Election: No Contest between God’s Sovereignty and Human Free Will

January 10, 2013

We come now in our discussion to a doctrinal area particularly associated with the Presbyterian tribe within the Reformed tradition, even though Martin Luther in The Bondage of the Will covered this territory thoroughly himself. But here it is: the topic of election and its cousin predestination, what Kirk Bottomly called “the skeleton in the Reformed closet.”[1]  The doctrine as debated in historical theology is a wide-ranging topic, often focusing on the tension between God’s sovereignty and human free will. The Fellowship Theology Project focuses on the sad consequence of the fall: human beings actually lost their freedom of will and became incapable of turning toward God without the prior action of God to love them and graciously draw them (that is, elect or choose them) into his redeeming circle.

The deception in the Garden of Eden carries a lot of irony. Adam and Eve thought by choosing to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that they would retain wisdom and make good choices in the future. But the opposite happened. By choosing to defy God at that moment, they lost true freedom to do good by becoming enslaved to sin (Paul’s language in Romans 7). Sin introduced entropy to the human system: the natural tendency toward chaos, unless an outside force is applied to bring order instead. God is that outside force, and only his gracious, merciful intervention can keep a sinner from spiraling out into spiritual outer space.

We see the effects of spiritual entropy early in the biblical narrative. Adam and Eve sin, and bam! Cain actually kills his brother Abel. Within five chapters, God is describing the state of humanity as “only evil all of the time.” But out of that darkest hour, God chooses Noah and safeguards his family’s life through the flood in order to bring humanity back in line with God’s purposes.  

In Genesis 12:1-3, God for no apparent reason picks Abram and his wife Sarai to be the forebears of a nation God would establish for his glory.  But even at this early stage, God makes clear that the reason for God’s election of the couple from Ur was not that they deserved it or earned it or were particularly righteous. The text is bare on that subject. No, God says, “I choose you. But it’s not about you; it’s about the great nation you will birth, through which all the world will be blessed.” This is where the Bible overview The Bethel Series gets its theme: “Blessed to be a blessing.”

Anyone who is chosen by God— and the list is long in the Bible—is chosen to be a blessing somehow. Some examples:

Moses, hiding out in the wilderness as a shepherd (Exodus 3)—God calls him despite his protests, his stutters, his anxiety. “This isn’t about you, Moses, but about Me and My people Israel. Believe me and I will do the rest!”

Samuel, an acolyte in the temple (1 Samuel 2)—Samuel is the son of a faithful mother Hannah, mentored by an unfaithful priest Eli, and out of the blue God calls him into service as the prophet for Israel.

Saul hiding out in baggage claim (1 Samuel 10:20-24)—All the Bible says for Saul’s credentials is that he was the tallest and best looking; otherwise, God’s sovereign choice once again is to commission him for service as the first king of Israel. Not to worry; “tall and good looking” is not a qualification for service in the Church!

David (1 Samuel 17:14)— the youngest of Jesse’s sons is lifted up for leadership to usher Israel into the heyday of its existence. David did fine as long as he understood his calling as service to the King of kings. He faltered (with Bathsheba) when he thought it was about him being special and above the law.

And in the New Testament, the lowly maiden Mary (Luke 1) is chosen to bear the Messiah. She didn’t apply for the job, didn’t develop a resumé to qualify, and had no power whatsoever, in a worldly sense. But she said “Yes” to God, and the rest is history.

The list could go on, but the point is that salvation and service are God’s initiative. People in our generation are moved by the Holy Spirit to [simply] respond and receive the necessary power from God to carry out the commission, whatever it might be. “[God] chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4).

And just by way of encouragement, God never calls us to do something he doesn’t also give us the power to accomplish. That is all part of the Election package, too: God selects, God saves, God supports, and God sends. You cannot stop God from loving you, and the best advice the Church can give you is this: “Bask in his glory, and enjoy him forever!”

And so, as we engage in this study of Election, an essential tenet of the Reformed faith, let us rejoice that God calls us to himself, sends his Spirit to bring us along, invites our response, embraces us in safety, and sends us out to love people, care for the natural world, and represent his kingdom in a world longing to see its day. Our role in all this is a response to God who loved us first, with the understanding that salvation is never a human achievement, and blessing others is our way of serving God’s purposes.[2] I leave it to you in your group study or at the dinner table to discuss, “How could anyone say no to that?


[1] Kirk Bottomly, “The Skeleton in the Reformed Closet,” reFORM Journal: The Essential Presbyterian, (Presbyterians For Renewal, 2003), 31-38.

[2] Roger Olson, “Election Is for Everyone,” an installment in the Global Gospel Project, Christianity Today, January/February 2013, 40-43.


2 Responses to “Election: No Contest between God’s Sovereignty and Human Free Will”

  1. Whit Brisky Says:

    Outstanding post Mary. It will be a great resource for me in the Romans study I am preparing. But you do not address the question that has been most debated, whether if God elects some to salvation he also “elects” some to damnation. Logic says that if God elects some to salvation knowing that everyone else will be damned, then he thereby elects them to that fate. Yet it is difficult to accept that God would will that any be lost. The Scriptures seem ambiguous, containing verses that speak of a hardening of hearts. Yet other verses affirm that God desires that all should be saved. This question divided Luther and Calvin, and their theological descendants.

    • revmary Says:

      Hello Whit, Yes, thank you for raising the question. The Fellowship Theology Project emphasizes God’s gracious initiative in the process of salvation and the loss of true freedom of the will at the time of the Fall. What’s interesting is that the church in years past officially backed off the concept of double pre-destination (which is what you are talking about) with a declaratory statement appended to the Westminster standard (at BOC, 6.192): “. . . concerning those who are saved in Christ, the doctrine of God’s eternal decree 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 eternal decree 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 fully 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.”
      I think this is beautifully put, acknowledges the tensions in Scripture, and leans to the side of saying, “We’ll talk about what we know for sure: God’s [positive] election and the fact that God enables a faithful response to his invitation.” The question remains whether the human will is strong enough to withstand God’s irresistible grace, hence the cliff-hanger ending to my post!

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