One topic in particular that I constantly struggled with was that of election and free will. Who doesn’t struggle with it? Emotionally, it is hard to grasp, especially when we only consider the surface implications without consulting the Bible. Upon further and deeper searching, with the help of other teachers who have gone before us, I have learned a lot more about the side effects of believing or doubting election. That’s what inspired me to put my thoughts on paper.
I have been reading John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” which was first published in 1536 and was then expanded a couple times later on. Known as his Magnum Opus, which, in this case, means the single greatest literary masterpiece of an author, Calvin expounded on many topics including the creation, the fall of man, original sin, free will, Christ as our mediator, Savior, Lord, etc.
Most of us have all heard of “Calvinism” as a type of theology, mainly one that stands in stark contrast to Arminianism, so named after the late 16th century theologian, Jacobus Arminius. Calvinism can be summed up into five points that define the biblical understanding of salvation. Arminius, later, countered with his own five points that took the opposite view. Unfortunately, these five points are usually all Calvin is known for, especially the points on predestination, election, and other doctrines of grace. You may remember the five points with the TULIP acronym: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. All that to say, let me clear about something . . . having read his entire Institutes, I can attest that Calvin had a lot more than five points to make. These, again, just pertain to the theology of salvation—soteriology.
Calvin really had a lot more to say about the Bible and God’s working from creation until now, in the lives of people, but the five points mark a specific issue that Christians need to be aware of. This issue is that which centers on soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Soteriology has been split by these two thoughts that we know as Calvinism and Arminianism because of the issue of free will, or the efficaciousness of either the Holy Spirit, or man’s desire. Efficaciousness literally means “pertaining to the process of effecting”. Basically, does God effectually bring someone to salvation, or does man come to that point of making a decision for Christ on his own accord?
You can probably already see how this can cause hairs to be split and fists to be raised. The general complaint about Calvinism is that it upholds a robotic, almost empty personality-type of life, as if Christians are then forced to be saved because they aren’t deciding for themselves. The common complaint against Arminianism is that it lacks grace, which is the only means by which we can be saved, and upholds human merit as a part of the process of salvation. This is the basic dispute.
There are a few things that I want to bring to the surface right away before we see what the Bible says about God’s will and man’s will. First, nobody comes to salvation in Christ with a comprehensive understanding of the will of God and his divine intervention. The basic acknowledgement and calling upon the name of Christ as Lord and repentance of sins are all that the new believer knows to do.
This argument should not make people be afraid of whether or not they are saved, although we should always test and examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith, as Paul told the Corinthians. Again, while we don’t want people to be afraid of their security in Christ, we do want people to be confirmed in it. If you do feel insecure, then a self-examination, in light of Scripture, will be in your best interest. That’s what the Bible does: convicts us and teaches us where we are right or wrong in our walks for the Lord.
Second, know that not everything about God will be made known to us this side of Heaven. Some things will remain a mystery. For example, try explaining how God has always been uncreated. You will boggle your mind when you consider the possibility of it. I believe that the fullness of God’s wisdom in the process of salvation will make much more sense when we see him face to face; however we do have enough in the Bible to tell us exactly what we are before and after salvation and what exactly is required to be saved from our sin and how it happens.
Many of us know the obvious passages that establish God’s predestination and election of the saints. Let’s start with Ephesians. The first chapter digs right into a praise of God’s glorious grace in how he predestines and calls people to repentance, even before the creation of the world. There is no ambiguous language here. Verses 4 and 5 say:
“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”
I’m not sure how else this could be said to be any more convincing, but for anyone who has doubts, there is plenty more here, as elsewhere in Scripture, that we will look at.
Continued in verses 11 and 12, it says, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”
We were actually chosen, or selected by God, to be predestined for adoption as an heir in Christ. Let’s consider Arminian thought at this point. Most Arminians will say they believe in Conditional Election, whereas Calvin taught Unconditional Election. The difference is that Arminius taught that God only chose people who he foreknew would respond to his call. So…he chose people who already decided, which really makes God’s “choosing” pointless. Some say that God elects some, but not all. The rest can decide on their own.
Remember when you were the last one to get picked for kickball in junior high? If both teams had an even amount of players, then you could sometimes jump in on either one. The team that got stuck with you didn’t choose you. You chose them. It would almost be a lie to say that the team that received you as their player actually chose you. They didn’t. This is where I feel Conditional Election falls on its face.
