Ephesians 1:4 “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight”
We are overhearing Paul praising God for blessing him and all the people of God with every spiritual blessing in Christ. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” he cries. It is inspired praise; it is the praise of the Holy Spirit through him; it is model praise. “Where shall I begin”? Paul thinks. He goes back to the very beginning, to before Genesis chapter one and verse one, that is, before the creation of the world. Then God knew him, and loved him. “Praise be to God . . . for he “chose us in Christ before the creation of the world.” That is the start of his praise, that God could have chosen a sinner like himself to become his son.
The words are very straightforward and speak for themselves. We all know what a choice is. We find it in the story of David and Goliath, when David goes to the brook and gathers certain stones for his sling. We are told that David chose the stones. He cast his eyes on them, and weighed them up as they lay there in the stream bed. Some were too large and others were the wrong shape. There was a process of selection in which some stones were taken and other stones were passed by. Now that is the very simple concept that lies behind the whole Biblical teaching on this subject. God’s choosing is, in its very essence, God’s selection, and it is always a selection that implies the non-selection of those left. It is a choosing out of a certain constituency, and out of a certain proportion. It is a choosing which means the rejection 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 with a whole multiplicity of baals, and idols, and gods, and goddesses. There was this tremendous variety of claimants to religious devotion. Joshua says to them very plainly, “You have to choose this day whom you will serve. You must make your own selection, and in that selection of the one god you are going to worship there has to be the non-selection of all the other gods. As for me and my house we are choosing the Lord. We are going to serve him alone,” Joshua said. You have the same basic idea of a choice involving a rejection of those not chosen.
We find the same approach again in God’s choice of Israel, that nation which was divinely selected out of the whole family of nations, just this one ethnic group, and they were the chosen race, God’s peculiar people. They had a unique relationship with Jehovah their covenant God, and in this divine act of choosing Israel again there was involved a non-choice, and a passing by of all the other nations, the English, the Welsh, the Americans, the Dutch. All were discarded. They were not the chosen race. The Lord says to Israel alone, “You only have I known of all the nations of the earth. I have selected only you. You are my choice.”
We come across this same concept when the New Testament church appoints seven deacons to wait on tables and serve the widows in the congregation. We are told that ” . . . they chose Stephen” (Acts 6:5). There were many godly men amongst the thousands in the Jerusalem church but just those seven men were chosen while the others were not elected to this office. In the Scripture that is the fundamental idea of God’s choice, and so right through the biblical teaching you have this basic and elementary idea: David chose five stones from the brook. Joshua says, ‘Make your choice from all the possible figures who could be your god.’ God chose just one nation out of all the nations of the earth. The early church chose Stephen to become a deacon. Election is God’s choice of a vast company of sinners to become his people, and Paul begins his praise by blessing God for the fact that the Lord should have chosen a persecutor and an evil man like himself and chosen the whole of the Ephesian church.
Do you see this, that election is the first great saving act of God? If you are a Christian today you owe it to election. If you are adopted into the family of God today you owe it to God’s selection. If your sins are forgiven today and you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ you owe it to the divine decision. If you are going to heaven to spend eternity with Jesus Christ you owe it to election. I am saying that that is what the Bible teaches, and so it is crucially important to get such a basic idea right. Such truths are like the foundations of a building. If the foundation of a building is not square or level then the whole building will be crooked, not only at the bottom but all the way up to the top. So it is with the Christian faith, it’s bound to lean in whatever direction the foundation is laid. The difference between ourselves and the cults or modernism is a difference concerning fundamental revealed religion. We are dealing with trunk and branch truths, not twig and leaf truths, and if you are not straight with them then all that follows will be out of line. There are twig and leaf truths, for example, a women’s head covering. Should women wear a head covering or is a woman’s longer hair the covering required? Many of us think it is that latter, but friendly discussion about that concerns a minor issue. But God’s sovereignty in redemption I want to show you is a fundamental issue.
