And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 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.” (Romans 9:10-13 ESV)
I can hear the response now, “NOT FAIR!” The assumption is that God should save everyone and aren’t there passages that say that God loves everyone? First, the assumption that God ought save everyone is coming at the problem from the wrong direction. The minute we attribute obligation to mercy we stop talking about mercy. Mercy, by definition is non-obligatory. God isn’t obliged to save anyone. If God sent everyone on the planet to hell, he would be justified in doing so, because all have sinned and fall short of his glory and none are righteous. The fact that he chooses to save is all of grace. Second, there are passages that say things like, “God desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, or that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”
The question I have to ask is, “Are all men saved? Does God save everyone according to the Scriptures?” No. He doesn’t. But the verse says that is his will, so does God fail? What about John 3:16? God loved the world enough to send Jesus. But does the entire world get saved? No. Has God failed us then? No. There is a difference between God’s desire and his decree. In other words, there is more than one way to talk about God’s will. There is a revealed will and a secret will in God. We would universally accept the reality that God has revealed his law to us and wills that we obey, but we often disobey. A perfect illustration is the death of Jesus. Was the death of Jesus God’s will? Was Judas still sinning against God’s revealed moral law that he willed all people to obey? Yes to all. I have no problem with all those verses.
Third, sovereignty does not mean arbitrary. God isn’t choosing people at random. He chooses to set his affection on his people for his own glory and good pleasure.
Fourth, God’s justice is just. Many people point to the hardening of Pharaoh and say, “See, the poor guy didn’t have a choice!” I like what R.C. Sproul says on this, “It is not that God puts his hand on them to create fresh evil in their hearts; he merely removes his holy hand of restraint from them and lets them do their own will.” That sounds a lot like Romans 1, right? The judgment of God is letting sinners do what they want.
You may be thinking, “Sweet, if God is in charge of salvation, then I don’t ever have to witness!” On the contrary, Romans 9 is where confidence for evangelism comes from. Paul, in 2 Timothy 2:10 notes that he endured all things for the sake of the elect. Election is our guarantee that there will be some success in evangelism, for if God chooses to save them, they will be! And remember, God still uses means and we have been commanded to take the gospel to the nations as a part of God’s plan of redemption. At this point, many of you might be thinking, “Yeah, but what’s in it for me? If God can use other people to share the gospel, why should I do it?” I can answer that with one word: joy. Becoming a vessel God can use and watching him use you to change the hearts of people is the greatest fountain of joy ever!
There is also a temptation here to look into the doctrine of election and be angry because my actions don’t matter and if you have grown up in a context where salvation was less about Jesus making you clean and more about making yourself clean for Jesus then you can find a great deal to be irritated about when you come to this doctrine. Luke 15:11-32 The prodigal son(s) show us that one can do all the right things and still be rejected in the end. The grace of the Father is the basis for the party, not the actions of the sons.
Don’t think that this is merely an academic topic for nerdy people to debate, either. This is a biblical reality for you to digest and take comfort from. You may not have known that this was happening to you, but it was. Listen to Charles Spurgeon recall the event surrounding his conversion:
“When I was coming to Christ, I thought I was doing it all myself, and though I sought the Lord earnestly, I had no idea the Lord was seeking me. I do not think the young convert is at first aware of this. I can recall the very day and hour when first I received those truths in my own soul—when they were, as John Bunyan says, burnt into my heart as with a hot iron, and I can recollect how I felt that I had grown on a sudden from a babe into a man—that I had made progress in Scriptural knowledge, through having found, once for all, the clue to the truth of God. One week-night, when I was sitting in the house of God, I was not thinking much about the preacher’s sermon, for I did not believe it. The thought struck me, How did you come to be a Christian? I sought the Lord. But how did you come to seek the Lord? The truth flashed across my mind in a moment—I should not have sought Him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek Him. I prayed, thought I, but then I asked myself, How came I to pray? I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so? Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that He was the Author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me, and from that doctrine I have not departed to this day, and I desire to make this my constant confession, ‘I ascribe my change wholly to God.’”
I understand my own election and thank God for it, what does this mean for my lost friends and family? It means that you put your faith in God to save them. It means that you don’t worry that you are going to say the wrong thing in the wrong way that might send them to hell. It means you keep pleading with them to come to Christ with the knowledge that if Jesus is pursuing them, nothing can stop him. I wish I could tell you that there was some secret way to know that someone was elect, but there isn’t. Spurgeon said that if God had painted a white stripe down the back of the elect he would spend his ministry lifting up shirt tails, but since God didn’t do that, he would preach the gospel. This has to do with the revealed vs. secret will of God. We know that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father drags him, and we know that whosoever will may come. They both put salvation in the hand of God and that’s where you should put it as well.
Election should also stimulate us toward holiness. Bruce Demerest puts it this way, “Reflecting on God’s saving goodness to them, believers realize that they owe everything they are and will become to him. Thus, in wholehearted gratitude they strive to please the Lord in thought, word, and deed throughout the course of their lives.” Think about the Biblical evidence to this end: Ephesians 1:4 says we are predestined in Christ that we might be holy. Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God’s workmanship saved by grace through faith to walk in good works that have been prepared in advance for us to do.
For the Christian, this doctrine should be comforting and strengthening and particularly empowering when it comes to our worship.
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
(1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV)