Doctrine of Election (sermon)

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I haven’t studied the doctrine of election for some time now. It’s simply one of those doctrines that no one can agree on. It’s controversial. At the same time, election is a concept in the scriptures. The question is: what does it mean?

One of my students asked me to articulate the doctrine of election during a sermon series. What I decided to do was to lay out the options when it comes to election (commonly called unconditional election and conditional election) and let them decide. I’m not quite convinced I did a great job at it, but… alas, what can be done! ‘ll let you be the judge.

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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.

Horatius Bonar on the Purpose of God In Creation

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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).

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 Difference Between Human Religion and Grace

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In his excellent primer to the doctrines of grace, PROOF, Daniel Montgomery compares God’s unconditional, sinner-transforming grace given in Christ, to our human version of religion. The primary difference between grace and religion, is that in religion, we are led to believe that our relationship with God is somehow maintained by our own deservedness; we are deluded into thinking that our acceptance from God is somehow based on what we do.

No — Actually, grace isn’t grace unless it is given freely. It isn’t grace if it is earned, maintained, kept, or forfeited by anything we do. It isn’t grace if it is concerned with our own merit whatsoever!

In fact, God’s gives grace to sinners simply because of the lavishness of his own love toward us (Eph 1:8). Montgomery explains this further:

Human religion allows us to delude ourselves into believing that, somewhere in the inmost recesses of our souls, there is some minuscule outpost of goodness that kick-starts God’s work in our lives — some prayer we can pray or righteous deeds we can do. Even if we admit that we can’t do anything to start God’s work, human religion assures us that surely there’s something we can do to keep it going. And so we work to manage our sins more effectively, to serve in more ministries at church, to multiply our theological knowledge, to keep artificial preservatives away from our family’s dinner plates — whatever it is that we think might merit more favor from God and others. When that happens, the good news of grace has been eclipsed by a delusion that’s not really good news at all…

The empty wisdom of human religion proclaims, “What goes around comes around. God helps those who help themselves. You get what you pay for” — but these are lies that lead only to bondage and despair. The gospel of grace speaks an entirely different word, a word that’s filled with paradox and mystery. By God’s grace, we get what someone else paid for. By grace, God helps those who not only can’t help themselves, they don’t even want to. By grace, what goes around stops at the foot of the cross, never to come around again.

What you need isn’t a better purpose, another prayer, or one more plan for self-improvement. What you need is what we all need — to “wake up” to God’s wonderful and undeserved love. You need to wake up to the freedom and joy of what God — on his own — has accomplished for us in Jesus. What you need is grace.

Marvelous, scary, amazing, astonishing words on grace here. “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10).

Four Views on Election

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Election is one of those doctrines that has been debated heavily ever since Christ instituted his church, and even before that. Even within the classes of the first century Pharisees, there was debate over the nature of God’s sovereignty, sin, free will, and salvation. Of course, this debate has not changed much today.

The doctrine of election attempts to answer why God saves sinners. More specifically, election is meant to convey God’s choosing of sinners toward salvation.

And the main debate revolving around election relates to the reason behind God’s choosing of sinners to salvation. Does God choose to save in response to man’s faith? Or does man respond in faith because of God’s choosing? The questions go on and on. And also, if you can’t tell, this debate will involves other issues of theology, including the nature of God’s sovereignty, man’s free will, the nature of sin, and etc.

Those who hold to a high view of God’s sovereignty believe that Christians believe in Jesus only because God chose them first. Those who esteem free will see that believers are chosen by God only because they choose him first. Then of course, there are views that try to find a healthy middle — this middle view seeks to see an exchange between God and man. God’s seeks first, convicts and enables by his Spirit, and then waits for an assisted response from man. In this sense, they see salvation as synergistic, being of God and man.

With that said, there are four main views on this doctrine of election that I will cover below. And, they will cover the grid concerning God’s sovereignty and man’s free will.

1) Conditional Election: This view holds that God chooses us only in response to our free choice of him. In this sense, our election is conditioned to our response of faith to Jesus (though people who espouse this view would of course agree that sinners need the drawing and enabling of the Spirit to believe — in that way, election is conditioned upon God as well). When we respond with faith in Christ, God then elects us. Because God exhaustively knows all events, he can know from the foundation of the world of those who will respond in faith. In this sense, God chooses us before we believe, but only in response to our future faith.

2) Corporate Election: This view holds that just as God chose the nation of Israel corporately, so God chose the body of Christ/the church to be the corporate body to which he bestows salvation. What this means is that God didn’t choose individuals to save; rather, he chose a body in which all who desire salvation must enter. God elected that the means to salvation would be in Christ. Arguably, Jacob Arminius held this position. Arminius says that election is “the decree by which God is resolved to justify believers [in Christ] but to condemn unbelievers” — so, God’s election is that those in Christ would be saved. In this way, when Paul says in Ephesians 1 that God chose believers in Christ, it is the “in Christ” that is God’s corporate choice. Robert Shank argues this view in Elect in the Son.

3) Congruent Election: This view, though similar to conditional election, has a nuanced difference. This view holds that since God dwells in eternity, he sees all things eternally now. He sees all peoples and events, past present and future, as if it was all right now. In this sense, God sees all believers all at the same time, and he sovereignly chooses them from his eternal-now-perspective. But, because men dwell in time, and make free choices, they also choose to believe in Christ from their perspective. In this way, from one side, God unconditionally chooses us in eternity, but we also conditionally choose God in time — thus, election is congruent. Norman Geisler’s Chosen But Free espouses this view.

