by Kenneth D. Johns
SOMETHING WRONG HERE!
As the years pass I am becoming increasingly distressed with the manner by which men explain the doctrine of Divine Election. In introducing the subject to many friends and ministers, I have discovered that some simply do not want to talk about it. It has caused them difficulty in the past, possibly because some contrary learner stirred up strife when the idea was being openly and honestly discussed. The minister then felt it was not worth going through the same frustration again to get at this truth. “Why upset a congregation with it, especially since they need the more basic truths anyway?”
There are others who will talk about election but with a preconceived notion that empties the doctrine of all significance. They speak with the weight of much theological thought behind them. Their thoughts are echoes of many past debates. Their answer is this. “Surely God chooses men. From eternity He saw who would believe the Gospel when it was preached to them and He chose them because He saw beforehand that they would accept Him.” They readily admit the sovereignty of God. They preach the “free-will” of man. But they sense that there is an inconsistency in the biblical revelation concerning these two truths. So they have made up a compromise. And that is precisely what it is. Not willing to let God be God and to do what He wants to with His own clay, they take away from His sovereignty. They make it subject to man’s free-will. Man is exalted to a position where he is capable of choosing God. God is lowered to a position where He is only choosing those who choose Him. He is not the Initiator. He is only the Responder. He moves second. Man moves first.
By following this course of reasoning the Christian has arrived at a supposed truth untaught by the Bible. It is in effect a third concept. The first concept is that God is Sovereign. He is able to do and has a right to do anything He desires with anyone or any material. And in doing so He is not answerable to man or man’s idea of justice or fairness. The second concept is that of the responsibility of man. Inherent in the responsibility of man is, of course, the idea of man’s free-will. Man is responsible for his actions. His fate is determined by his own personal response to the Gospel. His will is not fettered by Divine decree. He cannot blame God for his sins or poverty of spirit.
The Christian would do well to leave these two truths where the Bible leaves them, separate. Though they represent to our minds contradictions, they are both taught in the Word of God; but the Bible makes no attempt to reconcile them. Why should we? In a book written by the Spirit of God and conveying to man the mind of God, why should there not be paradoxes? But man is not content with the paradoxes. He must reconcile them. He must harmonize the inconsistencies. So he develops a third concept. He melts together the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Not willing to face the fact that the Bible says that God chooses some men for salvation, apart from a consideration of their faith or good works he compromises the rights of God. He makes God’s choice dependent upon man’s choice. He takes away from the sovereignty of God and adds to the sovereignty of man. Now his preaching about His God does not have the full force of biblical sovereignty. Nor does his view of man have the truth of the impotency and death of human nature. In seeking to satisfy his human reason, he has arrived at a concept not found in the Word of God. It can only be supplied by human reasoning. It seems to me that that is a supply from which the Bible forbids us to draw. For while it may pacify the mind as it wrestles with its God, it does not submit itself to the Divine Revelation. And as any such answer will do it pollutes the stream of divine grace.
Were it just a matter of words or semantics we could dismiss the debate. But it is more than that. It is a matter of essentials. There is first of all the essential of being honest with the Word of God, of being diligent seekers of truth. Is it honest to consider such scriptures as Romans 9; John 6:44, 65; Acts 13:48; Ephesians 1:4, 11; Romans 8:28-31; or John 15:16 and force upon them the notion that they all speak of man’s choice determining God’s choice? It has never failed to startle me that men who should know better have shunted aside these significant verses by simply remarking” Well, God saw who would believe and then He chose them.” To hear its constant repetition you would almost think it was an inspired quotation. But I don’t find anything like that in the Bible.
In spite of the fact that it is not in the Word of God, this notion prevails among many Christians. It is the standard rebuttal to anyone seeking honest information about the grand words of Election, Calling, and Predestination. The eager and inquiring mind of the new Christian is sometimes permanently stifled by this thrust of human reason. It sticks in his mind with force. It seems to agree with his logical faculties and therefore it strikes again and again against the biblical but paradoxical doctrine of the Sovereign election of God. Why is this so? Why does the human mind, especially the human mind of the believer seize so strongly upon a notion unrecorded in the Bible?
