Election and Evangelism
Oh that they had such a heart in them that would fear me (Deuteronomy 5:29).
On October 23, 1740, after preaching the previous weekend in Northampton with Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, the great eighteenth century evangelist, made his way south along the Connecticut River to Hartford, then Wethersfield, and finally to Middletown. Nathan Cole, a farmer near Middletown, vividly records the excitement and power of Whitefield’s ministry on that occasion.1 Cole had been an Arminian (an eighteenth century theological liberal) who believed he could save himself by his good works. He became troubled in his soul when he heard Whitefield at the meeting house in Middletown say that the gospel was offered freely to all men, even though all were totally unable to embrace Christ, that they could do nothing to save themselves, that only the electing grace of God could render them acceptable to a holy God. Cole was convinced of his lost condition and was terribly convicted of his sin, and came to believe the doctrine of election, that he was utterly lost unless God chose to save him. He later found peace with Christ, left the established church, and joined a small group of believers called New Lights in nearby Kensington.2
What do we mean by the doctrine of election and how does it apply in the proclamation of the gospel? First, by election we simply mean that God, according to his mere good pleasure and sovereign will, chose from all the peoples of the world, a peculiar people to be his own before he made anyone or anything. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way,
Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace. Chapter III, paragraph 5.3
They did not choose Christ, rather he chose them, and appointed them that they should bear much fruit, and that their fruit should remain (John 15:16). Paul the Apostle repeatedly teaches this doctrine (Eph. 1:4-5, Rom. 8:29-30; 9:14-24, 2 Tim. 1:8-9) as do Peter (1 Pet. 2:9-10), and Jesus (John 6:35-39). It is not merely that God foreknew those who would choose to follow and obey him, rather it is that in spite of our rebellion and hard-heartedness, even though we would do nothing to deserve it, God, by a free act of his grace, according to the secret counsel of his most holy and wise providence, chose a people for himself from all the peoples of the world, making us into one family of God, transmuting time, space, ethnicity, and religion (Rev. 5:9-10, 7:9-12)
Second, Jesus illustrates in John 6 how the doctrine of election can be used powerfully to saving effect, especially with the smug and self-righteous. This is how Whitefield used the doctrine of election, resulting in Nathan Cole’s conversion. We read there of the vast crowd following Jesus from one miraculous event and preaching service to another. After he fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish, they marvelled. Jesus sent his disciples in a boat to the other side of the sea while he remained behind to pray. While they were rowing with great difficulty he came to his disciples on the water, calmed the sea, and rode with them to the other side. When the vast crowd realized that he somehow had made it across without a boat, they took small boats and went as quickly as they could to find him. John tells us that Jesus knew they wanted to make him their king, but he resisted their fleshly overtures (15). Jesus rebuked them, saying that they were labouring only for the bread which perishes (26-27). He tells them that they must do the works of God, and the work of God is to believe in him (28-29). They wanted the bread but not the bread giver. He told them that Moses was not the one who fed their forefathers in the wilderness, rather it was God, and that he, Jesus, was the manna that had come down out of heaven from God (32-33). Jesus knew they were pursuing him with wrong motives. They were merely entertained by him, not really seeing their need to ‘eat of his flesh and drink of his blood” (52-58). He tells them that no one, including each of them, would come to him unless the Father draws them (44). The Greek words here could be translated, ‘No one comes to Jesus unless the Father drags him.’ He declares that the electing grace of God the Father is the initiator of salvation. He chooses, and they in turn believe. Note the remarkable union of God’s electing grace, the incarnation of Jesus, and the fulness of salvation wrought by God on our behalf. In John 6:37-39 we read,
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. This is the will of him who sent me, that of all he has given me I lose nothing but raise it up on the last day.
The Father chose. The Son came to die for those whom the Father chose. The Holy Spirit gives grace to the elect to believe. And none who come to the Father will be cast out. The response to all this was that Jesus’ followers considered this (‘unless you eat of my flesh and drink of my blood you have no life in yourselves’, 53) a difficult saying, wondering who can listen to it. Jesus knew they were stumbling at the intimacy required of following him. Instead of doing what so many preachers and churches do today, in order to attract the lost or to keep them coming to church, Jesus turned up the heat even more. He said, ‘Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you here who do not believe’ (6:61-64). John notes that Jesus always knew that some would reject and betray him. That’s why Jesus said to them, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to me unless it has been granted him from the Father’ (65).
The electing grace of God must naturally follow the utter sinfulness of man. Unregenerate man must be brought to see that he brings nothing to the table of salvation. Man has a rebellious, blind heart that is unwilling to come to God. He has a guilty and offensive record that renders him utterly odious to the Holy One. And he has an unholy and unproductive life that makes it impossible to commend himself to the One with whom we all have to do. And what is God promising in his electing grace to his people? He promises three things – a new heart, a new righteousness, and a new holiness. We have seen earlier that man is unwilling to come to God. He is commanded to circumcise his heart, to make for himself a new heart (Deut. 10:16, Ezek. 18:31) but he cannot do it. The fall into sin by our parents, Adam and Eve, rendered us ineffectual in a spiritual sense. The fall also brought the awful reality of original sin. Both David and Paul speak of it (Psa. 51:3, Rom. 12:1-2). And original sin naturally led to actual sin, that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:10ff).
