Questions About Election

Q – I recently read through By Grace Alone and I liked it a lot. I grew up in Nashville and attended a United Methodist Church. I loved Sunday School and our youth group but I could not stand going to church services because I couldn’t get much of anything out of them. No matter how hard I tried to listen, I had a hard time concentrating, I guess because mainly I was there since I had to go, not because I wanted to.

Jim – I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I know what you’re saying about Church. I grew up Lutheran, and only attended because I had to. I knew the entire liturgy and when to stand up, sit down, sing, etc. But, I hated the sermons. Boring. Meaningless prattle. Usually fifteen minutes of very surface comments on some current event, followed by an offering. Ugh.

And, it took me a long time to come to the realization that it was okay to criticize the church. I really thought that the “church at large” was inextricably tied to God and if you said you didn’t like church, that was tantamount to saying you didn’t like God. I always liked God. I always loved God. I just didn’t think the Church seemed to know much about God. It was a social club. It was an obligation. It was a community meeting.

One day, when I was in high school, I asked our Lutheran minister if he could tell me about the antichrist. I didn’t know anything about it either, but I had heard someone use that term. So, I wanted to know. I figured our pastor was the expert, so I’d ask him. He was flummoxed. He had no idea. He handed me a Bible Encyclopedia and told me to look it up. I was aghast. I mean, if you can’t ask a Lutheran minister a Bible question and get a straight answer, what’s the point?

During high school, I taught 4th grade Sunday School and Lutheran Catechism classes. But, the members of the church became concerned about the length of my hair and told me to cut it or stop teaching. A week later they showed up at our house asking us for our financial commitment for the year. I was livid. They didn’t think I was good enough to teach their children, because of something as relatively unimportant as the length of my hair, but they wanted my money.

So, I quit the Church. Not just the Lutheran Church, I quit the Church altogether. During college I pretty much lost my faith and became a raging socialist – it was the 70’s, after all. But, God is faithful, even when we are not. I spent my twenties touring with a rock and roll band, making records, doing concerts, etc.

And then, when I was 25, I heard a preacher on TV preach on the proof of the resurrection and God grabbed me. I’ve been pursuing Him ever since.

So, I relate to your Church experience. And, to this day I believe that most churches are confused and Biblically ignorant. They exist as a self-perpetuating institution, but have long since forgotten their purpose and mission. They have forgotten what the gospel truly is and how to propagate it. They are afraid of controversy and are not brave enough to teach the truth and suffer the consequences. They are driven by money and power instead of faith and love. It’s a shame, really.

But, as my mentor used to say, the cure for wrong use is not no use. The cure for wrong use is right use. And, that’s what I’m trying to do.

Q – Once I left for college, I wasn’t as faithful to God and never attended church and I regret not doing so. But, I’ve heard many great things about your church.

Jim – Well, thank you. And, don’t worry about your absence from Church the last few years. It just gives you less to un-learn. πŸ™‚

In the First Century, churches met in homes and Christianity spread person-to-person. Christianity is a relationship-driven religion. I now believe that it’s impossible to genuinely pastor via TV or radio. You may be able to teach over those mediums, but true Christianity requires one-on-one relationships and human contact.

We have a very open, informal way of “doing” church. I entertain questions while I’m teaching, which is sort of unique. Most pastors refuse to be questioned. But, I think that an open forum is essential. I don’t pretend that I have all the answers. So, when someone makes a point, brings up a thought, or asks a question, it’s edifying to the whole group. And, we are willing to discuss the tough stuff. We’re willing to think. And, we’re willing to test the Word of God. After all, He’s able to withstand scrutiny. He’s God. πŸ™‚

Q – I can honestly tell you that when I first started reading your book, I was angry but as I got towards the end, I began to realize the real meaning of Christ and why he died for us just as I had been taught. I also wonder why I was never told some of the truths of the Bible and why we were taught a different way in the Methodist church.

