It was my freshman year of Bible college when I was first exposed to the doctrine of election. In a reading assignment for my class Bible Doctrine Overview, I encountered Charles Ryrie’s chapter on the doctrine of election in his Survey of Bible Doctrine and I distinctly remember being struck by the deeply simple, yet profound truth that God is sovereign over salvation.
That was nearly four years ago. This semester, one of my professors has been going over the doctrine of election in a class of his and I have yet again been deeply moved by the fact that God set His affections on me before the foundation of the world.
Today, I want to begin a series called Theology Thursdays in which one Thursday a month I lay out a doctrine of the Bible and explain it in simple terms. It is my hope that through these simplistic explanations of Bible doctrine, you will be encouraged to deeper study of God’s Word. We begin today with the doctrine of election.
Election tends to be one of the most divisive doctrines within the church. And I think that’s incredibly sad, because election is one of the most precious truths to the heart of the believer. Knowing that God chose you before you were even born leads to trust, rest, and strengthened faith.
Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, defines election like this: “an act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign and good pleasure.”
Let’s look at Ephesians 1 to see this in action.
Ephesians 1:3-5: “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 to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (ESV, emphasis mine)
Here, in one of the most magnificent passages in the Bible, Paul tells us that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” Wow! What a thought. If you are a believer, you can rest in the fact that God chose you for salvation before you were even born. This is seen even more explicitly in the book of Romans when Paul tells us (concerning Jacob and Esau) that, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (ESV).
Whoa. Before the children had even had a chance to do good or bad, the text says that God chose Jacob. Notice, it had nothing to do with anything either of the boys had done. Rather, it had everything to do with God’s purpose and pleasure. Paul thus concludes in verse 18 of chapter 9 that God, “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (ESV)
This understanding of election is called unconditional election and is rooted in a particular understanding of human nature called total depravity, which essentially means that man is so affected by sin that he is rendered incapable of coming to God through faith. This is shown in Ephesians 2:1 when Paul says that unbelievers are “dead” in their trespasses and sins. The Greek word for dead Paul uses (nekros) is used elsewhere in Scripture to refer to literal corpses. As far as Paul is concerned, unbelievers are spiritual corpses incapable of making any move towards God.
If that is true, then God must make the first move in salvation. In other words, He must sovereignly draw sinners to Himself. Jesus Christ was aware of this divine work in salvation when he said in Matthew 11:27, “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (ESV, emphasis mine).
Let’s ponder this for a moment. Today, we have learned that before time, God chose us for salvation in Christ. It wasn’t dependent on anything we have done, rather it was dependent on His mercy. What responses should that elicit in us as believers? There are three that stand out to me and I want to spend the rest of our time looking at those.
1. Election should cause us to praise God
In Ephesians 1 when Paul is discussing our spiritual blessings in Christ (including election), he says that they are all, “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6). God’s act of sovereign election should cause us to glorify His name! How great is our God that He chooses to save those who are dead in their sins! To Him belongs salvation and to Him belongs the glory!
2. Election should cause us to rest in Christ
I think one of the most beautiful aspects of the doctrine of election is that it takes salvation entirely out of our hands. Yes, we respond in faith, but God is the one who initiates and it is God who carries it to completion. Only unconditional election allows Christ to truly be, as Hebrews says, the Author and Finisher of our faith. Jesus says of his sheep, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand” (John 10:28, 29 ESV). If you are one of Christ’s sheep, there is nothing in this world that can snatch you from the hand of the Father who chose you. Your salvation is sure and this should elicit a great feeling of rest in your heart.
3. Election should cause us to marvel at the wisdom of the Father
Finally, election should cause us to marvel at the wisdom of the Father. I think it causes us to marvel in two ways. First, it causes us to marvel at His great love. Who are we, to deserve love that began before we were born? Who are we, to deserve a love that covenanted to save us before the foundations of the world were laid? Who are we, to deserve to be known by God before we knew Him? What marvelous grace is this, that we are privileged to wonder at!
Second, election should cause us to marvel because Scripture places it in tension with the freedom of man. There is no denying that Scripture presents God as sovereign over salvation, yet it also presents man as responsible for having faith. I have dealt with the tension between God's sovereignty and man's responsibility in another blog post so I won’t go into it here. Rather, I will point you to Matthew 11, where Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (ESV, verse 28) moments after He says, “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (ESV, verse 27). Christ saw no contradiction between the election of the Father and the offer for all to come – neither should we.
I pray that the doctrine of unconditional election is an encouragement to your heart. I now leave you with a list of a few resources you can check out if you want to know more.
Resources to look into: Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem, Chosen by God by RC Sproul, Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie. Monergism.com also has a lot of good articles to read, as does Desiring God. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below, or hit me up on Facebook or Twitter!
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