Is Jesus Saviour or merely Helper? Is God Sovereign or merely Powerful? Is Salvation by grace or by works?
Those who deny the Bible’s teaching of “election” (the sovereign choice of God in determining who is saved and who is not), ultimately deny the Gospel.
This is not a new debate and it is not an easy one. Since Augustine took pen in hand to defend the Faith against the attacks of Pelagius, the Church has had to endure conflict on this point. At stake is the question of whether we as fallen humans need a Saviour or merely a helper. The Bible teaches that natural man (and woman) is so thoroughly contaminated by sin throughout body, mind and soul, that he is not able to keep from sinning nor is he able to want anything to do with God. Therefore, a natural man or woman, without being born again by the Spirit of God, is unable to believe the Gospel message and so be saved. The Gospel is made glorious by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit causing sinners to be born again so that with new spiritual life they are able to understand the Gospel, believe in Jesus, love God and obey Him. But how does the Holy Spirit decide whom to regenerate (cause to be born again)? According to the Bible, He gives new birth to those whom God has graciously chosen from before the event of Creation. This Gospel, this Good News, clarified by the 5 defining points of the Protestant Reformation, “The Glory of God alone,” “Christ alone,” “Scripture alone,” “Grace alone,” and “Faith alone,” is undermined by the heresy of Pelagius that people do not need God’s help to do good or to believe the Gospel message. If Pelagius was right, then by implication, Jesus would not have had to die on the cross to save humanity. He could have just shown us the way to save ourselves. The debate over the doctrine of election, then, is a debate in which the Gospel itself is at stake.
So can a person, without yet being born again, do good, obey God and believe the Gospel? Are we to be saved only by the grace of God or by some mixture of our own works? (In which case, as Paul wrote, grace would cease to be grace – Romans 4:4-5, 11:6.) That is the issue.
10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
2 The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. 3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.
Where then can salvation come from? It cannot depend on man to try harder to redeem himself. It cannot depend on man to avail himself even of taking some cure prescribed by the Great Physician. For as Scripture teaches, “no one seeks for God. All have turned aside”. This description of how things really are is tragic considering the open announcement of the Gospel to all. It’s like a great feast to which all are invited but no one shows up. Why would no one show up to a feast? Because they don’t want to: they have countless other things they would rather be doing. In biblical terms, these no-shows are called, “rebels”.
Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the LORD,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.
Why will you still be struck down?
Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint…
But rebels and sinners shall be broken together,
and those who forsake the LORD shall be consumed.
(Isaiah 1:4-5, 28 ESV)
The reason for man’s rebellion of course is also explained in Scripture: it is the rebellion which flows out of hearts and minds spiritually devoid of life and dead in sin:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.
(Mark 7:21-22 ESV)
“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations, I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, declares the Lord GOD.”
(Ezekiel 11:14-21 ESV)
Where does sin come from? The Bible says from the heart of mankind. In other words, man is rotten to the core and so the actions which flow out from that centre are also rotten. Can anything pure come out of a rotten centre? According to the last quote from Ezekiel 11, the answer is a resounding no. Why did God promise to graciously give His people a “heart of flesh”? Answer: “that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them.” So it is impossible to obey God with a natural, stone-dead heart. The above quote from Ephesians puts this even more starkly: in our natural state, people are “dead in… trespasses and sins”. We are corpses, not with regard to our flesh–the next verse (Eph 2:3) says we “lived in the passions of our flesh”–but dead with regard to our spirits. Spiritually dead people can only do spiritually dead things. Ezekiel says we cannot obey God while we are spiritually dead. Jesus, in Mark 7, says all that comes out of the hearts of spiritually dead people is sin–all manner of sin. Imagine a preacher giving an altar call to a church full of corpses. “Come now, all you who are weary, while the organ softly plays ‘Just As I Am’, come to the front and someone will pray with you to ask Jesus into your heart!” Nothing happens. The invitation is falling on deaf ears–dead ears actually. Corpses can’t come forward. Spiritually dead people cannot trust in God, believe in God, come to God, want God, desire God, pray to God or do anything that is counted in Scripture as “obeying God” at all.
The next verse in Ephesians 2 is where Paul turns from the bad news to the “Good News”–the Gospel:
[Verse 1 – You were dead…] But God… even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
(Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV)
So, either salvation is only by the grace of God with zero depending on man’s ability or even man’s will, or the Bible is wrong, God’s Word cannot be trusted and so neither can He be trusted. If that were the case, then God would not be good. No, if man is so fallen in sin as the Bible says, then salvation must depend on God alone. This was the heart cry of the Protestant Reformation: “Soli Deo Gloria!” — “To God alone be the glory!”
