by J.C. Ryle
“Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.”— 1 THESS. 1. 4.
“Give diligence to make your calling and election sure.”— 2 PETER 1. 10.
THE texts which head this page contain a word of peculiar interest. It is a word which is often in men’s minds, and on men’s tongues, from one end of Great Britain to the other. That word is “Election.”
There are few Englishmen who do not know something of a general election to Parliament. Many are the evils which come to the surface at such a time. Bad passions are called out. Old quarrels are dug up, and new ones are planted. Promises are made, like piecrust, only to be broken. False profession, lying, drunkenness, intimidation, oppression, flattery, abound on every side. At no time perhaps does human nature make such a poor exhibition of itself as at a general election!
Yet, it is only fair to look at all sides of an election to Parliament. There is nothing new, or peculiarly English, about its evils. In every age, and in every part of the world, the heart of man is pretty much the same. There have never been wanting men ready to persuade others that they are not so well governed as they ought to be, and that they themselves are the fittest rulers that can be found. A thousand years before Christ was born the following picture was drawn by the unerring hand of the Holy Ghost: —
When we read this passage we must learn not to judge. our own times too harshly. The evils that we see are neither peculiar nor new.
After all, we must never forget that popular election, with all its evils, is far better than an absolute form of government. To live under the dominion of an absolute tyrant, who allows no one to think, speak, or act for himself, is miserable slavery. For the sake of liberty W€ must put up with all the evils which accompany the return of members to Parliament. We must each do our duty conscientiously, and learn to expect little from any party. If those we support succeed, we must not think that all they do will be right. If those we oppose succeed, we must not think that all they do will be wrong. To expect little from any earthly ruler is one great secret of contentment. To pray for all who are in authority, and to judge all their actions charitably, is one of the principal duties of a Christian.
But there is another Election, which is of far higher importance than any election to Parliament, — an Election whose consequences will abide, when Queen, Lords, and Commons have passed away, — an Election which concerns all classes, the lowest as well as the highest, the women as well as the men. It is the Election which the Scriptures call “the Election of God.”
I ask the readers of this paper to give me their attention for a few minutes, while I try to set before them the subject of this Election. Believe me, it affects your eternal happiness most deeply. Whether you are in Parliament or not, whether you vote or not, whether you are on the winning side or not, all this will matter very little a hundred years hence. But it will matter greatly whether you are in the number of “God’s Elect.”
In handling the subject of Election, there are only two things which I propose to do.
If I can make these two points clear and plain to the mind of all who read these pages, I think I shall have `one their souls a great and essential service.
I. I have firstly to state the doctrine of Election. What is it? What does it mean?
Accurate statements on this point are of great importance. No doctrine of Scripture perhaps has suffered so much damage from the erroneous conceptions of foes, and the incorrect descriptions of friends, as that which is now before us.
The true doctrine of Election I believe to be as follows. God has been pleased from all eternity to choose certain men and women out of mankind, whom by His counsel secret to us, He has decreed to save by Jesus Christ. None are finally saved except those who are thus chosen. Hence, the Scripture gives to God’s people in several places the names of “God’s Elect,” and the choice or appointment of them to eternal life is called “God’s election.”
Those men and women whom God has been pleased to choose from all eternity, He calls in time, by His Spirit working in due season. He convinces them of sin. He leads them to Christ. He works in them repentance and faith. He converts, renews, and sanctifies them. He keeps them by His grace from falling away entirely, and finally brings them safe to glory. In short, God’s eternal Election is the first link in that chain of a sinner’s salvation of which heavenly glory is the end. None ever repent, believe, and are born again, except the Elect. The primary and original cause of a saint’s being what he is, is eternal God’s election.
