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.

“Uncertain” Times

“You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes . . . . You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”

James 4:14-16

“We are living in uncertain times.” “The future seems so unstable.” These are refrains all around us, and not without reason. There are stories of otherwise healthy, 60-70-ish parents suddenly contracting COVID-19 and perishing. This is true of otherwise healthy 30-year-olds. Jobs have been lost, business are shutting down. Certainly this is not what most of us were anticipating 5-6 weeks ago.

The question is, are things really more uncertain now than they were before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11? From a human perspective, the short answer is no. We have just been taking “normal” for granted, because, while people around us have been experiencing personal tragedies everyday, these have been limited to their relevant circles. For example, 38.8K people lost their lives in 2019 while driving. For most of us, that is just a number, and we are thankful that our children or spouses or parents, etc. are not a part of that statistic. Those who have experienced tragedies lately tell the rest if us not to take anything for granted. “You never know how much time you have.” Uncertainty. Instability.

If we’re honest, however, without faith in and a relationship with with the one, true, and living Triune God, uncertainty and instability are the best we can hope for. Sure, very few people live their lives with the uncertainty and instability of life in the forefront of their minds. In order to function, most people set that reality aside and focus on those things that they can rely upon reasonably. Something simple as knowing that when you squeeze the toothpaste tube, toothpaste will come out, can give us peace of mind. But what happens when the one you love is taken from you? Can you, right now, guarantee that your family will all be alive when we come to the end of this pandemic? Can you guarantee you will be alive? And if not, what is your hope?

I am not speaking about fideism – confidence in our faith itself, which so often is fickle. “You just have to have faith,” some will say. But, what happens when you can’t? The God of the Old and New Testaments tells us about His faithfulness toward all who turn to Him, even when their faith falters. Faith, along with repentance, is our entrance into this relationship with the eternal, infinite, and changeless God of all things. But even faith and repentance are gifts from Him. He does not take back His gifts.

What I am not arguing is that we have any more certainty about tomorrow as Christians than non-Christians have. Above all, the Christian should know there is nothing guaranteed to us tomorrow. As James said, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring . . . . You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Or consider Jesus’ words: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).

What I am arguing is that, while Christians may not have any more certainty about tomorrow, we have certainty within any situation on any day. God is sovereign. A passage I memorized early on as a seminarian is Isaiah 46:9-10:

“For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose.'”

The context of the passage is not a positive one, by the way. It was not designed to make the Israelites feel good about themselves. He is actually rebuking them for their idolatry, which in this case included putting their trust in other people and political powers and idols they had made, rather than in the one, true, living God. James is arguing essentially the same point: when we make plans, we so often take God for granted and ignore Him entirely. We make our plans to increase our prosperity, failing to remember we are but a mist, and that God determines the length of our days and the success of our enterprises. This is always true.

In other words, the Christian should be the last person to take anything for granted, because we ought to be people who acknowledge our frailty and God’s sovereignty in every thought and plan and step we take in our daily lives.

Rather than seeking after our comfort, certainty, and stability here in this fallen world – a world in which pandemics can occur, because Adam sinned (and so our doctrine of sin ought to mitigate against over-confidence as well) – as Christians we ought to be pursuing God’s will every single day with renewed determination. “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills . . . .'” Or, to use Jesus’ words again: “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). This is a constant, regardless of the changing circumstances, whether that change is actual or potential; it is always one or the other.

A man I admire tremendously is Eric Liddell. Some of you know his story: Scottish Olympian who refused to run his event because it fell on a Sunday, but who ran in a subsequent event, twice as long, and still won the gold; missionary to China, because he understood his life to be a race for a much more significant prize; trapped in China during WWII and sent to a Japanese internment camp in Weihsien, Shandong, China, where he would perish from a brain tumor. One of my favorite quotes of his is:

“We are all missionaries. Wherever we go we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel them from Christ.”

While he was in the internment camp, he wrote a manuscript titled A Manual of Christian Discipleship, which you can now find as The Disciplines of the Christian Life. One of the children in the camp with Eric Liddell, David Mitchell, recalls in his remembrance at the beginning of the book: “Not only did Eric Liddell organize sports and recreation, but throughout his time in the internment camp he helped many people by teaching and tutoring. He gave special care to the older people, the weak, and the ill, for whom the conditions in camp were especially trying. He was always involved in the Christian meetings which were a part of camp life. Despite the squalor of the open cesspools, rats, flies, and disease in the crowded camp, life took on a normal routine, though without the faithful and cheerful support of Eric Liddell, many people would never have been able to manage.” By the way, Eric Liddell and another man had hour-long devotions every morning in their tiny living space through reading the Bible by the light of a peanut oil lamp and praying together.

