The Sharp Edges of God’s Sovereign Salvation: 9 Truths about the Doctrine of Election

black and white silhouette of christ the redeemer

A number of years ago, I preached a sermon Titus 1:1. In that passage, Paul says, he is “an apostle Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth.” In that sermon it would be impossible and unfaithful to ignore the word “elect” (eklekton) and the way in which Paul labored for the faith of the elect.

And yet, despite the clear presence of the word in the text and its relationship to faith, truth, and Paul’s gospel ministry, my exposition initiated a cascade of events that resulted in my eventual resignation from my pastoral office. Such is the antagonism against the doctrine of election, which has often been flown under the banner of Calvinism.

In more recent days, I preached a series of messages from John 6, a passage that also touches the doctrine of election. And in these messages, preached in a church where the doctrines of grace are not eschewed but embraced, I was able to show from Scripture what Jesus says about God’s sovereignty in salvation.

In what follows, I want to bullet point some of the key truths uncovered in John 6 with respect to the doctrine of election. In many other articles, I have written how evangelism and election relate, what Scripture says about election, and what hyper-Calvinism really is. In this article, however, I want to stick to Jesus’s words in John 6—a passage where our Lord teaches about the ways God brings salvation to his elect, while passing over others.

Admittedly, this passage is a hard saying (v. 60) and election is a hard doctrine, but it is a true doctrine and one worth pondering. So, with the goal of understanding what Jesus says in John 6, let me offer nine truths about the doctrine of election.

Nine Truths about the Doctrine of Election

Before getting into the text, here is an outline of the nine points. Because what follows is rather long, you might consider picking which point is most interesting (or troubling) and starting there.

  1. Election depends on the God who selects, not mankind who seeks.
  2. Election is ordained in eternity and revealed in time.
  3. Election in time mirrors God’s election in eternity.
  4. God’s election results in faith, not the reverse.
  5. Election does not deny the universal offer of Christ; it secures a positive response.
  6. Election depends on the will of God, not the will of man.
  7. The election of God’s people ensures that he will bring the gospel to them.
  8. Election directs Jesus’s ministry, and ours.
  9. Election is for the glory of God, not the glory of man.

1. Election depends on the God who selects, not mankind who seeks.

In John 6, we learn that Jesus is not compelled to save because some seek him; he is compelled to save because God sent him to save a particular people (i.e., the elect). This point is seen a few ways.

First, Jesus knows who are his. In John 6:37, he describes a people whom the Father has given him. These are the ones who will come. This language of “given ones” is Jesus’s way of identifying his sheep. Throughout John, the elect are described by this phrase—the given ones (see e.g., John 6:39; 10:29; 17:6–9, 11–12, 14, 24; 18:9). So Jesus does not randomly seek people to save, because in eternity past the Father already gave him a people to save. These are the ones who will come to him, and these are the chosen ones he has come to save.

Second, Jesus knows why people seek him. As John 6:26 declares, the crowds seek Jesus to fill their stomachs. Clearly, not all seekers seek from pure hearts. Jesus know this and shows, by the end of John 6, how many would-be seekers are not true seekers.

Third, Jesus knows who will not believe. In John 6:64, John writes, “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.” This is a remarkable truth. As Jesus looked at a sea of humanity, he could see the heart of everyone before him (cf. John 2:23–25). And in his ministry, he spent as much time revealing unbelief in those who would not believe (cf. John 7:7), as he did producing faith in those who would. Perhaps, this approach to ministry seems foreign to our consumeristic minds, but read John 6 again. In John’s evangelistic Gospel (see 20:31), we will find an approach to evangelism that depends on God’s will, not appeals to man’s will.

In sum, Jesus is not the Savior of an unknown humanity, he is a Savior for all those whom the Father gave him before the world began.

2. Election is ordained in eternity and revealed in time.

As noted in Truth #1, Jesus works to expose the real condition of the heart. For instance, in his discourse with the crowds, Jesus brings his seekers to a place of grumbling (v. 41), disputing (v. 52), and leaving (v. 66). In this way, he shows the crowds that they are not truly seeking seek him. And he does this because he knows who will not believe.