The doctrine here stated, no doubt, is peculiarly deep, mysterious, and hard to understand. We have no eyes to see it fully. We have no line to fathom it thoroughly. No part of the Christian religion has been so much disputed, rejected, and reviled as this. None has called forth so much of that enmity against God which is the grand mark of the carnal mind. Thousands of so-called Christians profess to believe the Atonement, salvation by grace, and justification by faith, and yet refuse to look at the doctrine of Election. The very mention of the word to some persons is enough to call forth expressions of anger, ill-temper, and passion.
But, after all, is the doctrine of Election plainly stated in Scripture? This is the whole question which an honest Christian has to do with. If it is not in the Book of God, let it be forever discarded, refused, and rejected by man, no matter who propounds it. If it is there, let us receive it with reverence, as a part of Divine revelation, and humbly believe, even where we are not able to understand completely or explain fully. What then is written in the Scriptures? “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” (Isaiah. viii. 20.) Is Election in the Bible, or is it not? Does the Bible speak of certain persons as God’s Elect, or not?
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ says: —
“For the Elect’s sake the days shall be shortened.” (Matt. xxiv. 22.)
“If it were possible they should deceive even the Elect.” (Mark xiii. 22.)
“He shall send His angels, and they shall gather together His Elect.” (Matt. xxiv. 31.)
“Shall not God avenge His own Elect?” (Luke xviii. 7.)
Hear what St. Paul says: —
“Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified.” (Rom. viii. 29, 30.)
“Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s Elect?” (Rom. viii. 33.)
“God hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world.” (Ephes. i. 4.)
“`Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” (2 Tim. i. 9.)
“God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.” (2 Thess. ii. 13.)
Hear what St. Peter says —
“Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter i. 2.)
“Give diligence to make your calling and Election sure.” (2 Peter i. 10.)
I place these eleven texts before my readers, and I ask them to consider them well. If words have any meaning at all, they appear to me to teach most plainly the doctrine of personal Election. In the face of such texts I dare not refuse to believe that it is a Scriptural doctrine. I dare not, as an honest man, shut my eyes against the plain, obvious sense of Bible language. If I once began to do so, I should have no ground to stand on in pressing the Gospel on an unconverted man. I could not expect him to believe one set of texts to be true, if I did not believe another set. The eleven texts above quoted seem to my mind to prove conclusively that personal Election is a doctrine of Scripture. As such I must receive it, and I must believe it, however difficult it may be. As such I ask my readers this day to look at it calmly, weigh it seriously, and receive it as God’s truth.
After all, whatever men may please to say, there is no denying that the Election of some men and women to salvation is a simple matter of fact. That all professing Christians are not finally saved, but only some, — that those who are saved owe their salvation entirely to the free grace of God and the calling of His Spirit, — that no man can at all explain why some are called unto salvation and others are not called, — all these are things which no Christian who looks around him can pretend for a moment to deny. Yet what does all this come to but the doctrine of Election?
Right views of human nature are certain to lead us to the same conclusion. Once admit that we are all naturally dead in trespasses and sins, and have no power to turn to God, — once admit that all spiritual life in the heart of man must begin with God, — once admit that He who created the world by saying, “Let there be light,” must shine into man’s heart, and create light within him, — once admit that God does not enlighten all professing Christians in this manner, but only some, and that He acts in this matter entirely as a Sovereign, giving no account of His matters, — once admit all this, and then see where you are. Whether you know it or not, you admit the whole doctrine of Election!
Right views of God’s nature and character, as revealed in the Bible, appear to me to bring us to the same position. Do we believe that God knows all things from all eternity, — that He governs all things by His providence, and that not even a sparrow falleth to the ground without Him? Do we believe that He works all His works by a plan, like an architect of perfect knowledge, and that nothing concerning His saints, as His choicest and most excellent work, is left to chance, accident, and luck? — Well, if we believe all this, we believe the whole doctrine which this paper is meant to support. This is the doctrine of Election.
Now what can be said in reply to these things? What are the principal weapons of argument with which Election is assailed? Let us see.
