by Mike Ratliff
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! (Romans 9:14 ESV)
The natural mind, plagued with selective rationalization, demands that God be fair in His dealings with all humankind. Fairness speaks of justice. One of the tenets of our republican form government in the USA is a right to a fair and speedy trial before one’s peers. A person on trial for a crime may or may not truly want justice. They may be guilty so their desire is not justice, but grace. If a judge in a criminal trial declares a defendant guilty, but then defers sentencing in lieu of probation or “time served” then he has extended grace to the guilty party.
All descendants of Adam are born spiritually dead in their trespasses and sins. (Ephesians 2:1-3) This fact makes all humankind guilty before God. They are children of wrath. God, the creator of everything, would be well within His rights to do nothing to save any one of us. If He had done that, no one could argue and say God was not being fair by dooming all humankind to an eternity in Hell because of their sin. However, God is gracious. He has “elected” to save those whom He loves. That is not everyone. He has also “elected” not to save some. What criteria did He use to determine whom He elected and whom He did not? It is a mystery of His will, according to His purpose. (Ephesians 1:9) We do know it was His choice and our behavior, personality, abilities or any other trait had nothing to do with it. (1 Corinthians 1:25-29)
As we see in Ephesians 1:3-12 and Romans 8:29-30, before the foundation of the world, God foreknew those whom He elected for salvation. This foreknowledge was an act of God setting His love and gracious actions upon those specific people. Because of this love, God predestined those elect for a specific purpose. In Ephesians 1:5, we see that he predestined His elect for adoption. In Romans 8:29, we see that God predestined His elect to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers. Then we see in Romans 8:30 that the result of this process is the glorification of the elect. The purpose of salvation, therefore, is for those whom God set His affection towards to become His children who are conformed unto the image of His Son. This transformation results in their glorification.
We see the purpose of salvation. The problem is the natural mind still cries foul. Our sense of fairness, albeit corrupted by selective rationalization, raises a red flag and yells, “but, that’s not fair!” I have heard many, in their rejection of the doctrine of election; say something like, “my God would never do anything like that.” Of course, their God is a figment of their selective rationalization. Their knowledge of God comes from that rather than from His revelation of Himself in scripture. Their Bible knowledge is shallow and intermittent. Their relationship with God is nearly non-existent since its basis is self-focused religiosity. The Semi-Pelagians and Arminians had to create their shaky theologies because they had to create a way for people to be saved by choice. That means all people are eligible. Of course, these doctrinal beliefs must do logical gymnastics and scriptural eisegesis to bend the Bible to say what they want it to say.
Election was not the creation of John Calvin or Augustine. It is found throughout the Bible, however, the greatest argument for the doctrine of election is found in Romans 9.
1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 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. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:1-5 ESV)
In these five verses, we see Paul’s anguish over the lost condition of the Jews. Even though they had the advantage of having a religious system in place that pointed them directly to God they had rejected Jesus. Jesus taught in John 4:22 that salvation is from the Jews. He did not mean that all Jews were saved. The work of salvation was revealed in the Jews and their religion. This religion was based around the Old Covenant. They had a huge advantage over the gentiles because in their religion they worshipped God. However, many were simply religious and did not know Him. The act of choosing Israel over all other tribes of peoples was an act of election. These people did not deserve this. God chose them by an act of His will for His glory.
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 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. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 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— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:6-13 ESV)
Not all natural descendants of Abraham are part of spiritual Israel. In addition, God elected one of Rebecca’s sons over the other before they were born. In fact, God loved one and hated the other. The loving of Jacob and hating of Esau by God is an example of the doctrine of election. The Greek word translated “hated” means “to detest.” The Greek word for “loved” is “agapao.” This form of love is the active directing of one’s will to find joy in doing what is best for the one loved. If we look in Genesis at God’s dealing with Jacob, we see that clearly. Some say the word “hated” can mean to love someone or something less than someone or something else. If that were the case then why did Paul follow this verse with the following verses?
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:14-16 ESV)
Paul emphatically states that the act of loving one unborn twin while hating the other in no way made God unjust. Why? We cannot question God about His perfect will! The act of choosing or electing one is an act of mercy. The non-election of others is simply God exercising His justice. If you want a detailed exposition about questioning God about His ways then I suggest a deep study of the book of Job. In any case, v14 stands as our indication of the purpose of Paul’s argument. If he was not talking about Jacob’s election and Esau’s non-election then why was v14 necessary? He was trying (and succeeding) to make the point that election appears as unfair to those who believe all people have the right to salvation and saying God chooses those who are His makes God seem unjust. Therefore, in v14 He says, in effect, God would be perfectly just if He condemned us all. The fact that He is merciful to those He chooses is simply an act of grace and mercy on His part.
17 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.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:17-18 ESV)
These two verses continue the thought from v16. When Moses was dealing with Pharaoh God was actively involved. God used the heart hardening tendencies of Pharaoh to create such unbelief in him that the Lord was glorified by showing His power in disciplining him. In the gospels and in the book of Acts we see the hardhearted unbelieving Jews who rejected Jesus and the Good News. Jesus told parables so they would not understand. Why?