It is a watershed teaching. Will we be glorified in heaven because we made a decision and chose it for ourselves, or will we be there because God chose us? Eternity is a long time to think well of ourselves for making such a smart choice. Understanding the Bible’s teaching on God’s election aright is important. Let me illustrate what I mean: the wife of John, a friend of mine, had a house coat with 22 buttons. One day she put button number one into hole number two, and her sadistic old man watched her go all the way from top to bottom. She had one button left and no more holes. How many mistakes had she made? We would be prone to say ‘one’, but in reality she made 21 mistakes. She had to undo each one of the 21 buttons and start all over. Life is exactly the same except we don’t get to start all over when we come to the end. I may sail through life with little or no trouble. It all seems to fit so well. However, when I reach the end I face an open-ended encounter with God, and if my life has been spent ignoring him then everything I have ever done will have been out of whack because – “I did it my way!” We never obeyed our Creator and did it God’s way.
The Christian writer Arthur Pink as a young man was wrapped up in the spiritist movement; his friends were psychics, and he was attending seances in Nottingham with people who were deluded into thinking they were actually communicating with the dead instead of something even more sinister. One night when he came through the door from one such gathering of clairvoyants his Christian father came out of the room to meet him in the hallway. He was very concerned with this foundational mistake that Arthur was making, and he had been praying for his son. He looked at his boy and he quoted earnestly to Arthur these words from Proverbs 14:12, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death”. God put an arrow in his heart with those words. Arthur Pink went to his room and didn’t leave it for many hours, seeking God, and seeking to get right with him. His whole life changed as a result.
I am claiming that the Bible’s teaching about God choosing us to be saved is one of its foundational truths. John Reisinger had this experience: “A man once handed me a 200 page book on the subject of predestination. The author’s first statement was, ‘Predestination is like this: A train company chooses to send a train from Pittsburgh to Chicago. That train is pre-destined to arrive a Chicago at a given time. The train company will guarantee you this, that since the train is pre-destined to arrive at Chicago you too will be predestined or guaranteed to arrive at Chicago if only you would be willing to get on the train. God’s predestination is just the same. If you will only ‘accept Christ with your free will’ then God will guarantee you will be secure and you will get to heaven. Once you ‘get on the train of grace’ you are eternally secure and predestined to get to heaven, but you have to make choice and climb on board.” (John G. Reisinger, “Sound of Grace,” Volume 2. Number 8, p.2). In other words, the man believed that it was the redemption of sinners in general that had been predestined, but each individual had to make a personal choice of benefiting from that redemption or refusing it. That personal choice was not a result of the preceding divine choice.
John Reisinger handed the book back to the man and said, ‘The book isn’t true. The author is wrong.’ The man said, ‘How do you know that? You haven’t even read the book.’ John tried to explain that if the author’s definition of predestination were wrong, then the whole book was wrong. The definition of predestination was a summation of the book; the rest of the book was merely an attempt to prove the definition was correct. If you hold a wrong view of God’s sovereignty in salvation then it is going to have implications for evangelism, worship, prayer, assurance and the grace of humility.
So my responsibility is to establish this claim of mine that God taking the initiative and choosing us is actually taught in the Bible, and that the emphasis it receives in Scripture shows to us that this is a foundational truth. Then I can answer some of the objections you may have to this teaching, and show you the great benefits.
1. GOD’S CHOICE OF US IS TAUGHT IN THE BIBLE.
If a doctrine is taught in just one verse in the entire Scriptures then we are right to question whether we truly understand that verse. Isn’t that teaching found anywhere else in the whole Bible? Only here? Surely then we would be suspicious, as we are of the Mormons who practise a water baptism for dead people basing this bizarre activity on the interpretation of one solitary verse in the New Testament. Is the doctrine of election a lonely doctrine like that? Let’s find out; for five minutes let the chapel be filled with the beautiful sound of the rustling pages of the Word of God. Please don’t say, “Even if this is taught in the Bible I could not believe it!” All Scripture is God-breathed. It has divine authority and it is for us to understand, and obey, not to be tampered with so that it is made to mean what we would like it to mean. In the newspapers this week there was recorded the case of a slimming instructor in Hawick, in Scotland, who has been suspended from his work. What had he done? He had adjusted the weighing scales so that as members of his class stood on them they were persuaded that under his benevolent regimen of exercises they had lost considerably more weight than in fact they had. He had made the balances lie. Jesus said to his heavenly Father of the Scripture, “Thy word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). That truth is untamperable, and we have to adjust ourselves to what the perfect balances of God require. They are not to be adjusted to our fancies.
