We know that the Bible uses the words ‘choose’, ‘elect’ and ‘predestine’. But we do not agree on what they mean:
Some say that the electing choice of God is his response to our choice … he sees in advance that we choose Jesus, and so he chooses us to be his children. (His choice conditioned by what we do first.)
- Others say that the electing choice of God is first … he chooses those who will be his children, and as a result, they choose to believe in Jesus. (His choice is unconditioned by what we do or who we are.)
What the Bible Says
1. God’s choice is a free choice, based in love
If God were to chose us because we first chose him, he would only be like a scorer at a basketball match, awarding the points to those who score. God would be loving us because we first loved him. But God’s choice is not won, or conditioned by, or based on anything we do or are. It has its origin in his own being and love:
- God chose Israel, as a nation (Deut 7:7,8) because he loved her.
- God chose Jacob over his brother Esau (Romans 9:11-13) because he loved him, before either brother had done anything good or bad.
- God chose you, because he loved you (Rom 8:28-20, 9:11-14, Eph 1:4).
2. God’s choice is an eternal choice
God made his choice before:
- we had done anything good or bad (Rom 9:11)
- anyone or anything was made (Eph 1:4)
… so that no one can claim the credit for his choice (Rom 9:11) … so that we will know that it never depends “on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom 9:16) … so that we will boast only of his grace to us, and never our choice of him (Eph 2:4-10).
(Because it is a choice before time, nothing in time can spoil, frustrate or destroy it. Those whom he has chosen, and called to himself within time, will most certainly be his, after time.)
3. God’s choice is a personal choice
God sometimes chooses nations to fulfil his day-to-day purposes in the world. Israel is chosen to display his glory, and to produce the Messiah; Assyria, Babylon and others are chosen to be agents of judgment. However:
- God chooses individuals to fulfil his purposes in the world. Abraham, Moses, David are chosen to key roles in the world. So are pagan kings (“Cyrus my servant”) and evil men (Judas, Herod, Pilate e.g.). They all (whether good or bad) fulfil God’s eternal purposes (Acts 2:23, 4:27,28).
- In the matter of a choice to eternal life, it is not nations that God chooses, but individuals. He sets his saving love on people (Eph 1:4,5).
4. God’s choice is a purposeful choice
While we do not know the reason why in love God has chosen us, and not others, we do know the purpose of it.
Romans 8:29 “For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son that he might be the firstborn of many brothers.”
“foreknown”: fore = before the creation of the world (Eph 1:4)
known = intimately loved (people are known, not their actions)
There is a sequence of thought in Romans 8:29:
Those God loved intimately before time
Those he predestined, or set apart to be saved
To be conformed to the likeness of his Son
So that Jesus might be the firstborn among many brothers
The whole Bible says that all God’s plans and actions, are for his own glory. Everything he does, he does to display his own grace and greatness. (See Ephesians 1:6a,7b,12b,14b and 3:19,20,21 etc.) God did NOT choose us so that we can be proud, complacent, careless or so we can debate this doctrine. God’s purpose in choosing you was to change you. So that the praise and the glory would be to your Head, Jesus.
Four Questions to Answer
#1. Doesn’t this make God unfair?
“If election is true, then we do not all have the same chance. That is not fair.” BUT:
- God does not treat us equally in many ways … he gives money, abilities, opportunities unequally.
- If God gave us what was fair and deserved, everyone would perish in hell. (Hell praises God’s justice!)
- The gospel is about grace, not fairness or justice. (Heaven praises God’s contrary-to-merit grace.)
- We need to be careful in our questioning, lest we accuse God of doing wrong. We need to be governed more by what God has said, than by what we think. “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Rom 9:20).
#2. But Doesn’t God love everyone, equally?
“How does this teaching about the electing love of God fit with the many Bible verses that speak about God’s love for all men and for the whole world?”
- God does show a general kindness and care towards all men everywhere (Mt 5:45, Rom 2:4), and there are benefits from Christ’s death that flow to all. This is common, or general grace.
- At the same time, God speaks about his just hatred of sin and of sinners. See Rom 9:13 + Ps 5:5, Ps 11:5, Prov 6:16, 8:13, Is 1:14, 61:8, Jer 44:4, Hos 9:15, Am 5:21, Zech 8:17 etc. It is not true, therefore, that “he loves everyone” in the same way, when it comes to special, or saving grace.
- When the Bible speaks of God loving “all” and “the world”, the context must tell us the meaning of those words. For example, their use in Mk 1:5, Lu 21:17, Acts 4:21, cannot mean everyone in the world.
