The Starving of the Church -V
Election by a sovereign God was one of the mainstay doctrines in the preaching used by God during great days of Awakening. Will it be preached today? Should it be preached today? In our last article in this series on important doctrines needed in seasons of revival we turn to this important and humbling truth.
During the revival ministry of Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844) more than 25,000 were converted, principally in the New England area. According to John Thornbury this figure would be about 600,000 if percentaged to our present population.1 Nettleton, for one, did not shrink back from proclaiming a God who elected. This vignette comes from the book on his life by his dear friend Bennet Tyler.
I concur. Election by a sovereign God is "at the foundation of all hope." It is this election which we wish to explore in the next few pages. There can be no question that the Bible speaks of election. In fact, God says that we are elect before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). Are we willing to express what the Bible says about His sovereignty?
Let me introduce this subject of the sovereignty of God in salvation by writing out the statement a friend of mine often uses: "God saves sinners." To put it so the emphasis is not misunderstood perhaps it should be written: God saves sinners. Thus the Initiator of salvation is given greater visibility. He does it all. But to fail to emphasize the word "sinners" would make the sovereignty of God seem less gracious, so we will write it: God saves sinners! Will that do? No, because the action God takes toward us is too precious and freeing to be diminished in the least. So, let us write a completely italicized version: God saves sinners! Then we must underline it—and continue to underline it without ever becoming casual or passive with the theme!
I start out like this because I want us to see that when we are emphasizing the sovereignty of God in salvation, we are bringing something home that is dear to those of us who know ourselves to be sinners. The sovereignty of God caused grown men like Paul to rip loose in doxologies of praise as if his heart were pulsating through his pen (Rom. 11:33-36); it causes angels to break forth in paeans of joyful adoration as described in the Revelation (Rev. 4:11); and it has more than once brought me to my knees and filled my eyes with tears of thankfulness. It is the sinner that God's sovereignty affects.
But there is a sobriety which God's sovereignty brings to the salvation issue, explaining in part just why I have included it in that set of doctrines which have been used so effectively in historic revival. The seriousness has to do with the awful prospect that one may not be chosen — that God's converting grace may not be given. In days when this doctrine was preached under the power of the Spirit, there was compelling reason for a sinner to ask if he or she was included among the elect. When a man like Paul in the New Testament Awakening, Luther and the others of the Reformation, Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield of the revivals, held out these truths, people feared a God that had a will and the power to exercise it.
Contrary to accepted belief, persons under some measure of conviction in days of revival were not prone to dally away their opportunities for a good eternity when they heard preaching on the premise that God's sovereign will must be accomplished without fail—more likely they were prone to plead for mercy. This is the way of conviction of those times. It was not que sera sera. They did not so much question God as themselves.
This doctrine could produce apathy, but then so could any doctrine. Apathy sometimes has more to do with the ineffectiveness of the preacher than the doctrine. God says we are to make sure of His calling and electing us (2 Peter 1:10). I suggest, though, that a person dropping his interest in pursuing salvation by the excuse of God's sovereignty is giving signs of an insensitivity which is more characteristic of the non-elect. It shows little concern for the soul, little belief in the consequence of sin, little assurance of hell's reality. In short, for a person to fail to be interested in his election, to really put off thinking of himself in the light of it as he is faced with it, is gross foolishness. It shows he was never really that concerned anyway.
Belief in the sovereignty of God in electing some sinners to eternal salvation and therefore passing over other sinners (all of whom are deserving of hell, by the way) is not a belief that exists only in the way-out fringes of Christianity. Below are listed some names of those who preached and wrote it. Now do not think that the belief of others in history establishes any doctrine. A list could be made on the other side. But it does help to say that we are not alone in our interpretation of Scripture, the Scripture being of "no private interpretation." This is not a new doctrine — forgotten, yes — but not new. So I will start the list with Christ and Paul, Peter, John, and the others, and continue with these:
We could add a host many others, including George Mueller, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and several prominent authors and preachers of today. All of this listing is again just to say that a person who genuinely interprets Scripture as giving God supreme sovereignty over who is and who is not saved does not mean that he or she is in a freakish minority of irrelevant theologs. Yet, as I said, the important thing is whether Scripture teaches the doctrine. So let's look carefully in John chapter six. I shall attempt to make a brief argument for the sovereignty of God in choosing those He wishes out of this text principally. This will not be an exhaustive, systematic study but a textual one nonetheless.
We must think of this issue of the dispensing of eternal life as a three-legged stool. Not a short stool, like the Victorian "cricket." Breaking a leg of that stool, and falling off would not matter much. No, it is a tall stool, way above the clouds. To lose one leg of this stool in our understanding is to fall into doctrinal inaccuracy and misrepresentation. Each leg then is representing one irreducible action bringing salvation to men. In John six we find these three actions are as follows: God's giving certain men to Christ (v. 37), the Father's drawing men to Christ (v. 44), man's believing in Christ (v. 47).
