What “Unconditional Election” does not mean

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There are many misunderstandings of the doctrine commonly called “unconditional election”. This doctrine, as defined by the Westminster Confession, says that God, out of the “good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace”. In other words, before we “had done nothing either good or bad” (Rom 9:11) to deserve salvation, before the foundation of the world, God set out to save some. And he did this to the “praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:4), so that salvation would “depend not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16).

What this means, is that the why of our salvation is not ultimately rooted in our great faith or intellect or good works, but rather in God’s gracious choice to save. We are all lost in sin, unable and unwilling to love God, and God, out of his mercy, chose to call some to himself in Christ. The point of election is that grace would be undiluted grace, from beginning to end.

However, there are many who would object to this doctrine, because they would say that if God has elected some to salvation, and they will be saved no matter what, then there is no point to evangelism or prayer. Why share the gospel is the elect will be saved in any case? Why pray if God has already decided? Why do anything, if it’s all been determined? Why not just wait for the elect to be saved?

But this is a misunderstanding of this doctrine. It’s important to understand that unconditional election does not mean that personal responsibility is pointless. It may perhaps seem that way, but biblically, this is not how election is portrayed. God’s sovereignty in salvation, and man’s responsibility in believing, go together in the scriptures.

What is missing in these objections is the logical connection between God’s election to save, and his outworking of that election. In other words, just because God elects some to salvation before the foundation of the world, they aren’t actually saved before the foundation of the world. That is just when God decided to save sinners. What this means, is that God’s election must be accomplished within time, and by certain means. Prayer and evangelism are two of those means. God foreknows our prayers for someone’s salvation, and decides beforehand to answer them. God also decides to use our evangelism as the means to get the gospel to lost sinners.

In other words, while God’s election determines that someone will be saved, the outworking of that salvation happens through a myriad of means. What this means, is that we are called to preach the gospel, and pray, and labor for sinners, and trust that God is using our labor to accomplish the salvation of his elect. We don’t know who will be saved, or who will positively respond to the gospel, but we do know that if someone does respond with faith, that the faith they have is a gift of God (Eph 2:8-9), and is a result of God’s election (and of course, it is all at the same their faith as well).

Paul himself says this in 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”. Paul does not say, “God has chosen you, and so we didn’t preach the gospel, because what’s the point?” He says “we know God has chosen you, because of the fact that you responded to the gospel we labored to preach“. In other words, God accomplishes his election through our preaching of the gospel.

Thomas Schreiner expounds on this principle, saying

What must be noted here… is that God’s election of some does not invalidate the call the believe. When the gospel is proclaimed, those who preach do not summon the hearers to consider whether they are elect or chosen by God. Rather, they consistently call upon their hearers to repent and believe. One could object that the summons to believe is completely unnecessary, for God has promised to save only the elect… But the Calvinist responds that the preaching of the gospel is the means God uses to bring his own to faith. On a Calvinist scheme, the need to believe in order to be saved is no minimized in the least even though God has chosen who will believe from the foundation of the world. Belief is a condition to be saved, but God through his grace has promised to fulfill that condition in the lives of the elect. Still, such a promise does not eliminate the urgency of believing when the gospel is proclaimed. Those who hear must believe and repent to be saved, and they are summoned to respond with the utmost urgency.

So, election does not mean that personal responsibility is irrelevant, or that evangelism is pointless. Rather, God uses those things to accomplish what he set out to do before the foundations of the world. To be sure, there is mystery is this. And while we may not completely understand this doctrine, it is a doctrine rooted in God’s sovereign love, for our good and his glory.

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Horatius Bonar on the Purpose of God In Creation

horatius bonar

Reformed theology has always posited that God’s purpose in creating the universe was not out of necessity. What I mean is that God never had to create the universe. There wasn’t something missing within him that necessitated a creation. Paul affirms this in Acts 17:4, that “God is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything“. Within his own being then, God is completely free and independent.

So then, the question that has plagued many: why then did God create the universe? Horatius Bonar answers this question rightly I believe. He explains God’s purpose as revelatory, or expressive. Namely, that God created all things for the display of his own glory. God, in an overflow of his triune being, desired to create a world in which he could express the fullness of his attributes.

Bonar explains this concept further. He says,

God’s purpose…is self-manifestation, or self-revelation. It is to bear testimony to His own character. Creation in every form, animate or inanimate, is God’s witness; the utterance of His mind and heart. His design is not merely to make known that He is, but what he is; to exhibit Himself the I AM, the Being of beings, in whom all being is wrapped up, and from whom all forms of being spring; to unbosom and reveal Himself fully and perfectly; not partially and in glimpses, but completely and abidingly; by bringing forth into view and making visible all that is glorious, as well as all that is gracious, in the infinite and invisible Godhead. God does not create a world simply because he can do so, and wishes to put forth his power, but because he desires to bring out to view those riches of his own being and character which had otherwise been hidden. Again, God did not create this earth of ours a fair and happy world at first simply because he loved to see a fair world inhabited by happy creatures, but because, in that beauty and blessedness, his own character was most fully revealed, and his own glory most brightly reflected.

