Written by D. Blair Smith |
Wednesday, December 20, 2023
We live in a world that turns on influence. Thanks be to God, the decisive influence in His salvation economy is not a saint in heaven or faith on earth. The decisive influence is the Father’s electing sinners to receive His saving grace in His Son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
From the halls of high schools to the corridors of political power, our world is filled with those who fashion themselves persons of “influence.” In the last several years, the category of “social media influencer” has developed out of thin air. Our world values those who can influence others socially or economically. But what about religiously?
During the Middle Ages, an elaborate system developed in the Western church wherein saints in heaven, who were ostensibly closer to God than sinners on earth, were called on in prayer because of their positions of influence in relation to God. In their own way, medieval saints were believed to be people of influence. Thankfully, the theologians of the Reformation addressed this error through teaching Christ alone. Christ alone mediates our salvation, a salvation founded on God’s grace alone and received through faith alone. Salvation isn’t the result of a saint’s influencing a grudging God. Rather, salvation comes to the sinner because from all eternity God elected a people to be His own.
Election is unmistakably a biblical word (e.g., Matt. 24:22–31; Rom. 8:33; 9–11; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:10). Therefore, Christians of all stripes believe in election. But that doesn’t mean that all believe in the same theology of election. A theology of election is how one describes the doctrine and connects it to other doctrines, especially the doctrines of God, man, and salvation. Reformed theology has taught unconditional election, which is the U in the famous acronym TULIP, which summarizes the “five points of Calvinism” or “doctrines of grace.”
A foundational theological principle in Reformed theology is the sovereignty of God—sometimes called “big God theology.” Election is a subset of teaching on the sovereignty of God. If God sovereignly causes or permits all things that happen in the world, this includes the salvation of His people. Indeed, while Scripture teaches God’s sovereignty over all things, its authors are especially interested in communicating His sovereignty in the salvation of His people. One of the ways that Scripture does this is by highlighting God’s “election” of a people for salvation. If God is big enough to create all things that exist, if God is big enough to providentially care for all things that exist, He is big enough to redeem His people—a people that He has loved from all eternity.
The doctrine of election depends on the doctrine of God. Eternal in God are His unchanging attributes and His divine counsel containing His sovereign decrees. More general than election, predestination is a term referring to God’s decree by which He sovereignly ordains all things (Isa. 46:8–10). Election is more specific. According to Herman Bavinck, election is the “gracious purpose of God according to which He ordained those whom He had before known in love to be conformed to the image of Christ” (see Rom. 8:29). The doctrine of election focuses on God’s decree to elect or choose to save a people for Himself in Christ.
In addition to a certain understanding of God, the doctrine of election depends on a prior understanding of humanity. The T in TULIP stands for total depravity. Ever since the fall in the garden of Eden, humanity is naturally lost and separated from the loving presence of God. Because of depravity, humanity possesses no resources within itself for personal salvation. Furthermore, given that depravity touches all aspects of what it means to be human and that we are dead in our “trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), there remains in human beings no ability to choose or believe in God apart from His prior regenerating work in them.