Sometimes Christians get confused or are genuinely ignorant of God’s election of believers unto salvation. Some think that God’s election is based on His foreknowledge. That is to say that God chose believers (in eternity past) because He saw that they chose Him. Therefore, His selection of me (a believer) was based on my selection of Him. This is often based on a misunderstanding of Romans 8.29.
“For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.”
The argument goes something like this: Notice—foreknew comes before predestinate; therefore, election is based on foreknowledge. Some articulate this perspective in this way: “God has every right to predestinate because He knows all things” (foreknowledge). While it is true God’s foreknowledge is perfect, there are numerous problems with this reasoning. Let me try to illuminate a few of the problems this perspective creates biblically.
1. The fact is that God may predestinate anything He pleases to predestinate because He is Sovereign, not because He knows something (Ps 135:3). If God can predestinate or elect because of His foreknowledge then He is not doing what He pleases—He is doing what I please. The President of the US is not sovereign in that He cannot do as He pleases. God is sovereign. He may elect and not elect whomever He chooses. Just like He may create and not create anything and anyone He chooses.
2. Let’s look at Paul’s conversion. Are we really going to say that the reason Christ appeared before Paul on that fateful day was because God knew Paul [Saul] wanted to be saved? Is there really anything about Saul’s pre-conversion life that would give us any indication that Saul was going to repent and put his faith in the Messiah? When Luke records that Paul was a “chosen vessel” what does that mean (Acts 9:15)? Concerning Paul’s salvation, Acts 22:14 states: “The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth.” The fact is that those words describe anyone who Christ refers to as “His sheep.” Jesus refers to “those who do not believe” as those who are not His sheep. John writes: “but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
3. How should we interpret the numerous verses that speak of God choosing? How should “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt. 22:14) be interpreted? Should the text read, more appropriately, “few are chosen because few chose me?” God forbid. Look at John 15:16: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” Some conclude that “I have chosen you” refers only to God’s election of their service in the kingdom as Christ’s first 12 disciples. This reasoning subordinates God’s vocational election to man’s salvific choosing of God. Instead, it appears to be much more consistent with Scripture to say that God’s choosing of the apostles began before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4) and included a plan to use these chosen regenerate men as apostles to build His church.
3. Is the word, “elect”, really just a code word for believers without any connotation of God choosing? No. Look at, “And except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved: but for the elect’s sake, whom he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days” (Mk 13:20). If God’s election of man is based on man’s selection of Him, then we may rightly ask what is the point of this text, “but for the elect’s sake, whom he hath chosen.” When the people have chosen their president, he is referred to as the President-elect until the day he is sworn into the office. Plain and simple the word “elect” means chosen.
4. How can dead men choose Christ (Eph 2:1)? If dead men can choose Christ outside of a work of regeneration, then we may rightly conclude “dead” doesn’t really mean dead. “Dead” cannot mean a bad person who is still capable of choosing God when presented with the choice. That is not dead. Can dead bones live? The answer is yes. When God breathes life into dead bones they live (Ezekiel 37). And it is with this new life that man repents and puts His faith in the gospel.
5. Subordinating God’s election of some unto salvation to man’s spiritual response robs God of the glory of redemption (Eph 1:6). If predestination is subordinate to foreknowledge (in the sense of God seeing my spiritual response to the message) then we may rightly conclude that it is a good thing that I chose God or He would not have chosen me. In this way, I am able to share in the glory of my redemption. However, if God’s election of me was not based upon anything He saw me doing, then I find myself concluding that my salvation is all grace (Eph 2:8-9) and God gets all the glory!
The fact is no one has any idea why God elected anyone (Adam—the disobedient one, Abram—the deceiver, David—the adulterer, or Saul—the murderer) to salvation (outside His great love). There is none righteous, no not one. No one desires to be part of the elect (outside of divine grace). All have sinned and all have missed the mark (Romans 3:10-23). All are dead and in their trespasses. Why did God elect Abram to be the father of a multitude of nations? It certainly was not because God saw Abram seeking to know God. Before His encounter with the God of creation, Abram was an idolater like his father. No one complains about God’s predestination of Satan unto eventual destruction. The reason we don’t complain about this is because we believe Satan deserves this destruction. But don’t human rebels and idolaters also deserve the same destruction. Furthermore, the Bible is clear that God’s election is not what keeps someone from repenting. John 6.37 is very clear, “the one who comes to Me [Jesus] I will by no means cast out.” There isn’t anyone on the planet who desires to repent and place their faith in Christ who is not doing it because he or she was not elected by God.
Moreover, nothing of this understanding of election eliminates the need for man’s response of repentance toward God and faith in the promises found in the gospel and the Person of Christ. Likewise, nothing of this understanding of unconditional election eliminates the need for man to preach the gospel to the unconverted soul—faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God, and how shall they hear unless they that preach be sent to preach the gospel (Romans 10:14-17).
The reality is that there isn’t a single verse that indicates that God’s election of man unto salvation is based upon man choosing God first. Although man does chose to believe in Christ, this belief is always a response to God’s initiative. The Bible teaches that God has elected some to salvation and that there isn’t anyone who desires to be saved who God will not save. Finally, the Bible does not teach that God has elected the rest to damnation. In the Moody Handbook of Theology, Paul Enns explains it like this, “The corollary doctrine of reprobation (that God decreed the non-elect to suffer eternally in hell) is not sustained by Scripture, at least in the clear way that positive election is” (Enns, Moody Press, 1997, p.486).