The doctrine of election is without a doubt one of the most central yet most misunderstood doctrines in the entire Bible. Wayne Grudem defines the doctrine of unconditional election like this: “Election is an act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign good pleasure.”
Election is God’s free choice in eternity past of certain sinners that he would save based on his sovereign grace and according to the purpose of his will. Paul gives a biblical example of our election in God’s choice of Jacob over Esau (see Rom. 9). He concludes that God chooses to save some sinners to exalt the glory of God’s grace. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy…So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:16).
This doctrine is a hot topic. In fact, your blood might be boiling even now as you read this! Election can split churches and has split denominations. J.I. Packer sees this very thing when he writes, “Texts from Paul are waived like banners; the words ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ fly like bullets; people blink and go red; everyone ends up fluttered and hot under the collar. Sometimes, looking back on these unhappy exchanges, we find ourselves resenting the very existence of the doctrine which occasions such high feelings.”
As a result of such heated discussions over the doctrine of election and the prospect for church division and angered congregants, many pastors ignore this doctrine altogether. This hostility is often the result of ignorance, as many rioters understand the doctrine of unconditional election in terms of its various caricatures. Still yet, there are those who object to this doctrine with more serious concerns.
Grudem gives six objections to the doctrine of election that are typically proposed: (1) Election mean ave no choice to trust Christ, (2) Election means our choices are not real, (3) Election means we are merely robots or puppets in the hands of God, (4) Election means unbelievers never had a chance, (5) Election is unfair, (6) Election denies that God wills to save everyone.
While we will not look at these objections in fuller detail here, it is important to note them so that we are clear that the objections and accusations against those who hold to this doctrine are serious. It has even been argued that according to a Reformed understanding of salvation, especially the doctrine of election, God is conveyed as a moral monster with little difference between him and the devil. One of Calvin’s earliest opponents, Frenchman, Sebastian Castellio, wrote in a letter to Calvin, “But the God of Calvin is the father of lies.”
Objections to God’s unconditional election of sinners to salvation shoot arrows directly to the heart of God’s character. As a result, any pastor who casually addresses this doctrine with a lighthearted attitude from the pulpit is only setting himself up for possible disaster.
In other words, the stakes are high for the pastor who preaches this doctrine. In biblical exposition, debate, and discussion, there comes a kind of warfare within Christianity, one in which there will be casualties. And so, we must approach it with extreme delicacy, humility, and tact. It is easy to understand why a pastor would choose to avoid ever mentioning this doctrine in his pulpit ministry. Nevertheless, a doctrine that is so central to God’s saving work in Christ and so abundantly clear in the Bible cannot simply be swept under the rug.
The path to avoiding uproar among congregants with regard to controversial topics in Scripture must be blazed with tact, not total ignorance. This doctrine must be probed carefully with theological and biblical precision. Still yet, it would be easy to write this doctrine off as a nuisance or unnecessar for the church. I mean, why create a tension that could so easily be avoided? I think Scripture provides us with four key motivational reasons that we can and should not only discuss the doctrine of election, but find true and lasting joy in it.
1. Divine Election Is Biblical
It first needs to be established that this doctrine must be preached, taught, and discussed because it is found in Holy Scripture. In Acts 20, Luke records Paul testifying to the elders in Ephesus, “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, emphasis added). Paul held nothing back from them. He did not skip over anything because it was difficult or did not fit into the Ephesians’ little Hellenistic box. Neither should pastors today ignore portions of our doctrines within God’s word simply because they might cause some to get “hot under the collar.” James Montgomery Boice was adamant about the necessity to preach the whole counsel of God, especially the doctrine of election.
Commenting on John 10, Boice writes, “This is the doctrine of election which we have already seen many times in John’s Gospel and which we will see many times again. It is not liked, it is not often preached. But it is in Scripture and it must be preached, above all, by anyone who is serious about expounding the gospel.”
These are strong words. Boice is saying that the doctrine of election must be preached, especially by those who are serious about exposing the depths of the gospel, because at the heart of the gospel, and truly at its very origin, is an eternal plan and decree from God to have a people for himself.
We as Christians should not avoid the doctrine of election for the simple reason that it is in the Bible. There is no avoiding it. When Paul wrote to his young protégé, Timothy, he taught him, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). All Scripture? Yes. Even passages on election? Of course! We should read, teach, preach, and discuss this doctrine simply because it is in the Bible, and we trust that God has inspired it for our good (Rom. 8:28).
2. Divine Election is a Great Comfort to Christians
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 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 (Rom. 8:28-30).
The great comfort of Romans 8:28 is rooted in the eternal prerogative of God to save sinners in Christ (Rom. 8:29-30). Christians find great comfort in the fact that our salvation is not based on any good or bad work. He foreknew us and chose us from eternity past according to his divine goodness, grace, and wisdom. The election of Jacob gives great insight into God’s elective purpose in salvation: “[T]hough they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (Rom. 9:11-13).
Take comfort in knowing that your salvation is based on the work of God in his divine election, not in your work to become worthy of being saved. You can rest in the fact that God did not base your salvation on your performance or anything he saw in you. In hose you in spite of knowing how sinful you would be, according to the purpose of his will.
3. Divine Election is Uniquely God-Glorifying
[H]e predestined us for adoption as sons 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…In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to he 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 (Eph. 1:5-6, 11-12).
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth (2 Thess. 2:13).
Divine election is a tremendous reason to praise God. Sam Storms writes, “In brief, election evokes gratitude. It is God’s gracious and loving action to which we contribute nothing and for which, therefore, God receives all the glory.”
The unconditional election of sinners presents us with a humble view of man and a high view of God. All praise and honor are due the one who chose us in Christ from before the world began.
4. Divine Election is an Encouragement to Evangelize
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 Tim. 2:10).
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:16).
The source of courage to evangelize and the hope of all global missions is the truth that God has chosen a people for himself in Jesus. We can go to the nations with the gospel with the assurance that some will believe. No questions asked. We can risk all for the sake of the elect because we know with certainty that God has chosen persons from every tribe and every tongue (Rev. 7:9). May the divine election of God encourage you to boldly proclaim the gospel in your neighborhood and in all nations, knowing that success has been determined in eternity past through God’s tremendously gracious electing love.
Delight in Election
For these four reasons (and more) we should delight to read, preach, study, teach, and share the doctrine of election. Because of election’s appearance and highly practical function in Scripture, it cannot be ignored. J.I. Packer writes, “[W]e can hardly be right in treating the doctrine of election as an unedifying encumbrance when in Paul’s hands it becomes a motive and mainspring of worship and assurance and holy living.” The doctrine of unconditional election is a difficult doctrine for some, but it is without a doubt a delightful doctrine for all who embrace it, because it provides the greatest hope for dreadful sinners, the greatest glory to the lone worthy God, and the deepest joy for those in Christ.
Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor of Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. He is an M.Div student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mathew is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their two sons, Jude and Jack. You can follow Mathew on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.