Why are people uncomfortable with or offended by the doctrine of election? An honest answer to that question is that the doctrine of election is difficult. Why is this doctrine one of the most challenging doctrines in the Bible? Perhaps it’s not as difficult as we might want to make it, but because of the way our minds have been conditioned and through superficial discipleship techniques, we are left with tension in clear texts of Scripture where the doctrine of election is put on vivid display. In the ninth chapter of Romans, we see the doctrine of election taught, and yet there are many interpretations.
Romans 9:10–13 — And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (ESV)
The term, “election” is the Greek term, “ἐκλογή” which carries the meaning of a special choice, selection, or election. Who is doing the selecting? Not only do we see the historic commentary of Jacob and Esau in Romans 9, but we likewise see Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus as he uses a related term “ἐκλέγομαι” in Ephesians 1:4 as he emphasizes that God “chose us” in Christ before the foundation of the world. Why is there such debate over this biblical doctrine?
The Issue of Fairness
When the doctrine of election is approached in some circles, people immediately object on the basis of fairness. If God chooses some people before the foundation of the world and does not choose others, that is viewed by some people as unfair.
Is it possible for God to be unfair? That is a different issue than charging God with injustice. Can God be unjust? The obvious answer is no. God is holy and just. Is it possible for God to be perfectly just and unfair at the same time? The answer to that dilemma is found in Romans 9. Paul writes the following in Romans 9:14-18:
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.  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. (ESV)
The way Paul answers the question of injustice and fairness is with the strongest negative denial that he could’ve constructed. The KJV translates it “God forbid!” The ESV translates the text as, “By no means.” In other words, Paul anticipates people objecting to the truth of God’s sovereign election, and he answers by emphasizing God’s freedom to choose whomever he wills. He uses Pharaoh as an example. When considered properly, the doctrine of election teaches us that we get what we do not deserve and we do not want God to treat us fairly. If God treated us fairly, we would all go to hell.
Years ago, I once heard a man make a revealing statement in objection to studying the doctrine of election. He said, “I don’t want to go to seminary, I just want to go to church.” Hard doctrines are not for seminary classrooms only, they’re for the church of Jesus Christ. Paul did not write Romans to a seminary. He wrote it to a local church. Hard truths break through hard hearts and bring us to a sweet place of worship.
When it comes to the doctrine of election, we must admit that it’s a difficult truth. I say truth, because the doctrine of election is clearly taught in the pages of Scripture. It’s one thing to have disagreements on the doctrine, but it’s in the text and must be studied. To approach the Christian life and the weekly worship service with a lazy spiritual mindset is not only a disservice to you, it’s actually a superficial approach to God and what he has done in the work of saving grace. This causes both your understanding of God and your worship of God to be shallow.
If you talk to anyone who has achieved goals in the sphere of athletics, you will find that they did not reach those goals overnight. You know the old saying, “No pain, no gain.” Successful athletes put in hard work in the gym, remain committed to a good diet, and mentally push themselves in order to reach their goals. In the Christian life, if we approach the journey of faith with a lazy mindset, we will remain ignorant and shallow which is dishonoring to God. God wants our mind and our heart which means that to love God we must engage our mind to know him.
Mark 12:30 – And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (ESV)
Poor Preaching of Good Texts
How many times have we heard really good texts preached in a really wrong way? That is certainly true of the texts that teach the doctrine of election.
Election: When it comes to the doctrine of election, one way of bypassing the hard truth is to make it all about corporate election rather than personal election. That has been one way that Romans 9 has been approached with regard to Jacob and Esau. If two nations were in Rebekah’s womb (Gen. 25:23), the Arminian approach to the text is to emphasize the choice of Israel over the Edomites. However, in doing so one must ask the obvious question, “What about Esau?” And suddenly, it becomes personal again.