4) Unconditional Election: Finally, unconditional election, part of the larger doctrine of Calvinism (the above three are expressions of Arminianism), argues that God chooses whom he wills to save in love, not as a result of any foreseen response or merit in man, but rather based on his sovereign pleasure and desire to have mercy. This means his love is unmerited, and unconditional — it is not contingent upon anything in the receiver. And because it was God’s choice to save and not man’s, our choice to receive the forgiveness found in Jesus is resultant of God’s choice to pursue and save us. God’s love for his elect causes and compels him to redeem them through Christ’s sacrifice. So then, before the foundation of the world, God unconditionally purposed to redeem individual sinners through Christ’s death and resurrection. Michael Horton has a great little book on this, called For Calvinism.

If you can’t already tell, I hold to unconditional election, though I believe that the other three are fine evangelical views to hold.

Which one do you believe?

What does it mean that Jesus is the head of the church?

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What does it mean that Jesus is the head of the church? This concept of Jesus being over the church is mentioned numerous times in the New Testament, both implicitly and explicitly. In Colossians 1, Paul calls Jesus the head of the body, the beginning, and the first born from the dead, with the end result of him being preeminent in all things (Col 1:18). Jesus is the head, becoming the center of all things concerning God and his church. Paul mentions Christ’s headship in Ephesians 5 as well; and he compares Christ’s headship over the church to a husbands relationship to his wife, telling us that Christ’s headship is one of nourishment and sanctification toward his church; similarly, husbands should care for and nourish their own wives (Eph 5:23-29). But what is Paul trying to convey here?

When Paul speaks of headship, he is talking primarily about representation.

Biblically, what we must understand is that God deals with people by way of representatives. Whatever happens to that representative happens to those under him. This principle goes throughout the entire history of the scriptures.

For instance, when God created Adam, he gave him certain responsibilities. Adam was to cultivate the garden that God had given him, and to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). To Adam alone was given this responsibility — and Eve was given as a helper to assist him in accomplishing his God-given tasks. Also, God prohibited Adam from certain things. He was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). If he were to eat of it, he would surely die. Of course, we find that Adam and his wife did eat of the tree. But it’s interesting just how God punishes Adam and Eve for their disobedience. First, God holds Adam alone responsible, not Eve (Gen 3:9-10). Second, because of Adam’s failure, God punishes all of humanity, not just the pair. Paul later picks up on this concept, and tells us that we are sinful because of one man’s sin (Rom 5:12). What this indicates is that Adam was a God-ordained representative for all humanity. If he would have been obedient, we would have all benefitted. But because he chose to disobey, we all fell into sin.

From Adam and on, the principle of headship as representation can be traced from Old Testament to New. God chose Noah as the head of a new humanity (Gen 6-9), Abraham as the head of a new nation Israel (Gen 12-22), Moses as the head of the Mosaic Economy (Exod 19-20), and David as God’s eternal kingly dynasty (2 Sam 7). What is especially interesting when reading about the institution of the Mosaic Law, we find that the people of Israel waited at the bottom of Mount Sinai as Moses went and spoke before God on their behalf (Exod 19:1-3). And God interacted with the people of Israel through Moses alone. In that sense, Israel went in Moses into God’s presence. Paul picks up on this in 1 Corinthians 10, telling us that Israel was baptized into Moses in the Red Sea (1 Cor 10:2). What an interesting way to articulate the concept!

And when we arrive at the New Testament, we find out that all of these representative heads were merely pointing to the true cosmic representative, Christ. Matthew describes Christ becoming the true Moses who teaches God’s people from the mountain (Mt 5-7). Matthew also presents Christ as the true Israel, God’s true righteous servant (Mt 2:13-4). Paul calls Christ the last Adam, making him the head of a new humanity (1 Cor 15:22). He also calls Christ the true seed of Abraham who blesses the nations through his life and death (Gal 3:16). And, Luke presents Jesus as the true Davidic king whose kingdom will last forever (Lk 1:32-33). In this way, Jesus is the ultimate head who realizes all of God’s redemptive purposes. He realizes Adam’s mission, Israel’s purpose, and David’s kingship. In this way, Jesus is the fountain of all things.

So when we call Christ our head, what we mean is that he represents us before God. This is why Paul can say of himself: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). If we are in Christ, this means that the death that Jesus died to sin, we also died. It means that the life he now has is our life (Col 3:1). It means that his reign is our reign (1 Cor 3:21). If Christ is your head, you are hidden in him, seated at the right hand of God, clothed in his righteousness, dead to sin, and alive to God (Rom 6, Col 3:1-4).

Christ is our representative. This is what headship means. In Christ, what happens to Jesus happens to you! This is why Paul tells us that Christ’s headship means that he is preeminent in all things (Col 1:18). It is what Paul means when he tells us that our chosenness is in Jesus (Eph 1:3-10). We have been chosen in Christ before the ages began. And the result is that Christ is our representative, and all things are be summed up in Him alone (Eph 1:10).

**For further discussion on this, you can read a post on how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament here