- Presbyterian doctrine teaches what the Bible says about God sovereign control over history and his unconditional choice (election) to bring some people to everlasting glory while allowing others to remain in unbelief and be punished for their sins (Ephesians 1.11; Romans 9.14-24; Proverbs 16.4; 21.1).
- This doctrine guards against any form of human pride or legalism since those who end up in heaven do so only because of God’s mercy, not because of anything they have done or any quality that they possess on their own (Ephesians 2.8-10; First Corinthians 1.26-31). It assures us that the elect can never fall away or be prevented from inheriting eternal life. This fact is often treated as the key to assurance.
- But a problem enters the picture at this point. Anyone who knows he is elect knows he is perfectly safe, but not all those who profess faith actually are elect. Some do not persevere (Second Timothy 2.14-19). People end up looking for marks that they can claim only accompany those who are elected to eternal life. Invariably, these marks are incredibly subjective. Some raised in this doctrine will be unsure where they would end up if they were to die in the next hour, even though they have been raised to believe the Gospel message. They are not sure that they are elect.
- To resolve all this, we need to begin with the understanding that even though God does not elect all people to everlasting life, it does not follow that he is devoid of love for those he passes by. Thus Paul states in Romans 2.4, 5: Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. God’s providing opportunities to repent is based on his kindness even though the objects of that kindness are destined for a more severe judgment because they resist the opportunities to repent.
- Thus, the proper question to ask is not, “What are God’s secret decrees?” but rather, “What has God promised me and/or warned me about?” We have to operate by what God has revealed not be his secret plan (Deuteronomy 29.29). If God reveals his love to someone, the proper stance toward that revelation is not to raise doubts by speculating in regard to the God’s plan for the future, but rather to take God at face value now. In other words, we must respond in faith to what God says.
- What God has revealed in the Bible is that he has a special people on earth who belong to him through Jesus Christ (First Peter 2.4-9: …coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but elect and precious in the sight of God, 5 you also, as living stones… are an elect race…). Notice that the Apostle Peter deliberately compares the election of Christ to glory with the election of the Church, using terms God used to assure Israel of his love for her.
- Just as God chose Israel, or as Jesus chose his twelve disciples, God chose the Church, a transnational institution. The Church is an instance of corporate election. Just as Israel was formed by a supernatural deliverance from Egypt, preservation in the wilderness, and conquest of the Promised Land, so the Church is also formed by God’s supernatural work. Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in [among] you? (First Corinthians 3.16). For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many… Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it (First Corinthians 12.12-14, 27).
- The results of individual election are ordinarily found in the context of corporate election. God predestines the eternally elect to that everlasting glory by working in their lives to bring them into his people, the Church, by word and sacrament (Matthew 28.18-20). Those who persevere in the Faith show they are predestined to everlasting life. Those who stop trusting God are guilty of rejecting God’s adoption and love. Thus, John Calvin wrote: I admit that it was by their own fault Ishmael, Esau, and others, fell from their adoption; for the condition annexed was, that they should faithfully keep the covenant of God, whereas they perfidiously violated it. The singular kindness of God consisted in this, that he had been pleased to prefer them to other nations; as it is said in the psalm, “He has not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them,” (Ps. 147:20). But I had good reason for saying that two steps are here to be observed; for in the election of the whole nation, God had already shown that in the exercise of his mere liberality he was under no law but was free, so that he was by no means to be restricted to an equal division of grace, its very inequality proving it to be gratuitous. Accordingly, Malachi enlarges on the ingratitude of Israel, in that being not only selected from the whole human race, but set peculiarly apart from a sacred household; they perfidiously and impiously spurn God their beneficent parent. “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau,” (Mal. 1:2, 3). For God takes it for granted, that as both were the sons of a holy father, and successors of the covenant, in short, branches from a sacred root, the sons of Jacob were under no ordinary obligation for having been admitted to that dignity; but when by the rejection of Esau the first born, their progenitor though inferior in birth was made heir, he charges them with double ingratitude, in not being restrained by a double tie (Institutes, 3.21.6).
- The mark of individual election to everlasting life is perseverance in faith in God (Mark 13.13; Hebrews 10.32-36). Thus, when Moses assures the Israelites of God’s love, he can seamlessly move to a warning to persevere in that love: The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. “Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face. Therefore, you shall keep the commandment and the statutes and the judgments which I am commanding you today, to do them (Deuteronomy 7.7-11).
- The condition of perseverance, and the warning against abandoning God’s covenant, does not lead to the same sort of introspective problems as has plagued less Biblical formulations. God’s promises are sure. No one needs to worry about what will happen if they were to die in the next hour. God loves the Church and he will not allow one of his promises to fail. He is not going to say, “Sorry, I never elected you and you weren’t really regenerate so I don’t have to honor any of my promises.” Rather, continuing in God’s kingdom is proof that one is welcome to God, is chosen by him, and is alive to him. Those who are disinherited are those who abandon the Faith, not those allegedly missing out on some alleged inward reality. Ulrich Zwingli, the early Protestant Reformer gave an example of what this means: What then of Esau if he had died as an infant? Would your judgment place him among the elect? Yes. Then does election remain sure? It does. And rejection remains also. But listen. If Esau had died an infant he would doubtless have been elect. For if he had died then there would have been the seal of election, for the Lord would not have rejected him eternally. But since he lived and was of the non-elect, he so lived that we see in the fruit of his unfaith that he was rejected by the Lord (Quoted by Peter Lillback, The Binding of God p. 105).
- One perseveres in God’s adopted family only by faith. It is not a matter of trying to earn God’s favor or be good enough to be in heaven. The only people who will be raised in glory will be those united to Christ by faith. Faith perseveres because salvation comes in the form of a promise. Thus, the warnings issued to believers have a function in keeping believers from abandoning the faith, just as the promises do (i.e. John 15.1-11; Romans 11.17-23; First Corinthians 10.1-22, etc). Saving faith believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come (Westminster Confession 14.2). Only by remembering and believing God’s sure and certain promises, will one persevere in God objective, corporate people—to whom those promises are made—and thus manifest that one is individually elect (Hebrews 10.37-12.3). One will then be numbered among God’s sons and daughters in glory at the resurrection because God is faithful.
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19.4-6a). For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deuteronomy 7.6-8). Hear, O Israel! You are crossing over the Jordan today to go in to dispossess nations greater and mightier than you, great cities fortified to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim, whom you know and of whom you have heard it said, ‘Who can stand before the sons of Anak? Know therefore today that it is the Lord your God who is crossing over before you as a consuming fire. He will destroy them and He will subdue them before you, so that you may drive them out and destroy them quickly, just as the Lord has spoken to you. Do not say in your heart when the Lord your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Know, then, it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people (Deuteronomy 9.1-6).
Good stuff, Mark. Makes sense to me.
Great post, Mark! Thanks!