For many, life feels meaningless. Therefore, new mechanisms of attempted meaning are invented all the time. It was once recommended I attend a special conference that would help me trace down sins in my family tree. Apparently if I were able to cross out the sins of some great ancestor, I would feel complete. Another person recommended I go sit for two hours and have prayer partners wipe me clean of sinful subconscious experiences. In college, I had basketball teammates who would wear special underwear before a big game. And, I’ve even heard of people who buy war relics so they can, “Tap into the noble deeds of their heroic forefathers.” Yet, every superficial attempt at meaning, only leads to further dissatisfaction. Man’s solutions are always short-lived and fading.
The Apostle Paul wrote the book of Ephesians to circumvent the nitty-gritty cloud cover of human vanity (and its poor attempts at meaning) to showcase the true storyline of heaven and earth – A storyline that is all about the fame of Jesus Christ – Literally, from God, through God, and back unto God. In short, God takes center stage and gets the glory, while man is provided a seat in the grandstand to receive the joy. In absolute simplest form, “History” is truly, “His Story.”
Thus, the famous words which open Ephesians, “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.” (Eph 1:3). The Greek, “Blessed us” is an aorist participle indicating that this was fulfilled at a single point in time previous. And, Paul continues writing, “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him.” (Eph 1:4). The Greek, “Chose” is the aorist middle “Eklegomai” also referring to a singular point past and, “Before the foundation” is reflexive meaning, “God by Himself decreed before space and time.” This is the doctrine of election.
Election flourishes across the New Testament. Jesus taught it in John 3:3 when He told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The word, “Unless” indicates that one thing cannot happen until something else happens, “Born again” literally means, “Born from above” and, “Cannot” literally means, “No power to” thus Jesus says, “Unless a man is born from above, he has not power to see the kingdom of God.” It is this verse which preempts the beautiful fulfillment of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” God loves the world, God sent His Son, whosoever believes will not perish, but no man will believe until the power has been given from God above. Jesus expands on this further in John 6:44 when He says, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him…” Most scholars even interpret the word, “Draw” to mean, “Drag” in its original renderings. Peter writes, “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.” (1 Peter 1:3).
Thus, Jesus, Paul, and Peter, along with scores of other Scriptures (Mark 13:20, John 15:16, John 17:6, Acts 13:48, Acts 18:10, Romans 8:29, Romans 11:2, Eph 2:8-9, 2 Thess 2:14, 2 Tim 1:9, Titus 1:1-5, 1 Peter 1:2, 1 Peter 1:20, 1 Peter 2:9) explain, “What” election is – Namely, that God chose His children before time and space. Yet, why must it be this way?
The first reason is because God is God. Isaiah 45:5 says, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; Besides Me there is no God.” God clearly says that He is always God and He is the only God. And, for God to stay God, He will always retain the privileges and attributes, which make Him God. He will remain all-powerful, all knowing, and all present, for anything less is not God. Often this is called, “Sufficiency” which means that God, “Has no prior and exists completely in and for Himself.” A timeless illustration of this sufficiency comes from the playground when one child attempts to stump another child and says, “Who made God?” and the other chimes proudly, “God!” Of course, the child is wrong, for the second God is no God at all, for any being created is not God. The limitless understanding of God is the first reason election is necessary.
Secondly, is because of man’s completely broken nature – Romans 3:10 says, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” This verse refers to the fall of Adam, which prompted every human ever born since, be born with evil and carnal tendencies, unable to perceive or desire the things of God (Psalm 14:1-3, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 5:10-12). Thus, man lives in rebellion against God, destitute on earth, and with no hope of relationship with God.
In summary, the Bible says prior to salvation, all people are dead in sin–spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-3). In this state of death, the sinner is completely unable to respond to any spiritual stimulus and therefore unable to love God, pursue God, obey God, or please God in any way. Scripture says the mind of every unbeliever “is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8) which describes a state of total hopelessness, spiritual death. The outcome of all this is that no sinner can ever make the first move in the salvation process. This is what Jesus meant in John 6:44, when He said, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” Men are under the illusion of free will, when in reality they are either outworking the destruction of Satan, or submitted to, and outworking the desire of God.
THE HOLY TENSION
This portrait of God and mankind presents for us the tension of relationship between God and man. Firstly, that God has predetermined all things. Secondly, that man is still held responsible for his choices.