Some tell us that there is no such thing in Scripture as an Election of persons and individuals. Such an Election, they say, would be arbitrary, unjust, unfair, partial, and unkind. The only Election they admit is one of nations, churches, communities, — such as Israel in ancient times, and Christian nations, as compared to heathen nations, in our own day. Now is there anything in this objection that will stand? I believe there is nothing at all. — For one thing, the Election spoken of in Scripture is an Election attended by the sanctifying influence of the Holy Ghost. This certainly is not the Election of nations. For another thing St. Paul himself draws a clear and sharply-cut distinction between Israel itself and the Election. “Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the Election bath obtained it.” (Rom. xi. 7.) — Last, but not least, the advocates of the theory of national Election gain nothing whatever by it. How can they account for God withholding the knowledge of Christianity from 350 millions of Chinese for 1800 years, and yet spreading it over the continent of Europe? They cannot, except on the ground of God’s sovereign will and His free Election! So that, in fact, they are driven to take up the very same position which they blame us for defending, and denounce as arbitrary and uncharitable.
Some tell us that at any rate Election is not the doctrine of the Church of England. It may do very well for dissenters and Presbyterians, but not for churchmen. “It is a mere piece of Calvinism,” they say, — “an extravagant notion which came from Geneva, and deserves no credit among those who love the Prayer-book.” Such people would do well to look at the end of their Prayer books, and to read the Thirty-nine Articles. Let them turn to the 17th Article, and mark the following words:
I commend that Article to the special attention of all English Churchmen. It is one of the sheet-anchors of sound doctrine in the present day. It never can be reconciled with baptismal regeneration! A wiser statement of the true doctrine of personal Election was never penned by the hand of uninspired man. It is thoroughly well-balanced and judiciously proportioned. In the face of such an Article it is simply ridiculous to say that the Church of England does not hold the doctrine of this paper.
In controverted matters I desire to speak courteously and cautiously. I wish to make allowance for the many varieties of men’s temperaments, which insensibly affect our religious opinions, and for the lasting effect of early prejudices. I freely concede that Wesley, Fletcher, and a whole host of excellent Methodists and Arminians, have always denied Election, and that many deny it to this day. I do not say that to hold Election is absolutely necessary to salvation, though to be one of God’s Elect undoubtedly is necessary. But I cannot call any man my master in theological matters. My own eyes see the doctrine of personal Election most clearly stated both in Scripture and the 17th Article of the Church of England. I cannot give it up. I believe firmly that it is an important part of God’s truth, and one which to godly persons is “full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort.”
II. The next thing that I wish to do is to fence the doctrine of Election with cautions, and to guard it against abuse.
This is a branch of the subject which I hold to be of vast importance. All revealed truth is liable to be wrested and perverted. It is one of Satan’s chief devices to make the Gospel odious by tempting men to distort it. Perhaps no part of Christian theology has suffered so much damage in this way as the doctrine of personal Election. Let me proceed to explain what I mean.
“I am not one of God’s Elect,” says one man. “It is no use for me to do anything at all in religion. It is waste of time for me to keep the Sabbath, attend the public worship of God, read my Bible, say my prayers. If I am to be saved, I shall be saved. If I am to be lost, I shall be lost. In the mean time I sit still and wait.” This is a sore disease of soul. But I fear it is a very common one!
“I am one of God’s Elect,” says another man. “I am sure to be saved and go to heaven at last, no matter how I may live and go on. Exhortations to holiness are legal. Recommendations to watch, and crucify self, are bondage. Though I fall, God sees no sin in me and loves me all the same. Though I often give way to temptation, God will not let me be altogether lost. Where is the use of doubts and fears and anxieties? I am confident I am one of the Elect, and as such I shall be found in glory.” This again, is a sore disease. But I fear it is not altogether uncommon.
