Chapter seven—the mystery of Election
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:3-4).
Generally when an election is held, many people vote and a few people win. When God holds an election, the opposite is true. God alone votes, and many people win. John once saw the winners of God’s mysterious election: “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). When was this election held? According to Paul, God’s election took place “before the foundation of the world.”
The mystery of election seems to be the mystery that causes more confusion and argument among Christians than any other mystery. This mystery contradicts human reason and logic, but so do the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Put simply, the mystery of election is that no one will enter God’s new creation (which we often refer to as heaven) unless God has chosen that person, but no one will be omitted from God’s new creation unless they have rebelled against God and refused his blessing of redemption.
The gift of redemption is meant for the entire world. God sent his Son to redeem all people because “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). The power of his redemption is conveyed through the means of grace—the spoken promises of God, the written Word of God, the Word of God with water in Baptism, and the Word of God with eating and drinking in Communion. Yet some people receive the means of grace and still refuse the gift of redemption. Some people have heard God’s promises, have read them for themselves in the Bible, have been baptized, and have even eaten and drunk at the Lord’s Table, and yet they still do not believe God’s promises to be true. Because they do not believe, Jesus says he will address them on the Last Day and say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).
The worst mistake any person can make in front of the Judgment Seat of God is to say to the Judge, “Look at the life I lived and give me what I deserve.” Anyone who thinks that his or her life is good enough to please God and to earn a place in his Kingdom has not been paying attention to the commands of God. Those who repent know that their lives are not good enough for God. They throw themselves on God’s mercy and beg for his forgiveness. Those who believe know that Jesus has redeemed them. He has taken what they deserved and paid their debt in full on the cross; moreover, he has granted credit for his righteousness to sinners and invites them to receive the rewards that he deserves.
No one enters heaven without being chosen by God. No one is left out of heaven without having rejected God’s gift of redemption. Through reason and logic, people have tried to reconcile that paradox and solve the mystery of election. Every effort to reduce this paradox to something humans can understand also contradicts the message God has given in his Word.
Some Christians suggest that, because God is all-powerful, nothing happens except what God wants to happen. Because of the power of God, some people do good things and others do bad things. Because of the power of God, some people believe his promises and others refuse to believe. Because of the power of God, some people will live forever with him in the new creation and others will be imprisoned with the devil. If God did not always get what he wants, he would not be all-powerful. Therefore, if some refuse to believe and are punished, God must want to punish them and not to redeem them.
The prophet Ezekiel records God’s message: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) Paul also writes that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). Love is the very nature of God. He sent his Son to pay a price sufficient for the redemption of the whole world. No one can sin in such a way that God is unable to forgive that sin. The only unforgiveable sin is to refuse the gift of redemption—and that is unforgiveable, not because it is such a bad thing to do, but because it blocks the path of God’s love and forgiveness.
If God is all-powerful, though, and if he wants all people to be saved, then maybe all people will be saved in the end. Perhaps some will spend some time in the devil’s prison after Judgment Day, but then they will repent and believe and escape to the new creation. Maybe God has other ways of rescuing sinners that do not involve repentance and faith or knowledge of the cross of Jesus Christ.
Jesus did not think that was so. In Gethsemane, he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as you will…My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:39, 42). If there were another way to rescue sinners, the cross would not have been necessary. Instead, the apostles preached about Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
What of those who ask God to judge them by their own lives rather than through Christ’s redemption? Jesus will say to them, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Eternal fire was not intended for human sinners, but there is no other place for sinners who reject the gift of redemption. When Jesus described the new creation, he often described it as a large party, such as a wedding reception. He also spoke of those locked outside of the party. He once said, “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out” (Luke 13:28). Speaking of the follower who betrayed him, Jesus said, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). If there were any hope of sinners escaping the devil’s prison after Judgment Day and entering God’s new creation, then Jesus would not say that it would be better not to have been born.
So God wants all sinners to be saved, but not all sinners will be saved. Love is at the center of God’s nature, and love makes one vulnerable. Aside from their destiny, though, what is the difference between the saved and the lost? Reason and logic suggest that some difference must exist in the people themselves causing some to be saved and others to be lost.
