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When I hear people object to the doctrine of unconditional election they don’t typically direct my attention to a particular passage of Scripture that they believe teaches conditional election. Instead, they insist, for example, that unconditional election is inconsistent with any meaningful call to evangelistic outreach. Continue reading . . .

When I hear people object to the doctrine of unconditional election they don’t typically direct my attention to a particular passage of Scripture that they believe teaches conditional election. Instead, they insist, for example, that unconditional election is inconsistent with any meaningful call to evangelistic outreach. “Why should I preach or share or in other ways make known the gospel of Jesus if God has already determined from eternity past who will ultimately be forgiven and granted entrance into the eternal kingdom? Why should I put my life at risk in taking the gospel to foreign, unreached people groups if God is finally sovereign over who does and does not believe?”

I understand the reason for this kind of thinking and I do not take it lightly or casually dismiss it as the misguided musings of a typical Arminian. Our Arminian brothers and sisters have a genuine concern for the integrity of gospel proclamation and intercessory prayer for the lost souls of the world. And so must we who identify as Calvinists.

What I find especially interesting is that instead of answering such questions in the sort of straightforward way we might prefer, the NT authors prefer to describe evangelistic fervor and the unqualified universal appeal of the gospel alongside and in virtually the same breath with the reality of divine sovereignty. It never seems to strike them as in the least inconsistent or contradictory to affirm both truths side by side.

One of the places we see this is in the ministry of Jesus himself. In Matthew 11:25-26 Jesus declared: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” He then tells us that “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27).

This is precisely at the point where some assume Jesus’s next words would be something like this: “You who are elect, and you only, I now invite to believe in me and follow me. After all, why would I extend such an invitation to those whom the Father didn’t give me in eternity past? They alone are the ones for whom I will lay down my life and the only ones whom the Father, through the Spirit, will draw to faith in me” (see John 6:37-40, 64-65).

But much to the surprise of everyone, Jesus immediately extends this universal and indiscriminate appeal: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Evidently there was no conflict in the mind of Christ between, on the one hand, the sovereign and distinguishing choice of the Father to grant knowledge of the Son to some but not others and, on the other hand, the universal offer of eternal life and spiritual rest. You and I may wrangle over the two, insisting that the truth of one necessarily precludes the truth of the other, but Jesus had no such problem.

Yet another place where this dual emphasis is found is in the words of the apostle Paul to Timothy. He exhorts his young spiritual son to remember Jesus as risen from the dead in spite of the fact that he, Paul, is “bound with chains as a criminal” (2 Tim. 2:9). The reason for this is that although the messenger is in jail the message continues to flourish and spread. Then he says this:

“Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).

Paul believes that some hell-deserving sinners have been chosen by God; they are his elect people. He also knows that the only way the elect can enter into the experience of salvation “with eternal glory” is through conscious faith in Jesus. Therefore, he is determined to endure incredible pain and hardship and even imprisonment so that he might spread the truth of the gospel everywhere. The fact that people are “elect” does not lead him to say: “Whoo! That takes a load off my mind. I can ease off the gas pedal of gospel proclamation and stop praying so fervently for people now that I know with certainty that God has chosen some for eternal life. Furthermore, I can stop behaving in the sort of way that leads to chains and imprisonment.” No, instead he confidently persists in preaching and willingly embraces suffering precisely because he knows that such are the means by which God will bring the elect to saving faith in Christ.

Some might assume that if the doctrine of election didn’t lead him to cease praying and preaching then surely his belief in the necessity of praying and preaching would lead him to reject the doctrine of election. But that’s not what happened. At no point does Paul or any other NT author reason like this: “Well, if I have to preach the gospel for people to be saved I can only conclude that there is no such thing as unconditional election. The only thing that counts is that people make a choice.” Instead, Paul is determined to endure great suffering and hardship precisely “for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain” salvation (2 Tim. 2:10a).

In other words, his commitment to suffer so that the gospel might spread and be made known does not mean that no one has been chosen before the foundation of the world to believe it. Rather, it means that he and others like Timothy are the ordained instrument through which God is pleased to save the elect.

Let me cite just one more example. After preaching in Corinth, Paul was opposed and “reviled” (Acts 18:6) by the Jewish community there. He left town determined to take the gospel to the Gentiles. But Jesus appeared to him one night in a vision and said, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9b-10).

Paul’s response to this revelation from Christ was not to say: “That doesn’t make any sense, Jesus. If you’ve got many elect people in Corinth then they will undoubtedly come to faith in you regardless of whether or not I or anyone else preaches to them. I’ve got better things to do with my life and time than to preach unnecessarily.”

No, instead “he stayed a year and six months [in Corinth], teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:11). Again, we may not be able to grasp how these two truths are compatible, how the reality of unconditional election actually requires rather than precludes gospel proclamation and intercessory prayer, but God nowhere asks or expects us to. He asks and expects us to preach and pray, confident that such are the means by which he is pleased to bring his “people”, the elect, to eternal salvation in Christ.

1 Comment

For some of the reasons you enumerate here and others, I find the definition of election as confessed in the Formula of Concord to be a better appraisal of biblical election than that found in the Calvinistic confessions. The modern evangelical world knows little about the Book of Concord these days. Our pastors and theologians are not invited to the popular conferences. It might have something to do with that "This is my body" business that meant so much to Luther.

Thanks for the thoughtful discussion of a most difficult topic.

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