Did God Elect People or a Plan

Q – Dear Sir,

I overheard a conversation you had with Phil Valentine on WTN radio on Monday of this week. I really appreciated the things you had to say and got interested in your web site.

Jim – Thanks for the encouragement. And please call me Jim; everyone else does.

The whole Valentine thing came from way out in left field. So, I was gratified that it went so well and that Phil was so generous with his airtime and comments. The email response to that twelve minutes on the radio has been very gratifying.

Q – I took a look at your statement of beliefs and have a question. Before I ask this I want to identify myself as a Baptist pastor of a small congregation in (Middle Tennessee).

Jim – I also pastor a small congregation. Despite our ever-expanding Internet outreach, we remain a small local congregation. When I was in Los Angeles, I interned in a very large televised church, replete with all the trappings of Tinseltown. I definitely prefer a small, congenial group to the mega-church environment.

Q – We definitely believe in salvation by grace through faith as taught in Ephesians 2:8-9. We also much believe Ephesians 2:10 that those who are in Christ Jesus are created unto good works and should not be living as born-again hooligans in the world. With that said, I have a question regarding your wording of a couple of items on the “What We Believe” page of your website. Item paragraph 4 and also the third bullet under item 7 mention those “elected by God … for eternal life.”

First of all, I will tell you that I am a young man, I am not seminary trained, but have been attending church since birth and surrounded by faithful brethren. I realize there is much for me to learn about the Word of God. However, I find this wording a little disturbing. I do not see God as deciding before the foundation of the world who will be born again and who will not, as much as I see him deciding what the plan of salvation would be and that those who come to him accordingly will be born again. I may be splitting hairs but I just wanted to contact you and maybe initiate a dialog.

Jim – Good stuff. Good questions. Important questions, too.

Let me say at the outset that I intend to support the notion that God elects particular individuals for salvation and I’m going to offer a vigorous defense of that notion. In so doing, I’m going to question your assumptions. But I want you to know that my words are meant charitably and that I only seek to raise up the Word of God while not demeaning you in any way.

That said, I’ll offer my first challenge. Can you provide a text from Scripture that uses the words “elect” or “election” and that states that God “decided what the plan of salvation would be” as opposed to electing people for the purpose of saving them? The reason I ask is that the Scripture is chock-full of passages that plainly state God’s sovereignty in the matter of salvation, even to the gracious election of certain people for that very purpose. If we are going to make theological assertions concerning the Scripture, we must be able to support those assertions from clear, didactic texts.

What you have proposed is a very common traditional teaching in the church. It stems from the fact that anyone who gives the Bible even a cursory reading must admit that God repeatedly picks and chooses. The words “elect” and “election” appear multiple times in both the Old and New Testaments. God chooses nations, leaders, deliverers, judges, kings, and priests. He chooses among the tribes of Israel and even chooses which nations He will use to punish Israel. The language of election is intrinsic to all of Scripture. Consequently, those who oppose the notion of God freely choosing whom He will save attempt to water down the Biblical language of election by saying that He does not elect individuals. Rather, they assert (as you have) that He elected or chose a plan. Then everyone who chooses to engage that plan receives the benefit of the plan and thereby become “the elect.”

There are two immediate problems with that paradigm. First, it is not stated anywhere in Scripture. And second, everywhere that election is mentioned in the Scripture, it is God (or Christ) who actively chooses and what they choose is people, not a plan.

To make the point, let’s take a quick excursion through some key texts, starting with Jesus’ own words —

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you … If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:16-20)

Notice that as Jesus spoke to the twelve, He said nothing of choosing a plan. Rather, He chose them, the individuals. And, because Christ chose them, they stood in stark contrast to “the world.” Jesus emphasized this contrast repeatedly in His ministry. For instance, when He promised His apostles that they would receive the Holy Spirit, He said,

“Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive.” (John 14:17)

Or, in His high-priestly prayer He singled out those He had chosen and said,

“I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.” (John 17:9-10)

In each of these declarations, Jesus makes clear demarcations between those who are His and the rest of “the world.” The apostles were chosen out of the world; the world cannot receive the Holy Spirit; and Jesus not intercede for the world as He prayed. He prayed only for those whom God gave Him. Those people did not choose Christ, according to Jesus’ words, but He chose them.

And certainly, we must conclude that if these men were chosen by Christ, were prayed for by Jesus, received the Holy Spirit (whom the world cannot receive) and are called “them which thou hast given me,” the end result must be salvation. But, it is salvation predicated on God’s choice.

Let’s turn to another example. When the apostle Peter wrote his epistles, he was writing to the diaspora; believing Jews who were scattered among the Gentile nations. Those are particular people. He refers to them as “elect according to the foreknowledge of God.” Peter is not writing to a plan. He is writing to people. And those people are “elect.”

