Election. I say the word and all kinds of thoughts come up. “that’s the doctrine we don’t want to talk about.” “Or we need to talk more about it.” It might bring up images of a God who is arbitrary – a God who controls – a puppeteer. Election. What do we mean by it?
Today we come to one of the hardest and maybe one of the most debated topics in the Confession: the doctrine of election. But before we begin let me say a few words.
First about doctrine: All doctrine is important because all doctrine is practical. Lets never shy away from it. Some churches may say, “We don't get too deep into doctrine and theology." It just divides they say. They may see shallowness as a virtue But The more I read the Bible the less I sympathize with this view. The apostles saw doctrine as tremendously practical. When Peter begins his letter with the phrase "elect aliens," he believes it is practically helpful to know that you are among the elect. So I urge you not to be pragmatists who belittle doctrines like election. Rather, be like the apostles who cherish the doctrine of election and put it at the very beginning of their letters, because it is so practical for daily living
Could it be that one of the reasons the church is weak today is because we are constantly trying to take practical short cuts. As Piper says, “Maybe we are meant to be strong in faith and love and hope and joy and practical service not in spite of doctrine, but because of doctrine.”
Second about how we use doctrine: it is important with a doctrine like this one that we use it for the intended purpose. All of us have friends, co-workers or family who have seemingly turned their backs on the gospel of Jesus Christ – many maybe because of the arrogance of Christians. Growing in Christ should lead to greater humility, not greater arrogance. More unity not less!
You see it is part of our sinful nature to even use the truth of Gods word self righteously. For example, with the doctrine of election we us it to put people in different camps. Elect and not elect. This is the wrong use of the doctrine.
So how do we use this doctrine beneficially? We use it the way the Bible uses it. As a warning and as a comfort. It is meant to be both a warning to those who are in the covenant community and think they are saved simply by being part of the covenant, and at the same time a comfort to those in the covenant community and are afraid that they may not be saved – or worried they will never make it into the arms of their savior.
Ok with that, lets dive into the doctrine of election by looking at Romans 9.
Our salvation depends on our sovereign God who has mercy on whom he wills and hardens whom he wills.
- Election as warning (God is Just)
- Election as comfort (God is merciful)
Election as a warning (God is Just)
In order to understand Romans 9, you need to understand where it is in the context of the book of Romans. Paul has declared that all men are sinners and fall short of the glory of God. There is no difference when it comes to the Jews (the covenant community) or the gentiles. All sin. All are dead in sin. We have confessed something similar in Article 15 of the Belgic Confession.
This is critical. TO understand the doctrine of the fall before we get to the doctrine of election. You need to diagnose the disease before you can treat it. In the same way, Paul is not envisaging a state of universal pre-existent innocence in his treatment of election but working with ideas that he has already formulated in chapters 2 and 3 concerning the universal guilt and condemnation of mankind.
Paul is making a distinction between those on whom God “has mercy” and those whom he “hardens,” which are both terms which refer to the treatment of the already guilty. Mercy means underserved favor. And hardens means they were already hard to begin with. In other words universal guilt is in the background here.
Paul up to this point has explained that all are justified by Faith in Jesus Christ, that there is no such thing as salvation by works, then talked about the Christian life in chapter 7 and 8. And ends chapter 8 with that beautiful section that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Probably some of the most well known words for the Christian.
But can you imagine a Jew reading that? And thinking – “what happened to everything God promised to us as his covenant people. You say nothing can separate us from the love of God, Paul. But it sure looks like we have been cut off?! Are you forgetting about your own people, Paul?” We come from the heights of triumph in chapter 8, to the depths of unfulfilled longing in chapter 9. If what Paul is saying is true in chapter 8, then the question of the Jewish people must be answered, which is exactly what Paul proceeds to do in the following chapters of 9-11.
We find the key to unlocking this section in verse 6a where the question is asked, “Has God’s word failed?” No not at all: For not all Israel is Israel. Just because you are a descendant of Abraham does not mean you are part of the family. It was about receiving the DNA of Abraham – but the one who received the promise!