Some people suggest that the saved are better-behaved than the lost. Although they sinned and broke some of God’s commands, still their behavior was better than that of other people. The problem with this approach is that it suggests that some sins, or some combination of sins, cannot be forgiven by God. The Bible clearly says that the difference is not in moral goodness. Judged by moral goodness, no one can be saved. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
If the difference is not in moral goodness, then it must be in repenting and believing. Those who repent and believe are saved, but those who do not believe are locked out of heaven. Therefore, logic and reason suggest that repentance and faith are choices made by some people but not made by others. The difference between the saved and the lost is the difference between those who choose to believe God’s promises and those who choose not to believe. Choosing to believe is often spoken of as “giving your heart to Jesus,” “asking Jesus into your life,” or “inviting Jesus to be your personal Savior.” By any description, this choice is thought to mean the difference between being a Christian and being an unbeliever.
Jesus said to his apostles, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” (John 15:16). John speaks of believers in Jesus as the children of God “who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Paul wrote, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3).
If the last several paragraphs seem packed with Bible verses, the intention is to show the depth of the mystery. Anyone can pick and choose verses from the Bible to try to solve the mystery of election one way or another—whether saying that God chooses to condemn people, or that God will save all people, or that some people choose to be save while others choose to be lost. The full mystery of election is that no one can enter eternal life in God’s new creation without being chosen by God, and no one is barred from that new creation without having rejected God’s promises of redemption.
Paul wrote, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10). He also wrote, “And you were dead in trespasses and sins…But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even while we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1, 4). Enemies of God, dead in our sins, no person could choose to become a believer and a member of Christ’s kingdom. Jesus has done all the work to redeem his people, and Christians contribute nothing to that work. Not even a prayer or a decision redeems sinners.
Jesus told people to repent and believe the Gospel. It seems as though he meant that people had to do these things to be redeemed. Jesus also told a paralyzed man to rise, take up his bed, and walk. This man was paralyzed and could not do those things before Jesus commanded him to do them. The power of the Word of Jesus made that man able to do what Jesus told him to do. Lazarus had been dead four days when Jesus came to the cemetery. Lazarus could not have made himself alive and left the tomb if Jesus had not said, “Lazarus, come out!” Once Jesus said those words, Lazarus was alive and was able to leave the tomb.
The picture of being dead and being made alive by God’s Word is helpful to make this mystery more plain. No one who is dead can choose to become alive. Those who are alive, though, can make choices. Joshua announced, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). He did not mean that he and his family were spiritually dead but now chose to be spiritually alive. Quite the opposite—Joshua said those words after describing all the work God had done to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt. Joshua and his family had been made alive by the work of God. They chose now to remain alive rather than to return to death.
Living people can make choices. When Jesus called, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus returned to life. At that moment he had a choice—he could obey the command of Jesus and leave the tomb, or he could remain in the tomb until he died again. He chose to leave the tomb. Before Jesus spoke, Lazarus had no choice. He could not leave the tomb, because he was dead, and dead people cannot make choices.
Some people hear the life-giving Word of God and choose not to believe his promises. They want to be their own saviors and enter God’s Kingdom by their own goodness, or else they reject the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus or some other key part of God’s promise of redemption. For whatever reason, they choose death rather than life. Judas Iscariot was an apostle of Jesus Christ who heard his preaching and saw his miracles. Yet Judas chose to value thirty pieces of silver above Jesus and his promise of redemption. The letter to the Hebrews says that “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift and have shared in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:4-6). This does not mean that a person who is a Christian and sins is lost forever. In that case no one would be saved, because all people—even Christians—sin every day. In this lifetime Christians remain both sinners and saints. The person who has believed in Jesus and then seeks some other way to be saved—or rejects the promise of redemption outright—cannot be saved in any other way, because only through the sacrifice of Jesus is redemption offered.
Some people hear the message of Jesus and resist it. They are choosing death rather than life. Yet some people resist the message for years and then come to believe it. During those years, the Holy Spirit was working through that message, preparing them for the day when they would repent and believe by the power of Jesus working through his message of redemption.
Other people repent and believe for a while and then stop believing. They are choosing death rather than life. They may be distracted from Jesus by their problems, by persecution or mockery of their faith, or by doubts that arise in their minds. They may be distracted from Jesus by their blessings, the good things they have in this world, or the good things they want to have, or the struggle to take care of what they have. In either case, they make the tragic mistake that Judas made when he considered thirty pieces of silver more valuable than Jesus.
