Two Roses from the Garden of Grace: Whosoever Will and Sovereign Election
‘Which is true, whosoever will or sovereign election?’ Like many questions this one demands a false answer. The Bible does not teach one or the other, it teaches both. Considered together the concepts may seem profound and difficult, but they are neither irreconcilable nor opposed to each other. Both are found in Holy Scripture and we cannot choose one and reject the other and remain true to the word of God. To believe all of the Bible, we must believe both whosoever will and sovereign election because they stand alongside each other in Scripture. Both teachings are divine jewels, true and precious. We must never allow anyone to force us to choose between them.
The Holy Spirit and Christ’s churches everywhere urge every person who hears the gospel to come to Jesus and be saved (Rev. 22:17) — this is God’s invitation and command that all men everywhere come to Christ believing his gospel (2 Cor. 5:20; Acts 17:30-31).
Alongside this (and not at all contrary to the gospel call), Jesus tells us that the Father gave him some and that they will surely come to him: ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me’ (John 6:37a ESV). Only hours before going to the cross Jesus prayed, ‘I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word’ (John 17:6 ESV). The people for whom Jesus prayed belonged to the Father in some wonderful sense that is not true of the rest of the world (John 17:9). Before time the Father chose them to be his special possession (1 Pet. 2:9). He gave them to his Son (see Heb. 2:13) to redeem them (John 17:1-6). For them Jesus prayed.
I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one (John 17:9-11 ESV, emphasis added).
Whosoever will and sovereign election are both biblical teachings. We cannot rightly choose one and reject other. To embrace all that God has revealed, we must believe both.
More Mature Thinking
When we were children we thought as children do. Children think simply and often that means thinking in extremes: either this, or that. Things are good or bad, pretty or ugly, red or blue or yellow. Grass, a lime, and an unripe banana are all green. Shades, degrees, and nuances are not usually distinguished until some maturity occurs. At different points for different children, most begin to notice that warm pink really is distinct from candy-apple red.
‘When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways’ (1 Cor. 13:11 ESV). One evidence of a maturing mind is the ability to hold different, counter-balancing thoughts at the same time. Some truths are complex, with numerous components existing in a relationship of tension; yet the tension cannot be removed without dismantling truth itself. Mature, Christian thinking requires some ability to navigate the complexities of biblical revelation with understanding and humility. We must acknowledge that some divinely-revealed truths actually are ‘hard to understand’ (2 Pet. 3:16).
Most believers are rather immature in their thinking as they begin the Christian journey. We break with the world when we come to Jesus and we want to be equally decisive in believing the Bible. Because it teaches much that is plain, many foundational truths are immediately grasped. But some teachings are more difficult and require time, study, and deeper thought to grasp.
While gentle and nourishing and just what we need when we are babes, we cannot always thrive on milk alone. We eventually need more substantial nutrition. That is true naturally and it is true spiritually. ‘Strong meat’ is not suitable or necessary for infants. But sooner or later growing, maturing Christians need to learn to digest the meatier truths of Scripture and that will require more grown-up thinking.
Some things are hard to comprehend. But comprehension is not all that can be difficult. Sometimes being at-peace with what we understand from the Bible can be challenging. Certain biblical teachings may conflict with other things we already believe, so our belief system must always be changing as we grow in our understanding of Scripture. The word of God is the authoritative rule of life and belief for his people and there is perfect harmony in all that he has revealed. He does not contradict himself and we must approach his word with this in mind. Maturing believers will understand more and more revealed truth and, when that happens, their worship cannot keep from becoming richer and more glorifying to the Lord.
We expect immature understanding in those young in faith. But it is God’s revealed will that all believers ‘grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Pet. 3:18). The Harvard mathematics professor started out counting on her fingers. But she doesn’t do that anymore. She listened to her teachers and practiced what she learned and her knowledge grew by leaps and bounds. She still believes that two plus two equals four, but now she knows that’s not all there is. While not everyone aspires to an Ivy League professorship, everyone benefits from a working knowledge of maths. Likewise, every Christian should aspire to grow up in the Lord to become a robust, knowledgeable disciple of Jesus, capable of defending the Christian faith (1 Pet. 3:15). That can happen only as we mature in faith and that will mean growing in the way we think — more accurately, more logically, and especially more biblically.