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied.” (1 Peter 1:1-2)

By the way, notice how Peter said that God’s election works: the elect were sanctified by the Spirit (whom the world cannot receive), leading them to obedience and the sprinkling of Christ’s blood, a direct reference to the finished atoning work. Peter says nothing of any person’s choice, decision, act of faith, or free will. Rather, when it comes to the question of salvation, Peter (like all the New Testament writers) gives all the credit to the triune God. God the Father knew those He chose, the Son gave His blood for those people, and the Spirit sanctified those people. That’s all very purposeful and selective. And it was efficacious only to the elect.

In a similar fashion, the Apostle John writes his second epistle to a woman whom he calls “the elect lady and her children.” (2 John 1:13). In each of these examples, “election” refers to individuals, not to a plan.

Now let’s turn to Paul, the New Testament’s foremost theologian. In his epistle to the Romans, he wrote:

“And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth); It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” (Romans 9:10-13)

This passage is vitally important to understand. Notice that it involved individuals — Jacob and Esau. God chose one and rejected the other, despite the fact that neither had done any good or evil. God did not choose a plan; he chose a person. It is common for those who reject this idea to attempt obfuscating it by claiming that God chose Jacob over Esau because He knew what their descendants would do. But that is merely eisegesis, in light of Paul’s words. Paul was precise in declaring, “not of works, but of Him that calls.” This is solely and completely the work of God’s sovereign will, free of any human influence. Paul stated it clearly, but the traditions of men struggle against it.

When writing to the church at Thessalonica, Paul wrote:

“We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father; knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.” (1 Thess 1:2-4)

Notice the language Paul uses when addressing these particular believers. Directing his comments directly to the saints, he says that He thanks God “for you all.” He makes mention of “you” in his prayers. He remembers “your work of faith.” These are objective case pronouns that bespeak particular people. Consequently, says Paul, he knows “your election of God.” What Paul knew of the Thessalonian saints was that God elected them, personally and particularly.

The conversion of the apostle Paul is similarly personal and sovereign. When Ananias heard that Saul, the persecutor of Christians, was coming to see him, he objected most strenuously. But, God — who had just knocked Saul from his donkey, blinded him, and gave him his marching orders — reassured Ananias by saying –

“Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)

God did not make the plan of salvation available to Saul (later known as the apostle Paul) and wait to see if he would accept it. He chose Paul in particular, overwhelmed him, and placed him in the ministry of the gospel of Christ. In fact, by his own account, once Saul came to Ananias he was told –

“Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked up upon him. And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth.” (Acts 22:13-14)

Notice that God did not choose a plan. He chose a man. He chose Paul. For what purpose? That he would know the will of God and hear the voice of His mouth.

Later in that same book (The Acts of the Apostles), Peter concludes that God is “no respecter of persons,” (Acts 10:34) and then says that God did not reveal the risen Christ to the whole world, but only to those He had chosen —

“And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree: Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly; not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10:39-41)

There are so many examples of the particularity of God’s choice that I cannot list them all. But, we have Paul closing his letter to the Romans and saying –

“Salute Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.” (Rom 16:13)

Or, Peter writing to the scattered believing Jews and declaring –

“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

Or Paul declaring –

“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

I’m sure that’s plenty for the moment. But my point is that in every one of these passages, God is actively choosing people. And He is choosing them to salvation. God does it this way so that no flesh can glory in His presence. No one will ever be able to brag that they chose God or activated a plan. Rather, God will get all the glory because the salvation of men and women is completely His enterprise, designed for the glory of His grace. And to whatever extent or degree we argue that we add something to God’s work (whether we add our choice, our faith, our endurance, our profession, etc.), to that degree we insist on sharing the glory that God alone deserves and will ultimately accomplish.

Now, having said all that, we have to ask the question that lies at the heart of the matter. When did this election take place? How did it occur? And what are the everlasting results? Indeed, is election to salvation?

This single passage ought to be enough to settle the issue —

“But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14)

Remember that this is a letter written by a believer (Paul) to the believers at Thessalonica. Now, follow Paul’s logic. He thanked God “for you.” In other words, he thanked God for the saints, whom he called “brethren beloved.”

Why was He thanking God? Because God had chosen those particular saints “from the beginning.”

And what did God choose them for? “God hath … chosen you to salvation.”

And what was the means of enacting the salvation God purposed for those saints? “Sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.”

And what method did God use to accomplish the salvation He purposed for those saints? “He called you by our gospel.”

And what is the upshot of the whole affair? “The obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This passage is about salvation. Yet, Paul never mentions any saint choosing, deciding, exercising his flesh or his will. Rather, Paul thanks God for those believers because Paul sees it all as God’s enterprise, inasmuch as God chose them from the beginning to obtain salvation.”

In your email, you quoted two sections of the Ephesians letter that you said you agree with wholeheartedly. So, do you also agree with what Paul wrote earlier in that same epistle? —

“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence; having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself.” (Eph. 1:1-9)

Notice that Paul never says that God’s election is merely a plan. Rather, God “has chosen us” and “predestinated us.” Again, this is a believer writing to believers. The language is personal. God chooses people. And He chooses, not according to anything within those people, but “according to his good pleasure which he has purposed in himself.” If God were to choose on the basis of “foreseen faith,” or His knowledge that some people would choose him, then He is no longer working according to His good pleasure, He is reacting to the primary action of the human. But, Paul’s theology is clear and unwavering.