Often the words “world” and “all” are used to break down the distinctions that we might make, between people of different races etc. They often mean “all without distinction, rather than all without exception”. The temple as “a house of prayer for all people” … for Jew and Gentile, slave and free etc, in opposition to narrow Jewish thinking. The same can be said for “the world” in John 3:16.
#3. Why then does God tell the gospel to everyone, if only the elect will believe?
Throughout the whole Bible, God holds his arms open, and appeals to all sinners everywhere to come to him (Isaiah 65:2 quoted in Rom 11:21). Jonah was not the only Jew who needed to learn that God gladly welcomes the most hardened sinners. “How often would I have gathered you”, Jesus says of the unbelieving people of Jerusalem (Mt 23:37).
These are ways of speaking of the universal offer of the gospel. It is offered to all, and “all men everywhere” (Acts 17:30) are commanded to repent. God himself might well have preached the gospel to the elect alone, since they are all known to him. But he offers it indiscriminately and universally so that:
- the elect are called to him
- those who perish are left without excuse
- we have a pattern to follow (Mt 11:25-30) ... we offer the gospel as freely as Jesus did (vv28-30), knowing that the elect alone will believe it (vv25-27). The difference is that we do not know in advance who they are; Jesus did. But our indiscriminate, universal appeal is the same.
#4. How can someone know he or she is elect, if election takes place before time?
Election is outside of time ... but it shows within time, as people hear the gospel, come to Jesus, and are changed to be like him. “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.” (1 Thess 1:4,5) See also Acts 13:48.
Have you believed the gospel, repented to Jesus and believed? That is not because you are more clever, more worthy or more godly than anyone else. It is because you were chosen in love before eternity.
That means you will speak much more of the electing grace of God, than you do about your decision to follow Jesus, since the decision is the result of election, and not the cause of it. Let’s be sure not to take from God a glory that belongs to him alone.
Changing Our Practice
⇒ God “grows bigger” to us
If God simply responds to what we decide, then we are the ones who ultimately determine our eternal destiny, and he is no longer Lord and God over everything, the cause of every good thing. But election shows that God is great and his grace is towards the helpless and the enemies of God (Rom 5:6-8). No-one loves like our God.
In the world of today, where man thinks he is big, and the master of his own fate, Christians know that God alone is big, and that “from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36).
⇒ The work of evangelism is guaranteed
Because of human depravity, evangelism would be a total failure, were it not for God’s electing love. The certainly of God’s predestination to life guarantees certain results for evangelism (Acts 13:48, 18:10 etc)
Because God has his elect in every tribe, nation etc (Rev 5:9), we go everywhere with the gospel, confident that the most hardened and ignorant people are not beyond the scope of his sovereign grace. Nothing in heaven or hell can prevent the elect coming to Christ.
(Those who believe in a God of sovereign grace have usually been the most active in evangelism – this is how it was for John Calvin, George Whitefield, William Carey, David Brainerd, Charles Spurgeon and others.)
⇒ Your own future is guaranteed
Since God’s electing love is in eternity (Eph 1:4), then nothing in time, or in this world, will prevent his doing what he has planned to do. Those elected will be saved, and there is not the slightest possibility they will be anything but saved. (If the origin of our choice was in our willing, then it is certain that that same will would take us away from Jesus.)
Why won’t trials and unbelief overwhelm you? Because God chose you before trials and unbelief even came into existence. (Romans 8:28-30 ... 8:31-39).
Here is the secret to true humility, patient trust, and the enjoyment and praise of a magnificent God. Here also is a huge incentive to holiness ... not only that we were chosen to that end ... but also: while it is bad enough to sin against the law of God, it would be so much worse to sin against such love.
Voices from the Past
God chooses us, not because we believe, but so that we might believe. (Augustine)
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated, or foreordained to eternal life through Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of his glorious justice. (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith)
A man objected to a sermon of Spurgeon’s on Romans 9:22, saying he could not understand how God could hate Esau. His reply:
Yes, I too have difficulty with that text: but it is not quite your difficulty. My difficulty is not why he should hate Esau, but why he should love Jacob.
I believe the doctrine of election because I am quite sure that if God had not chosen me I would never have chosen him; and I am sure he chose me before I was born, or else he would never have chosen me afterward. (Spurgeon)
John Murray wrote about Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:26:
If the only-begotten Son of God, the Lord of glory, draws consolation from the sovereign good pleasure of God the Father, and made it the occasion of such thanksgiving, so let it be also with you. Do not be deprived of the comfort of the grand article of the Father’s sovereignty as you encounter mixed reaction to the gospel’s proclamation ... prize it in all its particularity. And when poor, broken, perhaps half-witted men and women respond in faith, do not despise them. They are the trophies of the Father’s good pleasure.