Following are my sermon notes on the doctrine of election. This was preached at Holy Trinity Church, Norwich, in April 2006. The text was Eph 1:3-14.
We have been considering a number of aspects of the doctrine of salvation:
Creation – God made us to glorify him and enjoy him for ever.
The Fall – through our own disobedience we have become alienated from our Maker.
Inability – we are powerless to save ourselves.
Redemption – the price has been paid.
But where does the great work of salvation begin? Answer: it begins in the mind of God. And when? Before the foundation of the world. Salvation begins with God’s decision before creation to choose those who will be saved, not because of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign good pleasure. It begins with divine election.
The doctrine of election can cause palpitations, panic attacks, nervous tics, and knee-trembling in susceptible individuals. So, if you’re of a nervous disposition, please ask your neighbour to check your pulse regularly as I offer you three things to ponder. I’m going to try to show you that the doctrine of election is inescapable, inscrutable, and inspirational.
1. The doctrine of election is inescapable
I accept the doctrine of election not simply because I find it sound and satisfying, although I do. I accept it not only because it is the received doctrine of the churches of the Protestant Reformation, including the Church of England, although it is. I accept it because it is taught in God’s word. Election is a scriptural doctrine.
Mt 24:22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.”
Rom 8:30 ‘those God predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.’
Rom 8:33 ‘Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?’
2 Thess 2:13 ‘we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.’
1 Pet 1:2 ‘to God’s elect…who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.’ (And may I point out that to be ‘foreknown’ by God is to have been the object of his loving concern from all eternity).
And, of course, Eph 1: God chose us in Christ ‘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.’
God chooses, God predestines, God elects. On the testimony of these and other Scriptures, I believe that the doctrine of election is inescapable.
2. The doctrine of election is inscrutable
It poses questions that we can’t answer. It raises problems that we can’t resolve. But then there many revealed truths that we cannot fully understand. Try giving a logical account of the three-in-oneness of God and you’re likely to end up spluttering incoherently. Try writing an essay explaining how our Saviour can be truly human and yet fully divine and you’ll probably give yourself a headache. These things are beyond our comprehension. How could it be otherwise, given what we are and who God is? So it is with the doctrine of election. When someone asks, ‘How do you reconcile divine election with human responsibility’ the answer has to be, ‘We don’t. But we find each of them taught in God’s word, and on his authority we embrace them both.’
We find these two lines of divine sovereignty and human responsibility illustrated in our Gospel reading (Jn 12). The crowd shouts ‘Hosanna!’, the disciples shake their heads, the Pharisees wag their fingers, the Greeks ask to see Jesus, Philip and Andrew tell Jesus. But now listen to Jesus’ response, “Father, the hour has come.” All this human activity, but underlying it all this sense of divinely-appointed destiny. You see it again in Acts 2:23 – “you, with the help of wicked men, put Jesus to death by nailing him to the cross”, and yet at the same time this was according to God’s ‘set purpose and foreknowledge.’ And again in Phil 2:12f – ‘work at your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’
The resolution of divine election and human choice has troubled Christians for centuries. Someone has suggested the helpful picture of salvation as a door through which we pass. Over the door as you approach it are words from Rom 10, ‘Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved’. But then, looking back at that same door after you have passed through it you read the words from Eph 1, ‘Chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.’
And as far as evangelism is concerned, ‘If God had painted a yellow stripe on the backs of the elect I would go around lifting shirts. But since He didn’t I must preach `whosoever will’ and when `whosoever’ believes then I know he is one of the elect.’ (Spurgeon)
The doctrine of election is inscrutible. And far be it from me to unscrew the inscrutible.
3. The doctrine of election is inspirational
According to Article 17 of the Church of England it is ‘full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons’.
Curious, isn’t it, that we worry about this doctrine, but in Scripture it’s almost always presented as a cause for celebration, rather than as a topic for dispute or debate. Eph 1:3 – ‘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.’ Verse 14 – ‘…to the praise of his glory.’
What a joy to remember that we to serve ‘a God of purposes and plans, who has not left a blind fate to tyrannize over the world, much less an aimless chance to rock it to and fro!’ (Spurgeon)
What a reassurance to realise that God knew the solution before ever we caused the problem!
What a motivation to understand that the purpose of election is not that we might become complacent, but that we might become holy! Eph 1:4 – ‘Chosen in Christ that we should be holy and blameless.’
But if we can’t be inspired by it, then at least let’s not fall out over it. George Whitefield and John Wesley were two great and gifted Christian leaders at the time of the Great Awakening. They had a major disagreement over the doctrine of election. Years later Whitefield was asked by one of his associates whether he thought they would see John Wesley in heaven. Whitefield thought for a moment, and then gave his answer, “No, I don’t think we will see Mk Wesley in heaven. You see he will be so near the throne and you and I will be so far back that we shall hardly get a glimpse of him.”
Well, I’ve tried to show that the doctrine of election is a scriptural doctrine; it’s inescapable. I’ve tried to show you that we’ll never fully understand it: it’s inscrutible. I’ve tried to show you that God has revealed this doctrine to us in order to make us better and more joyful Christians: it’s inspirational. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded. If I haven’t, well God bless you anyway. Look out for me when you get to heaven – I’ll be somewhere at the back. But for now, in a few moments we will be sharing together the symbols of Christ’s atoning death. And what we can agree on is that his body and blood will keep us in eternal life. And that’s what matters more than anything else.