Unconditional Election

Session 5


Before I pray, I want to read a passage of Scripture. I’ll put it on the overhead. And the reason I want to read it is that there is a massive assumption behind your capacity to perceive the doctrines of God’s sovereignty in salvation as good news. And that assumption is that the supreme value in the universe is the glory of God — not you, not me, not all of humanity, or all of the universe put together. Which is why Jonathan Edwards, in his book The Nature of True Virtue, said that if you loved everybody on the planet and the entire universe as much as you could love them and didn’t love God, you would be infinitely provincial.

That sentence really helped me, because we are so prone to think of ourselves, then our land, then our world, then our solar system, then our galaxy, then our universe as very important. And it is as nothing compared to God. Until you feel that, these doctrines will not commend themselves to you.

So to express that biblically, let me begin by reading a text. It’s almost a whole chapter. And then we’ll pray together that God would make us have the kinds of hearts that would be amenable to God-centered biblical truth.

The reason I chose as much of this passage as I did, and not just a few key verses that you will recognize as relevant to what I just said, is the juxtaposition of the tenderness of the shepherd and the massiveness of the Creator, which jars us. Because most of us choose between tender things in the Bible and big, weighty, glorious, tougher things in the Bible. And a text like this weaves them together. Isaiah 40:11–31 says:

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
     he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
     and gently lead those that are with young.

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
     and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
     and weighed the mountains in scales
     and the hills in a balance?
Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
     or what man shows him his counsel?
Whom did he consult,
     and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
     and taught him knowledge,
     and showed him the way of understanding?
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
     and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
     behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
     nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
All the nations are as nothing before him,
     they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

To whom then will you liken God,
     or what likeness compare with him?
An idol! A craftsman casts it,
     and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
     and casts for it silver chains.
He who is too impoverished for an offering
     chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
     to set up an idol that will not move.

Do you not know? Do you not hear?
     Has it not been told you from the beginning?
     Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
     and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
     and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
     and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
     scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
     and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

To whom then will you compare me,
     that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
     who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
     calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
     and because he is strong in power,
     not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob,
     and speak, O Israel,
     “My way is hidden from the Lord,
     and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
     the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
     his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
     and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
     and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
     they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
     they shall walk and not faint.

Reviewing the Doctrines of Grace

The first thing I want to do is just a brief review so that we’re not assuming you remember, but are reminded. We began T-U-L-I-P, Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints with I. We’re going to do it ITULP instead of TULIP. And what we mean by irresistible grace was that sovereign grace overcomes resistance, not that you can’t resist. You just can’t resist any longer than God permits you to resist. And then he can conquer your resistance. We took this point first because it is where we generally experience the reality first.

Street Level Theology

Here’s a story about a young woman in her twenties years ago at Bethlehem, who was deeply troubled by a sermon on election. It was new to her, and she’d never heard anything like it, and she was blown away and troubled deeply that God would be pleased to choose to save somebody sovereignly, unilaterally, conquering their will, and bringing them to himself, and overcoming their resistance so that the final decisive cause was not their will, but God’s will. She just couldn’t believe it.

So I asked her, and this is why it’s so memorable to me, “Why don’t we walk home together?” Because she lived just a little further down 11th Avenue, and I live just across the bridge. So when we were done, she hung out. And as we were walking, I said, “What I want you to do is as we walk, tell me how you got saved. Just tell me the story of how you got saved.” And it was a fascinating story. The gist of it was this.

She’s quite tall, probably six feet, two inches. And she said, “When I was a little girl, I was very tall. And so self-conscious about it. In the fifth and sixth grade, I was just so self-conscious. And I’d grown up in a Christian home, and I wasn’t sure I was a Christian. I was walking home from school one day, and a group of girls on the other side of the street began to make fun of me because I was tall. And I felt at first horrible to be made fun of by girls in my class that I was so tall.” And then she said, “I prayed, and the Lord brought to my mind his love for me, and there settled over me a deep confidence that he was my Savior, my Lord, and my Friend. And I don’t know whether I was saved at that moment, but that was the first time I experienced God as my Savior. And I knew that I was his child.”