Now what shall he said to men who talk in this way? They need to be told very plainly that they are wresting a truth of the Bible to their own destruction, and turning meat into poison. They need to be reminded that their notion of Election is a miserably unscriptural one. Election according to the Bible is a very different thing from what they suppose it to be. It is most intimately connected with other truths of equal importance with itself, and from these truths it ought never to be separated. Truths which God has joined together no man should ever dare to put asunder.
(a) For one thing, the doctrine of Election was never meant to destroy man’s responsibility for the state of his own soul. The Bible everywhere addresses men as free-agents, as beings accountable to God, and not as mere logs, and bricks, and stones. It is false to say that it is useless to tell men to cease to do evil, to learn to do well, to repent, to believe, to turn to God, to pray. Everywhere in Scripture it is a leading principle that man can lose his own soul, that if he is lost at last it will be his own fault, and his blood will be on his own head. The same inspired Bible which reveals this doctrine of Election is the Bible which contains the words, “Why will ye die, O house of Israel?” — “Ye will not come unto Me that ye might have life.” — “This is the condemnation, that light is come into tire world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” (Ezek. xviii. 31; John v. 40; iii. 19.) The Bible never says that sinners miss heaven because they are not Elect, but because they “neglect the great salvation,” and because they will not repent and believe. The last judgment will abundantly prove that it is not the want of God’s Election, so much as laziness, the love of sin, unbelief, and unwillingness to come to Christ, which ruins the souls that are lost.
(b) For another thing, the doctrine of Election was never meant to prevent the fullest, freest offer of salvation to every sinner. In preaching and trying to do good we are warranted and commanded to set an open door before every man, woman, and child, and to invite every one to come in. We know not who are God’s Elect, and whom he means to call and convert. Our duty is to invite all. To every unconverted soul without exception we ought to say, “God loves you, and Christ has died for you.” To everyone we ought to say, “Awake, — repent, — believe, — come to Christ, — be converted, — turn, — call upon God, — strive to enter in, — come, for all things are ready.” To tell us that none will hear and be saved except God’s Elect, is quite needless. We know it very well. But to tell us that on that account it is useless to offer salvation to any at all, is simply absurd. Who are we that we should pretend to know who will be found God’s Elect at last? No! indeed. Those who now seem first may prove last, and those who seem last may prove first in the judgment day. We will invite all, in the firm belief that the invitation will do good to some. We will prophesy to the dry bones, if God commands us. We will offer life to all, though many reject the offer. In so doing we believe that we walk in the steps of our Master and His Apostles.
(c) For another thing, Election can only be known by its fruits. The Elect of God can only be discerned from those who are not Elect by their faith and, life. We cannot climb up into the secret of God’s eternal counsels. We cannot read the book of life. The fruits of the Spirit, seen and manifested in a man’s conversation, are the only grounds on which we can ascertain that lie is one of God’s Elect. Where the marks of God’s Elect can be seen, there, and there only, have we any warrant for saying “this is one of the Elect.” — How do I know that yon distant ship on the horizon of the sea has any pilot or steersman `on board? I cannot with the best telescope discern anything but her masts and sails. Yet I see her steadily moving in one direction. That is enough for me. I know by this that there is a guiding hand on board, though I cannot see it. Just so it is with God’s Election. The eternal decree we cannot possibly see. But the result of that decree cannot be hid. It was when St. Paul remembered the faith and hope and love of the Thessalonians, that he cried, I “know your Election of God.” (1 Thess. i. 4.) For ever let us hold fast this principle in considering the subject before us. To talk of any one being Elect when he is living in sin, is nothing better than blasphemous folly. The Bible knows of no Election except through “sanctification,” — no eternal choosing except that we should be “holy,” — no predestination except to be “conformed to the image of God’s Son.” When these things are lacking, it is mere waste of time to talk of Election. (1 Pet. i. 2; Ephes. i. 4; Rom. viii. 29.)