Our Approach Going Forward
Few Christians question the Bible’s teaching about the gospel invitation and command for all men everywhere to come to Christ and be saved. For this reason the section about whosoever will is rather concise. This does not mean we are under-emphasizing the beautiful gospel call extended to all mankind. But many believers have little or no understanding of the Bible’s teaching about sovereign election and how it empowers whosoever will. We will look at some Scripture passages so that we all may better understand. Whosoever will and sovereign election are ‘Two Roses‘ from the same ‘Garden of Grace‘. With a better, balanced understanding, we may go on our way rejoicing as we give even greater glory to God for our salvation in Christ.
Whosoever Will, Let Him Come
… the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that hears say, Come. And let him who is thirsting come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely (Rev. 22:17 KJV, YLT).
The gospel freely offers eternal life in Christ to everyone who hears the word of the cross. All are invited and all are commanded to repent and come to Jesus to be saved. We enter the kingdom of God by changing our minds because we believe the Bible’s message about the Saviour (Mark 1:15). We leave Satan’s dominion and enter God’s kingdom. He ‘now commands all men everywhere to repent’ (Acts 17:30), because no one is his child by virtue of being human and created in his image. Due to sin we all come into this world spiritually dead and alienated from God (Eph. 2:1-10), so we must be born again (John 3:3) to become his children.
When he commands us to repent and believe, the Lord means for us to obey. He has issued the good report (Isa. 53:1) and we should believe it! Turning to Christ evidences this new way of thinking. Faith (belief) and repentance (change of mind), while not identical, are always found together. Where one is, the other will be there also. When we genuinely believe in the Lord Jesus, at that moment, we are reconciled to God.
Come to Christ now, for ‘now is the day of salvation’ (2 Cor. 6:2). Act immediately. Believe the gospel, placing your hope in Christ. You are invited. There is no reason to wait. Trust him at once. The way is clear and the cup of grace is full. Be reconciled to God by trusting in Jesus (2 Cor. 5:20). To be saved, you must come to him!
Sinners Only Need Apply
Does the gospel apply to you? Yes, if you are a sinner. Some imagine that they are good enough and it is true that some are not as bad as others. But in the sense of unflawed righteousness, ‘There is none good’ and ‘All have sinned’ (Rom. 3:10, 12, 23). Everyone but Jesus has missed the mark of perfect righteousness and that is the standard that must be met (Heb. 4:15). But others know that they have been wretched and feel themselves beyond the reach of grace. But no matter how dark our hearts, Jesus came to call us to himself and a new life (Luke 5:32; 1 Cor. 6:9-11).
The Lord can give you a new heart. You have every reason to believe and not a single reason to stay away. Believing is the obedience required, so look and live (John 3:14-15). If you are willing, you can come to Jesus now! And he makes this promise: ‘I will give you rest’ (Matt. 11:28-30). He knows the burden you carry. Rest assured, he saves everyone who calls upon him believing (Rom. 10:9-13).
God’s Sovereign Election
… he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will (Eph. 1:4-5 NKJV).
Paul led the Ephesian believers in adoring ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ’ (v. 3). The first great truth about salvation lifted up as a cause for these Christians to praise God was the Father’s choosing them in Christ ‘before the foundation of the world’. His election of them to be holy (set apart for God, by God) and blameless in his sight (forgiven and justified) was tremendous cause for those people to praise him. Chosen unto salvation, they were also predestined to become God’s children, to be adopted — to have an eternal relationship with him as their loving Father in heaven through the merits of Christ’s atoning death.
In Adam’s fall from righteousness, mankind fell into sin and spiritual death (Eph. 2:5). So how does anyone become a Christian? How can someone who is ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ (Eph. 2:1) ‘take the water of life freely’? Without spiritual life, from where does the ability come to desire Christ? Does it all rest in the hands of the person who ‘wills’ in time, or in the hands of God who ‘willed’ before time? Are election and whosoever will like oil and water that don’t mix, or are they compatible, complementary truths? We will assert that the Bible teaches the latter: they are compatible and complementary.
