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.

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God’s Judgment in John’s Gospel: How a Careful Reading of John 6 Reveals the Wisdom of God’s Judgment

two brown and black goats

5 “Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.” 6 The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.

— Psalm 12:5–6 —

In John 6, we have series of questions and answers that proceed from ostensible faith to certain unbelief. Put differently, those who first sought Jesus, because they ate of his bread, come to find out that hardened against God as they they have no appetite for Christ—only a hunger for what he might give them!

Meanwhile, as Jesus explains how anyone may come to him, we learn a great deal about Jesus and the wise judgments of God. Indeed, as John writes up the events taking place around the Sea of Galilee and then in synagogue at Capernaum, John 6 shows us more clearly who Jesus is and how the Word of God made flesh fulfills every portion of God’s Word.

In what follows, I want to begin with some basic observations on the text, and then move to some more in-depth discussions about intra-biblical allusions (i.e., how John may use the Old Testament), with some final conclusions about the way Jesus’s words prove the purity of God’s judgments. In the end, this will show us again how wise God is and why, in a passage that esteems the doctrine of unconditional election we can see the goodness God’s judgment upon those who are not elect.

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The Doctrine of Illumination in John’s Gospel

sunray through trees

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)
— John 6:63–64 —

The doctrine of illumination explains how spiritual insight is given to God’s children by the Holy Spirit. The locus classicus for this doctrine is 1 Corinthians 2:10–16, where the Apostle Paul explains the difference between those with the Spirit and those without. Describing this difference, he identifies two kinds of people—the natural man (i.e., the man without the Spirit) and the spiritual man (i.e., the man with the gift of the Spirit). In Paul’s thinking, there is no third category. The only way a man can rightly understand the mind of God is to have God himself reveal himself to the man. This occurs first in conversion, but then progressively in sanctification as the Spirit continues to instruct the saints through God’s Word (cf. John 17:17).

Going further, doctrine of illumination is the personal and subjective complement to the doctrine of inspiration. Whereas the Spirit inspired the words of the biblical authors (2 Pet. 1:19–21), the same Spirit must give light to the Scripture, in order for the child of God to understand God, his world, and his salvation. Without this illumination, the sinner remains in the dark—totally lost and wholly unable to find God (cf. Acts 17:27). Continue reading

Isaiah’s Search for Godly Offspring: A Storyline for the Son(s) of God

josue-michel-eCZ24v-sQyM-unsplashAnd what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring.
— Malachi 2:15 —

Maybe’s its odd to start of meditation on Isaiah by citing Malachi, but as I will show, Malachi 2:15 encapsulates a key theme that runs through the book of Isaiah—namely, the presence of godly offspring in the place of God’s dwelling (Zion). From the beginning to the end of Isaiah, the search for godly offspring is a central theme that holds the book together. And if we are going to understand the message of Isaiah—and not just verses from Isaiah—we need to see how it fits together.

The Search for Godly Offspring Begins

When Isaiah begins, he immediately brings us into God’s courtroom, where Yahweh, the sovereign ruler  of the cosmos is bringing a judgment against his people Israel. Isaiah 1:2–4 reads,

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: “Children [sons] have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. 3 The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” 4 Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring [seed/s] of evildoers, children [sons] who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged.

Here is the problem: God had redeemed the seed of Abraham in order to make them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6). Yet, by the eighth century B.C., during the reigns of “Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (1:1), the city of God had become corrupt. Jerusalem traded in iniquity, so that wickedness marked all their ways and evil impelled all their intentions. As Isaiah 1:1–18 makes clear, the godly offspring were absent. And as a result, Isaiah 1–5 recall God’s intentions to empty Zion of all wickedness, so that he could once again create sons and daughters who would bear fruit for his glory.

This vision is how Isaiah begins his prophecy, and it helps us to see how the whole book will proceed. That is to say, by paying attention to the overlapping themes of sons and seeds (i.e. offspring), mothers and daughters, childbirth that succeeds and childbirth that fails, we get a clear(er) picture of what God is expecting of Israel and what God is planning to do for his rebellious people.

In truth, anyone who has been around church on Christmas knows the famous verses of Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6–7. But I suspect most don’t know how those verses fit into the structure of Isaiah and how the whole book anticipates the birth of Christ and the new birth promised by him (see John 3).

One way we misread Isaiah is to climb aboard the promise of Immanuel in Isaiah 7:14 and make it a connecting flight to Matthew 1:23. Positively, this approach may heighten our confidence in the predictive nature of the Old Testament—a truth I gladly affirm—but negatively, it fails to understand what Isaiah 7:14 means (in context) and how all of Isaiah is anticipating the virgin birth of God’s Son.