Conversely, because he knows who will believe, he says and does everything for his elect, so that they would confess him as their Lord and Christ (v. 67). Remarkably, Jesus does not fear losing the ones God has given to him. Instead, he opens the door for them to leave and he challenges his elect to profess their faith—which they do. In John 6:67–69, we read this exchange,

So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Indeed, the elect of God are unknown to the world until they are revealed by enduring faith.

To put it doctrinally, election is something God does in eternity past, which is then revealed in time. And because God has decreed the end from the beginning and everything in between, the result of Jesus’s word ministry perfectly matches what God ordained.

3. Election of the Twelve reflects, but does not reveal, God’s election in eternity.

The last statement in John 6 is one highlighting the divide which still stands among the Twelve.

70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

Most directly, Jesus says to the Twelve, that he has chosen them. In context, Jesus’s words reply to Peter’s great confession (vv. 68–69), but they also explain why Peter confessed faith in Christ. When all the crowds departed, Peter remained with the Twelve because Jesus choose them. In other words, the ultimate efficacy of their discipleship was not their human will. It was Jesus’s divine choice.

Still, Jesus admits that one of his chosen ones, Judas, remains a son of perdition. As it will be revealed, God’s choice of Judas is different than that of Peter. For instance, Jesus prays to protect Peter from Satan’s sifting (Luke 22:31), but Jesus permits, even sends, Judas to follow his Satanic heart (John 13:2, 27). In short, the difference between Peter and Judas is ultimately up to God, not man. And this divide in the Twelve, like the divide between the Twelve and the departing crowds, reflects the eternal choice of God’s elect.

That said, we need to see a difference between the Father’s choice in election and Jesus’s choice of the Twelve. In other words, when Jesus speaks of the election of the Twelve, he is not describing the same reality as the Father’s election. Jesus chose Judas to be one of the twelve, but he chose him knowing that he would betray him. Hence, Jesus chose Judas for betrayal, not belief. Judas’s betrayal would be a result of his own choosing, when he followed the ways of Satan instead of Christ.

Christ’s of him then is not in opposition to the Father’s will. His choice is something different than the Father’s election unto salvation. Jesus’s choice of the Twelve was a choosing for service, of which eleven disciples were also appointed to believe in Christ, but one wasn’t. And this bifurcation in the Twelve indicates a difference between the Son’s choice and the Father’s.

To make the point finer. This does not mean that the Father and Son have two different elections; it means that Jesus’s election of the Twelve reflects God’s will to ordain some to life and service, while for others he orders their lives to glorify him in their unbelief. As Proverbs 16:4 states, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.” In short, Jesus choice of the Twelve reflects God’s sovereign decree for the elect and the non-elect, not God’s choice of the elect only.

In the Trinitarian theology of John, this is fitting. Jesus does exactly what he sees the Father doing (5:19) and that activity of the Father includes judgment and salvation (5:19–30). Sublimely, God is sovereign over salvation and judgment. And though the process by which God brings salvation to the elect and judgment to unbelievers is not the same (i.e., he condemns unbelievers for their sins in the body, not for being non-elect), the cosmic reality remains: God has declared the end from the beginning and he has determined the eternal reality of every creature.

In Christ’s choice of the twelve, we see this. His election of the eleven who believe on him and the one who will betray him, depicts the universal reality that God has made vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath and all the creatures in his world will ultimately render him the glory for which he created them (cf. Rom. 9:19–23).

4. God’s election results in faith, not the reverse.

As Jesus says in John 6:29, Jesus says that faith is not the work of man, but the work of God. Or to say it differently, faith is the fruit of God’s gift of eternal life (v. 47). Negatively, then, faith is not what man does to get God. But positively, faith is the work of God in man.

Man must believe in the Son to be saved, but faith in the Son comes from the Father (vv. 44, 65) by means of the Spirit (v. 63). And because the Father, Son, and Spirit planned salvation before the world began, we can say with confidence, election results in faith, not the reverse.

