Divine Election: How and Why does God Choose?

by Sam Storms

There are many who believe that thinking about divine election reflects how terribly out of touch I am with both modern culture and the contemporary church. Turn on television, read any newspaper, or visit a local book store and you can readily see why they might draw this conclusion. Issues related to the sovereignty of God in salvation aren’t likely to get much notice in the media. People would rather argue about same sex marriage or the threat of international terrorism or the latest free-agency signing in professional football than enter the strange world of soteriology.

Others simply dismiss the doctrine of election precisely because it is a “doctrine”. The latter has become something of a cuss word among many Christians. “It’s all dead dogma,” they say. “Worse still, it is horribly divisive. Can’t we talk about something more practical?”

So, why study the doctrine of divine election? What practical gain do we hope for in opening the door into such a deep and often divisive cavern? Aside from the fact that nothing is more effective in killing human pride and promoting godly humility and granting insight into the nature of God and inflaming the heart in worship, just to mention a few, we must devote ourselves to this issue because of its pervasive and unavoidable presence in Scripture.

Something John Calvin said in his definition of election will thrust us into the very heart of the debate:

“We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God’s grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others” (Institutes, III.21.1).

For many Christians nothing could be more contradictory to their concept of God than that. For many, their foundational assumption is that it is intrinsic to God as God that he do for all sinners what he does for any one sinner. Calvin’s argument, that when it comes to eternal salvation, God “gives to some what he denies to others” is nothing short of abhorrent, if not blasphemous. It impugns God’s character. It reduces him to an arbitrary and calloused despot. If nothing else, this tells me that when I address this topic I can expect a wide range of volatile reactions.

As I’ve reflected on Calvin’s choice of words I can understand why many react so negatively. It’s largely due to the word “denies” – God “gives to some what he denies to others.” For many, the word “denies” says two things, neither of which Calvin intended.

(1) To say God “denies” something to one that he “gives” to another implies that God is withholding what he “owes”. Thus for God to “deny” eternal salvation to some folk suggests he is refusing to give them what they deserve, or what he owes them, or what he as God is obligated to give them. Clearly, for some, this language portrays God as unjust.

(2) Secondly, the word “denies” suggests that people have asked God, pleaded with him, for eternal life and he “denies” it to them or refuses to grant it to them. They envision the scenario as follows: “Oh, God, please save me. I want to believe in Jesus and experience eternal life.” To which God responds: “Sorry. I didn’t elect you. My hands are tied.” In this case God appears mean and unloving.

In other words, unconditional divine election strikes many as portraying God as either unjust or unloving, or both. Clearly, Calvin intended neither of these ideas. His point is that none deserve or are owed anything by God except eternal death. No one can claim God as his or her debtor. Therefore, when God “gives to one what he denies” to another, we are to understand that neither deserves eternal life, but in sovereign mercy God grants eternal life to some but not all. Some receive mercy, the others receive justice, but no one is treated unfairly.

Calvin contends that this doctrine identifies or brings to the surface at least two kinds of men.

First, there are those who cast aside all restraint and seek to penetrate every mystery and to satisfy their curiosity about matters on which the Lord has himself remained silent. These are men who go beyond Scripture in their efforts to unravel complex ideas and to probe into the secrets of God’s will. Let them be forewarned, said Calvin, that such men will “enter a labyrinth from which they can find no exit” (III.21.1).

Second, and on the other hand, are those who, “wishing to cure this [first] evil, all but require that every mention of predestination be buried” (ibid.). But, as Calvin, points out, “nothing is taught [in Scripture] but what is expedient to know” (ibid.). If God did not want us to understand his sovereign saving purposes, he would not have given such extensive instruction in his word. “Therefore,” says Calvin, “we must guard against depriving believers of anything disclosed about predestination in Scripture, lest we seem either wickedly to defraud them of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what it is in any way profitable to suppress. Let us, I say, permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God directed to him, provided it be with such restraint that when the Lord closes his holy lips, he also shall at once close the way to inquiry” (III.21.3).

But might it be the case that divine election is one among those many things that God keeps secret and hidden and therefore off limits to human inquiry? In Deut. 29:29 we are told that “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” Although there are certain things about divine election we will never know or fully comprehend, at least not until heaven, I believe the doctrine of election actually is included among those things referred to in the second half of Deut. 29:29 (i.e., “the things that are revealed”). In fact, there are several indications of this in Ephesians 1.

