Ephesians 1:4 “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight”
I want to take my life in my hands and preach you a second sermon on this text. I am well aware that to preach once on the subject of election is too much for those who don’t believe it, but I am going to speak again on this theme for a number of reasons. Some of you have questions about election that I want to try to answer in this sermon. I also need to address the theme because Paul himself returns to it in the next verse where he says, “in love he predestined us” (v.5), and then once again in verse 11 he repeats both the terms, “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.” He won’t let go of this theme, and if it were that important to an apostle then it must be important enough for us to understand it.
Again, I want to speak on it because it is a wonderfully encouraging truth, easy to preach on and full of comfort to God’s people. Also it has been some years since I spoke on election. It is crucial that every preacher has an all-round ministry. Every Sunday morning I preach to you about the Lord Jesus Christ. My priority is that you see him in the beauty of his person, and understand the glory of his work, so that you love and serve him all your lives. That is far more important to me than your having a perfect grasp of the Bible’s teaching on election, but we also know this, that the Holy Spirit has taken such pains to breathe out the Scriptures to their very jots and tittles. We don’t want to grieve the Spirit, and so we must seek to understand everything we’ve been given if only in the name of the fellowship of the Spirit.
Election is the simplest of all doctrines to understand, because it just says that God is the one who took the initiative and he chose us. There was once a lady who came to a minister and said to him, “I’m really confused about this business of election. Can you help me?” “I can surely try,” he said, asking her, “Now, Mary, are you sure you are saved?” “Yes, pastor,” she said, “Thank God, by his grace I know that I am.” “Did you save yourself, or did the Lord save you?” “Pastor, you know it was all of the Lord.” “Did he do it on purpose, or was it an accident?” Mary paused . . . “I reckon he did it on purpose.” “That’s the doctrine of election,” her pastor told her. Let us begin with the basic truth of the words of our text:
1. GOD CHOSE US IN CHRIST BEFORE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD.
Everyone can understand those simple words, before we had any existence, before there was a creation, before there were any dimensions of space – height, depth, length and breadth. We are being taken back to the time when there was unimaginable nothingness – nothing whatsoever. We are told that then there was, as there had always been, the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Before all things else had their beginning there was the unbegun true and living God. Our text tells us that then, in that deep quiet and profundity, this God was moved with love for his chosen ones. Their names were written on his heart, that then they were dear to his soul. Jesus tells us that it was then that God gave us to Christ, the Father attached us to the Son before he made the light, plugging us right into him. He, the Son of God, lovingly received us from his Father, then and there, before the beginning of beginnings – before the very angels had been made. From that time onwards the elect never had any existence apart from Christ, and they never will a million years from now. Once in Christ, in Christ for ever: thus the eternal covenant stands. How awesome! True, but the decree of God to elect sinners is not inscrutable. It has a face in Jesus Christ. Indeed, we could say that ultimately there’s no such thing as ‘the decree’, there is only loving Father and redeeming Son, decreeing. There is no more comforting truth than this being preached to any congregation anywhere in the world today. Before the stars existed, and before God said “Let there be light” he had chosen me and many of you and millions like us.
It was not that when God saw our beauty he chose us, because we can lose our beauty; our faces can be ravaged by illness or by fire or acid, and if he had chosen us because of our beauty then might he not discard us because of our ugliness? It was not because we were brilliant that he chose us because we can fall a victim to Alzheimer’s disease, and the man who could repair a TV set last year is no longer even able to switch one on. If he had chosen us because we were clever might he not reject us when we grow senile? Of if he had chosen us because we were righteous, what would happen to us when a temptation became too strong, if we were to catch sight of a woman washing herself and we sent for her, and slept with her, and got her pregnant, and then had her husband killed? Would a God who allegedly had chosen us because he judged us to be law-abiding people discard us when we behaved like devils? But Paul says that it was not at all that in time God began to evaluate us and then chose us, but before we were born, before we had done right or wrong, before anything existed except himself. Then it was he chose us and countless multitudes like us. He did it that we should become holy and blameless, not because we were holy and blameless.