While direct flights are great when traveling from coast-to-coast, they are not advisable when seeking to understand the Bible cover-to-cover. And thus, in what follows I will trace the promise of seeds, sons, childbirth, and motherhood through Isaiah to show how the whole book anticipates the coming of Christ and all those children who will be born by the Spirit—the godly offspring that God has formed in his new covenant people. Continue reading

From Death to Life: How Joshua Gives Us Resurrection Hope in the Midst of Loss

photo-1416958672086-951aa7064010 2Moses was dead to begin with.
— Joshua 1:1 —

Marley was dead to begin with.
— Charles Dickens —

When Charles Dickens wrote the opening line to A Christmas Carol, he touched off one of the most wonderful Christmas stories ever told. Marley, the miserly associate of Ebenezer Scrooge, was dead and now all eyes turned to his living partner. Though the story begins in the darkness of Scrooge’s heart, by the end the light of Christmas opens the heart of this old sinner.

Something similar occurs when we read the opening line of Joshua. The titanic figure of Moses, the servant of Yahweh—the prophet, priest, and leader of Israel; the one who led Israel out of Egypt, received the Law, and stood before the wrath of God to seek Israel’s pardon—this incredible Moses was gone. Now, all eyes were set on Joshua, Moses’s Spirit-filled associate. Would he be able to lead the people into the light of the Promised Land?

Strikingly, both A Christmas Carol and Joshua are comedies. Meaning, that both find resolution and good cheer by the end of the book. In Dickens’ case, Scrooge is “converted” through the three Christmas spirits. In Joshua’s case, the Spirit of God is promised to Moses’s successor, such that Joshua’s glory, by the end of his life, is arguably greater than that of Moses. While Moses brought Israel out of the land, he died in the wilderness because of his sin. But Joshua, who contributed to Israel’s flight from Egypt, added to his credentials the successful deliverance of Israel into the land. Continue reading

Kill the Dragon, Get the Girl: A Short Introduction to the Bible

1920x1080 Cradle

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
— Genesis 3:15 —

In one sentence, can you give the message of the Bible? 

A few years ago, Dane Ortlund asked this question and received answers from a host of pastors and scholars, but one answer stood out from the rest and has taken on a life of its own. The answer comes from the provocateur, poet, and pastor, Douglas Wilson. He writes,

Scripture tells us the story of how a Garden is transformed into a Garden City, but only after a dragon had turned that Garden into a howling wilderness, a haunt of owls and jackals, which lasted until an appointed warrior came to slay the dragon, giving up his life in the process, but with his blood effecting the transformation of the wilderness into the Garden City.

In short: Kill the Dragon, Get the Girl. Whereby the Dragon is the Twisted Serpent of the Garden, the Girl is the Bride of Christ described as a glorious Garden City in Revelation 21–22, and the Slayer of the Dragon is the Son of God who took on flesh to come and save his damsel in distress by destroying the Dragon by means of his own death and resurrection. 

In his recent book, The Serpent and the Serpent SlayerAndy Naselli recounts the genesis of this pithy way to describe the biblical storyline, which comes from Joe Rigney’s appropriation of Wilson’s explanation of the Bible, which in turn led to the children’s book by the same title: Kill the Dragon, Get the Girl. Continue reading

Regeneration Precedes Faith: Six Passages in Paul That Prove Faith is a Gift

photo-1416958672086-951aa7064010 2Continuing the theme of monergism in salvation, we come to the debate regarding faith and regeneration. Does regeneration empower faith? Or does faith produce regeneration? Both are necessary for salvation, but what is their relationship? And how do we know?

Historically, Reformed theologians have understood faith as a divine gift to God’s elect, a gift that was planned in eternity, purchased at the cross, and personally granted in regeneration. By contrast, Arminians, Wesleyans, and other advocates of free will aver that faith is possible for all men and hence is not a special gift of grace to God’s elect, but a gift of grace to all who would freely receive it.

As one who gladly affirms a Reformed view of salvation, I believe this latter position minimizes the work of God in salvation. Instead of putting man’s final destiny squarely in the hands of God, an Arminian view conjoins the work of God and man. Theologically, this undermines grace. Pastorally, this contribution of faith produces (or leaves unchanged) man’s inveterate thirst for self-determination and creates communities that lack a spirit of humility. In God’s grace, other doctrines may ameliorate these realities or produce humility. But, by and large, a church that teaches—explicitly or implicitly—that you are capable of making such a decision for Christ impedes the humility which the gospel is meant to foster (see Rom. 3:27–30).

