portions of Scripture to cause it to fit my theology; I saw election as a hindrance to evangelism. These reasons stand in stark contrast to how Scripture portrays this doctrine. Per Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology the Bible presents the doctrine of election as:
- A comfort. (Romans 8:28-30). Paul assures believers that God is working for their good and gives predestination as the reason for that assurance. In other words if God loved you and predestined you from eternity past and has promised to glorify you into eternity future, then you have assurance that even now—even through suffering and trials—God is at work for your good.
- A reason to praise God. (Ephesians 1:5-6, 12). God saves people for the ultimate purpose that they might praise Him and His glory, and not themselves since their salvation is not ultimately the result of their own wills or works.
- An encouragement to evangelism. (2 Timothy 2:10). Since it is the power of God to save, we can be assured that evangelism will (and does) work; not because of our own efforts, but because God is working through us to accomplish his purpose (Philippians 2:13).
While the journey to this point has been long and arduous for me, finally embracing this doctrine has given me greater joy in who God is and what he’s done for me. Seeing sin and the natural human condition as the Bible presents it, that we are hopeless evildoers who cannot save ourselves from God’s good and righteous wrath and judgement, and the fact that if God does not elect anyone then no one would be saved (Romans 9:27-29; 11:5-7), has given me a greater appreciation for God’s love and mercy. Seeing how God must first love and choose us, his enemies, before we can ever love and choose him (1 John 4:10; John 15:16; Romans 5:8,10) silences my pride and gives God greater glory.
And when God get’s the glory, we get the joy (John 14:13, 16:24).