Election refers to God’s choosing whom he would save, with his choice having been settled in eternity past before time. ‘Sovereign’ speaks of God as king over all creation, ruling and accomplishing all that he absolutely willed (decreed). In the New Testament the word eklektos is translated ‘chosen’ seven times and sixteen times by the word ‘elect.’ There are six occurrences of ekloge, translated ‘election.’ This is an important biblical teaching that we should seek to understand, for this knowledge will help us to better know and love God for who he is.
Some say the Bible teaches only a sort of corporate election, with God choosing to save or prosper groups of people that he foresaw would, of their own free wills, do certain things or meet certain conditions. But there’s a problem with that. It cannot withstand the mildest scrutiny. First, groups are composed of individuals. Second, God could not have foreseen spiritually-dead people (by the group or the individual) meeting any spiritual conditions (like faith and repentance) apart from his power. Third, spiritually dead people simply don’t believe into Christ, nor do they repent, apart from God’s eternally-intentional, enabling grace.
The ability to savingly believe the gospel is a gift from God. It is not something that originates from within us (Eph. 2:8). Scripture never suggests that election was based on God foreseeing someone’s faith or good deeds. That would create a merit system, in which case, grace would no longer be grace (Rom. 11:6) — but ‘by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God …’ God’s choosing had nothing to do with anyone meriting to be chosen. Scripture speaks of ‘the purpose of God according to election‘ (Rom. 9:11) and ‘the election of grace‘ (Rom. 11:5). Only his uninfluenced grace explains how anyone ever decides to ‘take the water of life freely’ by believing into union with Christ.
The only way God could possibly have foreseen anyone’s believing is if he himself purposed to grant them faith — the ability to believe. He not only ordained the salvation of those he chose, he also ordained every necessary means to bring about their willing union with Christ. That necessarily includes giving to them the spiritual ability to trust in Christ — an ability they did not have while dead in sins.
Saving faith is a gift not everyone receives. If everyone received it, then everyone would believe in Christ and be saved (2 Thess. 3:2). But we know from the Bible (and from life experience) that that doesn’t actually happen. The ability to believe the gospel is graciously and purposely given to some and we must receive it before we can exercise faith and repent (Eph. 2:8-9; Acts 11:18). No one believes until God gives spiritual life in regeneration (the new birth). We have no spiritual life or ability before he quickens us. This is something only God can do. Just as, naturally speaking, a baby cannot conceive or birth itself, neither can a lost sinner regenerate or convert himself. The power that brings these things about in our lives is the eternally-intentional, specifically-directed power of God.
God knows because God chose. He knows who will believe because he loved them and wrote their names in heaven before time. All whom God regenerates, he regenerates because he always planned to. He never changes (Num. 23:19) or shifts position (James 1:17), so we know that if God accomplishes something in time he planned to do it from eternity (Isa. 46:10). The Lord determined before time to save some and that is precisely what he brings to pass — he saves some. What God eternally willed to accomplish and what he actually accomplishes in history are identical.
How does our election become known to us? How can we be sure that he chose us to be his? Scripture commands us to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10), so we can ascertain whether or not we have been called and chosen. But how?
We become assured that we are God’s elect only by coming to Jesus Christ in faith (John 6:37-45). There is no other way for anyone to know and be sure. Only when we come to Jesus, then may we be sure that the Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.
God’s election literally guarantees the success of the gospel! He sends his word where he pleases, to whom he pleases, when he pleases and how he pleases. He then sees to it that his word accomplishes in time all that he forever intended. His word can never return to him having failed, void of success. It will always accomplish everything he purposed from the start (Isa. 55:10-11).
Why Bring It Up?
So why mention it? Why not keep election a family secret? Will it not discourage unbelievers and even keep some people away from Christ? Why bring it up?
We bring it up because God brought it up! Our Saviour brought it up in his teaching and praying. He wants us to know about it, otherwise he would have kept it hidden as one of his secret things (Deut. 29:29). Election is part of what God unveiled for us to know. He would not have revealed it had he wanted it kept secret. So why bring it up? Because God did!
1. Jesus openly taught election when speaking to believers and unbelievers (John 6:35-45; John 10:1-30). He prayed to his Father acknowledging it (Matt. 11:25-27; John 17:2, 9, 13-21).
