The first time I began to think seriously about the doctrine of election was about five years ago. At the SBC annual meeting in 2006, president’s Patterson (SWBTS) and Mohler (SBTS) debated the issue of election, and that debate stirred a curiosity that caused me to read quite a bit about the doctrine of election. Often, when focused too deeply on one specific aspect of theology, I can get the feeling of drowning in the ocean of that one particular theological question. Soon, I forget what the shore looks like, or worse, how my particular piece of the ocean relates to the shore.
Poor analogy aside, when studying Romans 9 and God’s purpose in election, I feel the need every once in a while to life my head out of this particular doctrine and to remind myself of how this truth connects to all the other truths of the Bible. I need to be reminded about this truth’s importance, or to see the lack thereof.
Why is it important to understand God’s purpose in election? What is the practical value? What would be lost if Romans 9-11 were just torn from the pages of the Bible? Allow me to offer a few thoughts.
Christian in Name Only
Understanding God’s purpose in election helps to combat the “easy believism” that has become a part of American Christianity. The majority of Americans claim to “believe” in God and that Jesus died for their sins. Most Americans would identify themselves to be Christians, but these are Christians in name only. George Barna identifies them as “Notional Christians,” the 39% of Americans “who describe themselves as Christians, but do not believe that they will have eternal life because of their reliance upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the grace extended to people through a relationship with Christ.” The Arminian driven revivalism of Charles Finney in the 1800s led people to make a decision for Christ but added many to the membership rolls of church who might have mentally agreed with the tenets of the gospel but who had not been reborn and redeemed.
God’s purpose in election is that those whom He chooses by His mercy and calling do become vessels prepared beforehand for his glory (see Romans 9.23). The elect are those who work out their salvation because God is at work in them both “to will and to work for His good pleasure” (see Philippians 2.12-13). Because of God’ gracious choice, the elect not only believe, but they also repent and are sanctified and carry out the good works which God created beforehand for them to do (see Ephesians 2.10). A strong view of election counters those who would be Christians in name only. The predestined will be called, the called will be justified, and the justified will be sanctified. God’s call and grace is effective.
Consider that of the 16 million members of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, only 6 million (or roughly 37%) show up for worship on a Sunday morning. One of the most basic elements of being a follower of Christ is praise and worship, and if one’s supposed faith is so inert that it does not cause them to want to worship the Lord on a regular basis with the gathered church, then is it really faith at all? Church membership has become less significant to a person than a health club membership. Health clubs make most of their money from people who join the club, work out for a couple of months at best, and then pay out their two year commitment but never attend. We can look at the condition of their physical bodies and see that they have not become a new fit creation. Likewise, we can look at the condition of the souls of many who claim to be Christians and see little fruit of being a new creation in Christ. Election says that when God calls, His call is effective.
Security of the Believer
Most people who resist the doctrine of election at least agree with Calvin on one point: the security of the believer. Jacob Arminius, who argued against election and for the free will of mankind, also believed that a person could lose, or abandon, his or her salvation. According to Arminius, if a person could freely choose to believe and faith in Christ, then that same person could freely choose to no longer believe or faith in Christ. Calvin, on the other hand, believed in the perseverance of the saints (the “P” in TULIP). God’s call and grace were effective to bring about salvation, rebirth, regeneration, justification, sanctification, AND glorification. The elect persevere by God’s call and mercy.
At least Arminius held to the consistency of his position of free will. Many today are “One Point Calvinists,” believing in the perseverance of the saints but not in election. According to the “once saved always saved” position, once a person chooses to place their faith in Christ as an expression of their free will, that free will is no longer free. The saved person cannot exercise that free will and choose not to believe.
But it is God’s purpose in election that provides the security of the believer. We are secure in our salvation, not because we are holding on to Him but because He is holding on to us. After all, it is by His mercy not our will or effort. Consider the words of Jesus,
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. (John 10.28-29)
No one can snatch the ones given to Jesus by the Father out of the hands of either Jesus or the Father. Why? Because the Father has given them to the Son. Real security is in the election of the Father.
Inspiration of Scripture
God’s purpose in election, and His effective grace and call also impact our understanding of the inspiration of Scripture. The Scriptures claim to be God’s breath (see 2 Timothy 3.16), and we believe that God spoke through human authors and the words those authors wrote are the very words of God. What we are saying is that God willed the writers to will to write what He willed that they write. Don’t get lost in the “wills” of what I just wrote. A belief in the inspiration of Scripture is founded upon a conviction that God “willed and worked” in the hearts and minds of the human authors in such a way that what they willed to write was exactly what the Lord wanted to be written.
One of the natural questions to ask about God’s purpose in election is how it relates to evangelism and missions. Too often, people have concluded that election precludes, or even forbids, evangelism since God has already chosen whom will be saved. However, if we come to this conclusion, then it only means that we have misunderstood God’s purpose in election because that is not the conclusion that Paul reached in Romans 10.
…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10.9-17 ESV)
God’s purpose in election does not preclude evangelism but demands it. Because William Carey, who believed in election, was convinced that faith comes from hearing, he sailed across the world to preach the good news.
What we often overlook is the problem associated with Arminian evangelism. Charles Finney, the father of revivalism in America in the 19th century, denied the doctrine of election. He taught that faith was fundamentally a human decision, and that salvation was secured by the sinner’s own movement toward God. He believed the purpose of evangelism should therefore be to convince people to choose differently, or as many would say today, “make a decision for Christ.” The preachers task was to secure a decision of faith, applying whatever means proved useful. As a result, we began to proclaim the gospel through the lens of “look what God can do for you.” In effect, we began to market a man centered gospel to a man centered world. Sooner or later, and we are now living in the later, mankind would discover that God either would not or could not help them get what they really wanted, which was the treasures of this world. When God no longer seemed of value, He was tossed aside.
Man centered evangelism eventually ends up with man tossing God aside if He fails to be used as a means to an end. On the other hand, God’s purpose in election is that the name of Jesus be lifted up. When God calls, the elect respond to Jesus as Lord. God’s purpose in election is that His name and glory always remains at the center.
As I wrote yesterday, one of the very practical values of God’s purpose in election is the hope that it gives to us in times of suffering. The foreknew/predestined/called/justified/glorified progression of Romans 8.29-30 is immediately preceded by the great promise of God: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8.28). And as Paul explains God’s purpose in election in Romans 9, he puts it in the context of the vessels prepared for glory coming to know the riches of His glory by living side by side with the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. In other words, it is through suffering that the elect come to know the beauty and greatness of God and come to know the riches of His glory. Like Paul already stated in Romans 8, we eagerly await the redemption of our bodies as we suffer in the bondage to decay because we are hoping for something that we do not yet have (see Romans 8.18-25). And as Romans 8.28 says, all of this plays out under the sovereign hand of God, to the praise of His glorious grace.
Election affirms that the elect are vessels of mercy living in a world held in bondage to decay under the sovereignty of God. While we cannot know the answers to all of the “why” questions, we can know and trust in the sovereignty of God, the eternal plan of God, and we can look for demonstrations of His mercy and power in the midst of trials and sufferings.
While there is much practical value in affirming the doctrine of election, we cannot overlook the difficult questions for which easy answers cannot be found. For instance, if God’s purpose in election is that it depends on His mercy and calling and not upon human will or effort, then why pray? If God has created vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, then does that make God the creator of sin? These are good questions, and they deserve well thought out answers.
But for another day.