What Makes You to Differ? Some Thoughts on Divine Election4
Last night I had the privilege of speaking to the students in our counseling school here at Bridgeway. The topic assigned to me was that of soteriology, or salvation. More specifically, we looked at the subject of God’s sovereignty in salvation and the subject of divine election.
As I prepared for our time together, I decided that the best way to dive headlong into the topic was by way of an illustration I used in my book, Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election (Crossway, 2007). If you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about. Here is the story that comes from the Introduction to Chosen for Life. I hope you find it thought-provoking, even if you are left with even more questions than you had before. Perhaps you might even be tempted to obtain Chosen for Life and dig more deeply into this subject. So here goes.
Deep and complex theological issues are often made more intelligible by a simple, down-to-earth illustration. So let me begin our study of divine election by putting real life flesh and bones to what strikes many as an abstract and divisive idea.
Jerry and Ed are identical twins, raised by loving, Christian parents. As much as was humanly possible, their mother and father refused to play favorites. Both boys were shown the same affection, granted the same privileges, and bore the same responsibilities in the home. They attended the same schools and were virtually equal in athletic ability, popularity among their peers, and grade point average. They were truly twins in temperament, personality, and achievement.
The boys attended church regularly with their parents but showed no interest in religious matters. They would often sit at the back of the church and laugh at the preacher, disdainful of his persistent appeal for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. As they were alike in so many other respects, they appeared to share an equal contempt for the gospel.
Jerry and Ed had just celebrated their nineteenth birthday and were looking forward to graduating from high school. It was Easter Sunday. They were sitting in the same pew where they had for years, listening to the same pastor. But something was different. Nothing unusual, at least in terms of the mundane, natural affairs of life, had occurred to account for what happened on that morning. Neither brother had endured a humiliating experience at school nor had they been the recipients of excessive praise and honor. By all appearances, it was just another Sunday morning.
But this day, much to his own surprise, Jerry suddenly found himself listening intently to the sermon, while Ed was doodling on the church bulletin, obviously without interest in anything being said. Both brothers had heard countless sermons depicting their sinful and desperate spiritual condition, together with the promise of forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Christ. But not until that Easter Sunday did either of them pay the slightest degree of attention.
Ideas and doctrines that had, until then, sounded silly and archaic, mysteriously began to make sense to Jerry. The existence of an infinitely holy God against whom he had rebelled, together with the prospect of eternal death, shattered all remaining tranquility of soul. He glanced briefly at Ed to see if he were paying attention. Not a chance.
“He’s right,” Jerry silently concluded. “I am a sinner. Jesus is God in human flesh and without him I have no hope. Oh, God! Help! Save me! Forgive me! Jesus, you are my only hope. If you had not died in my place and endured the Father’s wrath, I most certainly would. Forgive me for being so utterly blind to your beauty until now. Oh, sweet Son of God! I embrace you alone. I want to live wholly and utterly for you.”
Jerry struggled to explain to himself what was happening. All he knew was that while listening to what he had heard so many times before, he "hears" it for the very first time. What he had read in the Bible so many times before, he "sees" as if it had only then appeared. Jesus of Nazareth, who until now held no attraction for him, suddenly seems altogether lovely and winsome. The conviction that this Jesus alone can deliver him from the spiritual turmoil, grief and guilt in which he is mired grips his heart. His soul is, as it were, flooded with wave upon wave of peace and joy as he feels the burden of his sin lifted from his shoulders and placed upon Christ, in whom it vanished from sight. Then the words to that hymn he had so mindlessly sung countless times before ring true to his heart:
"Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Amazing love! how can it be,
That Thou, my God shouldst die for me?"
Ed couldn’t help but notice that his brother was weeping. With a quick jab of his elbow in Jerry’s side, he whispered: “Cut that out! You’re embarrassing me.” But Jerry was unfazed.
What Jerry now finds altogether lovely, Ed continues to loathe. Jerry’s unbelief disappears under a flood of repentance and whole-souled love for Christ. By an act of his will, Jerry embraces the redemptive sufferings of Jesus as his only hope and haven. He willingly repudiates sin and reliance on self, and with joy reposes in Christ. But Ed remains obstinate, and now even more indignant, in his unbelief.
Needless to say, Jerry’s experience that morning made for a volatile conversation in the car on the way home. He tried to explain to his brother what had happened, but Ed was incredulous and filled with rage. They were so engrossed in conversation that neither of them saw the pickup truck jump the median into their lane. The crash was head on and fatal for both.
Instantly, Jerry left this life and entered the bliss of eternal joy in the presence of the Savior whom he had embraced only minutes before in saving faith. Tragically, Ed faced the eternal opposite, separation from the glorious presence of the Lord Jesus Christ and an object, not of love and favor, but of righteous wrath and indignation.
What accounts for the irrevocable and eternal division between these earthly brothers? What made Jerry to differ from Ed? Why did one come to heartfelt and happy faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior while the other persisted in heartfelt hatred and disdain?
That is the question the doctrine of divine election is designed to answer. In the final analysis, when all is said and done, one must attribute Jerry’s faith either to Jerry or to God or to some form of cooperative effort on the part of both in which neither takes precedence (or praise) over the other.
[Later on in the book, I pick up the story of these two brothers in an effort to account for what made Jerry to differ from Ed.]