However, in every generation there are sincere Christians who struggle to accept this truth. That struggle is at root a matter of pride. It is pride which rails against the teaching of man’s complete and utter sinfulness saying, “I’m not as bad as that!” But this pride fails to understand the holiness of God and so by comparison fails to understand how far the sinful human heart has fallen from the holy standard of God’s character. It is a matter of pride when people hear about God’s gracious election of sinners for salvation, jump to conclusions about that meaning He is then unfair, and denounce such a God as unjust or even as evil. God is not to be judged by human imaginings of what good and evil look like–we see only dimly now, unable to see the true reality of things as they are because of the stain of sin on the lenses through which we see and know and judge. So how can we hold God to such a muddy standard of justice as we imagine? This is like the boy calling his father evil for allowing the physician to painfully inject him with a vaccine. The boy fails to understand so much about reality, about his disease and about his father’s goodness and true motivation. Morever, it is sin and a terrible offense at that, to accuse the actions and decisions of God, clearly spelled out in Scripture (c.f. Romans 9) as “evil” or “unjust”. What arrogance to presume to judge God! Paul confronts this prideful response to the doctrine of election when he says, “But who are you O man to answer back to God?” (Rom 9:20)
This is what is at stake in this debate: preserving in believers’ minds a high and glorious view of God, His grace and His gospel. There are many verses in Scripture which at first seem to contradict the doctrine of election and emphasize human responsibility in responding to God’s invitation. But what do you do with the clear passages that teach the doctrine of election? You can’t be a Bible-loving Christian and simply ignore them: to ignore part of God’s Word is to despise part of what God has done. You can’t stick your fingers in your ears and say, “I’m not listening!” When someone says, “but I interpret those verses, which support the doctrine of election, in light of these verses, which contradict the doctrine of election”, he is actually saying, “I choose to avoid or ignore what some verses say because I prefer what I believe to what the Bible says”. This is unbelief. For at least 16 centuries Bible scholars have written books and preached sermons showing how the apparent tensions between these kinds of verses can be solved so that all the Bible can be believed and obeyed. The unbelieving approach of emphasizing a collection of hand-picked favourite verses in order to convince one’s self that one’s beliefs are still biblical is historically naive. Even the great opponent to Calvinism, Jacob Arminius, believed that God predestined and elected whom to save. His argument was still flawed but at least it was more biblically astute than the common knee-jerk reaction to Calvinism found today (he argued not about election but about the basis for God’s election). To not learn from the study and writings of Christians throughout history is to neglect part of the Body of Christ. It’s just as self-defeating as refusing to commit to and submit to a local Church. One can’t love Christ if one doesn’t love His Body; one can’t submit to Christ if one doesn’t submit to the leadership Christ has appointed within the local Church. This might seem like too harsh a thing to say in our politically-correct society. But remember, to not submit to local Church leadership is to disobey the explicit Word of Jesus Christ:
” Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb 13:17 ESV)“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb 10:24-25 ESV)
Moving along, however, the verses usually cited in protest of the doctrines of grace, including the doctrine of election, do not actually contradict those doctrines. This can usually be seen, even fairly easily, from a brief study of the passages in question. For example,
Heb. 2:9 “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man.”
At first glance, this verse seems to be saying that Jesus died to save EVERY man (note that the ESV translates this as “everyone”). But does the verse necessarily mean this? I mean, if we take from this verse only what it says explicitly and nothing more, what is the most we can draw from it? That the death Jesus tasted was that of everyone. Nowhere here is there a promise to save everyone or even a promise that everyone could potentially be saved by Jesus’ death. When we consider the wider context of this verse we see in fact what is being said.