… This earth… is [God’s special place of self-manifestation]. It is here that this process is going on just now, and it is here that preparations are making for larger and brighter scenes of self-manifestation than eye hath yet seen or ear hath heard… The work is still advancing; the plan is not yet consummated; but the rudiments of it lie all before us; the stones of the fabric lie scattered around; and prophecy unfolds to us much regarding the coming consummation, and presents to us in no faint colors the picture of the glorious reality which from the beginning God has had in view, and which shall, before long, be given to the gaze of the universe, as God’s own perfect representation of himself.

… The purpose of self-manifestation develops itself chiefly in connexion with two great events, the first and second advents of Christ. Round these two points all other events cluster. From these two foci all light is radiating, and round them all events revolve. It is only by keeping our eye on these that we can understand the mighty scheme, and enter into the mind of God respecting it, giving to each event its proper place, order, connexion, and value.

Wow. I love this quote. God’s purpose is self-manifestation. It is the demonstration of his glory, or his attributes. Bonar goes on in this third chapter from Prophetical Landmarks to focus on the two advents, and how all of God’s attributes are demonstrated through Jesus’ death/resurrection and second coming. I agree with him, and think Paul does too. God’s purpose is for “the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:6), which is “set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9b-10).

Judicial Abandonment: What we all Deserve

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RC Sproul, in his commentary on Romans, speaks on what he calls “judicial abandonment” from Romans 1:18-32. It is an explanation of just exactly how God justly judges people. 

Sproul says, 

Three times in this section [of Romans 1:18-32] we read about human beings being given up by God. They are given up to their vile passions, the lust of the flesh, and their reprobate mind. When God judges people according to the standard of his righteousness, he is declaring that he will not strive with mankind forever. We hear all the time about God’s infinite mercy. I cringe when I hear it. God’s mercy is infinite insofar as it is mercy bestowed upon us by a Being who is infinite, but when the term infinite is used to describe his mercy rather than his person, I have problems with it because the Bible makes very clear that there is a limit to God’s mercy. There is a limit to his grace, and he is determined not to pour out his mercy on impenitent people forever. There is a time, as the Old Testament repeatedly reports, particularly in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, that God stops being gracious with people, and he gives them over to sin. 

The worst thing that can happen to sinners is to be allowed to go on sinning without any divine restraints. At the end of the New Testament, in the book of Revelation when the description of the last judgment is set forth, God says, “He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still” (Rev 22:11). God gives people over to what they want. He abandons them to their sinful impulses and removes his restraints, saying in essence, “If you want to sin, go ahead and sin.” This is what theologians call “judicial abandonment”. God, in dispensing judgment, abandons the impenitent sinner forever. 

Here in Romans… since by nature we repress the truth, God delivers us to our sin…

Romans is unapologetic about this concept of judicial abandonment, arguing that it is right and just for God to abandon sinners to the desires and lusts of their sin, thus allowing them to run, not walk, to hell. God’s grace is removed, and the flood gates are opened, so to speak. Without this divine restraint, as Sproul tells it, we as sinners will forever love our sin more than God, and choose hell without exception. And Paul tells us in Romans, it is right for God to do this. It is God’s righteous judgment on wicked. 

Given this context, grace is a special gift of God, above and apart from what we actually deserve. When God saves sinners in Christ, he is bypassing what we actually deserve, and instead gives Christ the abandonment. He gives Christ the wrath. And he turns our hearts to him. This is the context of the gospel. And Paul wants us to make sure that although hell should be and would be something we all go to, God chooses to save some. 

For more on this, you can read more on the nature of hell and condemnation here.

Does God send people to hell, or do they send themselves there?

heaven hell

CS Lewis is famous for saying, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside”. Lewis believes this truth, that “hell is locked from the inside”, because of the fact that “man has free will and that all gifts to him are therefore two-edged. From these premises it follows directly that the Divine labour to redeem the world cannot be certain of succeeding as regards every individual soul”¹. Of course, implicit in this statement is not just that God doesn’t lock the door from the outside. What Lewis is really saying is that God really wishes that every person could be saved, but his purposes are foiled by the free will of man. And so, in Lewis’s framework, man’s choice wins supreme. 

Is Lewis right in saying this?