2. The apostles taught election by their letters — letters intended to be read in church meetings with believers and unbelievers present (1 Thess. 1:4 & 5:27; 1 Pet. 2:4-10). It was not kept secret then and it should not be kept secret now.
3. The early churches believed in election, that it justifies exuberant worship and abundant praise to this one true God who determined our salvation before the world was (Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:33).
A Difficult Concept
Election is not an easy concept for many to understand and embrace, so let us consider some of the biblical record.
Throughout the Bible, the Lord chose some unto blessing, some to offices of leadership, some to be prophets and priests and some to salvation. He chose individuals and nations according to his pleasure and purpose. He chose Abraham to especially bless and make of him a great nation through Isaac, the child promised, not through Ishmael (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:18-21; 21:12). He chose Jacob, but not Esau. He chose Israel ‘above all people that are upon the face of the earth’ because he loved and delighted in their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut. 7:6; 10:15). Yet some who were Israelites according to the flesh were not Israelites in the spiritual sense (Rom. 9:6-7). He chose Moses, and then Joshua, to lead Israel; God even killed some who rebelled against the leader he had appointed (Num. 16). He chose Samuel to be his faithful prophet, calling him when he was a boy (1 Sam. 3).
In the Nazareth synagogue Jesus spoke of God’s sovereign, discriminating grace when he pointed out his Father’s passing by many needy Israelite women when he sent Elijah the prophet to bless one Gentile widow. He also passed by many Israelite lepers in the days when he chose to cleanse the Syrian military leader, Naaman. When Jesus pointed out these things, suddenly the Nazareth townspeople wanted to kill him (Luke 4:16-30); they didn’t rejoice in God’s sovereignty any more than some people do today.
Angels and People
Election encompasses more than God choosing Abraham and Israel. The Bible speaks of ‘elect angels’, chosen so that they would not fall from their righteousness (1 Tim. 5:21). Election certainly applies to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, as well. Paul addressed the Colossian believers as ‘the elect of God’ (3:12). A remnant of believing Israelites was referred to as ‘the election’ (Rom. 11:7). Peter addressed the Christians to whom he wrote as ‘elect’ (1 Pet. 1:2). Speaking of his second coming, Jesus told of a future time when holy angels will ‘gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven’ (Mark 13:27). At Christ’s return his elect will be found essentially everywhere, all the saved from all nations (Rev. 5:9). The election of God is portrayed in Scripture as exceedingly broad.
A Sinister Accusation
Many Christians outright reject the idea that God chose some and not all, despite the fact that it perfectly harmonizes with what happens. They are universalists when explaining his design, but not universalists when describing what he actually accomplishes — an inconsistent universalism. They think of election in wretched terms, saying it portrays God as having created the larger part of humanity for the purpose of sending them to hell (Matt. 7:13). What a sinister accusation, to impute to God any degree of pleasure when he condemns even those worthy of condemnation. Hear God’s voice: ‘Say to them, “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”‘ (Ezek. 33:11 ESV)
The righteous Lord is judicially angry with the wicked; but he is not wrathful in his eternal essence. From eternity he is love, light, spirit and holy as to his very being. His blameless dealings with unrepentant, rebel sinners flow from his holiness; wrath is God’s righteous response to evil. He cannot be less than righteous nor can he acquit the wicked on any terms other than those of the gospel. The gospel proclaims the only truly righteous terms of mercy for anyone. By the gospel, God is both just and the justifier of the ones who believe in Jesus (Rom. 3:26).
If we believe the Scriptures, we surely believe in divine omniscience. He knows all things perfectly in exhaustive detail, future, past, and present. He knows all things potential and actual, including the thoughts and intents of our hearts. Those who reject sovereign election as a misrepresentation of God’s sovereignty do not realize that they have the same issue to contend with if they believe in his omniscience. They also believe that God always knew who would and would not believe the gospel, and that the larger part of humanity would perish in their sins (Matt. 7:13). Knowing all of that, he yet willed to create Adam and Eve and vast humanity through them. To say that God merely knew the certainty of Adam’s fall into sin (and all mankind’s fall in him) but only chose not to prevent it from happening — that does not solve the dilemma. Divine omniscience and sovereign election present to us the same set of implications. Both divine omniscience and sovereign election are perfectly consistent with the reality of God’s love, grace, and goodness.
