When to Preach Election
A troublesome question still remains. There is no doubt that the teaching of the truth of Election usually causes offense to those who have been brought up to believe that it is up to man to decide for himself whether he will become a Christian or not. We do not like to be told that the choice is not ours, even when the fact is plainly stated in Scripture (John 15:16). For a long time we have lived with the idea that man is able to make this choice and is therefore responsible for doing so. It is the basic assumption of modern mass evangelism, and in the view of many people the object of such evangelism is to persuade men to exercise this freedom of choice to their own eternal benefit.
When it is pointed out that the implication of hundreds of passages of Scripture, familiar to most Christians and non-Christians alike, demonstrates clearly that this view is not a strictly biblical one, there is consternation. One English Calvinist put the matter succinctly when he suggested that Arminianism is a "common sense" faith, whereas the Gospel as elucidated by Paul is clearly a matter of revelation. It only mildly offends man's sense of his own worth to have to admit that he cannot be saved without God's help provided that he is left with the freedom of choosing to cooperate voluntarily. What offends so powerfully is the discovery that such freedom of cooperation simply does not exist. Man is truly in spiritual bondage in this matter and has no power to assist in the process of his own salvation. It is this that causes offense: it is this that necessitated revelation.
Point out to people that we are not born again to become the children of God by the will of man (John 1:13); that it is of God's own will and not ours that we are so reborn (James 1:18); that "it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy" (Rom. 9:16); that repentance is granted to us and is not a contribution we make of ourselves (Rom. 2:4), and the same must be said of the exercise of saving faith which is nothing less than a gift of God (1 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29; etc.); that it is God and not we ourselves who opens our hearts to the entrance of the Lord within (Acts 16:14 and Rev. 3:7, which precedes Rev. 3:20-1)--point all this out and suddenly we meet with strong reaction even among those who are the Lord's children. "What possible good can be done," they ask, "by presenting such a restrictive Gospel with so offensive an element of exclusiveness? People will only be discouraged."
Many Christians are personally offended because they feel they are being reduced to mere puppets in the hands of an austere sovereign, even if that sovereignty is a sovereignty of grace. So they see it as a dangerous doctrine to proclaim publicly and are convinced that it will cause more offense than heart hunger. People will be turned away rather than be drawn to the Lord, yet the truth of the matter is that none will be drawn to the Lord unless they are drawn by the Father, and this will happen only if they are elect. In today's liberal climate of theological opinion these commonly voiced objections are taken by many of the Lord's people as perfectly valid because they seem so obviously correct.
A great number of believers who are otherwise well acquainted with their Bibles are strangely unaware of the fact that Election is unequivocally maintained throughout the Old and the New Testaments, and nowhere more clearly so than in the Gospel of John. Yet here, if anywhere in the Word of God, people feel confident that the universality of God's love is set forth in a way that seems to exclude any idea of a selective process. This universality of redeeming love is generally claimed to be exemplified more clearly in John's Gospel than in any other part of Scripture; and yet examination of this Gospel with even a half-open mind will quickly show that the truth is quite otherwise.
Within the very first fourteen verses we find the fact of divine Election and human inability set forth unequivocally, when we are told that the power to become a child of God is not based on the will of man or the will of the flesh, or upon blood relationship, but solely upon the will of God. In chapter six of this Gospel we seem to have a turning point in the Lord's teaching on this matter. For here He deliberately set out to underscore the fact that while the invitation to "Come" is broadcast to all men, only those will come, or can come, whom the Father has enabled to respond because of their Election. When the Lord said (John 6:44): "No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him," He touched a very sensitive place in the hearts of his listeners. And we read in verse 60 that "many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, 'This is a hard saying: who can hear it?'"
They were offended indeed! So what did Jesus do? Did He begin to soften his message, to tone down the incisiveness of his words? By no means! He very deliberately repeated what He had said, "Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto him of my Father" (v. 65). And as might be expected, the record tells us that "from that time many of his disciples went back and walked no more with Him" (v. 66).