So, how we understand God’s work of salvation matters immensely for our sanctification, discipleship, and Christian fellowship. Still, it must be a doctrine derived from Scripture and not from tradition alone. To that point, we might ask: Where do we find teaching that says regeneration precedes faith and/or that faith is a gift of God? Good question. And in Paul’s Epistles, we find at least five passages that teach us that faith is a gift. Let’s consider each below. Continue reading

Monergism in Acts(ion): Seven Texts That Affirm The Priority of God’s Grace

crashing waves

. . . I am sending you, to open their eyes,
so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God,
that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
— Acts 26:17–18 —

When it comes to the doctrine of salvation (soteriology), monergism is doctrine that says God alone accomplishes salvation. Etymologically, the word means one (mono) energy (energos), and suggests that all the power for salvation comes from the triune God. Monergism stands against any form of cooperation in salvation whereby God’s work is joined with or completed by man.

Historically, monergism stands upon the writings of Augustine, Calvin, and others in the Reformed tradition. But more importantly, those writings stand upon the words of Scripture. Recently, as I read through the book of Acts, this doctrine stood out, in thinking about the way Luke often spoke of salvation and attributed the faith of believers to the antecedent work of God. In other words, Luke makes it apparent, salvation comes by faith and repentance, but faith and repentance come from the grace of God. (I also spent time laboring this point in my last two sermons on Romans 3 and Colossians 1–2).

In Acts, we find at least seven instances where Luke stresses God’s singular work in salvation. And for the sake of understanding this doctrine and our experience of salvation, not to mention its impact on evangelism and missions, we should see how the pattern of God’s monergism runs through the book of Acts. Continue reading

A Definite Atonement: John Murray’s Case for a Disputed Doctrine

jesus saves neon signage

For whom did Christ die? For all nations without distinction? For all persons without exception? For everyone? Or only for the elect?

In any doctrinal exposition of the cross of Christ, the question of the atonement’s extent (or intent) is necessary. And throughout church history, especially since the Protestant Reformation, a great debate has arisen in response to the question. That dispute has divided Calvinist from Arminian, Reformed from Wesleyan, and Particular Baptist from General Baptist—to name only a few. Thus, it is not possible in one blog—let alone in one book—to resolve all the difficulties, but it is possible to lay out some of the issues and a few of the exegetical debates.

To that end, I offer ten points from John Murray. His little book, Redemption Accomplished and Appliedprovides a concise argument for the extent of the atonement that comes from a Reformed position. If I were writing a chapter on the extent atonement, I would do it differently, but I appreciate Murray’s commitment to biblical exegesis in his chapter. Even though he leaves many proof texts unchecked, what he does say sets his readers in the right direction. And for that reason I offer the following points from his chapter as a superb model for entering this debate.

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From Predestination to Glorification: Defining Twelve Words Every Christian Should Know

black and white book browse dictionary

And those whom he predestined he also called,
and those whom he called he also justified,
and those whom he justified he also glorified.
— 
Romans 8:30 —

Last Sunday I preached a sermon with lots of big but important words. In two verses (Romans 3:24–25), Paul uses justification, redemption, and propitiation to speak of the saving work of God in Christ’s death and resurrection. Tomorrow, I will add to that list a number of other big words as our men’s group discusses John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied. In Part 2 of his book, Murray outlines the order of salvation (ordo salutis) starting with regeneration and ending with glorification. Added to this list we could describe God’s eternal plans for salvation in things like predestination, election, and adoption.

All in all, there are a lot of -ion words that Christians (at least English speaking Christian) need to grasp in order to understand their salvation. To be clear, salvation does not depend upon knowing how it works. We can fly on a plane without understanding aerodynamics. Just the same, we can be saved by faith in Christ, without understanding everything about it. There are many, indeed all of us, who possess wrong ideas about salvation who are still saved. So great is God’s grace.

Nevertheless, for those who delight in God and his salvation, we are urged (Ps. 111:2), even commanded (Matt. 28:19), to grow in a knowledge of our salvation (2 Pet. 3:18). And to that end, I share the following selection of definitions that start in eternity past, move to eternity future, and cover a basic pattern of salvation that is true for all those whom God has saved, is saving, and will save. I hope they will serve you as you study the Scriptures and work out your salvation with fear and trembling, grace and knowledge.

Sources

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