There may be many answers. I would speak of two. The first pertains to the nervousness of the human psyche. Wanting certainties and assurances it attaches itself tenaciously to plausible answers. It does not like the insecurity of thinking through issues. The instability of “not knowing” during the research period somehow terrifies the man. And so when someone offers an answer to any dilemma, if it has any attraction to the mind, it is adopted immediately and becomes the standard reply to relevant questions. The logic of the plausible solution overcomes the questions. Now the question is resolved. There is no more nagging. No more wrestling. The question does have a real, biblical, ultimate answer. But the divinely aroused inquiry has been faked out by the humanly supplied logic. The dilemma is quieted by a tranquilizer.
The doctrine of Election sets up just such a dilemma in the mind of the believer. When the subject of Predestination or Election is broached the mind feels a tremor. The concept is repulsive. A vision of an arbitrary and despotic God puts panic in the heart. “It cannot be,” he says. “God would not choose without regard to human merit and initiative.” This usually takes place early in one’s Christian experience. And in the same early moments of Life Eternal the answer is provided. For here comes the wise counsellor. He speaks with the seasoned perspective of one who has calmed many similar troubles. He knows the forthcoming reasoning almost always relieves the sufferer. The prescription is derived from reason. Logic, not the Word, will quiet the heart. It has worked before. Wisdom begins, “God indeed is Sovereign, but man has a free will. He can accept or reject salvation. During his lifetime the Gospel will be offered to him. If he rejects it he is lost. But if he accepts he will be saved. God knows which action he will take because God is omniscient. And since He knows who will accept He has chosen them for heaven. He chooses you when he sees that you will choose him.” What more could the inquirer ask? The Sovereignty of God has been granted. The much heralded “free-will” of man has been considered. And very deftly the two have been blended to satisfy the logical section of the brain. Court is adjourned. Wisdom has spoken. The issue settled. And from that point on the young believer counts himself much wiser. He is ready to share with any other novice the “fruits” of “diligent” study and “honest” inquiry. A thousand puzzles have now been solved for him. The worst of which is the fact that for the rest of his Christian life he will not have to take seriously the words Election and Predestination. Whenever they pop up in his reading of the Book his little logical “cuckoo bird” will pop out and say: “. . . Man chooses God then God chooses Man . . . Man chooses God then God chooses Man.” The voice of wisdom has spoken. The mind was temporarily agitated and excited as it felt the promise of a great discovery. But the great discovery would have taken time and some wear and tear on the nervous system. Some readjustment of thinking. Some honest submission to the Word of God. Better to have little trouble and little answers. The heart is satisfied; only the deep inner spirit is still unhealed. For the man has not yet found his God.
The second explanation of the ready acceptance of unproved solutions has special application to the doctrine of unconditional election. The very nature of the teaching of election makes man totally subject to God. Not only does it make man’s actions subject to God but it will in the end make the man submit his mind and intellect to God’s method of operation without a full explanation. A real understanding of election makes a man stand back and accept the fact that his God really is absolute Lord. He can do what He desires. He will always act in harmony with the perfection of His personality, but those actions will not always be acceptable to man. Man rejects this position of submission. He hates the autocracy of God. His very nature cries out against any force which does not explain its motives and purposes to him. Man feels his own sovereignty is jeopardized by any one, especially God, who can act in a sovereign manner over that man’s own destiny. And the man who sees election as the Bible preaches it will feel a lessening of pride and self-reliance which is humbling. Man becomes uncomfortable when faced with the implications of Divine Sovereignty. In the Garden man set out to rule his own world, to have things his own way. The battle of “Who shall rule?” has raged ever since. Now election forces him to accept the fact that he not only cannot govern his own world, but he cannot and did not choose God. He did not just become a believer, God made him a believer. This is quite deadly to man’s feeling of self-sufficiency. This is quite terminal to any idea of human goodness. Man finds himself in the dust and he doesn’t like it. But that is where God wants him and in the end he will be better off in the dust than standing on the imagined bulwark of his own sovereignty.
