The gladdest doctrine (yeah, the one that makes a lot of people really mad)

Ephesians 1_3-10     

tree-frogs-517346_1280

Poor little froggie. He’s so cross, but look where he lives! How can he wear such a sad, sullen little face in the mouth of a comical laughing swine?

There’s a reality we live in and by that is nothing but sparkling joy and bubbly-good news, yet many Christians, though it is the foundation of all their blessing, find it annoying, even infuriating. And certainly nothing to laugh about–though we’re quick to fight over it. But in the Bible, it’s arguably the gladdest doctrine. Or at least it’s one of them.

Election. Yep. That’s the one, and her sister, predestination. (What’s the difference?) There are certainly many other glad tidings of the gospel–forgiveness, adoption, resurrection–but the doctrine that makes a sinner like me a recipient of these blessings is the fact that God has decided that I am to be that. Without his deciding this, none of the gospel is good news to me.

How can I beg his forgiveness, for example, unless he has first chosen to reveal my sin to me? How can I be counted as his heir unless he has first bought me out of slavery? How can I be raised from the dead unless he has first counted me among the sheep for whom he has conquered death (John 6:39-40)? How can I desire any of this and ask him for it–let alone trust in it for my salvation–unless he has first brought my dead heart back to life?

And why would he do any of these things for me unless he desires to do so?

I’m not really here to argue for the doctrine of election or even to adequately explain it–although I wholeheartedly believe it is true, and that, as I’ve already said, the entire gospel and my own salvation begin with this doctrine. (And I’m actually not even really that interested in nailing down exactly which doctrine in fact wins first place for being the gladdest–as if such a thing were possible. That was just a cheap trick to catch your attention.) My purpose here is simply to say to you that this doctrine, in the pages of Scripture, is a glad one. Perhaps the very gladdest. But most definitely always 100% very glad, never sad, never mad.

Karl Barth, the famous theologian put it like this:

Karl Barth, 1886-1968

The truth which must now occupy us, the truth of the doctrine of predestination, is first and last and in all circumstances the sum of the Gospel, ..it is itself evangel: glad tidings; news which uplifts and comforts and sustains…It is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation…It does not proclaim in the same breath both good and evil, both help and destruction, both life and death. It does, of course, throw a shadow. We cannot overlook or ignore this aspect of the matter. In itself, however, it is light and not darkness…It is the very essence of all good news. (Church Dogmatics, II/2: 12-14)

I think that needs to be said because of how uncomfortable we can get over it. For many Christians, this is perhaps the saddest doctrine, or even the maddest doctrine. But I challenge anyone to find a single passage of Scripture in which the obvious tone of the writer is melancholy, apologetic, or wrathful regarding the fact that God has chosen those whom he will save. We can’t ever really understand or embrace or teach this accurately until we first get our hearts in sync with the Scriptures and acknowledge that this is really, really good news.

Election is not one of those unfortunate biblical realities that exists because sin came into the world, like hell or wrath or the curse. As a matter of fact, election took place before the world was even created (Ephesians 1:4). We can’t be in sync with Scripture and say, “Well, kids, I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but if you believe in Christ, that is evidence that you have been chosen by God to be his child and heir from before the world began. Really hate to break it to you. Oh, and don’t mention this to anyone because it really makes God look bad.” Yet many of us who do believe that the Bible teaches that God sovereignly chose those whom he would save and glorify, still, in spite of our willingness to concede this reality, talk about it in hushed tones. We’re embarrassed by it.

Now, it’s one thing to be rightly humbled at your own unworthiness. We certainly don’t parade around with tracts that say, “I’m chosen. Are you?” This truth is good news for believers who treasure what God has done to secure their eternal happiness. It’s like the icing on the cake to find out that, not only does God “accept” you, he in fact is the one who came up with the idea to save you in the first place. You’re not just sliding in under the radar. You, together with all the elect, are the very focal point of his gaze, the center of his attention. He has chosen you to become the object of his mercy (Romans 9:22-24), the masterpiece of his new creation (Ephesians 2:8-10), and the trophy of his triumph against his enemy (Colossians 2:13-15), and he will stop at nothing to see his purpose for your life–that is, to become like his Son–completely, perfectly fulfilled (Rom 8:28-39).

