The word “election,” or some form of it, is all over the Bible. God’s people are often spoken of as “chosen,” “foreknown,” “called out ones” (or saints), and “elect.” To argue against God’s choosing a people for himself is simply to deny what is plainly presented in Scripture. God chose Noah and his family over all the others to be the ones to survive The Flood and repopulate the earth. God chose Abram (later Abraham) to be the one through whom the nations would be blessed. God chose Isaac (the child of promise) over Ishmael (the child of the flesh). God chose Jacob over Esau. God chose Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah and on and on. That God chooses is not disputed except by the least educated or the dishonest. The question that emerges is: On what basis does God choose one over another?
Why, for instance, did God choose Abraham over his neighbor Scooter (of whom the Bible records exactly nothing!)? Why did God choose to bestow his love on Jacob, a liar and a cheat, over his older brother Esau who was the rightful heir of their father Isaac’s estate? Why did God choose Moses, a murderer and reluctant leader, to lead his people out of Egyptian bondage? On what grounds does God make his choices?
There are a few possibilities:
There is something about the people God chooses that makes them more attractive to God – ethnicity, status, gender, that sort of thing.
God chooses people based on some sort of spiritual criteria, once met obligates God to choose them.
God chooses whomever he will, for reasons that are not obvious to us.
Let’s think it through. If God chooses based on some criteria such as ethnicity, status or gender (option 1), there is a lot of inconsistency in the narrative of both Old and New Testaments. While we do see Israel as God’s chosen people, not all who are Jews are of the elect (notably Judas Iscariot), nor are all of the elect “of Israel” (notably Rahab the harlot). Gender and status are clearly not factors by what can be plainly discerned from even a casual reading of Scripture.
Now some would say that God does choose based on spiritual criteria (option 2). Such things like sincerity, choosing him, being a good person, etc. are commonly cited as examples of reasons why God would choose one over the other. (I am not addressing such claims as Universalism or Annihilationism in this post because they are way outside the present discussion. If a person makes those claims, we’re talking about an entirely different bowl of clams) But the question that is standing in the corner waving like Arnold Horshack is: Where are those standards spelled out in Scripture?
It has been argued that God chooses those who chose him first. A couple of pretty significant problems emerge here. 1) If Total Depravity(and therefore total inability) is true, then we’re incapable of choosing God because our bent is always and decidedly against him. 2) This is not the order in which Scripture presents things. It is absolutely true that we are commanded to worship God, and it is absolutely true that God commands all men everywhere to repent. But because of the corruption of sin and the corresponding lack of ability, it is equally true that we can’t do this.
[A big caveat here because this is one of those natural questions that come up: Will God reject me if I choose him if I’m not one of the elect? The simple answer is: If you genuinely choose God, this indicates that you are one of the elect. To assert that God rejects those who earnestly desire him is foreign to Scripture. I have never actually heard anyone make this assertion, but the question does come up frequently.]
Others may say that God chooses based upon our moral improvement. That is, we act good enough, we keep the rules with enough regularity and rigor, and God will reward us for our efforts. This is a big deal. Many Christians live as though this were true. “I’ll prove to God how much I love him by [fill in the blank], then he’ll really, really like me.” Evangelism, good works of all sorts, prayer, Bible study, giving money to the church – all of these things mean nothing to God if they are done in order to merit something from him.
When Isaiah talked about our righteousness being like filthy rags, he was telling us that our works mean absolutely nothing. It is truly Christ’s righteousness that matters. We are incapable of impressing God on any level. So to think that we can make ourselves good enough by our own deeds is foolish. As John Piper said once, “There will be no boasting in heaven.” We will not be able to stand for one second before God if what we bring are what Martin Luther called “our damnable good works.”
Paul said in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
This brings us to the third option, namely, that God chooses whomever he will, for reasons that are not obvious to us. God saves us by his shear grace, and he enables us to trust him through faith – a faith which he gives us.
The best illustration of all of this is found in Romans 9.
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
Now, there is a lot in this chapter to chew on, but the salient point is that it is God’s sovereign choice to have mercy upon whom he will have mercy, and to harden whom he will. God is redeeming a people for himself, for his glory, and by his grace.
This causes us distress because our sense of “fair-play” is offended, but we must remember that God’s ways are not our ways. We are at the mercy of the only one who can show mercy. God chooses and saves those whom he is pleased to choose and save.
This is the “U” in The TULIP. Unconditional Election. God elects a people, not based on anything in man, or works he may perform. It is all of grace.