What Does the Bible Say about the Doctrine of Election?

electionIn the Bible, the word “election” is used in a number of ways. For instance, in Matthew 24 Jesus speaks of “the elect” (vv. 22, 24, 31); in Romans 9 Paul explains “God’s purpose of election” (v. 11); and in Ephesians 1:4–6, Paul says the Father “chose us in him before the foundation of the world,” and “in love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” These are but three examples that undergird the doctrine of election.

While debated, the doctrine is plainly biblical. ‘Chose,’ ‘elect,’ ‘election,’ and ‘predestined’ are Bible words. And when they are read in conjunction with passages that speak of God’s unique relationship with his sheep (John 10:26), his children (John 11:51–52), the ones given to the Son before the foundation of the world (John 17), and his appointment of some to believe (Acts 13:48), the evidence for unconditional election is incredibly strong. As George Mueller said of the doctrines that he once thought “devilish,”[1]

Being made willing to receive what the Scriptures said, I went to the Word, reading the New Testament from the beginning, with a particular reference to these truths. To my great astonishment I found that the passages which speak decidedly for election and persevering grace, were about four times as many as those which speak apparently against these truths; and even those few, shortly after, when I had examined and understood them, served to confirm me in the above doctrines.[2]

That being said, my point is not so much to advance a theological argument for the doctrine of election, but to observe more plainly how the Bible speaks of election. As Mueller stated, the New Testament authors assumed election was true. It was, in fact, part of their cultural heritage. The Jewish people were the covenant people because God chose them from among the nations (Deut 7:7). Yahweh blessed apart from the Gentiles (Rom 9:1–3). Accordingly, the doctrine of election is commonplace in the New Testament.

Five Ways the Bible Speaks of Election

1. Election prompts praise to God

The first thing to recognize is that election is a source of praise. Jesus praises the Father for hiding himself from the proud and revealing himself to the children. In Matthew 11:25–27 Jesus says,

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

This passage indicates God’s willingness to overlook the proud and Jesus praise to the Father for this divine decision. Paul follows suit when he praises God for the Father’s eternal purposes in Christ:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:3–6).

In both passages, election (the particular grace of God given to some and not others) is described as a reason for praise. The same is true for Peter. In the salutation of his first epistle, he celebrates the “elect” identity of followers of Christ.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you” (1 Peter 1:1–2).

All in all, the doctrine of election should lead Christians to praise God. Nowhere in Scripture does the doctrine incite anger or debate. Just the opposite. Those who know the Lord praise God for his eternal choice to bless them in Christ.

2. Election humbles the sinner

Charles Hodge once said, the doctrines of grace humble a man without degrading him and exalt a man without inflating him. Indeed, as Paul himself models, election moves a man to boast in his Lord and in his own weaknesses. While those who deny unconditional election may affirm such need to boast only in God, it is the doctrine of election that eliminates any trace of man’s contribution to his own salvation.

For instance, in 1 Corinthians 1:26–31 Paul says:

For 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, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 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.”

Paul indicates that God’s grace does not depend on any human condition. In fact, God delights to choose the things that ‘are not’ to shame the things that are. In this regard, election shuts the mouths of those who trust in themselves. It silences human hubris, which so naturally leads men to glorify themselves. And election once again leads to praise for those who marvel at God’s undeserved mercy.

3. Election motivates ministry and evangelism.

The most explicit place where election motivates evangelism is in 2 Timothy 2:10. There, Paul reveals that the hardships of his ministry are ameliorated and even overcome by his confidence in God’s election. In his words,

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

Paul reveals a similar sentiment in Titus 1:1. Opening his letter to Titus, an apostolic delegate to Crete, he says, “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Christ Jesus, for the sake of the faith of the elect.” In these words, it seems evident his goal is to increase the faith of the elect. He does this by means of instruction (v. 2) and preaching (v. 3). But underlying these ministries of the Word is his steadfast confidence that there are in the churches of Crete people whom God has chosen before the foundation of the world (i.e., the elect).

While election is often thought to undermine evangelism, a close inspection of Scripture proves the opposite. See Matthew 11:25–30; John 6:44–45; Acts 18:9–11; and Romans 9–10.

4. Election increases assurance in the Lord’s salvation

In addition to motivating missions, the doctrine of election brings assurance to believers. This may surprise many who’ve been taught election compromises assurance, but in Scripture the evidence goes the other way.

For instance,1 Thessalonians 1 unites the doctrine of election to personal assurance. In verses 4–5, Paul writes, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Paul speaks openly about his confidence in the Thessalonians standing before God, so much so that he can speak of God choosing them. Instead of encouraging them to question their election, he looks at the way the gospel has saved them and pronounces that they are genuine believers, elect by God.

