Saturday, August 26, 2006

8. The Biblical Doctrine of Election is Useful

The doctrine of election is not an abstract truth with no practical significance for the Christian, rather it is vitally edifying when handled aright. As Calvin describes it “though the discussion of predestination is regarded as a perilous sea, yet in sailing over it the navigation is calm and safe, nay pleasant, provided we do not voluntarily court danger. .those who investigate it rightly, and in the order in which it is exhibited in the word, reap from it rich fruits of consolation”. When Puritans sought to make practical application of doctrine they spoke of its uses. The Biblical doctrine of Election is preeminently full of practical use and application.

Some say that election should not be preached because it is so mysterious or difficult but all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, and Scripture is full of expressions and implications of this doctrine. Although it may be unpopular or challenging it must still be preached. If preaching election can fan doubts and fears for genuine believers, preaching regeneration easily could do the same for those who have fears and doubts whether or not they have truly been born again.

Preaching exalts God in Christ and abases man and this is the true result of unconditional election by the effectual working of the Holy Spirit. Calvin rightly says: “Those who preclude access, and would not have any one to obtain a taste of this doctrine, are equally unjust to God and men, there being no other means of humbling us as we ought, or making us feel how much we are bound to him.”

In preaching, however, election is to be handled with special prudence, humility and care so that it is only emphasised in proportion to the degree that it is stressed in Scripture. It would be unwise to press it prominently upon anxious seekers, sceptics, or those who have not grasped the gospel and other basic truths first. It must be taught in relation to effectual calling and obedience to the gospel with proportionate emphasis upon man’s responsibility.

Assurance and comfort
Election is the basis of our eternal hope: that those whom he predestined, them he also called. We have no hope in ourselves as guilty, lost and ruined. But we have hope in the only Redeemer of God's elect who is Himself the elect one appointed to lay down his life for the people given to him in the eternal counsels. The golden chain joining election and glorification assures us that Nothing will thwart God's ultimate purpose. We doubt ourselves but we cannot doubt his promises.

The Canons of Dordt wisely counsel that the elect gain assurance of their election “not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God, but by observing in themselves with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God such as, a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.” The Christian receives comfort and assurance by following these fruits of election to their source. The Spirit thus assures us of our adoption and therefore of our election: "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God." Rom. 8:16).

In their useful summary of the orthodox doctrine of election the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England affirm winsomely the same teaching as Dordt that “the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God”.

Election when rightly considered in this way will truly humble us to say with David, “Who am I, O Lord GOD? and what is my house that thou hast brought me hitherto? ... And is this the manner of men? And what can David say more unto thee? For thou, Lord GOD knowest thy servant?” The sense of that debt flows out in loving obedience to his revealed will. The elect are called with an holy calling (2 Tim. 1:9) unto holiness and their manner of life shows this. Election does not produce carelessness but careful obedience and acknowledging of the truth which is after godliness. The Canons of Dordt indicate this: “The sense and certainty of this election afford to the children of God additional matter for daily humiliation before Him, for adoring the depth of His mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to Him who first manifested so great love towards them. The consideration of this doctrine of election is so far from encouraging remissness in the observance of the divine commands or from sinking men in carnal security, that these, in the just judgment of God, are the usual effects of rash presumption or of idle and wanton trifling with the grace of election, in those who refuse to walk in the ways of the elect.”

Praise and devotion
Election should instill within us a spirit of praise, love and devotion. It is all to the “praise of the glory of his grace” and "we love him because he first loved us". No credit is due to the creature but all the glory belongs and is due to God alone. "We are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation" (2 Thess. 2:13). What a high privilege election is. They are a people chosen to show forth his praises. They are blessed indeed "Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and causest to approach unto thee, that he may dwell in thy courts" (Ps. 65:4). "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him" (Eph. 1:3, 4). Does the Lord say: "I have loved thee with an everlasting love." And will not our love rise in response? This spirit of praise is well expressed in the following words of the Dutch theologian Herman Witsius:

Didst thou, O Lord, from eternity, entertain thoughts of glorifying me, a miserable wretch, who am less than nothing; and shall I not again carry thee for ever in my eyes, and always in my bosom? shall I not delight in meditating on thee? shall I not cry out, how precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them! Psalm 139.17. Shall I not, with the most sincere repentance, bewail that time, in which so many hours, days, weeks, months, and years, have passed over my head, without one single holy and pleasing thought of thee? Didst thou, out of mere love, choose me to salvation? And shall not I again choose thee for my Lord, my king, my husband, for the portion of my soul, for my chief, or rather my only delight?

