Article of the Month
by Kenneth D. Johns
DOES IT REALLY MATTER? HOW DOES IT MATTER?
There is a reaction to the preaching of the doctrine of unconditional election which is phrased with a shrug and a “ho-hum.” “Does it really matter? Does the issue have any real significance to the task before us as Christians? Why don’t we just go out and win souls? Why don’t we just keep the message simple? Why raise such difficult questions? Why stir up an issue which is unimportant and inconsequential?” But is it? Can anything clearly revealed in the Word of God be inconsequential? Are we not commanded to “live by every word which proceeds out of the mouth of God?” And if we do not, will we not miss some of the vital nutrients for our spiritual life and warfare? Certainly we will. And it is obvious we are missing something when one looks at the shallowness of much Christian living and preaching. It almost appears that Christian living and preaching becomes irrelevant when sound Christian doctrine becomes irrelevant. The most practical book of the Bible, Proverbs, speaks wisdom to us when it says, “Where there is no vision the people perish.” And it is true today; where there is no ministry of all the truth, where there is no “seer,” people languish and perish. Much of the lethargy of believers today is due to the fact that they are not fully acquainted with the Sovereign God who chose them and called them to faith and sonship. Maintaining their own sovereignty they are lost by an awareness of their inability to do their part. Weary from trying to “help out God,” men give up their dreams of conquering worlds for Christ.
It does matter and it matters greatly that this issue be faced by every believer. If only for the sake of being honest with the Word of God the issue must be understood. We must be honest with the Word of our God if we are to do well the work of our God. It is our only weapon to penetrate the hearts of men. To humble the proud. To regenerate the dead. To give light to those who stumble on and on in darkness. We cannot pierce the hard heart of man with a dull sword. Nor can the dim light of half-truths provide sufficient light in a world fogged with darkness. We must have all the truth to set men free.
In addition to gaining power to free these souls of men, there are other essential benefits to be gained from a proper understanding of the sovereign election of God. Two of these benefits are of great significance. The first of these two is the effect of the doctrine upon the individual and his knowledge of himself and how this affects his life with God. The second is the manner in which unconditional election influences our preaching, both in our concept of what it is and in the content of what we do indeed preach.
We will look first at the impact of the sovereignty of God upon the individual and consider what happens to man as his mind grapples with this immense thought. The initial effect of the sovereignty of God upon a believer is submission. Not a submission based upon his new knowledge that God is sovereign. But a submission produced by the experience of “allowing” God to be sovereign. This submission is produced by the process by which a man comes to understand the doctrine of election. He finds himself in a conflict which he must lose to win. The conflict is one that develops between his own thoughts as a man and the thoughts of God which come from the Word of God.
He finds that there is a great distance and difference between his own concepts and God’s concepts. The issue was drawn up by Isaiah when he spoke of God’s thoughts and man’s thoughts: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Here is where the battle lines are drawn. It is mind against mind. Man’s thoughts against God’s thoughts. Man’s belief in his own sovereignty wrestling against the revealed fact of God’s absolute Lordship. But it is more than just man’s belief in his sovereignty which intensifies the struggle; it is his desire for sovereignty. In his struggle with election, man has returned to the garden and faces again the question, “Whom shall I serve? Myself or God? Who shall have the ultimate voice? Who shall be allowed to speak and govern? My ideas or God’s?” And the battle rages. The lower ways and thoughts of man struggling to leave their imprint upon the higher ways of God. The natural mind of man fights fiercely. If he can only hold that election is conditional then God will be subject to him to some degree. The carnal man feels more comfortable when God is thought to be a partner rather than a sovereign.
And so we discover that the warfare is not just mental, it is spiritual. It is not just a matter of convincing the mind that the doctrine is taught in Scripture. That would be not too difficult. Such passages as Romans 9, Romans 8 and John 1:12,13; 6:44,65 demonstrate unconditional election to be true beyond doubt. Why then is it so difficult to apprehend the truth of the Word? Because it is more than a mental struggle. The mind and heart of man do not want to give up their thoughts. The human heart is comfortable when it feels sovereign and the thought of such sovereignty is cherished. The lower thoughts of man protest the higher thoughts of God. The spirit of man is agitated by the opposition it feels from the Word of God. The battle is not alone in the intellect. The solution will not come alone from Bible study. While that is the source of the truth knocking at the door, only proper creaturely submission will open the door. Those who have fought through this issue will attest to the validity of these observations. Exegesis of the Word of God presented the truth to them but the spiritual resistance of the carnal mind refused to allow it in the door. The hostile mind clings to its lower thoughts. And therefore for man to come to an understanding of personal unconditional election he must not only open his mind to the Revealer of Truth but he must bend his knee to the Sovereign. In bending his knee he arrives at the proper posture for all creatures. He finds that the Spirit leads us into truth by helping us to lose battles.