(d) Last, but not least, Election was never intended to prevent men making a diligent use of all means of grace. On the contrary, the neglect of means is a most suspicious symptom, and should make us very doubtful about the state of a man’s soul. Those whom the Holy Ghost draws He always draws to the written Word of God and to prayer. When there is the real grace of God in a heart, there will always be love to the means of grace. What saith the Scripture? The very Christians at Rome to whom St. Paul wrote about foreknowledge and predestination, are the same to whom Ire says, “Continue instant in prayer.” (Rom. xii. 12.) The very Ephesians who were “chosen before the foundation of the world:’ are the same to whom it is said, “Put on the whole armour of God — take the sword of the Spirit — pray always with all prayer.” (Ephes. vi. 18.) The very Thessalonians whose Election Paul said he “knew,” are the Christians to whom he cries in the same Epistle, “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. v. 17.) The very Christians whom Peter calls “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,” are the same to whom lie says, “Desire the sincere milk of the Word — watch unto prayer.” (1 Pet. ii. 2; iv. 7.) The evidence of texts like these is simply unanswerable and overwhelming. I shall not waste time by making any comment on them. An Election to salvation which teaches men to dispense with the use of all means of grace, may please ignorant people, fanatics, and Antinomians. But I take leave to say that it is an Election of which I can find no mention in God’s Word.
I know not that I can wind up this part of my subject better than by quoting the latter part of the Seventeenth Article of the Church of England. I commend it to the special attention of all my readers, and particularly the last paragraph. — “As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: so, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchedness of most unclean living, no hem perilous than desperation.
“Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that will of God is to be followed which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.”
These are wise words. This is sound speech that cannot be condemned. For ever let us cling to the principle contained in this statement. Well would it have been for the Church of Christ, if the doctrine of Election had always been handled in this fashion. Well would it be for all Christians who feel puzzled by the heights and depths of this mighty doctrine, if they would remember the words of Scripture, — “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this Law.” (Deut. xxix. 29.)
I will now conclude the whole subject with a few plain words of personal application.
(1) First of all let me entreat every reader of this paper not to refuse this doctrine of Election, merely because it is high, mysterious, and hard to be understood. Is it reverent to do so? Is it treating God’s Word with the respect due to revelation? Is it right to reject anything written for our learning, and to give it hard names, merely because some misguided men have misused it, and turned it to a bad purpose? These are serious questions. They deserve serious consideration. If men begin rejecting a truth of Scripture merely because they do not like it, they are on slippery ground. There is no saying how far they may fall.
What after all do men gain by refusing the doctrine of Election? Does the system of those who deny Election save one soul more than that of those who hold it? Certainly not. — Do those who hold Election narrow the way to heaven, and make salvation more difficult than those who deny it? Certainly not. — The opponents of Election maintain that none will be saved except those who repent and believe. Well: the advocates of Election say just the same! — The opponents of Election proclaim loudly that none but holy people go to heaven. Well: the advocates of Election proclaim the same doctrine just as loudly! — What then, I ask once more, is gained by denying the truth of Election? I answer, Nothing whatever. And yet, while nothing is gained, a great deal of comfort seems to be lost. It is cold comfort to be told that God never thought on me before I repented and believed. But to know and feel that God had purposes of mercy toward me before the foundation of the world, and that all the work of grace in my heart is the result of an everlasting covenant and an eternal Election, is a thought full of sweet and unspeakable consolation. A work that was planned before the foundation of the world, by an Architect of almighty power and perfect wisdom, is a work which will never be allowed to fail and be overthrown.
(2) In the next place, let me entreat every reader of this paper to approach this doctrine of Election from the right end, and not to confuse his mind by inverting the order of truth. Let him begin with the first elements of Christianity, — with simple repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ, and so work Iris way toward Election. Let him not waste his time by beginning with inquiries about his own Election. Let him rather attend first to the plain marks of an Elect man, and never rest till these marks are his own. Let him break off from all known sin, and flee to Christ for pardon, peace, mercy, and grace. Let him cry mightily to God in prayer, and give the Lord no rest till he feels within him the real witness of the Spirit. He that begins in this fashion will thank God one day for His electing grace, in eternity if not in time. It is an old and quaint saying, but a very true one:” A man must first go to the little Grammar-school of Repentance and Faith, before he enters the great University of Election and Predestination.”
