with a great flood? Why did God order Israel to exterminate the Canaanites from the face of the earth? Why is the reality of hell and eternal punishment taught in Scripture? Why does the Apostle Paul say that “neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10)?
These are difficult doctrines, and only the naïve or ignorant would deny it. But there is one doctrine found throughout the Bible that more so than all the others combined causes people to object. It is undoubtedly the most controversial and emotionally explosive subject in the history of the Christian church. I’m talking about the notion of divine election or predestination, specifically the teaching in John’s gospel that the Father has “given” hell-deserving sinners to the Son in order that they might inherit eternal life.
We must reckon with the words of Jesus in John 17:2 that he has authority over all flesh, that is, over all of the human race in every age, “to give eternal life to all whom you [the Father] have given him.” What we read in John 17:2 is neither the first nor the last time this language is found in John’s gospel and on the lips of Jesus. Look at John 17:6 where twice we read of this “gift” from the Father to the Son:
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.”
Look at John 17:9 –
“I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.”
Once more in John 17:24 we read this,
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
And it isn’t just in John 17 that Jesus speaks this way. In John 6 Jesus said this:
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).
Again, a bit later in John 10 Jesus says much the same thing:
“I give them [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29).
Thus, no fewer than 8 times in the gospel of John alone do we find this notion of the Father “giving” men and women to the Son. This act of the Father in “giving” men and women to Jesus is the same as what we read in Ephesians 1:4-6 where Paul says that God
“chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4-6).
Perhaps one more passage from Paul will be enough for us today. This is what we read in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14,
“But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14).
So what are we to make of these biblical texts, together with dozens of others that say much the same thing? Should we ignore them? Deny them? Pretend they don’t exist? Or should we honestly and forthrightly, with great humility, try to understand them? Surely the latter is the only proper approach. Perhaps I can defuse your concerns about divine election or predestination by articulating several principles that are an essential part of this biblical truth.
(1) First, let’s begin with a definition. Election is a pre-temporal decision by God, a choice he made before any of us ever existed. God chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). God “saved us,” said Paul, “and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9).
(2) One reason people tend to react negatively to the idea of divine election is that they have an unbiblical view of the condition of sinful humanity. All human beings deserve hell and eternal condemnation. We are by nature and by choice rebellious, morally corrupt, spiritually blind, God-defying, Christ-rejecting sinners (Eph. 2:1-3). As such, God doesn’t owe us anything, other than judgment.
For whatever reason, many people tend to think of the human race as a collection of innocent victims of divine wrath, when in point of fact we are all wicked perpetrators of cosmic treason against God and the Lord Jesus Christ. The world is not comprised of good people who desperately desire to be saved, but of evil people who are enemies of God and willingly and freely despise him.
In Romans 3 the Apostle Paul brings to a conclusion his argument that all humanity, including both Jews and Gentiles, are “under sin” (Rom. 3:9). He then quotes from the OT to prove his point:
As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10-18).
Thus when God chose to elect unto eternal life certain individuals from among this mass of fallen humanity, no one was treated unjustly or unfairly. No one deserved to be chosen. No one was deprived of his or her rights. All deserved damnation, but God in glorious mercy chose to redeem from this mass of fallen humanity a people for his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This paragraph in Romans 3:10-18 (together with numerous other texts) describes the “all flesh” over which Jesus has been given “authority” (John 17:2). It is out from this collection of fallen, hell-deserving sinners that God the Father has “given” to Jesus Christ those whom he chooses to save. It is to these that Jesus gives what not one of them deserves: “eternal life” (John 17:2).
(3) No one deserves heaven. Everyone deserves hell. No one goes to hell except those who deserve to. No one goes to heaven because they deserve to. Many embrace the utterly misguided and unbiblical notion that no one deserves either heaven or hell. We are, in some sense, morally and spiritually neutral. If such were the case, it would certainly be unjust and unfair for God to choose some to inherit eternal life while passing over others. But such is most decidedly not the case. We were all conceived in sin and “brought forth in iniquity” (Ps. 51:5) and “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3).
(4) No one who desires to go to heaven will be denied entrance. Anyone who wants to come to Christ may come. No one who repents and trusts in Jesus Christ will ever be denied entrance into the kingdom of God. Election does not mean that people who want to be saved cannot be saved because they are not elect. If any individual wants to be saved it is precisely because they are elect.
Divine election does not mean that people who want to have their sins forgiven and enter into the kingdom of God when they die will instead go to hell. Divine election does not mean that people who want to be saved will ultimately be lost.
God does not respond to people who repent and desire to trust Christ by saying: “Sorry. The quota of the elect is already full.” Jesus makes it clear that “whoever comes” to him shall be saved and “whoever comes” to him he “will never cast out” (John 6:35). Thus “everyone who looks upon the Son and believes in him” will have eternal life (John 6:40).
(5) Divine election is not based on God’s foreknowledge of your faith. Faith isn’t the ground or the cause of election, but its fruit. Faith isn’t the reason why God chose you. It isn’t the cause of election, but its effect. We don’t get chosen by God because he foresees that we choose him. Rather we choose him because in eternity past he graciously chose us.
Thus, God’s choice of some hell-deserving sinners was not dependent on any will other than his own. Election “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Thus, election is the fruit or effect of one will, God’s will.
(6) Election does not undermine or eliminate the urgency and absolute necessity of faith and repentance. Election is what makes them possible! Were it not for the Holy Spirit working secretly and silently in the human heart, causing us to be born again and overcoming our resistance to the gospel, no one would ever believe in Jesus. Faith and repentance are absolutely necessary if one is to experience the forgiveness of sins and inherit eternal life. They are produced in the heart of an elect individual by the secret, sovereign, and mysterious work of the Holy Spirit by which he enables the previously hostile heart to see and relish and take supreme delight in the beauty of Jesus.
(7) Divine election does not undermine or negate the importance of evangelism and prayer. Election is what assures us that our evangelism will be successful (Acts 18:1-11). Divine election does not mean that we don’t need to pray. God does not ordain a certain end (in this case, saving faith in the elect) apart from ordaining the necessary means (prayer and evangelism) by which that end is attained.
Your concern is obviously for your friends and family members who don’t as yet believe in Jesus. And your question is: Are they among God’s elect? Are they among those whom the Father has given to the Son? Are they among those to whom the Son gives eternal life? My response is both simple and mysterious. If they want to believe in Jesus, or if they ever do come to faith in Jesus, they are among the elect. If they do not come to faith in Jesus, their refusal to do so is entirely their own fault. It is their choice not to believe. God does not prevent anyone from coming to faith in Christ. He does not coerce or force someone to remain in unbelief. If they choose to believe, they will be saved. If they choose not to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, they are getting precisely what they want.
Undoubtedly many of you are probably asking the wrong question. You are wondering: “Is my unbelieving friend (or family member) among the elect?” God does not permit us to ask that question and he refuses to give an answer. The only relevant question for your unbelieving friend or family member is this: “Do you want to be saved and forgiven of your sins? If so, trust and treasure Jesus Christ as your only hope.” If you do not think you need to be saved and you find nothing appealing in Jesus Christ, you have only yourself to blame. But if you are convicted by your sin and sense a deep desire to know Jesus and to be reconciled to God, then repent and believe the gospel, and you will be saved!
Finally, here is the bottom line. You had better hope that divine election is true. For if it is not, there is no possibility that anyone will be saved, neither you, me, nor your friends and family members. Unless God chooses and sovereignly enables a person to come to faith, no one will ever believe in Jesus. The only hope we have for the salvation of anyone is God’s sovereign, gracious, merciful election unto eternal life.