Opening the Door to Hope and Heaven
In reality, election proves that God is good and loving and merciful — his choosing literally opens the door of hope for guilty sinners. Without his eternally-intentional and enabling grace, no one could ever come to Jesus. Had God not chosen to save some, all would perish in their sins. His choosing guarantees that some will surely come to Christ and be saved by his free grace.
Election closes the door of hope against no one who wants to be reconciled to God. Instead, it stands the door wide open. The Bible makes it clear that God has willed to save! If we want to be saved, we can be. If you want to know the living God, come to Christ! That’s how it happens, ‘by grace through faith.’
… Brethren beloved of the Lord … God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel … (2 Thess. 2:13-14, emphasis added).
(1) God’s eternal love for his people;
(2) His election of them in eternity, before time; and
(3) His effectual calling of them in time.
Sovereign in Salvation
Jacob and Esau
The Bible declares the sovereignty of God in salvation and in every other area of reality. While many Scriptures teach us about God’s choosing, one passage makes it especially beyond dispute. The inspired writer was the Apostle Paul and his first-century audience was the young congregation at Rome, Italy.
As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’ What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (Rom. 9:13-16 ESV).
God loved Jacob and hated Esau. But is that just? Can God rightly love one and hate another? Surely God owes mercy and compassion to no one. There is no man to whom God owes anything but justice, and that means condemnation. When he has mercy upon whom he wills, it depends on him alone. He is absolutely sovereign and he has the right to save whomever he is pleased to save. But most of us are deeply concerned with his hating Esau because it just doesn’t square with our idea of God’s nature and character. ‘Is there injustice on God’s part?’ Paul answers, No! ‘By no means!’ and then explains further.
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills (Rom. 9:17-18 ESV).
During the time of Israel’s exodus God raised up a particular Pharaoh, but not to save him or show him mercy. The Lord raised him up so that he might gloriously display his almighty power by utterly humiliating Pharaoh’s might, despite the fact that he was the most powerful ruler in the world at the time. All the earth, and mighty Egypt especially, would learn that the Lord God of the Israelite slaves is Almighty God. But was it just for the Lord to do that? And he even further ‘hardened’ Pharaoh’s heart, further enraging a man who was already rebelling against him (Exod. 14:8). Paul’s point should be our conclusion: God ‘has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills’ (v. 18). He continues.
The Potter’s Freedom
You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use? (Rom. 9:19-21 ESV)
Why does God find fault with those who cannot honestly desire to please him? How can he hold men responsible for obedience when they are born rebels who can’t convert their own hearts? Paul understands that his teaching is profound, but he insists that the Lord God is perfectly righteous when he holds people personally responsible for their rebellion and refusal to obey the gospel. Paul compares mankind to clay and God to a potter who holds the clay in his hand. The potter can do what he pleases with the clay. Imagine a lump of clay boasting of its free will as it sits in the palm of the potter’s hand. It is only free to be clay.
Understanding the objection that might have come into their minds, this apostle challenged his readers, ‘Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?’ Does clay talk back to the potter, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ ‘Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use?’ What right does the Lord have? Well, every right. He is God.
Who are we to find fault with God and his dealings with us or anyone else? We are undeserving sinners. Do we know better than he? Are we more righteous than he? We are all like clay in his hand. He has the absolute right to take one lump of clay and divide it as he pleases. The potter is free to do his will with the clay that belongs to him. His clay, his wheel, his wise and loving hands.
Wrath, Power, Mercy, and Glory
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:22-24 ESV)
Paul reasons with his readers. ‘What if God’, on the one hand, willed to ‘show his wrath’ and ‘make known his power’? Can God really do that? Yes. Paul compares some sinners to ‘vessels prepared for destruction’ — a staggering thought. The Lord’s dealings with unrepentant sinners ‘prepared for destruction’ displays his justice by unimaginable wrath executed in holiness. Will we object to God’s righteous dealings with those who hate him?
‘What if God’, on the other hand, willed to display ‘the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?’ By showing mercy and compassion to people who also deserved wrath as much as those who perish, God displays the riches of his glory in showing eternal kindness to unworthy sinners (Eph. 2:7). His ways are past finding out (Rom. 11:33)! ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isa. 55:8-9).
