High school was a breeze for me. I soaked in information and was able to memorize it well. I was good at taking tests and good at writing papers on that level. In high school, I was never challenged, and I became convinced that all of life would be so easy. I graduated and went to the university. During my first semester, I was preparing for a test and I realized that I had no idea how to study. Because I was never challenged in high school, I did not know how to be diligent in my study at the university. In high school I had everything figured out. In the university, I was lost. I had to call my mom (embarrassing I know) and ask her to help me learn to study. When I thought I had everything figured out, I was brought to a place where I needed guidance and where I needed to change.
Many people have a similar experience. This is evidence that when we think we have everything figured out, we have probably stopped growing and maturing. Furthermore, I think about my own knowledge in light of God’s. I realize that I am so small. I am incapable of knowing God’s mind, of seeing all that God sees, of loving the way that God loves, of saving those whom God will save, of practicing God’s justice, or of lifting God higher. I am but dust. When I believe that I have something figured out, God reminds me that without His guidance I am lost.
We know that God desires to draw His people closer to Himself. How is this possible? How can imperfect people who are always inclined toward sin actually pursue God? Adam and Eve had no sin, yet they chose to run from God. Where does our pursuit of God begin? How can sinful people turn toward God, follow after God, and run into grace?
1 Peter 1:1-2
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ:
To the temporary residents dispersed in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father and set apart by the Spirit for obedience and for sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ.
May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
As we walk through Scripture, we often come to verses that make us uncomfortable or cause us to have to deal with an issue that we would otherwise ignore. As a pastor, knowing that I have a God-given responsibility to teach the whole counsel of Scripture, these verses of Scripture weigh upon me very heavily because I know that there is much human controversy surrounding these biblical ideas. Walking through Scripture together forces me not to ignore the controversial subject matter. If an idea is presented in God’s Word, it must come out as God’s Word is proclaimed.
Considering the controversial nature of the doctrine of election in my own community, in the whole of Christianity and in the centuries stretching from the medieval church into the present day, I have been even more diligent in my studies during the last few weeks in order that I might present the most biblical picture possible regarding the doctrine of election. This has been quite the amazing, fruitful, and encouraging journey that I have been on with our Lord. Looking, again, into the doctrine of election has caused me to be filled with great joy and drawn me into great celebration.
In the passage above, Peter indicates that the whole of his first letter is built upon the premise that God chooses His people. The work of salvation is His. This is the doctrine of election in its most basic form. In what manner, though, does God choose His people? How does God choose who He will place in His kingdom? This is the question that brings controversy into the household of faith because it brings into question individual free volition and human responsibility.
Dr. David Jeremiah has this to say:
“Election does not mean that God is a mean overlord who chooses some and rejects others. Nor does it cancel out human responsibility, making us mere puppets. God’s choosing demonstrates His grace. But in election we must still choose to trust in Christ. And we respond to God’s choosing by choosing to live holy lives.”
He goes on to offer the illustration of a door, on which there is a sign. The sign reads something to the effect of, “Come all ye who will!” After we go through the door, accepting the invitation, we look back and see a second sign that reads, “I chose you from the foundation of the world.”
If we were to ever claim that any person lacked free volition or responsibility, we would contradict the Scriptures. God created people in the beginning with the ability to freely choose and to freely act. The first people were punished for their sin because they were responsible for their sin. If God were to suddenly remove this freedom and responsibility from the human condition, He would contradict His own design. This is not possible because God cannot deny Himself. People are responsible for their own wrongdoing. Secondly, we cannot claim that God would ever refuse to save someone because they are not “elect” or “predestined.” There is a promise that we receive throughout Scripture, “…that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved… For Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed’” (Romans 10:9,11; Isaiah 28:16). We seek to understand God’s election, then, knowing that it does not negate the individual responsibility for sin or to respond to God’s invitation into saving grace. We also seek to understand God’s election knowing that God’s desire is that none would perish, but instead that all would come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
With this understanding, then, we consider why God’s election is the starting point to our pursuit of holiness, why the idea brought Paul so much joy (Ephesians 1), why the believer is secure in salvation and being sanctified because of God’s election (Romans 8). The Apostle Peter states that those who are elect are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. This, then, is where we must begin. There are many who will claim that God chooses who will be saved based on his foreknowledge of who will choose Him. The same myth was popular in Spurgeon’s day. In 1872, the prince of preachers responded:
So far as mere prescience goes, every man is foreknown, and yet no one will assert that all men are predestinated to be conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus. But, it is further asserted that the Lord foreknew who would exercise repentance, who would believe in Jesus, and who would persevere in a consistent life to the end. This is readily granted but a reader must wear very powerful magnifying spectacles before he will be able to discover that sense in the text. Upon looking carefully at my Bible again I do not perceive such a statement. Where are those words which you have added, “Whom he did foreknow to repent, to believe, and to persevere in grace”? I do not find them either in the English version or in the Greek original. If I could so read them the passage would certainly be very easy, and would very greatly alter my doctrinal views; but, as I do not find those words there, begging your pardon, I do not believe in them.
