The Election of Grace
The majority of the content of this article was posted originally as a chapter in The Humanism of Evangelistic Apologetics. I replicated it here to make it easier to find "Bible 101-Level" articles for the beginning Bible student.
As I detailed from the Scripture in The Spiritual Nature of the Lost, the lost person is utterly unable naturally to respond in any way to the invitation of the gospel; he is "dead in trespasses and sins."
It should not have to be stated, but too many "churches" don't know the following, simple Bible truth: dead men don’t respond to external stimuli of any type. They continue to use humanistic methods like emotionalism or intellectualism.
[See chapter 3, Examples of "typical" conservative, evangelical churches which ignore the Ordo Salutis, in my article Dead or Alive? The Ordo Salutis for a sampling of churches which deny the truth that the sinner is dead in sin.]
So, the question must be asked: how is it then that the lost does actually, finally respond? How is the lost sinner actually saved? The answer is simple and completely outside of any merely human reach of the evangelist and the lost: the lost first must be “born from above.”
This is one of my favorite truths in all the Bible: the sovereign activity of the Triune God to bring sinners to Himself, for reasons known only to Himself but based on His unimaginable love in grace for man. He chooses them, then works all events together in order to implement that choice (Rom 8.28; 9.22-24).
The Lord Christ spoke of this activity; as He puts it here, they must first be (not become!) “His sheep”:
But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.
Those who are the recipients of eternal life are first and foremost shown to be gifts to the Lord Christ from God the Father; they are His elect, those chosen by grace. There is no salvation of the lost without this prior choice by the Triune LORD Himself.
The reaction at this point of the evangelist MUST be one of deep humility and utter dependence on the LORD he or she seeks to represent to the lost through the message of the gospel. Anything less than utter humility before that LORD is tantamount to inexcusable arrogance, as if the evangelist is able to produce the conversion of the lost by his own clever reasoning or persuasion.
Evangelist! Remember, remember, remember!: “Salvation is from the LORD.” Jon 2.9
Many are the declarations of the election of grace throughout the Bible, beginning with the descendants of Abraham and continuing into the Gentiles of our age:
Because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their descendants after them. And He personally brought you from Egypt by His great power, driving out from before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in and to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is today. Know therefore today, and take it to your heart, that the Lord, He is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other.
For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Yet on your fathers did the Lord set His affection to love them, and He chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day.
and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem, “Your origin and your birth are from the land of the Canaanite, your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water for cleansing; you were not rubbed with salt or even wrapped in cloths. No eye looked with pity on you to do any of these things for you, to have compassion on you. Rather you were thrown out into the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born. “When I passed by you and saw you squirming in your blood, I said to you while you were in your blood, ‘Live!’ Yes, I said to you while you were in your blood, ‘Live!’
The Lord granted life to ancient Israel at a time when they were not a nation; they were unattractive—repulsive, even, in every possible way. And note: when the LORD pronounced life to Israel, it must have been true that they did not have real life at that time (otherwise, there would be no meaning to the LORD’s command “Live!”).
Ancient King David acknowledged the sovereignty of God’s choice with great praise and thanksgivings:
How blessed is the one whom You choose and bring near to You To dwell in Your courts. We will be satisfied with the goodness of Your house, Your holy temple.
One of the most fascinating (indeed, terrifying!) references in all of the NT is this, from the Lord Christ Himself, speaking of something spectacular, something of which we’d know nothing without His Divine revelation:
Mat 11.20-27 [Luk 10.13-16,21-22]
Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” … “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”
Here we have the sovereign Christ teaching us that if the cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom (and by implication the co-destroyed cities of Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, Deu 29.23) had been given the Divine privilege of the same miracles that He performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida that those cities would have repented rather than being destroyed! Do you see the stunning significance of this? This is nothing less than the Divine declaration that the LORD Himself withheld the very miracles, signs, works of power, etc. that would have—by His own words—unconditionally led to the saving of the people of those cities! Why? The people of those cities were not chosen of grace and therefore received no mercy because it was not “willed” that they should see and believe the true God!
This is exactly how the Lord Christ summarizes this:
“… nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”
The Lord Christ here declares unambiguously that the Triune God (in this immediate context, the Father and the Son) is the One who decides who those are whom He calls to Himself and therefore the ones to whom He grants mercy! No wonder Jonah declared “Salvation is from the LORD.”
[I will not fail to point out another, stunning truth from this same passage: directly following the passage above is the open invitation:
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
We will never be able to reconcile the truth of the sovereign election of grace with the open and genuine invitation from the LORD to the lost of “Come!”. Both are true, but the person is still morally responsible if he/she refuses to accept the invitation.]
It would be enough if Matthew chapter 11 (and its parallel in Luke chapter 10) were the only places in which this great truth were mentioned. But it isn’t—not by any stretch of the imagination.
The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes these equally terrifying and humbling words:
What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 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 does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
Let’s continue with this great truth as found in the gospels, from the Lord’s own words:
For many are called, but few are chosen.
All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. … This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.
“... even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.... I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. ... Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.”
Remember the events that surrounded the early church. There was tremendous outreach, using nothing but the beauty and power of the gospel message of the risen Messiah; thousands were truly saved. But notice also that the theological underpinnings of the election of grace was a prominent “operating principle” that was recognized by the early Apostles and disciples:
When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”
When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region.
A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.
Evangelist/apologist! Why do you fail to heed the lessons of the history of this true evangelism from the Scriptures? What greater motivation to the evangelist could there be than the truth that God—unconditionally and efficaciously—calls sinners to Himself through the simple message of the gospel!
The election of grace is an “evangelism enabler”! Without it, no one can be saved! Without it, there is absolutely no reason to even preach the gospel!
