Chosen But Free – The Biblical Doctrine of Election

NOTE: The issue of “election vs. free will” will forever be debated.  What is critical, though, is that a believer leans fully on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, without adding to, or taking away.  Conjecture, speculation and theory are good for earthly debate.  But, when all the dust settles, there is only one authority: the Word of God.  “Your word is truth,” Jesus said to the Father.[1]   Even the most intelligent of biblical scholars will never fully understand all the mysteries of the Bible.   But, that’s why it’s “by faith we are saved,”[2] and not by mere human intellect, logic & reason.  Volumes have been written on this topic.  I am merely sharing a few thoughts in this blog.  It would be impossible to write all I would like.

 Here’s the question I was asked recently:

If God, being fully sovereign, has already pre-ordained all past, present & future events how can I believe that I can choose anything of my own free will?  And, if God is fully sovereign, what about the atrocities of the Crusades, the Dark Ages, the Holocaust, crimes again children, etc?  Did God preordain these events?  If you say He didn’t, then are you telling me He was “caught off guard”[3] by them?  Tell me, is God totally in charge or partially in charge?  It can’t be both.

Oh, the tangled and exhausting mess we find ourselves in when we begin to assign to God what He can and cannot do, or what He can and cannot be.  Not to mention that it angers God:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.[4]

God continued….

The LORD said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” Then Job answered the LORD: “I am unworthy-how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer- twice, but I will say no more.” Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm: “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.[5]

Clearly, the Bible says that we – not God – will be the ones answering the questions, not him. (Unless he chooses to do so.)

 

That said, how would you have answered the question posed above?

 

Here’s how I responded:

Chosen But Free [6] – that’s the title of theologian/apologist, Norman Geisler’s, book on this white-hot topic among evangelicals.   Geisler, as well as Spurgeon, Packer, MacArthur, and other respected biblical scholars, affirms what simply doesn’t make sense to us. He affirms both the sovereignty and foreknowledge of God and the human responsibility to either receive or reject Him.

Why should we even want to sort through this controversial of a topic?  I like the way A.W. Tozer answers this question:

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”[7]

So, which is it?  Are we all robots that God has wound up, setting us on our way to live a pre-programmed set of life-long thoughts and actions?  Or, are we free to make our own choices?

Again, are we, as human beings, merely following a program, of sorts, that’s been downloaded into our psyche by God before we existed?  Are we mindless slaves who, unbeknownst to us, have no real choice in anything we say or do?   If that’s so, why would Jesus say things like, “Whosoever will…?[8]

Because by saying, “whosoever” it sounds a whole lot like Jesus is saying, “you have a choice: accept me or reject me.”  The first Bible verse almost everyone on planet earth learns is “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him…”  (John 3:16)

On the other hand, what is God talking about when the Bible over and over again speaks of His “elect” i.e. “chosen ones?”[9]  Has He already made up His mind as to who will go to heaven and who will go to hell? i.e. “who’s in, and who’s out?”   Wayne Grudem asserts,

“Several passages in the New Testament seem to affirm quite clearly that God ordained beforehand those who would be saved.”[10]  In John 17, verses 2, 6, and 24, Jesus seems to be praying for only those the Father “has given Him” and, in verse 12, acknowledges that one has already been “doomed for destruction so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.”?

Biblical passages like the following appear to make it clear it doesn’t matter what we think or do:

  • It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.[11]
  • But [God] stands alone, and who can oppose Him?  He does whatever He pleases.[12]

 

Again, which is it?  Robots?  Or, free to choose?

 

Simply put, this is one of those doctrines that will forever cause our human intellect to short-circuit.  Consider the following humorous illustration:

“There was a group of theologians discussing the doctrines of predestination and free will. When the argument became heated, the dissidents split into two groups. One man, unable to make up his mind which group to join, slipped into the predestination crowd.  Challenged as to why he was there, he replied, ‘I came of my own free will.’ The group retorted, ‘Free will! You don’t belong here!’ So he retreated to the opposing group and, when asked why he switched, responded, ‘I was sent here.’ ‘Get out,’ they stormed.  ‘You can’t join us unless you come of your own free will!” The confused man was left out in the cold.”[13]

 