Even more concretely, John 6:47 leads us to see that faith comes from people who have received the gift of eternal life (“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life”). And as John 6:54 indicates, feeding on Jesus is only possible for those who have received eternal life (“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”).

Indeed, Jesus says you must eat of his flesh to have eternal life (v. 54), but such a participation in Christ will only come if God has granted life (cf. 1 John 5:1). Thus, the order is fixed—election precedes faith and produces faith at the time God ordains.

5. Election does not deny the universal offer of Christ; it secures a positive response.

Such a strong statement of God’s sovereignty in salvation has often led detractors of Calvinism to declare that unconditional election undercuts the universal free offer of the gospel. But such an objection does hold up in John 6.

First, John 6:35–37 makes it clear, the invitation to come to Christ is open to all. After identifying himself as the Bread of Life, Jesus repeats the offer for anyone to come and believe.

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.

So, there is an unrestricted offer for all to come to Christ—an offer that we should imitate by going into all the earth, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. John 10:16).

At the same time, only those who are chosen by the Father and given to the Son will come. That’s the distinction. A universal offer does not mean that everyone is equally able to come. It means that the only thing preventing someone from coming is their own hardened heart—a condition revealed by Jesus in the crowds of John 6 and a condition only resolved by the gracious work of God, when he gives faith in time to the ones chosen before time.

6. Election depends on the will of God, not the will of man.

A recurring theme in John’s Gospel is Jesus’s obedience to the Father (see e.g., John 5:19–47); . When it comes to bringing salvation, this theme continues. Jesus is not bringing salvation to man according to the will of man; he is bringing salvation to man according to the will of God (John 6:38–40). This means that it is not man who moves the needle for salvation; it is God. As John 6:44 and 6:65 indicate, there is no one who can truly seek God, unless he takes the initiative.

John 6:44: No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

John 6:65: And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

From these two passages come the doctrine of effectual calling—the biblical doctrine that when the Father calls a man to salvation it is efficacious. In other words, God does not simply make salvation possible; he doesn’t reset humanity’s heart to neutral so we can exercise our semi-liberated will to accept or reject Christ. No, God does it. Just as God spoke the universe into existence and it existed, so when God grants life, life is given. And such life grants the power to come (v. 44) and believe (v. 37–40) and abide (v. 56) with Christ.

And because God and his eternal decree are not changed by his creation and the events of history, his effectual call is the outworking of his eternal will. In other words, all those whom the Father promised the Son in eternity past, these are the ones who will be given life in the Spirit to trust in Christ. As noted above, faith in time is the result of election in eternity. Faith is not the result of man’s free will; it is the result of God liberating the will from the bondage of sin and death and giving new life in the Spirit. As Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (v. 63).

7. The election of God’s people ensures that he will bring the gospel to them.

If the end result of election is faith and resurrection on the last day (vv. 39–40, 44, 54), it holds that God has also ordained the means of that faith and resurrection. These means include the sending of the Son (6:29, 38, 39, 44, 57) and the sending of the Spirit (6:63; 7:39; 14:26; 15:26). But in addition to the Son and the Spirit, or better, because of them, all the elect of God will (1) hear the gospel and (2) believe in its message.

Evidence of this verbal communication is found in John 6:45, which reads, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”

The importance of Jesus’s citing Isaiah 54:13 is found in the context of that passage. In Isaiah 54, the prophet is explaining the effects of the Servant’s death and resurrection (Isaiah 53). And in a chapter highlighting the blessings of the new covenant, inaugurated by the Servant, he indicates that everyone in the new covenant will be taught the word of God.

Unlike the old covenant, which required priests to teach the Law of Moses to the people, and which found the people often ignorant of the Law (Hos. 4:4–6), because the priests failed in their work (see Mal. 2:6–9), Isaiah says all the people in the new covenant will know the Lord (cf. Jer. 31:31–34). This means that no one in the new covenant will miss the blessings of the Servant’s sacrifice. All will know God.