As we turn to the Bible let’s look at just a selection of verses on this teaching, beginning with Deuteronomy 7:6,7&8, “The Lord has chosen you out of all the nations on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you . . .” Under the Old Testament God set his love on this one people. It was not because they were a mighty numerous nation with an ancient culture like those of the Chinese or the Indians or the Egyptians that God chose them. They were amongst the smallest of all the nations. Then was it because they were the most holy and obedient of the nations? No. God wants them to understand that: “Understand, then, that it was not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this land to possess it, for you are a stiff-necked nation” (Deut. 9:6). So his choice was not dependent on their merit either by way of their power or good works. They had neither. He chose them because he loved them, and why he should have loved them he doesn’t tell us.
While we are in the Old Testament let us be sure of this, that it was not that the Lord simply chose a nation during that dispensation in a kind of corporate national election, and that the Old Testament knows nothing of individual and personal choosing. No. That idea cannot be supported. Think of God’s words to Jeremiah: “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:4&5). God chose individual prophets to serve him.
Then let us look at the same concept of choosing people as we find it on the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ. Does the Saviour himself speak of choosing people? Yes. He speaks to the twelve apostles thus, “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that you should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (Jn. 15:16). That is the picture we have in the early chapters of the gospels. They barely knew him; they were working with their fathers on their fishing boats or in a tax office and Christ came up to them, not to others, and said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” They were not clamouring to be chosen, waving their hands and standing on tip toe to be recognised. He bypassed thousands of other fishermen and hundreds of other tax collectors and he chose these men.
Or again, let us look at one of the New Testament congregations. Was it any different when we move from the old dispensation to the new? Could it have been that, perhaps, under the old dispensation, God chose people, but under a the new dispensation people choose God? No, there is no difference. Let us see how Paul views the church in Thessalonica: “But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). So in the New Testament era it is Christians who can say, “We are the chosen people.”
Again when we look at the spread of the church and the mighty growth of the gospel recorded by Luke in the book of Acts how does he describe it? Does he say that thousands of people ‘made decisions and chose Christ’? No. This is what he writes of the response to the gospel preached by Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch: “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). The first part of that chapter describes the evangelistic message Paul preached about the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul is declaring the gospel to the city, telling them of the marvellous grace of God and urging them all to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved. Then this 48th verse is Luke’s report of the results, or the effects which the Holy Spirit accomplished through that gospel. Many became believers and Luke is keen to give credit to God for every conversion. Those whom God had chosen to receive eternal life responded to the gospel and trusted in Jesus Christ. Incidentally, how different is the mistranslation of this verse in the “Living Bible”: “As many as wanted eternal life believed.” It shows the foundational bias of the translator against the teaching of God’s sovereignty in giving eternal life. No, Luke doesn’t say that they got life because they wanted it (though in a sense that is true; God had given them a desire for it, but that is not the teaching of this verse), but that God ordained them to have eternal life.
Though there are scores of references to this in the Bible we can look at just one more example found Romans chapter 9. There was once a pre-terminal conference for university students taken by the Pennsylvanian John Reisinger, and during one of the question and answer sessions somebody raised this question about God choosing us. “One girl asked, ‘Where does the Bible clearly teach that God sovereignly chooses some people to be saved?’ John asked her to read Romans 9 out loud, and she came to verse 11, ‘Before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls – she [Rebecca] was told, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”‘ The student then stopped and said, ‘But that’s not just.’ John asked her to read the next verse, ‘What then shall we say?’ Is God unjust? Not at all!’ The surprised girl blurted out, ‘That’s what I just said.’