Let's begin then with the last statement concerning our topic and move to the first in the order of the text. That is, we shall move from man's action to God's action. This is the more gentle way.
Leg One: Man Believers
Jesus had been describing Himself as the Bread of Life or the Manna from God, before a large group of interested people. As the conversation progressed, some of the Jews began grumbling and asking questions among themselves (vv. 41-42). It is while speaking to their grumbling that Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. . . I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever" (vv. 47, 51a).
Now here is a point of agreement between those who believe in sovereign election based on God's purposeful choice beginning with Himself alone, and those who believer in it based on God's knowledge of man's choice: man must believe. Here is the first leg of this enormous stool. Without belief on man's part there is no salvation. "How, then, can they call upon the one they have not believed in?" (Rom. 10:14).
If my car were inoperative and I went to the mechanic for help, I would have to hand over the keys. That is my action of trust in the mechanic. It is fides vive — living faith. Without doing that, all my talk about the competency of the mechanic results in nothing. And so, without our giving the keys of life over to Christ, we have never really trusted. This is Bible belief simply stated.
But if we stop at man's believing we have a real distortion. We have created on our understanding a big man and a small God: a strong and able man choosing his destiny and weak God who does not determine but simply waits on man. In fact, we have a very frustrated God. He wrings His hands waiting for capricious man to decide for Him. He begs a little — but not too much, for then He would overpower man's will. He is sovereign, but sovereign over what? Certainly nothing to do with man's will. The weather maybe. If salvation is determined by man's believing alone, then God is not sovereign, but man is.
You may say that God's sovereignty is exercised in restricting Himself to submit to man's will except when He necessarily must step in to keep long-term promises going the right direction. If find this problematic from two directions. The relation of one event to another necessitates that God be sovereign over every individual matter of the universe. This we could term the Law of Contiguity. One event is contiguous to another in such a way that the later event could not take place without the former. Thus, to say that God determines one action, such as the failure of one car to hit another car (that's why you said, "Thank you, Lord," — because you believed God did it) means that the event just before was orchestrated by God as well (the scream from the wife who woke up the sleepy driver). If then all events are in some way contiguous, to get one event done, God must control all; if God determines all, He determines who is and who is not converted.
Now we come to the second leg: God's drawing of the sinner to Christ. In John 6:44 we read: "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day."
Now, again, we all must agree that it takes God to draw the sinner to Christ. Has any one of you come without God's intervention? The reason you must come through God's intervention is that you are a man or woman dead in your sins (Eph. 2:1). This inability (Rom. 3:10-18) is complete in that it affects all of your faculties. For a sinner to come to Christ without God's luring him it would be tantamount to a humpbacked whale flying through the air. First of all, the whale does not want to fly — it is not his environment ("No man seeks God"); and if he wanted to fly, he would not know how. ("No man understands"); and if he wanted to, and understood how to, he could not because he would not be able to ("No man does good, not even one") (Rom. 3:10-12).
Thomas Hooker said:
The word draw in John 6:44 is, in fact, the word "drag." The dragging could be likened to that of Lot who was dragged away with "cords of love" from Sodom. No one will come to Christ without the Father dragging him. But this drawing is in the form of "an inward disposing of the soul to come to Christ."5 As Luther said:
So to be drawn is to be moved by the Spirit to have what you do not have naturally, a desire or affection for Christ. We are not here speaking of a desire that is surface, but one that is deep — a desire for Christ that is related to who He is, His loveliness and beauty (Phil. 3:7-10).
All of us in evangelicalism believe that man must believe and God must draw. But how many does He draw? That is the question and the place where God's sovereignty is most evident.
The statement about which we are concerned is found in John 6:37. "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me and whoever comes to Me I will never drive away" (Italics mine).
Here we find selectivity. Man believes to received eternal life; man must be drawn to that place of belief. But does God draw everyone? The answer from the passage is clearly negative. Let me put down the context:
The Father "has" some persons and "gives" them to the Son in order that the Son may give them eternal life, never losing them, but raising up on the last day all that are given Him. God's will, after all, is that these "given" ones have eternal life. Whoever is given is brought to Christ and kept. Does this include everyone? Is everyone "given" to the Son? I think it is impossible to get around the fact that Jesus is describing a select few. The progress of the action goes plainly from the Father to the Son to the person. As Jesus said, "All that the Father gives to Me will come to Me. . .", thus putting the intiatory action in the Father's court (italics mine).
This "having" and "giving" of the Father is seen in John 17 as well.