In the very first sermon ever given, Peter didn’t hide from this tension. Instead, he clearly specified it stating, “Men of Israel, listen to these words; Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know – this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men. (Acts 2:22-23) Note, God predetermined the death of Christ. Note, the men who crucified him are held responsible.
Isn’t that fascinating? In the first sermon ever preached, Peter doesn’t hide from the clear truths of an all sufficient God and sin mired responsible man, but instead exposes the tension for all to see, and 3,000 men come forward to repent and follow! As Christians committed to the literal, historical, and grammatically correct interpretation of Scripture, we like Peter, must be willing to live in the tension. A sovereign God knows all things and has decreed all things. Yet, man is allowed some level of autonomy while on earth and held responsible for his rejection of Christ. Trust God with this seeming antimony. And, do not attempt to reconcile what God did not reconcile.
The famed H.A. Ironside illustrated election by calling it the long corridor of life wherein all men run. As they pass door after door, the Father inside calls, “Whosoever may come!” Most men rush by focused on their selfish agenda. Yet, every hour one or two more enter a door and visit with the Father. As the door shuts behind them they turn and see the following printed on their door, “Chosen in Christ before time.” As they turn back to the Father, they exclaim, “What! You fixed this on me before time?” Yet, it was not until they entered the room that they became aware.
You should NOT be able to harmonize this plan of God. It should leave God unfathomable in your eyes and to be worshipped in your heart. You should rejoice that the holy trinity had a discussion before time, which included your birth, election, and protection, until glorification in heaven. This is what Calvin called, “Finitum non capax infinitum” or, “The finite cannot grasp the infinite” and it is to our greatest security that God exists beyond human comprehension.
From the beginning of time, Satan has deceived man to believe he should be able to understand God. In the garden, Satan approached Eve and whispered, “You can be like God!” This form of deception is called humanism. Humanism is the elevation of man to equality with God. Humanism is the belief that man takes center stage and God works for and around him. Humanism bends supernatural truth to make it understandable. Humanism tweaks Scripture to make it comfortable.
As long as the true Church has taught, “All is Christ”, Satan has promoted theological perversions to prompt man believe, “All is man.” These heresies are well documented in Church history, including Sabelius, Arius, Eutychus, and Nestorius. Yet, Pelagius taught the most infamous heresy in approximately 400AD. Pelagius taught that man was not completely wounded at birth, and still had certain levels of good in him, which allowed his free-will to choose God without any divine intervention. Augustine refuted Pelagius and the Council of Carthage termed him a heretic. When the reformation sprung forth circa 1600AD to reclaim biblical Christianity, Jacob Arminius began teaching a form of Pelagianism stating, “The grace sufficient for salvation is conferred on the Elect, and on the Non-elect; that, if they will, they may believe or not believe, may be saved or not be saved.” Arminius taught that God provided some semblance of gracious work, but the final choice was not God’s, it was mans. This theology, an attempt to humanize the teachings of election by stating, “God looked down a tunnel of time, saw what man would decide, and respond” is often termed, “Prescient Theology.”
Prescient theology is humanism and is tragic. Both, because of its unbiblical nature, and because of its illogical rationalisms:
- The words of Jesus, Paul, and Peter speak of God’s decree in the aorist tense (time past).
- God is outside of time, thus all time is present to God, and therefore God has no tunnel of time to look down.
- Jesus said, “I know my own and my own know me” (Jn 10:14) indicating that He did not walk the Calvary road with fingers crossed, hoping to save one, and potentially saving none.
- If God responds to man, man is essentially God, and God is no longer God
- If God designed some men more capable to choose, then in essence, God still chose.
- If a man can choose his way to heaven, he can lose his way to heaven, even after he’s been in heaven, and there is absolutely no security or joy in such a belief structure.
I heard a story once of a local debate on creationism between a prominent Atheist and a Pastor. The Atheist had done his homework, for right as the debate started he asked, “May I ask a personal question of the Pastor?” The moderator allowed and the Atheist asked, “Sir, you claim to speak on behalf of Christianity today regarding science correct?” “Definitely,” the Pastor responded. The Atheist continued, “I’ve been to your Church and noticed that you dispute the theology of Ignatius, Polycarp, Augustine, Jerome, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Owens, Rogers, Edwards, and Spurgeon. And your heroes are Pelagius, Arminius, and Charles Finney. How can I be sure you in fact speak for Christians today?” The story goes that the Pastor said, “That’s not fair.”