“Do you understand? If you object to election on the grounds that you think it is unfair, you are using an objection that has already been used and answered in the Scripture. The moment you say, ‘Election is unfair,’ you are admitting that you disagree with Paul’s teaching in Romans 9:11-13, because that is the very objection he is presupposing his opponents will make. In his statement Paul does not back down or soften his statement. He declares that God has every right to show mercy to whomsoever he chooses.
“Then the young lady continued to read Romans nine. She read verse 18, ‘Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.’ She literally gasped, ‘Then man can’t be held responsible. He is only a robot.’ Again John asked her to read the next verse: ‘One of you will say to me: Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’ But the student was not reading the NIV but a modern speech translation which reads, ‘You will say to me, “Then man cannot be held responsible. He is only a robot.”‘ The girl said, ‘I did it again!’
“If you object to election on the grounds that you think it makes man a robot, you are using an objection that has already been used, and answered, in the Scripture. The moment you say, ‘Election means man cannot be held responsible,’ you are admitting that you disagree with Paul’s teaching in Romans 9:18.” (John Reisinger, “Sound of Grace,” Vol. 4, No. 6, p.2).
The problem that girl had, which she shares with many Christians, is the idea that they have a right to be saved. The Bible approaches the subject very differently. We have forfeited all our rights before God by the fall of our father Adam and by our own sins. All of us stand before God as condemned sinners. The fact that God saved anyone at all is an amazing demonstration of his free grace to the sinner. A young man went to his pastor with a problem. “Pastor,” he said, “you urged me to read the New Testament. I have studied the Gospels; I have gone through the Acts, and now I have come to Romans. I do not like chapter 9. For example in verse 13 I read ‘Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.’ I can’t accept that, Pastor. I just can’t believe in a God like that.” “Well,” the pastor replied, “I have difficulty with that verse myself.” The young man was somewhat comforted, and then the pastor continued, “My difficulty is not that God could hate Esau, a man who despised his own birthright, who had no thought for the things of God, and who cared only for himself. My problem is, how could a God of justice and holiness ever love a cheat and a liar like Jacob?” When we stop puzzling over God’s treatment of Esau, and start marvelling at God’s grace to Jacob and to ourselves then we will experience a dynamic revolution in our theology.
So, those are some of the many verses in the Bible that speak of the initiative God takes in our redemption when he chooses us. Election is a saving work of God. God’s choice of us is taught in the Bible.
2. GOD’S CHOICE DOES NOT DEPEND ON HIS ALREADY KNOWING THOSE WHO, WITH THEIR OWN FREE WILLS, HAVE FIRST CHOSEN HIM.
There are many people who take the Bible seriously. They have to believe that God chooses sinners because of all the texts in the Bible that say these very words, some of which we have looked at. Their problem might be this, that they are afraid of making God seem partial, or they are concerned that they will lose their evangelistic edge if they believe in Sovereign election. So they say this, “Yes, God chooses, but he chooses those whom he can see are going to use their own free wills and choose him.” In other words, men imagine God looking down through history and spotting beforehand those wise individuals who were ‘willing’ to accept Christ. On the basis of that decision, which they themselves have made – all by themselves, God chooses them.
Now it only takes a moment’s reflection to realise that in such a scheme, God merely agrees with what he foresees. What God is doing is to ratify the sinner’s choice. This is not God’s foreknowledge of people but God’s post-knowledge of people. He sees that they have made a ‘free decision’ to be different from other men, and so he chooses and loves those people. “Great!” God says. “I foresee your willingness and that gives me a basis on which I can choose you to be saved.” If you believe that is the case then you can hardly claim that in any sense God chose you. You must say, “The one reason God was able to choose me to be saved was the fact that he discovered that I was going to choose him. I wasn’t going to be stupid like other men and women and reject heaven. I chose glory, and so I gave God a chance of saving me.”
