I Peter 1:1&2 “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood:”
If the Bible is the Word of God then all the people of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia – just like everybody else – were in a state of comprehensive depravity. None of them was seeking after God; none of them desired the Lord; the things of God were foolishness to them, and none of them could come to Christ by themselves unless the Father who had sent Jesus Christ to be the Saviour drew them to the Saviour. How then would any one be saved from sin and judgment? How would a single one get to heaven? Peter’s first words to them provide the clue. He addresses them as “God’s elect . . . who have been chosen” by God.
God has made up his mind and selected a vast multitude of men and women to be saved. They are as innumerable as the sands on the shore. They are an incalculably great company and they come from all over the world, and throughout the world’s history. God has elected every single one of them. They are all kinds and conditions of men and women, young and old, clever and dullards, rich and poor, extroverts and introverts, decent folk as well as rotten men and women. God has chosen to save them because he has loved them all and he is determined that they are going to be his own children for ever and ever. He is going to transform them into the image of Jesus Christ – every one of them – and they are going to inhabit the new heavens and the new earth. They will owe their presence in heaven to his election alone. Why he should have loved them they have no idea whatsoever, but it was because he loved them that he chose to save them. God singled out all these people and made them the objects of his saving grace. He did this even before he said, “Let there be light” on the first day of creation.
1. UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION: ITS BASIC IDEA.
We are all familiar enough with the concept of an election. We have witnessed the elections in Africa this year in Kenya and Zimbabwe. There have been various candidates and one has been selected and the others rejected. Was the election in those countries rigged? Was there cheating on a large scale? Perhaps. Those have been the accusations, but in the divine election there is no cheating whatsoever. Nothing unjust or unfair can possibly take place because this is all the choice of the God who is without partiality.
You find this concept again in the story of David and Goliath, when David goes to the brook and gathers certain stones for his sling, and we are told that it was David who chose the stones. There was a process of selection that the youth made and some stones were taken in his hand while others were passed by. Now that very simple concept lies behind the whole biblical doctrine of unconditional election. It is in its very essence God’s selection of men and women, and it is always a selection that implies the non-selection of those left. It is a selection out of a certain constituency and out of a certain proportion, a selection which always means the non-selection of others.
We find the same thing in the challenge uttered by Joshua to the Old Testament church when he says to them, “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.” They were confronted, Joshua says, with a whole multiplicity of gods, a tremendous variety of claimants to religious devotion, and he says to them plainly that they had to choose the one whom they would serve. They had to make their own selection, and in that selection of one god there would be the non-selection of other gods. So you have his same basic idea of a selection involving a non-selection.
We find the same idea again in God’s choice of Israel, selected out of the whole human family of nations, just one people were elected. They alone were chosen to be God’s peculiar people. How odd of God to choose the Jews. Yet he did so, and they alone had this unique and deep relationship with Jehovah their covenant God, and in this divine act of choosing Israel again this selection was involved which involved a passing by and non-selection of all the other nations. So the Lord says to them, “You only have I known of all the nations on the earth. You only have I chosen. You only have I selected.” So right through this doctrine you have this basic and elementary picture, David choosing five stones from the brook; Joshua telling the people to make their own choice from all the possible gods of the people already in the land, and there was just this one chosen people of all the nations of the earth. So if that is the basic idea then what light does the New Testament cast on this divine selection?
2. UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION IS UNTO THE SPRINKLING OF THE BLOOD OF CHRIST.
We are chosen by God to be sprinkled with the blood of the Saviour (v.2). Now you see at once that unconditional election is not simply to a lot of privileges. These men and women in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, weren’t simply chosen to hear the gospel; they were not chosen to receive the benefits of common grace; they were not chosen to have a great preacher like Peter plead with them to come to Christ. They were chosen to have the blood of Christ sprinkled upon them. They were indeed chosen to hear God’s gospel; they were chosen to have Christ offered to them; they were chosen to have men plead with them, but they were chosen for more than that. They were elected to be actually sprinkled with the blood of Christ. In other words, they were chosen to have the work of Christ and all the benefits of his being a Prophet, Priest and King actually applied to them in their own personal experience.
Let us go for a moment beyond the confines of this verse. Peter in these words is alluding to an Old Testament passage found in Exodus 24 when Moses, at God’s directive, established a covenant between Jehovah and Israel, and Moses was told explicitly that he must take the blood of sacrifice that had been shed and be must sprinkle that blood, half of it upon the altar and half upon the people. It was by that symbolic act that they became the covenant people of God, and when Peter says that these Gentiles in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia had been chosen to be sprinkled with the blood it is certainly a reference to the blood of the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, but it is also a reference to the blood of the new covenant, that blood that was shed for many for the remission of sins. They were chosen to the brought experientially and practically into covenant with Almighty God.