World: The use of the term “world” in John 3:16 or 1 John 2:1-2 can be pressed to mean that God loves every single person throughout history in the exact same way without any means of distinction. Is that true? A simple reading of the Old Testament with regard to God’s enemies and rebels demonstrates that the children of Abraham were given privileges of grace that other nations were not. That same picture is seen in the New Testament in texts like Romans 9 and even Jesus’ own teaching as he declared emphatically in John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Notice that he didn’t say that he lays down his life for the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46).
Foreknowledge: How many times have you heard someone explain the word “foreknowledge” in Romans 8 by stating that God knows what we will do and on the basis of God looking through time to see how we respond to the choice of Jesus, it’s on that “foreknowledge” that God elects us or rejects us? Consider the problems with that view. First of all, that would mean that God did not know all things at all times and he had to learn. That is an obvious erroneous view that contradicts the revelation of God in the pages of Scripture.
It must likewise be noted that this view of foreknowledge does not evade the obvious reality that millions of people have lived their entire lives without ever hearing the gospel for the first time. Therefore, they never were presented with a choice. Who is responsible for that? And, when a person dies who has never been given an opportunity to receive Christ, where does that individual go—heaven or hell? According to Scripture, the sinner who has sinned against God goes to hell—and all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Therefore, this view of foreknowledge does not provide an easy solution to tensions regarding the doctrine of election.
This word “foreknew” is connected to the intimacy between a man and his wife (see Gen. 4:1). In the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), the very same word is used to describe Adam knowing Eve and God foreknowing sinners. It could be said that God foreloved us. This term is about God loving helpless sinners. Horatius Bonar said, “God chooses us, not because He foresees that we would choose Him, or that we would believe, but for the very opposite reason. He chooses us just because He foresees that we would neither choose Him nor believe of ourselves at all. Election proceeds not upon foreseen faith in us, but upon foreseen unbelief.” 1Horatius Bonar, Truth and Error, 1845.
We must be certain that the preaching of Scripture is a proper exposition of the text rather than an emotional twisting of Scripture to fit a specific doctrinal interpretation. This is true of the congregation who receives the preaching and the preacher who proclaims the truths from the pages of God’s word.
Prayer and Election
If God chooses whom he will and saves his people that he chose before the foundation of the world, why should we pray? You will hear that question directed at people who embrace the doctrine of sovereign grace. However, if we’re honest, that question must be directed at all of us equally. For, both the Calvinist and the Arminian pray for God to save sinners on a regular basis. If the Arminian believes that it’s merely a choice of man, why pray and ask God to save the sinner?
Prayer is not designed to change God’s mind. Our God is an unchanging God who is all wise, eternal, sovereign, and immutable. God does not shift and change with the culture nor does he need to be taught anything. Consider Paul’s words to the church at Rome in Romans 11:33-35:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
In this text, he is quoting from Isaiah and Job. The point Paul emphasizes is that God doesn’t need our assistance. He is all wise, all knowing, and never changing. Yet, we find that Jesus spends time teaching and instructing his disciples on how to pray (Matt. 6:9-13). Prayer is essential to the Christian life, not because we need to change God, but because we need God to change us.
Loss of Control
Many people disapprove of the doctrine of election because they feel that by embracing God’s sovereignty in grace, they somehow lose control. The more we read and study the Bible, the more we come to the knowledge of how small, weak, and powerless we are in comparison to God. In fact, the more we read the more we see how little control we have over all things—including salvation.
How many of us chose what year we would be born? What about our family, how many of us chose our parents? What about our ethnicity, (which happens to be a popular subject these days) how many of us chose the percentage of melanin we would have? What about geographic location of our birth, how many of us chose where we would be born? It’s clear that we are not in the driver’s seat of life and eternity. God is God and he does what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants—for his glory.
This is likewise true regarding salvation. When rightly understood, election brings us to a state of humility and prevents any boasting in the Lord. God has not revealed to us his mystery of election so that we would debate it. God has revealed to us in the pages of Scripture the doctrine of election in order to shape our spiritual formation and impact how we approach God in worship.
Romans 9:16 – So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
|1||Horatius Bonar, Truth and Error, 1845.|