That God wants us to probe the depths of his revelation of divine election is clear from three things we see in Ephesians 1.

First, Paul declares that God is “blessed” (v. 3) precisely because he has blessed us with every spiritual blessing, chief among which is being the object of his electing love. Note the word (Gk, kathos) with which v. 4 opens, translated “just as” (NASB) or “for” (NIV) or “even as” (ESV). There may be a causal idea involved: God blessed us “because” he has chosen us in Christ. Or it may be that it is simply Paul’s way of introducing the first and most glorious “spiritual blessing” given to us by God. It might even have the sense, “in accordance with the fact that” (Lincoln, 17). I. e., here is how we know God blessed us, “he chose us . . .” The latter option would give to kathos a modal emphasis. But the point is this: If we do not understand election, its basis, its goal, etc., how can we expect to bless God with any degree of intelligence or accuracy? Indeed, how could we know he is worthy of blessing and praise if we don’t understand what being elect in Christ means?

Second, consider v. 8 where we are told that accompanying the bestowal of this grace are the gifts of wisdom and understanding whereby we are enabled to perceive and appreciate the revelation of God’s will. I.e., together with election comes enlightenment. God does not wish us to remain ignorant of this glorious truth but to celebrate it.

Some argue that “wisdom and understanding” are descriptive of the manner in which God has caused grace to abound to us; in other words, they are connected with the preceding verb in v. 8 (“he lavished upon us” [NASB]). Others suggest that “wisdom and understanding” might be connected with the following participle (“having made known”) in v. 9; hence, “the qualities referred to are therefore indispensable requisites to the publication of a mystery” (Eadie, 46); i.e., the words define the method in which the mystery is disclosed (hence, “God wisely and in an understandable way made known to us the mystery of his will”, or some such paraphrase).

But I remain convinced that the most likely thing is that “wisdom and understanding” are gifts which accompany the bestowal of electing and redeeming grace, gifts which make possible the perception of his will which the following verses proceed to define. See 1:17; Col. 1:9. If the latter is correct, Paul’s point is that God’s lavish grace not only provides election and redemption but also the necessary wisdom and spiritual insight to understand and live in the light of what he has done for us in Christ.

Third, Paul’s prayer in vv. 15ff. is for spiritual enlightenment so that we might know and appreciate and relish the truth of all we are and have because of God’s predestining of us unto sonship. Paul prays that the Ephesian believers might be spiritually enlightened so as to increase in their knowledge of God (v. 17).

His prayer is that God would act in such a way that they might more fully grasp and understand the implications of the many spiritual blessings with which God has already blessed them in Christ, chief among which is election in Christ. Paul doesn’t assume that simply because they have been so richly blessed they need no further understanding or growth or application of these truths.

Note especially the word, “give” in v. 17b. The knowledge of God and his ways in saving souls is the gift of God. See Mt. 11:27; 16:17; 1 John 5:20. Human genius cannot account for the knowledge of God. Neither native abilities, education, nor human will power can attain insight into the character and heart of God. God is known by “a divine and supernatural light”. The youngest and lowliest of children can exceed the oldest and most elevated of scientists when it comes to the knowledge of God!

This isn’t to say that one cannot attain a rational grasp of God’s saving love in Christ through study and research. Unbelievers can write books on divine election! Clearly, then, Paul has in mind a “knowledge” that goes beyond mere cognition. Jonathan Edwards spoke to this point in his sermon on “the divine and supernatural light”.

Paul, Edwards would argue, is talking about “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the Word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them, thence arising” (A Jonathan Edwards Reader, Yale, 111). According to Edwards, a person doesn’t “merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart” (111) It is not only a “speculatively judging that God is gracious” but also “a sense [of] how amiable God is upon that account” or sensing the “beauty” of God’s grace and holiness.

Edwards bases this distinction on the difference between two ways of knowing. On the one hand, there is knowledge that is merely speculative, notional, a mere cognitive awareness of some truth. On the other hand, there is what Edwards calls “the sense of the heart” in which one recognizes the beauty or amiableness or sweetness of that truth and feels pleasure and delight in it. It is the difference between knowing or believing that God is holy and having a “sense” of or enjoying his holiness. “There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness” (112). Thus “when the heart is sensible of the beauty and amiableness of a thing, it necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension” (112).

This, I believe, is the sort of knowledge of the sweetness and glory and loveliness of God’s will in divine election that Paul prays we would experience.