Does this concept fit in with Paul’s own self-understanding of how he became a Christian? It certainly fits into Luke’s treatment of the conversion of Paul, in each of the three places he recounts Paul giving his testimony in the book of Acts. The apostle never tells us that he was seeking and praying and agonizing so then eventually God saved him, but rather that he was breathing out threats and hatred against the Church. Then God intervened in his life – as he was walking along a road to kill and imprison Christians, not when he was kneeling by his bed. God arose and came and saved him. Here was a man totally conditioned against Jesus, and if you try to explain Paul’s conversion in terms of psychology, sociology, heredity, environment or any basis other than the divine work of God you will have a real problem on your hands. How does Paul describes his own conversion? Let’s look at this testimony in Galatians 1: 15 & 16: “But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man.” In the previous verses you hear Paul talking about himself, and it is all ego: “I persecuted the church and [I] tried to destroy it” (v.13). “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and [I] was extremely zealous . . .” (v.14). Then he comes to the account of his conversion and it is all God, what the Lord did – “set me apart . . . called me by his grace . . . was pleased to reveal his Son in me.” What a difference! All his own decisions and energy resulted in death and destruction, while all God’s decisions result in life and usefulness.
There are times when people stand here before us, and they give their testimony before they are baptized and join the church and come to the Lord’s Table. Their testimonies are usually fascinating sermons in themselves, but my point is that everyone thinking of confessing Christ and being baptized should read this testimony of Paul. Notice what he doesn’t say, “When I decided to give God a chance . . .” No. Or, “When I opened my heart and let Jesus come in . . .” No. That is the way many people speak today. They don’t go back before the creation of the world, but they start with themselves and what they did. But Paul says that God, working according to an eternal plan, set him apart from his birth, before he took his first breath and uttered his first cry, then God had a plan for him. That’s how Paul saw his conversion, not “I had the courage to make the all-important decision to accept Christ.” Where does anyone anywhere in the Bible talk like that? You will search in vain looking for it. Those men were full of the Spirit, and so they knew that before the foundation of the world God had loved them and purposed that they were going to be his people.
Imagine we had an actual baptismal service and a candidate got up and said, “I suppose that it all comes down to this: I’m a little better than other people. I have a more discernment and insight than most people. I was willing to give God a chance to save me, and it was because of my willingness that God was able to save me.” I could imagine seeing your faces drop, and my own heart would sink. What was I going to do? Could I baptize a man who boasted in himself like that? No way. This man evidently had never seen the grace and power of God. He was glorying in auto-soterism, in self-salvation. I was told of a very different Christian who came from China; he was in an informal meeting and was asked to give his testimony. “How did you come to know the Lord?” He spoke modestly of how God had sought him, and then the Lord had opened his heart to receive the truth, and how the Holy Spirit had given him a new birth and made him a new creation. When he had ended the chairman smiled and said, “That was wonderful, but you left out what you did.” The man from China said, “I don’t know what you mean. There was nothing I did.” The chairman said, “God did his part and then you must have done something. What was your part?” The Chinese brother’s face finally was wreathed in a smile, “Oh, yes, my part! I ran and ran as far from God as I could. I tried to get away from him, but his part was to run faster, tackle me, and totally overcome me by his mercy and love.”
Has God ever taught that truth to you? Your part in salvation had been backing away from God, keeping finding excuses why you didn’t want to be converted, looking for a hiding place where you could escape from the word of God. What could you bring with you to God? Only your sin and need. “Nothing in my hand I bring.” What did God bring to you? His forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ. Do you see why I’m returning to this theme of God choosing us today? It teaches us that God (all by himself), saves (not just attempts to save), sinners (the most undeserving and helpless of people). “Election” means “God saves sinners.”
You will protest and say, “But I was the one who believed in Jesus Christ. I repented of my sin. I confessed him as my Saviour.” Of course you did, but it was God’s grace that enabled you to do so wasn’t it? Predestination does not take away our liberty. Please understand that. God hasn’t merely foreordained what we shall choose. He has foreordained that we shall choose freely. We will know, afterwards, that we could have chosen differently. When unconverted Keith Underhill (who has been a missionary in Kenya for thirty years) came to this university forty years ago it was God who arranged it that he should be sharing a room with a Christian from South Wales called Brian Williams. The University authorities didn’t arrange that (“We’ll put him with a Christian so that he can get saved!”). It was God who constrained Keith to accept freely Brian’s invitation to go along to the Christian Union meetings with him. The God who has given the Bible also brought gospel preachers whom he had called and gifted to speak the message of the Bible to Keith (and the other students in the Inter-Varsity). So the scene was this, that God revealed his Son to Keith and the other men and women, by the preached word, but then, by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit with which he accompanied their preaching, he revealed his Son in Keith in all God’s loving particularity. Thus Keith inwardly knew the beauty of Christ, and so God enabled Keith freely to trust in Jesus Christ. It was God who overcame all Keith’s resistance and changed his will so that he came freely to bow before Christ as his Saviour. Keith was drawn against his will and made a new creation and then he freely bowed and acknowledged God as his Saviour and Lord. We humans could never control an operation in which individuals made free choices while materials behaved randomly. But God can. He controls without compelling. We live in a world where everything is foreordained by God, but we also live in a world where saints and sinners make free choices and where individual subatomic particles behave with complete randomness.