O wise counsellor,
If you really knew
You don’t really see it,
You’ve reduced God’s love,
You may be puzzled
It’s very simple really,
You open the Bible
Then you amend it
Next you stand and cry,
“I’ve wrestled with God
And “down” is more true
For when reason is through,
THE QUESTION AND THE ANSWER: ROMANS NINE
If the reader has been sufficiently aroused to pursue the issue further, then let him consider the direct teachings of the ninth chapter of Romans. More than any other portion of the Word of God this chapter sets forth the doctrine of unconditional election and answers sufficiently the human objections.
It becomes apparent to the pursuer of truth as he studies the ninth chapter of Romans that the Bible is not afraid of portraying God as He really is: One who chooses those who are to be saved. This choice is unconditional, meaning that He chooses them for no reason to be found in them. He acts according to the counsel of His own will. Man may feel this is not right or fair but apparently the Holy Spirit did not share this feeling. For He caused to be written by Paul the telling words: “Jacob have 1 loved, Esau have I hated.” He also explains to us that his choice was made completely apart from any consideration of works or merit or faith, “For the children being not yet born neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth.” The doctrine of God’s choice of those who are to be saved is put right out in the open for any one with a Bible to read. No apology or explanation of God’s decision is offered. It is only for us to read and believe. If the Word teaches this truth, and it does, then it is ours only to believe it and know that our God was not acting out of alignment with the Divine personality in making the choice of the elect.
But man is not so convinced. He feels embarrassed by the statements of the Holy Spirit. He feels he must rescue God from any possible misunderstanding. So he inserts the extra-biblical idea that God’s choice is determined by man’s choice. This is supposed to give us a more tolerable view of God. It makes Him more acceptable to man’s idea of how God should act. But, of course, this is not exactly what the text is saying, so there must be some adjustments in the text. For after all, we can’t hold a view unsupportable from the Bible. Let us consider some of the offerings to help the Holy Spirit explain himself.
The first and most natural move man makes to explain away the apparent injustice of God in unconditional election is to claim that God must have seen something in Jacob which He did not see in Esau. The suggestion is that He chose Jacob because He saw from His eternal viewing platform something in Jacob’s future conduct or character which would make him preferable to Esau. Jacob may have had more determination or more humility. He may have been more predisposed to accept God. More thankful. But this is nonsense. For this idea is precisely what the text forbids. Romans 9:11: “For the children, being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth.” The text states categorically that the choice was made before birth. It was made without regard to human activity, good or bad. It is stated in the Inspired Word that the choice was made without any regard to any foreseen quality. Jacob was chosen for the reason that his choice stood within the divine purpose. The Word simply forbids us to tamper with the thought so clearly and forcibly recorded from the mind of God. Let the implications be what they may, God has spoken.
The unconditional election of Romans 9:11 is so patent that even a hurried reading forces it upon the mind. It cannot be circumvented. But not all are content to leave it there. And so another ploy is attempted. If God did choose Jacob over Esau without consideration of their character as the grounds of His choice, maybe it will help us if we can at least soften God’s emotions toward Esau. “Esau have I hated,” hardly belongs in the Word, let it read “Esau have I loved less” or “Esau have I disliked.” This would be less objectionable. But this will not help solve the issue of the apparent injustice of God. For whatever adjustments are made in the wording, the inequity must remain in the human mind. For unless you can change the word “hate” into the word “love” you end up with God favoring one man over another. For if God ever made a decision to bless one man over another, even to the smallest degree, then He can be charged with being unfair. (Of course, the thought of charging God with injustice is unthinkable; we speak only as men.) But this would be true even if the inspired record said, “Jacob have I loved much, Esau have I loved little.” I he degree of injustice would be less, but the injustice remains. God would then not be treating men with exact equity. So the appeal to the precise meaning of “hated” fails to rescue God’s character from the humanly intolerable view of apparent divine injustice.
The next method used to escape the implications and patent meaning of these verses is to make them applicable only to the nations which existed in the loins of Jacob and Esau. “Election here is only a national question,” it is said. This idea suggests that God was not so much choosing individual man as He was forming nations. And therefore election does not pertain to individual salvation but to national privilege. It would say that no one is chosen to be saved and go to heaven; men are elected only to enjoy privilege of opportunity. From that point men work out their own choices. Some are in a more advantageous position, such as the descendants of Jacob who had the Law and the Prophets. Some are more or less in a handicapped position of being estranged from the central privilege of God’s people.