So, in summary, there would be appear to be clear and solid grounds for believing that we have warrant from God himself to do what we are doing: thinking about divine election.

In the final analysis, Calvin believes we should study divine election primarily for its ability to tell us why one person who hears the gospel comes to saving faith in Jesus Christ and why another does not. To whom or what, ultimately, do we attribute the distinction? When all is said and done, how do you explain why one person believes unto eternal life and another does not? Who makes one person to differ from another: the person or God? That question can only be answered by looking more closely at the “how” and “why” of God’s sovereign choice. I’ll take that up in the next lesson.

Look with me at John 17:1b-2. Here Jesus prays to the Father and says, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (ESV).

There is so much in this passage that I run the risk of getting de-railed from my primary purpose. But I can’t leave it without making a couple of comments. We must take note that not everyone is given eternal life. Only those whom the Father has “given” to Jesus are granted eternal life. The idea of people being “given” by the Father to the Son is standard Johannine language for divine election (see especially John 6:37-65).

Note also that God has not utterly cast off the world of mankind, although it would have been entirely fitting and just had he done so. He has given ultimate authority over all flesh, over every man, woman, and child to Jesus Christ. Jesus has unassailed, unchallenged, comprehensive authority over all human beings: over red and yellow, black and white; over male and female, young and old; over the powerful and the weak; over the rich and poor; over the educated and the ignorant; over those down under in Australia and those up over at the North Pole; over those who live in caves and those who walk in marble corridors.

As Edwards himself pointed out in a sermon on 1 Peter 2:9, whether they are elected or not, they belong to God. He didn’t lose his rights to humanity because of the fall nor did he forfeit his power and authority to dispose of them as he sees fit. They are still in his hands. Neither did he lose his ultimate end or goal in having created them in the first place (see Prov. 16:4). 

Out from among those over whom he has sovereign rights as Creator and Lord, the Father has given some to the Son in order that the Son might give to them eternal life.

Note well: Those whom God chooses are chosen out from among all others. They who are chosen were in the same sinful condition, the same misery as the whole of the race. They were alike partakers of corruption, morally and spiritually destitute of anything good. They were, like all others, at enmity with God, serving Satan, deserving of death and condemnation, without righteousness. There is no distinction between elect and non-elect prior to the distinction that election makes.

It isn’t that among all flesh over whom Jesus has authority some have distinguished themselves, set themselves apart, caught God’s eye because of a lingering spark of goodness or the faint promise of a reformed life or great accomplishments or good intentions. No. Paul made it clear in Romans 3:10ff. that there is none who is good or understands, all have gone astray, all are corrupt and deserving of death.

Edwards reminds us that God doesn’t choose men because he foresees excellence in them, but “he makes them excellent because he has chosen them” (“Christians a Chosen Generation,” Yale 17:280). Or again, “God don’t [sic] choose men and set his love upon them because they love him, for he hath first loved us” (1 John 4:10; 280). “Nor did God choose men because he foresaw that they would believe and come to Christ. Faith is the fruit of election and not the cause of it” (280). “Nor is it from any foresight of men’s endeavors after conversion, because he sees that some will do much more than others to obtain heaven, that he chooses” (280).

As I pointed out in my study of Ephesians 1, Paul is deafening in his redundancy to make the point that the distinction in humanity between those who believe and those who don’t is ultimately God’s doing. Note the repeated emphasis on the divine initiative in salvation as seen in the vocabulary related to God’s will or purpose or plan: “according to the kind intention of His will” (v. 5), “the mystery of His will” (v. 9), “His kind intention which He purposed” (v. 9), “according to His purpose” (v. 11), “the counsel of His will” (v. 11). Indeed, no fewer than 11x in these verses do we find vocabulary reflective of divine sovereignty: he elected us (v. 4), he predestined us (v. 5), his good pleasure (v. 5), God’s will (v. 5), God’s will (v. 9), his good pleasure (v. 9), his purpose (v. 9), he foreordained us (v. 11), his purpose (v. 11), his counsel (v. 11), his will (v. 11).

Let’s be certain that we understand the nature of this sovereign selection

To “elect” is to choose out from among others. This is no random choice. In other words, election was not haphazard or governed by nothing. There was deliberate, calculated, reasoned intent on God’s part. He knew what he was doing when He chose one but not another. He said: “I want this person, but not that person.”