The believer must be careful at this point. He may start to enjoy losing. Once having savored the clean, crisp air of God’s “higher thoughts” he may never again hold out for his own low ground. He may be permanently persuaded that “God’s ways are better than man’s.” Having at first shakily given a little ground to God, he may now turn it all over to Him and by losing the battles win the war.
In allowing his own thoughts to be overruled by God’s thoughts he learns not only sovereignty but submission. He has learned that God’s Word is a much better interpreter of God than is his own mind. From now on he will allow for the Divine veto upon his own ideas.
The knowledge of the doctrine of unconditional election influences the life of the believer in another very important way. It provides him with an understanding of his nature as man which he will never find in conditional election. As long as he persists in believing that “he first chose God” he will never find out who he really is. He will never probe the depths of his being. Only the man who sees himself as saved by the choice of God can say “By the grace of God I am what I am,” with full meaning. And only that man will appreciate to the full the grace of God.
The man who sees himself as making the critical move toward God which made God respond to him will always have to give some credit for his redemption to his own will. This is true even if the idea of prevenient grace is taught. For prevenient grace means only that God brings men to a place where they can believe and accept Christ if they choose to. It describes a work in the lost man which gives him the capacity to believe. But the actual faith and receiving is something which the man does by an exercise of his own will. Therefore, his own will will always obtrude into the essential cause of his salvation. His ultimate accounting of his personal salvation will be, “When God drew me, I chose to respond.” And therefore, he has both the grace of God and his own decision to thank.
Such is not the case with the man who knows his salvation came not by his own will but by the will of God. He recognizes that his human nature and will were leading him in hostility down a Damascus Road when grace intervened. He readily admits that “No man can come unto me, except it were given him of my Father.” Charles Spurgeon had the perspective of the man who knows his own heart aright. He said,
Mr. Spurgeon was forced to this conclusion about his own nature by learning the doctrine of election. Having acknowledged the biblical truth of unconditional election man is forced to definite conclusions about his own nature. N o man can adopt the truth of election and at the same time hold to his own sovereignty or his ability to choose God. He cannot continue to think himself capable of seeking or choosing God when he understands that God chose him apart from his own will, deeds, or faith. Knowing this he has to abdicate his pretended throne. He must move elsewhere. When the believer sees God occupying the seat of the Sovereign Elector, he will then move to the chair of humility. He will see himself as he is. He will recognize that if the only way to be saved is for “God to put it into man’s heart to come” then indeed his own heart must have been dead, void of spiritual desire, with no Godward movement (Rom. 3:11). And the only adequate accounting for his birth into the new life is that he was born of God; not of the will of the flesh nor man.
Only when the doctrine of election without human conditions is preached will the Christian come to this desirable biblical view of himself. Only then will he bow in humble adoration and confess “How great thou art.” Only then will he move from the seat of sovereignty to the seat of humility. Only then will he bow into the dust and stay there for the remaining days of his journey. And only then will he bring forth the praise and fruit which comes solely from such humility.
This is not a humility put on or forced from man’s lips. It is not a facade. It is not a role. Having seen himself as he is, man awakes every morning in the dust and finds his only glory is in his Lord. He has a built-in buffer against pride, which is his knowledge of his own heart. He cannot be fooled. He knows that all of these Godward movements of his soul were placed there by God. He cannot thank himself. In all honesty, without pretense or dramatic speech, he knows that he is what he is by the grace of God.
Humility will be encouraged but never found until one faces his sovereign Father and realizes that he was born of God and not by his own will. Humility may be taught but never experienced until the soul of the redeemed man knows that he was dead when he was called and blind when he began to see. No man wants to see himself in this light. But it is the biblical truth about man. And only the doctrine of unconditional election will force it upon our proud minds.
There is a further effect of the truth of election which relates to our preaching. Having come to a personal understanding of what he is in his own heart, the preacher is now ready to diagnose properly the real sickness of his hearers. Why should they be any different from him? Are not their hearts the same? If he was dead so are they. If he was hostile toward God so are they. If God had to “put it into his heart to come” then God will have to “put it into their hearts to come.” If it took a miracle of divine grace to give him new life then he will not expect that they will come alive through a nice little devotional talk on Sunday morning. He will recognize that they need more than an inspirational song and an emotional anecdote; they need resurrection. Resuscitation will not do it for they are dead. The power of the living God must be generated into their hearts. The preacher will not spend his time talking about the free will of sinners. He knows the will of a dead man can never choose life.