And I said to her, “Now, that’s a remarkable thing to have happened in the heart of a fifth grader. Did you make that happen? Did you decide that this was going to happen?” I just pushed on the issue of how beautiful that gift was to her. And I didn’t have to push very hard at all. I mean, she just melted. She just melted and said, “No, God just showed up. He just did it. He just gave it to me. He just assured me that I was his. It rose up inside me. I didn’t make it happen. It overwhelmed me from inside.” And I simply said, “All my Calvinism is, is trying to honor that moment.” I’m just trying to come to terms with that, which is why I start with irresistible grace, because my guess is almost all of you would tell a story like that, though maybe not quite as dramatic.

And I simply pointed out that since she didn’t provide the decisive impetus for that and it took her over and became a gift to her, God had decided to do that at least a few minutes before it happened, if not a billion years before it happened. And it really wouldn’t make any difference from her standpoint whether it was a few minutes or a billion years. And lights went on everywhere for her.

So that’s why I’m starting where I’m starting, because this is where we experience these things, at irresistible grace. To see that grace is sovereign implies that depravity is total — that is, that we are totally unable to respond. That’s what the implication is of saying that my resistance has to be overcome. Left to myself, I won’t and I can’t believe. That’s the meaning of total depravity. We’ll come back to that in just a minute. And then that’s the summary of what we spent time looking at last time as to how we find it in the Bible. Faith and repentance are a gift. No one comes to Christ unless God draws him. God calls us effectually and creates the response that he requires. God causes us to be born again, which gives rise to faith. The new covenant promises that he will put the fear of himself in our heart, and Romans 9:14-23 says that it depends not on man’s willing or running, but on God who has mercy. We’ve been over all of that and don’t need to spend time on it again.

Total Depravity and Human Inability

Now, I said we’d come back to the issue of total depravity as human inability. We turned from irresistible grace to the T — total depravity. And the main thing to get about total depravity is not to get all bent out of shape that fallen people are not doing as many bad things as they could do, and therefore, have the objection arise, “Why do you call them totally depraved?” The main thing that is meant is this: Total depravity means that we so depraved that we can’t do what you have to do. In that sense, it’s total. It’s not like there’s 99 percent bondage to sin and a one percent window that if you’re smart enough, or spiritual enough, or fortunate enough, you can produce what’s required of you. There’s no one percent; it is 100 percent dead in trespasses and sins. And we are unable. Now that is what creates huge theological discussions about whether or not a person who is described that way can be held accountable for his behavior.

So I want to draw your attention to this, which I didn’t last time. Jonathan Edwards’ book, The Freedom of the Will, may be the most important book outside of the Bible written on the problem of the human will in relation to the sovereignty of God in salvation. So if you are really intent on grappling at the most rigorous level with these things, that’s where you have to go. Any other book, even Luther’s Bondage of the Will, which is right up there in the top three, won’t take you where this book takes you in terms of remarkably hard thinking about the issue of the will.

Here’s the thesis of the book:

God’s moral government over mankind (his rule over mankind), his treating them as moral agents, making them the objects of his commands, councils, calls, warnings, expostulations, promises, threatenings, rewards, punishments, is not inconsistent with a determining disposal of all events of every kind throughout the universe in his providence, either by positive agency or efficiency, or permission — designed permission or designed efficiency.

Nautral and Moral Inability

Now, most people don’t believe that. Most people think there is a profound inconsistency between God’s total moral government over mankind and his commanding them and punishing them for not doing what they’re supposed to do. That’s the goal. That’s my belief and assumption, and ultimately, it’s an assumption I probably cannot philosophically demonstrate to your satisfaction. I simply embrace it because it is assumed everywhere in the Bible that God both has a determining disposal of all events (that’s one thing that’s all over the Bible), and that we are dealt with as morally accountable creatures in him making commands to us, threatening punishments to us, and offering rewards to us if we will think, feel, and do certain things.