The giving of eternal life is for those who believe, but first they must be "given" to the Son by the One who has them. Look further,
Here again, the messages is articulated with rich simplicity. God has certain ones in His heart from eternity, and those specific ones and no others are given to the Son, who then does certain necessary things for them in order to secure eternal life. So 100 percent of those given are secured by Christ, and not one less or more. To say that they were the Father's because they believed is to completely distort the language. They rather believe because they were given to the Son. The Son then died for them, revealed Himself to them, prayed for them, etc. They believed precisely because they were "given" ones. The others did not believe but "were of their father the devil" (John 6:44).
You say, don't men have the ability to reject the gospel? Yes, In fact they always reject the gospel as natural men (1Cor. 2:14). It is because of this rejection that God necessarily must elect and procure certain ones through Christ. Without God's election, the Son's intervention, the Spirit's revealing of the Son, etc., they would be left to their rejection alone. Therefore, God in His love arranged that some would be so changed, wooed, lured, and inwardly motivated, that they would irresistibly come to Him. Their wills are not violated but are rather won over decisively by the process of drawing to Christ. All the rest of mankind gets what they naturally desire—which is not Christ.
Now we can understand the passage in Acts 13:48 as simply restating the order from God's perspective. "When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the Word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed."
These three actions make a secure stool or platform for understanding the gospel. In summary they are as follows: God's giving to the Son those He has elected in love eternally; the Father's drawing of these elected ones to the Son in an irresistible fashion; and the individual believing in Christ. I must not imply that every time the gospel is given it must include a full orbed discussion of these three elements, but the evangelist must be sure of them or else what does come out will be man-centered.
1. Is Election Fair?
We answer this in the negative. No, it is not fair for God to elect some and pass over others. God is not fair in virtually any area. You were not born in the desert of Somalia, for instance. That is not fair. Some of you were endowed with certain physical characteristics or mental characteristics, differentiating yourself from others as to ability. God's love for variety seen in creation itself is an indication of God's feeling no compulsion to be fair. God is just and merciful. But these two qualities are worlds apart from fairness.
What do I mean? We live in a day when fairness is constantly argued. Everyone who feels he or she represents a minority position or group begs for equal public access. The courts have tried to satisfy everyone's feelings of equity to the point of the ridiculous. So for us to think that God is not fair is to make God "politically incorrect." But fairness is not in the definition of god. Justice is. Fairness, as it is understood by most, is the making of all things equally accessible (or, as applied to our discussion, the giving of everyone for all time equal access to God, or, the theory that all are equally drawn and equally influenced by God to come to Christ). To give justice is to award what is exactly correct as far as penalty or reward according to the behavior. Now God is just — impeccably so (Deut. 32:4). God has never failed to punish one sin or to reward one true deed or righteousness. The just punishment of all sins has either fallen on Christ or on the sinner. In the final judgment of the damned, sins, every one of the, will be judged as still being the responsibility of the unconverted person (Rev. 20:11-15). But the saved will find themselves fully acquitted by the death of Christ for their every last sin (Rom 8:1). Sin therefore is fully dealt with by a very careful God. God never fails to be just in this sense.
God is also merciful. He has been merciful toward the elect, yet not without justice being fully met in the death of Christ. In another broader sense He is merciful toward all. By giving rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45), and by tolerating the non-believer and even giving him some happiness, etc., He shows His mercy. This we call common grace. Now the Scripture says something about the mercy of salvation: "For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (Rom. 9:15).
So we find that God's mercy salvifically does not come to all but only to some. In this God's mercy and His justice come to man apart from considerations of fairness. Though He is not fair, He cannot be accused of being unjust or unloving.
Remember that the practical way that the sovereignty of God works out in terms of salvation is through God's drawing the individual to Christ who would most assuredly continue to run from Christ on his own (John 3:19-20). God therefore gives the man without Christ what he wants and the one coming to Christ what he wants, which is Christ Himself.
The drawing of certain ones to Christ is irresistible in the final sense. When all the supposed disciples of Christ left at the hard teaching of Christ on His sovereignty, He said, "This is why I told you, no one can come to Me unless the Father has enabled him" (John 6:65). Then He turned to His chosen men and asked, "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Do you remember their answer? "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (vv. 67-68). There really is no other place to go when we are drawn by the Father to Christ. Others can leave, but the chosen ones cannot. He will come to Christ and be kept to the end, as Christ promised. He will raise him up on the last day.
Remember that when Paul brought up a third party contention that God's election was not fair, God answered with firmness. Note:
2. Foreknowledge v. Foreordination
The next question is: Isn't election based on foreknowledge? It is commonly held that the resolution to this issue of God' predestination is that it is based upon prescience or foreknowledge in the sense of just knowing beforehand. Because God sees the sinner believing in Him, He elects him to salvation. We will call this the "pre-sight" view.
