In wrestling with the doctrine of election, it is my desire to come to a biblical understanding of “God’s purpose of election” (Romans 9.11) and not just to study some theological system, such as Calvinism or Arminianism. Theological systems are sometimes easier to deal with because they have sanded off all the rough edges of some difficult biblical teachings in order to make them fit into a neat theological systemic box. But like it or not, there remains some “mystery of the faith” (see 1 Timothy 3.9), some paradoxes that are counter intuitive and beyond the capacity of our earthly bound minds to understand. These mysteries don’t make the faith invalid, but they do stretch our understanding. But better to wrestle with them than to ignore them.
For instance, in Romans 9, Paul wrote that God’s purpose of election is to demonstrate that salvation does not depend on human will or human effort but on God who has mercy (see Romans 9.16). Effort, or works, or human striving is not capable of making a sinner right with God (see Romans 3.20). But, if we conclude from Romans 9 that since we are made right with God by God’s mercy and calling we do not need to put forth any effort or striving or works into following Christ, then we have missed the gospel. There is indeed a striving, but it is of a different kind. Consider these words from Romans 9,
30What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. (Romans 9.30-32 ESV)
The Gentiles, who had not been trying to observe the Law, attained a righteousness by faith. But the Jews, who had been trying to observe the Law, did not attain righteousness. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith.
Earlier in Romans, Paul wrote that having been released from the law, “we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7.6). There is a pursuit, a serving, a striving, an effort, and a work for those who are justified by faith, but it is totally different than the works, the striving, the effort, and the serving of those who are trying to be made righteous by their works, striving, or efforts. The redeemed pursue righteousness by faith.
Consider all of the times an apostle in the New Testament wrote of working or striving for God.
- Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Colossians 1.28-29 ESV)
- But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15.10 ESV)
- Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 2.5-6 ESV)
- I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4.13 ESV)
- Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2.12-13 ESV)
There is, beyond a doubt, a striving and effort that flows forth from becoming a new creation in Christ by the redeeming work of God. And this effort and striving is not in contradiction to God’s purpose in election, but in concert with it.
All the while that I have been reading Romans 9, I have been thinking of 2 Peter 1. Remembering what Paul wrote in Romans 9.16 (“So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy”), consider the writings of the apostle Peter,
3His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1.3-11 ESV)
Peter began with language that is very familiar to Romans 9 and Ephesians 1. God has granted to the elect all things that pertain to life and godliness. God called us to His own glory. God has granted to us precious promises. These phrases and ideas come almost directly from Romans 8-9.
And yet, Peter had no problem teaching “those who have obtained a faith by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (see 2 Peter 1.1) to make every effort to supplement (or add to) their faith. After listing seven qualities that should be not only present among the redeemed, but also increasing, Peter wrote that we are to be all the more diligent (same word used in verse 5) to make our calling and election sure. By making every effort to add to our faith and to make our calling and election sure, we can be assured that we will be richly provided an entrance into the eternal kingdom of Christ.
If Paul wrote in Romans 9 that we are secured because of God’s calling and election, then why would Peter teach that we are to make every effort to make our calling and election secure? If Paul wrote that it does not depend on human will or effort or works, then why would Peter teach that if we are not making every effort to add to our faith that we would become ineffective and unfruitful? Are Paul and Peter on the same page?
Lord, open our minds to comprehend the mystery of the gospel!