Let’s return for a moment to the hypothetical case of the twin brothers, Jerry and Ed. If the biblical witness to the condition of fallen humanity is to be believed . . ., neither of these young men, if left to himself, has any desire for Christ or the blessings offered in the gospel. If neither comes to Christ it is not because they want to but are not numbered among the elect or are told that, notwithstanding their desire, God will not let them. If neither comes to Christ it is because they want nothing at all to do with Jesus or anything of a spiritual character. They revel in their unbelief, even if they conduct themselves in what we might call a civil and humane manner. There is nothing in Christ that appeals to them; nothing in his person that might lure their hearts from sin to salvation.
So I’ll ask yet again: “What made Jerry and Ed to differ?” The Arminian insists that what made Jerry and Ed to differ was Jerry. The ultimate and only sufficient reason Jerry believed and Ed did not is that Jerry exercised his own free will. Because God foreknew from eternity past that Jerry would believe and Ed would not, he elected Jerry to be an heir of eternal life, leaving Ed to his rightful recompense.
The Calvinist, on the other hand, knowing that, because of the total moral depravity of both Jerry and Ed, neither brother could or would believe, finds the reason for the difference between them in God and his unconditional, sovereign grace. Both Jerry and Ed desired and therefore deserved to be left to their sin and its inevitable outcome, eternal death. But for a reason hidden deep within his heart, God loved Jerry with an everlasting love and made a gift to him of both faith and repentance.
In saying that faith and repentance are God’s gifts to Jerry but not to Ed, we are not to think of them as some sort of material, tangible stuff that comes gift-wrapped with a red ribbon! The Bible portrays faith and repentance as God’s gifts to his elect in order to emphasize that although Jerry is the author of these actions, God is the ultimate cause. Jerry willed to believe, but only after and because God provided him with the power. Thus, Jerry’s repentance from sin and his faith in Christ are portrayed as gifts because they flow from God’s sovereign grace. Jerry did not earn them or obtain them by fulfilling some condition.
It was not because God saw in Jerry certain qualities of character or potential for good that were absent from Ed. It was not because Jerry’s hair was slightly darker than Ed’s, and that God prefers black hair to blonde. Rather, to use the language of Scripture, “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 his call . . .” (Romans 9:11).
Both Jerry and Ed were spiritually dead in their trespasses and sin. Neither man had a claim on divine favor, nor did he want it. But Jerry came to life, whereas Ed did not. Why? Just as Lazarus rose up and went forth from his grave because God infused him with physical life and breath, so Jerry was infused with a new principle of spiritual life by which he rose up and came to Christ in faith and repentance.
[Once again, later in the book I return to wrap up the story of these two brothers.]
Arminians who believe in the doctrine of total moral depravity insist that although both Jerry and Ed are by nature unable to come to Christ, the Holy Spirit graciously restores in them the power they need to act in faith by their own free will [this is what the Arminian refers to as prevenient grace]. I will forego making much of the fact that there is no clear and unequivocal text of Scripture which affirms the idea . . ., and simply assume for the sake of argument (but against Scripture, in my opinion), that it is true.
Our situation, then, is this. Both Jerry and Ed (like every other human being, says the Arminian), have been endowed from on high with equal ability to believe the gospel. Neither has an advantage over the other. If Jerry acts and improves upon this power of will so as to repent and believe the gospel, but Ed does not, to whom or to what do we attribute the difference between them? It seems clear enough to me that if Jerry avails himself of the opportunity, but Ed does not, the reason or cause must be something in Jerry that is not in Ed. It cannot be because of something the Holy Spirit graciously did in and for Jerry that he refused to do in and for Ed. The Arminian insists that if God, according to his sovereign good pleasure, does for one (Jerry) what he declines to do for another (Ed), he is guilty of partiality and injustice. To restore a greater and more effective power of will in Jerry than in Ed is unfair, says the Arminian. Justice demands that God must do the same for both.
Therefore, the fact that Jerry believes and Ed does not can be explained only by what Jerry is and does in himself, as over against his twin brother. That Jerry should suddenly be sorrowful for his sin and repent can be due only to Jerry. That Jerry should suddenly understand the gospel, humbly repudiate all reliance upon self, and embrace by faith the redemptive merits of Jesus Christ can be due only to Jerry. It cannot ultimately be because of God the Holy Spirit; otherwise Ed and every other human being would repent and believe in like manner, since they have received from God as much help as Jerry has.
It would appear that, if the Arminian scenario is correct, in answer to the apostle’s question, “Who maketh thee to differ?” (1 Cor. 4:7a, KJV), Jerry can justifiably (and with pride of heart?) say, “I did!” It will not do to say that were it not for the Holy Spirit no one at all, neither Jerry nor Ed, would have been able to believe in Christ. For if it is not the Holy Spirit who guarantees and secures Jerry’s belief in Christ, he has eternal life because of what he, not God, has done.
At best, the Arminian may say that the opportunity to be saved is of grace. At best, he may insist that the possibility for Jerry and Ed to get to heaven is of grace. But he simply cannot say that salvation itself is wholly of grace. In the Arminian scheme, God has said all that he can say and has done all that he can do once he has restored in all people an equal ability to believe. From that point on, the reason one person believes and another does not is a human reason. To that degree, salvation is not of the Lord, but of man, and we could with sincerity no longer sing:
“Pause, my soul! adore, and wonder!
Ask, ‘Oh, why such love to me?’
Grace hath put me in the number
Of the Saviour’s family:
Thanks, eternal thanks, to Thee!”