The other great problem – maybe even greater problem – with that interpretation is that it fails to face up to what the Bible says about the state of man. Unbelievers are in a terrible spiritual condition. What good could God possibly foresee in anybody to make him choose such a person for salvation? John Calvin asks,
“How could God foresee
The things that could not be?”
You might think that we have a holy problem with a God who chooses sinners to be saved because it seems to make him unjust, but I would say that a greater problem faces you when you examine what the Bible says about the terrible hopeless condition of man in sin. What in fact we have is a holy answer to a terrible human problem. What is the natural man’s condition? This letter to the Ephesians says that he is “dead in . . . transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1). It is not that man has a spark of life that allows him to choose Jesus. His soul is as lifeless as a corpse. The five stones in the brook did not somehow send a message to David that they were willing to be chosen or that they leapt out of the river into David’s hand. Our hearts by nature were just as hard and lifeless as that stone which flew through the air and smote Goliath on his forehead. God saw no more willingness in us to be chosen than David saw willingness in any of the five smooth stones.
Or consider again what Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “There is no one . . . who seeks after God” (Rom. 3:11). When God looked through the history of mankind he did not find one solitary individual who was by himself seeking after the living God’s redemption in Christ. There were loads of religions and idols and temples and people in which they were involved but not one person was wanting to put his hope in the blood and righteousness of Christ. When I knock on doors and meet people in this town today the response I have met for forty years or so completely confirms this judgment. They do not want my Saviour. They are not seeking for him.
Is the Lord Jesus any more encouraging in his assessment of the human heart? Not at all. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44). Before I can come to Jesus Christ God the Father must do a work within me drawing me from sin to Christ. Or consider again the great indictment of man in the book of Genesis, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the face of the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). There is no will of any man unaffected by sin, so that no one will choose Christ unaided by the Holy Spirit.
If God waited for a hundred thousand years looking for a dead man to show life, or a rebel to seek after God, or a sinner to come to him, or a man to have an entirely holy and pure and sinless thought, then God would have waited in vain. The longer men live by themselves the greater the mischief they fall into. So when God looks down the corridor of time he doesn’t see a single person seeking after God or coming to Christ all by himself. That is the situation we are in, and if anyone at all is going to be saved it is going to be because of the initiative of God’s undeserved love. The Bible’s marvellous message is that God has chosen a vast group of people. They are like the sands in the seashore in number, and all of them owe their salvation to the grace of God.
Let me adapt another fertile illustration of John Reisinger’s: an architect has perfect foreknowledge of every building which he plans. Why? He certainly ‘foreknows’ exactly how many floors it is going to have, how high the house is going to be, how many windows, and what size, where they will be set. Why is that? He knows the shape of each room, and the location of the doors, and the kind of flooring there will be in the bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms. Why? He knows where the power sockets and outlets are going to be set. How is that? He knows how the house is going to be heated. Why? How does he have all this foreknowledge? Is it because he has hung around the builders and electricians of the town for a few years, and he foreknows the kind of bricks the builder is inevitably going to turn up with at the site? Is it because he foreknows what shaped windows the glaziers are going to bring along with them? Is it because he foreknows the kind of tiles the flooring men are going to put in certain rooms? Is it that he just ‘knows’ what materials in what shape and size they are all going to freely bring along and put in this house? Then is it on the basis of his knowledge of what they are bound to do that he has worked out his own design of the house, incorporating everything about those individual preferences and decisions into his blueprints?
You will smile at that. We all know that that is not how an architect works. He has a plan and the decisions that the plasters and joiners and bricklayers and glaziers and plumbers and central heating engineers and electricians make are all in accordance with the architect’s plan. He knows what the building is be and he plans accordingly. So too Almighty God has planned that a company of individual people more than any man can number are going to be around the throne of God and the Lamb. He has chosen each of them and ordained that they are all going to be like Christ, and he has determined how he is going to achieve that glorious end – by his Son’s incarnation, sinless life, atoning death, resurrection and high priestly ministry at the right hand of God. Those he lived and died and rose for are going to serve Christ for ever in the new heavens and earth, and all of them there are going to be there because of God’s grace. They are all going to be singing such a song as this:
“‘Tis not that I did choose Thee,
For, Lord, that could not be:
This heart would still refuse Thee;
Hadst Thou not chosen me,
Thou from the sin that stained me,
Hast cleansed and set me free,
Of old Thou hast ordained me
That I should live to Thee” (Josiah Conder, 1789-1855)
Does the Bible teach this? Is the Bible truly our authority for what we believe? That is the basic issue, for it seems to me very clear that in the Scriptures, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, the teaching is that God takes the initiative and chooses sinners, and that because of that we choose him.
