“We believe that from all eternity God determined in grace to save a great multitude of guilty sinners from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Over the last few days, we’ve looked at humanity’s fall into sin (cf. Genesis 3) and the catastrophic consequences of that fall (cf. Romans 5:12-21). We concluded that “the supreme need of all human beings is to be reconciled to the God under whose just and holy wrath we stand.” This reminds us that we don’t deserve to be loved by God. We are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), so we deserve God’s hatred, not His love. We are so radically fallen that “God would have done no injustice by leaving us all to perish, and delivering us over to condemnation on account of sin.” Such is the seriousness of our condition apart from Christ: God does not have to save us. The fair thing for Him to do would be to send us all to hell. It’s only when we truly understand this reality that this week’s topic becomes good news.
You all should know that I didn’t always believe what we’re about to read together. When I first encountered the truth of election, I hated it. The God I believe in simply would not do something like that, I thought. And others feel this way as well. So I want to acknowledge that election is difficult to understand and accept. Thus we must be careful as we talk about it together. Yet since God has revealed it in Scripture, He must want us to know about it, for God does not speak in vain. This doctrine, then, should lead us to devotion, not despair. It should create humility, not hubris. It should give us life and comfort.
Election means that “from all eternity God determined in grace to save a great multitude of guilty sinners from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Here’s a fuller definition:
“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He hath out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.”
Notice first that election is “the unchangeable purpose of God.” God tells us: “I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’” (Isaiah 46:9-10). Our older brothers said it like this: “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” All things in creation, from the tiniest molecules to the largest stars, follow the plan of the God who “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).
Notice also that God’s unchangeable purpose of election was set “before the foundation of the world.” Paul exults: “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” (Ephesians 1:3-4). God is always the one who moves first; He does not leave us to ourselves and wait for us to move toward Him. That’s why John can say, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Furthermore, notice that God’s unchangeable purpose of election is “out of mere grace.” God does not elect people based on who they are or what they do. Rather, God elects people for salvation in spite of who they are and what they do. Grace, as we have discussed before, is God’s unmerited love in Jesus Christ toward those who deserve judgment. There is nothing we can do to earn or deserve God’s grace since it is unmerited. God’s purpose of election, since it is by grace, is not based upon what we’ve done, including either our faith or obedience. Paul says our salvation “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).
Many object to this part of the doctrine, thinking that it takes away all hope for the salvation of those who don’t believe. But think of a loved one or a friend who doesn’t believe. Do you want their salvation to be up to them ultimately? Do you want your own salvation to be up to you ultimately? Think of how fickle, lukewarm, ignorant, stubborn, wicked, arrogant, and weak we all are. How easy it would be to lose our salvation if we could! And how hopeless we would be if God waited for us to get our act together and come back to Him before He rescued us! Fortunately, the Bible always and everywhere teaches that “salvation belongs to the LORD” (Psalm 3:8; Jonah 2:9; Revelation 7:10). Even John 3:16 proves our point: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” God doesn’t wait for us; He moves first, and He’s proved that to us by sending His own Son.
From our definition, notice that election is “according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will.” God does not just randomly pick who will and won’t be saved. Rather, election is intentional and in accordance with God’s wisdom. That’s why Paul says, “He had set me apart before I was born, and called me by His grace, [and] was pleased to reveal His Son to me” (Galatians 1:15). So often Christians think that election makes God into a mean, unloving being, but election actually establishes the absolute freedom of God to love His chosen people. God does not love us because we deserve to be loved. Paul certainly didn’t deserve to be loved as he was persecuting Christians. God loves us, rather, because He has freely set His love upon us from all eternity in Christ. We were alienated from Him, radically corrupt, and deserving of only condemnation, yet God, “for the praise of His glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6), freely chose to love us. Is there anything greater than knowing that the God of all creation loves us because of who Christ is and what he’s done for us? How deep must God’s love for us be if it had no beginning, if it was set upon us “before the foundation of the world”!
Consider now the most controversial point in our definition: God’s election applies only to “a certain number of persons.” God elects only some to salvation, but not all. We don’t believe that everyone will be saved, and we don’t believe that all people are elected to salvation and then some lose that salvation through their own fault and thus make God’s election void. Only some are elected to salvation while others are left in their ruin.
There are two groups of people: the elect and the non-elect. Peter says, “So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Peter 2:7-8). Paul asks, “Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which He has prepared beforehand for glory?” (Romans 9:20-23). The lump of clay to which Paul refers is “the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault . . . into sin and destruction.” Since we are the clay and God the potter, God has absolute rights over us, including making some vessels of honor and others vessels of wrath.
Now, why does God do this? Paul says that God elects some and leaves others in their sin “in order to show His wrath and to make known His power” to the vessels of destruction and to “make known the riches of His glory for the vessels of mercy.” Ultimately, salvation is not about us. It’s about God. If we are offended by the claim that God elects some and not others, perhaps it’s because we think that salvation in some sense is about us. Our objections might sound something like this: God needs to act fairly according to our standards. He needs to give everyone a chance. It would be unloving of Him to not choose and save everyone. The problem with each of these is that they attempt to put God in a box to control how He behaves. We do well to heed Paul’s question: “who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20).
Practical Implications of the Doctrine of Election
We should consider some of the practical implications of the doctrine of election. Is this teaching good for anything in the Christian life (other than producing arguments!)? Our answer must be yes, this truth matters for the Christian life. Here are eight ways it applies:
1) The doctrine of election produces humility because salvation belongs to God, not us. The only difference between the saved and the unsaved is grace. Election should produce humility because it teaches that it is God who saves: therefore, “no human being might boast in the presence of God.” Rather, “let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
2) The doctrine of election sets us free from having to earn God’s love because it teaches us that God does not love us because we deserve to be loved. He doesn’t even love us because we are loveable. Rather, God loves us freely, which in return sets us free from having to earn His love: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
3) The doctrine of election provides us with the immeasurable comfort that we can know that we are actually saved. If election were not true, then we might always wonder whether we will be saved. But since election is true, and since God will accomplish all His purpose, we can take great comfort in the fact that He will actually save us: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
4) The doctrine of election produces hope in the God who “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). We don’t live in a universe which is fundamentally random. We live in God’s universe where everything goes ultimately according to His wise plan. Indeed, we know that “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
5) The doctrine of election creates joy in God because it is the foundation upon which we can say “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 8:38-39). We know that we can never be separated from God’s love in Christ because He always been doing good to us, even from before the foundation of the world.
6) The doctrine of election motivates us for missions because it assures us that sinners will actually be saved through the preaching of the gospel: “When the Gentiles heard [the gospel], they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). The church’s mission to make disciples of all nations will be successful because God has elected unto salvation “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Romans 7:9).
7) The doctrine of election causes us to walk in obedience because that is one of the necessary results of our election: “He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (Ephesians 1:4). Election does not mean that we can say “let go and let God.” Rather, election is the fountain of all our holiness before God.
8) Finally, the doctrine of election exalts our view of Jesus Christ, in whom we are elect: “In love God predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:4-5). We know that we are God’s elect not by looking at ourselves, for there is nothing in us which caused God to choose us. Rather, we find that we are elect when we look to Christ, “accepting, receiving, and resting upon him alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life.”
 Canons of Dort, I.1.
 Canons of Dort, I.7.
 Westminster Confession of Faith, 3.1.
 Canons of Dort, I.7.
 Westminster Confession of Faith, 14.2.
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