It’s an attempt to explain something that is difficult to grasp, emotionally. Think about that, too. It is emotionally difficult (at first) to accept that God would decide, so to speak, who will be saved. We will get to this because it’s important, often misunderstood, and a great question to ask.
Chapter two goes on to explain how we were actually dead, spiritually. By nature we were following our sinful, fleshly desires of the world. We were losing to the sinful desires which made war against our souls, as Peter talks about in 1 Peter 2:11. What chance do you think a corpse would have at bringing itself to life? No, seriously… it’s exactly like that. Don’t let the “spiritual” aspect put a make believe feeling on all of this stuff. Sometimes concepts like this can be hard to really see for what it is when in fact, we were a spiritual corpse. Our only hope at life was from an outside intervention, apart from ourselves, that could step in and change us from a state of filthy, rotting rags to a life overflowing with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Remember this analogy because we’ll keep referring to it.
Ephesians 2:4,5: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”
This is gold right here. Think of God, upon seeing our corpse rotting on a table, stepping up to breathe real life into us: spiritual, eternal life. This is called regeneration and is done by the Holy Spirit. God has to bring us to a point of acknowledging him as Lord. We can’t when we’re dead, but when he opens up our eyes, we will.
It is only because of God’s mercy he did this. We deserved to stay the way we were and to continue our path of disobedience and end up in Hell. That’s where we were headed. Scary stuff. Thankfully, because of God’s mercy and great love for us, He made us alive, even though we were effectively dead. Listen to this ending statement of this wonderful truth—it is by grace you have been saved. That’s the only way a spiritually dead man can be brought to life…by grace. It is the only hope of salvation that we have—on God alone to bring us to eternal life. When we really get this and understand that we no longer have Hell as a (deserved) destination forever and ever, we can really have something to praise God for. It is the understanding of these great differences of what is deserved, versus what is received (grace!) that humbles us and brings forth worship so heartfelt that no worship concert could ever do it justice.
Calvin knew this when he said, “For were it not said in clear terms, that Divine wrath, and vengeance, and eternal death, lay upon us, we should be less sensible of our wretchedness without the mercy of God, and less disposed to value the blessing of deliverance.”
I once heard a great example of what grace is. Consider a judge sitting behind his counter with his gavel in his right hand, ready to smack the wood plate, signifying a final verdict. The criminal is standing before him, head down, knowing his fate is sealed while the judge is looking over his records. He had stolen millions from people in bad investments. Imagine the judge telling him that he was going to let him go without spending one night in prison, even after millions of dollars were stolen from thousands of people! This is mercy. Now imagine that the judge stepped down from the bench, looked him in the eye and then, without a word, wrote out a check from his personal bank account for the millions of dollars that he owed, so that this criminal could pay back his clients and never have to bear the penalty for his sin. This, my friends, is grace: being given something that you could never deserve or never achieve on your own. He wasn’t only pardoned, he was given much more. So it is with the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of eternal life, upon receiving Christ as our Lord.
So the question must be begged: Where, then, does free will fit in to our lives at all? How can God hold us responsible for sin if he decides who will remain unsaved? There have been many thoughts on this subject and many of them posed by some of the most famous philosophers. Calvin read many of them and only found Augustine to be agreeable in his understanding of it. Augustine was also a student of the Bible who was a famous orator (speaker) in his day. His education in speaking and writing started bearing some real fruit when he came to a saving faith in the Lord as an adult. I have personally read his book “The Confessions” and was greatly impressed with his understanding of human nature and how we can be so silly in looking to everything but God for answers in this life. Like Calvin, he had a way of explaining things that are sometimes difficult for even teachers today.
Some lines of thinking will say that man has free will in animal instinct and compulsion, but not in spirituality. Others may say, like Arminius, that we have free will for everything as we are created as logical, sensible creatures. Calvin appeals to Scripture for the obvious parts of this argument. The part that is the most difficult for us human peons to settle with is that God sometimes does things that do not have an apparent reason, other than being for his undisclosed purpose and will. Sometimes that’s all he will reveal to us.