“I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Saviour true;
No, I was found by Thee.”
So God’s choice of us does not depend on his first knowing who those people might be who had with their own free will chosen him.
3. GOD CHOSE US THAT WE SHOULD BE HOLY AND BLAMELESS IN HIS SIGHT.
“He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight,” (v.4). Now you will see at once the glory of that, because the great logical objection to the teaching that God chooses men is this: “if that were true then men would live as they please.” Time and again men will say to us, “Surely this tremendous emphasis upon God’s grace and his initiative will be a dangerous and demoralising doctrine. Surely if people are given that assurance that it is all a matter of the divine choice then that will prejudice godly living. It will compromise the whole tone and tenor of their walk with God. “Surely,” they say, “that doctrine must be prejudicial to the interest of holiness.”
And if ever that is put to me I reply, “Well, 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 sin in order to give God’s grace plenty of scope. I have, I say, 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. I have an answer that says that the very purpose of election is to make men holy and blameless in God’s sight. I am saying that if a man is chosen by God then the very meaning of that choice is that God is determined to make him holy. He has been predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son.
Now that means that a man cannot say to himself, “I am chosen by God, therefore I don’t need to be Christ-like,” because if I am chosen by God 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 carried them along to the point where at last they are characterised in intellect, emotion, endeavour and aspiration – absolutely committed to the image of the Son of God. Those chosen by God cannot live under the dominion of sin. Those chosen by God cannot live in antagonism to Christ. Those chosen by God cannot live in defiance of the will of their Saviour, because being chosen by God means that God has taken steps to make it impossible for them to live like that. He has so ordered their lives to ensure that he will transform them into the image of his Son. In other words, to be chosen by God 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 utterly dedicated to making us Christ-like. He has eternally decreed that we should be absolutely holy. You understand? He did not choose me because I was holy, nor because I was good, because I was neither, but he chose me so that I would be holy; so that I would be good.
A man once said to Spurgeon, “Sir, if I believed that doctrine I should live in sin.” Spurgeon’s reply to him was, “I dare say YOU would! I dare say YOU would!” “And why,” said he, “should I more than you?” “Simply because you are a man, and I trust I am a new man in Christ Jesus. To a man that is renewed by grace, there is no doctrine that could make him love sin. If a man by nature be as a swine that wallows in the mire, turn it into a sheep! There is no doctrine you can teach such a sheep to make it go and wallow in the mire again. Its nature is changed. Here is a lion roaring for its prey. I will change it into a lamb; and I defy you to make that lamb, by any doctrine, go and redden its lips with blood. It cannot do it – its nature has changed.”
If I should ask any number of Christians here whether they would like to hear a dirty story they would tell me that they do not like such things. One could reply thus to me: “I have a religion that allows me to visit the sex channels on the website, and hire porno videos as often as ever I please, and that is . . . NEVER!! For I hate all such things with perfect hatred.”