[8 ] … Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. [9 ] But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
[10 ] For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. [11 ] For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, [12 ] saying,
“I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
(Hebrews 2:8-12 ESV)
Verse 8 is talking about putting all of Creation underneath the authority of Jesus. Verse 6 quotes from the Hebrew Old Testament referring to “man” and “the son of man” where in both cases the Hebrew word translated “man” is adam. In point of fact, before God put everything underneath the authority of Jesus Christ, He had put everything underneath the authority of Adam (Genesis 1:26). So then, when God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, a “son of Adam” was now able to be the perfect sacrifice for the sins of Adam and all the rest of Adam’s sons and daughters–the only one of Adam’s race unstained by sin. The goal, according to verse 8, was to put all of Creation underneath the authority of a son of Adam, as God intended in Genesis 1:26. The problem was that Adam himself subjected all of Creation to sin when he sinned. The solution was for God to provide a son of Adam who was sinless, to suffer the death penalty in place of all humanity, in order to redeem Creation from Adam’s sin and place “everything in subjection to him”, the sinless Son of Man (verse 8). So does verse 9 necessarily mean that Jesus’ death saves everyone? No. Because the question being answered by the verse is not, “Whom did Jesus die to save?” but, “Whose death does Jesus have to suffer as a substitute in order to redeem Creation (i.e., “everything” from verse 8)? The answer: “everyone’s death”.
Another passage which seems at first to contradict the doctrine of election is 1 Corinthians 15:22,
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
(1 Corinthians 15:22 ESV)
Is this verse teaching that everyone in the world will eventually be saved? It might look like it, but all Bible-loving Christians should immediately recoil at the thought since then the Gospel is made irrelevant: why do people need to hear and believe the Good News if they are going to be saved in the end anyway? This interpretation contradicts the Bible’s own teaching of eternal judgement and Hell, much less the need for repentance and faith in Christ. But the next verse, 1 Cor 15:23, sheds a bit more light on Paul’s meaning here: “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfuits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” By reading the context of verse 22, we don’t even have to dig very deeply before we realize that “in Christ shall all be made alive” (verse 22) means all of those “who belong to Christ” (verse 23). On closer inspection, though, we can also see that verse 22 divides all humanity into two groups: those “in Adam” and those “in Christ”. Why do all people die? Because all people are “sons of Adam”, descended from him by natural birth and sharing in cursed death which his sin earned and ours ratifies. Conversely, “all” of a blessed group of people who on the last day are found to be “in Christ” will be resurrected to everlasting life. (It should be said that a third alternative is possible in understanding verse 22: that “all” does refer to all–believers in Christ resurrected at His coming and, later, the remainder of humankind resurrected at the end of the thousand years, c.f. Revelation 20:4-5, 12-13.)
For the sake of argument, let’s take a look at two more examples that seems to contradict the Bible’s doctrine of election: Romans 5:18 and 1 Timothy 2:6.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
(Romans 5:18 ESV)
Again, the first glance seems to put the doctrine of election on shaky ground doesn’t it? But looking more carefully we notice first that this verse is again, like 1 Corinthians 15:22 and Hebrews 2:9 above, talking about how everybody descended from Adam is condemned by Adam’s sin but everybody sharing in Christ’s “one act of righteousness” is justified through Him. Furthermore, if this verse is taken to contradict the doctrine of election, Bible-loving Christians have the same problem as before: the Gospel is made irrelevant. Are “all men” going to be justified and have eternal life regardless of whether they believe in Jesus? Of course not. Paul’s message in Romans up until this point in the book (chapters 1-5), has been that all men stand condemned for sin and under the wrath of God and can only be saved by believing in Jesus–that is, justified through faith in the finished work of Christ apart from any works or merit of their own. Careful Bible readers can see then that this verse, Rom 5:18, is not intended to teach how many people will get saved, but HOW they get saved. The words, “as… so…” highlight the way in which one trespass condemned everyone in Adam, and the way in which Christ’s righteousness justifies everyone who is in Him.
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
(1 Timothy 2:5-6 ESV)
The effort to use this verse to contradict the Bible’s own doctrine of election is particularly strengthened by verses 3-4, in the context, which read,
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
(1 Timothy 2:3-4 ESV)
The argument that these verses teach that every human will eventualy be saved is contradicted from within the verse itself which connects being “saved” to coming to “the knowledge of the truth”. Paul is very clear that to be saved, one must come to a saving knowledge of the Gospel. Moreover, if that were Paul’s meaning then his message to Timothy in this letter is hopelessly self-contradicting because in 1 Tim 4:1, 5:24 and 6:10, Paul emphasizes the importance of faith in Christ for salvation, giving warning by use of examples of people who reject faith in Christ. We can see from verses 3-4 that God would like all people to be saved by coming to a knowledge of the Gospel. The heresy of Universalism is, then, refuted at least in terms of this verse. But what about God’s will? If God wants all people to be saved, how could he elect some people for salvation but others for eternal judgement?