God said to Moses in Exodus 33:19, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Interestingly enough, this is right after God told Moses that he would be with the Israelites and go with them on their journey from Egypt so that the rest of the nations on the Earth would know that they were the favored nation of God. Israel was chosen. No other nation was a God-fearing nation, thus practically guaranteeing spiritual death just for being born into a non-Israeli camp. Unless a foreigner was accepted into the Israelite fold to worship God, the other nations were doomed in idolatry. The accepted foreigner had to go by the rules of the Mosaic Law, like any other Israelite (Exodus 12:48).
Some of the most helpful passages for me to reconcile the fact that people do make decisions, and are held responsible for them, as well as the necessary initiation of God, through election and predestination to be able to willingly accept Christ, are found here:
Philippians 2:12, 13: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
Isn’t that a fascinating verse? It is God working in us that allows us to will and to act, so it is still driven by his grace that we can make Godly decisions and fulfill his good purposes that he has predestined us for. If someone still doesn’t like that, then they are doomed to their own refusal to believe the truth about man’s depravity as well as God’s sovereignty.
Romans 1:18-32 talks about how God has clearly made himself known to all men, even through creation. Not only does it imply that He is a great architect, but his invisible qualities are made known through what was made, so that men have no excuse to ignore God. Here is the kicker and probably the hardest part for people to accept. Everyone has a chance to know of God, somehow or another. Everyone will have made a “willing choice” to either accept or reject Jesus as Lord, but only God can bring a person to the point of being willing. Does that make sense?
People will willingly tell you that they hate religion, hate God, and reject the Bible as truth. People who do this will also tell you that that decision is their own. However, if God opened their eyes to the reality of their decision and called that person to repentance, they would then willingly repent and they would emphatically tell you, “Yes! I DO need Jesus!” Does that help? Apart from God, they are blind, but they also willingly blind.
So, while people may have a mind of their own to make their decisions in what is right and wrong, they are still stuck in their fallen state until God quickens them to repentance, through regeneration of the Holy Spirit. They will never be able to decide, apart from God’s first act, to follow Christ. It’s impossible.
Romans 8:5-8 says, “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.”
For those people who God does not regenerate, He gives over to their own sinful desires, shameful lusts, and depraved minds (Romans 1:24, 26 & 28). We may think this as being unfair, but, again, the people sinning are doing what they want to do in the first place! They aren’t mad at God for not saving them. The only people that get mad at this idea are Christians who do not believe it is God’s authority to decide who comes to Him. Is that not a little backwards?
Here’s another huge implication of affirming Conditional Election and free will: It denies God’s sovereignty and omnipotence. This is where we get dangerous in what we refuse to believe. You cannot say that you believe God is omnipotent, which means all powerful, over everything, and deny his work in election at the same time. You would be contradicting yourself. It’s a simple matter of definition.
What does omnipotence really mean? An online dictionary will quickly tell you it means having unlimited, or universal power. Scripture easily confirms this attribute of God. Genesis 18:14 asks, “Is anything too hard for God?” Luke 18:27 says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”
Paul has a great piece in his letter to the Colossians about the supremacy of God. Chapter 1, verses 15 through 20 say, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
How perfectly explained, the power of God. He is firstborn over all creation, living and dead, so that he is supreme over every possible thing. This means He is in control of everything. Nothing is beyond Him, nor can escape Him. Everything happens as He determines and purposes.
God says “I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God […] I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:5-7).
We can’t say that God is supreme over everything, holding all power and wisdom, with nothing He doesn’t already know or hasn’t already determined, and then say that he waits to see who chooses Him, so that he can then elect them, like Arminianism claims. He doesn’t wait to find out anything. Are we going to deny that God knows everything? Is He now also no longer omniscient?
Omniscience is another attribute of God that almost everyone will agree to, like omnipotence. Omniscience means knowing everything. Nothing is unknown to God. He knows what has happened and what is going to happen from every wisp of breath to all the hidden plans of man for all ages. He knows how many hairs are on your head and when a sparrow will fall down dead.
We see all throughout Scripture, evidence of God’s omniscience. Matthew 12 shows how Jesus knew the thoughts of the Pharisees, regardless of what they actually said. He knew their motives. John 2:24 & 25 says that Jesus knew all people and knew what was in each person. God alone knows every human heart (1 Kings 8:39). Isaiah says no one can fathom God’s understanding (another reason to not presume on God, or doubt what God says, even if it doesn’t make logical sense), (40:28). Psalm 139 is all about the infiniteness of God in knowledge and presence. Finally, 1 John 3:20 says so plainly that God is greater than our hearts and that He knows everything.