Jim – You’re not the first person to be challenged when confronting these truths. We all struggled with them. Our flesh has a problem with the notion of a Sovereign God who does what He wants, when He wants, with whomever He wants. We prefer to think that we are in control of our destinies and that we can take some credit for our salvation. But, the Bible just doesn’t leave room for that kind of thinking. If reading our book helped you understand the “real meaning of Christ and why he died for us,” then I’m deeply gratified. That’s why we teach, that’s why we preach. Our end purpose is to drive people to the only hope they have, which is Christ’s finished atonement. So, thank you very much for telling me that.

You know, it’s funny how often I hear people say, “Why haven’t I ever heard this stuff in Church?” People who have grown up in traditional churches have virtually never been educated in the basic tenets and doctrines of foundational New Testament Christianity. Odd, isn’t it?

As for Methodism, you might enjoy reading the letters and debates that John Wesley (the father of the Methodist movement) had with his friend George Whitefield, who was a Calvinistic preacher. Their writings are very educational. But, Methodism has traditionally favored the more Arminian approach to soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). It’s primarily about the “method,” hence the name Methodist. If you do the “method,” do enough good works and try not to pile up too many sins, you’ll be okay when you get to Heaven.

But, the primary problem with such thinking is that it requires God to judge you – and determine your eternal destiny – on the basis on your works. And, if God is going to judge you according to your deeds, He must take every deed and every thought into consideration. He cannot wink at your sins or fleshly desires. He must judge you according to your misdeeds if He has to accept you for your good deeds.

But, the standard in Heaven is the absolute holiness of God. If you are any less than perfect – and perfect on the level that God is perfect – then you fail to meet the standard and cannot live in His eternal presence. That’s why we desperately need someone to attain that perfection on our behalf. And, that’s what Christ did. He took our sins onto Himself and paid the price for our trespasses and rebellion. Then, He imputed His personal perfection to our account, and we will live eternally with the Father, not on our own personal merit, but on His perfection. We are “accepted in the Beloved.” (Eph. 1:6)

So, I have my differences with historic Methodist theology. But, that’s okay. I’m sure they have their problems with me, too. πŸ™‚

Don’t be frustrated by the fact that the Church never taught you these things, just be thankful that God decided to show them to you at all. He could have left you in the dark and passed you by entirely. But, He didn’t. He loved you enough to reveal His Son to you and draw you to Himself. That’s a great honor. Don’t take it lightly.

Q – Here’s a question I do have for ya. I don’t understand how on page 20 it says the election took place “before the foundation of the world” and before any of man’s actions but on page 23 and everywhere else, it states that God knows everything, every action we do even before we’re born and that’s how He selected his “elect”. How could he choose certain people if He knew people would never merit His favor (page 25)?

Jim – Okay, let’s take your question in parts. First, you wrote – “on page 20 it says the election took place ‘before the foundation of the world’ and before any of man’s actions…”

That’s right. The activities of any person cannot be part of the equation when God exercised His grace in electing some sinners to salvation. If God’s decision to save anyone was dependent on his or her actions, then election is based on merit, not grace. In order for grace to be grace, it must be utterly unearned, or unmerited. That way God acts out of mercy, lovingkindness and unmerited favor.

You continued – “but on page 23 and everywhere else, it states that God knows everything, every action we do even before we’re born and that’s how He selected his “elect”.

Half right. God does represent Himself in Scripture as being all-knowing. And, I agree that He knows every action and intent of every person, even before they do it. There is ample Biblical evidence for that.

However, I don’t believe I ever said that God’s foreknowledge of people’s actions was the basis of election. That’s the point of the section “What God Knows” starting on page 24. I have never believed, nor did I write, that God used a “selection” process when choosing His own. In fact, that’s the very concept that I was writing against on page 25 when I argued that election is neither “ratification” nor “selection.”

But, in case I was unclear, let me take another shot at it. Election, by its very nature and definition, wherever it is found in the Bible, is a direct result of God’s grace. In order for election to be a gracious activity, it must be solely a matter of unearned kindness on God’s part. If He selected people because He knew in advance something positive about them – like that they’d choose Him, go to church, stir up faith, etc. – then election is dependent on foreseen merit. In other words, God chose people who He knew would choose Him, or like Him, or react well toward Him.