Unconditional Election must bring us to this. It will naturally lead to this when handled with special prudence and care as the Westminster Confession teaches: “So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel”. We emphasise again Anthony Burgess's words: 'This point of election... is not to be agitated in a verbal and contentious way, but in a saving way, to make us tremble and to set us upon a more diligent and close striving with God in prayer, and all other duties.' May this be our own experience to the praise of the glory of his grace alone.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

7. The Biblical Doctrine of Election is Unchallengable

It was well said by G. S. Bishop that, "The reason why any one believes in election is, that he finds it in the Bible. No man could ever imagine such a doctrine—for it is, in itself, contrary to the thinking and the wishes of the human heart. Every one, at first, opposes the doctrine, and it is only after many struggles, under the working of the Spirit of God, that we are made to receive it...The reason why any one believes in election is just this, and only this, that God has made it known. Had the Bible been a counterfeit it never could have contained the doctrine of election, for men are too averse to such a thought to give it expression, much more to give it prominence."

Election is consistently God-centred and supernaturalist from beginning to end. This is why it is hated so much, our proud carnal nature sees things from a man-centred rather than a God-centred perspective. We always begin with ourselves and make man the measure of all things. “We have turned every one to his own way”, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God”. Where this natural tendency is given full rein it rejects God and His claims altogether, because Sovereign grace is the direct opposite of human rebellion. Those who had assumed for many years that the sun revolves around the earth must have been astonished to discover that the earth actually revolves around the sun. How much greater is the change when a sinner acknowledges experimentally that salvation is all of the Lord and that in Him we live and move and have our being. All opposition to unconditional election comes ultimately from a man-centred perspective, there are two main such objections: one that it is unreasonable and the other more common and forceful objection is that it is unjust.

Some object against election because they cannot comprehend it and there are aspects of it beyond their reach, so they reject it as unreasonable. To be consistent they must equally dismiss the doctrines of the inspiration of Scripture, the trinity, the two natures of Christ, and the final resurrection since some aspects of these are beyond comprehension. It is in itself unreasonable to reject the truth of election solely upon the basis that human reason cannot entirely fathom it. If we will believe no more of God and His ways than we can comprehend, then we are simply putting him on the level of any man. As AW Pink has said: “Faith has an assurance that God is too wise to err, too righteous to be unjust; and therefore that He is infinitely worthy of our trust and subjection to His holy will."

The principal and most common objection to the doctrine of unconditional election is that it makes God guilty of gross injustice. In an age when rights and equality are exalted but authority is despised it is no surprise if it is seen as unjust for God to elect some to glory but pass others by without consideration of their works. In Romans 9 Paul anticipates this very objection, 'For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth; it was said unto her, the elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated. What shall we say then, Is there unrighteousness with God?' v11-14. He immediately follows with 'God forbid!' It is unthinkable and impossible that it be so, God is a God of faithfulness and without injustice.

Paul goes on to state 'He hath mercy on whom he will, and whom he will he hardeneth'. God is free and sovereign and not required by a necessity of His nature to show mercy. If God’s nature required Him to show saving mercy to any, then it would oblige Him to show mercy to all. We are also wrong to assign priorities among the divine perfections in supposing that God is more glorious in His grace and mercy than He is in His power or his justice.

In our objections to election we are not thinking of how God actually is but rather how we imagine him to be. We have an idea of what it is for God to be righteous and He must conform to our prescription. "Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself" (Ps. 50:21). In other words we think of God according to our own categories and measure him by a human standard. We think of God's attributes such as mercy and justice according to the qualities of human mercy and justice. But this is altogether wrong. justice is not to be brought down to the same level as human justice. James Ussher defines God's justice as that attribute: "whereby He is infinitely just in himself, of himself, for, from, and by Himself, and none other.” The rule of God's Justice is His Own free will as Calvin affirms: “The will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it. Therefore, when it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, Because he pleased. But if you proceed farther to ask why he pleased, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, and nothing such can be found.” God has made us how he will and for what purpose he will."Hath not the potter power over the clay; of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor?" (Rom. 9:21).

What after all is justice? It is treating each person equitably and fairly, giving to him his due. This is human justice but we cannot ask what God owes to man as his due or right. Is He in His Providence bound to give physical health and strength, intellectual ability, social status etc. to all? We know certainly that He does not. God is no man's debtor: for "who has first given to him and it shall be recompensed unto him again?" (Rom. 11: 32, 33.). All of His creation is entirely dependent upon him and under obligation to him, "in him we live and move and have our being". No praise would be due to God for simply fulfilling a debt of obligation towards us.
Election is simply the taking of one and the leaving of another, and why should God be less free than man in this choice? To choose one person does not injure another –it simply leaves them as they were. Salvation is not a matter of justice, but of pure free grace, and grace is not anyone's right. It is a free gift freely bestowed and God says to our objections Matt 20:15."Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?"

Others will object that election must be unjust because the Bible says that God is not partial or a respecter of persons. But when the Bible uses this expression it means that whereas men usually show preference between people according to their wealth, nationality, or other status when they are really equal. God's grace is precisely not a respecter of persons because it does not choose anyone for anything that they are or will be or will do. He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. God often chooses those whom men would never choose. A respecter of persons gives unequally to those who are equal, when they are bound to give equally to all. But as we have seen God gives freely and is not bound to give anything to anyone.