Sometimes we are amazed at the erratic behaviour of our teenage children. It can seem completely random, but then some action will show what are the powers that control their actions. There were once two women sharing a pot of tea. The one watched her son walk out of the door with his shoes shined and his hair neatly combed. His mother said to her friend, “that’s the most frustrating thing in the world.” Her friend said, “I don’t know what you’re so uptight about. I wish my son would shine his shoes and comb his hair. He dresses like a slob.” The mother replied, “Oh, that’s not what’s frustrating. What bugs me is that a pair of blue eyes and a blonde head did in ten minutes what I couldn’t do in eighteen years.” You understand the point of that illustration? She had nagged her son for years to clean up his life, but all her expostulations had failed. Then he fell in love, and he wanted to look dapper. It was the expulsive power of a new affection that drove out his dirty habits! I am explaining to you God’s sovereign election and his effectual grace by which God creates a new inward motive which makes us desire Christ and please him. Christ’s salvation becomes the thing we long for most of all in life. The fellowship of Christ is something we can’t do without. Somebody radically altered the attitude of that mother’s son, and so he willingly changed his lifestyle. The mother knew that a blonde head and a pair of blue eyes had achieved more than all her exhortations. So it is with God’s grace. When God is pleased to reveal the beauty of Jesus Christ in us, to our minds, our emotions, and our hearts, then all of our resistance to salvation is taken out of us. We gladly repent and believe. We can’t resist him, and we trust him with all our hearts because we sincerely want him. The God who chose us before the foundation of the world drew us to himself in time.
Listen to the testimony of Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “One weeknight, when I was sitting in the house of God, I wasn’t thinking much about the preacher’s sermon, for I didn’t believe it. The thought struck me, ‘How did you come to be a Christian?’ I sought the Lord. ‘But how did you come to seek the Lord?’ The truth flashed across my mind in a moment – I shouldn’t have sought him unless there had been some previous influence in my mind to make me seek him. ‘I prayed,’ thought I, but then I asked myself, ‘How came I to pray?’ I was induced to pray by reading the Scriptures. How came I to read the Scriptures? I did read them, but what led me to do so? Then, in a moment, I saw that God was at the bottom of it all, and that he was the Author of my faith, and so the whole doctrine of grace opened up to me, and from that doctrine I have not departed to this day, and I desire to make my constant confession, ‘I ascribe my change wholly to God'” (Charles H. Spurgeon, Autobiography, Vol. 1, ‘The Early Years’ 1834-1859, Banner of Truth reprint, 1973, p. 165). A preacher recently was heard to say, “God will never mess with your free will.” Well, I’m sure glad that God “messed with” my free will. Though raised in a Christian home I was beginning to turn away from the things of God when the Spirit of God began to work in me and make me willing to bow before Christ. Paul there in Galatians 1: 15 attributes his whole change of life from Christ-hater to Christ-preacher to the intervention in mercy in his life of Almighty God: “But . . . God . . . set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, [and] was pleased to reveal his Son in me.”