A little History:  Calvinism

  • The debate regarding “Predestination (God’s already predestined every human thought and action) and Free Will (we have the freedom to make our own choices)” is nothing new.  It’s been a source of major theological difference since Augustine and Pelagius argued about it in the early fifth century.  In Erwin Lutzer’s, Doctrines That Divide, this topic, alone, occupies a third of its pages.  Healthy debate is actually a very good thing, though.  It teaches us to think deeply.  And having our convictions challenged only makes us stronger in knowing why we belive what we believe.  Problems develop as a result of the reckless, uneducated comments that fly out of the mouths of “self-appointed authorities” on both sides.
  • In 1538, the reformer/theologian, John Calvin, wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which, for centuries, served as the basic textbook of theology for most Protestants.  Later, in 1618-1619, the Synod of Dort convened in the Netherlands to defend Calvin’s “Institutes” against contrary teachings and came up with what is today commonly known as “Five Point Calvinism,” often identified by the acrostic: “TULIP”: Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the Saints.  “Limited Atonement” is the point that conveys the message that Christ died for “the elect” only. (Or, more pointedly, that God has predestined some for heaven and some for hell. This ideal is commonly known as “double predestination.”)
  • As stated earlier, history proves that godly men have fiercely debated this doctrine.  The great 18th century preacher, George Whitefield, agreed with this doctrine and taught that any contrary teaching was blasphemy.  But,… the great preacher and hymn-writer, John Wesley, argued that limited atonement “made God a devil.”  For 17 centuries, the debate has raged on.  Today, we have very godly, educated scholars still disagreeing…still debating…and they always will.

 

Familiarize Yourself with the Word “Antimony.”

  • “Antimony,” by definition, is: “an apparent contradiction between valid principles or conclusions that seem equally necessary and reasonable.”
  • The first chapter of Ephesians, Paul addresses our being predestined for salvation.  Pastor/Teacher, John MacArthur, does a masterful job of explaining this element in his commentary on Ephesians:
  • “God’s sovereign election and man’s exercise of responsibility in choosing Jesus Christ seem opposite and irreconcilable truths – and from our limited human perspective they are opposite and irreconcilable. That is why so many earnest, well-meaning Christians throughout the history of the church have floundered trying to reconcile them. Since the problem cannot be resolved by our finite minds, the result is always to compromise one truth in favor of the other or to weaken both by trying to take a position somewhere between them. We should let the antimony remain, believing both truths completely and leaving the harmonizing of them to God…..It is not that God’s sovereign election, or predestination, eliminates man’s choice in faith. Divine sovereignty and human response are integral and inseparable parts of salvation – though exactly how they operate together only the infinite mind of God knows.”[14]

  • A perfect example of antimony is: “Was Judas ‘predestined’ to betray Jesus Christ? If so, what kind of God would do such a thing?!”  True: Judas was predestined.  Also true: Judas had choice in the matter.[15]  So, which was it?  Both.  But it contradicts human logic, reason and intellect.  I agree with former Houston Baptist University professor, Robert Creech, Ph.d, who said, “Anything that undermines the love of God is rightly suspect.”[16]  The problem of Judas is simply antimony.
  • In Romans 9:15, God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  What part of that verse is hard to understand?  Bottom line: God has the last word.  And He basis His will on His wisdom, not ours.  Archbishop, William Temple, once said, “One of the things believers are most fond of doing is thinking they’re more spiritual than God.”   In Romans 11:33-34, Paul wrote: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”
  • Finally, God said through the prophet, Isaiah, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NIV)

 

“Which is right? ‘Predestination’ or ‘Free Will?” The answer is: “Yes.”