These disciples were in effect his "school." Every rabbi of note gathered about himself a school of followers who were called disciples. In modern parlance they might be called a man's congregation. But unlike many modern pastors who withdraw their words as soon as they find they are causing offense, the Lord would not compromise. And the next three verses of this passage are a beautiful demonstration of what faithfulness to the truth can mean to men whom God has elected to salvation. As Jesus sadly watched these disciples turn away from following Him, He said to the Twelve, "Will ye also go away!" Then Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go! Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." How this magnificent confession must have warmed the heart of the Lord!
I know a minister who, having over a number of years been presented with the biblical truth about Election, gradually began to see the consequences of it in terms of his own congregation which was indeed like the mixed multitude that went up out of Egypt when Israel was "born" as a people of God. He saw many of this mixed multitude taking offense whenever this truth was broached and began to fear for them lest they should detach themselves and leave the congregation, with the result that the church's finances would of course be seriously endangered, as well as his own reputation as an agreeable, sympathetic, and broad-minded man. Little by little he began to turn from the Word of God and one day said with strong emphasis, "If teaching doctrine is going to split my congregation, I'll never preach doctrine again."
What did this resolve really signify? What is "doctrine"? Doctrine is teaching, instruction; and biblical doctrine is teaching what the Bible says--not parts of what the Bible says, but the whole counsel of God, and especially the Gospel which is not a common sense matter but something which has been revealed because it is not compatible with man's ordinary thinking. And so, alas, we have here a minister of the Gospel who finally determines in his own heart and promises publicly that he will never again teach what the Bible teaches about the true nature of man, about the true meaning of the Gospel, and about the real significance of the sovereign grace of God. One wonders how long the Church of God can remain a force in the world when its pastors depart so far from following the pattern set by the great Shepherd of our souls, the Lord Jesus Christ.
But when does one meet the issue of Election head on and proclaim it unequivocally as an essential part of the truth of the Gospel? And how, does one present it, for it must be presented gently and wisely--though firmly and without apology. Perhaps the place for every minister of the Gospel to start is with an examination, in the light of Scripture, of the real nature of man's fallen spiritual condition as an unsaved sinner. Traditional Calvinism is surely right to begin with the Total Depravity of man, and not as the Arminians do with man's presumed capacity to exercise saving faith of himself. Such a capacity, they have held, is what God foresees and makes the basis of Election. But this is to place man in the position of being able to cooperate with God, indeed of being needed by God in a cooperative capacity before his salvation can be effected. In a very real sense man becomes his own savior, though not without God's help. By contrast, the biblical view of man is correctly represented by the term Total Spiritual Inability, and with this as a starting point it is most reasonable to pass on to the question of why God should be interested in man at all. And from this we move naturally to ask, If man's salvation is wholly dependent upon the will of God, on what basis did God then decide to save certain individuals but not others? There is a logic to the ordering of the questions in the whole Calvinist position and above all it is a system so deeply rooted in Scripture that it can legitimately be identified with the Gospel itself. Calvinism is the Gospel and to teach Calvinism is in fact to preach the Gospel.
Certainly scripture itself is full of the fact of the sovereign grace of God in salvation and God clearly had not such fears, as we have, in presenting it openly and in a very real sense dogmatically. It is questionable whether a dogmatic theology which is not Calvinistic is truly Christian. It is more nearly a baptized humanism which in the long run confirms in man his natural belief in his own powers to save himself. And the modern emphasis upon experience with its neglect of doctrine is merely substituting baptized psychology for the former baptized humanism. Today, unhappily, it is believers who are promoting this substitution for the Gospel.
Now the opinion of the great Christian warriors in the past nineteen hundred years has been remarkably consistent in this that they have never questioned the propriety or the need of openly proclaiming the sovereignty of God's grace. Certainly Paul's Epistles make no apology, nor does Peter, and as we have seen, John's Gospel is equally unequivocal in the matter.
