Anyone who undertakes an effort to preach through the book of Romans knows that sooner or later, chapter 9 is coming. While the bulk of Romans deals with justification (how we are made right with God) or sanctification (the process of being conformed to the image of Christ), chapters 9-11 present the doctrine of election very clearly and unashamedly. The doctrine of election (also known as predestination, the doctrines of grace, reformed theology, Calvinism, etc) is the doctrine that God has chosen some people to be recipients of His favor and grace, specifically that some would receive salvation and that others would not.
Most Baptists that I know reject such an idea out of hand. “God’s offer of salvation is for all who would respond in faith,” they say. “Whosever will may come,” they emphasize. And since I grew up in a Baptist church, went to a Baptist college, and graduated from a Baptist seminary, I naturally assumed the doctrine of election was the fanciful creation of the Presbyterian denomination.
The problem came when I began to notice the concept of election and predestination in Scripture. And not just once. Over and over again. Sometimes the Scriptures just mention “the elect” as a designation of God’s people:
For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. (Matthew 24.21-11)
And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13.27)
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. (2 Timothy 2.10)
Of course, it would easy to identify the “elect” as just another term for “Christian,” but the word means “picked out, chosen.” For years, I just told myself the “elect” were those that God knew would one day put their faith in Him. But the Scriptures goes beyond just using the term “elect” and actually develops the doctrine in depth. On several occasions, Jesus said that the people who come to Him, or believe in Him are those who are given to Him by the Father:
But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6.36-37)
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6.44-45)
But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6.64-65)
Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10.26-30)
It seems that the “elect,” or the “picked out ones,” are those whom the Father has chosen to be given to the Son. And if one was not chosen by the Father for salvation, they would not believe. Consider the following:
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. (John 15.15-16)
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. (Acts 13.48)
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8.29-30)
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, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1.3-6)
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1.11)
The word translated “predestined” means “to predetermine or decide beforehand” and the word translated in Ephesians 1.4 as “chosen” is the same word Jesus used in Mark 13.27 (the “elect.”). Those who believed were those appointed to eternal life, those predestined according to the purpose of His will.
And if these verses are not troubling enough for a good Baptist, consider these other Scriptures that clearly describe that salvation is the work of God within the soul of a lost person and has nothing to do with works, even the work of belief. It is all the gift and work of God.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1.12)
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. (Acts 16.14)
So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened. (Romans 11.5-7)
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2.8-9)
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, (2 Timothy 1.9)
All of this biblical teaching about the doctrine of election is enough to make a good Baptist’s head spin.
Just to be clear, here is a definition of election from Professor Thomas Schreiner of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that makes it very clear as to what we are speaking of:
God unconditionally elects individuals to be saved. By “unconditionally” we mean that God, in eternity past, freely chooses specific individuals whom he will save and that his choice is not based on their foreseen faith or effort. God does not simply foresee, say Calvinists, that certain people will put their faith in him, for apart from his work of grace to overcome their resistance to him no one would or could desire to come. Rather, he foreordains and determines that those who have been chosen will exercise faith.
But what about free will? Doesn’t the doctrine of election seem unfair and unjust? What about evangelism and the free offer of salvation to all who will believer? I know these questions all too well because I have asked them myself. In fact, Paul was asked those very questions himself, and he answered them straight on in Romans chapters 9-11.
This is what makes Romans 9 so challenging. Paul doesn’t just state the doctrine of election but he wrestles with it in Romans 9, and forces us to wrestle with it too. In the end, we either have to dismiss the doctrine of election because it does not fit our theological model or we have to wrestle with it. Romans 9 is for wrestlers. Be forewarned.
I leave you today with a few words from the great Baptist preacher from the 19th century, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. On January 16, 1859, he was preaching from Romans 9 and began his sermon with these words:
Do not imagine for an instant that I pretend to be able thoroughly to elucidate the great mysteries of predestination. There are some men who claim to know all about the matter. They twist it round their fingers as easily as if it were an everyday thing; but depend upon it, he who thinks he knows all about this mystery, knows but very little. It is but the shallowness of his mind that permits him to see the bottom of his knowledge; he who dives deep, finds that there is in the lowest depth to which he can attain a deeper depth still. The fact is, that the great questions about man’s responsibility, free-will, and predestination, have been fought over, and over, and over again, and have been answered in ten thousand different ways; and the result has been, that we know just as much about the matter as when we first began. The combatants have thrown dust into each other’s eyes, and have hindered each other from seeing; and then they have concluded, that because they put other people’s eyes out, they could therefore see.
Now, it is one thing to refute another man’s doctrine, but a very different matter to establish my own views. It is very easy to knock over one man’s hypothesis concerning these truths, not quite so easy to make my own stand on a firm footing. I shall try to-night, if I can, to go safely, if I do not go very fast; for I shall endeavour to keep simply to the letter of God’s Word. I think that if we kept more simply to the teachings of the Bible, we should be wiser than we are; for by turning from the heavenly light of revelation, and trusting to the deceitful will-o’-the-wisps of our own imagination, we thrust ourselves into quags and bogs where there is no sure footing, and we begin to sink; and instead of making progress, we find ourselves sticking fast. The truth is, neither you nor I have any right to want to know more about predestination than what God tells us. That is enough for us. If it were worth while for us to know more, God would have revealed more. What God has told us, we are to believe, but to the knowledge thus gained, we are too apt to add our own vague notions, and then we are sure to go wrong. It would be better, if in all controversies, men had simply stood hard and fast by “Thus saith the Lord,” instead of having it said, “Thus and thus I think.” I shall now endeavour, by the help of the Holy Spirit, to throw the light of God’s Word upon this great doctrine of divine sovereignty, and give you what I think to be a Scriptural statement of the fact, that some men are chosen, other men are left,—the great fact that is declared in this text,—” Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”