Have you ever noticed that mainstream talk of religion rarely pays attention to God’s activity in the world? When the media does have something to say about God, it’s usually about the “search for God,” as if a great multitude is out there looking all over the place for Him, and they just can’t find Him. This is the story of religion: that man is just trying to find God, wherever He is.
But when you read what God Himself has revealed in the Bible, you find the absolute reverse. The Bible begins with God calling out to humankind. The Bible begins with God taking the initiative.
Sovereignty and Responsibility
According to Ephesians 1:4, God is the one who “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.” As Eric Alexander has pointed out, this doctrine, known as election—the reality that God graciously chooses some to receive salvation—is biblical, difficult, and profitable.1
It’s biblical in the sense that you cannot read your Bible without encountering and dealing with it; it’s right there in Ephesians 1, as well as in many other places. Yet however plain its existence in Scripture, it remains difficult. To begin to understand the interplay of divine election and human responsibility is no small task. John Stott rightly points out, “It is not likely that we shall discover a simple solution to a problem which has baffled the best brains of Christendom for centuries.”2 Still, seeking to understand the doctrine of election is profitable. When we bow down in humble awe at the fact that we are who we are in Christ because God set His affection upon us before the dawn of time, this doctrine can be a bastion for our souls.
Because election is understandably a difficult doctrine to comprehend, it is often met with objections that sound something like this: “I know that God made salvation available to me, but I was the one who decided to accept it. I chose to follow Christ. Doesn’t that make salvation something like a partnership between me and God?” Now, that objection is true to this extent: Christians do repent and believe. But here’s the rub: you would never have been able to decide to do so if God had not first decided on you before the creation of the world. When you push back and back and back, you eventually push into the eternal counsels of the will of God, realized before ever you first drew breath.
But how do we reconcile eternal election, which God has done—predestining some of us to be conformed to the image of His Son—with the responsible actions and decisions of human beings? Some people suggest that we must believe in either the sovereignty of God or human responsibility but that we can’t believe in both. Often, though, proponents on both sides collapse sovereignty and responsibility together, such that they sort of believe in sovereignty and sort of believe in responsibility. The end result is an artificial fusion that lacks sense.
The mystery of God’s election calls for us to bow down, not in defeat and confusion, but in wonder.
So what are we going to do? The biblical model is to believe in divine sovereignty and human responsibility not partially but in their entirety. The relationship may baffle us, and rightly so. Ultimately, it seems to be an antinomy: two self-existent truths that sit side by side, both entirely true and, from a finite, human perspective, irreconcilable. Yet the answer lies in God Himself. The mystery calls for us to bow down, not in defeat and confusion, but in wonder.
Because He Loves
Inevitably, election will cause us to ask, “Why did God choose me?” In most other spheres of life—education or vocation, for example—we must meet some prerequisite to be accepted or admitted. Naturally, we import that assumption into our Christian experience, and we look for some reason in ourselves that we get to enjoy God’s amazing grace. But looking inward, we discover no answer.
So why did He choose you? The answer is, in one sense, simple: God chose you because He loved you. Why did He love you? The answer is, again, because He loved you. “In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ,” explains Paul (Eph. 1:4–5, emphasis added). The apostle goes on to write that
God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4–6, emphasis added)
God spoke to the people of Israel in the same manner:
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you. (Deut. 7:7–8, emphasis added)
We do not merit election unto salvation in any way, shape, or form. Our new life in Christ is purely “the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).
Chosen to Be Holy
If the ground of our election is God’s love for us, then what is its end, its purpose? Ephesians 1:4 explains it in a phrase: “that we should be holy and blameless before him.” In other words, we haven’t been chosen because we are holy; we have been chosen in order that we might become holy and, in turn, bring glory to God every step of the way.
We haven’t been chosen because we are holy; we have been chosen in order that we might become holy and, in turn, bring glory to God every step of the way.
Something has gone dreadfully wrong when a belief in the electing love of God results in an individual declaring that he or she can justifiably live any way they want. The line of reasoning goes something like this: “If God saves me by the grace of His sovereign election and I cannot subvert His choice, then I can just do anything I want. After all, my salvation is secure, irrespective of my life.” Such thinking is gravely flawed! As Paul says, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1–2). Those whom God elects, He also makes holy. For one who consistently, continually lives in sin to claim to be elect unto holiness is an obvious contradiction.
Stott points out to us that if “holiness is the very purpose of our election,” then “ultimately the only evidence of election is a holy life.”3 It’s not our ability to establish the principles of a certain theological persuasion. It’s not our ability to articulate a certain view of soteriology. The sign that we have been chosen by God—set apart for Him, ministered to by Him through the Holy Spirit—is ultimately in the fact that we are increasingly conformed to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29).
Christianity in the Third Person
So what would you expect to see in the lives of people gripped by the reality of this doctrine? We should certainly not expect to see a lot of bravado, a lot of talking about ourselves, a lot of explaining our Christian faith by beginning with the first-person singular: “I’m a Christian because I…” Rather, the explanation of our faith and ongoing belief begins in the third-person singular: “God did this!”
Think about it: If you are a believer today, how is it that you came to be so? Push back to the person—the parent, the pastor, the friend—whom God used. Then go further, and go further still. How far back can you go?
Eventually, you bow down on your knees and say, This is the mystery of godliness: that God, in Christ, reached out and laid claim to my soul. And He did not elect me only to forget me. Even now, I can come to my Father by His Son through His Spirit, and He will intercede for me, strengthen me, and guide me all the way home.
This article was adapted from the sermon “Chosen in Him” by Alistair Begg.
1 Eric J. Alexander, “The Basis of Christian Salvation” (sermon, Urbana 84, 1984), https://s3.amazonaws.com/urbana.org/general_session_audio/urbana-84-eric.alexander-ephesians.part1.mp3.
2 John Stott, The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979), 37.
3 Stott, 38.