“…so that God’s purpose of election might continue…”


adult sunday school— 9:00 children/youth sunday school—9:30 fellowship—10:15 Worship Service—10:30

Oct. 08

This is the second sermon in a five-part series leading up to Reformation Sunday, October 29. This sermon series is examining the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Last week we looked at the central tenet of the Reformed faith – the sovereignty of God. This week we come into orbit around another central tenet of our faith tradition – “the election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation” (Book of Order, F-2.05).

It is important to keep in mind that election and predestination are used interchangeably in Reformed theological circles. Election sounds rather routine and mundane – not the loaded term predestination! Predestination is, without a doubt, the Presbyterian lightening rod that receives all the energy and focus, within and without Presbyterian circles. Say the word predestination and Presbyterians take a deep breath. Since predestination means that God chooses to save us, our more evangelical brothers and sisters, like the Baptists, who focus on the human response as a necessity for salvation, call us the “frozen chosen” and like to tell good natured jokes on Presbyterians: Why do Presbyterians love Facebook so much? Because you can’t get access unless you are chosen!

In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions you will find The Westminster Confession of Faith. And you do not have to go far into this beautifully rendered document from 1640’s England to find this jewel…or lump of coal…depending on how you receive it: “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others fore-ordained to everlasting death” (III, 3).

Whew…ouch…I got it out of the way. There you have the doctrine of election, or predestination, taken to is logical, maximal conclusion a hundred years after Calvin cautiously, yet boldly, ventured into the realm of predestination in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. The doctrine of predestination/election has been a central core of Presbyterian belief ever since.

Often in my ministry I have run into the mistaken notion that predestination teaches that God knows what is going to happen to you before it happens. Thus if you go out to the parking lot after worship today and get stung by a wasp, God knew this was going to happen to you before it happened. Whether you believe God is capable of such foreknowledge or not, such a belief is a philosophical musing called predeterminism, not predestination.

Predestination has to do with a person’s eternal salvation; predestination, election, has to do with how human beings come to salvation. It is important to keep in mind that our spiritual forebear, the 16th century Genevan Reformer, John Calvin, was a pastor as well as a theologian. He knew full well, in his own words, that “…although the voice of the gospel addresses all in general, yet the gift of faith is rare…” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III, xxii, 10). Calvin was a staunch believer in the sovereignty of God and God’s initiative in the realm of salvation. Thus if all people hear the same gospel message, but only a few respond, then what about those who do not respond with lives of obedience? Could it be that the sovereign God has prevented them from responding positively to the gospel of salvation? Calvin went to Scripture looking for an answer to this pastoral, theological dilemma as to why some people hear the gospel but do not respond.

Calvin was a careful observer of Scripture and he found throughout the Old and New Testaments that God often elected some for salvation and service while passing over others. Abraham was called, or elected, by God out of all the other people of Abraham’s day. Israel was the locus of God’s election out of all other nations as manifested in the covenants, and the Law, the prophets, and ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ himself. The Apostle Paul is guided by the Spirit in his missionary journeys to go to certain places, while being blocked by the Spirit from going to other places (see for example Acts 16:6).

We see in our passage from Romans today the Apostle Paul wrestling with the scriptural reality of God’s election as he notes that Isaac was the child of promise, chosen by God over Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. Paul notes that God chose Rebecca’s younger son, Jacob, as the child of promise over her eldest son Esau. Paul sums up his thoughts on the mystery of God’s election with these words: “So then [God] has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses” (Romans 9:18).

John Calvin turned to Paul as well our passage from Ephesians today to mine his insights on God’s election. Three times in the exquisitely rendered opening of the letter to the Ephesians, the writer insists that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (v. 4)…destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ (v. 5)… and “that in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined [in Christ] according to the purpose of [God] who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will…” (v. 11).

A careful, full reading of Scripture cannot deny the fact that God chooses people for service and salvation. Jesus even alludes to God’s election in a prayer to God in John’s gospel: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word” (John 17:6).

There is no question that election is an act of the sovereign God throughout the pages of the Bible’s witness to salvation and service. But is predestination/election the only way to salvation in Scripture? Or put another way, in the words of The Westminster Confession of Faith, does God really predestine some human beings to everlasting life while predestining others to everlasting death? Again, a careful, thorough reading of Scripture will show that a narrow, exclusive doctrine of predestination is not the only way to salvation that Scripture teaches.

There are many biblical passages that show that God’s grace for salvation is readily bestowed upon all people. Perhaps most memorable is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Or 1 Timothy 2:4, which states that God, our Savior, “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Or Paul writing in Romans 5:18 about the sin of Adam and the salvation of Jesus: “As one man’s trespass led to condemnation of all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”

Some biblical passages seem to suggest that God’s grace for salvation is limited to only those whom God chooses; and some biblical passages seem to strongly indicate that God’s grace for salvation is for everyone – all humanity, not just the elected ones. So why do Presbyterians choose to cling to God’s election when it comes to eternal salvation?

We do so because election/predestination affirms a very foundational tenet of biblical faith: Only God can save us. Human beings are so totally enveloped in sin, that we can never be good enough to save ourselves, we can never do enough good works to merit salvation, we can never muster enough faith in Christ to be certain of our salvation. In fact, our Reformed tradition believes that human beings are so enveloped in sin we do not even know our need of salvation unless God acts on our behalf. God initiates salvation in us by the work of the Holy Spirit, so that we are inspired to choose Christ, enlivened to turn to Christ, exhorted to trust in Jesus Christ who brings us from death to life – from a sure death in sin, to a certain life of goodness and well-being in Jesus Christ.

Our passage from Ephesians today emphasizes that Christians are “chosen in Christ…” (1:4). We are chosen, elected, predestined in Christ – meaning, it’s a done deal, it’s assured, it’s without a doubt. John Calvin writes that “Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election” (Institutes, III, xxiv, 5). Calvin meant election in Christ to be a comforting doctrine – Look to Christ. Calvin is certain that Christ does not deceive us about our salvation! Look to Christ, trust in him, cling to Christ through whom God initiates our eternal salvation, through whom, Christ, God elects us for service as well as for salvation.

The same Westminster Confession of Faith that highlighted for us the austere, narrow doctrine of predestination, also was in conversation with itself three hundred years later. In 1903, American Presbyterians in the northern stream of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) added this “Declaratory Statement” to the Westminster Confession of Faith regarding predestination in an attempt to more clearly articulate the total biblical witness to salvation. The Bible teaches that only God can save us; but human beings must respond to God’s sovereign, gracious act. Thus God’s election and human response must be held in a dynamic tension, both go together. The Declaratory Statement declares that the doctrine of God’s predestination is “held in harmony with the doctrine of his love to all mankind, his gift of his Son to be the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and his readiness to bestow his saving grace on all who seek it; that concerning those who perish, the doctrine of God’s [predestination] is held in harmony with the doctrine that God desires not the death of any sinner, but has provided in Christ a salvation sufficient for all, adapted to all, and freely offered in the gospel to all; that men are responsible for their treatment of God’s gracious offer; that his decree hinders no man from accepting that offer; and that no man is condemned except on the ground of his sin” (Book of Confessions, 6.192).