Rest assured that you’re not the first person to try to sort this out. I’ve read plenty of theologians who are so confused or frustrated by the notion of completely gracious election, that they argue in favor of prior lives, or Heavenly lives, or pre-birth righteousness to explain the fact that God saves some people and passes over others. They want very badly for there to be something good, something positive, in people that would attract God’s eye and cause Him to choose them. But, again, the Bible gives no credibility at all to such theories.

The whole issue really boils down to an understanding of our helpless, sinful estate. If we are, in fact, as Scripture defines us – dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), none that does good (Rom. 3:12), none that stirs themselves up to seek God (Is. 64:7) – then the notion that God is reacting, as opposed to simply acting, is false notion. There would be absolutely nothing in men to attract God. And, again, that’s how the Bible describes mankind by nature – desperate, sinful, dead, wicked, and incapable of doing the least righteous thing.

“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.” (Is. 64:6-7)

So, if we understand how God sees us (regardless of how we may perceive ourselves), then we can understand that only a completely independent move of God toward us would be sufficient to help and save us. We are by nature incapable of moving toward Him. He must act in grace, or we are doomed to live and die in our sinful estate.

Then, you wrote – “How could he choose certain people if he knew people would never merit His favor (page 25)?”

Ahhh, I like that question. That really gets at the core of it. How could God choose people out of the mass of ruined humanity, with sin coursing through their blood, and the curse of Adam killing them day-by-day? If no one could ever merit God’s favor, how in the world (or in Heaven) could He choose anyone at all???

Good question.

Answer – grace.

God was under no obligation to save anyone at all. But, He was determined to exhibit and reveal the loving facets of His nature to the denizens of Heaven, Hell and Earth. And, the only way He could do that was to be kind to the utterly undeserving. So, in eternities past, He promised His Son a people as an inheritance. He wrote their name in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and in the course of human history, He sent His Son in a fleshly body to take remove the debt that those people owed the Father’s righteous standard.

And, those people – wretched though they were – enter Heaven on the basis of Christ’s own personal righteousness and none of their own. They are accepted completely on the basis of Christ’s finished atonement and perfecting of the saints (Heb. 10:14). Although they never attain a personal righteousness that is meritorious enough to cause God to accept them on the basis of their persons and actions, they have a righteousness imputed to them that causes God to see His Son in them, accepting, blessing and glorifying them as trophies of His grace, not their performance.

That’s the essence of this grace we preach. Only when we see the gulf between God and ourselves, only when we understand our own unrighteousness and inability to please Him, only when we know our desperate estate, can we truly understand the distance that Christ traversed and how low His condescension to us was and how far He had to lift us to bring us before the throne of His Father. This is God’s work, not ours. This is all to Christ’s glory, not ours.

So, to summarize (as if I weren’t already longwinded enough) –

God did not elect on the basis of any man’s actions, because the best actions and righteous works of men are only filthy rags. There are no actions that a sinful man can do that will merit eternity in God’s presence.

As such, God did not “select” among the people in order to choose the best ones. There were no good ones. God “elected” graciously.

God neither wanted, nor expected, any man to merit His favor. He knows what men are made of, He knows that their actions are inherently evil, He knows that their hearts are desperately wicked, and He knows that they are only free to sin, never free to move themselves toward Him. Regardless of how we may see ourselves, or like to think of ourselves, this state of desperate sinfulness is how God sees us.

This salvation that we preach – the same salvation that Jesus, the apostles, and Paul preached – is a salvation that glorifies God entirely, to the exclusion of any man’s actions, righteousness, or ability to boast. Only God will get the glory in the salvation of men. No man will be able to stand up and take the least credit for the finished work of our Savior.

Sorry to be so longwinded (or, long-typed, as the case may be), but you asked really good questions and they deserved a complete answer. Feel free to fire any questions you have our way and we’ll do our best to answer them as completely you’d like.

In fact, if you’re still wrestling with this matter, say so. And, we’ll dig through Scripture together to dig out the truth of the matter. It’s what I live to do.

Thank you for writing. And, I look forward to hearing from you again.