Jared Wilson, a prolific author, doesn’t think so. He says, 

Does love demand giving the thing loved what he or she wants [i.e., hell]? The new inclusivists insist yes, and while their desire to maintain the biblical teachings on hell are admirable, we do not find much in the Scriptures to support the idea that, a la Lewis, the doors there are locked from the inside. The sentimental tail wags the theological dog when we say that love demands freedom, and that therefore when God cosigns the unrepentant to judgment he says, “Thy will be done” to them. In one sense, he is saying this, of course, but in the most crucial sense, he is not. In the most crucial sense, when God cosigns the ultimately unrepentant to eternal conscious torment, he is saying, “My will be done”² 

I like Wilson’s points here. What he is trying to point out is that, when we think over this issue, God’s will must be taken into account. Because of course, God is sovereign. He is in control. And so, if men go to hell, and if God is sovereign, it must be true that it is God’s will (however permissive that will may be) that those men go to hell. In this way, God’s will, as opposed to Lewis, is that not every soul will be saved.  

Of course with this whole conversation, questions of predestination, sovereignty, free will, and sin are necessarily brought up. And we could wade these doctrines to see what conclusion we would come up with. But we must, more than anything, understand how the scriptures address hell and condemnation.

And I think biblically, the answer to this complicated questions is yes: God sends people to hell and people send themselves there. What I mean is that biblically, the responsibility is given to both parties. And I believe that this testimony is clear from Romans 1. 

Paul tells us in Romans 1:24-32 that God judges guilty sinners by “giving them up”. Clearly then, God is active in condemnation. But, also, notice just exactly what God is giving them up to. Paul says that God is giving the sinner up to “the lusts of their hearts” and their “dishonorable passions” and their “debased minds” (vs. 24, 26, 28). In other words, God is not forcing the sinner into condemnation. Rather, he is leaving them to the sin they love so much. He is allowing them, permitting them, to choose what their hearts already want. And so, while God is active, he certainly isn’t twisting anyone’s arm. He is judging yes, but he is doing it by cosigning them to the same end they are passionately pursuing. He is nudging them the very direction they were already going. And so, I think that both man and God are active in condemnation. 

Douglas Moo says of this passage,

[The meaning of God “giving them up”] demands that we give God a more active role as the initiator in the process. God does not simply let the boat go [so to speak] — he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin… 

[And yet, as Paul states in verse 32,] those who engage in [sin] know that what they are doing is wrong. They act “knowing the righteous decree of God, that those who do such things are worthy of death”… People generally, as Paul claims, have some degree of awareness that the moral outrages they commit are wrong and hence deserve to be punished by God³

Moo here demonstrates that, for Paul, and for the rest of the Bible, God’s sovereignty over those going to hell by no means diminishes personal responsibility. But also, personal responsibility doesn’t cancel out the sovereign activity of God in justly condemning man. God punishes the sinner, thus resulting in that person going to hell. But also, the sinner willfully and even knowingly rebels against God, thus sending themselves to hell. They want to go there. 

And in fact, I believe Romans 1:18-32 describes all of us apart from God’s gracious and effectual calling of sinners to himself. How else could it be? Without God’s intervening grace by which he opens blind eyes, gives a new heart, and accredits the merits of Christ to us, we are but sinners walking into “ever-increasing sin”. 

There is much mystery to this, especially when we consider how free will and sovereignty fits into it. However, it is certainly in Romans 1. And it is certainly in the rest of the Bible. And therefore, we must trust God with the mystery, and revel in the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, contributing nothing to God but sin and rebellion. 

So then, does God send people to hell, or do they send themselves there?

Yes. 

¹ Problem of Pain, CS Lewis

² Gospel Deeps, Jared Wilson

³ The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo

How God Expresses His Anger

god is angry

How does God express his anger? Does he explode in anger toward his creation? Does he become embittered with humanity? Is his anger good? Or is it fearful and wrathful?

To understand God’s anger, we must first understand his love. God is perfectly loving. God is not self-centered. He is not easily frustrated. He is never embittered. He is not out to get us. He is not egotistical. No, God loves perfectly, selflessly, and expresses his love in all the right ways. He cares for his creation with infinite Fatherly affection.

And it is for the very reason that God is loving that he is angry. Many think that if God is love, he can never get angry. That he must never be upset, but only love. But love by definition protects and acts. It is only loving to defend and to take action for the object loved. Becky Pippert once said,

“Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it… Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference.”

And so, because God is loving, he must get angry. If God were to never get angry, he would not be perfectly loving.

He must get angry at sin and evil. He must get angry with all selfishness and wickedness. He must get angry at anything that would spoil his perfect creation. He must get angry at anything that would threaten his reign of righteousness. And so his is!

But here is the most amazing thing about God’s perfect anger. It should be directed at sinners. We should receive God’s anger for our own rebellion against him. We should receive wrath for our sin and evil. After all, it is our sin that has ruined his perfect creation.

And yet, rather than exploding on us with anger, or leaving us to our own destruction, God made a slow, wise plan, not to destroy his creation, but to restore it. God made a plan to execute his perfect anger toward our sin in a way that would redeem and rebuild his creation.