Notice again, though, from verses 3-4, that the most we can say from this passage is that God desires “all people” to be saved by coming to a knowledge of the Gospel. We cannot actually draw from this that God does save all people (since He obviously does not), or even anything about what God has in fact done, but only something about what He has revealed of His desire. But if the doctrine of election is to stand, we still have to resolve how God could want “all people” to be saved while electing only some people and not all people for salvation. First then, going back a few verses to 1 Timothy 1:14, we see that when Paul was yet unsaved, persecuting the Church of Christ, he says, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus”. Meaning that the faith and love in Christ which Paul had come to know was the product of the grace of God which poured out overflowingly upon him. So obviously God is able to give faith to those He desires to save. Second, reading on to 1 Timothy 1:16, Paul is saying that God’s purpose in how He saved Paul was to make him an “example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” The grammar of the phrase in Greek, translated, “who were to believe” strongly suggests that God had particular people in mind whom He knew would come to believe in Christ through Paul’s example. So obviously God is able to rule over circumstances to bring specific people to faith in Christ. So God in His sovereign grace is able create faith in particular people and arrange their circumstances to ensure that He does save those whom He desires to save. But, third, when we read 1 Timothy 2:1-3, we see that again Paul is talking about the example of the people God saves being used as a witness to bring people to Christ. This is clear in 2:1 where Paul instructs Timothy, and those believers under his ministry, to pray, intercede, and give thanks for “all people”. What for? That they might be saved. Were these Christians being instructed to pray for every single person on the face of the Earth? No, “all people” in verse 1 of chapter 2 refers to people from all social ranks (including “kings and all who are in high positions”) and from all “nations” (which is the proper translation of the word, “gentiles” to whom Paul was called by God to be a teacher “in faith and truth”, verse 7). Paul says in verse 3 that this intercessory prayer, by the Church and for the salvation of specific persons from all nations and social ranks, is pleasing to God. Why? Because God desires to save all sorts of people regardless of whether they are presently persecuting the Church–as Paul was up until the moment God gave him faith (1:13-14)–or members of government in states which are hostile to Christianity (2:2, when government officials are saved it is a blessing for Christians living under their authority leading to a “peaceful and quiet life”).
For these reasons, which I have worked out in the above paragraphs, it can now be seen that in 1 Timothy 2:6, when Paul writes that “Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time”, the context requires a meaning quite different from the interpretation that Jesus’ death ransoms every human being on Earth from sin and for salvation. First, the word for “all” (panta in Greek) is the same word used in a similar way in Luke 11:42, where Jesus says, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb…” One could interpret this verse to mean the Pharisees had the world’s greatest collection of pharmaceutical inventory at their disposal and no herb was unknown to them from anywhere on Earth. But obviously Jesus meant that they offered every herb they had at their disposal. Likewise with the use of panta in 1 Timothy 2:6 (and 2:4 for that matter!). The word panta is usually qualified by mention of a particular sphere, e.g. “all Israel” or “all the nations”. The context in 1 Timothy suggests that the sphere Paul has in mind is people from “all ranks and nations”. Second, the words in verse 6 are an almost perfect quotation from Mark 10:45 which speaks of Christ giving “his life as a ransom for many”. The word “many” obviously does not include every human on Earth. So what is Paul’s point in changing the word “many” to “all”? Judging from the context again, his point is to emphasis that the ransom Jesus paid does not apply to Israel only but to people from all nations and all social strata. That this is Paul’s intention in verse 6 is driven home in his words by the additional phrase, “which is the testimony given at the proper time”. Again, Paul has in mind, as in 1:16 and 2:1-3, that Christians are charged with testifying about Jesus’ death as a ransom as the proper means of bringing sinners to a saving knowledge of the Gospel. “…At the proper time” indicates that God has ordained who will be saved upon hearing this testimony; it is those individuals referred to in 1 Tim 1:16, “who were to believe”. So God ordains the example, the circumstances, the message and the hearers to believe it, in addition to the proper time for each one.