He’s God, and he always gets exactly what he wants.

“But why? Why does he want me? IT’S NOT FAIR!”

That’s what I said the first time I understood the Bible’s teaching on election. But that’s not an appropriate first response to the glad doctrine that God has desired you and has done for you what must be done to have you for his own.

“Why me? Why not her over there?” might eventually be a sincere question you ask out of compassion for the lost (many of whom, you must remember, are yet to respond positively to the gospel because they are elect). You can ask it, certainly, but trust me, you won’t find an answer other than this one: God always gets exactly what he wants. So don’t start there, immediately banging your head against a brick wall the moment you’ve found out that God loves you and has chosen you to be the recipient of his goodness and riches. Do that later. But don’t let protestation be your first response to the doctrine of election. It’s not appropriate. To protest God’s grace is not biblical. Do you want God’s blessings? Or do you just want God to explain himself before you decide whether or not to accept his gift?

No. The first appropriate, biblical response to the doctrine of election and predestination is joy. Relief. Gladness. Astonishment.

Listen to Paul’s tone of voice in Ephesians 1:3-6.

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. 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.

Paul’s emphasis here is not on “why” but on the simple fact of what is. And he’s not embarrassed. He doesn’t apologize for the awkwardness that we infuse into the doctrine of God’s sovereign grace. Instead, he’s rather giddy, it seems to me.

He’s the same way over here in Romans 8, flamboyantly waving around a doctrine that makes so many people’s skin crawl, just as if it’s the best news on the planet:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 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. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

Is Paul daft? Or is he just a bull in a theological china shop? Doesn’t he know how very offended people will be when they find out that God chose some people but not others? How can he say this so loudly? How can he be so out of touch?

Everyone’s so happy about this!

Paul gets a lot of attention for being a teacher of the doctrine of election, probably because he does the most thorough job of explaining it. But Paul shouldn’t get all the credit. All of Christ’s disciples who went on to write parts of the New Testament–Peter, James, Matthew, and John–all of them assume that salvation begins with God’s choice, and all of them (with the exception of Matthew, who teaches election from the angle of judgment–Barth’s “shadow”) do it the same way Paul did: with joy. The across-the-board assumption in Scripture is that election is a good thing for those who desire God.

Consider these passages which not only assume the truth of God’s electing grace, but also the delight of it:

Peter

  • 1 Peter 2:4-10 Christ himself is the first and foremost object of God’s election; God chooses Christ because he is all-deserving of God’s choice. He is the one person who does deserve to be chosen for blessing and honor. You were given to Christ by God from before the foundation of the world (John 17:6-7) and because you are in him and he has been chosen by God, you–with Christ–are chosen for all the blessings he has earned.
  • 2 Peter 1:3-11 The fact that you were chosen for mercy is not something you should be ashamed of, it’s something you should confirm! And election is directly linked to your sanctification: when you find yourself wanting and becoming like Christ, you know that God has chosen you for this purpose. No need to worry, “Am I chosen?” Just ask yourself, “Do I want Christ? Do I want to be like him? Do I see myself becoming like him?” You wouldn’t want any of this–you wouldn’t be at all grieved when you fail–if God had not already destined you for it.

James

  • James 2:5 It’s great news that God doesn’t choose us based on our merit–here James is talking about rich and poor, but the same goes for educational status, moral achievements, social class, race, or accomplishment. The whole point is that God chooses us to be the object of what he wants to do in us and for us, not because of anything we’ve done. This isn’t choosing like, “I choose this apple because it has less blemishes than the other apples.” This is choosing like, “I am creating you for this purpose: to show you how powerful and good I am. I choose you to be a display of my glorious grace.”