If this story is true, the question is very legitimate. Centuries of spiritual fathers and centuries of consistent biblical interpretation offer hearty and synthesized doctrine. Thus, when any man comes bearing radical new theology, it is to be refuted.
PAUL’S FINAL WORD
As Paul taught, he was certainly confronted by humanists. And, they likely asked the same thing every man asks when confronted by the tension of a sovereign God. Questions like, “Why evangelize if God has chosen?” or, “Is not man completely autonomous?” or, “How is it fair for God to choose some to heaven and allow others hell?” In the passage from Romans 9 below, note that Paul chooses not to provide a philosophical answer but instead demands humility:
“This son was our ancestor Isaac. When he married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works. She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.” Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.” So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it. For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen. Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?” No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? (Romans 9:10-21 NLT)
This passage of Scripture should prompt every human hit their knees in humility. Paul says God determines all things. Jacob and Esau, even the wicked Pharaoh were destined from the womb to be part of God’s plan. No man has the right to question God. Every man requires the mercy of God.
Think upon your favorite heroes of the Bible. Who are they? Moses, David, Peter, or Paul? You love their story and you love God’s work in their life. But, have you ever cried over Pharaoh, the Sodomites, or Pilate? Unlikely. That’s because you trust God’s plan regarding history and civilizations far removed. But, if you can trust him with history far removed, why is it difficult to trust him with today? With your friends and family? The answer is, “Emotion”. It’s humanism. It’s pride. We trust God with others but get emotional when it involves us. And, Paul warns, “May this never be!”
We do not know why God calls some to heaven and allows others go to hell, nor could we ever handle such knowledge, thus we are to trust that God’s reasons are a perfect circle of justice, and mercy, in love, far beyond our human comprehension. Likewise, we do not carry the burden to, “Win the world to Christ” via our own inventions, using emotion, and tactics, as if we have the power to sell souls unto conformity. Instead, simply proclaim the gospel far and wide as Christ commanded, trusting that He will draw His own as determined, and give us the joy of being instruments unto His praise.
A heart in Christ finds its joy under Christ. The sovereignty of God affirms that everything in your life happens for a reason and the universe is not under autonomous anarchy. If you still do not comprehend this truth in theory, than reflect upon how it proves forth in practice. Charles Spurgeon once said, “No man will pray the prayer of an Arminian (Man-Centered Theology)” meaning that if a man assumes his own control, he has no reason to pray. Or, if he does pray, it sounds silly…
“Lord, thank you for the kind act of death and resurrection, I’ll take it, but I’m doing pretty well on my own. I’m doing much better at taking your grace than I used to. I think by tomorrow I’ll have totally nailed it. In fact, I’m way better than all my friends, so I’ll see you in the sky soon Ol’ Chap and hope not to refuse you once I arrive.”
That is not prayer. That expression does not secure the penitent sinner hoping for resolution, comfort the mother of a miscarriage, or make courageous the family under foreclosure. Yet, sadly that is the deplorable logic behind man-centered theology.
If you come from a biblically soft Church or are learning these things new, do not be nervous or frightened. All of us were once pagans in darkness. Then, Christ opened our eyes. We’ve each walked an aisle or prayed a prayer and thought at first that it was our doing, for in fact we did play the role of responding. Yet, it was only after study, prayer, and sanctification that we looked back and realized our response was to grace, which called us the entire time.
Recently a dear friend approached me and admitted, “I understood my old version of God and He fit my imagination. But, now I’m seeing a larger God in the Bible. He’s very powerful and seems arrogant to me.” Allow me to take you into our private moment together as I shared the following…
Dear Sister, you have a wonderful daughter. Imagine she approached you stating, “I want a new mom.” What would you tell her? I’m sure you would explain that you birthed her, know her better than anyone, and will love her unconditionally, even to death, all the days of her life, and that you are the best mom she’ll ever have.
My friend nodded, so I continued…
You’re not perfect. God is. So, imagine what He (as Perfect Father) would tell you… “Dear daughter, I chose you, I designed you, I know you better than you know yourself, I died for you, I’ll never fail you, and I have heaven confirmed for you. Daughter, I am by far the best thing you’ll ever have going, now come trust my ways.”
I asked her if she understood and she did. Because God is perfect, to make all things about Himself is NOT arrogance. Because God is perfect, making all things about Himself is truest LOVE.
Resources for Further Study
-> “Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God” by J.I. Packer
-> “Chosen by God” by R.C. Sproul
-> “The Justification of God” by John Piper