Augustine was forthright indeed. In his De Bono Perseveratiae ("On the Gift of Perseverance") he held that the preaching of the Gospel and the preaching of Predestination were but two aspects of the same message (Chap. 36). He is most explicit regarding this matter. In his correspondence with two of his contemporaries, Prosper and Hilary, written about 428/9 A.D., he acknowledges (in Chap. 38) that people are saying that since the doctrine of Predestination clearly implies that some will receive the Word and will obey and will come into the faith and persevere in it, while others "are lingering in the delight of their sins," and since in both cases God has so predestinated that they should, then there is no point in stirring people up by encouragement or rebuke. What people will do, they are predestinated to do. If one is predestinated to be chosen though as yet still unsaved he will receive the necessary grace to believe in any case, and therefore won't need exhortation. If, on the other hand, a man is predestinated to be rejected he will not receive the strength to obey the Gospel and threatenings will serve no purpose.
To this, Augustine replies:
Although these things are true, they ought not to deter us from confessing the grace of God--that is, the grace which is not given to us on account of our merits--or from confessing the predestination of the saints in accordance therewith, even as we are not deterred from admitting God's foreknowledge even though one should thus speak to the people concerning it and say, "Whether you are now living righteously or unrighteously you are what you are as the Lord has foreknown what you would be, either good if He has foreknown you as good, or bad if He has foreknown you as bad."This is a complex statement in its sentence structure, yet it reveals clearly enough that the same issue that is being brought forward today troubled men of those days. There is little new under the sun. The basic problem is whether the abuse of the truth should encourage us to prefer error. Will not error be a greater evil in the long run? And so in his Chapter 40 Augustine says plainly:
For if on the hearing of this some should be turned to torpor and slothfulness, and from striving should go headlong into lust after their own desires, is it therefore to be counted that what has been said about the foreknowledge of God is false? If God has foreknown that they will be good, will they not be good whatever the depth of evil in which they now engage? And if He has foreknown them for evil, will they not be evil whatever goodness may now be discerned in them ?
There was a man in our monastery, who, when the brethren rebuked him for doing some things that ought not to be done, and for not doing some things that ought to be done, replied, "Whatever I may now be, I shall be such as God has foreknown that I will be." And this man certainly both said what was true and was not profited by this truth for good. but so far made way in evil as to desert the society of the monastery and to become a dog returned to his vomits; nevertheless it is uncertain what he is yet to become. For the sake of souls of this kind, then, is the truth which is spoken about God's foreknowledge either to be denied or to be kept back at such times, for instance, when if it is not spoken other errors are incurred?
Therefore let the truth be spoken, especially when any question requires us to declare it; and let them receive it who are able, lest perchance while we are silent on account of those who cannot receive it, those who are able to receive the truth whereby falsehood may be avoided, be not only defrauded of the truth but be taken captive by falsehood.Here in a sense is the crux of the matter. What is the best long-term policy? Those who are able to receive this truth will be greatly benefited by it and will grow in their understanding. If they are denied this truth, for the sake of those who cannot receive it, the loss to them will be greater in the end than the harm done to those on account of whom it is mistakenly withheld. Balanced in the scales of ultimate good, the benefit to those who will receive it is so much greater than any harm done to those who refuse it that the truth of God must undoubtedly be proclaimed even if there is some danger in so doing.
But Augustine then suggests that we must be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, having due respect to the circumstances of the moment. The Lord said, "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now" (John 16:12). And Paul wrote: "I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk and not meat, for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet indeed now are ye able" (1 Cor. 3:1, 2). But he recognized that if those able to bear these more profound truths are given them, it is almost inevitable that those who are not able will also receive them in the process. So the problem is stated by Augustine with characteristic clarity: "When a truth is of such a nature that he who cannot receive it is made worse by our speaking it, but he who can receive it is made worse by our keeping silence concerning it, what do we think is to be done?" And he answers: "Must we not speak the truth, that he who can receive it may receive it, rather than keep silence, so that not only neither may receive it but even he who is more understanding will himself be made worse."