2. GOD CHOOSING PEOPLE IS NOT HORRIBLY UNFAIR.
Two things: firstly, this little point, that there isn’t the least connection between what God says here and the idea that only a tiny proportion of men will be saved. This seems to arise every time the Bible’s words ‘election’ or ‘choose’ arise. People seem to think that these ‘hot’ words mean some terrible contraction of the number that are going to be saved, as if election meant that at last God would have only a handful of people in heaven. Now there is no reason to believe from Scripture that only a tiny group of folk are going to be saved. The great promise of the Covenant of Grace with Abraham is that his seed is going to be numerous, like the sands on the seashore and the stars in heaven. The vision in Revelation 7 is of a multitude that no man can number around the throne of God and the Lamb. No way is the Devil going to carry the bulk of the human race down with him to hell. So we are to understand from the Bible that God has been utterly prodigal in the number of people he has chosen, his vast arms extended wide, wide, wide, as far as the east is from the west, as he takes to his bosom uncountable masses of people, far beyond human calculation. Our vision should be that where sin abounds grace did much more abound. However, whatever their number, let’s make sure we are counted amongst them. Nice, lovable people aren’t going to hell simply because they have the misfortune not to belong to the elect. Men are condemned to dishonour and wrath only for their sins.
The second thing is this: people protest in an outraged tone, “suppose a father condemned some of his children to misery before they were born while he gave his other children supreme happiness, all out of his own arbitrary will, would that be right and just? Wouldn’t it be brutal and detestable?” Of course it would; it would be execrable to the highest degree, so that we may never charge the God of love with behaviour like that. What we are dealing with is as far from that as light is from darkness. Fallen men and women are not in the position of being innocent children, and God is not a tyrannical monster. How does the righteous God, before whom the angels hide their eyes crying “Holy, Holy, Holy”, see the world? “All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (I Jn. 2:16). Those of the world are not of the Father, they are not his offspring, John says. When God looks into the thoughts of man what does the Lord see? “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). When God describes the state of man how does he sum him up? As dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). His heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Man is sick and covered in bruises and putrefying sores from head to toe in the sight of God. That is the situation, not children of a father, but rebels and criminals who have defied God with a high hand because they hate him. We will not have this Lord ruling over us. Thus the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against them all.
Even non-Christians do not consider a limited display of mercy to be unjust. Let me use this illustration: think of a high security prison. Islamic terrorists who have blown to bits boys and girls are kept there. IRA killers, the murderers of innocent men and women shopping on a Saturday afternoon, are there behind its bars. Drug barons and rapists who in their different heinous ways have destroyed the lives of many are kept incarcerated there. Con men are there, those who have plundered the pensions of thousands so that retired people have discovered themselves to be virtually penniless. Paedophiles are there. Thieves who have half killed old ladies and taken all their best possessions are there. Drunken joy riders who have mowed down school children and shown no remorse are there. 200 such desperate criminals are there, and these prisoners are told one day that the parole board are meeting. Every prisoner applies for parole. The parole board examine all the cases and they decide to give parole to 10 men. Is that unfair? Shouldn’t they have released all 200? Is there anything cruel or unrighteous in leaving 190 criminals behind bars to serve out their sentences? Have their sentences and punishments honoured the justice of the courts? Yes. Were the judgments that were passed upon them fair? Yes. Did their punishments fit their crimes? Yes. They were enemies of the citizens of the state as lawbreakers without a conscience, and they were justly found guilty. You can see immediately my application. The Bible tells us that all the world lies guilty before God. There is none righteous, no not one. God in his extraordinary love saves vast numbers of criminal rebels at the cost of the crucifixion of his own dear Son. Is he unjust that he has not saved every one? No. He would be unjust only if he failed to deal with a single person absolutely fairly, and that he has not done. God has taken every fact into consideration as he has dealt with the world.
Let me use another illustration of particular love not being unjust love. The media periodically announce that there are hundreds of children needing fostering. A husband and wife hear of this; they talk together about offering to help, and they apply and receive two children to be fostered. All their family and neighbours admire them for taking into their home these needy children. They didn’t have to foster any! Will we dare to criticise them for showing such love to only two? No. We admire them. However, let Almighty God, the Lord who has been so terribly offended, bring many sinners to glory (when he could by-pass all sinners since he owes no sinner anything but justice), and God somehow becomes unfair or mean for not choosing to save every single person without exception. In the case of the couple who take to their hearts two children we magnify their gracious act. In the case of God and wicked sinners, some of them affect of pose of moral outrage – they are “offended” at the divine Sovereign’s discrimination. They would “reject” such a God, they say, and they will vilify his character for claiming to be their sovereign judge. He will certainly put them in hell, and he will be just in doing so, and every one of their vile mouths will be stopped. But now, let us press on, and ask why in the world did God choose to save sinners.