  • As one friend once told me, “We were predestined to have free will.”
  • John MacArthur writes, The Bible is clear that “no person receives Jesus Christ as Savior who has not been chosen by God:”[17] John 6:44; Romans 8:29-30; Romans 9:11, 14-15; Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Thess. 1:4; 1 Peter 1:2.
  • But,.. equally clear in Scripture, MacArthur continues: “The frequent commands to the unsaved to respond to the Lord clearly indicate the responsibility of man to exercise his own will.”[18]  Matt. 3:1-2; Matt. 4:17; Matt. 11:28-30; John 3:16; John 5:40; John 6:37; John 7:37-39; John 11:26; Rev. 22:17. Interestingly, Luke 2:10, records the angel, Gabriel, proclaiming, “I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all people.”….not “some” people.
  • Again – and I can’t emphasize this enough – the Bible clearly teaches that God is 100% sovereign.  But, the Bible also teaches that of mankind’s responsibility, or freedom to choose.  The New Testament is replete with Jesus’ invitation to all mankind, the dozens of “whosoever will’s”.  Paul wrote to Timothy, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”  Then Peter writes, “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  (Hyper-Calvinists will jump through all kinds of theological hoops trying desperately to dismiss these passages as in support of the free will of man.)
  • One of my college professors, paraphrasing Charles Spurgeon, explained it to me this way: Throughout Scripture two abiding truths are told time and again: 1) God is in absolute and complete control (He is sovereign), and 2) people are responsible for their choices (humans have free will).  In high level human logic, those two truths are incompatible – sort of like a “married bachelor” – it is completely contradictory.  But, in God’s economy, it works.  As Spurgeon stated, those truths are like the two rails on a railroad track. They are parallel and never touch, but you have to have both for the train to go anywhere.[19]

 

Accept the Fact That Some People Just Enjoy Arguing.

  • Know that this conclusion will only frustrate some.  But, typically, these are folks who, for whatever reason, just enjoy arguing.  It frustrates them that they can’t wrap their mind around God. They are foolish to ever think they could. They can’t stand it when things like this don’t “add up.”  But, neither do talking donkeys, huge bodies of water parting, or virgin births, all of which are in our Bible.  You can’t cherry-pick which miracles you’re going to allow to be inexplicable.
  • Author & theologian, J.I. Packer:  There is among Christians “the reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men.” He goes onto write that some people simply “are not content to let [predestination and free will] live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures…..The desire to over-simplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it..”[20] 
  • Unfortunately, people still enjoy throwing the body of Christ “into confusion”[21] with rhetoric that is just plain irresponsible. God’s already told us that He’s “not a God of disorder, but of peace.” (1 Cor. 14:33)  So avoid combative, argumentative dialogue on this topic.  If you find someone that refuses to validate your position simply leave or talk about something else. Because whether they want to admit it or not, this issue will not be settled in this life.
  • And, speaking of arguing…

 

A Warning:  Hyper-Calvinists

  • A person would be categorized as a hyper-calvinist if the following applies:  they are not satisfied with simply holding to a strict argument for the Five Points of Calvinism.  They want you to believe it too.  All of it.  They argue their case self-righteously, almost angrily, giving little or no respect for opposing arguments and opinions.
  • Jesus never imposed his convictions on anyone.  But this person has absolutely no interest in civil discourse.  Rather, they want to bully their interlocutor into aligning their conviction with theirs.
  • As a result, the hyper-calvinist, like the ancient Pharisees, foolishly believes they’re on a level with the mind of God as they laughably attempt to mold God into their own little theological box created by their mere human logic, reason and intellect.
  • Should you ever encounter a person who fits this profile, simply smile and walk away.  This person loves to argue.  Any attempt to have an adult conversation with them will suck the very life out of you while their rambling, arrogant logic takes you with them down the proverbial rabbit hole. 🙂

 

 Final Thoughts:

  • Holding to the Bible teaching that God is 100% sovereign (I do believe this) means God is responsible for all the blessings in my life.  But he’s also responsible for my son taking his life.  (He could’ve stopped it.)  It’s either all on God, or it isn’t.  You can’t have it both ways.  But, like Job’s terrifying experience meeting God that day beginning in Job 38, I’ve also made a choice not to question God’s fathomless wisdom.  In my cognitive dissonance – rather than futilely attempt to spend my life trying to figure God out, I’ve chosen to focus on the cross.  Why? Because of the Cross and the Empty Tomb my son is more alive than he’s ever been.  And a reunion is coming. There are simply some mysteries that won’t be revealed until we reach heaven.  Paul told the Corinthians: “Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now.”[22]
  • Let me finish with a quote from the great 19th century, British preacher/ theologian, Charles Haddon Spurgeon:

