Election’s Comfort: A Challenge to My Fellow Calvinists

“When Rebekah had conceived children . . . though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of Him Who calls – she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'”

Romans 9:10-13

Ok. I know. Here goes another Calvinist quoting their favorite verse to support their ridiculous – even heretical – doctrine of election. If I have not lost your attention just on reading the title and Scripture selection, please keep hanging with me. I promise that this post is not going to develop the way you are probably imagining.

Now to the point. The doctrine of election, as understood by Calvinists, brings tremendous comfort. And while I could list many examples – assurance of salvation, for example – the point of this post is meant to challenge my fellow Calvinists, because the context of this passage shows that the doctrine of election is intended to bring comfort to an area where, I fear, many of us are rather nonplussed. I admit that God in His grace is bringing me to repentance in this very area. So, maybe this post will simply be a confession of an area where I have slipped practically into hyper-Calvinism, which is a heresy. But I ask you to pause, examine yourselves, and be honest with yourselves by God’s grace.

After all, our non-Calvinist brothers and sisters, I believe, are rightly justified in their claim that our doctrine of election means we have no evangelistic zeal. What is your reaction to that claim? My knee-jerk reaction is, look at church history! And I know in my own life I have taken opportunities to evangelize people, like the Muslim shuttle driver I met on a recent trip and the lady who cut my and my son’s hair about a month ago. And, yes, I, like many of you, want to see people saved. But, to be honest, I go to bed quite comfortably those nights I have not shared the gospel with others. That should not be the case, and it was not the case for some of the Majesterial Reformers, those who honed our understanding of Sola Gratia.

More to the point, what Paul wrote in Romans 9:6ff – the passage we most likely turn to in a discussion with someone about the Reformed doctrine of election – is in the context of his extreme anguish over the loss of those who have heard the gospel and rejected it. Here’s the beginning of chapters 9 and 10:

“I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit – that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. [And here’s the real throb of his statement:] For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.

Romans 9:1-3

“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.”

Romans 10:1

Here are some observations:

  1. The depth of Paul’s anguish and the lengths he is willing to go for the sake of the lost are astounding. I’m sure many of us feel some anguish in our hearts when we think about the lost, whenever we do think about the lost. If not, we really need to examine ourselves. But Paul takes an oath to swear to his Roman audience that he is enduring great sorrow and anguish on behalf of the lost. Most of us might think of ourselves as evangelistic superstars if we had this kind of existential response to people rejecting the gospel. But, as you can see, Paul does not stop there. He says he wishes he could be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of such people – many of whom, by the way, stirred up strife for him on his missionary journeys, including stoning him and leaving him for dead. Ok. Full disclosure: I’m not there yet.
  2. I can only think of two other people in Scripture who desired to be cursed and cut off from God for the lost. Moses is the first. In Exodus 32:30, Moses said to the people of Israel, after they made the golden calf: “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD [at the top of Mt. Sinai]; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” Because the sacrificial system arose under Moses, we might draw the conclusion that Moses would sacrifice an animal for the people’s sin. However, in Exodus 19:12-13, the Lord explicitly forbade “beast or man” to touch the mountain – even the edge of it. In other words, Moses was going to offer himself for this “disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:21). This perspective is confirmed by Moses’ actual prayer to the Lord: “Yet now, if You will forgive their sin – but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written” (Exodus 32:32, NKJV).
  3. The Lord’s answer to Moses was essentially, “No.” Moses could never be a substitute for the people of Israel. Moses himself was sinful. Moses himself needed a Substitute. Which takes us to the only other Person I know of Who offered Himself to be accursed for His people: the Lord Jesus Christ. (I am so tempted right now to tear down the “cross as cosmic child abuse” argument. Suffice it to say, the Lord Jesus came willingly and voluntarily to this world specifically to be slain by the Father. That’s a different post, however.) In Galatians 3:13, Paul wrote: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'” (quoting Deuteronomy 21:23).
  4. The point here is that Paul did not merely view the gospel as something that benefited him. So often we are content to rest in the knowledge that through the gospel we have forgiveness of sins. However, for Paul, the gospel shaped his entire life-purpose and all his relationships within and outside the church, including with those who persecuted him.
  5. Another point along these lines is, Paul was not so zealous to protect the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement that he refused to use language suggesting his own participation in it, or “worse”, his own ability to be a substitute for Israel. Paul talks about “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). In our passage in Romans 9:1-3, he desires to follow Christ in His gospel mission of self-curse – not merely self-sacrifice – for the sake of the blessing – salvation – of the lost. Like Moses, Paul is essentially saying: “these people have the ‘adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises . . . the patriarchs’ (Romans 9:4-5), and from them came Christ. Yet, they have rejected Christ. Therefore they are cursed. But my heart’s desire is be cursed in their place so they might experience the blessing of salvation.” The gospel shaped Paul’s desires for the lost to the point that he wished to emulate Christ in His substitutionary atonement for the lost.
  6. One final observation: after the extended section on election at 9:6, Paul writes: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer for them is that they may be saved” (10:1). Whatever the doctrine of election means – and I believe the Reformed/Calvinist understanding of the doctrine is the most honest one biblically-speaking – it did not preclude Paul from praying for the salvation of those who rejected the Lord. Here’s a point of application, and one I am sure you already know: we may hold to the Reformed doctrine of election, but we also know that the Lord has chosen not to reveal to us His secret list. Far from hampering Paul’s evangelistic zeal, we see Paul desiring to offer himself for the sake of the lost and desiring and praying from the heart that the Lord would save them. Paul’s prayer in 10:1 is resonant with the Lord’s stated desire in Ezekiel 18: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (v. 23), and “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD, so turn, and live” (v. 32).

Let’s return to the main point to conclude. Paul is grieved over those who reject Christ. We have seen what the depth of that grief has cause Paul to pray and to offer to the Lord. He then gives us one of the clearest statements of the doctrine of election, in which he anticipates the objections all Calvinists have heard to their understanding of the doctrine. The point is that Paul discusses the doctrine of election to bring comfort to his anguish over the loss of unbelievers.

I wonder, brothers and sisters, do we need such comfort? Or, again, are we content to go to sleep at night with hardly a thought of the lost, comforted by the fact that at least the Lord chose us and therefore we have all the spiritual blessings of Christ in the heavenly places? Do we cling to the doctrine of election for self-serving purposes, to comfort us despite those perishing eternally this minute? For Paul, it drove him to deep anguish and to pray for those who are not saved, including those who rejected the gospel.

Let us become so anguished and sorrowful over the lost that we need this aspect of election’s comfort, as we wet our pillows with tears for the lost.