3. GOD CHOSE THESE MULTITUDES BECAUSE HE LOVED THEM
Paul makes this glorious statement: “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us” (vv. 4&5). Because he loved them he chose them and predestined them to all the blessings of salvation. The logic of the whole foundation of God’s election is God’s love. Paul goes back behind God’s election to God’s love. Then, should we ask the further question why did God love them, to that question no answer exists. We can get back behind his election to his love, but I can’t get behind the love to anything. The love is the bedrock. The love is ultimate reality. The love is the foundation. The love is the great source of all of God’s redemption. It is like the throne of God. It is the controlling centre of heaven and earth whence God works all things after the counsel of his own will. Someone may ask, for example, “But what lies behind the throne of God?” Nothing. That is the heart of the divine omnipotence. You can’t go behind that to something more powerful. Nothing more powerful than the Sovereignty of God exists. All the rivers of life flow out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. They all come from that sovereignty.
So it is with the divine love. That is the alpha and the omega. That is God himself. Who created God? No one. God is unoriginated and uncreated. He is from eternity to eternity. There never was a time when there was no God. There never was a time when he was not omnipotent. There never was a time when he was not love. I cannot get beyond the love of God to something more rational, more involved, more understandable. The love is the headwaters. God’s love is the source. The love of God is the ultimate reality of God. God is love, and beyond that we cannot go. This vast creation was made by God, and this God is infinite love. This God has loved his own people, and if we ask when he began to love them, Paul tells us before he created the world he loved them. In the beginning he loved them. He has loved them with an everlasting love. I cannot conceive of God as not existing. I cannot imagine God not being eternal. I cannot think of God as not being Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. I cannot speak of God not in love with his people. That is part of the reality of God. Of course it is voluntary, and gracious, and so it is an act of God, but it is still an eternal love, the only way God has been, always in love with his people, always having a bride to present to his Son, always completely passionate for their salvation. It is in that fact that our election is rooted. He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world because he loved us.
God chose individuals with identities, not a grey faceless group. It wa s personal love: “Jacob is the name of the man I have loved,” God says, “and I loved the prophet named Jeremiah even before he was formed in the womb.” Now that is surely one of the most marvelous aspects of the whole of our relationship with God, the minuteness of his concern, his intensive care of us. It is our names that are engraven in the palms of Jehovah’s hands. We are approaching a time when new computers will be able to react more intimately and personally to us. Their letters will have little give-aways to show that they know more about us and even how we feel because they themselves have been made to ‘feel’. Will that fact make us feel loved? The old person living alone, and feeling so insignificant and anonymous in a vast and bewildering universe – how will she feel when a machine starts writing more personally to her? More lonely than ever I’m sure. We are all tiny creatures clinging desperately to a little planet on the very outskirts of the universe. That is all we are. Our lives are quickly over and gone. Is there no alternative to machines? Then we see this individual love of a personal God for ourselves and we say with the Psalmists, “I am poor and needy, but the Lord thinks on me. He cares for me today. He is touched by this feeling of how infirm I am. He is my own Shepherd and I will lack nothing I need.” That is where we Christians find our peace, our dignity, our personhood, the worth of our own identity. That is where we cease to be nonentities. We are proud of a God who knows and loves his own chosen people. We are contemplated by the deep affection of God, so that we can no longer say, “Nobody cares . . .I don’t matter . . . I’m nothing . . .” because God cares. He has cared so much he has given me his own son.
Paul cries with wonder, “He loved me and gave himself for me.” It is even possible for me to stand before Calvary in all humility and wonder and say, “And I am the meaning of that! You gave up your only Son to that, because you loved me? Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree!” The Lord of glory inhabited the womb of Mary, and in the fulness of time he was born in the stable of Bethlehem. He lived long years in an insignificant village off the beaten track called Nazareth, and he suffered Golgotha, and breathed his last, and his body was lain in a tomb – and all out of love for me! Our hymns abound with such wonder at his personal love for us. “Who was the Guilty? Who brought this upon Thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee, ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied Thee: I crucified Thee.” “In my place condemned He stood; Sealed my pardon with His blood.” “Living, He loved me, dying, he saved me, Buried, He carried my sins far away.” Scores of hymns acknowledge I am what I am all because of the Lord’s dying love for me.