Those two things are compatible. Sometimes people like me and Edwards are called compatibilists, but that kind of language doesn’t help any. He described an important distinction in understanding what we mean by saying that irresistible grace and total depravity are based on the biblical conviction that people are in themselves unable to believe on Christ and yet are morally accountable for doing so. There’s the mystery. There’s the paradox. There’s the tension. Total depravity means we’re unable to believe, and God’s moral nature assumes that we are accountable for doing so. What does unable mean in that sentence? Edwards is the one who has labored hardest, I think, to explain this. Let me give you his two key sentences.

Edwards is going to present us a distinction here that I have found extremely helpful in at least articulating how it is that some kinds of inability excuse a person from doing what they’re required to do, and other kinds of inability don’t excuse a person for doing what they’re required to do. And it’s the kind that doesn’t excuse you that we mean when we say a person is totally depraved, and thus unable to do what’s required of them. So here’s the difference. One is natural, and that one excuses you; the other is moral, and that one doesn’t excuse you. Here’s what he means:

We are said to be naturally unable to do a thing when we cannot do it if we will. Because what is most commonly called nature does not allow of it, because of some impeding defect or obstacle that is extrinsic to the will, either the faculty of understanding . . .

That would mean an imbecile or a tiny baby. If you take a tiny baby, say six months old, and say, “Do this multiplication problem,” he’s not responsible to obey you. It’s because there is a faculty of understanding that’s not there yet.

Or a constitution of body . . .

If a person is physically blind, and you say, “Look at this picture and tell me where the bird is,” or something like that, they’re not responsible to do that.

Loving Evil

What about moral inability? What’s that? Edwards says:

Moral inability consists not in any of these things but either in the lack of inclination . . .

Meaning, you can’t do what you don’t choose to do. If your inclination isn’t there, you can’t do it

Or the strength of a contrary inclination . . .

Meaning, you have some inclination to do a thing, but your motives to do the opposite are stronger than the one that you want to do, so you won’t do it.

Or the lack of sufficient motives in view to induce and excite the act of the will, or the strength of apparent motives to the contrary, or both of these may be resolved into one, and it may be said in one word that moral inability consists in the opposition or lack of inclination.

Now just in simple layman’s terms, you can love evil so much that you can’t do good. That’s the kind of can’t that total depravity is referring to. You can be so bent on pride, you can’t be humble. We can ask questions about that later, but you need to understand that when I say we are morally unable to do a thing because we are totally depraved, that’s the distinction that I have in mind. It’s a real inability, but it isn’t a physical inability.

Reflections on Unconditional Election

Now I’m shifting from irresistible grace and total depravity to unconditional election. We began last time with the Westminster Confession. I want to start this time on unconditional election and leap over a few of the things we did, but start with the Bethlehem Elder Affirmation of Faith, rather than the Westminster Confession. Let’s just stay at home and read what our elders are committed to believe. It’s three paragraphs. This is just printed straight from what you can find on the web:

We believe that God, from all eternity, in order to display the full extent of his glory for the eternal and ever-increasing enjoyment of all those who love him, did by the most wise and holy counsel of his will freely and unchangeable ordain and foreknow whatever comes to pass.

We believe that God upholds and governs all things; from galaxies to subatomic particles; from the forces of nature, to the movements of nations; and from the public plans of politicians, to the secret acts of solitary persons — all in accord with his eternal all wise purposes to glorify himself, yet in such a way that he never sins, nor ever condemns a person unjustly; but that his ordaining and governing all things is compatible with the moral accountability of all persons created in his image.

We believe that God’s election is an unconditional act of free grace which was given through his Son Jesus Christ before the world began. By this act God chose, before the foundation of the world, those who would be delivered from bondage to sin and brought to repentance in saving faith in his Son, Christ Jesus.