“The system of truth revealed in the Scriptures is not simply one straight line, but two; and no man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once…..I see, in one place, God in providence presiding over all, and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions, in a great measure, to his own free will. Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act that there was no control of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to atheism; and if, on the other hand, I should declare that God so over-rules all things that man is not free enough to be responsible, I should be driven at once into antimonianism or fatalism. That God predestines, and yet that man is responsible, are two facts that few can see clearly. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory, but they are not. The fault is in our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other…..They are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the human mind which pursues them farthest will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.”[23]

 

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 End Notes

[1] John 17:17, NIV; See also Isaiah 40:8

[2] Ephesians 2:8, NIV

[3] The term used to describe God as One who can be “caught off guard” or not completely certain of what happens next is:  “Open Theism.”

[4] Job 38:1-4, NIV

[5] Job 40:1-7, NIV

[6] Norman Geisler.  Chosen But Free, 2001.

[7] A.W. Tozer.  The Knowledge of the Holy, 1978.  Quoted by Norman Geisler in Chosen But Free.

[8] Matthew 10:32; 12:50; Mark 9:37; Luke 9:24; John 3:16

[9] Matthew 24:22, 24; Romans 8:33; In Colossians 3:12, the Amplified describes “chosen ones” as “His own picked representatives.”

[10] Wayne Grudem, Ph.D.  Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 1994.

[11] Romans 9:16-18, NIV

[12] Job 23:13, NIV

[13] Edwin Lutzer. Doctrines That Divide. 1998.

[14] John MacArthur.  MacArthur Commentary on Ephesians, 1986.

[15] For an excellent commentary on Judas, see John MacArthur’s, Twelve Ordinary Men, 2002.

[16] Robert Creech, Ph.D.  Quote included in a personal e-mail from Dr. Creech.  2000

[17] MacArthur.  Ephesians.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Larry McGraw, Ph.D. Professor of Theology. Hardin-Simmons University. Abilene, TX.

[20] J.I. Packer. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. 1991

[21] Galatians 1:7, NIV

[22] 1 Corinthians 13:12, NLT

[23] Charles Spurgeon.  A Defense of Calvinism, 1897.  Included in “A Heritage of Great Evangelical Teaching,” 1996.

Why Pray? (Does it really make any difference?)

I want to thank everyone for your kind and encouraging words regarding the message I preached on June 16th about the mystery of prayer and why God, through human eyes, seems so capricious i.e. why does he answer some prayers and not others?

My daughter, Macy Watts, listened to it yesterday and told me should couldn’t stop crying. (Most of the time that’s what happens when they find out I’m that day’s preacher. )

Why pray? Because Jesus did.

Why flood heaven with requests? Because Jesus did.

I shared the following with Macy. Perhaps, for those who are wrestling with this spiritual disciple called prayer, my response to Macy may be of some encouragement. love to you all. nw

“Macy, the topic (of why God answers some prayers and not others) has always been problematic for me. Way before Jordan died I would hear testimonies of people talking about how their loved one had stopped drinking or using drugs. I begged God to heal my dad and sister. They died anyway. Or about someone who had been reconciled with their dad or mom. And I would ask God, “Why them and not me??” But, at some point, you just have to strip away the veneer and ask the question behind it all: “can I trust God, or not?” It’s a hard question sometimes. In Daniel 9:23 the angel, Gabriel, came in “swift flight” to tell Daniel, “As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given.” If I am going to believe John 3:16 I have to believe Dan. 9:23 right? I can’t cherry-pick which scriptures I’m going to believe and which ones I’m not. At some point in one’s life you have to drive a stake in the ground and, with your Bible in your hand, say to God, “Life is hard. I don’t understand most of it. But I’m going to believe this book, by faith alone, in Christ alone.” And then walk away with the issue once and for all settled. As my brother/friend, Joe Price, told me after Jordan Blake Watts took his life, “If faith was easy, it wouldn’t be called faith.”

When Macy texted me after listening to the message she included my closing quote:

“It appears to me that God has decided that he can use me better in my pain than with my son still here. I don’t understand it. I don’t like it. I don’t have the answers that I need. But I’ve chosen to believe that God is still God. And that God is still good.”

For Narnia, nw