At desiringGod.org we believe in the sovereignty of God — we believe it because we see it in Scripture. And not only do we believe in God’s sovereignty over all things, we celebrate it. And we also field important questions about what all this means in our own lives. Today’s question is short and simple but profound, and it comes from a podcast listener named Zena. “Pastor John, did God elect me because he loves me? Or does he love me because he elected me?” How would you answer Zena?
Like so many questions, this one almost answers itself as soon as we define our terms, or as soon as we clarify what these two questions mean. In fact, the reason I think this question is worthy of answering is precisely to clarify the terms. If the terms are given certain meanings, very wrong teachings can emerge.
Chicken or the Egg?
For example, someone might ask the question “Did God elect me — choose me for himself — because he loves me?” — assuming that God saw something lovable in me and then was inclined to me on that basis. Then, because of that inclination towards me, and my peculiar value that he recognizes, he chose me as part of his family.
“Assuming that God saw something lovable in me would be a dreadfully wrong impression.”
That would be a dreadfully wrong picture — God surveying humanity and all the people out there to see who’s worthy of his adoption or people who have the necessary qualifications to be chosen out of a fallen and condemned humanity. That’s not the picture of the New Testament. As soon as we clarify that, the answer starts to become clearer.
Someone might ask “Does he love me because he elected me?” — assuming that God, in his choosing, is somehow emotionally neutral or indifferent. That his choice of us, at the very beginning, is begrudging or without any heart or joy. Then, only after he has collected his elected ones with no delight in the election, he somehow comes to love them because he elected them. That too, it seems to me, would be a dreadfully wrong impression from the New Testament.
All of the Above
Let’s look at a few passages to see if we can get clarity from the words of Scripture about the relationship between election and love. The picture of election of God’s people in the Old Testament goes like this:
“The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 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.” (Deuteronomy 7:6–8)
Moses mentions election and love, but he doesn’t prescribe or describe a sequence. In fact, it reads as though the terms are almost virtually interchangeable. “The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people.” Why? It is because you were loved; that is, he chose you.
You can’t force a temporal sequence out of the phrase “set his love on you and chose you” anymore than you can make a temporal sequence out of the statement “I made my vows to you, and I married you.” In choosing them, he loved them. In loving them, he chooses them. His loving was his choosing; his choosing was his loving.
One Implies the Other
Now, let’s see if that’s confirmed in the New Testament.
First Thessalonians 1:4 says, “We know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.” This seems to mean that seeing they are loved is evidence of a prior election. Then it flips in Romans 11:5: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” Here it seems as if election came from a prior act of grace or love.
“Assuming that God is somehow emotionally neutral would be a dreadfully wrong impression.”
We read in Ephesians 1:4–5, “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons.” So, it looks essentially the same. In election, he predestined us, and in love, he predestined us.
In Romans, we read about the election of Jacob over Esau before they had been born — before they had done anything good or evil. Nothing in either of them attracted God’s preference of one over the other.
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.” (Romans 9:11–13)
The words “Jacob I loved” stand virtually in the place of “Jacob I chose.” It happens before they were born or had done anything good or evil.
A Perfect Fit
One more text — and I think this one provides a phrase that may help us get the balance we need in relating these two important realities of love and election.
“There’s no election that is not loving, and there’s no primal initiating loving that is not electing.”
In Romans 11:28 Paul says about the Jewish people, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.”
Now, the phrase “as regard to election, they are loved” says being loved accords with election. It doesn’t say which comes first or which causes the other. It simply says they accord. They fit together perfectly. They always go together in accordance.
Loving a Fallen World
My conclusion is that election is the act of God as he foresees a fallen world of undeserving sinners — and all for Christ’s sake (I say that on the basis of Ephesians 1:5) — God sets his love on some in total freedom guided only by his hidden counsels. I can’t see any warrant in the Bible for separating sequentially God’s love for and his choosing of whom he will save. There’s no election that is not loving, and there’s no primal initiating loving that is not electing.
To say that electing is not based on loving, which is what I’m arguing we should not say, protects us from the possible misunderstanding that we are chosen because of something lovely in us. To say that loving is not based on electing protects us from the misunderstanding that God’s choosing was somehow heartless or emotionally neutral. To say both of these should fill every child of God with both a sense of utter unworthiness and utter amazement that God took delight in making us his own.