We must take note of a serious misconception, indeed caricature, of election. Consider this illustration. Envision the names of all humans having been written on individual slips of paper and put in a huge hat (an obviously really, really big hat!). God is then thought by some to have closed his eyes and indiscriminately grabbed a handful, leaving others in the hat (or in hell, as it were). No! God selected this one by name and that one by name, and consciously passed over this one by name and that one by name. God didn’t flip a coin: “heads” = you’re in heaven, “tails” = you’re in hell.

If election, as Paul says in Ephesians 1 and elsewhere, is according to God’s sovereign good pleasure, then God is glad he chose some and not all. It pleased him to choose some for salvation out from among the mass of hell deserving sinners. God’s choice wasn’t driven by forces outside himself. God was not acting to conform with some external rule.

Here’s the rub: We simply don’t like the idea that the reason for God’s choices resides wholly within God. We want to account for his decision. We want to explain it, to rationalize it, to provide grounds and warrant for it. We want to be able to point to “factor A, or datum B, or issue C” in something other than God or preferably to “characteristic X, or virtue Y, or work Z” in us. We want to point to this quality or that personality trait or some accomplishment in one that isn’t in another as the grounds for God’s decision.

But if election was solely based on what God wanted and not anything in me or you that might differentiate the chosen from the unchosen and account for why this one and not another, why didn’t God choose all? If he could have, why didn’t he? It is here that we run headlong into the brick wall called “the secret things of God” in Deut. 29:29 that it is not ours to know.

On second thought, perhaps it is ours to know, at least to the degree that God may have given us some indication of why he chose not to choose all. For this we turn to Paul’s declaration in Romans 9:22-23 in which we read: “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 . . .” Paul’s point, as I see it, is that God chose not to choose all because he wanted to put on eternal display both the justice of his wrath and the glory of his mercy. Had he chosen none, his mercy would not have been seen. Had he chosen all, his wrath would not have been seen. In choosing some, but not all, both are seen, and therein is God most greatly glorified (and only in the case of the latter are we truly satisfied).

But once it is understood that God chose not to choose all, can nothing more be said about why he chose the particular ones he did? Can we say anything, does Scripture say anything, about what accounts for God’s choice of one over another? What, in the final analysis, dictates and determines God’s decision? God. He chooses one, but not another, because it pleases him to do so. Why that particular choice is more pleasing to God than another, or neither, is not revealed in Holy Scripture. That is simply the way God wants it, and so it shall be.

I’ve heard people say: “But I don’t agree with or care for God’s reason in choosing one instead of another.” But what, may I ask, is that reason, the one of which you disapprove? I am not aware that Scripture provides such information. How can anyone object to the reason God elected one instead of another when no one knows what it is?

I can tell you what that reason is not. It is not anything having to do with either the elect or non-elect, either foreseen or actual. God chose one instead of another because it was pleasing to God, and that is all the reason he needs. This is the heart and soul of the doctrine of unconditional election, that God sovereignly decided to show love and favor toward some who did not deserve it, but not all, without regard to anything in either. And the bottom line is: we don’t like that!

If this is still bothersome to you, consider the following from Charles Spurgeon, taken from his sermon on 2 Thessalonians 2:13.

“But there are some who say, "It is hard for God to choose some and leave others." Now, I will ask you one question. Is there any of you here this morning who wishes to be holy, who wishes to be regenerate, to leave off sin and walk in holiness? "Yes, there is," says some one, "I do." Then God has elected you. But another says, "No; I don't want to be holy; I don't want to give up my lusts and my vices." Why should you grumble, then, that God has not elected you to it? For if you were elected you would not like it, according to your own confession. If God this morning had chosen you to holiness, you say you would not care for it. Do you not acknowledge that you prefer drunkenness to sobriety, dishonesty to honesty? You love this world's pleasures better than religion; then why should you grumble that God has not chosen you to religion? If you love religion, he has chosen you to it. If you desire it, he has chosen you to it. If you do not, what right have you to say that God ought to have given you what you do not wish for? Supposing I had in my hand something which you do not value, and I said I shall give it to such-and-such a person, you would have no right to grumble that I did not give to you. You could not be so foolish as to grumble that the other has got what you do not care about. According to your own confession, many of you do not want religion, do not want a new heart and a right spirit, do not want the forgiveness of sins, do not want sanctification; you do not want to be elected to these things: then why should you grumble? You count these things but as husks, and why should you complain of God who has given them to those whom he has chosen? If you believe them to be good and desire them, they are there for thee. God gives liberally to all those who desire; and first of all, he makes them desire, otherwise they never would. If you love these things, he has elected you to them, and you may have them; but if you do not, who are you that you should find fault with God, when it is your own desperate will that keeps you from loving these things—your own simple self that makes you hate them? Suppose a man in the street should say, "What a shame it is I cannot have a seat in the chapel to hear what this man has to say." And suppose he says, "I hate the preacher; I can't bear his doctrine; but still it's a shame I have not a seat." Would you expect a man to say so? No: you would at once say, "That man does not care for it. Why should he trouble himself about other people having what they value and he despises?" You do not like holiness, you do not like righteousness; if God has elected me to these things, has he hurt you by it? . . . If any of you love to be saved by Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ elected you to be saved. If any of you desire to have salvation, you are elected to have it, if you desire it sincerely and earnestly. But, if you don't desire it, why on earth should you be so preposterously foolish as to grumble because God gives that which you do not like to other people?” (Emphasis mine)