10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “‘“You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ (Matthew 13:10-15 ESV)
God chose to harden their hearts, close their ears, and blind their eyes. Why? That was God’s will. I will repeat this one more time. Not everyone is elect. God did not elect everyone and then throw out the possibility of salvation to all people in the hope that some might be saved. No, He elected those whom He loved, Jesus died on the cross to save them. The Holy Spirit quickens the elect in God’s timing so that they are Born Again so they can repent and believe.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (Romans 9:19 ESV)
Why did Paul say this right after he proclaimed in v18 that God has mercy on whomever He will, and hardens whomever He wills? It is obvious that he anticipated the argument that the doctrine of election seems to make humankind nothing more than puppets. How can God blame anyone for sin and unbelief when He has sovereignly determined everyone’s destiny? Good question! What is the answer?
20 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?” 21 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? (Romans 9:20-21 ESV)
The answer is that God is sovereign. He owns everything. He made us. He can do with us as He wills. He always deals with us for His glory. This may seem disturbing to some. This portrait of God seems out of character with their idea of that kindly, old grandfather who loves everyone and simply waiting for them to make the right decision for Christ. Paul’s portrait of God who is sovereign is the right one. This means we should do as Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 12:
13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ESV)
God is sovereign. When we grasp this and live by it we do as Solomon says. We fear Him. When we do this, it changes how we live. We turn to Jesus and submit to His Lordship. We cooperate with Him in our sanctification and thereby grow in grace and maturity.
Election is a vital part of the Apostle Paul’s theology. Reformation Theology is the same as Paul’s theology. What has happened to the Western Church since it forsook the doctrines of grace? Experts have said the growth of the Church in the West is flat. Some churches grow, but it is at the expense of other churches. The vast majority of “believers” in these “growing” churches is not going there to hear sermons about sin and repentance, but is going to hear feel good easy-Believism theology. The spiritual depth of these churches is minimal. They are, of course, the Counterfeit Church.
The Great Awakening in the first part of the 18th century in the United States came about because the Holy Spirit burned through the local churches where the gospel was preached in light of the holiness and sovereignty of God. Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield preached the Reformed gospel.
Just a few decades later, this Great Awakening had ceased prematurely. Why? Jonathan Edwards contented it came about as spiritual pride reared its ugly head. By the time the 19th century was dawning the very areas where Edwards and Whitefield and labored had become predominated by hyper-Calvinism. This cold aberration of Reformed Theology kills the gospel and turns churches into cold dry mausoleums where pride reigns.
Into this climate of spiritual coldness came Asahel Nettleton. He preached the same gospel that Whitefield and Edwards preached. The Holy Spirit empowered his sermons and great results came forth. Around the same time, a man named Charles Finney came on the scene. He was not a theologically trained preacher. He was an attorney. He lied to the Presbyterian elders about his theology so they would license him to preach. He developed his own theology that was unabashed Pelagianism. He taught perfectionism based upon free will. He denied election, predestination, and effectual grace. He created new ways of presenting his gospel. He created the protracted tent meetings. He developed the anxious bench that is the precursor of the modern invitation. Everything was based on emotionalism. He preached to larger crowds than Nettleton and seemed to have many more converts.
After several years, some of Finney’s followers went back through western New York where he had held most of his “revivals.” They discovered that nearly everyone who had “made decisions for Christ” and vowed to pursue perfectionism had completely fallen away. In fact, they were some of the most virulent apostates one could imagine. On the other hand, those who had been saved through the preaching of Asahel Nettleton were found to still be living for the glory of God.
What was the difference? Well, obviously those who responded to the emotionalism of Finney were false converts to the general call of a flawed gospel. Those who were saved as Nettleton preached the gospel were elect who were saved as the Holy Spirit effectually called them to repent and believe. Finney’s legacy is the Arminian and Semi-Pelagian mess we have now.
I pray we will quit seeking to circumvent the clear teaching of election in the Bible as we pursue the truth. We must ask God to show us the truth then we must do what He says. Why is it important that we understand the gospel correctly? If we understand the doctrines of grace correctly, we will certainly not view our salvation as something we did. We will not think we are Christians because we made the right decision while the lost people all around us did not. We will see that God elected us and we were saved in such a way that we could never boast about it. It is important that we understand the doctrines of grace correctly because in them we become humble. There is no reason to be proud or to boast because our salvation is all of God. On the other hand, if we believe we “decided for Christ” then no matter how we slice it we think we are responsible for it. The Arminian sees election as the believer electing God instead of electing self and the devil. It is works based salvation and it steals God’s glory.
We must turn our hearts back to God. We do this by learning to walk in the Spirit and becoming Spirit-led. As we do this God will draw us to cooperate with Him in our sanctification. Eventually, as we mature, we will see clearly that our salvation was God’s work alone for His glory alone. When we reach this level of maturity, we will be living a life of personal holiness as we are no longer conformed to this world, but are taking on the image of our Lord Jesus Christ. The more mature we become the more humble we will be. We will be those Mature Christians we have always desired to be, but we will not see ourselves like that at all. We will know that compared to our Lord Jesus Christ our spirituality and godliness are nothing. We will never have the thought, “But, that’s not fair!” in our minds in any way related to God. No, we will see God as He is. He is the sovereign God who saves those whom He loves by His grace through faith, all for His glory.
Soli Deo Gloria!