Harry Kilbride wrote this: “God’s choice is not a cold, arbitrary decision. Rather it is as if a great king ruled his kingdom with perfect justice. All those who were in prison were being justly punished for crimes willfully committed. Some faced the death penalty. However this loving king determined to display his grace in pardoning the guilty. So he made his way to death row and he offered a full and free pardon to any man who would confess his crimes and repent of them. Alas and sadly none would. So hard of heart were they that they all despised their goodhearted monarch and his laws and spat in his face. Incredibly he wouldn’t be defeated. He singled out the very worst offender and visited him again and again. He poured upon him words and gifts of love, pleading with him to accept the gracious offer of forgiveness. Eventually the hard heart was melted by such sincere love and personal sacrifice. Weeping with sorrow the criminal fell at the feet of his king, confessed his crimes and declared how utterly undeserving he was of such grace. He begged the king to allow him to live a new life of devoted royal service. In joy the king signed the papers of pardon and brought him home to the palace actually adopting him into the royal family. From then on, this erstwhile murderer from the gutter would be a prince.
“My friend: God’s love for us was much greater than that of this king. What if this king could only pardon this villain if the king’s own beloved son, his prince and heir, would die in his place? Why, no-one would believe such a story. They would say it was too farfetched. Yet that is the Gospel story. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son For God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God’s love for you and for me cost him the Cross. If guilty sinners are punished shall God be charged with injustice? If the justly condemned despise his love and his offer of forgiveness shall God be blamed? But if God, determined in love, to yet redeem a people and if in love he includes you in that number, is your heart not overwhelmed with the amazing love and grace of God?
“Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?
‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.” (Isaac Watts).
“Chosen by Grace” is not a story of God choosing names at random out of a hat. It is a love story, the most wonderful love story the world has ever heard.
4. THE TEACHING OF ELECTION IS GOING TO AFFECT YOU VERY POSITIVELY.
i] Firstly, it is going to humble you. There is the great command to us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. There is the warning that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. There is the example of Christ who humbled himself. Three different indications of the importance of the grace of humility are there. So we need all the help we can to become more humble, if God is going to entrust us with new and needed blessings. The Bible’s teaching on election is one of the means to achieve that. It emphasises that we are what we are by the grace of God. If we have faith, and our eyes have been opened, and we can see the glories of Christ, and if we have light and hope then we owe it all to no attainment of our own whatsoever. We owe it all entirely to the grace of God. Remember those wonderful words of Paul: how did he become a Christian? “It pleased God,” he says. “It pleased God.” It was God who chose him before the foundation of the world. It was God who separated him from his mother’s womb. It was God who revealed his Son in him. The initiative was all of God. The accomplishment was divine. The keeping power was the Lord’s alone. Paul was saved by the will of God and kept by the power of God. The Christian says, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” Boasting is excluded. What do you have that you have not received from God? Nothing. God has given us everything. All things bright and beautiful; every good and perfect gift, temporal and eternal, material and spiritual, all comes from God. He gave us his Son, and with him he has freely given us all things. We are debtors to God for everything. What a humbling truth! Imagine that it were any different. Imagine that God’s hands were in fact really tied, and that ultimately the decision to enter glory had actually been ours. Imagine it! Do you understand what I am imagining, that the critical choice of heaven had been in fact our choice? That would be the end of humility. What a desperate virus to take with us into eternity! We would soon be saying to the angels in some lordly way, “Yes, I’m rather glad that I gave Jesus a chance.” No, it is all of grace that sinners will be in heaven. Our boasting is left outside the pearly gates.
Origins are crucial. It is essential to start off the Christian life with the realisation that I am a child of sovereign grace. We did not enter into a partnership with God at conversion. We were slaves of sin and have been redeemed by what Jesus Christ did. We have neither the ability nor the right to boast about the power of our wills or our right to make our own choices. A Christian can have only one boss, and the sooner we learn that it is God himself, the better off we’ll be. God’s purpose is that we learn that from conversion. We see that in the redemption of Paul, where amongst the first words he heard when he regained his sight were, “The God of our fathers has chosen thee” (Acts 22:14).