There are two basic problems with this argument. First of all we still do not get rid of the issue of the apparent inequity of God’s dealings with man. And secondly the text indicates very clearly that individuals and individual salvation are involved.
The first objection is answered with the same reasoning which showed that there is no point in softening the word “hate” in Romans 9:13. For if God shows any partiality in dealing with nations or individuals, then he can be charged with injustice in man’s eyes. If Romans Nine is only speaking of the election of nations we have the same problem of unfairness. One nation being elected to be the favorite of God, to receive the Law, the Prophets, the Messiah, the Written Word. This advantage is immense. It cannot be calculated. Paul is aware of the great advantage of the Jew and he states it clearly and emphatically in Romans 3:1, “What advantage then hath the Jew? Or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: Chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.”
The Jews possessed an infinite advantage over the Gentiles in the matter of individual salvation. Even without personal election national election makes it veritably certain that those in the chosen nation are more likely to be saved. What of most of us? Born and raised in believing homes. Is that not an advantage over the heathen? Living usually within walking distance from a Bible-believing church. Can you say that of the pagan? A Bible upon the table. Millions of the world do not have that. Apparent inequity? Certainly. But yet it is consistent with the methods of the Sovereign God as we know them from revelation. Laying aside the Sovereignty of God are we to call these things accidents? Are you going to heaven because of the accident of your natural birth? Did you just happen to be born where faith was known or did you arrange it?
I am unimpressed with this argument of national election. And it seems to me most of those who use it are also unimpressed. It just doesn’t make sense and it fails to bear conviction, even to the mind of those who adopt it. It is without question that the election of God mentioned in Romans Nine is connected with the establishment of nations. With this promise Genesis agrees “two nations are in your womb” (Genesis 25:23). But this does not cancel the issue of individual election. Nor does it eliminate from the essence of the issue individual election.
The second objection to the argument of national election only in Romans Nine is that the text indicates very clearly that individuals and individual salvation are involved. We might start with the thirteenth verse itself: “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated.” God has focused upon an individual man, Jacob. He has loved him. In the end He will make a nation of him, but in the beginning He has selected and loved an individual. There is here a definite preference of and movement toward one man. And this choice was one in which God made distinction of one man and one nation over another man and another nation. One man and his nation would bear a distinct and inherent place in the redemptive purpose of God. As a result of this choice this man has a considerable advantage in those redemptive plans. That is an understatement. For in his election Jacob was actually placed into redemptive fellowship with God, “Jacob have I loved.”
Another consideration is found in verse 16 where the obvious application is of personal salvation.
“So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” What can this mean if it does not refer to individual salvation? Is it talking about “willing” and “running” to start a nation? Who could read this verse and suggest that the essence of it refers only to national destiny? Mercy is a word which speaks of redemption. And Paul’s clear testimony is that there is only one way to account for personal salvation, and that is the mercy of God, not human effort, faith, or activity. John Stifler sums up Paul’s thought,
Verse 16 is certainly speaking of individuals and teaches that man’s will and faith are not factors in the first and determinative movements of personal salvation. The issue of individual election is touched upon again in verse 18. It must be of individuals that Paul speaks in this text. The concept becomes vacant if we allow this to speak of nations only. A nation cannot be hardened without its people being hardened. A nation cannot receive mercy without the individuals of that nation receiving a personal application of that mercy. Again, John Stifler says it succinctly,
It must be recognized and acknowledged that Paul’s purpose in Romans 9-11 is to consider Israel’s rejection during New Testament times and to put it into proper perspective. He writes that Israel’s rejection is not inconsistent with either God’s Word or God’s justice. Neither is their rejection final. It is their own fault due to their unbelief, but there will come a time when their eyes will be opened and they will be saved (Rom. 11:25-29). It is apparent, therefore, that Paul is speaking of the issue of a nation, Israel. But in doing so, it is without question, that he touches in a significant and telling way on the question of the election of men and women to personal salvation. And furthermore, it is obvious that this election is unconditional. There is no other conclusion which can be drawn from the concepts of Romans Nine.