Let us readily admit that the idea of God's knowing beforehand is prevalent in the biblical writings (Ps 139:1-4, 15-16, etc.). God knows the end from the beginning. But it is also held by Scripture that God foreordains or decrees all that comes to pass (Lam 3:37-38; Ps. 33:11; Acts 17:26, etc.). So we have two philosophical ideas put in the same arena. Which of the ideas leads the salvation process?
The following statements are my rationale for believing that the pre-sight view is deficient.
Let's look at the principal passage on foreknowledge and salvation, Romans 8:29, for help: "For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers" (Italics mine).
J.P. McBeth, a Baptist theologian said:
These observations may help us see the reasons for preferring the determination of God as the basis of election rather than prescience. The word foreknowledge is actually better understood as "thought of endearingly beforehand," or "foreloved," or "foreordained with forethought." Here's why:
foreknowledge spoken of is foreknowledge of persons, not
events. The statement reads, "whom He foreknew. . . ."
You see this as well in Romans 11:2, speaking of His endearment
to Israel: "God did not reject His people whom He
foreknew" (Italics mine). Therefore we can deduce that
foreknowledge as related to salvation is not just seeing a
person's conversion experience prior to election and therefore
electing on the basis of the individual's choice. It is a
foreloving of persons.
"For those whom He had marked out from the
5. And finally, to believe in the pre-sight view represents a reversal of normal biblical order. There are many verses that state man's believing results in eternal life (John 3:36; Rom. 10:9, etc.). This is the truth as far as it goes. Yet behind that believing there are those verses which teach that God must have elected the person to be a believer. These reveal the doctrine of election as the basis upon which man has the ability to believer. Consider:
"All who were appointed for eternal life,
believed" (Acts 13:48).
As Arthur C. Custance said, "Either God is sovereign and election is an expression of God's will, or man is sovereign and election is an expression of God's foreknowledge."
More questions as to the nature of election come immediately to the mind. As we explore the work of God on behalf of sinners, keep in mind the heart of John Calvin. "I desire only that we should not investigate what the Lord has left hidden in secret, nor neglect what He has brought out into the open, so that we may not be convicted of excessive curiosity on the one hand, or of excessive ingratitude on the other."6
I must ask now, will you preach and teach the truth that God saves sinners? Will you be faithful to the Scripture as you see it? Will you speak without fear of man?
I know many men and women who are deathly afraid of preaching this doctrine because of the self-sufficiency of their peers. This man-fearing spirit has done much to steal from the gospel its God-centeredness in our age. We are reaping the results, for we now live in a virtual dust bowl of activity with little to show for it.
I do not say that we should preach this doctrine as if it were the only thing to say. It does permeate other doctrines, that is true. It permeates like dye with cloth. Yet, we must make something of it as the text makes something of it. When the bible says that a man must believe (leg one), let us preach that faithfully. Jesus did not refer to His sovereignty at every occasion with non-believers. Yet also remember that the books of the Bible were written to be read as a whole, including both the doctrinal and hortatory, the horizontal and the vertical, the lofty and the practical, etc. This awareness will help guide us in our presentation of doctrine by forcing us to under gird the admonitions of Scripture with the doctrines which accompany, and vice versa.
In the final place we should remember that the doctrine of election is principally for the good of those who hear. It says that sinners may be saved. It says that those without hope have hope in God's love. Though fears may come when one considers the implications of being non-elect, it is most certainly a positive doctrine.
It was theologian Augustus H. Strong who reminds us of election's beauty:
Jim Elliff serves as an associate editor of Reformation & Revival Journal and is president of Christian Communicators Worldwide, North Little rock, AR. He is author of the helpful book Wasted Faith, which is available for the asking from his ministry at:
North Little Rock, AR 72116
This article is a chapter taken from the The Reformation and Revival Journal ("Worship" - Volume 2, Number 1 - Winter 1993) and used by permission of the publisher and General Editor, Dr. John Armstrong. The Reformation and Revival Journal is published quarterly by "Reformation and Revival Ministries". The ministry is a not-for-profit teaching ministry organized in the state of Illinois in 1991. It is committed to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the infallible Word of God and is in essential agreement with the confessional statements of historic Reformation theology. The purpose of this ministry is centered in its name:
1. To encourage reformation in the local Christian churches worldwide.
2. To promote the cause of revival and spiritual awakening through prayer and the provision of resources to aid Christian leaders.
Reformation and Revival Ministries offers an excellent selection of books, tapes and other resources designed for the edification of pastors and lay people alike. Their new "To Build and Defend" resource catalog is available through the main office.
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