Spurgeon stated it very clearly. We, being the people of God, cannot add our words to His. It is God’s instruction alone that guides us. Louis de Molina was honest as he looked to the text:
So all that sound exegesis of Romans 8:29-30 and 1 Peter 1:1-2 can establish is that some species of prescience (natural, middle, or free knowledge) is logically prior to predestination and that some species of prescience is a factor in election.
Both the subject and the method of God’s foreknowledge, which is prior to election, are a mystery, but we can learn something about it. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:4-5 that the saints have been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world and that they have been predestined to adoption. When he gets to verse 11, he states that the saints were predestined according to God’s purpose, who works all things together according to the counsel of His own will. Since God does not contradict Himself and our interpretation of Scripture cannot contradict the actual text and still be correct, we can know that God’s foreknowledge is not somehow aligned to our will, but instead, with His purpose and the counsel of His own will. We must not fall into the trap of making the faith a work of our own. Salvation is undoubtedly God’s work. His people get to, by His grace, participate in that great work!
In 2008, even Billy Graham answered the question of election:
What if it were all left up to us? What hope would we have then? But God is at work — and that should give us great comfort. The Bible says, “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Left to my own devices, I find that I will always choose rebellion. Thank the Lord that He, according to His own knowledge, purpose and will, chose me in Him from the foundation of the world. Without the truth of election, faith is fickle. Without election, there is no grace. Without election, the believer is not secure because his faith depends on his own will. Election should be a great source of comfort and celebration for us! We celebrate the doctrine even on a denominational level. The Southern Baptist Faith and Message makes this confession:
“Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility” (Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article V).
There is nothing that we can do to earn salvation. God is sovereign. God must give the gift. We cannot boast.
Peter continues to lay the groundwork before urging his audience to pursue holiness together. Not only are the saints chosen by God the Father, but they are set apart by the Holy Spirit. To be set apart is to be made holy or to be sanctified. Peter places sanctification alongside God’s act of choosing from the foundation of the world.
In 2010, I started pursuing the woman who is now my wife. I noticed her. I thought (and think) the she is smokin’ hot. I love her personality. I love her heart for Christ. She pushes me to always be a better person. I don’t think I was even on her radar. I pursued her. I wooed her. I did whatever I could to win her love.
As I observe my own life, I find that before the moment of conversion I would never have come to Christ. I was perfectly content in my rebellion. I saw myself as a good person. I did not feel guilty because of my sin. The Holy Spirit pursued me, and wooed me, and started working on my heart so that I would place my faith in Jesus. God’s work of election begins with His own knowledge, purpose, and will and is carried out in sanctification, both before and after our personal conversion.
This concept really helps us to understand how fallen we actually are. Augustine even stated that it is impossible for anyone to come to Christ by the power of his own devices: not because there is a lack of will, but because in our freedom we always revert back to sin. If we don’t believe this, we might just examine our own lives. How often to Christians revert back to sin and back into condemning others and back into selfishness? It happens every day. Without the Spirit’s work of sanctification, we always choose ourselves. Even Adam and Eve, when sin had not yet been introduced, chose rebellion.
We are fallen and depraved. God has chosen from the foundation of the world. This work of election is carried out in sanctification by the Holy Spirit.
The purpose given for the work of election was not that numbers of people would gain a place in heaven. We are often content with claiming our mansion in glory and that is where our pursuit of Christ stops. Peter states here that the goal of God’s election is our obedience and the sprinking of Christ’s blood. It is in election that we are justified by Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. In this, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, meaning that we actually receive the righteousness of Christ. In this, we become more and more obedient to God the Father in our lives. Peter will spend the remainder of his letter urging his readers to strive for greater obedience. Without God’s work of election, this is impossible. We praise God for His work, and for His great grace!
Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1951. 22-23.
Molina, Concordia, 7.23.4/188.8.131.52