Picked up by Jesus in John 6, he is saying, that everyone for whom he dies will be raised up on the last day, because he will teach them all. By means of his Spirit, he will fill the mouths of his disciples to take his Word to all his sheep, so that none will be missing. Indeed, this is another way the new covenant supersedes the old. And it explains the connection between election and eternity (i.e., the eternal life granted to his elect). Jesus will ensure all his people hear his good news.

This truth explains how many around the world have not yet heard the name of Jesus. If Christ died for everyone without exception and if his death changed the nature of mankind, so that in his fallen condition he could yet freely choose Christ, there remains a major problem—not all have heard to be able to exercise their changed condition.

By contrast, if we rightly understand the doctrine of election and its evangelistic purposes, then we can see that everyone chosen by God will hear the gospel and be granted faith to believe. As Jesus will later say in John 10:16, he has sheep who are not of this fold (Israel), and he must go to them also. To this day, Christ continues to gather his sheep from all nations. And because he, as the head of his church, is leading the way of salvation, he will not lose one of his Father’s elect. Instead, every sheep will hear the gospel, such that by God’s power they might receive faith to believe.

One other note here: I believe there are countless elect infants who have died among the unreached people groups. They too are saved by the grace of God. But such salvation of elect infants does not eliminate the need to see Christ’s gospel reach the ends of the earth. All the earth is Christ’s and he has elect sheep who will enter glory not by a premature death, but by faith and repentance, and we must join him in bringing the gospel to them.

8. Election directs Jesus’s ministry, and ours.

Because Jesus is seeking to save the people whom the Father gave him, and because their salvation, through God’s work in space and time, is secure, Jesus does not cater to the concerns of his followers. Rather, he requires his followers to submit to his will and his ways.

For instance, when he receives pushback about his statement “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), Jesus does not change his message or apologize for his words. Instead, he doubles down on who he is and exposes the unbelieving crowd for who they are. In John 6:48 Jesus repeats himself, “I am the Bread of Life.” Then, he identifies his opponents with their forefathers who ate the bread in the wilderness and died (v. 49). Such a “judgmental” word is why people were seeking to kill him (John 7:8), because he revealed their unbelief was evil.

Similarly, Jesus ratchets up his rhetoric when he says to his confused hearers (v. 51–52), you must eat my flesh and drink my blood (vv. 53–59). Jesus is not trying to explain himself to the crowd with easier vocabulary, he’s trying show the crowd who they are. In fact, he does this so well, that the crowds leave after he asks them, “Do you take offense at this?” (v. 61).

It is important to say, Jesus is not clueless about what is happening. Rather, he is following through with the knowledge that he alone has—namely, that in a crowd there are two kinds of people, the elect and the non-elect. And in his messaging, he brings out both. Those appointed to life, he brings to faith (cf. Acts 13:48) and those appointed to judgment, to unbelief.

At this point, it should be remembered that what John 6 tells us. Jesus is explaining how the world is; he is not explaining the way how we know the world is. In other words, our knowledge of election comes after the fact. For Jesus, his knowledge of the elect comes before the fact. Paul himself, makes this point, when he praises God for the election of the Thessalonians, because of their faith. He writes,

4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. (1 Thess. 1:4–5)

So, we should not shy away from recognizing the way Jesus, as the God the Son incarnate, knew the hearts of those who stood before him. Moreover, we should recognize how his knowledge led him to speak to them with a measure of sharpness. The end result of John 6 is not an ecumenical coalition, but a separation of believers and unbelievers (who moments earlier appeared to be believers). This is clearly the way Jesus did ministry when he walked on the earth. But I believe Jesus is doing the same type of ministry today.

As the gospel goes forward, it is a sword that separates believer from unbeliever. And as it does so, the redeemed of the Lord become aware of who the elect are. In evangelism, we preach Christ to everyone, calling everyone to come. But when some come and others do not, we should not be surprised. This is exactly what Jesus did and is doing.

