He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will. (Eph. 1:4-5)
I struggled with the doctrine of election for over twenty years. Like most, I believed God’s election (or selection) of individuals to salvation was predicated on His foreseen knowledge of man’s response to the gospel. While it is true that God knows who will believe (John 6:64), it is also true that each person believes because God sovereignly draws him and illumines his mind to the gospel message (John 1:11-13; 6:37, 44, 65-66; 10:27-28). Jesus Himself stated, “no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). God determines who will be saved, and only the elect will be illumined to His saving truth. This is troubling to some, because it strips them of any power to save themselves or others. Salvation is not what we do for God, but what He has done for us through the work of Christ. Salvation is appropriated only to those who believe, and a person believes because God has illumined his mind to the gospel.
The doctrine of Election is a cardinal teaching of the Scriptures. Doubtless, it is attended with difficulties which are a burden upon all systems of theology alike. However, no word of God may be altered or neglected. No little help is gained when it is remembered that revelation and not reason is the guide to faith. When the former has spoken the latter is appointed to listen and acquiesce.
Part of my struggle with the doctrine of election sprang out of a weak view of sin. I did not fully understand the historical fall of Adam and the total depravity of all mankind. I held to a semi-pelagian view of the fall in which I believed I could help bring myself to Christ for salvation, and once saved, assist in keeping myself saved. This is a synergistic view of salvation (the work of two or more), in which I participated in my salvation. The Scripture presents a monergistic view of salvation (a work of one), which means it’s a work of God alone. All of us are helpless to save ourselves, and if it were not for the mercy and grace of God, we would all equally perish in sin. The elect are simply the fortunate beneficiaries of God’s saving work.
Jacob and Esau are examples of God’s election, “for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was told to her, ‘the older will serve the younger’” (Rom. 9:11-12). Some might want to charge God with being unfair. However, Paul states, “There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (Rom. 9:14). God’s choosing some over others “does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16), for “He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Rom. 9:18). Here are some points that portray my understanding of election.
God elects based on His sovereign good pleasure and not because of any foreseen goodness in people (John 6:37, 44, 65-66; 10:27-28; Acts 13:48). Election (eklego) is that free choice of God from eternity past in which He elected to save and bless those who are the objects of His love and grace. The elect are the ones chosen. God elects groups (Luke 6:13-16; John 6:70; Rom. 9:4; 11:26-28) and individuals (1 Chron. 28:5; Luke 4:25-27; 8:10; Acts 9:15); and His selection is based on sovereign choice (Rom. 9:10-21), not any foresight of good or worth (Deut. 7:7-8; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Rom. 9:11). Election is to salvation (Acts 13:48; Eph. 1:4-6), spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3), holy and righteous living (Col. 3:12; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:9), and service for the Lord (Jer. 1:4-5; Gal. 1:15-16; cf. Acts 9:15). Scriptures related to election include:
All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. (John 6:37)
No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44)
And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. (John 6:65-66)
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. (John 10:27-28)
All people are totally depraved and helpless to save themselves (Rom. 3:10-23; 5:6-10; Eph. 2:1-3). Total depravity does not mean that people are as bad as they can be; rather, it means that sin reaches to every part of their being, mind, will and emotions, and that whatever they do, whether moral or immoral, has no saving value in God’s sight.
The fact that all men are sinners, totally depraved—without any merit before God and without any ability to please God—makes the Spirit’s ministry essential. Scripture states clearly that the unsaved man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14). In fact, to the unregenerate the gospel is foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18). No amount of education and training will equip the unsaved to respond to Christ. That is the work of the Holy Spirit alone.
Satan blinds the minds of everyone (2 Cor. 4:3-4), but God illumines the minds of His elect to the gospel message, and once illumined, they respond willingly to His grace. The good news about Jesus as the Savior is found only in the revelation of Scripture (John 3:16; Rom. 10:13-15; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Once the gospel is communicated, God illumines the mind of His elect to understand and respond favorably to it, with the result that they believe in Jesus as their Savior. As a vehicle of communication, God may use a person, the Scriptures, a gospel tract, a radio show, or any means that accurately communicates gospel truth. However, gospel truth itself, no matter how perfectly stated, will never lead an unbeliever to salvation if God does not illumine the mind to understand it.
The blinding or veiling of the mind, mentioned in 2 Cor. 4:3, 4, is then a universal incapacity to comprehend the way of salvation, and is imposed upon unregenerate man by the arch enemy of God in his attempts to hinder the purpose of God in redemption. It is a condition of mind against which man can have no power. Yet God has provided a means whereby this satanic veil may be lifted, the eyes opened (Acts 26:18), the eyes of the heart enlightened (Eph. 1:18), and the soul come into the illumination of the Gospel of the glory of Christ. Then, after this “opening of the eyes” is accomplished, the way of life, which is the Gospel, will seem, to the enlightened person, to be both desirable and of transcendent import. This great work is accomplished by Divine energy, and is one of the mightiest movements of the “power of God unto salvation.” It is spoken of in Scripture as the drawing of God and the convicting of the Spirit: “No man can come unto Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him” (John 6:44). “And when He (the Spirit) is come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8).