That’s the statement of faith. There are 26 footnotes in those three paragraphs, providing dozens and dozens of texts. We’re only going to look at a few more.

Let the One Who Boasts, Boast in the Lord

Here’s one that we did put on the overhead last time, but in putting it on the overhead, I left out a verse and I did not draw attention to one of the things that was very important. So I want to go back to 1 Corinthians 1:26–31. It says:

Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are . . .

Now notice that the foolish, the weak, and the low did not choose to populate the church so that God could undo the wisdom of the wise. God had a design in how he was assembling his people, and he did all that “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:29). That’s what I did not draw attention to last time. The purpose of election (God choosing) is to knock the props out from under the bent of the human heart to boast. That’s the point of election. He did it so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. God’s design in election is to keep you from boasting. He continues:

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus . . . (1 Corinthians 1:30).

That means he grafted you into Christ. The emphasis is that it’s not from you. It’s from him that are you in Christ Jesus. We believed in order to get into Christ Jesus, but our faith is a gift. And thus it is from him that we are in Christ Jesus. You are in Christ Jesus from him, and he continues:

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).

And you can see immediately that this is the negative goal, and this is the positive goal. That is a very important programmatic passage of Scripture on the what and the why of election. It’s free. God is choosing the unexpected. He’s choosing it according to his own designs. These folks are not saying, “Wouldn’t it be good if there were a few of us foolish folks in the church, and wouldn’t it be good if there were a few weak folks in the church, and wouldn’t be good if there were a few low people in the church? So we will now use our self-determining power to populate the church and construct it in a way that would honor God’s great wisdom?” Baloney. That’s not the way this text reads at all. This is God building a church and gathering people into his church for two reasons. First, to shut our mouths when it comes to boasting, and second, to open our mouths when it comes to praising his grace. That’s the goal.

So you have ministries through the centuries who have defined their goal as abasing the pride of man and exalting the glory of God. That’s exactly right. It comes right from this passage of Scripture.

Election in the Gospel of John

We did spend some time last time on the Gospel of John, so I’m going to move quickly through a few of these. But I just cannot emphasize enough how amazingly oriented on the doctrine of election the Gospel of John is. The Gospel of John is the book that we give to new believers because it’s so simple, and I’m preaching on it again this Sunday. I almost began my sermon by saying John, whether it is as epistle or as Gospel, is always functioning at two levels at least. One level is incredible simplicity so that children can read the Gospel of John and come away with a sense of satisfaction. They basically know what’s going on here. And another level is so stunningly profound.

If read 1 John, as we’re going to be doing this Sunday, you come to, “If God so loved us, we ought to love each other” (1 John 4:11). That’s so simple — absolutely sweet, glorious, and rightly simple. And then he also says, “God is love,” and, “those who are born of God love the brothers” (1 John 5:1). And you know you are into the profoundest metaphysical realities in the universe because the is-ness of God is love, and the new birth is our connection to that metaphysical reality, and it must show up in how we love each other. And you’re dealing at a level with something that is way beyond what any sixth grader is ever going to get.

So I want to linger here for a few more minutes, because you need to feel the wonder of this Gospel’s dealing with election. John 17 says:

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) . . . I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours (John 17:9).

So here they are. They’re not yet Christ’s. They are about to become his disciples — Peter, James, John, and the rest. They are God’s, and God takes them and gives them to his Son. That’s election. They are God’s. This is election here. They were chosen. They belonged to God before they belonged to Jesus, and then they came to belong to Jesus because God gave them to him.

John 6:37 says:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.

The giving of the Father brings about the disciple coming to Jesus.

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 6:39).

That’s John’s way of talking about election.

My Sheep Hear My Voice

John 10:24–26 says:

The Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.