It was not Abraham who decided who belong the Gods family it was God all along! And Paul proves this by showing that not all Abrahams children were truly part of the family. It was God who chose. That Paul’s big point here. Israel you are taking it for granted that because you are children of Abraham you are saved. That has never been the case! Look at your history. Ishmael and Isaac both had his DNA. Isaac received the promise. Or go one generation further: Even the twins who were born out of the same sexual act shared the womb: One was chosen the other not. Its not your works, you DNA, your heritage, your family, that save you. Not your Jewishness, or dutchness, or afrikaanness, or VGKness that saves you. God saves you.
He makes that point in verse. 11b and 12, “In order that Gods purpose in election might stand: Not by works but by him who call.” And again, in verse 16, “It does not, therefore, depend on mans desire or effort, but on Gods mercy.”
What is mercy? Undeserved favor. We are not getting what we deserve. He has a legitimate right to leave all under condemnation. God never chose Abraham because of how Good Abraham was, or how good his descendants were or how much they wanted it – but because God is merciful. So don’t assume that you are saved. Because of anything but the grace of God – and rest and live and work in that.
So this is a warning to us….
But even in his justice you see his mercy. You see that in the example he used. How he hardened Pharaoh so that his people might believe in him and he might be glorified! Now before God hardened Pharaoh, he was not innocent. He was born in sin. We have to make that clear. He deserved the death penalty, there were thousands of innocent babies on his hands long before the Bible says God hardened his heart.
We also see this in the hardening of Israel and here he spells it out explicitly in verse 22: What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory know to the objects of his mercy, whom he had prepared in advance for his glory – even us, whom when also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
The “What if” here is open ended, leaving the conclusion to be supplied by the reader. It is noteworthy that Paul does not make a simple dogmatic statement concerning God’s purposes and intentions, but only suggests this as a possibility. The point is not that God will, in fact, use the unbelieving nation of Israel to show his wrath and power or that the unbelieving Israelites are to be written off as vessels for destruction, but that human beings would be in no position to judge!
You see this is a warning to Israel! You cant play God and say who deserves to be saved and who doesn’t? You cant say, we deserve it and they don’t! What if God decides he want to harden you so he can save those people you thought never deserved saving! Don’t act like you deserve it. It Is God who choses. All your worth, your efforts, you background – nothing saves except God and him alone. Grace alone.
But he never hardens or shows mercy to anyone without definite purpose. Some people have this idea he just randomly chooses. No God is never random. God didn’t flip a coin: “heads” = you’re in heaven, “tails” = you’re in hell. No! God selected this one by name and that one by name, and consciously passed over this one by name and that one by name. And it was according to his good pleasure as we read in Ephesians! It pleased him to choose some for salvation out from among the mass of hell deserving sinners. God’s choice wasn’t driven by forces outside himself. God was not acting to conform with some external rule.
I think here is where sinful humanity struggles. We simply don’t like it when god acts like God: We simply don’t like the idea that the reason for God’s choices resides wholly within God. And we ant get in the mind of God. We get frustrated. Just like when you ask your spouse what he is thinking and he saying, “O nothing” and you just want to jump into his brain. Or our children, we ask them after they did something not so smart, “What were you thinking?!” We want them t give an account of their decision.
In the same we can want God to account for his decision. We want to explain it, to rationalize it, to provide grounds and warrant for it. We want to be able to point to something outside of God that explains his actions. We want to point to this quality or that personality trait or some accomplishment in one that isn’t in another as the grounds for God’s decision.
Don’t worry you are not alone in not liking this. Paul had the same questions fired at him in verse 19. And he answers with some questions saying, who are we? Are we God? God is good. He has purpose for everything his purpose is good. But does he always have to answer to us? Would we even understand it? The fact that we think it should be something outside of God shows that we still want humans to be the deciders, and we don’t get how sinful we are.
But if God choses what is the point of Believing. And here comes our second point.