I would put it to you that it is in many ways a marvellous privilege to understand this truth of election when we occupy this status as the chosen people of God. Little wonder Paul worships and adores God for his grace to him in this. You see, the reality is that just as certainly as God decreed the cross of Calvary, so he has decreed our holiness, yours and mine. Paul speaks in the next chapter of our good works and they are those “which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). It gives to us a tremendous attitude to today and to our futures. As we walk along this road, the journey of this life, then we expect to meet here and there works for us to do – good works. There will be care of our children or of other members of our family. There will be the weak whose burdens we will have to help them bear. There will be deeds of kindness to be done week by week and day by day, and God has prepared all of them for us in advance, and he has prepared us to do them. His grace is sufficient for us. It means that when we get up each morning of every day that we say to ourselves, “I wonder what good works God has prepared for us this day?” I can use a contemporary phrase which has some justification in the Bible, that each day has ‘something beautiful’ for us to do for God – ‘something beautiful for God’ – and they are the good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Just as Christ was the Lamb of God slain from before the foundation of the world, that is, he was predestined to bear the sins of many, so we too have been chosen to be Christ-like, and it is in that divine commitment, not in our own logical powers, that our defence against antinomianism and against unholiness lies. It goes right back into the very meaning of the atonement itself as Paul explains it in chapter five of this letter: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the world, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain, or wrinkle or any other blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).
“Love, so amazing, so divine,
Demands my life, my soul, my all.”
So we are chosen to be holy and blameless in God’s sight. This then is the declaration that this verse in the Bible makes, that God chooses sinners, and that he chooses them to become holy. We will have to return to this theme again and clarify a number of misunderstandings and show the effects of this teaching on our whole lives as Christians. I guess that I have not yet proved to the thinking of all of you that this is a foundational doctrine in the New Testament with fundamental repercussions for the Christian life, and so I must return to it. For now we are left with a bigger challenge which is whether we believe the Scriptures or not? Is the Bible our authority for what we believe, and do we keep believing it when we are few in number, even a despised minority? How is it when you stand alone? How much are you swayed by numbers and personalities in what you believe? If you see this teaching in the Bible then do not hide it! Do not conceal it! Remember Christ has said, “He that is ashamed of my words, of him will I be ashamed.”
4. LET’S SUM IT UP.
1. It cannot be denied (not in any reasonable way, anyhow) that the Bible teaches that God chooses us. Neither can it be denied that God in His wisdom only provided us with one Bible. We simply do not have one Bible for Christians (the discerning and intelligent who can handle difficult things like election) and another Bible for unbelievers and young Christians (for whom any talk about election is going to confuse from the start). Paul writes about election in every letter and in most of them he is quite specific about it. (Look up such passages as: Rom.8:28-11:36; Eph.1:3-14; Col.3:12; 1 Cor.1:26-31; 2 Thess. 2:13-14; 2 Tim.1:9-10.)
2. God’s choice is something that invokes very practical responses from believers: praise (Eph.1:3ff), assurance (Rom.8:28f), and (from Colossians 3:12) compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Of special significance, Paul urges Timothy to evangelism on the basis that God has chosen him before the foundation of the world (2 Tim.1:8-10)! Far from being a dangerous doctrine that at best is only fit for private discussion, Paul sees its value for practical Christian living.
3. The Bible presents our salvation as a work of God from beginning to end. Everything about it is a matter of free and unconditional grace. It begins with the Divine choice of God. Even faith is a gift of God (Eph.2:8). Election is the first moving of God’s grace in the matter of our salvation. It tells us that we have to thank, not ourselves for the courage and the ability to believe the gospel, but God for His decree to save us.
4. Jesus preached election (see, Lk.18:7; Matt.24:22; Mk.13:26,27). Who are we to say that we are wiser than Christ?
5. The word “foreknow” in Romans 8:29 (and again in 1 Pet.1:2) does not mean (as is often stated) that God chose those whom he knew in advance would believe. The Greek word proginosko means “to fix attention upon beforehand.” It is not what God knows but who God knows that is before us here.
6. If it all hung on our choosing God there would be no hope for anyone! For consider the implication of the Bible’s assessment of the natural man: dead in sin (Eph.2:1), unwilling to accept spiritual things (1 Cor.2:14), having a conscience that is insensitive to God’s voice (Eph. 4:18f), perverse and ungodly (Rom.5:6). Moreover, the unbeliever cannot by himself believe (Rom.8:7). When God commands unbelievers to repent and believe in his Son they are unable to do so until they are given new hearts (cf. Jn.3:5; 6:44; 1 Cor. 2:14). When you and I give thanks for our salvation, do we thank ourselves for having the ability to believe or do we thank God for enabling us to believe? The answer to this question will take us a long way to accepting the validity of election as the only grounds upon which we can be saved at all.