At some point our minds hit a wall thinking about these things. At that point we must not reject the teaching of Scripture, but satisfy our hearts with the certainty that God is God. Our minds don’t compare with his. He is eternal, uncreated, and infinite, while we are so small. His thoughts are so much higher and more profound that anything we can reach. In this life we will never understand some things to the degree we would like. In eternity we will learn everything we need to know to be perfectly satisfied. But even then he will be the infinite ‘I AM’ and we will be redeemed, glorified, still-finite creatures, forever under the loving wings of eternal infinity.
Only Love Explains Election
What lay behind God’s choosing Jacob and rejecting Esau? Unprovoked love was the basis of his choosing Jacob. Both deserved wrath. Neither deserved God’s love. Hatred toward Esau amounted to justice. Love to Jacob was mercy, something he could never have deserved. Only infinite love and free grace can begin to explain sovereign election to our earth-bound minds.
The question is not, ‘Why did God hate Esau?’ ‘Condemned already’ (John 3:18), Esau spurned righteousness and the righteous God. To magnify his justice, the Lord dealt with him in unrelenting righteousness.
The more profound question is, ‘Why did God love Jacob?’ The only answer the Bible gives us is that the Lord loved him. That may sound like a non-answer, but it is what the Scriptures give us — love and nothing else. Why did he love any of us? The only answer we get is that he did. The ‘why’ resides in God alone; it cannot reside in us.
In this also we behold ‘the goodness and severity of God’ (Rom. 11:22). He could have saved both or neither, but he chose to save one and not the other so that his purpose might stand (Rom. 9:11). This displays God’s incredible goodness and dreadful severity. Who but a fool would not fear him ‘who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matt. 10:28) and seek his mercy in Christ (Psa. 2:12)?
Taught by God
How did any of us come to believe the gospel? Who convinced us of its truth? What caused us, who once were blind, to see beauty in an unlovely, bleeding, dying Christ (Isa. 52:14; 53:2c)? The Bible tells us that the Father blesses his people with a saving knowledge of himself through his Son. God unveils himself before our newly-opened eyes.
He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 16:15-18).
More than human intelligence and free will comes into play when someone comes to Christ; the eternal God is at work. The Scriptures teach us that each of the three persons of the one eternal deity is involved in grace-giving. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all reveal truth to us.
• The Father reveals the Son as Messiah-Redeemer (Matt. 16:17);
• The Son reveals the Father who lovingly purposed our salvation (Matt. 11:27; John 3:16); and
• The Holy Spirit reveals the truth of the gospel to those chosen by the Father and redeemed by the Son (1 Cor. 2:9-10).
Free Will, Bent and Bound
Left to ourselves we would never in a thousand lifetimes choose to come to Christ (John 6:44, 65; Rom.s 8:7-8). Adam fell by a giant leap and we all inherited a fallen nature. Our will is fallen like the rest of our humanity. We are absolutely free to choose whatever we desire, but sin has rendered us unable to desire rightly. We don’t choose what pleases God because we can’t — we can no more make ourselves spiritually new than a leopard can change his spots. Our will is bent and bound because of sin. Not one was ever born morally and spiritually neutral.
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh (not born again) cannot please God (Rom. 8:7-8 ESV).
When someone believes the gospel, God has literally spoken a new creation into being! As he said at the beginning, ‘Let there be light’ (Gen. 1:3), so it is when he commands gospel light to ‘shine in our hearts’ (2 Cor. 4:6). When we believe and repent it is because God has given us new life by his Spirit. That’s when we become willing to follow Jesus (Psa. 110:3a).
Far from stirring up pride, the Bible’s teaching about election crushes human arrogance. It promotes humility, not conceit. Apart from God’s choice of us in eternity and his Spirit’s sovereign work in us in time, our wicked hearts could never embrace the truth of the gospel (1 Cor. 2:14). Our salvation is all of God, all of grace.
Election, specific and personal, proceeded from God’s free grace. No one deserved to be chosen, but in eternity past the Father wrote the names of actual people in ‘the book of life of the Lamb’ (Rev. 13:8), those Jesus would redeem. So, saved people’s names were written in heaven before time, not after they believed but an eternity before they were born. Believers have no cause to be proud of themselves for having believed — we have ‘believed through grace’ (Acts 18:27). But we do have abundant cause for thanking and worshipping him who loved us even in the days of eternity.