In other words, if today the blood of Christ, the blood of forgiveness has been applied to our souls then we owe that to God’s unconditional election and his choice. If today we are members of God’s covenant people then we owe that to God’s election. If we are members of Zion’s city then that is a matter of sheer vertical sovereign grace. Our participation in ever spiritual blessing is a matter of the election of God because the blood is the symbol of every covenant blessing. The blood secures our forgiveness; the blood secures our adoption; the blood secures our assurance of God’s love; the blood secures our peace of conscience; the blood secures out immortality; the blood secures our glorification; the blood secures every single benefit of God’s covenant of grace.
Peter says to us that election is concerned specifically with the selection of specific human beings to be sprinkled with the blood of Christ, brought into God’s covenant, participating in God’s forgiveness, blessed with adoption, and given the sure hope of glory. Unconditional election is specifically a saving act of God. We are elected to salvation; we are elected to union with Christ; we are elected to redemption, to adoption, to be baptized with the Holy Spirit of God, we are elected to participate in all the vast eternal redemptive provision of God himself. We have been chosen by God to be Abraham’s seed. We have been selected by the Lord to be heirs of Abraham’s promise, and that promise, says Paul in Galatians 3 is that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
So I am saying that this phrase ‘unconditional election’ covers the whole spectrum of our redemptive privileges. If we are born again then it is because of election. If we are converted then it is because of election. If we are forgiven it is because of election. If we are God’s sons it is because of election. If we are being kept by God’s power again it is through unconditional election. If we are one day to be glorified, and shall see Christ as he is then it is because of election. If God will one day wipe away all tears from our eyes then we can thank God for electing mercy. If Christ will feed us and lead in the midst of God’s throne then praise the Lord for his unconditional election. God’s election is his selection of us amidst this innumerable company of men and women to the whole glory of salvation. We are the beneficiaries of unconditional election in being sprinkled with the blood of Christ.
3. UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION IS UNTO OBEDIENCE.
Now you will see at once the glory of that, because the great logical objection to the doctrine of election is this; “if that is true then men can live as they please.” Time and again men will say to us, “Surely this tremendous emphasis upon God’s grace and upon God’s initiative is such a dangerous and demoralizing doctrine – surely it is. If people have this assurance that God did not choose them because they were righteous people (they were real sinners), then that will prejudice how they’ll behave. Surely that will prejudice any desire for holiness. Surely it will compromise the whole tone and tenor of their walk with God. That doctrine of unconditional election must be prejudicial to the interests of holiness.”
If that is ever put to me I say what I learned from Principal Macleod, that I have no logical answer to that objection. I cannot answer it logically. I can in fact see no logical answer to the plea that it can be inferred from this doctrine that we can freely sin so that grace may abound. I have no logical answer to that inference, but I would claim that I have an answer that is greater than a logical answer. I have a great practical answer. This is the answer, and it says that the very purpose of election is to make a man holy. I am saying that if a man is elect and is chosen by God then the very meaning of that election is that God is determined to make him holy. He has been predestinated to be conformed to the image of God’s Son.
Now that man can say to himself, “I am elect for no good in me whatsoever. I fulfilled no conditions by my own striving and efforts that conditioned God to choose me. God out of sheer grace, seeing the file on me, and knowing all about me, yet for his own purpose and grace set his love on me and chose me and determined to make me a holy man.” A man with such convictions cannot say to himself, “So I am elect and therefore I don’t need to be Christ-like.” Because if I am elect I can’t avoid being Christ-like, because the very concern of election is that men are to be borne along on the invincible wave of the grace of God that would carry them along to the point where at last they are characterized in intellect, emotion, commitment and aspiration absolutely conformed to the image of the Son of God.
God’s elect cannot live in sin; they cannot live under sin’s dominion; they cannot live in estrangement from Christ; they cannot live in defiance of the will of their Saviour. Being elect means that God has taken steps to make it impossible for them to live like that. He has taken steps to ensure that he will conform them to the image of his own Son. In other words to be elect means that God is determined to make us holy. God is committed in all the glory of his own resources to that end. He is dedicated to making the elect absolutely Christ-like. He has decreed that we should be completely holy.