7. So, why evangelise? Why do we bother? The answer lies along these lines: that God has told us to do so, and that God’s way of saving his elect is by our going and telling them of His love for sinners shown in His Son Jesus Christ. It is always right to obey God, even when we don’t fully understand all the reasons for it.
By the way, that’s what Calvin said in his Institutes: “…to desire any other knowledge of predestination than that which is expounded by the word of God, is no less infatuated than to walk where there is not path, or to seek light in darkness…” (III.xxi.1) Predestination (which is but the doctrine of election applied to the much larger scope of God controlling all things) ought not to frighten anyone. It is a truth which Christians in particular come to love and cherish. When entering the door of salvation they are aware, to cite Bunyan, of a sign which says “Whosoever will may come.” But as soon as they pass through they see another one on the other side of the door which reads: “Chosen in Him before the foundation of the world.” And to find fault with this, to raise a fist at the Almighty and question His right to do it, as the Bible predicts some doing (Rom.9:11-21), is decidedly unwise
So my duty as a mere Christian is to find out what the Bible teaches, and once I have discovered it then to believe and worship, as Paul does here: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . for he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” Only when I truly understand the helplessness of my own state, and the sovereign, initiating love of God can I appreciate the immensity of his grace. No other system of theology so abases man as that which is found in the Bible. No other says that man is so foul and impotent. No other says that God has done everything to save us. The two go hand in hand. The greater man’s need, the greater God’s grace. When a Christian understands this, he is humbled: he bows: he who is forgiven much loves much. Without this theology how impoverished is worship. What is brought in, in the place of divine worship in spirit and truth? The fancy dress costumes, the rituals, the sensory worship of incense and music and colours. All are feeble attempts to compensate for the absence of the abiding consciousness of my own great need and the greatness of initiative-taking God. What is brought in? Books of prayers and orchestrated responses. What is brought in? Loadsamusic, the band, the group, the clowns and comedians. All the engineering of man is brought in to compensate for the absence of Biblical realism, my sin and helplessness and the marvellous grace of God that has chosen me, and given me life and faith and repentance and perseverance and every virtue I possess and every victory won. In the absence of those truths up go human devices and down comes reality.
The absence of fervour in worship is due to the reduction of God to a slightly larger version of ourselves. He can be comprehended by our logic. He works within the bounds of our rules and reasons. We have got him in our grip, and he is so like us we see no real reason to worship him. That is pathetic, but it is true. Listen to this illustration and then tell me if you want to worship the God it speaks about. The preacher says this: “I believe in Bible election. God votes for you; the devil votes against you, and you cast the deciding vote.” It is a favourite yarn of many so-called evangelists. What does it tell us about the Lord? That he is not Almighty God, that he desperately wants to accomplish his plan but he can’t. The reason he can’t is that another being of equal power and ability checkmates him. The devil, a Christian evangelist announces – think of it – the devil has equal power to God. Again, to add insult to injury, the mighty will of man comes in to break the deadlock between God and the devil. How God-dishouring can false doctrine become? What do we have there? An illustration of the supremacy of man, with the devil coming second, and God third, or at best tying for second place. Does that give men who hear such heresy any desire to worship such a weak and helpless god? None. When such a group get together it will be to reassure one another that they are all right. “You are all right, and I am all right. Let us all feel good.”
Men and women, you and I must stand as individuals before Almighty Jehovah, the Lord who works all things after the counsel of his own will. This is the God of whom Job speaks, “But he is of one mind, and who can turn him? And what his soul desireth, even that he does” (Job 23:13) No parent, friend, or pastor will stand with you before God. We stand alone except for Christ himself – if he is our Saviour and all in all. Let us cling to him, the Sovereign choice-making Lord revealed in the Bible, and cling to his great salvation.
28th September 2003 GEOFF THOMAS