John

  • John 6:37-40 There’s no need to worry about God’s plan getting screwed up. There won’t be any “chosen” people who don’t “choose” Christ, and there won’t be any “non-chosen” people who really wish they could be saved but, sorry, you weren’t chosen. That is simply impossible, because as I said before, God always gets exactly what he wants. And in the end, so do we: everyone who has desired Christ will have him, through the ministry of God’s Spirit and his word, and all who have rejected him will not. Election is simply the most comforting manifestation of God’s power that I can think of. His plan will not fail. It can’t. Election, for Jesus, ensured that his suffering would not be in vain; for us, it ensures that our faith in him also will not be in vain.
  • John 17:6-9, 20-26 Jesus must be astonished–perhaps horrified–at our squeamishness toward the doctrine of God’s choosing grace. That God had chosen many for salvation was the very truth that empowered him to go to the cross! It’s not just that election prompts God’s saving choice; it’s also that election prompted Jesus’ saving work. The good news of the cross is directly related to–it’s dependent on–the election of God. And what love! It was his husbandly passion for his people, his assurance based on God’s decree that every single one of them would be there on the great and final wedding day, that empowered him to suffer so profoundly.

And of course, Paul:

  • Ephesians 1:3-10 In this passage, Paul grounds every spiritual blessing that is ours in Christ in the fact that God has chosen us for this purpose. The blessings would be Christ’s because he earned them, but we’d be looking at those blessings from the outside if it weren’t for the fact that God had created us “in Christ,” shown us mercy, and then included us in every reward Christ ever gained. It’s just unfathomable, I’ll give you that. But it’s true. And it’s supposed to make us glad. (Here’s a guy who claims that learning about God’s electing love rescued him out of porn.)
  • Ephesians 2:1-10 This subsequent passage contains more of the same, but here we get the real clincher: if you think for one second that you could have chosen God without him having first chosen you, you’re dead wrong. Being dead, in fact, is the way Paul describes us apart from the “gift” of faith which God gives us because he wanted to. There’s just no way you can walk away from this passage thinking that God’s electing and saving power isn’t the best thing that ever happened to you. If you want to memorize this passage and all of Ephesians 1-2, subscribe to my blog and I’ll send you all my songs for these two chapters!
  • Colossians 3:12-14 This one gets at the wonderful corporate nature of God’s election: we were chosen together (Ephesians 1:4 uses “us” as well). It’s great news that God chose a people for Christ, not just individuals. This empowers our love for one another and forms the foundation of our commitment to his Church. We’re in this together. We participate in each other’s evangelism, in each other’s conversion, in each other’s growth and discipleship and sanctification, in each other’s perseverance, in each other’s trials, and finally, in each other’s glory. Why? Because God has chosen us as one and he is saving us as one.
  • Romans 8:28-39 Finally, my favorite. Best chapter in the Bible (my opinion). Here we find the whole structure of God’s gracious plan of mercy: he foreknew (another biblical word for “intimately loved”), he predestined (he chose our final destiny of the ones he loved), then he called (made sure the gospel message got to them), he justified (forgave, accepted, and adopted them on the basis of Christ’s righteousness), and, in the end, those will be the ones he glorifies (another word for resurrection). But wait–Paul doesn’t say “he will glorify,” he says “he glorified.” This glory is so sure that Paul speaks of it as though it had already happened–and in fact it has! When Christ was raised from the dead, we were “raised with him” (Colossians 3:1; Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:6) because we are “in him.” If you hope to be raised in Christ on the last day, then you must be chosen before the first. And if this is truly your hope, then you will be!

 How to get glad about election

As always, you’ll understand what I’m saying better if you can hear me sing it. The song I’m sharing at the top of this post is Ephesians 1:3-10. I could have written the music for this passage in a variety of ways, but I wanted a melody and rhythm which would faithfully render the emotion with which I think Paul is writing. Please, please, PLEASE listen to it and let this good-news doctrine affect your gladness and joy TODAY!