If it is further objected that Paul does not teach that election is completely apart from considerations of man’s will and effort then Romans 9:14 will prove to the contrary. The question recorded in verse 14 becomes irrelevant if Paul taught a conditional election in the verses leading up to it. Recall that Paul has stated:
All of these statements set up a concept of God’s methods which appears unjust to man. Paul is aware of this. And he knows that the people who read his letter will be aware of this. He knows that this is the impression they will receive from his message in verses 1-13 of chapter 9. He knows they will see the implications of the concept and he knows that their minds will be bothered by those implications. So he anticipates the problem and asks the question which he sees will be on their minds: “Is there, then, unrighteousness with God?”
With the coming of the question, we have come upon the strategic moment. From this question two conclusive arguments force themselves upon us. The first argument has to do with the necessity of the question. Why did Paul feel the question must be phrased? It is obviously more than a leaching device. He doesn’t ask questions for the sake of pointless interrogation. So why does he feel the need of stating an objection to what he has just said? Because He does indeed teach unconditional election.
He has stated it explicitly. It is patent in the text of verses 1-13. He knows that those who read will see it as he has written it. And he knows that the logical faculty of their minds will compel the question. Therefore we know that Paul was teaching unconditional election, for the objection would never have been anticipated or phrased if he had taught an election based upon man’s choice or effort. The question arises from the fact of unconditional election which he has just set forth. The truth of unconditional election is established by the presence of the question.
The second argument is even more forceful than the first, and also clearer. For now with the presence of the question Paul has arrived at the exact moment when he could clarify his position. If he had felt that he needed to qualify his thoughts of verses 1-13 now is the time to do it. If he had needed to modify the unconditional election of verses 1-13 to present I lie exact picture of election which was upon his mind then the question of verse 14 provides the opportunity. But what does he do? Does he say, “Now I haven’t expressed myself too well. You may have misunderstood me, let me explain”? Does he hedge, “Now I don’t want you to get me wrong, election isn’t quite the way I have described for you”? Does he rationalize, “Now I know this is difficult for you, but it will all clear up when I get to my section on free-will and God’s foreknowledge”? Does he make any attempt to adjust his thoughts to man’s idea of justice and fairness? No, not for a moment. Instead, he pushes forward to offer more proof from Scripture that such sovereign activity by God is typical of His dealings in the Old Testament.
He refers to Moses and Pharaoh as examples of God’s sovereign decisions. He does not back away from his position for a moment. There ire no modifications or qualifications. He offers no mystical or metaphysical explanations such as “God lives in eternity and man lives in tune. Therefore man’s decisions are always contemporaneous with God’s decisions.” He doesn’t just throw the subject up to speculation concerning the infinity and mystery of God. He marches forward to establish the truth with more force and conclusiveness. He will not back away from it. He knows where he stands. He knows himself too well to see his own conversion as anything but a sovereign act of God. He was “willing” and “running” after the hated Christians when God caught him with “mercy.” It can be no other way for Paul. Nor for us.
While he is pushing the argument forward he comes to the question which brings us to our knees, “Nay, but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?”
He will take no more evidence from history. Now he turns to the very nature of the relationship between God and man. And we turn to man’s quietest moment in the Word. In hushed and trembling tones he tells us who we are. He reminds us of who God is. Who are we to say, “Why doth he yet find fault?” Not since the moments of Job’s encounter with the Almighty (Job 38-42) has man felt so powerfully the place of his God. Neither here nor there is an explanation offered for the behavior of God. But instead man is shown his place far below the Almighty God. What if God does destine men? It is not our place to object “Who hath resisted his will?” Since when does the clay put the potter on the stand? Since when does the creature interrogate the Creator? Can he even entertain the idea without sinful arrogance?
Angels must hide their faces from the man who would ask the Almighty to justify his actions. Paul says, “O man, be careful. Be quiet. Close your mouth. Stop your mind from these thoughts. Let God be God. You have found Him in these moments, do not use them to quarrel, lake your place. Be the creature. You will find enough wisdom in what has been revealed, do not object to what you cannot understand.”