Christians who want to be more established in their faith focus on the gospel, not on the mysteries of election. Foolish is the pastor who spends more time counseling with the hidden mysteries of God, rather than the revealed comfort of the cross. That being said, as faith produces love and good deeds, believers can give thanks to God for the assurance that before the foundation of the world, God chose them in Christ. Election, in this way, is another source for praise. It is a ground for assurance, that the God who began a good work in them (in eternity past), will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

 5. Election explains why some believe and others do not.

Finally, the doctrine of election helps make sense of the world. In a world where some believe and others don’t, the question is asked: Why? Why do some believe, only to fall away? Why don’t all those who grow up in church believe? Why do some immoral opponents who grew up outside the faith eventually submit to the Lord and believe in the gospel?

The answer: It is a mystery. But only to us. It is not mysterious to God. He knows all who are his (2 Timothy 2:19). And he explains how election is a necessary and blessed gift of grace to bring spiritually-dead sinners into saving relationship with him. While many passages speak of this (John 10:26; 12:37–41; Acts 13:48; 1 Peter 2:8; etc.) speak of this reality, none are more thorough than Romans 9.

In Romans 9 Paul explains how God’s promises of salvation to Israel can be fulfilled when it seems like God has failed to be faithful to his word. In that context, Paul explains not all (ethnic) Israel is (true) Israel (v. 6). Building on that premise, he explains God’s pattern of election in the Old Testament: Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau (vv. 7–13). In his argument, he asserts that Esau and Pharaoh are guilty for their unbelief, but that those who do believe do so by his gracious choice. If you’ve never read Romans 9, I would encourage you to take time to do so.

All in all, what we find in that chapter is the wondrous reality that God choses whom he would save, and that salvation is entirely dependent on God. However, Romans 9 also teaches God’s judgment is not due to some eternal predestination for hell. Rather, God permitted the likes of Esau and Pharaoh to pursue their own desires, which in time earned their own judgment. Succinctly, salvation is entirely of the Lord; condemnation is the just reward for sinners who refuse to believe the gospel.

Paul anticipates his asymmetrical explanation of redemptive history will produce questions. So he finishes his argument stating God is the potter who has the right to make from the clay (i.e., fallen humanity) whatever he chooses. As Paul puts it,

Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use. (v. 21)

In the verses that follow, Paul says the potter will fashion some vessels of mercy while he patiently endures those who makes themselves into vessels of wrath—notice the asymmetry of language—vessels of wrath were prepared in time by their own sins; vessels of mercy were prepared beforehand by God.

Romans 9 gives the final answer why any and all things transpire in the world—because of God. Though the world is filled with secondary agents—many of whom are truly wicked—it is the God of Joseph, Job, and Jesus who has the first and final say in all that transpires. And as Romans 8 says, he is working all things together for good, for those who love God and who have been called according to his purposes (v. 28) and predestined for glory (v. 29).

Praise God From Who All Blessings Flow . . . Even Election

In sum, the New Testament never argues for election, per se. It always speaks of election in conjunction with other things that God is doing. It is a doctrine that leads believers to praise; it humbles those who know the Lord and those who don’t; it motivates missions and evangelism; it brings assurance to those who believe the gospel; and ultimately it helps makes sense of the world in which we live. In all these ways, the doctrine of election is not something to be hidden under a rug; it is a wondrous doctrine that believers should ponder and give God praise.

For further consideration of these biblical doctrines, consider these biblical word studies.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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[1]“Before this period I had been much opposed to the doctrines of election, particular redemption, and final persevering grace; so much so that, a few days after my arrival at Teignmouth, I called election a devilish doctrine. . . I knew nothing about the choice of God’s people, and did not believe that the child of God, when once made so, was safe for ever. . . . But now I was brought to examine these precious truths by the word of God. George Mueller, A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealing with George Muller, Written by Himself, Jehovah Magnified. Addresses by George Muller Complete and Unabridged, 2 vols. (Muskegon, Mich.: Dust and Ashes, 2003), 1:46.

[2]Ibid., 1:46. Mueller said at another time: [2]In the course of time I came to this country, and it pleased God then to show to me the doctrines of grace in a way in which I had not seen them before. At first I hated them, “If this were true I could do nothing at all in the conversion of sinners, as all would depend upon God and the working of His Spirit.” But when it pleased God to reveal these truths to me, and my heart was brought to such a state that I could say, “I am not only content simply to be a hammer, an axe, or a saw, in God’s hands; but I shall count it an honor to be taken up and used by Him in any way; and if sinners are converted through my instrumentality, from my inmost soul I will give Him all the glory; the Lord gave me to see fruit; the Lord gave me to see fruit in abundance; sinners were converted by scores; and ever since God has used me in one way or other in His service.” (Ibid., 1:752).

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