So then, when did this election take place? According to Paul, it happened “before the foundation of the world.” The entirety of the Biblical corpus shows that God not only chose some people, but that He wrote their names down in “The Lamb’s Book of Life” before He began the activity of creation. Notice how specific Paul’s language and word choice is when he writes his pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus —

“Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” (2 Tim 1:8-9)

“Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God’s elect, and the acknowledging of the truth which is after godliness; in hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.” (Titus 1:1-2)

God’s electing grace began prior to the foundation of the world. Consequently, according to Paul, God saved “us” (a specific designation) and called “us,” not according to any work we’ve done (including choosing, deciding, activating faith, etc.), but according to His own purpose and grace, which grace and purpose were given to “us” in Christ before the world began.

For that reason – because God chose certain people before the foundation of the world and deigned to save those particular people prior to the creation of anything at all – Christ is called “the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world.”

“And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Rev. 13:8)

While that’s a negative example, it makes the point. Only those who are written in the Lamb’s book are ultimately saved. So, when was this book written? According to the Apostle John, it was written before God created the world, meaning that God could not have taken any man’s action, work, or faith into account, considering that no one yet existed. He chose according to His good pleasure and sovereign will.

“The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.” (Rev. 17:8)

“And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Rev 21:27)

In both of those negative examples we see that punishment awaits those who are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. But, what of those who are? They enter New Jerusalem —

“And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Rev 20:15)

So, the long and short of it is that God chose some people prior to forming the worlds. Just to show how definite His election was, He wrote down their names. And, if their names are in that book, they wind up with eternal salvation. If their names are not in the book, written before the foundation of the world, they worship the beast and end up in the Lake of Fire.

I know that’s very black-and-white and very definite. But, it’s also very Biblical.

So, in our “What We Believe” section, when we wrote the statement that God elects people to eternal life, that is exactly and precisely what we meant to say. We have ample Scriptural support for that contention and, very importantly, that is the theology of the New Testament and the doctrine that lays at the very heart of the Protestant Reformation. Despite the fact that the theology that defines the Reformation is largely ignored by modern Protestants, it is true nonetheless.

By the way, you mentioned that you pastor a Baptist Church. Are you familiar with the creeds and confessions that established the Baptist Church? For instance, have you ever read the London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689? In it you’ll find that following words.

3 – God’s Decree
– God has decreed in Himself from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things which shall ever come to pass.

– Yet in such a way that God is neither the author of sin nor does He have fellowship with any in the committing of sins, nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

– In all this God’s wisdom is displayed, disposing all things, and also His power and faithfulness in accomplishing His decree.

– Although God knows everything which may or can come to pass under all imaginable conditions, yet He has not decreed anything because He foresaw it in the future, or because it would come to pass under certain conditions.

– By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated or foreordained to eternal life through Jesus Christ, to the praise of His glorious grace. Others are left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of His glorious justice.

– Those angels and men thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and the number of them is so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.

– Those of mankind who are predestinated to life, God chose before the foundation of the world was laid, in accordance with His eternal and immutable purpose and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will. God chose them in Christ for everlasting glory, solely out of His free grace and love, without anything in the creature as a condition or cause moving Him to choose.

 As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so, by the eternal and completely free intention of His will, He has foreordained all the means. Accordingly, those who are elected, being fallen in Adam:

– are redeemed by Christ,

– are effectually called to faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season,

– are justified, adopted, sanctified,

– and are kept by His power through faith unto salvation;

– neither are any but the elect redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved.

– The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, in order that men who are heeding the will of God revealed in His Word, and who are yielding obedience to it, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation be assured of their eternal election.

So shall this doctrine provide cause for praise, reverence, admiration of God, and also provide cause for humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all who sincerely obey the Gospel.

In other words, what we have written on our website comports completely with what Baptists have historically always believed. I like to joke that we are “more Baptist than most Baptists.”

You can read the London Baptist Confession here:

Now, I expect that all of this comes as bit of a surprise to you, as it does most people. I know that when I came in contact with this information for the first time, I realized that embracing the actual teaching of the Bible meant that I would have to reassess everything I believed and held dear. It also meant preaching a message that was not popular in the contemporary church. But it equally meant holding fast to the security of “sound doctrine.” So, I realized that I had to either stand for the truth, just as the Bible declares it, or support man-made tradition in spite of what I knew from Scripture. Obviously, I went with the first option.

I’m hoping you’ll dig into these things more deeply. You stand in the pulpit each week and tell people to trust that what you’re telling them is the very word of God and that they can trust their ever-living souls to it. I think we, as preachers, need to do our “due diligence” in making sure that every word we preach is completely in line with Scripture. And I trust that God’s Spirit will lead you to dig ever deeper into His word and adjust your thinking accordingly.

Yours for His sake,

Jim Mc.