I would put it to you that it is in many ways a marvelous privilege, the tremendous status and position given to the mere elect Christian in the New Testament whereby the reality is this, that just as certainly as God unconditionally decreed the cross of Calvary so he has decreed our holiness, mine and yours. Paul speaks elsewhere of ‘good works’ and he says about them that God has before ordained that we should walk in them. It is a marvelous attitude to life every day, that as we walk along the road of the journey of life, then we can expect often to meet here and there those good works which God has prepared for us. It means that as we get up each morning of every day that we can say to ourselves, “I wonder what good works God has prepared for us for this day?” If I may be so bold as to use this language, that there is each day for every Christian something beautiful to do for God, good works which God has before ordained that we should walk in them.
Just as Christ was predestinated to bear the sins of the world so we have been chosen to be Christ-like, and it is in that divine commitment, not to our own logical powers that our defence against antinomianism and against unholiness lies. It goes back right into the very meaning of the atonement itself, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephs 5:25-27). So we are elect to be sprinkled and we are elect to be obedient servants of God conformed to the image of God’s Son.
4. UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION IS ACCORDING TO THE FOREKNOWLEDGE OF GOD THE FATHER.
Now the idea here is not simply God’s omniscience, that God know absolutely everything. It is not a reference to God’s intellectual and propositional knowledge of what is going to happen. It is not that God saw people who would use their free wills and select God so God selected those people. Men’s depravity made them constantly refuse Jesus Christ. Let me remind you that in the Bible very often the whole idea of knowledge is much more affectionate than intellectual. For God, to know means to love. For example if we quote again those words found in the prophet Amos, “You only have I known of all the nations in the world;” now that does not mean that God was only aware of what was going on within the borders of Israel. We know that God maintains the whole world; he knows the fall of every sparrow. He knows what happens in Egypt, Babylon and Assyria, but there is a loving knowledge which God has for the people he has selected and approved of. Again in the same way Christ tells us he will say on the Day of Judgment, “Depart from me I never knew you.” Of course his telling them to depart is based upon his knowledge of them. The Lord had a sincere general love for them but no saving love for them. I can even appeal to the story of Adam and Eve and the reference to Adam knowing his wife Eve. Adam knew her, and that was not an intellectual knowledge. It was affectionate; indeed it was passionate; it was a loving knowledge.
Now God knows his people like that, lovingly, affectionately and passionately. That is the message of the prophecy of Hosea; it is the message of Ephesians chapter 5, Christ loving the church as a man loves his wife, nourishing and cherishing her as Christ gave himself for his bride. In other words we must read into the idea of God’s love for his people all the commitment and all the jealousy of a man’s love for his bride. The Lord is in love with his people; the Lord goes to Calvary for his people; the Lord gives himself for his people. It is a love that is prodigal; a love that is emotional; a love that is passionate. It is a love that gives his own Son, and spares him not. God is desperately involved with his own people and it is out of that fact that we get God’s unconditional loving election. God elected on the basis of his own overwhelming affection for his own; that is why he chose them.
5. THE REASON FOR UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION.
Why did God choose them? The answer is quite glorious; he chose them because of himself not because of anything in them. He had taken the initiative and he loved them; he was in love with them and so he chose them in all their vast multitudes. The logic of the whole foundation of God’s election is God’s love. We can go back beyond God’s unconditional election to God’s love. Then we might also ask the question why – “Why did God love them?” To that question there is no answer. We can get behind unconditional election to God’s love, but we cannot get behind the love to anything. God’s love is the ultimate reality; God’s love is the bedrock of earth and heaven, time and eternity; God’s love is the foundation of meaning. God’s love is the great source of God’s redemption. The river of the waters of life flows out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. Eternal life flows from God’s sovereign love, but I don’t have the least answer to the question, “Why did God love all these sinners more in number than men could count?” I cannot go beyond the love to something more rational, more involved and more logical. The love is the peak; it is the headwater; it is the first cause; it is the source of all; it is what God is. God is love, and beyond that there is nothingness. That is why men without God have nothing to hope in.
God has loved his own people, and I stand before the magnificent fact that he has never existed without being in love with his people. It is an eternal love. I cannot conceive of God as not existing; I cannot conceive of God as not being eternal; I cannot think of God as not being triune. So too I cannot conceive of God as not being unconditionally in love with individual sinners, many, many of them. It is a marvelous thing. It never became with God. It never arose with him. It never suddenly came at one time by a divine resolution, “O.K. I will love those sinners.” It is part of the reality of God that he has embraced eternally these favoured sinners and determined that they would be with him and like him for ever and ever.