Election as comfort (God is merciful)
The Gospel call goes out to all, and all who believe are elect. Here I would like to start with a paraphrase form Spurgeon:
“Now, I will ask you one question. Is there any of you here this morning who wishes to be saved? Wishes to be made new? Filled with Joy?
"Yes, there is," says someone, "I do." Then God has elected you.
But another says, "No; I don't want to be holy; I don't want to give up my lusts and my vices (Sins)." Why should you grumble, then, that God has not elected you to it? For if you were elected you would not like it…
If you do not, what right have you to say that God ought to have given you what you do not wish for? Supposing I had in my hand something which you do not want, and I said I shall give it to such-and-such a person, you would have no right to grumble that I did not give to you. It is foolish to be angry about someone getting what you never wanted. According to your own confession, many of you do not want a new heart and a right spirit, do not want the forgiveness of sins, do not want sanctification; you do not want to be elected to these things: then why should you grumble?
If you believe them to be good and desire them, they are there for you. God gives liberally to all those who desire; and first of all, he makes them desire, otherwise they never would. If you love these things, he has elected you to them, and you may have them; but if you do not, who are you that you should find fault with God, when it is your own desperate will that keeps you from loving these things—your own simple self that makes you hate them?
If any of you love to be saved by Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ elected you to be saved. If any of you desire to have salvation, you are elected to have it, if you desire it sincerely and earnestly.
Dear church – God is merciful! If you desire this day to be saved you are saved! You are elect! And he has placed this gift of desire in you! And if he has done so, and placed his electing love upon you then fear not child of God for present or future, for angels or demons, nor any powers, nor anything else in all creation will separation you from his love. IF his electing love has been placed upon you then it will carry you home.
Isn't that Amazing! And this is a huge comfort! The apostles use this doctrine beautifully. Look for example with me at 1 peter 1:2 What Peter does here is teach us three things about divine election. All this in the first sentence of his letter—that's how important it is. Amazing! And if there are people that needed this doctrine it was the church spread all over the world enduring great hardship and persecutions.
There are three phrases in verse 2 that tell us about our election. 1) We are elect "according to the foreknowledge of God." We are elect "by (or in) the sanctifying work of the Spirit. 3) We are elect "that [we] may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled by his blood."
Peter really wants you to understand your life in the world in relation to God. He wants you to see all your life connected to God in a certain way. God behind you choosing you. God before you preparing the way for you. God within you strengthening your resolve to walk in that way!
First of all you are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. The Father of creation – the infinitely good, loving almighty father has chose to love you. The Fathers electing love is behind you. But not only is his electing love behind you, but it is also within you – through the Spirit – who is a seal that you have God as his farther. But it also goes ahead of you that your destiny is to obey Jesus Christ and find refuge in his blood on the cross.
He puts election behind you. He puts election in you. He puts election in front of you. That's what those three phrases do. Behind you is the basis of God's election, in you is the experience of election, In front of you is the destiny of election. Peter engulfs us with election. He really wants us to get this. To live out of it and to live in it and to live for it. To make our calling and election sure! Our election is rooted in the foreknowledge of God the Father. Our election is experienced by the sanctifying work of the Spirit. And the aim of our election is that we obey Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
What's clear from this is that Peter is not throwing words away. Everything is chosen to engulf us in God. And the best way to engulf us in God is to press home the doctrine of election with its past origin and its present experience and its future purpose, and to show that the whole Trinity is involved in your life from beginning to end. This is all God from beginning to end! This is a huge comfort to me a struggling saint! I keep looking to God! God you called me! Give what you call of me! And he does!
So returning back to the introduction: Is it not wonderful the apostle of the Lord Jesus, writing to struggling churches in trial and distress, should begin with such profound teaching on divine election, even before his greeting is out? And yet today many don’t want to “get into theology."
O dear church this doctrine helps us to understand God, understand our salvation, and be strengthened in the darkest of times! With David we can say, “You hem me in behind and before!”
So lets warn each other when we see ourselves getting lax in the faith – “Make your calling and election sure!” And comfort each other when we struggle in the faith, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord.