From the beginning of Scripture history, two great facts, forming the basis of all God's dealings with men, have been apparent. First, God is absolutely sovereign. Second, man is an intelligent creature with moral faculties and responsible to his Creator.
But these two facts, the sovereignty of God on the one hand, the responsibility of man on the other, have always presented a difficulty to certain minds, particularly when it is a question of the practical work of preaching the Gospel, and of the reception of it by the sinner. Between the sovereignty of God expressing itself in the election of some for blessing, and the free offer of grace that addresses itself to all, there seems to be some contradiction which it is difficult to avoid, some discrepancy not easily explained.
Of course, if we are at liberty to discard one of these facts in favour of the other, and throw ourselves into the arms of either a hard hyper- Calvinism, or a weak Arminianism, as the case may be, the difficulty may vanish. But this would mean the sacrifice of truth. Since we are not at liberty to do this, but have to accept both these facts (for both plainly lie on the surface of Scripture), we must humbly seek the divine solution, assured that the only real difficulty is the littleness of our minds, and of their ability to grasp the thoughts of God.
We have but to open our Bibles at the beginning to find both these truths. " In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" (Gen. 1: 1). Here is declared the one truth. "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion" (Gen. 1: 26). Here is declared the other. Man was made in God's image, i.e., as God's representative in creation. He was after God's likeness, inasmuch as he was originally a free, intelligent, moral a gent. And though no longer sinless but fallen, his responsibility remains.
It would be difficult to find a finer confession of the sovereignty of God than that made by Nebuchadnezzar, the great Gentile monarch in whom human sovereignty reached its highest expression. He said, "He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou?" (Dan. 4: 35).
Nor can we point to a more striking unfolding of the responsibility of man in his fallen estate than that given by Paul in his powerful argument (Rom. 1: 18 to 3: 19) to prove the complete ruin of the race. If sin and degradation destroyed a man's responsibility there would be every excuse for his condition, but the most degraded heathen is shown to be " without excuse," as is also the polished idolater and the religious Jew.
Thus far all seems plain. The difficulty occurs when we begin to apply these truths. Believers are addressed as "chosen in Him before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1: 4), as "elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father" (1 Peter 1: 2). To His disciples the Lord Jesus distinctly said, "Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you" ( John 15: 16); and again, "No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him" (John 6: 44). Shall we reason from these scriptures that since the choice is God's and no one comes to Christ unless drawn of the Father, therefore all effort in connection with the Gospel is useless; that, in fact, to preach to any except those chosen of God is waste of time?
On the other hand, Peter urged his hearers, when pricked in their heart, " Save yourselves from this untoward generation" (Acts 2: 40). To careless and rebellious sinners he said, "Repent ye therefore, and be converted" ( Acts 3: 19). Paul tells us that he testified to both Jews and Greeks " repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20: 21).
Shall we disregard these apostolic utterances? Ought they rather to have run something after this fashion: "Men and brethren, you can do absolutely nothing. You are spiritually dead and therefore you must simply wait the pleasure of God. If He has elected you, you will be saved. If not, you will be lost"? Or shall we adopt the opposite view, and do our best to explain away these reference's to God's sovereign work in connection with conversion, saying that they only mean that God, being omniscient, knows the end from the beginning, that He has no particular will as regards anybody, that man is an absolutely free agent, quite capable of choosing the right if put before him in a sufficiently attractive way, and that therefore we ought to do everything possible to make the Gospel palatable and win men?
To incline to either set of scriptures at the expense of the other would be, indeed, to expose ourselves to the keen edge of those searching words, " O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken" ( Luke 24: 25).
Any difficulties we may have as to these things would, we believe, largely vanish if we better understood the true character of the ruin of man and the grace of God.
In what does the ruin of man consist? By sinning he has placed himself under a burden of guilt and has rendered himself liable to judgment. There is more than this, however. He has also become possessed of a fallen nature utterly and incorrigibly bad, with a heart "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jer. 17: 9). But even this is not all. Sin has acted like a subtle poison in his veins and has so stupefied and perverted his reason, will and judgment, that "there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3: 11). Even in the presence of grace and the sweet pleadings of the Gospel men reject the Saviour provided, and with perverse unanimity prefer the empty follies of the world. Like the "great herd of swine" they rush madly to destruction, and hence the only hope is a sovereign interposition of God.
The parable of the "great supper" (Luke 14) illustrates this. The well- laden supper-table represents the spiritual blessings resulting from the death of Christ. At great cost all is ready, and yet all seems to have been provided in vain. Something else is needed: the mission of the Holy Spirit, pictured by the errand of "the servant." Things were brought to a successful issue, and the house was filled, only because of His " compelling" operations.
If we once realize the full extent of that ruin into which sin has plunged us, we shall be delivered from the "Arminian" extreme, and shall recognize that the sovereign action of God in choosing us and drawing us by the compelling power of His Spirit was our only hope. Instead of quarrelling with this side of the truth, it will bow our hearts in grateful worship before Him.
Poor fallen, self-destroyed man is still, however, a responsible creature. Reason, will, and judgment may be perverted, but they are not destroyed. Hence the largeness of the grace of God.
What is grace? Is it the particular goodness which visits and saves the souls of the elect? No. That is mercy. In Romans 9 and Romans 11, where election is the great subject, mercy is mentioned again and again. Grace is the mighty outflow of the heart of God towards the utterly sinful and undeserving. It shows no partiality. It knows no restrictions. It is a wide and deep sea. "All men" (1 Tim. 2: 3- 6) are its only boundaries, and " where sin abounded, grace did much more abound" (Rom. 5: 20) is the only measure of its depth.