If God had to wait and see who would choose Him and who wouldn’t, then we are also saying that He doesn’t know everything and that he didn’t have a plan for everyone before the creation of the world, thus rejecting the claims of the first two chapters of Ephesians. At what point do we start believing the Bible if we don’t believe this part? Rejecting the doctrine of election is the same thing as rejecting God’s ultimate omnipotence, superiority and omniscience. Christians need to realize the significance of this doctrine and neither reject it, nor turn a blind eye to it due to its controversy.
If God didn’t know who would accept him, then the implications of what he does and doesn’t know are suddenly magnified. It begs tons of questions. At what point in human will does God begin to know us and what point does he not know? How does God know people’s thoughts, yet not have an idea if they will accept Him or reject Him? Why can God be in control of all things and impact people’s lives by hardening and softening their hearts, but have no say in their decision to follow Christ? The problems this creates is overwhelming and it is something that the advocates of the freedom of will to choose Christ do not consider. If they really did, then they would see the huge contradiction in believing God’s omniscience, omnipotence and supremacy, while believing in a free choice for salvation apart from God’s initiation.
The next million dollar question is: Does God then create people who will live, just to go to Hell? The best answer I find is in Romans, chapter 9. Chapters 8 through 11 are perhaps some of the heaviest and most convincing passages on election and predestination, and subsequently, free will. Verses 11 through 24 are especially helpful in this area because the apostle Paul poses arguments that we still get today and answers them for us. This should be the passage to clear up all other passages, really.
Verses 11-13: “Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”
Paul immediately follows up with the question on all of our minds: “What then shall we say? Is God unjust?”
We see that before these babies had a chance to do anything to merit their destiny or determine the outcome of their “karma”, which has become a popular idea in the western world now, God had decided how they were going to turn out. Why? Well, Paul already said two things: 1) God’s purpose in election would be shown clearly through this example; 2) This would show that works had nothing to do with God calling people. Again, this defies Arminian thought to its face. God acts first; He doesn’t wait for a human decision to determine who comes to Him. God is omniscient and God is omnipotent.
Paul says, “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’.”
This is sometimes the best answer we will get from God. When we ask the big question: Why?! He can simply tell us, “My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please” (Isaiah 46:10). As God: creator, master, ruler, ultimate superior…Can we question that? We must accept that God does as he pleases to the purpose of his glory and will and sometimes that does not make sense to us, but we are only finite humans trying to understand an infinite God. The limitation is in us.
Paul comes to his first conclusion in this and then makes another great example in verses 16 through 18: “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”
Did you catch that first part? The point that Paul is trying to make is that human desire and effort has no bearing on our salvation whatsoever. Let me clarify that it does not cause salvation. Once we are regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit, then God works in us to will and to act according to His purpose (Philippians 2:13). From start to finish, it is all based on God’s sovereign acts of grace in our lives.
This is a real reason to praise God for his mercy and grace in your life. He chose you! If he hadn’t and you thought you made that decision on your own, then you could never have a legitimate assurance of your salvation, since it was based on you. If God made that decision do you think you have any reason to doubt your salvation or whether or not you can lose it? Isaiah 43:13b says “No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it?”
As a side note, Calvin’s fifth point is about the Perseverance of the Saints. Basically, you cannot lose your salvation upon being regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Arminius taught that you can lose your salvation and fall from grace. No wonder he believes it if he teaches that salvation is up to you!
To really challenge our grasp of this idea that God basically determines people to never follow Him, let’s look at the example of Pharaoh that Paul brought up. Paul was quoting Exodus 9 when He said that Pharaoh was raised up for the very purpose of making God’s glory known through his rebellion. Not only that, but at least four different times, Exodus says that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12, 10:20, 10:27, & 11:10). Again, because God has mercy on who He wants and He hardens who He wants.
Paul knew the difficulty in understanding this concept and what people would naturally want to say in response to his writing so far, so he says in verses 19 through 21: One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?”
Since God made everything and planned everything and is control over everything, then it is not a difficult thing to accept that He even determines who will come to Him and who won’t. He’s in charge of it all. Again, no one is going to die as a non-Christian, mad that God never saved them. People are willingly sinning and rejecting God. But, then, how can we agree that God decides who’s going to be saved; There is no free will; He raises people up for the purpose of using them to display His glory, yet agree that people are sinning willfully? How does that not contradict itself?
