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QUESTION: Re Divine Election & Human Free Will


[Note: the following question came to me via the Question Box on our church web site.]

How do you explain the relationship between divine election and human free will?

An old country preacher once explained it by saying, “The Lord votes for you, the Devil votes against you, and you cast the deciding vote.” I really do not believe that our election by God has any relationship to casting ballots, but there is some validity in practical terms in how that preacher described it.

Your question is one that has troubled theologians and other Christians for hundreds of years. One popular theological position is sometimes called “tulip” theology because of an acronym of its five major tenets:

  • TOTAL DEPRAVITY OF MAN (Man is so steeped in sin that he cannot make any move toward God on his own)
  • UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION BY GOD (God, by his own sovereign choice, decided which individuals will be saved or lost)
  • LIMITED ATONEMENT BY CHRIST (Jesus only died for the elect)
  • IRRESISTIBLE GRACE TO BRING MEN TO GOD (When God calls, you cannot resist)
  • PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS (Once saved, always saved)

Before we look at the Scripture for an answer to your question, let me observe that for us to take the commands of the Lord seriously, when He said to preach the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:16 and many similar places), we must treat these doctrines as false, even if they are true.

If man is so depraved that the story of the gospel cannot move him, then why preach the gospel to him when the Lord said we are not to cast our pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6)?

Exhortations to turn to the Lord, such as Peter’s in Acts 2:40, would be meaningless – if the above doctrines are true.

Some of these doctrines are direct contradictions of plainly stated principles in the Scripture. For example, 1 John 2:2 says clearly that “He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

Now, unless everyone in the world is going to be saved, there must be some reason some are lost other than that Jesus did not die for them. In fact, John 3:16 is quite clear on this as well: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Eternal life is for “whoever believes in him.” He died for all, but not all have eternal life because some do not believe.

Similarly, the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints” must be ignored if we are to exhort believers to continue faithful unto death (cf. Revelation 2:10). In fact, in Galatians 5, Paul argues that some have fallen from grace by turning from salvation by grace through faith to salvation by works of law, i.e. circumcision (v. 4), but that “by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope” (v. 5).

1 Peter 1:5 shows how the saints are preserved. He says, “through faith [we] are shielded by God’s power.” This is very similar to Paul’s statement in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”

But this does not answer your question about the relationship between our election by God and our free will.

I believe the answer is that our election to salvation is not as individuals, but is representative. In other words, God chose a “class” of people – those who are in Christ- to be saved.

Ephesians 1:3-5 reads:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

Every spiritual blessing in in Christ. It is in Christ that we are chosen. It is in Christ that we are holy and blameless. It is in Christ that we are adopted as his sons. And all of this is in keeping with God’s pleasure and will.

God’s desire is that none perish, but that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Will all come to repentance? If none can resist the will of God, they will – but because of man’s own self-centered will, the vast majority of men insist on going down the broad road that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). They go that way against the will of God that they not perish.

What would keep them from perishing? Peter said the alternative to perishing is to come to repentance! (See also Luke 13:3, 5). So, God’s design for our salvation involves both repentance and faith. Each of these is also intimately linked with our obedience to God through baptism into Christ. See, for example, Galatians 2:26-27 and Colossians 2:12. Faith in God and in the sacrifice of Jesus is a choice.

You can choose to believe or refuse to believe. You can choose to listen to God or to listen to the voice of the Serpent, as did Eve in Genesis 3:4-6. You can choose to continue in your sins or to return to the Lord (repent). You can choose to obey his command to be baptized or refuse it.

When you choose God’s way, you are in Christ – and among the elect whom God chose before He created the earth. God’s election, then, is that all who come to Him in Christ will be saved. Whether we are in Christ or not is our choice.

This answer is brief, considering the import of the question you asked. I trust that, though brief, these words will help you to see how God can elect you to salvation in His Son, but that you must still make a choice to accept the gift He offers you by grace through faith.

NOTE: WordPress has just added a Subscription feature to its blogs. At the top of this page, on the left (just below the Search option), you can register to receive this blog by email. You have the choice of getting it each time a new post is put on the site, once each day, or once each week with summaries of blogs posted that day or that week. Of course, you will be able to change your option of how to receive it as well as to cancel your free email subscription.

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