ii] Secondly, God choosing us is a profoundly encouraging teaching. God knew all about me. He had seen the file. He understood my personality, my hang-ups, my duplicity, my carnality, my personal problems, my laziness, my hypocrisy, my depression, my self-pity and my cold heart. He knew all my sins – the sins that my wife and children don’t know about God knew about before the foundation of the world. The sins my congregation isn’t aware of God has always been aware of. He knew the whole life in its every detail and yet he still determined to have me as his own and to change me. He chose David though he knew what depths David would plumb. He chose Peter though he had heard the curses at the fireside. He chose Paul though he saw his lust for blood and delight at seeing Stephen being stoned to death. He still chose those men, and he chose millions like them, not one of them worthy or perfect. He chose me, knowing my whole life, all the disappointments and the falls. He still determined he would never be separated from me. I would share his eternity. What an encouragement to keep going, knowing my certain destination. I am to be glorified together with Christ, so let me get my priorities right this day. First, let me be always seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness. Then let me be abounding in the work of the Lord.
iii] Thirdly, God choosing such a vast company of people is a tremendous support to evangelism. If we didn’t believe in election we wouldn’t witness. Men are dead in sins, and at enmity against God. How hopeless the situation could seem. Satan would say to us, “It’s hopeless. You can’t persuade anyone in this dark town to become Christians. Give it up!” The greatest evangelist the world has ever seen, the apostle Paul, once felt just like that, and God came and supported him by reminding him of the truth of election. He said to him on that occasion, “Paul, you are safe wherever I call you to go, until your life’s work is over. I want you to go into this city of Corinth and don’t stop preaching there because I have some people I have chosen in Corinth. They will certainly respond to your preaching and praying and personal witness because I am going to be with you, and I will open their hearts and they will pay heed to you.” (see Acts 18:9). Some people were bound to be saved because God had made up his mind. That thought so dominated Paul’s attitude to evangelism that he was willing to suffer anything and everything for that purpose: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).
John Gibson Paton was a missionary to what was called in his day the New Hebrides, islands in the south Pacific. He suffered very much there. He buried his wife and child on those islands, digging their graves with his own hands. He laboured for twenty-five years with no evangelistic success. Were there not many times when he felt discouragement? Didn’t the devil often tell him to move on with his ministry. “Get a life, John!” What kept this missionary preaching in such a situation? Paton stood one day over the graves of his wife and their wee bairn and this is how he prayed: “Father, you have chosen a people out of every tribe and tongue to be saved. Some of those chosen ones are on this island and I won’t leave until they are safely in the fold.” That is what the biblical teaching of election did for evangelists like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, and what it did for pastors like Spurgeon, and missionaries like William Carey and Adinoram Judson. That is what has kept Keith Underhill all these years labouring in Kenya.
It is fascinating to see what follows the conclusion of Romans chapter 9, which is packed with God’s awesome distinguishing mercy, Paul begins the next chapter with these words, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved” (Rom. 10:1). The doctrine of election didn’t make him a fatalist, it rather encourages him to pray. He tells us that he longed to see those same persons he has described in chapter 9 converted and becoming real Christians. He sincerely prays for them, and walks to the synagogues in every town he visits to witness to them that they might trust in Jesus as the Christ. If he believed in mere man it would be a fruitless task for nobody is seeking after the Christ Paul offered to them. If Paul depended on human logic it would say, “Why bother to talk to people? If they are predestined to be saved they will be saved anyway.” But Paul knew that the way God’s decrees work is through the means God has appointed, and that is by bearing witness and praying and living a holy, loving, courageous life.
So the fact that God elects sinners makes a Christian a praying Christian. Listen to these counsels of J.I.Packer: “You pray for the conversion of others. In what terms, now do you intercede for them? Do you limit yourself to asking that God will bring them to a point where they can save themselves, independently of him? I don’t think you do. I think that what you do is to pray in categorical terms that God will, quite simply and decisively, save them: that he will open the eyes of their understanding, soften their hard hearts, renew their natures, and move their wills to receive the Saviour. You ask God to work in them everything necessary for their salvation. You would not dream of making it a point in your prayer that you are not asking God actually to bring them to faith, because you recognize that this is something he cannot do. Nothing of the sort! When you pray for unconverted people, you do so on the assumption that it is in God’s power to bring them to faith. You entreat him to do that very thing, and your confidence in asking rests upon the certainty that he is able to do what you ask. And so indeed he is: that conviction, which animates your intercessions, is God’s own truth, written on your heart by the Holy Spirit. In prayer, then (and the Christian is at his sanest and wisest when he prays), you know that it is God who saves men; you know that what makes men turn to God is God’s own gracious work of drawing them to himself; and the content of your prayers is determined by this knowledge. Thus, by your practice of intercession, no less than by giving thanks for your conversion, you acknowledge and confess the sovereignty of God’s grace. And so do all Christian people everywhere.” (J.I.Packer, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God,” IVP, London, 1961, p.15).