The answer to this conundrum is found in man’s original state and fallen nature. Adam’s sin and subsequent fall from perfection has caused every person to be inherently sinful. No one is born with the hopes that they can remain perfect because they haven’t made any mistakes yet. Everyone is, by default, headed for damnation. Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” This is an understanding we need to have of our original life because it makes the mercy and grace of God that much sweeter when we’re rescued from it.
Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Romans 3 says, “For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.’”
The language here is clear. We are inherently sinful. Granted, some people by nature are more generous than others and can perform more good works than others, and that is still by a gift of God, but it does not imply salvation or a life free from the bondage of sin and death. Actually, since we are bound by sin and only know how to operate in such a way, then it isn’t right to say that we have “free will” anyway because we are enslaved to sin. Free will, in itself, really doesn’t exist. We’re either under the bondage of sin and can only act accordingly, or we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit and living by God’s grace who works in us to will and to act. Either way, we are not so in charge of our lives and emotions and intellect and will that we can say it is truly free. Augustine would actually say that the will is indeed free, but not freed. Free of righteousness, but enslaved to sin. Is it starting to sink in a little deeper now?
Augustine actually made an interesting point about how it could be wrong to deny free will. Why would he say that? He says, “Only, lest anyone should presume so to deny freedom of will, from a desire to excuse sin.” It’s almost like Paul making the argument in Romans 6 that we shouldn’t keep sinning just because we’re under grace. There is never an excuse for sin. You’re not forced to sin; you do it willingly, under the influence of your inherited sin nature.
Augustine would say that if there is indeed a free will, it is only after we have been given it, by grace. Nothing should be said of us that doesn’t inveigh it being graciously given by God. In Augustine’s own words:
“How much soever miserable men presume to plume themselves on free will before they are made free, or on their strength after they are made free, they do not consider that in the very expression free will, liberty is implied. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). If, therefore, they are the servants of sin, why do they boast of free will? He who has been vanquished is the servant of him who vanquished him. But if men have been made free, why do they boast of it as of their own work? Are they so free that they are unwilling to be the servants of Him who has said, ‘Without me, you can do nothing’?” (John 15:5).
So, then, throwing the phrase “free will” around does no good because it is improperly used anyway. Calvin suggested that the church would do itself a great favor by dismissing of the use of it altogether. I would be inclined to agree only because it brings different definitions and ideas to people’s heads, which means it isn’t doing itself justice to use it. The underlying problem is that we are not looking to Scripture for a real understanding of the concept. In fact, you won’t find the term “free will” mentioned anywhere in the Bible.
After gaining a proper understanding of our inability to will ourselves to salvation and of God’s efficacious calling through election, we begin to have a real, deep, understanding of just how powerful and holy God is. We have so much to be thankful for that we should be called children of God.
Going back to Romans 9, Paul says, “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.“
This is something that Paul is undoubtedly saying from his own personal experience, which has helped him in understanding God’s grace all the more. It is strikingly similar to what he wrote to Timothy in his first letter (verses 12-17):
“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Amen indeed. Paul said that even thought he was a blasphemer and the worst of all sinners, God had immense mercy on him and gave him much grace, SO THAT His immense patience would serve as an example to all the other believers. Remember how Paul came to know the Lord? It wasn’t because of Paul; it was because of God’s divine intervention on the road going to Damascus. Just like Paul wrote to the Romans…that some people are bore with great patience, even prepared for destruction, SO THAT they can be used to display the riches of God’s glory to the objects of his mercy; he also wrote to Timothy that he himself was shown great patience SO THAT Jesus could use him as an example for those who are objects of God’s mercy, those who would believe and receive eternal life.
God has a purpose for everything. Sometimes the evil we see in our lives is there just for us to draw closer to Him and to learn about the riches of His glory. Isn’t that bizarre? The bad in the world is often there just for our own benefit.
After King Hezekiah was healed from an illness that nearly killed him, he said, “Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back.”
Hezekiah knew that the pain was for his benefit, but let’s also remember that while we may benefit greatly from our pain and trials, God is always glorified through it. We receive the benefit. God receives the glory. “For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath; for the sake of my praise I hold it back from you, so as not to destroy you completely. See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another. (Isaiah 48:9-11)”
Everything is purposed and within God’s command and will, even the evil that we see in the world. Satan had to get permission from God in order to torment Job (Job 1).