Election is to salvation, sanctification and glorification (Rom. 8:29-30; Col. 3:12; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:9). God saves His elect, and once saved, continues to work in them to produce the character of Christ. This is their sanctification. Finally, God will glorify His elect when He brings us home to heaven where we will spend eternity with Him.
God chose us even before He created the universe, so that our salvation is wholly of His grace and not on the basis of anything we ourselves have done. He chose us in Christ, not in ourselves. And He chose us for a purpose: to be holy and without blame. In the Bible, election is always unto something. It is a privilege that carries a great responsibility…What began in eternity past was fulfilled in time present, and will continue for all eternity!
Difficulty in understanding is not a basis for rejection of the doctrine of election. There are some biblical teachings that are difficult to grasp, and in some ways the human mind will never fully comprehend them. I’m referring to doctrines such as the Trinity or the Hypostatic Union. These doctrines are difficult to comprehend because they involve the infinite personal God who is beyond what our finite minds can grasp. Likewise, the doctrine of election, born as it is in the mind of God, has attending details that are simply beyond the grasp of our comprehension.
There is no doubt whatever about the Bible teaching that God has chosen an elect people; but the contemplation of all that is involved in this truth reaches out into realms of existence that can be known only to God, far removed as they are from the human sphere of understanding. Being thus limited, it ill becomes the earth dweller to sit in judgment on God respecting His divine election. God’s essential character has been disclosed and He can be trusted where men cannot possibly understand. He is infinitely wise, infinitely holy, and infinitely just and good. When exercising His sovereign right in election, He does not transgress His character or deny Himself. Since He does elect some for special glories and destinies and since He proves Himself infinitely right in all He does, it follows that His eternal elective purpose must be as righteous as He is righteous.
Election displays God’s love, mercy and grace to save (John 3:16; Eph. 2:8-9). First and foremost, election displays God’s sovereignty; however, God has many attributes, and His choice of election includes them all. The Christian who would rightly understand the doctrine of election must grasp several of God’s attributes such as His omniscience (Ps. 139:1-6; Matt. 6:31-33), omnipotence (Job 42:2; Isa. 40:28-29), righteousness (Ps. 11:7; 119:137), justice (Ps. 9:7-8; 19:9; 50:6; 58:11), love (Jer. 31:3; 1 John 4:7-12, 16), mercy (Ps. 86:15; Luke 6:36; Tit. 3:5), and grace (Ps. 111:4; 116:5; 1 Pet. 5:10).
The act of electing a people has to be compatible with all of His attributes. It is based on His omniscience, so that we may be assured that when He elected He did so knowing full well all of the alternative possibilities. It is related to the exercise of His sovereign will, so that He was in no way forced to do what He did. It was done by the God who is love, so that predestination was done in love (Eph. 1:4–5). It expressed His mercy; otherwise how could God have loved Jacob? (Rom. 9:15). It demonstrates His matchless grace (Eph. 2:7–8). And the ultimate purpose of election is to display His glory (1:6, 12, 14). Usually we put the emphasis on the fact that God elects. We need to remember that it is God who elects, and He can do nothing unloving or unjust.
Election encourages sharing the gospel, because we know God will use it to bring His people to salvation through faith in Christ. Election encourages sharing the gospel (Acts 13:48; 18:8; 2 Tim. 2:10), which is the means by which people come to have eternal life as they place their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior (John 3:16; Acts 16:30-31). Paul taught election, but was also very aggressive in his evangelism efforts, even pleading with others to believe in Christ for salvation (2 Cor. 5:20). People come to know and accept Jesus because God opens their heart to know the truth. An example of divine illumination can be found in the book of Acts where Paul was preaching to a group of women, and one woman in particular “named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Here was a group of women, all hearing Paul speak the same message, yet Luke tells us that only one of them responded to “the things spoken by Paul,” because “the Lord opened her heart” to understand his words. This is true in every situation where the gospel is shared and people willingly receive it.