So there is his solution. Weigh in the balance what will cause the greatest harm: to deny a truth to one able to bear it and be greatly profited thereby, merely to prevent further harm to one who is already injured by ignorance of the truth, or alternatively, to do such good to the understanding of the one able to bear it that it outweighs the harm done to the one without understanding. And if it is a matter of permanently benefiting the saved while possibly causing temporary harm to the unsaved, our first responsibility must be to the saved. If there is a choice of doing good to the one or the other, the saved or the unsaved, and it is not possible to do good to both at the same time, we must follow Paul's injunction to do good as far as possible to all men, but "especially unto them who are of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10).
Luther, who drew much of his early inspiration from Augustine, was equally certain that God did not intend the truth of Predestination and Election to be buried in secrecy. He said to Erasmus on one occasion:
Where, alas! are your fear and reverence of the Deity when you roundly declare that this branch of truth which He has revealed from heaven is, at best, useless and unnecessary to be known. What? Shall the glorious Creator be taught by you his creature? What is fit to be preached and what to be suppressed? Is the adorable God so very defective in wisdom and prudence as not to know till you instruct Him what would be useful and what pernicious? Or could not He whose understanding is infinite, foresee, previous to his revelation of this doctrine, what would be the consequence of his revealing it until these consequences were pointed out by you? You cannot dare to say this! (1)Luther then quotes certain very pointed and relevant statements made by Paul, and observes:
The Apostle did not write this to have it stifled among a few persons and buried in a corner, but wrote it to the Christians in Rome which was, in effect, to bring this doctrine upon the stage of the whole world, stamping a universal imprimatur upon it and publishing it to believers at large throughout the earth. (2)Luther went on: "You, Erasmus, object that 'if these things are so, who will endeavor to amend his life?' I answer, Without the Holy Spirit no man can amend his life to purpose...Reformation is but varnished hypocrisy unless it proceeds from grace." In his treatise On the Bondage of the Will (XXIV) Luther says to Erasmus in much the same vein: "Who (you say) will believe that he is loved of God? I answer, No man will believe it! No man can! But the elect shall believe it; the rest will perish without believing it..." So Luther concludes: "The truths therefore respecting predestination in all its branches [my emphasis] should be taught and published, they, no less than the other mysteries of Christian doctrine, being proper objects of faith on the part of God's people." (3)
Luther's contemporary, Martin Buber, entirely shared his views regarding the preaching of this doctrine to which they both subscribed with equal vigor. In his Commentary on Ephesians Buber wrote: "There are some who affirm that election is not to be mentioned publicly to the people. But they judge wrongly.... Take away the remembrance and consideration of our election, and then, good God! What weapons would be left to us wherewith to resist the temptations of Satan?" To both men the Election of God was a very practical doctrine. To this I can only respond out of my own experience, Amen! I look back upon many occasions when the knowledge that the Lord Jesus Christ had chosen me and not I Him carried me through experiences too painful to think about today. This grand truth was--and is--the anchor of my soul. And l think considering the enormous influence on the Church of God of John's Gospel, of Paul's Epistles, of Augustine's writings, of Luther's works, of Calvin's Institutes, of Buber, and a host of others, the fear that this truth is dangerous and will lessen the impact of the Gospel in the world is clearly without any foundation whatever.
From a "common sense" point of view it would seem that it must be detrimental, but the wisdom of God is wiser than men, and the emphasis of Scripture should clearly be the emphasis of our preaching and teaching.
Even Melancthon, one of the less dogmatic of the Reformers, in his work entitled The Common Places (Chap. 1) treats of free will and predestination by first of all establishing that it is both a necessary and a useful doctrine in many ways, both to be asserted and believed. He goes so far as to say: "A right fear of God and a true confidence in Him can be learned more assuredly from no other source than from the doctrine of predestination." (4) He then turns to Scripture and quotes many passages demonstrating the absolute sovereignty of God--statements in the Old Testament from Genesis, Kings, Proverbs, and others, besides many in the New Testament.