Foreknowledge is about his love. In Scripture, the objects of God’s foreknowledge are people, not only their thoughts or deeds. When Simon Peter addressed Christians as ‘elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father’ (1 Pet. 1:2), foreknowledge referred to the Father’s love for them — fore-known equals fore-loved. The Bible uses ‘to know’ as sometimes meaning ‘to love’ (Amos 3:2; John 10:14). Foreknowledge refers to God’s love, timeless in all directions (see Rom. 8:28-30).
It is helpful for all Christians who proclaim the gospel to remember that ‘as many as were ordained to eternal life believed’ (Acts 13:48). It was true when the apostles lived and it is still true today. All who were ‘ordained to eternal life’ will surely come to Christ. The gospel succeeded in us because God eternally willed it to succeed in us. In the same way, it will succeed in others (Isa. 55:10-11). What an encouragement for anyone who tells other people about Jesus!
Eternal life is found only when a person comes into faith-union with Jesus Christ. The elect obtain their salvation by coming to Jesus. Paul wrote, ‘I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus …’ (2 Tim. 2:10). The elect obtain their salvation only by believing (Rom. 10:13-15). No one is saved by election alone, apart from Christ (for there is no such thing). Before time, God chose people to be saved through faith in Jesus. As the gospel says, ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him’ (John 3:36 ESV).
Jesus, Election, and Whosoever Will
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out … And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day (John 6:37-39 ESV).
Christ spoke openly about election, ‘All that the Father gives me …’ (v. 37a). Not all humanity was given to Jesus, but some were. Of all who were given to him, he will lose not even one. Jesus succeeds at saving all who were given to him by the Father; he cannot fail. None of his dear ones will perish, for he himself has procured and now secures their salvation.
In a single sentence (John 6:37), Jesus affirmed both sovereign election and whosoever will. He assured all who come to him that they will be warmly received, not rejected. So, our coming to Jesus does not make us become one of the elect; rather, it reveals that we always were! The fact that we have come to Christ believing assures us that the Father always loved us and gave us to his Son so that he would be our Saviour.
The Warmest Welcome
The Joy of Sins Forgiven
Our joy comes through spreading, far and wide, this gospel message that salvation is found only in Jesus (John 14:6). He alone is the giver of eternal, ‘abundant life’ (John 10:10; 3:36). In unison with the Holy Spirit, we urge you to come to Christ (Rev. 22:17).
With forgiveness of sins comes great joy! God himself has joy, as a shepherd who finds his wandering sheep. He rejoices over every sinner who repents. Believing in Christ, we find lasting joy for ourselves. There is nothing to compare with knowing that all our sins are forgiven because he always loved us, died for us and then rose from the dead.
Would You Be Persuaded?
God is holy and a final Judgment Day lies ahead. Will you ‘flee from the wrath to come’ (2 Cor. 5:11; Matt. 3:7)? Everlasting justice looms on the horizon, so make your way to Jesus (John 12:48). Had there been even one other way to be saved, Christ’s death on the cross would not have been required. But it was necessary. He alone could quench the wrath of God on our behalf. Because he did, we can live forever by believing this gospel.
What will you do? Do you want to be reconciled to God? Do you want to be saved? This is your time. Take heaven by storm. Charge the gates of pearl. Believe in Christ’s death for you and his perfect righteousness will be credited to you through faith! O that you will experience the joy of sins forgiven this very hour!
Where There Is a Will, Give Glory to God
In your desire to come to Jesus Christ, give glory to God! Our desire to come to him, our willingness to believe and repent, originates in his love for us. His working in us is why we desire Christ (Phil. 2:13 ESV). If you have come to Christ, glorify God — his grace has been working in you!
Be Bold, Come to Christ!
If all we had in our favour was our bent and bound free will, then our case would be truly hopeless; our want-to (our free will) is a contented slave, ruled by sin. But God pleads with us through the gospel because he has power to break those chains and give us life and peace. He can make our deaf ears to hear and hearts to understand. Our case is not hopeless. If you now want to be saved, venture boldly and come to Jesus!