Our beloved friend Paul sees the answer to the difficult issue of election not in making a compromise between the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man, but in the staggering difference in spheres between the world of man and his God. The answer is not to be found in the searching of logic. The solution is unreachable by human thought. Let God be God and the truth will trouble you no longer. “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?”
In the answer of Paul to the question of verse 14 we come to the final blow upon human pride. We have reached the low point of man’s experience of himself. Once acknowledge this truth, that God chose him and he did not choose God, and men will have to travel down no further. Simple lessons of humility may be forthcoming but they will never bring a surprise. Man has found out what he is.
The path to creaturely humility began when the Gospel was first learned.
“All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” was the first declaration. “Wherein have I sinned” was the self-assured reply. “You have broken the law, the ten commandments. You need to be justified from your ungodliness. You must be justified by faith in the blood of Christ, there is no other hope.” Conscious of our external and sometimes inward violations of the law we tremble before its wages and submit to our Saviour. Humble enough to move under the Cross, we feel we have made t he right decision. We have decided for Christ. Eternal life is ours because of our decision. How thankful we are that we made it. How humbly thankful we are that made it. And indeed it is a blessed humility. But there is more to come.
The fellowship of the redeemed is sweet. The church offers such fellowship, and holiness is such enjoyment. We are unaware of the approaching conflict. Flesh against Spirit. Spirit against Flesh. We cannot do the things that we would. We are puzzled. What has happened? What is this thing within me? Why is it such a struggle? Certainly not the same with every man, but every man must learn the lesson: “For I know that in my flesh there dwelleth no good thing.” The lesson seems to be most often learned after the cross than before. Christian is struggling. He is learning about his heart. His sins pained him before the Cross. Now his heart hurts him. And only the healing presence of the Spirit of Christ brings him relief as he learns to walk by the new presence. The old heart cannot be trusted. He walks lower now, but he is reaching higher. He found out he was dead when he first heard the Gospel; now he learns that he stinks. “Blessed humility, how glad to find thee. I am free. It is so wonderful, why don’t i it hers choose you as I did?” A further lesson awaits.
“Prayer, the Fellowship, the Word; all are more and more delightful. I cannot spend enough time in the Book. But as I read a word strikes me. ‘Election.’ Another word. ‘Predestination.’ What do they mean?”
Even before the “wise counsellor” (Chapter 1) arrives, the mind suggests t hat logic can supply the answer. The man says, “It must be that God knew I would choose Him and so He chose me.
“But let me read further. What is that? ‘Chosen before the foundation of the world?’ Look here. ‘And he said, therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my father.’ This can’t he....’And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.’ What is the meaning of all this? How can it be?
“I thought I chose. I thought my will brought about my birth. Did I not will to be saved? Certainly. But what was behind my will? What moved it? Could it be that I sought Him because he moved me to seek him? Could it be that He put it into my heart to come? Could it be that I am that low? That I was that dead? Could I have fallen that far?”
(Terrible illumination, those moments, but holy ground. A man has found his God. A man has found himself. He knows now who he is. He knows now who his God is. They will not leave each other. They have been friends too long.) “God’s mind has held me from eternity. I will love Him for eternity. You have brought me very low, Father, to take me very high. I cannot speak. I will not reply.”
His head had once bowed before the Cross. Later his knees bent in contrition as he asked the Spirit for healing for his heart. Now the final blow has smitten his face into the dust.
In that moment of time he finds himself residing in eternity in the mind of God. Of clay, the potter has formed a friend. They shall not depart.
He has come to the lowest point to which Christian doctrine can lead a man. But in his most subject humility, silent before his God and at the lowest moment of his conscious life he finds himself to have been known and loved by God in eternity.
GOD IS GOD
When you say to men “God is God”
But when you say “HE chose”
It matters not what Scriptures say;
For in each man there speaks a voice,
Then he boasts and appeals to reason,
Some never learn that they’ve got it wrong;
“He has no rights over man’s clay.
And that pretty much tells man’s story;
So, my friend
When you learn your opinion to shun,
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