When Jesus came to Lazarus He did not recommend that Lazarus exercise his free will to make himself alive. He did not say to Lazarus, “Now, Lazarus, you know you’re in pretty bad shape, don’t you? I’m going to do something for you. But I need your help. First of all, I want you to know that you have a free will. And you are going to have to exercise your free choice when I give the invitation. Now if you don’t do this I really can’t help you. The only way you can come alive again is if you help me get you out of this grave. Now you just nod your head if you understand. That’s not a very good nod. In fact, I’m not sure you even moved. But I’ll assume you are listening because at least you are not fidgeting.”
It’s ridiculous to think of Jesus doing that. He knew Lazarus was dead.
His soul had been in Hades for four days. For four days no living current had operated his brain. His heart had not pumped. His blood had broken down and he smelled bad. He was dead and all those downwind knew it. But then came the regal command, “Lazarus, come forth.” The voice was heard beyond Bethany in the mysterious abode of Sheol. A four-day visitor was asked to be excused from Abraham’s bosom. But what about the body? Living spirits cannot inhabit smelly carcasses. An electric shock awakened the brain. The heart muscle convulsed. Blood moved through suddenly soft arteries. Red and white cells marched to their work. The lungs took in a great draft of air. And the Creator said, “This man is alive, take off those bindings, there’s life inside that mummy.” Death had been conquered by life.
We must realize that the unsaved man is dead toward God and all spiritual things. He is but a carcass wrapped tightly in the bindings of his own worldly desires and ambitions. He is earthbound in all his thoughts and appetites.
Only if we rightly diagnose man’s disease will we prescribe the proper cure. Our own hearts tell us what the disease is; it is death and hostility toward God. We might despair if we didn’t know by experience that there is a cure. If we could be raised from the dead so can others. But we must preach and prescribe for them the same medicine which healed our souls. If we needed a surgeon we must not prescribe an aspirin for others. If we needed resurrection we must preach resurrection. By our preaching we must command men to live. Our message must have the old Gospel in it; not the rubbed down and shiny cross that modern man wants, but the old rugged cross of shame. The one which speaks of the curse. But the only one which heals. The message which is foolishness to an intellectual and disappointing to the sign-seeker still is the power of God to those who trust it.
That sinner in your church does not need to listen to a finer choir or a more lively musical group. He does not need a more finely polished sermon. He doesn’t need a more erudite preacher. He does not need a “testimony” from one of the world’s elite. He doesn’t need a psychological pep talk. He has been dead “four days and now stinks” and could not appreciate the best or worst in music or preaching. He needs the life-giving call of the Sovereign, “Sinner, come forth.” He needs a miracle.
It has pleased the Father to provide just such miracles of His love and power when the message of the cross is preached to the spiritually dead. But it must be the cross that is preached. And it must be preached to men who are recognized as dead. But you will never preach it right unless you know that you too were dead once but have been made alive by the sovereign grace of God. You will never believe in the miracle of spiritual resurrection like you will when you can look back and be honest about your own spiritual history. Your own personal experience will guarantee to you that God still brings the dead to life.
Then you will pray to God for the anointing which raises the dead. You will beg God for the Comforter to come and do what only God can do. Your preaching will become a resurrection call. And you will not be content with a superficial counting of decisions. Knowing that it is God who is giving the life you can wait for the genuine signs of life. And when you see that resurrected soul hungering and thirsting for more of the Word of God from week to week and from service to service you may then know that death is gone. The grave clothes have been removed. You will find what you expect to see in spiritual life: walking and leaping and praising God, not a half alive soul grunting along in the bindings of a mummy. And since that is the best that human effort can produce, you have to be content with it. The signs of real life can be expected when it is God who is doing the work. And if we believe that God is at work we can afford to wait for the complete birth to take place in those that He is calling to Himself.
To the man who believes in election by a sovereign God preaching becomes an activity of resurrection. Not the persuading of the human will to aid in its own salvation. Nor the appeal to a hostile heart to choose the God it disdains. But the declaring of the regenerating Word which marches into hell and commands that men live in the name of the Sovereign. “The gates of hell shall not prevail.”
Never say, “It doesn’t matter,
For you need strong meat,
You’re really no better than your diet.
For once in winning, Jesus said,
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