The Lord bears the sole responsibility of drawing and gifting life to sinners; ours is the responsibility to preach the gospel only.
The foundation of the election of grace is one of Paul’s preeminent themes. As you’ll see in these many references, the election of grace is at one and the same time both a presupposition and a statement for everything that Paul did in the name of the One who called him out of spiritual darkness into light:
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
Much has been written on this singularly stunning passage, and I know that I can’t add any new perspective to the mix (nor do I wish to do so). But there are two elements that I want to highlight:
- The foreknowledge of God spoken of here is the foreknowledge of a person (“whom”) not their acts (which would be “what” instead of “whom”). The LORD called people He foreknew—His people—to Himself because He was pleased to do so, not because of what “He looked ahead and saw them choosing Him” (the frequent destructive fantasy of those who oppose the sovereignty of God). It is the LORD who seeks the lost; remember, “There is none that seeks for God.” (Rom 3.11)
[One more thought regarding the typical "God looked ahead and chose those that chose Him..." error:
if this assertion was actually true, then in no way could it be said that "God chose man ...", if it is true that the LORD is merely reacting to something which had its source in man alone. The very statement is an oxymoron at best; more typically, it shows that those who hold to such nonsense are, in fact, fools, refusing even to think clearly about what they assert. Theirs will be a difficult time in the judgment.]
- All the verbs in the “Golden Chain” (as Rom 8.28-30 is called) are in the aorist tense; all these are statements of what the LORD already accomplished by means of His foreknowledge: he begins with foreknowledge and ends with glorification. From the Divine perspective, these all are already accomplished. In a statement that defies a strictly chronological explanation, each of the LORD's own people will be glorified because each has already been glorified!
The LORD, indeed, is sovereign in His actions, actions which can never be diverted, thwarted, mitigated, changed, revoked or ignored!
Let’s continue through the Pauline Epistles; the LORD has much to say through that faithful Apostle about this wonderful election of grace:
In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice [lit. election of grace]. ... What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened ...
… for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
1 Cor 1.9
God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
1 Cor 1.30-31
But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
1 Cor 3.5
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.
[Note: in context, the “to each one” dative singular adjective appears to point to “servants”. That is, the Lord gave to each of His servants those who were to believe through their (the servants’) work because of the election of grace.]
1 Cor 3.6
I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.
having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you [lit. “being”] dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,
So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience ...
1 The 1.2-4
We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father, knowing, brethren beloved by God, His choice of you; for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.
2 The 2.13-14
But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Tim 1.9-10
who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel ...
2 Tim 2.10
For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.
2 Tim 2.25
with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth ...
Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness ...
The Apostle Paul never spoke of anything else needed to present the gospel; he simply, faithfully, presented the gospel alone, leaving out nothing and adding nothing.
You’ll see the same perspective by the authors of the general epistles:
For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.
1 Pet 1.1-3
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead ...
2 Pet 1.3
seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.
2 Pet 1.10-11
Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.
The biblical record is clear and consistent: the Lord alone selects those to whom he will show mercy and grace. The message of the gospel is an open invitation; to those who decry the great truth of the election of grace, you need to stop trying to resolve that which is humanly irresolvable. You do your work in preaching the gospel; you may rest in the fact that the LORD will do His work to call sinners to Himself and grant them life.
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.
Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’”
Special mention must be made regarding the Scroll of Life, mentioned three times in the Revelation of Christ, the “final chapter” of the election of grace. To set the context of these references, I begin with a text that teaches us the unconditional fate of those who will worship the beast of that future time:
Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
There is no question here: if a person worships the beast (of that coming future), then he/she will suffer irrevocable, permanent, absolute punishment in the lake of fire.
So, the question now is, who are those who will worship the beast, especially given that the punishment for the sin of “beast idolatry” is as extreme as it gets?
All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain.
The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come.
The answer to the question “who?” is stunning: unless a person’s name already had been written in the scroll (book) of life, that person will be deceived by the beast, with the attendant idolatry toward the beast as a guaranteed result. A result, moreover, with no hope ever of reprieve. It is an inarguable demonstration of the LORD's sovereign authority "to have mercy on whom He has mercy and to harden whom He wills". (Rom 9.15)
Just as importantly is the sovereign gift that a person’s name had been written in the Scroll of Life long before the “foundation of the world.” The presence of the name of a person within the Scroll of Life in no way depended on the deeds of that person. That name was added—or withheld—solely according to the prior providence of the Almighty's election of grace!
Near the close of the Revelation of Christ is the Bible’s description of the last, great judgment in chapter 20, verses 11 to 15.
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
There are two declarations which I want to highlight here:
- the nature of the punishment;
- the final determination of whether a person actually receives the eternal punishment of the lake of fire.
First, there is the fact that a person will be “judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds”; there is no stepping around the fact that a perfect record of a person’s entire existence is recorded in the scrolls (plural, most likely one per person). As the chapter closes, it is evident that a person is not consigned to the lake of fire based on his/her life-deeds.
Rather, the explanation is that, given that a person is already condemned, the sum total of the evil of his/her life dictates the “level of punishment” (for lack of a better phrase). This is the implementation of what the Lord Christ taught here:
And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.
The LORD is clearly telling us that greater sins will warrant and receive greater punishment. We all are responsible for the total of our life-deeds.
The second point, though, is something which absolutely and unambiguously indicates the LORD’s election of grace: the presence/non-presence of a person’s name in the Scroll of Life is the sole criterion by which a person is consigned to the lake of fire! And what was it that placed a person’s name safely in the Scroll of Life? The election of grace that was accomplished “before the foundation of the world”!
In the next article, I’ll continue with a presentation of the work of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of the lost.