So God, in his marvellous electing grace promises to do what we can never do – give us new hearts that love God and hate sin. Consider briefly a few passages that note this promise. ‘Oh that they had such a heart in them, that they would fear me and keep all my commandments always, that it may be well with them and with their sons forever’ (Deut. 5:29). This is the command we all face but we cannot obey it due to the corrupting power of original sin, and the stultifying presence of actual sin. ‘You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart’ (Deut. 6:5-6). Many of us glibly say these words without understanding the implications. All people, but especially the self-righteous, like the elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, must be brought to a deep awareness of their failure to keep this commandment. ‘So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer’ (Deut. 10:16). The Old Testament bloody rite of circumcision which removed the foreskin looked forward to the day when Jesus would offer up his body to the bloody cross to take away the reproach of our sin. They were to clean up their lives – to remove the wickedness of their hearts, no longer in pride to stiffen their necks against God’s call upon their lives – but they could not do it. Something miraculous, far beyond their ability or imagination, must happen to them.
‘Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Or else my wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds’ (Jer. 4:4). Not only is Moses calling the sons of Israel, about to enter the Promised Land, to circumcise their hearts, but the great prophet of the seventh century B.C. is sounding the same alarm. Judah was facing the impending doom of Babylonian judgment and they must repent, but they could not. A contemporary of Jeremiah, the prophet Ezekiel, says that God promises to do what he commands us to do. ‘I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh’ (Ezek. 11:19). And he also says, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you, and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezek. 36:26). God the Father, in his electing grace, stoops to our utter weakness, and promises us a new heart to love that loves him and hates sin. This is the doctrine of regeneration. Jesus says that unless we are born again we cannot see the kingdom of heaven (John 3:3ff).
God the Father also addresses our second major problem – our guilty and offensive past. If God were to mark our iniquity, none of us could stand innocently before him. All will stand before the judgment seat of Christ on that great day (2 Cor. 5:10) to give an account of our deeds done in the body, and all will see their own guilt and condemnation. None will be able to explain adequately their culpability (Rom. 3:19). But God the Father promises us a new righteousness. Righteousness means obedience to the Law of God. We are commanded to love God with all our being, to circumcise our hearts, but we have failed miserably. We need right standing before God and that only comes through a perfect obedience or righteousness. God does what we cannot do. In prophesying about the coming Messiah, Jeremiah says, ‘In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely and this is his name by which he will be called, the Lord our righteousness’ (Jer. 23:6). This righteousness which God gives us is what theologians call an ‘alien righteousness’ because it comes from outside of us. Ezekiel promises the same thing saying, ‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols’ (Ezek. 36:25). This is the doctrine of justification, declared by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, witnessed throughout the Old Testament (Gen. 6:9; 15:6, Job 1:1, Psa. 37:39), and expounded in its fulness by the Apostles (Acts 2:38ff; 10:43; 15:11, Rom. 4-5).
And finally God also addresses our third major problem – our unholy and unproductive life. The problem with most presentations of the gospel is that they do not deal with regeneration on the one hand, and the required consequent holiness on the other. Peter commands that we are to be holy, even as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:15-16). Paul told the Corinthians that they were to perfect holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1); and he told the Romans to put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13).
Not only does God the Father promise in his electing grace a new heart, he also promises a new righteousness. We have no righteousness in ourselves. Our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). There is none righteous, not even one (Psa. 14:1). If God were to mark our iniquity not one could stand before. Jesus obeyed the law perfectly and this perfection is given to us by faith (Rom.s 4:1ff, Eph. 2:8-9), a faith that God himself gives to us. He takes the guilty record book of sin we all have and nails it to the cross of Christ, giving us in its place the righteous record book of Jesus (Col. 2:13-14, 2 Cor. 5:17). Jeremiah prophesies the promise of righteousness given to us in Jeremiah 23:6. Ezekiel does the same by saying that God will sprinkle clean water on us, and we will be clean, that he will remove all our iniquity.
And finally the electing grace of God promises a new holiness. The reason so little impact is being made in Christianity is because people really don’t understand how far they have fallen from God’s perfection and holiness. We are to be holy, even as God our Father is holy (1 Pet. 1:14-16). God begins a work of sanctification or progressive holiness in all his blood-bought people the moment they are saved. A true believer will act differently because he has the holiness of Jesus indwelling him. In Ezekiel 36:27 the prophet says that he will put his Spirit within his people that they may walk in his statutes. Could it be that so little societal impact is being made by the church because so few true Christians reside in the church? When the church looks like the world, when the church seeks to use worldly means to garner attention and attract people, then the church lacks spiritual power and holiness. The presence of genuine, biblical holiness in a community of believers would send a powerful message to unbelievers. The very fact that the believers in Rome went to the garbage dumps of the city to rescue infants left there to die, taking in the helpless and discarded, eventually overcame the prejudice so many had against them, bringing untold multitudes from the Roman Empire into Christ’s kingdom.
The benefit of God’s electing grace is to humble man and to exalt God. When believers truly understand that the entirety of their salvation, from beginning to end, is of God; and when unbelievers see that they are utterly lost, beyond hope in themselves, being stripped of their smug self-righteousness, then and only then will God smile with salvation on multitudes; for God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.
- See Arnold Dallimore’s marvellous two volume biography on George Whitefield, published by Banner of Truth. This vivid story is told on page 541 of Volume one.
- Leonard Labaree in the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, ‘George Whitefield Comes to Middletown.’
- The Westminster Confession of Faith, the doctrinal standard for many Reformed churches and denominations, was written by a number of Puritan theologians from 1643-47 by an act of the British Parliament.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Al Baker’s sermons are now available on www.sermonaudio.com.
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