Some contend that we should believe in divine election reluctantly, wishing that it were otherwise than what we find in Scripture. They argue that we should speak of it with sadness and regret, and talk about it only when pushed or coerced to do so. But there is something seriously wrong when we fail to rejoice in what pleases God. There is a grievous flaw in our thinking and in our affections when we are reluctant to speak about what God spoke so often of in Scripture. We would do well to listen to the experience of Jonathan Edwards:

“From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God's sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure. But never could give an account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God's Spirit in it; but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections. And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God's sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense, in God's strewing mercy to whom he will shew mercy, and hardening whom he will. God's absolute sovereignty and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation, is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of any thing that I see with my eyes; at least it is so at times. But I have often, since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God's sovereignty than I had then. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so” (Personal Narrative).

It “pleased” the Lord to set his love upon you. It made him happy. God has chosen you not simply to be a servant but a child! Those whom God chose in Christ he predestined to adoption! To be his peculiar treasure! Said Edwards,

“He has chosen you to be blessed forever in the enjoyment of himself, chosen you to dwell with him in his glory, given you from all eternity to his son to be united unto him to become the spouse of Christ, chosen you that you might be holy and without blame [and he chose you for this while you were seen as unholy and wholly to blame!], that you might have your filth taken away, and that you might have the image of God put upon you, that your soul might be adorned to be the bride of his glorious and dear Son; that God has chosen you for such glorious purposes as the manifestation of his glorious grace upon you and chosen you for such glorious work as the eternal praising of him” (283-84).

Those that are God’s are his “jewels”, his “treasure”. He has not simply chosen them but has chosen to bestow himself upon them. “He has chosen them to enjoy them, to see his glory, and to dwell with him forever. He hath chosen them as his treasures, as a man picks and chooses out gems from a heap of stones, only that with this difference: that man finds gems very different from other stones and therefore chooses. But God chooses them, and therefore they become gems and very different from others” (278-79; see Mal. 3:17 and Ps. 135:4).

What should be our response to all this? I can think of no better answer than the one Peter provides in 1 Peter 2:9. “You are a chosen [i.e., elect] race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

God did not sovereignly choose you so that the idea of him choosing you might merely bounce around in your brain. He chose you for worship. The ultimate purpose of predestination is praise! You have been chosen for this goal: the proclamation of his excellencies and your extravagantly affectionate and inexpressibly joyful delight in them (cf. 1 Peter 1:8).

Therefore, in summary,

“Make God the peculiar object of your praises. The doctrine shows what great reason you have so to do. If God so values you, sets so much by you, has bestowed greater mercies upon you than on all the ungodly in the world, is it too little a requital for you to make God the peculiar object of your praise and thankfulness? If God so distinguishes you with his mercies, you ought to distinguish yourself in his praises. You should make it your great care and study how to glorify that God who has been so peculiarly merciful to you. And this, rather, because there was nothing peculiar in you differing from any other person that moved God thus to deal thus peculiarly by you: you were as unworthy to be set by as thousands of others that are not regarded of God, and are cast away by him forever . . .” (318).


Related Resources by Sam Storms
Objections to Election - How Can God Be Loving? (article)

Objections to Election - How Can We Be Loving? (article)

Objections to Election - How Can God Be Just?  (article)

Chosen for Life: The Case for Divine Election (book)

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