Having Trouble with The Doctrine of Election? Start Here (Part 1)
Nearly every Christian, when asked, will say that they believe God is sovereign. It’s almost a no-brainer. But, understanding exactly what that means is far more difficult and shows that many Christians don’t believe God is sovereign.
The word sovereign means, “possessing supreme or ultimate power.” Some of the synonyms for sovereign include: absolute, unlimited, unrestricted, total, and unconditional. So when we talk about God being sovereign we are referring to the fact that He has complete and total power in this world.
This isn’t hard to understand given the fact that God create the world. The One that creates something typically has complete authority and control over that thing that has been created. Believing that God has complete and total control over the earth and universe He created should be a fairly easy concept to understand.
In a theological sense, when we speak of God’s sovereignty, we are speaking of the reality that everything that happens in this universe happens by a direct act of God, or because God has allowed it to happen. In other words, there is nothing that happens in this universe that does not first pass through God for approval. This truth has propelled some to believe that God is the cause of sin, but that is patently false. Man’s sinful heart and lust is the cause of sin and, as we will see later, man’s free will leads only to sin.
Regarding salvation God’s sovereignty is a critical aspect that is misunderstood by many Christians. Some choose to reject the biblical doctrine of election because, in their words, “it’s not fair.” But, as we will see, the doctrine of election and God’s sovereignty cannot be divorced.
Concerning election and God’s sovereignty, we understand that God freely elects some to saving faith in Jesus while others are destined for eternal destruction. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans this way:
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Rom. 9:14-24)
There’s a lot to unpack in these verses but they are critical to our proper understanding of election.
In these verses we have Paul discussing election and salvation with his readers. Paul makes it clear that salvation is entirely up to God and that “it depends not on human will” (v. 16). Paul goes on to remind us that it was God that hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and that it was God that prepared Pharaoh for destruction. And that it was “for this very purpose” (destruction) that God raised Pharaoh up in the first place (v. 17). Paul then reminds us all that we are nothing more than lumps of clay in the Potter’s hand. The Potter has every right to do what He wishes with the clay (v. 20). As the Potter, God has every right to create some vessels for destruction and others for glory (vs. 22-23).
These verses remind us that God is indeed sovereign. It is God, in His sovereignty that creates some vessels for glory and other vessels for destruction. It has nothing to do with man or his works; salvation lies solely in the sovereignty and will of God. And while we might be tempted to say, “that’s not fair,” we are also reminded here by Paul that we, as the clay, have no right to tell the Potter what to do with us. Our ideas of right and fair are not only tainted by sin, but they are irrelevant. We are nothing more than the vessels created by the Potter and serve only His purposes for our creation. While we may not be able to fully understand His purposes in creation and election, we must accept this truth.
Often we confuse mercy and justice. When God chooses by His own sovereign will to redeem one man while choosing not to redeem another, we are tempted to say “that’s not fair” and demand justice. But when we say, “that’s not fair,” we are really saying “that’s not equal.” We are really upset because our ideas of equality have been offended, as we believe God is not being equitable by redeeming one and not another. And yet we have forgotten that God has no obligation to redeem anyone.
We would be quick to admit that God would be completely just and fair if He condemned all to hell. We would say that God is within His right to refuse redemption to anyone and condemn us all to hell. But, we would say, if God is going to redeem one, He should redeem all. This confuses God’s justice with God’s mercy. This is why Paul asks the rhetorical question in Romans 9:14, “Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” Paul is reminding us that God has no obligation to redeem anyone and that it is only by His mercy that any are redeemed at all.
When one man is redeemed he receives God’s mercy. When another man is not redeemed he receives God’s justice. This is mercy and justice in proper context and we would do well, as Paul reminds us, to remember that. If you want to fight for a right you think is deserved, you would do well to remember that God’s mercy is not one of them. Our society has an entitlement mentality that says we all deserve everything. But in God’s theology justice is the only thing deserved; mercy is entirely God’s prerogative. I like how musician Lecrae put it in one of his songs, “if I fought for my rights, I’d be in hell tonight.”
The truth is that every person born in this world deserves nothing more than God’s justice, that is, to pay the penalty for our sins and be subject to God’s divine wrath for being His enemies. A proper understanding of the depravity of man and the seriousness of our sin will lead us to conclude that we deserve only justice. It is then we realize that God is merciful to those He elects to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and God is just to those that are predestined to reject Christ. This shows God’s mercy and justice in perfection and we have no basis for the claim that God is “not fair” by electing some to salvation and not others.