In light of the examples of people we see in Scripture and the detailed account from Paul in Romans 9 of how some people are created for noble purposes and some for ignoble, we can only assert that, yes, God has already planned the outcome for everyone, but he uses both the elect and non-elect to display his glory and purpose.
For us, as believers, we can teach that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord be saved (Romans 10:13). If we are teaching the true Gospel, then the Holy Spirit will do its work. You see, we don’t have to run our own litmus tests on who is really regenerated in order to know if they are really saved. While we should be aware of whether or not we are bearing fruit, we should know that the Holy Spirit will do all the work in saving people, through Christ. We deliver the unadulterated message. It is part of God’s plan to use those who have already believed in Him to further His work (Matt. 28:19, 20). The wrong assumption would be to stop all evangelizing and prayer and witnessing since we know that God has already ordained and established everything. That would be missing the point for God’s work in our lives. We are often part of his electing plan in the lives of others.
I like what John Calvin says regarding this, “Men are indeed to be taught that the favor of God is offered, without exception, to all who ask it; but since those only begin to ask whom heavenly grace inspires, even this minute portion of praise must not be withheld from Him. It is the privilege of the elect to be regenerated by the Spirit of God, and then placed under his guidance and government."
The doctrine of Election and Predestination does not undermine that Christ came to die for the sins of the world because He certainly did (John 3:16). Notice in this same passage, though, that it says the world is already condemned and those who do not believe will stay condemned because they haven’t believed. Then it explains how the light that came into the world was rejected because the people who did evil loved the darkness… “Everyone who does evil hates the light […]” (John 3:20a).
John 3:16 is commonly used to support the idea of free will and that people can decide for themselves if they accept Jesus’ claims since Jesus came for everyone, but it does no good because whether or not sinners accepted Christ out of their own free will, others still wouldn’t. Others will still reject Christ. So what’s the difference if they have free will or not? Not everyone is going to be saved. Would it make it more fair if they had more will?
The only thing it does is make the anti-Calvinists upset because it doesn’t seem fair that “they don’t make up their own mind”. It comes down to the issue of the heart and the refusal to accept the truths of God’s sovereign purpose in election. Remember, though, that people, before being wakened up to God’s truth through the quickening of the Holy Spirit, are willingly living lives apart from God. No one is mad that God is not saving them, so they still have the responsibility of their sin upon them.
I want to emphasize the issue of human responsibility for sin having mentioned that people are still responsible for it even if God hasn’t regenerated them. Like I mentioned earlier, this is one of the difficult parts of understanding our will, versus God’s, and how we are held accountable to it. I will do this with the help of Calvin who used Job as a great example.
Let’s set the story: Satan goes to the throne room of God after roaming throughout the Earth, looking for things to mess up and people to corrupt. God asks if Satan has noticed Job and how upright, devout, and Godly he was. There was no one like him, God said (incredible compliment!). Satan retorted that Job was a good man because he had everything he could ever need: lots of family, food and money. He said that if God took it all away and struck his livelihood down, then Job would curse God to his face. God said, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
First, as I mentioned before. God is so in control of everything that not even Satan can touch us without God’s express permission. Nothing is done without God’s willing or allowing it. What’s the rest of the story? One day Job’s servants came running. One by one, in a matter of minutes, they relayed that they barely escaped to say that they witnessed Job’s possessions disappear. The Sabeans stole all their cattle and donkeys and killed all the servants. Another said that fire from the heavens burned up the sheep and the other servants. Another said the Chaldeans came and stole all the camels and put many more servants to the sword. Yet another came and gave the worst bit of news: While his sons and daughters were feasting and celebrating together at one of their homes, a giant, sudden, wind hit the house and knocked it down, killing everyone inside. All of his kids were dead.
There are many things we can learn from this story, but the question for the time being is this: Who is responsible for the calamity that transpired against Job? Was it the Chaldeans, for example, who played the part in taking Job’s camels and killing his servants? Was it Satan, since he was the one who inspired the Chaldeans to act? Or was it God, since He had to give the permission for all of it to happen in the first place? Are all three equally responsible, or if one is guilty, then do the other two parties hold no responsibility for the terrible act?