I cannot deny that it is voluntary in God; it is discretionary in God; it is gracious in God; it is an act of his will, but it is still eternal. It is the only way God has ever been. God has been eternally in love with his own people. He has always loved his bride the church. He has been completely passionate for the salvation of his people, and it is in that fact that our unconditional election is rooted. He chose us and selected us because he loved us.
6. UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION IS PERSONAL AND INDIVIDUAL.
Let me step outside the confines of this verse for a moment. In the Old Testament you have set within the nation of Israel and God’s dealings with them this fact, “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated.” There is a differentiation and it is intensely personal. God loves the one and he passes by the other and he treats them just as they deserve to be treated. You have it recorded in Jeremiah, that before that prophet was formed in the womb God told him that he knew him. Again it is intensely personal. In the New Testament, amongst the first words Paul heard from a Christian after he had been regenerated were, “The Lord of our fathers has chosen you” (Acts 22:14).
Now that is surely one of the most marvelous aspects of the whole of our relationship with God, the minuteness of his concern, the scrupulous nature of his care. Our very names are engraved in the palms of Jehovah’s hands. In the society of which we are a part we are addressed by computers. They write to us and they even speak to us as we try to phone a human being with some authority. There are many people who feel they are utterly alone, that they are anonymous people, insignificant men and women in a bewildering universe. We are only the tiniest specks clinging desperately to a little planet on the very outskirts of the universe, and that is all. Then we see this, and we say with the psalmist, “I am poor and needy, but the Lord thinks on me.” “The Lord is my shepherd, and therefore will I be in want of nothing.” It seems to me at last that that is where we as Christians find our dignity; this is where we find our personhood; this is where we cease to be nonentities, as we see ourselves chosen by the one mighty God. Think of a shy girl who is amazed to be asked by the most good-looking and eligible boy in the school to go with him to the school dinner. She doesn’t say, “That is not fair; he should have asked everyone.” She says, “How extraordinary that he should like me and choose me.”
If God who has seen the file on us has yet deigned to choose us in spite of everything we have been, then we cannot say. “God is far away. He is a distant God who ignores me,” because God cares. He cares so much he has given me his own Son. He loved me and gave himself for me. It is even possible for me to stand with all humility before Almighty God and cry to him, “You mean that I am the meaning of Calvary?” God was in Christ reconciling me to himself. He made sure I would be his for ever by choosing me to be Christ’s. For me he became incarnate; for me he suffered; for me he died. It is all so very personal.
7. UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION IS OF A VAST NUMBER OF SINNERS.
There is not the least connection between unconditional election and the idea that just a handful of men will be saved, one going to heaven and ten to hell, as Robbie Burns mocked. But the moment the word ‘election’ is mentioned people seem to think that it means some terrible contraction of the number of sinners going to be saved, as if election meant that at last God would only have a tiny proportion of mankind. I see no reason whatever in Scripture to believe that only a few are going to be saved. The great promise made to Abraham in the Covenant of Grace made with him was that his seed would be numerous like the stars in the heavens. The vision in Revelation chapter seven is of a multitude that no man could number in glory. We should have a view of unconditional election that it embraces billions and billions, a simply vast throng. Our view has to be that where sin has abounded there grace will much more abound. Yet, should we become complacent, let us remember that the road that leads to destruction is wide and many find it, whereas only a few walk the narrow way to life. Somehow we live in the tension of those two convictions. Let us leave it to God how many will be saved and let us make sure that at least we ourselves are on the narrow path.
8. IN THE LIGHT OF GOD’S UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION HOW CAN I KNOW IF I AM ELECT?
Is it possible to have assurance that I am one of God’s chosen ones? Let me answer in this way. Peter writes here to the elect who were “strangers in the world.” They were not a strong organised body of people; they were scattered throughout this whole area. They were stateless people; they were no longer at home in the areas where they had grown up. Many of them had been disinherited by their families when they became Christians, ostracized and excommunicated. They were now stateless; they had no citizenship, and no rights of permanent residence. When things went wrong they were blamed. When things went badly wrong they were expelled. This meant that built into their lives there was insecurity, economic pressures and psychological stress. They were loved and chosen by God to be his heirs. They were to have an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and yet they were homeless strangers where they were temporarily living. Their election was obscured by their earthly conditions.