Would God have been unjust in leaving all to perish in their sins? Not at all. But often it is objected: if all are equally guilty, why does he not punish all? It would be just if everybody was treated the same. He must either save all or punish all. The objector recognises that there would be no injustice in punishing all but why should it then be unjust to resolve to save some? There is no injury done to those not chosen, they still justly receive the punishment that the objector has already agreed would be just for them to receive. The objector, however, will only acknowledge that God is just if all are treated the same but this is to impose their own standard of justice on God.

Some want to object that since God has received a ransom sufficient for the sins of all, all should receive the saving benefits of it. It is true that the atonement of Christ has such value that it is potentially sufficient for all – though it is not intended for all. This objection supposes that infinite mercy relates to the number that are saved, but infinite mercy is better seen in the manner in which they are saved. Moreover, when God administers the ransom he is freely giving of that which is his own. He has not obligated himself to apply this ransom to all.
Men will still object that is unjust, selfish and cruel for God to afflict some for the sake of his own glory. But what is the highest good? God is alone good in himself and all things are from him and for him. It is only right that it is so. The glory of God is the highest good, there can be no greater good than this. It is not selfish but consistent for God to act according to this purpose – he would not be God if He did not. The holy wisdom of God with respect to that highest good determined that both the mercy and the justice of God should be displayed. We could only say that God was unjust if he punished any who did not deserve the punishment or whom he had forced to be guilty. But this is not so, men willingly fall into sin, and perish.

Some wrestle with God's justice by saying that it is unjust of God to condemn sinners because we cannot avoid his sovereign predetermination. Where is human responsibility? If God is in control how can we have any responsibility? Or as the apostle Paul anticipates the objection: "Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?" The reply comes back: 'But who art thou, O man, that repliest [or margin: disputest] against God?' Will we with our corrupt reason argue with the great God of heaven and earth? Who are we to argue with Him? We must seriously consider the One against whom we argue. Shall the thing formed say unto him that formed it why hast thou made me thus? If we consider our own consciences honestly we will wonder how we can imagine ourselves to be such absolute judges of infinite justice and holiness. "Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not My way equal? are not your ways unequal?" (Ezek. 18:25). The Scriptures are quite clear that man is responsible to God for all his deeds. God treats him as rational and accountable, using appropriate means and motives to incline him to obedience unto his revealed will. In Romans 9, Paul goes on to argue that God's longsuffering with the vessels of wrath ver. 22 shows that men sin freely and harden themselves against His warnings.

God does not refuse mercy to any that seek it sincerely and penitently but He promises mercy to all such seekers. Those who refuse do so because of their own sinfulness which is not the effect of God's election. Who makes the lost to be lost? Whom has God ever caused to sin against his commandments and warnings? He says to the sinner: "Thou hast destroyed thyself yet in me is thine help" (Hos. 13:9). Anthony Burgess has said: “For no man is damned precisely because God hath not chosen him, because he is not elected, but because he is a sinner, and doth wilfully refuse the means of grace offered.” It has been said that "none shall be damned till his conscience acknowledges that he is worthy of it a thousand times."

We must simply submit to the fact that God desired for his own most wise reasons to show his mercy as well as his justice, showing what none deserved in some while showing what all deserved in others. Thomas Boston writes: "The glory and beauty of the divine attributes is displayed here with a shining lustre; as his sovereign authority and dominion over all his creatures to dispose of them to what ends and purposes he pleases; his knowledge and omniscience, in beholding all things past, present, and to come; his vindictive justice, in ordaining punishments to men, as a just retribution for sin; and his omnipotence, in making good his word, and putting all his threatenings in execution. The glory of his goodness shines likewise here, in making choice of any, when all most justly deserved to be rejected. And his mercy shines here with an beautiful lustre, in receiving and admitting all who believe in Jesus into his favour."

The Lord Jesus Christ could say as a perfect response to the truth of election: "I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight". The more Christlike we become the more of this response to election will be evidenced in us.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

6. The Biblical Doctrine of Election is Unsearchable

Election is a holy mystery and it is presented in Scripture for our humble adoration rather than for dispute. We often want to know answers to questions that we are not called to search out. We want reasons behind God's sovereign choice that Scripture does not give. Hugh Binning says that “the reason of God's proceedings is inscrutable to us, unless we could understand God as well as he understands himself. The rays of his infinite wisdom are too bright and dazzling for our weak and shallow capacities.” There are limits of enquiry: we cannot and must not go beyond what has been revealed. Scripture tells us all that we need to know. Calvin warns against prying into that “sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear. Hugh Binning counsels: "we must open our eyes upon so much light as God reveals of these secrets, knowing that the light of the word is a saving, refreshing light, not confounding, as is his inaccessible light of secret glory... This is the best bond of sobriety and humble wisdom, to learn what he teacheth us; but when he makes an end of teaching, to desire no more learning. It is humility to seek no more, and it is true wisdom to be content with no less."

At the end of Romans 11 the apostle Paul speaks of the eternal counsels as an unsearchable treasury, wondering at their infinite depth. They are infinitely merciful, infinitely just and infinitely free and sovereign. 'O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!'