Here, I quote from Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, Book 2, Chapter 4, Section 2:
“How can we attribute the same work to God, to Satan, and to man, without either excusing Satan by the interference of God, or making God the author of the crime? This is easily done if we look first to the end, and then to the mode of acting. The Lord designs to exercise the patience of his servant by adversity; Satan’s plan is to drive him to despair; while the Chaldeans are bent on making unlawful gain by plunder. Such diversity of purpose makes a wide distinction in the act. In the mode there is not less difference. The Lord permits Satan to afflict his servant; and the Chaldeans, who had been chosen as the ministers to execute the deed, he hands over to the impulses of Satan, who, pricking on the already depraved Chaldeans with his poisoned darts, instigates them to commit the crime. They rush furiously on to the unrighteous deed, and become its guilty perpetrators. Here Satan is properly said to act in the reprobate, over whom he exercises his sway; because even Satan, when he is the instrument of divine wrath, is completely under the command of God, who turns him as he will in the execution of his just judgments. I say nothing here of the universal agency of God, which, as it sustains all the creatures, also gives them all their power of acting. I am now speaking only of that special agency which is apparent in every act. We thus see that there is no inconsistency in attributing the same act to God, to Satan, and to man, while, from the difference in the end and mode of action, the spotless righteousness of God shines forth at the same time that the iniquity of Satan and of man is manifested in all its deformity.”
God’s sovereignty is truly manifested when we see how he can use all of these players in his plan to show different things to different people, all the while, bringing glory to himself. There is nothing outside of God’s knowledge or foresight. He is always in control of every situation, good or bad, pleasant or painful. This is where Christians can have real hope and real peace through the worst of times. This is how martyrs can stay faithful to the end without denying Christ under persecution.
As an incredible encouragement from Job himself, he saw the Lord behind everything when he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.”
In all this, the passage tells us, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. God is just and he uses everything for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose. While we are still to pray to the Lord and ask for wisdom if we don’t feel like we have it, or pray for an unsaved friend, or pray for healing for someone, etc.; we know that God has always had a plan and purpose for everything.
The focus for the Christian should still be ministry. The big reason why this topic is such a big deal is because it minimizes grace in salvation, which misses the mark of Christ’s sacrifice. This doctrine is kind of “behind the scenes” as a new believer comes to Christ. He couldn’t tell you the process of regeneration until he learns about it later. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t saved or doesn’t understand he is a new creation in Christ, or that God did, in fact, change them. All a new believer often knows is that he made a decision to dedicate his life to Christ for a new life and spirit, so it would be no wonder that people get upset when they are told they didn’t make a choice in the matter. I don’t blame them. To say that is technically incorrect because they do make a choice once God has inspired them to do so.
In fact, once the Spirit prompted them to do so, they willing did make the choice to confess their sins and admit Christ as Lord. God acted first, but the individual responded to his call. When you are prompted by the spirit, you can’t say no. You will accept Christ. It would be silly to argue about that, too. The only reason that someone would push the issue of this free willed choice is in their own twisted desire to see that humans have more will power for their salvation, which is absurd. It is sinfully selfish.
I also want to point out that the apostle Paul, who understands the doctrine of election very well, still pleaded with people to examine themselves and test themselves to see if they were in the faith. “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless of course you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13) The author of Hebrews says, “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” We are still supposed to urge those in unbelief to believe.
Listen to the pleading in 2 Corinthians 5: “The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
Just because God has a plan through election does not mean we are to be dismissive of the lives of our brothers and sisters if we see them stumble and it doesn’t mean that we should be indifferent to the statuses of other’s hearts just because ‘God will take care of who He wants’. God uses us to accomplish His work. We wouldn’t be obedient to Him if we threw all care to the wind just because we “came to grips” with election. Election is God’s work; ministry and witnessing for Christ is ours.
So, we must believe the doctrine of election and just keep preaching the Word, knowing God is using us to fulfill his purpose planned long ago in the past (Isaiah 37:26). We will see people come to Christ and we will give God glory for it. Election shouldn’t be a big issue, it really shouldn’t. We can just keep obeying the Lord in what we’re doing in ministry and leave the rest to Him. Where we assert our own will and effort into the equation we are stealing glory from God; minimizing grace; denying God’s omnipotence, omniscience, supremacy and sovereignty. Is it worth it?
In His Sovereign Grip,