The plain truth is, that God’s scheme of salvation is like a ladder let down from heaven to earth, to bring together the holy God, and the sinful creature, man. God is at the top of the ladder and man is at the bottom. — The top of the ladder is far above, out of our sight, and we have no eyes to see it. There, at the top of that ladder, are God’s eternal purposes, — His everlasting covenant, His Election, His predestination of a people to be saved by Christ. From the top of that ladder comes down that full and rich provision of mercy for sinners which is revealed to us in the Gospel. — The bottom of that ladder is close to sinful man on earth, and consists of the simple steps of repentance and faith. By them he must begin to climb upwards. In the humble use of them he shall mount higher and higher every year, and get clearer glimpses of good things yet to come. — What can be more plain than the duty of using the steps which are close to our hands? What can be more foolish than to say, I will not put my foot on the steps at the bottom, until I clearly understand the steps at the top? Away with such perverse and childish reasonings! Common sense alone might tell us the path of duty, if we would only make use of it. That duty is to use simple truths honestly, and then to believe that higher truths will one day be made plain to our eyes. How, and in what manner the love of the eternal God comes down to us, may have much about it which is hard for poor worms like us to understand. But how we poor sinners are to draw near to God is clear and plain as the sun at noon-day. Jesus Christ stands before us, saying, “Come unto Me!” Let us not waste time in doubting, quibbling, and disputing. Let us come to Christ at once, just as we are. Let us lay hold and believe!
(3) In the last place, let me entreat every true Christian who reads this paper to remember the exhortation of St Peter, — “Give diligence, to make your calling and Election sure.” (2 Pet. i. 10.)
Surer in the sight of God than your Election has been from all eternity, you cannot make it. With Him there is no uncertainty. Nothing that God does for His people is left to chance, or liable to change. But surer and more evident to yourself and to the Church, your Election can be made; and this is the point that I wish to press on your attention. Strive to obtain such well-grounded assurance of hope that, as St. John says, you may “know that you know Christ.” (1 John ii. 3.) Strive so to live and walk in this world that all may take knowledge of you as one of God’s children, and feel no doubt that you are going to heaven.
Listen not for a moment to those who tell you that in this life we can never be sure of our own spiritual state, and must always be in doubt. The Roman Catholics say so. The ignorant world says so. The devil says so. But the Bible says nothing of the kind. There is such a thing as strong assurance of our acceptance in Christ, and a Christian should never rest till he has obtained it. That a man may be saved without this strong assurance I do not deny. But that without it he misses a great privilege, and much comfort, I am quite sure.
Strive, then, with all diligence, “to make your calling and Election sure.” — “Lay aside every weight and the sins that most easily beset you.” (Heb. xii. 2.) Be ready to cut off the right hand and pluck out the right eye, if need be. Settle it firmly in your mind, that it is the highest privilege on this side the grave to know that you are one of the children of God.
They that contend for place and office in this world are sure to be disappointed. When they have done all and succeeded to the uttermost, their honours are thoroughly unsatisfying, and their rewards are short-lived. Seats in Parliament and places in Cabinets must all be vacated one day. At best they can only be held for a few years. But he that is one of God’s Elect has a treasure which can never be taken from him, and a place from which he can never be removed. Blessed is that man who sets his heart on this Election. There is no election like the Election of God!
John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) served the Church of England from 1841 to the year of his death. Thoroughly evangelical and uncompromising in his principles, he became widely known for his prolific writing and his faithful service as a pastor. The last twenty years of his life he served as Bishop of Liverpool.
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