If someone asked me to explain election, I would start by asking this person to describe to me how he got saved. Tell me how you were converted. To make my question more clear, instead of using the passive “got saved,” I would ask, How did God save you? What did God do in history to save you, and existentially, what did he do ten years ago, or when you were six, or sixteen, or thirty? Describe to me how God brought you to himself.
I am searching for how a person describes his lostness and the action of God to bring him out of his blindness, to bring him out of deadness to life, to bring him out of insensitivity to spiritual things to being thrilled with spiritual things. I come at the question of election by studying its effects in life. Very few people to whom I have asked those questions want to take decisive credit for their own conversion.
How Were You Saved?
Now, with their hearts leaning in that direction, I take them to texts that teach what really happened to them, just to affirm that their impulse is, in fact, found in the Bible. “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Once, we had no light and God gave it just like on the first day of creation. I would read, “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive” (Ephesians 2:1, 5). You were dead, and God made you alive. That is how you got saved. “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, . . . correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24–25). How did you come to repentance? God granted you repentance.
God gives sight, God gives light, God gives repentance, and “no one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father” (see John 6:44, 65). At this point, I ask if they see that God was the decisive cause of their seeing Christ as true, and desirable, and the source of their spiritual life, and their repentance, and even their coming to Christ.
Why Were You Saved?
“God’s electing grace awakens in us a greater sense of wonder that we are saved — and that we owe it all to God.”
If they push back and deny this teaching — if they insist that they have ultimate self-determination and that they themselves are decisively responsible for their own conversion — I would stop there and wouldn’t go on to election, because they have already rejected the foundations. If they have to have self-determination as the ultimate cause of their conversion, then election is already undermined and the Bible will not make it plain to them. The passages I have just given about how they were converted are the most plain.
But if they agree, “Yes, God saved me. God was the decisive cause,” then I would ask them, “When did God decide to do that?” And to get the biblical answer I would probably look first at Acts 13:48: “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” There was a prior decision — an appointment, an election — and then faith followed. God decided at a prior time to bring you to belief, to open your eyes, and to give you repentance.
And then I would turn to Ephesians 1:4: “Even as he chose [i.e., elected] us in him before the foundation of the world.” God decided to save you before he actually did it. He is not whimsical. He doesn’t get taken off guard. He doesn’t have plan B’s. He saved you sovereignly because he decided to. That’s how I would explain election to someone.
I would write down a few more texts about election for this person to take home and study on their own: Romans 8:30, Romans 9:11, Romans 11:5, and 1 Corinthians 1:23–24.
My aim in explaining the mystery of election would be to awaken in both of us a greater sense of wonder that we are saved, and that we owe it all to God — that apart from him we can do nothing and, therefore, all of our lives should be lived in the constant amazement that we are saved and that he would die for us. My aim is humility in us and all glory to God.
This article is an excerpt from an episode of Ask Pastor John, “How Do I Explain Election over Brunch?”
Look at the Book is an ongoing series of 8–12-minute videos in which the camera is on the text, not the teacher. You will hear John Piper’s voice and watch his pen underline, circle, make connections, and scribble notes — all to help you learn to read God’s word for yourself. His goal is to help you not only see what he sees, but where he sees it and how he found it.
In this three-part series through Romans 9:9–13, John looks at the truth about election. Looking at examples in the Old Testament, the apostle Paul uncovers some of the deepest and most difficult realities about our God and his ways. John explains (1) why Paul uses the examples he does and (2) some basic contours of God’s electing love.
Part 1: Jacob I Loved, But Esau I Hated
In Romans 9, Paul wants to show us why we should believe in God’s unconditional election. Isaac and Ishmael were examples in the previous verses, and now Jacob and Esau are presented as better examples. In this lab, John Piper highlights the similarities and differences between these brothers.
Part 2: Why God Chooses Whom He Chooses
God’s electing love is one of the most challenging realities in the Bible. In this lab, John Piper digs down underneath the doctrine of election to try and understand why God chooses whom he chooses. How do the true sons and daughters of God become his children?
Part 3: The Mystery of Election
What did it mean for God to “love” Jacob and “hate” Esau, even before they were born? How can God elect some and still be good? In this lab, John Piper narrows in on the question of election and why it’s good news for those who will believe.