Finally, some opponents of the doctrine of election mistakenly assert that Calvinists who believe this doctrine teach that therefore God has chosen whom He will save and whom He will damn and there’s nothing you can do about it if you happen to be in the wrong group. John Calvin’s own words show that this mistaken assertion is a lie invented either by men ignorant and untaught in God’s Word and unfamiliar with the writings of the Christian pastor and scholar they malign, or by men malicious in their intent to lead Christians astray. For Calvin writes, in book 3 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, chapter 23, sec. 13:
In one word, those who have any tolerable acquaintance with the writings of Paul will understand, without a long demonstration, how well he reconciles the two things which those men pretend to be contradictory to each other. Christ commands us to believe in him, and yet there is nothing false or contrary to this command in the statement which he afterwards makes: “No man can come unto me, except it were given him of my Father,” (Joh 6:65) Let preaching then have its free course, that it may lead men to faith, and dispose them to persevere with uninterrupted progress. Nor, at the same time, let there be any obstacle to the knowledge of predestination, so that those who obey may not plume themselves on anything of their own, but glory only in the Lord. It is not without cause our Savior says, “Who has ears to hear, let him hear,” (Mt 13:9) Therefore, while we exhort and preach, those who have ears willingly obey: in those again, who have no ears is fulfilled what is written: “Hear ye indeed, but understand not,” (Isa 6:9) “But why (says Augustine) have some ears, and others not? Who has known the mind of the Lord? Are we, therefore, to deny what is plain because we cannot comprehend what is hid?”
Calvin above urges his readers to preach freely because it is this preaching of the Gospel that “may lead men to faith”. And again, quoting Augustine of Hippo, Calvin gives this encouragement that “while we exhort and preach, those who have ears willingly obey”. In other words, contrary to the counter-arguments of people who don’t know what they are talking about when they slander Calvin, he himself, in his most famous written work, makes the argument that anyone who wants to believe in the Gospel when he hears it preached, will freely and willingly believe it and obey it. In fact, Calvin has pretty harsh words for those who use this doctrine in the way that the above sorts of opponents mistakenly assert Calvin himself does (i.e., Calvin tells people not to do precisely what some people wrongly claim he did). This quote comes from the same book and chapter of The Institutes, next section:
Were any one to address the people thus: If you do not believe, the reason is, because God has already doomed you to destruction: he would not only encourage sloth, but also give countenance to wickedness. Were any one to give utterance to the sentiment in the future tense, and say, that those who hear will not believe because they are reprobates, it were imprecation rather than doctrine. Wherefore, Augustine not undeservedly orders such, as senseless teachers or minister and ill-omened prophets, to retire from the Church.
Calvin goes on in the same section to close with a string of quotes from Augustine that are still very much relevant today:
[Augustine], indeed, elsewhere truly contends that “a man profits by correction only when He who causes those whom He pleases to profit without correction, pities and assists. But why is it thus with some, and differently with others? Far be it from us to say that it belongs to the clay and not to the potter to decide.” He afterwards says, “When men by correction either come or return to the way of righteousness, who is it that works salvation in their hearts but he who gives the increase, whoever it be that plants and waters? When he is pleased to save, there is no free-will in man to resist. Wherefore, it cannot be doubted that the will of God (who has done whatever he has pleased in heaven and in earth, and who has even done things which are to be) cannot be resisted by the human will, or prevented from doing what he pleases, since with the very wills of men he does so.” Again, “When he would bring men to himself, does he bind them with corporeal fetters? He acts inwardly, inwardly holds, inwardly moves their hearts, and draws them by the will, which he has wrought in them.” What he immediately adds must not be omitted: “because we know not who belongs to the number of the predestinated, or does not belong, our desire ought to be that all may be saved; and hence every person we meet, we will desire to be with us a partaker of peace. But our peace will rest upon the sons of peace. Wherefore, on our part, let correction be used as a harsh yet salutary medicine for all, that they may neither perish, nor destroy others. To God it will belong to make it available to those whom he has foreknown and predestinated.”
I pray that for those of you willing to believe the Bible’s teaching on election will, after reading this way too long blog post, be encouraged and strengthened in the certain knowledge that Jesus Christ is Saviour; God is Sovereign; Salvation is by grace alone. And I pray for those of you who remain unconvinced by my efforts that you will at least realize that this doctrine is not merely the teaching of John Calvin, but that Augustine, Bishop of Hippo 1100 years before John Calvin stepped into the pulpit at Geneva, also plainly taught this doctrine as he saw it in the Bible. Most importantly, though, I pray that you who are opposed to this teaching of Scripture will see that the doctrine of election, taught and held by Christians throughout the 2000 year history of the Church of Christ, is abundantly proved by the Bible. So that if you remain defiant in your opposition to the truth of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit may indeed convict your heart that in opposing the doctrine of election, you are unwittingly opposing God.