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There are many who believe that thinking about divine election reflects how terribly out of touch I am with both modern culture and the contemporary church. Turn on television, read any newspaper, or visit a local book store and you can readily see why they might draw this conclusion. Issues related to the sovereignty of God in salvation aren’t likely to get much notice in the media. People would rather argue about same sex marriage or the threat of international terrorism or the latest free-agency signing in professional football than enter the strange world of soteriology.

Others simply dismiss the doctrine of election precisely because it is a “doctrine”. The latter has become something of a cuss word among many Christians. “It’s all dead dogma,” they say. “Worse still, it is horribly divisive. Can’t we talk about something more practical?”

So, why study the doctrine of divine election? What practical gain do we hope for in opening the door into such a deep and often divisive cavern? Aside from the fact that nothing is more effective in killing human pride and promoting godly humility and granting insight into the nature of God and inflaming the heart in worship, just to mention a few, we must devote ourselves to this issue because of its pervasive and unavoidable presence in Scripture.

Something John Calvin said in his definition of election will thrust us into the very heart of the debate:

“We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God’s grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others” (Institutes, III.21.1).

For many Christians nothing could be more contradictory to their concept of God than that. For many, their foundational assumption is that it is intrinsic to God as God that he do for all sinners what he does for any one sinner. Calvin’s argument, that when it comes to eternal salvation, God “gives to some what he denies to others” is nothing short of abhorrent, if not blasphemous. It impugns God’s character. It reduces him to an arbitrary and calloused despot. If nothing else, this tells me that when I address this topic I can expect a wide range of volatile reactions.

As I’ve reflected on Calvin’s choice of words I can understand why many react so negatively. It’s largely due to the word “denies” – God “gives to some what he denies to others.” For many, the word “denies” says two things, neither of which Calvin intended.

(1) To say God “denies” something to one that he “gives” to another implies that God is withholding what he “owes”. Thus for God to “deny” eternal salvation to some folk suggests he is refusing to give them what they deserve, or what he owes them, or what he as God is obligated to give them. Clearly, for some, this language portrays God as unjust.

(2) Secondly, the word “denies” suggests that people have asked God, pleaded with him, for eternal life and he “denies” it to them or refuses to grant it to them. They envision the scenario as follows: “Oh, God, please save me. I want to believe in Jesus and experience eternal life.” To which God responds: “Sorry. I didn’t elect you. My hands are tied.” In this case God appears mean and unloving.

In other words, unconditional divine election strikes many as portraying God as either unjust or unloving, or both. Clearly, Calvin intended neither of these ideas. His point is that none deserve or are owed anything by God except eternal death. No one can claim God as his or her debtor. Therefore, when God “gives to one what he denies” to another, we are to understand that neither deserves eternal life, but in sovereign mercy God grants eternal life to some but not all. Some receive mercy, the others receive justice, but no one is treated unfairly.

Calvin contends that this doctrine identifies or brings to the surface at least two kinds of men.

First, there are those who cast aside all restraint and seek to penetrate every mystery and to satisfy their curiosity about matters on which the Lord has himself remained silent. These are men who go beyond Scripture in their efforts to unravel complex ideas and to probe into the secrets of God’s will. Let them be forewarned, said Calvin, that such men will “enter a labyrinth from which they can find no exit” (III.21.1).

Second, and on the other hand, are those who, “wishing to cure this [first] evil, all but require that every mention of predestination be buried” (ibid.). But, as Calvin, points out, “nothing is taught [in Scripture] but what is expedient to know” (ibid.). If God did not want us to understand his sovereign saving purposes, he would not have given such extensive instruction in his word. “Therefore,” says Calvin, “we must guard against depriving believers of anything disclosed about predestination in Scripture, lest we seem either wickedly to defraud them of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what it is in any way profitable to suppress. Let us, I say, permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God directed to him, provided it be with such restraint that when the Lord closes his holy lips, he also shall at once close the way to inquiry” (III.21.3).

But might it be the case that divine election is one among those many things that God keeps secret and hidden and therefore off limits to human inquiry? In Deut. 29:29 we are told that “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” Although there are certain things about divine election we will never know or fully comprehend, at least not until heaven, I believe the doctrine of election actually is included among those things referred to in the second half of Deut. 29:29 (i.e., “the things that are revealed”). In fact, there are several indications of this in Ephesians 1.

That God wants us to probe the depths of his revelation of divine election is clear from three things we see in Ephesians 1.