Calvin, by his example, clearly believed this doctrine was to be preached and not merely believed. In a tract entitled The Eternal Predestination of Gad, which he published in 1552 in reply to certain criticisms of his openness in declaring his faith, he wrote:
I would in the first place entreat my readers carefully to bear in mind the admonition which I offer [in the Institutes]: that this great subject is not as many imagine a mere thorny disputation, nor a speculation which wearies the minds of men without any profit; but a solid discussion eminently adapted to the service of the godly, because it builds us up soundly in the faith, trains us to humility, and lifts us up into an admiration of the unbounded goodness of God towards us, while it elevates us to praise this goodness in our highest strains.John Owen (1616-1683), as J. I. Packer observed, did not deal with the issue at length but made it clear that preaching the Gospel is not a matter of telling a congregation that God has set his love on each of them and that Christ died to save each of them, for these assertions biblically understood would imply that they all will be infallibly saved; and this cannot be known to be true. The knowledge of being the object of God's eternal love and Christ's redeeming death belongs to the individual's assurance, which in the nature of the case cannot precede faith's saving exercise; it is to be inferred from the fact that one has already believed, not proposed as a reason why one should believe. 6) The point is an important one.
For there is not a more effectual means of building up faith than the giving of our open ears to the election of God, which the Holy Spirit seals upon our heart while we hear, showing us that it stands in the eternal and immutable goodwill of God towards us; and that, therefore, it cannot be moved or altered by any storms of the world, by any assaults of Satan, by any changes, or by any fluctuations or weaknesses of the flesh. For our salvation is then sure to us when we find the cause of it in the breast of God. Thus when we lay hold of life in Christ made manifest to our faith, the same faith toeing still our leader and guide, our sight is permitted to penetrate much farther, and see from what source that life appeared.
Our confidence of salvation is rooted in Christ, and rests upon the promises of the Gospel. But it is no weak prop to our confidence when we are brought to believe in Christ, to hear that all was originally given to us of God, and that we were as much ordained to faith in Christ before the foundation of the world as we were chosen to the inheritance of eternal life in Christ. (5) (emphasis mine)
In his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (pp. 28, 29), Packer emphasizes the dangers of supposing that a man can decide for himself whether to become the Lord's child or not, and, as a corollary of such a decision-making process, that our responsibility is to be as persuasive as possible. As he points out, such a philosophy of evangelism can come dangerously close to a form of brainwashing. To act thus is "to assume the office of the Holy Spirit," to exalt ourselves as the agents of the new birth. Subsequently he describes how this form of evangelism degrades the Gospel into something that is not "good news" at all because it is false. In our zeal to provoke a sense of sin and unworthiness as an appropriate basis for repentance, we tend to remind people of their past failures. But the danger is that while such tactics make people feel uncomfortable, the reason for this discomfort is awareness of disappointment in themselves rather than of outrage and offense on the part of God. We should indeed be ashamed of ourselves, but the fact of God's anger is the really crucial issue in the matter. As Packer put it:
The bad conscience of the natural man is not at all the same thing as conviction of sin...It is not conviction of sin just to feel miserable about yourself and your failures and your inadequacies in meeting life's demands. Nor would it be saving faith if a man in that condition called on the Lord Jesus Christ just to soothe him, and cheer him up, and make him feel confident again. Nor should we be preaching the Gospel if all that we did was to present Christ in terms of man's felt wants. ("Are you happy? Are you satisfied? Do you want peace of mind? Do you feel you have failed? Are you fed up with yourself? Do you want a friend? Then come to Christ; He will meet your every need"--as if the Lord Jesus Christ were to be thought of as a fairy godmother, or a super-psychiatrist.) No: we have to go deeper than this...To preach Christ means to set Him forth as the One who, through his cross, sets men right with God again. (7)Amen! Such a spurious Gospel as we hear so often preached today under the guise of successful evangelism leads to unreal conversions, the kind of conversion experiences which William James, the famous psychologist of an earlier generation, wrote about as occurring among unbelievers all over the world and throughout history. It is psychological rather than spiritual, and so long as it is initiated humanly this is all it can ever be. The best defense against such ersatz forms of conversion is an absolute faithfulness in the preaching of Election and the sovereign grace of God. In our present disturbed social milieu the need for such faithfulness is greater than ever, and to suppose that falsehood is safer than the truth in such a crucial matter as Election is surely absurd in the extreme.
