A Difficult and Divisive Doctrine

We had some solid food to chew on Sunday at church. Food that JI Packer said “is strong meat: very nourishing to those who can take it, but acutely indigestible to those whose spiritual system is out of order.”

We can blame Jesus for leading us into it, for we were only considering what He means by His words in John 6:35-48. It’s not the only place He talks about this though. It keeps popping up in John’s gospel. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record similar statements. Paul brings it up – often. James and Peter mention it. Even Jude brings it up in his short letter.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Jeremiah are all examples of it. So clearly it must be food that the Lord wants us to chew on, to digest, and to absorb.

And yet, Christians argue over it – heatedly. Churches have split over it. Which tells me one thing about this food, this teaching – we don’t understand it. For that is the last thing that should be happening.

So what it this solid food?

None other than the doctrine of Election – the idea that God chooses some for salvation, but not others. Jesus Himself says controversial things like, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” and “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

He also says, “Did I not choose you… I know whom I have chosen… You did not choose me, but I chose you… I chose you out of the world…” [see John 6:70; 13:18; 15:16; 15:19]. And that’s just in John’s gospel. All the other writers of Scripture agree.  If you want a small sample, check out Matt 24:31, Mark 13:20-22, Acts 13:48, Rom 8:30-33, 2Tim 2:10, Jas 2:5, 1Pet 2:9, Jude 1:1, Rev 17:14, and especially Rom 9:10-13.

The evidence seems pretty conclusive. People get saved because God chooses who He wants to save, based solely on the fact that He decides to set His love on some, and not set His love on others.

Which, of course, doesn’t cast God in the best light. It makes Him sound mean, vindictive, fickle, unfair¬ – all common objections when this topic comes up. And it makes this subject acutely indigestible to some.

But that’s because we seem to have this mistaken notion that somehow God owes something to everybody. Somehow we all deserve His grace. After all, we’re not bad, are we? Not really bad. Not like Nero, or Hitler, or other psychopaths. We’re good to others, love our mums, help little old ladies across the street. Surely God should acknowledge that and reward us?!

Which tells me something else we don’t understand – God owes us nothing. We are all sinners who have happily and willingly sinned against a holy and perfect God. What God owes us – what God owes every person on the planet – is condemnation, punishment, Hell. We’re deluded if we think we can please God or impress God such that He owes us salvation.

But instead, what God does in His love and mercy is to choose some for salvation. Why does He do this? What does He see in those to decide to save them? Nothing! He does it because He chooses to do it. Doesn’t the Potter have the right to form the clay into anything He wants, for any purpose He wants to use it for? And does the clay have the right to demand otherwise from the Potter. I think not. Neither did the apostle Paul, who talked about this quite extensively in Rom 9.

God is not unjust nor unfair. He does not punish anyone unjustly. For we all deserve his wrath. He owes sinners no mercy of any kind, only condemnation; so it is no injustice if he does not choose to bless them.

Rather than stir up arguments, this teaching is meant to humble us, and stir us to awe and reverence before a great and mighty and sovereign and holy God who would choose to extend mercy to those who deserve only punishment. It should make our jaws drop in amazement and wonder. It should cause us to open our mouths in praise of this great and gracious and merciful God. It should make us worship.

All this should stir us to action to tell others of this merciful God who pours out His kindness on underserving sinners. It should stir evangelism, for in the face of a completely fallen and spiritually dead humanity, it is the only thing that gives us any hope that some would receive the good news of Jesus Christ and the salvation He offers to sinners.

If it has any other effect, we really haven’t understood it, no matter how learned we think we are.


The benefits of being a recipient of God’s election are many. If you want to see some for yourself, read these passages, all explicitly connected with election: John 6:40; Rom 8:29-30, 33-35, 39, 9:23; Eph 1:3-7, 10, 13-14, 2:10; 2Thess 2:13; 2Tim 2:10.

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