This past week our sermon series in Romans took us to chapter 9, which speaks about the doctrine of election. This is an important doctrine that churches have had a lot of conflict over. Since it is an issue that frequently comes up with people, I wanted to provide a short explanation on the doctrine and how to think about it. 

First, we see in Romans 9 that God elects people to salvation. This goes with the doctrine of predestination which is also in the Bible (Rom 8:28, Eph 1:5), and the basic meaning is God chose those who would be saved before they ever did anything to earn or deserve salvation (Rom 9:11). The doctrine shows that salvation is by grace from first to last. 

Romans 9 takes a deep dive into God’s sovereignty in election, but the bible also affirms that people are responsible before God. We see this in many other passages like the following:

  • choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." (Joshua 24:15)
  • Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, (Acts 3:19)

In his classic book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, theologian J.I. Packer says the two truths of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility represent an antinomy. An antinomy is the appearance of a contradiction between equally logical, reasonable and necessary conclusions. He relates it to the two laws of light. He says in quantum mechanics entities exhibit either particle or wave properties. Light is a wave, and so we are familiar with talking about lightwaves. But it is also observed that light has the ability to displace electrons, which means it behaves as a particle. He points out both of these conclusions are true, even if we don't know how to explain it. 

In Scripture, God is sovereign and people are responsible. These two doctrines function like anchors of a theological tightrope. If you deny one you fall, but together they provide the grounding to live in the world and the ability to understand many other principles in the Bible. I illustrate this with the image below. 

Historically the two systems to view election are called Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinsim has a greater emphasis on God’s sovereignty and arminianism on human responsibility. These emphases are fine as long as it doesnt let go of the other side. Some people are more balanced than others, but you will see some fall off the biblical grid. Arminians can’t deny God’s election or predestination and still be biblical. These are clearly taught in Scripture, and you have to see that. Likewise, Calvinist have to affirm humans are still responsible and must choose to follow God.  

I illustrate this with the second image below, so we can see Calvinism and Arminianism being on a continuum, and some being biblically faithful and some going outside those bounds. This is why it is important when you talk to a Calvinist or Arminian that you ask what they believe about it. If a person can affirm God’s sovereignty and human responsibility you will have a lot in common regardless of where their emphasis falls. 

When we affirm these two poles we can treat many other things as “within the family debates.” The topic of election is deep and has many ramifications that we can and should discuss. Did God predestine based on who he foreknew? Is there a prevenient grace that awakens before converting? Is the doctrine of retribution (that God predestined some to hell) clearly biblical or more of a logical extrapolation? Those are all good debates worth having, and can be had on friendly terms. 

The problem has been that the church often treats people on the other side of the family as those who are outside the faith.  Arminians are treated as Pelagians. Pelagius was a fifth century British monk who denied a fall and said people were basically good and don’t need a Savior. That is patently unbiblical. And Calvinists are often treated as fatalist who deny we need to share our faith, or pray, or do anything else. That is clearly unbiblical.  This is illustrated in the image below.

Augustine famously said we need “unity in essentials, freedom in non-essential, and charity in all things.” The essentials here are God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. If we can affirm both of those then we can have freedom in other aspects. We don’t need to push people to assent to theological concepts that are not clearly derived from Scripture. There is some mystery in this doctrine, and that is why the unit of Romans 9 ends with a celebration of God’s greatness and mystery (Romans 11:33-36). There is mystery, and we need to allow for people to see it.

Now some may hear this complicated doctrine and decide to reject Christianity because of the complexity that exists. I want to point out to those that you will not escape the dilemma. You still have to deal with the question of is there order in the world or do we just choose everything for ourselves. Two non-Christian philosophies views that relate to this are stoicism and epicureanism. This is seen in the fourth and final image below. 

Stoicism sees everything that happens is determined by nature, and humans have no control of life. The idea of determinism says all you can control is your thoughts and actions. You find peace by living according to what fate brings to you. You just need to deal with life, grin and bear it, do your duty, and hope for the best. God does not care for you or respond to your needs. This understanding can lead to great despondency.

Epicureanism says all that matters is pleasure, and you need to live in the way that brings you the greatest pleasure. There is no purpose or order to align yourself with. Just go have fun. And we see people making all kinds of mistakes today because of such thinking. 

It is only in Christianity that we see there is a pattern and purpose to the world, and that we still have a choice in what we do. There is a sovereign and omniscient creator who is at work, and whom we can also call Father. He knows us, sees us, loves us, and hears us. There is a plan and a planner, and we are to align our lives with him. Only Christianity holds these together in a beautiful balance that makes sense of life and satisfies our hearts.

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