First, Paul declares that God is “blessed” (v. 3) precisely because he has blessed us with every spiritual blessing, chief among which is being the object of his electing love. Note the word (Gk, kathos) with which v. 4 opens, translated “just as” (NASB) or “for” (NIV) or “even as” (ESV). There may be a causal idea involved: God blessed us “because” he has chosen us in Christ. Or it may be that it is simply Paul’s way of introducing the first and most glorious “spiritual blessing” given to us by God. It might even have the sense, “in accordance with the fact that” (Lincoln, 17). I. e., here is how we know God blessed us, “he chose us . . .” The latter option would give to kathos a modal emphasis. But the point is this: If we do not understand election, its basis, its goal, etc., how can we expect to bless God with any degree of intelligence or accuracy? Indeed, how could we know he is worthy of blessing and praise if we don’t understand what being elect in Christ means?

Second, consider v. 8 where we are told that accompanying the bestowal of this grace are the gifts of wisdom and understanding whereby we are enabled to perceive and appreciate the revelation of God’s will. I.e., together with election comes enlightenment. God does not wish us to remain ignorant of this glorious truth but to celebrate it.

Some argue that “wisdom and understanding” are descriptive of the manner in which God has caused grace to abound to us; in other words, they are connected with the preceding verb in v. 8 (“he lavished upon us” [NASB]). Others suggest that “wisdom and understanding” might be connected with the following participle (“having made known”) in v. 9; hence, “the qualities referred to are therefore indispensable requisites to the publication of a mystery” (Eadie, 46); i.e., the words define the method in which the mystery is disclosed (hence, “God wisely and in an understandable way made known to us the mystery of his will”, or some such paraphrase).

But I remain convinced that the most likely thing is that “wisdom and understanding” are gifts which accompany the bestowal of electing and redeeming grace, gifts which make possible the perception of his will which the following verses proceed to define. See 1:17; Col. 1:9. If the latter is correct, Paul’s point is that God’s lavish grace not only provides election and redemption but also the necessary wisdom and spiritual insight to understand and live in the light of what he has done for us in Christ.

Third, Paul’s prayer in vv. 15ff. is for spiritual enlightenment so that we might know and appreciate and relish the truth of all we are and have because of God’s predestining of us unto sonship. Paul prays that the Ephesian believers might be spiritually enlightened so as to increase in their knowledge of God (v. 17).

His prayer is that God would act in such a way that they might more fully grasp and understand the implications of the many spiritual blessings with which God has already blessed them in Christ, chief among which is election in Christ. Paul doesn’t assume that simply because they have been so richly blessed they need no further understanding or growth or application of these truths.

Note especially the word, “give” in v. 17b. The knowledge of God and his ways in saving souls is the gift of God. See Mt. 11:27; 16:17; 1 John 5:20. Human genius cannot account for the knowledge of God. Neither native abilities, education, nor human will power can attain insight into the character and heart of God. God is known by “a divine and supernatural light”. The youngest and lowliest of children can exceed the oldest and most elevated of scientists when it comes to the knowledge of God!

This isn’t to say that one cannot attain a rational grasp of God’s saving love in Christ through study and research. Unbelievers can write books on divine election! Clearly, then, Paul has in mind a “knowledge” that goes beyond mere cognition. Jonathan Edwards spoke to this point in his sermon on “the divine and supernatural light”.

Paul, Edwards would argue, is talking about “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them, thence arising” (A Jonathan Edwards Reader, Yale, 111). According to Edwards, a person doesn’t “merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart” (111) It is not only a “speculatively judging that God is gracious” but also “a sense [of] how amiable God is upon that account” or sensing the “beauty” of God’s grace and holiness.

Edwards bases this distinction on the difference between two ways of knowing. On the one hand, there is knowledge that is merely speculative, notional, a mere cognitive awareness of some truth. On the other hand, there is what Edwards calls “the sense of the heart” in which one recognizes the beauty or amiableness or sweetness of that truth and feels pleasure and delight in it. It is the difference between knowing or believing that God is holy and having a “sense” of or enjoying his holiness. “There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness” (112). Thus “when the heart is sensible of the beauty and amiableness of a thing, it necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension” (112).

This, I believe, is the sort of knowledge of the sweetness and glory and loveliness of God’s will in divine election that Paul prays we would experience.

So, in summary, there would be appear to be clear and solid grounds for believing that we have warrant from God himself to do what we are doing: thinking about divine election.

In the final analysis, Calvin believes we should study divine election primarily for its ability to tell us why one person who hears the gospel comes to saving faith in Jesus Christ and why another does not. To whom or what, ultimately, do we attribute the distinction? When all is said and done, how do you explain why one person believes unto eternal life and another does not? Who makes one person to differ from another: the person or God? That question can only be answered by looking more closely at the “how” and “why” of God’s sovereign choice. I’ll take that up in the next lesson.