Do not despair over the coldness of your heart or the invisible chains that have bound your soul. Run to Christ. Let no opposing thought keep you away from him. You need eternal life and forgiveness more than your next breath. He knows you need his power and grace. He understands your condition. He knows exactly what we are and how we are. But the word of the cross comes bearing hope for every one of us who wants to be reconciled and forgiven.
Don’t hold back a moment longer! God invites you, but you must come. Believe that he is (he exists) and that he rewards those who diligently seek him. The one who seeks the Lord will find him (Heb. 11:6). Be bold and drink ‘the water of life’ until you are satisfied. Once you have believed, then you can know for certain that, because of infinite love and grace, God planned salvation for you ‘before the foundation of the world’ (Eph. 1:4). Truly, had he not chosen us, we could never have chosen him! We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Dead men don’t believe until they’re no longer dead — we must receive spiritual life before we can believe. That is something God must do for us, and he does! He gives life and faith and, in this way, we come to believe! Now, when he saves us in time, we know that he planned to save us in eternity. He is not making up history as he goes. He literally planned and determined whatever comes to pass, including our salvation. If this were not true, then Romans 8:28 could not possibly be true. For ‘all things’ to ‘work together for good to them that love God’, he must govern all things, large and small, by his sovereign power and will — and he does.
For his glory and our joy, God saves us by his grace through an ability to believe that does not originate in us. We believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved by a power entirely from outside ourselves. The power is from God. Only he can save us and make us new in Christ. So, when you find yourself coming to Jesus, praise the loving Father who chose you to be his. He alone gives abundant, eternal life through faith in his Son. Soli Deo Gloria!
The Outworking of Sovereign Election
Saul of Tarsus was a devout Pharisee who bore witness to the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:58). We do not know if Saul ever saw Jesus or heard him speak prior to his death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension. But we do know that he became a rabid opponent of the early Christians who lived at Jerusalem and elsewhere (Gal. 1:13). In Saul’s eyes they were corrupting true religion and needed to be stopped, so he violently persecuted them. The Bible’s account of his conversion is a sterling portrayal of God’s sovereign election working to bring a (hyper-religious) wicked sinner to believe and follow Jesus Christ as his Lord and God.
It was an amazing encounter! Acts 9 begins,
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do’ (ESV).
Notice a few things about the conversion and life of this influential Pharisee known by his Jewish name Saul and later as Paul (from Latin, meaning ‘little’; possibly a nickname indicating small physical stature).
• Saul was not in any humble, compliant frame of mind. He was empowered, inflamed, and determined to eradicate the teaching of the gospel by persecuting and imprisoning and even killing the disciples of Jesus. Religious arrest warrants in-hand, signed by priestly powers at Jerusalem, he headed out for the northern outpost town of Damascus to persecute Jesus’ followers, to arrest them and return them to Jerusalem to be tried as heretics (and possibly executed by stoning as Stephen had been).
• Saul was not on a spiritual quest for God. He was convinced that he already knew God and that Jesus was yet another pretender. Saul was not seeking Jesus.
• There were no hymns, no sermons and no music playing nearby when the glorified, ascended Jesus confronted Saul as he neared Damascus. It was a stark moment. It didn’t seem like an opportune time for Jesus to persuade the rage-filled Pharisee and win him over. But Jesus’ approach to this man was nothing like knocking at his heart’s door; it was forceful and abrupt, more like knocking the door off its hinges.
• Jesus did the seeking. He sought and found this salivating persecutor. The crucified, risen Christ confronted Saul with overwhelming light and identified himself as the one he had been persecuting by persecuting the Lord’s disciples. There was not much of a two-way conversation on that occasion. Jesus blinded Saul with light, told him where to go, and that he should await further instructions. ‘But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’
• In the moment of this encounter with the very Jesus he had come to despise, Saul became a new creation — a believer immediately willing to obey the Lord Jesus Christ for the rest of his life.
• Temporarily blinded, he never lived in spiritual darkness again. From the moment of his unsought encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, he was a willing disciple who became Christ’s apostle. He would later write some thirteen letters that are now part of the New Testament.
Saul’s encounter with the ascended Christ on the Damascus Road is an amazing portrait of the outworking of God’s sovereign election, when a raging rebel instantly became a completely willing follower of Jesus, by grace alone.
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