None of us asked to be born into this world. We cannot choose to be alive. Life is a gift from God. But we can choose to die. The body can be damaged in a great many ways, some of which are deliberate and some that are not. We can choose to maintain our bodies, eating the right foods, getting enough sleep and enough exercise, and keeping our bodies clean. The choice to remain alive is not like the choice to become alive. We can sustain the life of our bodies for many years, but only Jesus can raise the dead.
What is true of our physical lives is also true of our faith. We were dead in sin and could not choose to become alive. Only Jesus can raise the dead, but he does so by the power of his Word. Now that Jesus has made us alive, we can choose between dying and remaining alive. To remain alive spiritually, we need to be fed by God’s Word and nurtured by all the means of grace which Jesus has provided in the mystery of his Church.
Some Christians become spiritually anorexic. I do not use that term lightly; anorexia is a devastating illness which causes great harm to those who suffer from it and also brings pain to their families and their friends. Spiritual anorexia seems more bland and more acceptable than physical anorexia, but it is actually more devastating, because it leads to eternal death. A spiritually anorexic Christian may not think that he or she is choosing death, but that Christian is choosing not to nourish his or her spiritual life. Such a Christian avoids the Word of God. He or she avoids hearing the Word of God preached and taught; he or she avoids reading the Word of God; he or she avoids the mysterious meal which Jesus told his followers to receive often because it too is a means of grace. That Christian may say to others, “I still believe in Jesus, and I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” Without the Word of God in his or her life, that Christian is starving his or her faith and is risking the death of that faith.
Faith itself is a mystery, and the Church is also a mystery. We cannot tell whether or not a person is truly a Christian. Only God knows who believes and who refuses to believe. Only God knows who is a member of the true Church. We can and we should exhort one another to repent and believe the Gospel, just as Jesus and his apostles did. We can and we should invite those Christians who are neglecting their spiritual lives to return to life in the Church where their faith is nourished by the Word of God. We cannot and should not judge one another. Jesus is the Judge, and we trust him to judge fairly on the Last Day.
Therefore, we leave in his hands all the difficult cases. The Bible appears to say that no one can be saved who has never heard of Jesus. This teaching would certainly seem to apply to millions of people who lived and died without once hearing about Jesus. Jesus will judge fairly on the Last Day; meanwhile, he emphatically tells the members of his Church to bring his Word to all people so that all may hear that Word, repent and believe, and be redeemed. Likewise, we cannot judge the fate of little children who die before they can hear and understand God’s Word and who have not been baptized. David had a son who died at the age of six days; that son could not have been circumcised. Trusting God’s goodness, David prayed for the child and mourned while the baby was still alive but ceased to mourn when the baby had died. “I shall go to him,” David said, “but he will not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23). This hints that redemption may have been given to David’s son even apart from the ceremony of circumcision, but only God knows that for sure.
God knows who the elect are. By the same token, God knows who has chosen not to believe his promises of redemption. Election is a mystery; reason and logic cannot guide anyone to understand how the redeemed are saved only by the choice of God but the unbelievers are lost only by their own choice. The mystery of election is not meant to frighten believers or to cause Christians to worry about whether or not God has chosen them. The mystery of election is meant to comfort Christians, to take away their worry about whether or not they are truly redeemed. Those whom God has chosen truly care about God and his kingdom. Those who have rejected his promises do not care about God and his kingdom, so they are not going to worry about whether or not they are redeemed.
If I look at myself, measure my faith, and count the things I do for God, I have reasons to doubt and be worried about my redemption. I do not feel that my faith is strong enough to save me, and I know that I have not done enough good things to deserve a place in God’s kingdom. If I look at my Redeemer, I have no more reason to doubt or worry. My Redeemer has done enough to bring me into his kingdom, and he is not going to change his mind about me now that he has redeemed me.
God chose us Christians in Christ before the foundation of the world. Before God said, “Let there be light,” he knew all about you. He knew your name and the kind of life you would live. He knew the price he would have to pay to redeem you and bring you into his kingdom. Thinking about you and about your redemption, God chose you. He chose to create a world into which you would be born, and he chose to continue his plan of redemption so you could be with him forever in his perfect new creation.
The mystery of election is a great comfort. It assures us of our place in God’s plan and in God’s kingdom. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).