Similarly, we should not change our methods of ministry to accommodate more people, if by so doing we are only gathering a larger crowd of unbelievers. We should see the ministry of the gospel less as gathering the largest crowd, and more as a separation of humanity. In other words, as Psalm 110 puts it, when Christ rose on high, he went into the world judging his enemies and saving his elect. Today, the sword of the Spirit is the word of God (Eph. 6:17), and this word of the gospel brings life to some and reveals the death of others (2 Cor. 2:16). And importantly, this ministry of the gospel is following in the very steps of Jesus.

To repeat, we do not know who the elect are before they believe. But we do know how God works in the gospel. God does not change his decree based upon the response of individuals. Rather, salvation is a reflection of God’s eternal plan. And those who care about the ministry of the gospel should be deeply committed to the way God works through the gospel.

If we do not concern ourselves with how God is bringing salvation and judgment to the world, we will be tempted to change our patterns and priorities in ministry. This could look like adding man-centered attractions or ministry-saving measures that would protect charismatic leaders from the consequences of their sins.

In any case, what we think the gospel does and what we think about election has massive implications for the way we do ministry. And in John 6, we find a clear cut exposition of the way Jesus affirms the doctrine of election and how it informs his ministry. May we look to Jesus and learn from him, both in his doctrinal teaching and his methods of ministry.

9. Election is for the glory of God, not the glory of man.

Finally, election is a vital impetus for praise and a necessary means of eliminating all human boasting.

In John 6, Jesus’s confidence in the doctrine of election is what leads him to draw out the faith of his disciples. Indeed, he offers them the chance to leave, knowing that the Father has drawn them to him and will sustain their faith. In this way, Jesus brings Peter and the Twelve to a place of absolute dependence on God. There is no boasting in themselves, but only God-exalting, Christ-embracing faith. This is how God glorifies himself.

At the same time, Jesus’s affirmation of God’s sovereignty in salvation leads him to prove the unbelief of his crowds, with no fear of losing the ones given to him by the Father. In this way, the doctrine of election served as a judgment over against those who were antagonistic towards him. This will be repeated in John 10:26, when he tells the Pharisees they do not believe this because they are not his sheep.

In short, election is not only a doctrine that leads the elect to praise God for his grace (as in Eph. 1:3–6). It is also a doctrine that removes any boasting from those who do not believe. Imagine: If the Reformed doctrine of unconditional and individual election is not true, then at the end of time, when unbelievers are brought before God, they could boast over God that for all he did in planning salvation, sending his Son, and offering his Spirit, failed to change their hearts.

‘Impotent God’ is the final testimony of the belligerent unbeliever who successfully opposed all of God’s invitations for salvation. Certainly, this final accusation would result in the accuser’s eternal judgment, but that doesn’t change the fact that even in that punishment, the accuser gets the victory he wants—separation from God.

Yet, in John 6 and other places (Romans 9), we learn that salvation is not in the hands of sinners. And that election is also a means by which God shuts the mouth of unbelievers. Positively, God is the one who draws his elect to salvation, Negatively, God is the one who passes over others, such that their final unbelief is not something that they can hold over God. Rather, it is something that they, the creature, must receive from the Creator. And this again, brings glory to God, as the Creator accomplishes in his cosmos all that he has decreed.

The Goodness of God’s Sovereignty in Salvation

In the end, the doctrine of election, coupled with the sovereignty of God in salvation, is a hard doctrine. But it is only hard for those who continue to assert themselves over against their Maker. For those who have been humbled by their sin and the saving grace of God, the doctrine of election is a beautiful and wonderful mystery. It is a doctrine outlined in Scripture that reveals much about God and our place in his world.

In truth, we deserve nothing but condemnation for our sins against our Creator God. Yet, the doctrine of election teaches us how God has made a way of eternal salvation, and for those who have been given life to believe, there are few doctrines more sweet and sobering. Such sweetness does not eliminate the challenge presented by this doctrine, but hopefully in this extended meditation on John 6 you can see what Jesus is saying, what God is doing, and what John’s Gospel is calling us to do—to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he has revealed to us the Father and the Father’s eternal plan for salvation.

May we continue to let the Scripture form our hearts and minds, and may John 6 be a place where we grow to know and love God more because of his sovereignty in salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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