Faith in Christ is necessary for salvation (Rom. 10:13-14). Faith is non-meritorious, having no saving value in itself. Christ alone saves. In order for a person to be saved, he must believe in Jesus as the Savior (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This, of course, is the Jesus of Scripture, for no other Jesus will do. From the human side of salvation, faith in Jesus is the necessary response to God’s call, and no one can be saved any other way (John 14:6; Acts 16:31). When God’s elect hear the gospel message, they will believe in Christ as their Savior (Acts 13:48). No clever argumentation or persuasive rhetoric is needed when witnessing to God’s elect (who are unknown until they believe in Christ), for they will hear the truth and respond with faith in Christ as God opens their hearts to the gospel. As believers, we are to know the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-4), and be ready to share it at any moment as God gives us opportunity. We do not have to force the opportunity, but simply be ready when it comes; and then be clear in our speech, knowing that God is working in the hearts of His elect. To be saved, an unbeliever must know and believe the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3-4; cf. Rom. 10:11-15).
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Rom. 10:13-14)
Election does not remove human guilt for those who reject Christ as their Savior. Those who reject the gospel are left to stumble over the cross of Christ, which is an offense for them, “for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed” (1 Pet. 2:8). The spiritual condition of the unbeliever is that he is dead in his sins and destined for God’s wrath (John 3:36). His understanding is darkened, he has no spiritual life, and he hardens his heart toward God (Eph. 2:1-3). They do not believe because of their personal choice. “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). Also, Satan imposes spiritual blindness upon them. “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:3-4). Regarding the nonelect, the Scripture states that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11), does not desire any unbelievers to perish (2 Pet. 3:9), and that it is man’s sin that separates him from God (Isa. 59:2).
Preterition teaches that the nonelect are simply passed over, or neglected, and left to their own sinful choices which will always operate in hostility toward God, Christ, and those who are His own. There are Scriptures that seem to pertain to the non-elect (Prov. 16:4; Matt. 11:21; John 6:70-71; Rom. 9:17-24; 1 Pet. 2:7-8; Jude 4; Rev. 13:8; 17:8).
Retribution means deserved punishment, while preterition is the passing over of those not elected to salvation. Both terms avoid the concept involved in double predestination or reprobation, which means foreordination to damnation. None of these terms appear in the Scripture, though the idea is clearly taught in Romans 9:18, 21; 1 Peter 2:8; and Revelation 17:8. Therefore, the Scriptures do contain a doctrine of preterition, though there is not a decree to condemn in the same sense that there is a decree to elect. Obviously the very idea of election has to include the idea of the greater number out of which they were chosen, and those who were not chosen were certainly passed by. This in no sense implies that God delights in the destiny of the wicked, or that they are driven against their wills, or that the doctrine of election nullifies a “whosoever” Gospel, or that any individual can know he is not elect and thereby try to excuse himself for rejecting Christ. All are accountable to God for their attitude toward Christ.
God does not bully men to believe in Christ, but neither will any of the elect fail to believe. “Does the sinner respond to God’s grace against his own will? No, he responds because God’s grace makes him willing to respond. The mystery of divine sovereignty and human responsibility will never be solved in this life. Both are taught in the Bible (John 6:37). Both are true, and both are essential.” To be adopted as a member of God’s royal family and live forever in His eternal palace is a welcome blessing to anyone trapped in sin. The humble and sensible person will gladly surrender a life of hurt and sorrow for one of magnificent love and joy with the eternal God of the universe, Who in wonderful love has “predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:5-6).
Though as Sovereign He could do so, God does not coerce the human will; He rather works within the individual both to will and to do of His good pleasure (cf. Phil. 2:13). An efficacious call to salvation, then, is a call which none ever finally resists (cf. Rom. 8:30). Everyone whom God predestinates He calls, and everyone whom He calls He justifies and glorifies. There could be no failure in one instance among the millions who are called. The vision He creates in the heart and the limitless persuasion He exercises induce a favorable reaction on the part of all thus called, which reaction is rendered infinitely certain. The important truth to be remembered in all of this is that, though divine persuasion be limitless, it still remains persuasion, and so when a decision is secured for Christ in the individual he exercises his own will apart from even a shadow of constraint. The divine invitation still is true that “whosoever will may come.” However, it is also true that none will ever come apart from the divine call, and that the call is extended only to His elect.
Steven R. Cook
- The Sovereignty of God
- The Gospel
- Election and Illumination
- Three Phases of Salvation
- Saved by God’s Grace
- Essentials of the Christian Faith
 Lewis S. Chafer, “Biblical Theism Divine Decrees” Bibliotheca Sacra, 96 (1939): 268.
 Robert P. Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology: A Historical, Biblical, and Contemporary Survey and Review (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1995), 197.
 Lewis Sperry Chafer, True Evangelism (New York: Gospel Publishing House, 1911), 74-75.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1996), Eph 1:3.
 Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, Mich., Kregel Publications, 1993), 133.
 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 362-63.
 Ibid., 362.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Eph 1:3.
 Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 7, 136.