C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), who was perhaps the greatest evangelist in the Calvinistic tradition that England has ever seen, ministered for thirty-two years in his famous Metropolitan Tabernacle of London from 1859 to 1891. His congregation grew to 6,000 members; the church records show 14,692 registered conversions. His evangelistic ministry greatly inspired D. L. Moody, who once observed, "Everything he ever said, I read. My eyes feast on him. If God can use Mr. Spurgeon why should He not use the rest of us?" (8)
In his Autobiography, Spurgeon expresses his conviction:
I have my own private opinion that there is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified unless we preach what is nowadays called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the Gospel and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the Gospel...unless we preach the sovereignty of God in his dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah. Nor do I think we can preach the Gospel unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of his elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend the Gospel which allows saints to fall away after they are called. (9)Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921) in one of his Biblical and Theological Studies ("On Predestination") wrote:
The biblical writers are as far as possible from obscuring the doctrine of election because of any seemingly unpleasant corollaries that flow from it. On the contrary, they expressly draw the corollaries which have often been so designated, and make them part of their explicit teaching. Their doctrine of election, they are free to tell us for example, does certainly involve a corresponding doctrine of preterition (i.e., of the omission of those not elect). (10)J. I. Packer has many wise and well-stated things to say on this issue. He would argue indeed that
...so far from making evangelism pointless, the sovereignty of God in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility--indeed, the certainty--that evangelism will be fruitful. Were it not for the sovereign grace of God, evangelism would be the most futile and useless enterprise that the world has ever seen.... Regarded as a human enterprise evangelism is a hopeless task. (11)No wonder the Arminian preacher has to exhaust the techniques of persuasion to attract men's attention, believing as he does that it is up to him to generate conviction and up to the hearer himself to respond to the things spoken. The task is literally one of raising the spiritually dead, but only God has this power. Augustine was perfectly right when he said, "We must preach, we must reprove, we must pray, because they to whom grace is given will hear and act accordingly, though they to whom grace is not given will do neither." (12)
And though Augustine rightly said that some of the Lord's people are not yet ready to receive the deeper things of God, he also held firmly to the principle that the harm done by withholding this doctrine from the Lord's people is far greater than the danger of exposing the unregenerate to it. If a choice must be made, Election must be taught--for God has most certainly not concealed it in Scripture.
In the final analysis it appears that we have but three choices. We may remain silent altogether; we may preach a Gospel which is really no gospel at all if it assumes that man is capable of responding and making affirmative decisions which Scripture shows clearly he is not able to make, being spiritually dead; or we may preach the truth as it has been committed to us in Scripture, frankly declaring the sovereign and irresistible grace of God as the only hope for man. In the light of man's total spiritual ineptitude this is the only Gospel there really is.
1. Quoted in Jerome Zanchius, Absolute
Predestination, p. 97. 2. Ibid. 3. Ibid., p. 100.
3. Ibid., p. 100.
4. Ibid., pp. 117, 118.
5. Quoted in Fred H. Gooster, Calvin's Doctrine of Predestination, p. 12.
6. J. I. Packer, Sword and Trowel, p. 11, col. c.
7. J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, p. 60.
8. Quoted in Spurgeon's Sermon Notes, ed. David O. Fuller, p. 8.
9. Vol. I, chap. XVI, p. 172. Quoted in J. I. Packer, Introductory Essay in John Owen, Death of Death, p 10n.
10. Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies p. 327.
11. Packer, Evangelism pp. 106, 109.
12. On the Gift of Perseverance, XIV.