If you want to know more about God’s sovereign electing grace…

  • Try Jonathan Rainbow’s very helpful book, Grace.  Of course, there are many other books–classic and contemporary–you can read to learn about election. But what makes this one special is that this book’s purpose is to provide a nearly exhaustive base of all the biblical passages which spell out the full doctrine of God’s electing work in salvation. If you want to know this doctrine from the Bible itself, this is your resource.
  • Memorize Ephesians 1:3-10 using my Bible song at the top of this post.

If you’re still sad or mad about election…

  • Read all of the passages I’ve given above and meditate on, journal, pray about, the good news contained in each one. Don’t start with arguments, start with joy. Ask God to help you feel the same about the content of these passages that the inspired writers did when they wrote them. In time, you can begin to converse with others on the doctrine. But first let God open your heart. All the objections can be addressed later. First, rejoice.
  • If you feel badly about election but can see, as I hope I’ve shown, that it is biblical, I strongly recommend avoiding reading anything about it other than what is written in Scripture until you are convinced this is good news. Don’t begin with the argument; start with the good news and really let it sink in that way.
  • Read my dad’s book on grace, recommended above (or link here).
  • Listen daily to Ephesians 1:3-10 using my Bible song at the top of this post.

If you’re glad about election and want to show it…

  • Read the passages I’ve shared above and jot down all the ways that having been chosen by God is good news.
  • Learn from these passages to think about and live your life as if you’re always in the wake of God’s gracious choice to bless you.
  • Don’t get embroiled in hurtful arguments about election. Point your brothers and sisters in Christ back to the fact that before we understand (and can accurately argue about) election, we first must acknowledge that it is presented in Scripture as a glad doctrine. Try to mirror the attitude of Scripture regarding election, and then you will better represent the logic of it. Demonstrate gladness before you try to win any arguments!

Election is a doctrine of love; let’s not poison it by making it the doctrine of division and strife. Let’s not be like poor little froggie, living in the happiest place of all but unwilling to smile about it.

4 thoughts on “The gladdest doctrine (yeah, the one that makes a lot of people really mad)

  1. Jenn

    Hannah…the fact that people are going to hell is such a devastating realization for those of us who are in Christ…because we understand ( only a smidge )of how horrific Spiritual death is and the everlasting torment for those who do not have the faith to believe. And we have such anguish for those who get the justice that we all mankind who, is born in sin,deserve. The doctice of election should bring a unspeakable thankfulness and humble joy that those who are in Christ are shown mercy. Knowing that christ is just and merciful at the same time along with impartial and that he is choosing a people or nation ( like he did with Israel in the old testament) all have helped me understand this glad doctrine… I also know that God is in charge and I on this side of eternity His ways are not mine and that in fact his atonement is limited for his glory. Just as he is glorified in the destruction of the wicked. Praise be to him for the imputed robe of righteousness! Thankyou for the reminder of this yes… glad doctrine!

    1. Hannah Ploegstra

      I agree, Jenn, the fact that people are going to hell is a tragedy indeed, and we should never feel complacent or satisfied with this fact. Now is the time of grace; now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2) and so we live by that and strive to be vessels of his grace and mercy to the lost around us. However, our sorrow over the lost does not have to be mutually exclusive with our gladness over God’s electing grace. When we meet him face to face and behold him in all his glory, his holiness will be all we need to understand why sin can never enter his presence, and we will on that day be more humbled than ever before, knowing that he who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21) As you said, all he does is right and good. On the day we see him with our eyes, I believe we will have full peace with his sovereign plan. For now, we need to let joy carry us and love dictate our actions towards all who are lost–for how are we to know which of those are our eternal brothers and sisters?

  2. Jan

    There is certainly so much peace, comfort, joy, love, rest, gratefulness, humbleness, trust, confidence in Christ, a passion to share this joyful news with the lost, a desire for holiness, and a longing to be with God face to face that flows out of my life from knowing and believing this doctrine and it certainly makes me GLAD!!! 🙂

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