iv] Fourthly, it is going to make you a more courageous and faithful witness. Surely John Reisinger is right when he says, “Nothing kills self-sufficiency like the truth of election. Nothing humbles a proud religionist like sovereign grace. How do you respond to a sinner who says, ‘Leave me alone; when I get ready to believe, I will believe’? I clobber him over the head with election. I tell him that he can’t get ready. I press on him the truth that God does not have to send another witness to him but can leave him alone and let him go to hell for sure. Romans 9 is not a secret for God’s sheep alone. It is the message for every proud Pharaoh in this world. It is the hammer of God that destroys the damning myth of the power and rights of one’s ‘free will.’ Sovereign election, rightly preached, will lead men to seek grace (John G. Reisinger, “Chosen in Eternity”, New Covenant Media, 5317 Wye Creek Drive, Frederick, MD 21703-6938, 2000, p.29. The whole booklet is valuable and has been a real help in the preparation of both these sermons on election).
5. HOW YOU CAN KNOW IF YOU ARE ELECT.
I believe that there is just one criterion and it is this, do I have Christ? If I have Christ then I know I am elect because in Christ I have election. Our text tells us that before the creation of the world God chose all the elect in Christ. I am simply asking if we can’t put our confidence in that, whether we have Jesus Christ in the grasp of our own faith? Do we have him as his invitations and promises are made to us? “The person who comes to me there’s no way I’ll throw him out.” Have you come to him? That is the great sign that a man is God’s elect, if a man wants Christ, and needs Christ and longs for Christ. He may not have strong faith, or mountain-moving faith but he has a faith that longs, and yearns and needs. Do we have an emotional dependence on Jesus Christ? Is there in the depth of our hearts some elemental yearning and longing, an urgency to have the covering of the blood of Christ for our sins, the robe of Christ’s righteousness to hide our defilement? If to lose him is desolation, and if the proof of his nonexistence would drive us crackers, then that person is God’s elect person. Do we have a longing that Christ should dwell in our hearts? That is a sign of our election. Let me close with an illustration of John G. Reisinger’s (from whom a number of the earlier illustrations were also gratefully taken):
“Imagine you are a four-legged sheep caught in a thicket from which you cannot free yourself. You are cold, hungry, thirsty, and your throat is sore from bleating. The more you struggle to get free the more the briars dig into your flesh and make the blood flow. Finally, in utter despair you resign yourself to your pitiful situation, quit struggling, and prepare to die. If, in that most hopeless situation, you heard the familiar voice of the shepherd, what would you do? You would cry, “Baaaa! Baaaaa!” as loudly as you could.
“Well, let me tell that if you are a two-legged sheep in the same condition, you will react in exactly the same way. If you are caught in a thicket of sin and cannot get loose, and the harder you try to get free the more you fail because the bonds of sin get stronger, and you are hungry, tired, and thirsty, then I have good news. There is a gracious Shepherd calling your name. Cry out to him! Cry, “Baaaa! Baaaaa!” as loudly as you can. Tell him how sick you are of sin and its awful consequences. Tell him how totally helpless you are and how badly you need his grace and power. He will be at your side in a moment. He will free you from the thicket of sin, bind up your wounds, give you bread and water, and put you on his shoulders and carry you safely back to the fold.
“The only person who will not cry out “Baa! Baa!” is the person who either doesn’t believe he is caught in the thicket of sin but imagines he is totally free, or the person who loves the sin despite the misery it brings.
“If you are a chosen sheep, you know what it is to be set free from the thicket. You have tasted the bread of heaven and have drunk the water of life. You will praise forever he who loved you with an everlasting love and washed you in his own precious blood.” (John G. Reisinger, “Sound of Grace,” Vol. 4, No. 7, p.8, and at the conclusion of “Chosen in Eternity” where articles from the paper which he edits have been helpfully gathered).
5th October 2003 GEOFF THOMAS