I remember the first time I read that, or one of the times I read it, I was so shocked that it is backward from what I thought. I thought you believed in order to become a sheep, but it says, “The reason you don’t believe is because you aren’t a sheep.” My world was coming undone. That’s election. God has sheep.

I have preached in years gone by at many conferences on missions using this text. When I was writing my book Let the Nations Be Glad, it’s these things that were gripping me. I was seeing all the connections between being a lover of the sovereignty of God and being a radical frontier missionary. Or if I don’t go, I must mobilize. I must raise up, because Jesus says:

I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:16).

In other words, “The Father has given me sheep. He’s given me 12, or he’s given me 70.” There were 120 in the upper room when the Lord ascended into heaven. It wasn’t a big group, but the Lord had given him his sheep. And Jesus was constantly saying, “Don’t become ingrown. Don’t you Calvinists dare become ingrown.” Don’t think, “Us little elect, and no more.” It’s damnable. Jesus is saying, “I have other sheep. Find them. Lay down your lives to find them. Go everywhere and speak my words, because my sheep hear my voice. And if they don’t hear it, they can’t respond. Go say it.”

Theology Is for Mission, Not Quarreling

Now, David Livingstone is buried in Westminster Abbey, and on his tomb are the words from John 10:16 — “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” He was a great African explorer. Now that’s a neat story in and of itself. The legacy of the man’s life was to penetrate into the African trade routes along which Christianity could spread and should be labeled, “I have other sheep.” But there’s a better story. I tell it in the book on missions. Peter Cameron Scott was born in 1867, after David Livingstone. And God called him from his Scottish Presbyterian church to be a missionary in Africa. And he went. He in fact became the founder of the Africa Inland Mission (AIM).

And he got fever, as almost everybody did. They were packing their goods in their coffins because so many of them never survived. That way they would have some way to be decently buried when they gave their lives for Jesus, speaking the word of the shepherd so that the sheep could hear. They shipped Scott home deeply discouraged. God healed him. And this time, he went back and he took his brother, John. He was so encouraged. He thought, “This time, a brother is with me.” And his brother died and he buried him, and then he got malaria again, though they didn’t know what it was called in those days. There was no medicine like my wife and daughter are taking now for the next two weeks now that they’re back from Africa so that they don’t get any malaria. They just went.

So they shipped him home again, devastated, discouraged, and wondering, “God, I’m trying to serve you. You keep letting me get sick and you took my brother. I don’t get it.” And before he gave up, when he was well, he walked into Westminster Abbey and stood in front of David Livingstone’s tomb and saw, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” He thought how Jesus was saying, “I must gather them also — must. I will do this. If you don’t let me use you, I’ll use somebody else. But I’m going to do this. I’m getting my sheep from every people group on planet earth.” And he was heartened, strengthened, and he went, and he spent the rest of his life there. He founded Africa Inland Mission (AIM), and left a tremendous legacy. These teachings, folks, are not for fighting about; they’re for dying with; they’re for doing missions with.

The Children of God Gathered Into One

Here it’s said another way. Caiaphas the high priest was trying to get them not to make a big deal out of Jesus because he thought they should just let him die, and in John 11:50–52 he said:

“It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation (so he was speaking things beyond what he was conscious of), and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

In other words, “I have other sheep. Call them children of God. Call them the elect. Call them sheep. I have them. I will gather them. I will have a global people from every tribe, and tongue, and nation.”

The Lord also said to Paul in the night by a vision, who was discouraged and frightened:

Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people (Acts 18:9–10).

There you are doing evangelism in a hard place. There’s threats and you’re discouraged. And the Lord comes. What’s the Lord going to say to you in the middle of the night to keep you going? Well, what he said to Paul was, “I have a people here. I have sheep here. I have children of God here. My sheep hear my voice. Therefore, don’t be silent. Open your mouth. A jailer may respond, a Lydia may respond, and a demon possessed girl may respond. There’s a church.” Here’s Lydia:

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul (Acts 16:14).

That’s what happens to the sheep.