Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
HOW CAN YOU KNOW if you are one of the “elect?” By simply trusting in Christ alone through faith alone for salvation. Regardless of whether faith leads to election, or election causes us to believe, what is sure is that our belief is evidence of our election. Clearly, the Gospel of John suggests anyone who believes in the atoning death of Jesus Christ is saved: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17, ESV).
Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). He wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (see 1 Tim. 2:3-4).
Praise God, the breadth of His divine love is the whole world. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the ultimate atonement, we have been redeemed from the wages of our sinful lives.
Did God Limit Salvation to “A Chosen Few?”
Paul wrote, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29) (italics added). Paul also wrote, “Even as he 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 to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5) (italics added). Ephesians 1:3-14 provides a list of all spiritual blessings we have through Christ. We are chosen by the Father; redeemed by the Son; sealed by the Holy Spirit. Of critical importance in this study is “as he chose us in Him.”
But what does it mean to be firstborn among many brothers? Romans 8:29 says those who love the LORD and are called according to His purpose were “foreknown” by Him, and consequently were “predestined” to be conformed to the image of Christ. As is often the case when studying Scripture, it will help us understand election by looking at Rom. 8:18-29, which is presented as one big paragraph in my ESV Study Bible. There is a global theme here: creation itself will be set free from the curse; the children of God will go from bondage to freedom; those who are “called” are those whom God knew would choose Him, consequently those who chose Him are predestined to be “in Christ” through faith. God’s “sons and daughters” are believers who have the rights of inheritance to all that God has in store for them. It is also a logical conclusion that if all mankind has been subjected to the consequences of the sin of our first parents (Adam and Eve), then all mankind is also eligible to receive the blessings of salvation through Jesus Christ (the Second Adam).
Jesus is the firstborn among many brethren (see Rom. 8:30). The firstborn of a mother is referred to in the Bible as one who “opens the womb” of his mother (see Exodus 13:2). Jesus was born from His virgin mother, and is referred in Scripture to the Firstborn, the Second Adam. He is the foundation for the lineage of believers who believe in Him and are “in the way of” Christ. Jesus is the “firstborn” because He is the One appointed by the Father to be in authority over all things (see Col. 1:13-23). Moreover, He is the One who is the cornerstone for God’s plan of redemption. He is also firstborn due to His relation to man and the universe as both He and His followers are related to God. We are told in Scripture that we are “adopted” by God as His own children (see Gal. 4:5; Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5).
Paul expounds on several key elements of our salvation through Christ in Romans 8. We are delivered from sin and death through the activity of Christ’s atoning death. Part of being in Christ necessarily includes dying with Him so we can be freed from condemnation and spiritual death as a just punishment for sinful living. Jesus said He came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (see Matt. 5:17). The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says, “Sin as a rebellious force against God was condemned in the flesh of Christ. God pronounced judgment on sin in the flesh of Christ in order that the requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us who are not walking (living) in accordance with the flesh but in accordance with the Spirit” (1) (additional italics added).
We are still left with the question of “election,” which often leads to a conversation about free will versus predestination. Christians refer to “being saved,” which features a new relationship with God and others, renewing of the heart and mind, growing in faith and obedience, and more. Galan and others published a great reference guide on this issue. The authors wrote, “Before seeing two ways to answer [this] question, let’s focus on the points with which all Christians agree. Regarding God’s merciful work of salvation, Christians agree that: 1. Because of sin, all humans need God’s grace; 2. Salvation from sin and condemnation is an act of God; 3. Salvation is accomplished only by grace through faith in Christ; 4. Works, good works or works of the Law, cannot lead one to salvation” (2).
Depravity: Human sin affects every area of humanity in every person. It means that people continue to make choices, but every choice is tainted by the effects of sin.
Issue 1 discussed by Galan is free will and total inability. Calvinists and Arminians (not to be confused with Armenians) agree on the total inability or depravity of man—without the prior intervention of God’s grace, humans cannot come to Him on their own. The entirety of the human race is tainted by sin. Paul said, “As it is written: none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). We are dead in our transgressions and sin (see Eph. 2:1). The effects of sin are devastating. But God extended his grace to us all, enabling us to come to Him. Arminianism calls this measure of grace “prevenient grace.” In Latin, prevenient means “to come before.” The phrase a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia is rendered “a predisposing grace of God through Jesus Christ.” It signifies an “irresistible” grace that enables us to respond to God as unbelievers. Yet, we have the will to reject this call. We are granted the ability to believe, but we must choose to exercise faith in the act of believing.
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect, exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you” (1 Pet. 1:1-2).
Issue 2 discussed by Galan is election. The Bible clearly tells us that God elects. God chose Israel from all the nations of the earth from which to bring forth a Savior (see Deut. 7:6-8). But God’s choice to save people is not based or conditioned on who they are. God, as King, chooses freely to save people in Christ. Paul wrote, “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). Galan further explains: “God’s election respects human free will because it is based on [God’s] foreknowledge. Because God knows how all choices will turn out, God foresees who will choose to follow his calling and who will reject it” (3). In other words, everyone who believes is elect. Some biblical scholars use the term corporate election, meaning God is electing a group of people made up of individuals who have chosen to follow Christ. He did predestine the church to be an elected people, leaving individuals to choose whether they become part of this group.
Klooster examines the views of John Calvin and Karl Barth in deciphering the concept of election. He writes, “…first… election is said to be conditional (based on divine foreknowledge of who will respond to the gospel in faith) and/or corporate (based on God’s choice of a people who will serve him), in which particular persons participate by faith… second, election is in Christ in such a way that it does not specify particular persons’ ultimate destiny. Jesus Christ is both the electing God and the elected human” (4). Klooster outlines six principles of election:
- Election is a sovereign, eternal decree (see Eph. 1:11).
- Election involves God’s gracious plan to rescue humanity (see Rom. 9:11; Eph. 1:7)
- Election is “in Christ” (see Eph. 1:4-5, 11; Rom. 8:29)
- Election involves both salvation and the means to that end (see 2 Thess. 2:13; Rom. 10:14-17)
- Election is personal and specific, referring to “those whom God foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified” (see Rom. 8:29-30, Rom. 9)
- Election’s ultimate goal is God’s glory and praise, “…in order that we… might be for the praise of his glory” (see Eph. 1:12) and “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (see Eph. 1:10; Matt. 13:27-30, 24:31; 1 Pet. 1:1, 2:9)
I once remarked that God sees all time at the same time. This is quite beyond human understanding. He also hears everyone at the same time. I am reminded of the scene in Bruce Almighty where Bruce has decided to see what it is like to be God. He hears literally hundreds of millions of voices all at once. God tells him this represents the prayers of mankind! To say God knew, before the foundation of the world, that man will fall from grace, and that He knew who would repent, is simply amazing. In accordance with His divine love, He predetermined a plan of salvation. He would send His Son, Jesus, to be the ultimate propitiation for the sins of all mankind; sins that had not even yet occurred! But He left the decision up to us whether to become one of the elect. What truly matters is that God created humanity, humanity sinned, and God has provided salvation through Jesus Christ.
(1) Charles F. Pfeiffer & Everett F. Harrison, editors, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1990, 1962), 1206.
(2) Benjamin Galan, et al., Free Will vs Predestination: Calvinism and Arminianism Explained (Peabody, MA: Rose Publishing), 2011.
(4) F. H. Klooster, “Elect, Election,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 268.