So how can we know if we are the objects of unconditional election? 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. I am asking you all please to put your confidence in this, that you have Jesus Christ in the grasp of your faith and in the reception of his word. Do you want Christ? Do you say, “I am not sure if I have him, but I know this that if I had Christ then I would be safe.” That is a Christian. Only a Christian can think like that. A non-Christian will dream, “If only I were baptized . . . if only I were confirmed . . . if only I was received into the church . . . if only I knew the Bible better . . .” But the Christian will say, “Oh that I had Jesus Christ . . . how I want him . . . how I need him . . . who else will speak up for me before God . . . who else’s blood can make atonement for my sins . . . who else is the Mediator with God save Jesus Christ . . . who else has righteousness to cover me? I must have Christ. If only I knew I had him then I would be a Christian.” That is a Christian. He longs to see Christ even if he dies at the sight. The alternative is to die with longing. If he feels he is condemned to hell he cries, “Yet I will go to hell trusting in Christ alone.”
A Christian may not have strong faith; he may not have heroic faith; he may not have mountain moving faith but he does have a faith that longs and yearns and needs this Saviour. No one else. Less would not satisfy; more is not desired. That is what faith says, and that is the great sign that we are the object of unconditional election, that we have Christ, an emotional dependence upon him, an elemental yearning and longing for the love of a Lord who will never let us out of his hands. If to lose him would be desolation, and the proof of his non-existence would break us apart – there, in that longing for Christ, and in his abiding in our hearts – there is the sign of our election.
9. WHAT EFFECTS DOES UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION HAVE ON THE CHRISTIAN?
i] It is a profoundly humbling truth. If I am a Christian it is through the grace of a choosing God. If today I have forgiveness of my sins then I do not owe it to any mountains of good works which I have built up. I owe it entirely to the grace of God. Paul said it in a word spoken to the Galatians. He is pondering how he became a Christian. He had been a persecutor and a blasphemer. What had happened? Paul said, “It pleased God . . . it pleased God to separate me from my mother’s womb . . . it pleased God to reveal his Son in me.” The initiative was all of God. The accomplishment was all God’s. The keeping had all been divine keeping. Paul had been saved by the will of God and kept by the power of God; all that a Christian is he is by the grace of God. Boasting is excluded. What do we have that we did not receive from God? He has given us everything. He gave us his Son utterly freely, not measuring the cost to his Fatherly heart. He then gave us all things in Christ. How humbly we ought to approach God. We are debtors to God for everything.
ii] It is a profoundly encouraging truth. God knew all about me; he knew everything about my past, my hang-ups, my betrayals, my idleness, my personality problems, my falls, the way I’ve hurt people I love, my hypocrisy, my double standards, my coldness of heart. God knew . . . the whole life . . . the end as well as the beginning. He was still determined to have me as his own and turn me into a glorious Christ-like man. Then let me never despair. The one thing the devil wants from me is that I should despair. “God knows my sins,” I say to Satan, “more than I myself know them. I confess them to him. I find a covering in the blood of Christ. That is my all sufficient plea. He knows better than Satan about my sin, but he still set his love on me and chose me to be his own. Since our fall all people are born with a totally sinning heart, loving and choosing self and sin rather than God and righteousness. If God had not chosen to save billions of men and women then all would be lost. God’s wonderful grace has made salvation possible.
iii] It is a tremendous support to evangelism. God has promised to bless his word. It will not fall to the ground, he says. It will accomplish his saving purposes. So let us use the word, and prayer, and every means of bringing to people Jesus Christ. God has his people everywhere. Paul was given the privilege of knowing that there were many of these in Corinth. We do not know if there are few or many in our town who are now still in unbelief. How will we know if a man has been loved from God from all eternity? As we bring the gospel to him and pray for him and don’t grow weary in doing good to him he will show that he is one of the elect by trusting in Christ, receiving our word and turning his back on sin. We must speak the word and teach all who will hear us.
Imagine a friend who opened a coffee shop in the town and when you went to see it you were shocked at the condition. There were piles of dirty coffee cups on each table, and the floor was covered in stale bread and pieces of cake. Your friend was smoking away behind the counter looking bored at anyone who came through the door. “Let’s get cracking and clean up the place,” you say to her. “You won’t get many people to buy coffee if the place looks like this.” “No,” she says, “None of that matters. If God will bless my business that’s all that counts. If not, no matter what I do then it won’t prosper.” What folly! God has chosen multitudes to trust in Christ, yes, but God has chosen the means they will come and that is by our living Christ-like lives and saying words faithful to Christ’s message. Make sure of your calling and election by walking in the Spirit and faithfully serving Jesus and always being ready to give a reason for your hope.
6th April 2008 GEOFF THOMAS
*After a full week at the Banner of Truth ministers’ conference at Leicester I had less time than usual to prepare (conferences are also tiring times) and was glad to take advantage of much material in this sermon from a sermon of Don Macleod.