And God did this by pouring out his anger on Jesus. He punished all of our sin and evil in Christ instead of us. That through faith in him, we might never taste a drop of God’s anger again. He did it that we might not experience his punishment, but only his love.

And for this, we find that God’s anger, rather than being a destructive, mean, spiteful anger, is actually redemptive. It is loving. It is caring. It is purposeful. It is aimed at restoring us rather than destroying us.

Do you see that amazing anger of God? Even in his anger, God is saving his creation.

God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will

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The more I consider the mysteries of the Christian faith, the more I must admit that there are things that the Bible affirms, that the human mind cannot possibly comprehend in its fulness. The Trinity, for instance, God’s unity and diversity, must be affirmed, but will never be understood. Christ’s divinity and humanity cannot possibly be explained philosophically. To be Christian, we must affirm these complex and amazing doctrines. Another doctrine that is mysterious is God’s kingly sovereignty over mankind, even over all of history.

Ephesians 1:11 tells us that God works all things to the purpose of his will. Logically, if God works all things to the purpose of his will, his will therefore comprehends all of history, and is subservient to his sovereign purposes. And because all history is subservient to God’s purposes, we must also affirm that God’s will includes the free actions of men, both good and evil. And if mankind’s free actions are included in God’s sovereign rule, we must conclude that God can and does use our choices for his greater and more supreme good.

And yet, even though God is sovereign over history, we must also affirm that mankind is free. All men are free in regards to their choices, and are not coerced by God in any way. The choices we all make are genuinely ours, both good and evil. And this means that God holds all men accountable, and judges them accordingly (Heb 9:27). Even Paul affirms this, by saying, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor 15:10). Do you see here how Paul worked hardmade free choices, and yet he can say at the end of his life that it was God made him who he was. There is in this verse, both God’s sovereign will, and Paul’s free choices. They do not contradict, nor do they cancel out one another. And so biblically, God’s sovereign will and man’s free choices go hand in hand.

And while many Christians would heartily agree with Paul that God sovereignly brings about good in his people, what about evil? Is God sovereign over evil as well? Can he work through our evil to bring about his good? And if he does work through evil to bring about his good, does this make God complicit in that evil? Some Christians reject God’s sovereignty because they believe it is impossible for God not to be culpable for evil acts over which he is sovereign. And of course, when I speak of God’s sovereignty over evil, I am in no way saying that God is the cause of evil. However, I will affirm that God does, in his wisdom, decree to permit, use, and bring a greater good out of evil (Job 2:10).

However, again, just because our minds cannot comprehend this does not make it unbiblical. God is by definition God, and his sovereign workings in this world are both good and wise, even if we cannot understand exactly how he can be sovereign and not the cause of evil.

But this is where we must submit to God in the mystery. God is sovereign. Man is free. Even within the Reformed doctrine of election, God chooses us, but we also choose God! And the choices we make are no less our choices, even though they flow from God’s sovereign choice of us. Free will and sovereignty. The Bible affirms both.

John Calvin has some good insights on submitting God in his sovereignty. He says,

Therefore no one will weigh God’s [sovereignty] properly and profitably but him who considers that his business is with his Maker and the Framer of the universe, and with becoming humility submits himself to fear and reverence.  Hence it happens that today so many [men] assail this doctrine with their [philosophical arguments]: for they wish nothing to be lawful for God beyond what their own reason prescribes for themselves.  Also they rail at us with as much wantonness as they can; because we, not content with the precepts of the law, which comprise God’s will, say also that the universe is ruled by his secret plans.  As if what we teach were a figment of our brain, and the Holy Spirit did not everywhere expressly declare the same thing and repeat it in innumerable forms of expression.

But I believe that Calvin has good insight here when he tells us to humbly submit to God in this doctrine, even though we may not completely understand it. I will finish with CH Spurgeon’s answer to the question of free will and God’s sovereignty. He wisely said, “I never try to reconcile friends—they are both in the Bible.”

The Paradox of the Christian Faith

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Paul says that a servant of God’s church must be able to “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim 3:9). Clearly within the Christian faith, there are mysteries. More than that, within our own limited understanding, there are apparent paradoxes.

Michael Horton, in his excellent defense of Calvinism, For Calvinism, writes on this mysterious tension.

He says:

[We must recognize] the paradox that lies at the heart of every great doctrine of the [Christian] faith. It affirms simultaneously God’s unity and trinity, Christ’s divinity and humanity, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Believers are urged with all  seriousness to work out their salvation, and yet this salvation is already assured as a gift from the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit. The kingdom of Christ is present now, inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection, and yet not fully consummated until he returns. Ignoring these tensions (the irrationalist temptation) or resolving these tensions (the rationalistic  temptation) are always easy options. Living in the tension is more difficult: listening where God has spoken, but restraining our curiosity beyond his Word.