In The Disciplines of the Christian Life, Eric Liddell defines discipleship as knowing God personally and learning from Jesus (p. 27). The one word he uses to describe discipleship is obedience, which is to the moral law, through active surrender. On page 29, he challenges us to ask ourselves:

“What am I living for – self, money, place, power? Or are my powers at the disposal of human need, dedicated to the kingdom of God on earth?

There is a direct correlation between the extent to which we are shaken by situations like this pandemic and a life focused on self, money, place, power, etc. This is true for the Christian as well as the non-Christian. Christians who are shaken by these uncertainties demonstrate that they have not been focused on God’s kingdom, but rather the things of this world; they have not been seeking God’s will and guidance each day, whatever may come, but their own ability to understand, organize, plan, and create stability, devoid of James’ qualification that we should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” On the other hand, far from being shaken, those who focus first on God’s kingdom and righteousness will be seeking ways to follow Christ and serve others, seeing this pandemic as a great opportunity. They will not feel like anything has been stripped away from them, because in their hearts they’ve already stripped away everything except following Christ. They will not be shaken or moved. “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from Him. Truly He is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will never be shaken” (Psalm 62:1-2).

Furthermore, as Christians, we know that the things of this world are perishable, defiled, and fading. And at the same time, we know that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, “according to His great mercy, has caused us to be born from above to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4). Of course things will be uncertain here; but in heaven they are absolutely certain.

Are we in uncertain times? Yes, just as we are every single day. Let us not, as Christians, try to find our stability and certainty in our daily lives here on earth. Even worse, let us not ignore our God and Father when He allows life to cruise along uninterrupted. Let us, however, truly seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, whatever the consequences, each and every new morning. Let us repent for living for self, money, place, and power rather than following Christ and serving others. Let us keep our hope in heaven.

Are you not a Christian? I hope this pandemic is helping bring life’s uncertainty to the forefront of your mind, that you are thinking about it every day. What will you do? I hope you feel powerless in the midst of this pandemic. I also hope that you will turn to God through Christ. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). The invitation is open. I hope you will accept it.

A Beggar King?

One of the most difficult things to reconcile in theology is God’s absolute sovereignty with human freedom and responsibility.    If God is absolutely sovereign, what room does that leave for my own thinking, volition, or decision-making?  Really, what do these things matter, if God is absolutely sovereign?  Furthermore, how can He hold me responsible for the things I do?  Do I even have a choice?  The simple (simplistic?) answer is, God is a Personal Being, not the arbitrary reality called fate.  Furthermore, He made us in His own image, so that we also have a will, the ability to reason, and even the responsibility to exercise our own sovereignty under Him as His viceroys on earth.

A more challenging question is: if God is absolutely sovereign, why have you titled your blog “God Begs You”?  Kings are not beggars.  They issue decrees, and those decrees are followed closely, sometimes on pain of death.  There is truth to this penal reality when we think about God as the King of Kings.  God warned Adam that the penalty for his disobedience to the first commandment, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat, because if you eat of it, dying you will die” (Genesis 2:17, my rendition).  Adam disobeyed (sinned) and died.  His sin injected sin into the whole world; now everyone sins.  Therefore all die (see Romans 5:12).  “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  Some of the words used for “sin” involve the idea of treason.  So, we must affirm that God is the absolute sovereign, and that disobeying Him brings about the death penalty.  He warned us it would.  This death includes separation from God.  We have made ourselves His enemies.

The Fates
The Fates. From https://greece.greekreporter.com/2018/03/17/the-moirai-the-fates-of-greek-mythology/

But that explanation of God’s sovereignty doesn’t come close to answering the question raised above, does it?  In fact, it seems to lend support to the objection.  The thing is, God is not merely absolutely sovereign.  He is also merciful, gracious, and loving.  In fact, when He proclaims His name to Moses, He begins by saying, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6, NIV).  While God has a just, reasonable, well-founded, and controlled anger toward rebellion against Him – and it is the more just and well-founded because He is so good – anger is not His only response to sin and the unrepentant sinner.  He is also compassionate, gracious, and loving toward us, because He sees how lost, deceived, and enslaved we are by sin.

This is why He sent His Son into this world to save us and why His Son came willingly and voluntarily to save us.  “All this is from God, Who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18, ESV).  God is so gracious, compassionate, and loving, that He doesn’t desire for any sinner to die.  Instead, He desires that sinners repent and live (see Ezekiel 18:23, 31-32).  It is the King’s grace, compassion, and love that causes Him to stoop so low as to become a beggar: “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NKJV).

God would do anything to bring you back to Him, so great is His love for you.  In fact, He already did.  He sent His Son to be an offering for our sin.  Will you receive this gift?