We hear the accents of grace in the last great commission of the risen Christ to His disciples, "that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24: 47). How akin were these instructions to those given by the King in that other parable of a feast, recorded in Matthew 22: "Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage." In this parable we have not "the servant," as in Luke, but "the servants." It is not the Spirit of God in His sovereign and secret activities, but saved men who, without knowing aught of these secret things, simply do the King's business. Do they find anyone in the broad highways of the world? Then without raising questions as to their character, or as to whether chosen or not, they give the invitation. All who listen are gathered in, both bad and good: and the wedding is "furnished with guests."
Is there any great difficulty in this? Surely not. Knowing that it pleases God "by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe," the evangelist proclaims the glad tidings far and wide. When men believe his message; he attributes that work to the Spirit of God, and rejoices over them, knowing their election of God (1 Thess. 1: 4).
Nor is there anything to stumble the seeking sinner. The very fact that he is seeking indicates that he is being drawn of the Father. The idea that a sinner may be even in an agony of seeking for the Saviour in this day of grace, and yet be unheard because not elected, is a hideous distortion of truth. The words of the Lord Jesus are as true as ever: "Seek and ye shall find" (Matt. 7: 7).
The fact is, election has nothing to do with the sinner as such. No hint of it is breathed in any recorded preaching of the apostles, though it is frequently referred to, to establish the faith of believers. As a rule, it is only when unbalanced preachers of extreme views take it from its setting in Scripture and thrust it upon their unconverted hearers that it creates difficulty in their minds.
Can it be shown that "election" does really mean anything more than that God knows everything, and therefore knows from the beginning who will believe and who will not?
Most assuredly. In 1 Peter 1: 2 we read, "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father." Election, then, is distinct from foreknowledge, though based upon it. God's election or choice is not a blind, fatalistic casting of the lot. That is a purely heathen conception. There is some such legend in connection with Buddha. When men were created it is said that he cast a lot saying, "These to heaven, and I care not; these to hell and I care not." But our God and Father does not act like this. He chooses in the full light of His foreknowledge. Hence no sinner, who ever really wants to be saved, finds the door shut against him because he is not one of the elect. His very desire is the fruit of the Spirit's work. And God's choice, as in the case of Esau and Jacob, is always justified by results. (Compare Rom. 9: 12, 13 with Mal. 1: 2, 3).
If God must elect at all, why did He not elect everybody?
How can I tell you that? Is it likely that God will tell us, who are but His creatures, the motives that underlie His decrees? If He did explain, would our finite minds be able to grasp the explanation? We may rest assured that all His decrees are in perfect harmony with the fact that " God is light" and "God is love." For the rest, if any man be contentious we content ourselves with quoting the inspired words: "Behold . . . I will answer thee, God is greater than man. Why cost thou strive against Him? for He giveth not account of any of His matters" (Job 33: 12, 13). After all, being God, why should He?
If man be morally incapable of going or choosing right, how can he be really responsible?
Let me answer by an analogy. If, in the case of that poor creature making her 201st appearance before the magistrates on the old charge, "drunk and disorderly," the plea were raised that since she was so degraded as to be morally incapable of resisting alcohol or choosing a better life, she was no longer responsible, or amenable to punishment, would it avail? Of course not. No sane person imagines that one has only to sink low enough into crime to be absolved from responsibility.
Alas! who can measure the depths of perversity and incapacity into which man has plunged himself by sin? Nevertheless his responsibility remains.
Does "free grace" mean that salvation is ours simply by a choice which lies in the exercise of our own free will?
It does not. It means that as far as the intentions of God's Gospel are concerned, all are embraced. Christ died for all (1 Tim. 2: 4, 6). To all the Gospel is sent, just as freely as if it were certain that all would as naturally receive it, as, alas! they naturally reject it. Multitudes, however, do receive it, and then the righteousness of God which is "unto all" in its intention is "upon all them that believe" in its actual effect ( Rom. 3: 22-24). Such are saved by grace, through faith, and that not of themselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2: 8). Their blessing is of God from first to last, and they are entitled to regard themselves as chosen of Him.
Has the sinner to choose Christ?
If we wish to speak with scriptural accuracy, the answer must be, No. He has to receive. Christ; but that is a somewhat different matter. Choose is a word with active force. It implies certain powers of discrimination and selection. To speak of a sinner choosing Christ supposes that he has powers which he does not possess.
Receive is passive rather than active in force. It implies that instead of exercising his powers, the sinner simply falls into line with God's offer. It is the word Scripture uses.
The children of God are said to be "as many as received" Christ (John 1: 12), and this receiving was the result not of their freewill, but of God's gracious operation; they were "born . . . of God" (v. 13).
Are we right in urging sinners to repent and believe?
Certainly. Our blessed Lord Himself did so (Mark 1: 15). So did Peter ( Acts 3: 19), and Paul (Acts 16: 31; Acts 20: 21; Acts 26: 20). We have not only to proclaim that faith is the principle on which God justifies the sinner, but we have to urge men to believe. The fact that faith is the result of God's work in the soul and that all spiritual enlargement for the believer is through the operation of God's Spirit, in no way militates against the servant of God being much in earnest and persuading men.
Paul preached at Thessalonica "with much contention" (1 Thess. 2: 2)-"with much earnest striving" the New Translation renders it. He speaks of " persuading men" ( 2 Cor. 5: 11), and with Barnabas he persuaded certain converts "to continue in the grace of God" (Acts 13: 43).
These examples are enough to outweigh any amount of reasoning to the contrary.
How would you answer a person who says, "I can't believe until God gives me the power"?
I would remark that both repentance and faith are things which do not require power so much as weakness. To repent, is to own the truth as to yourself; to believe, is to lean your poor shattered soul on Christ.
Again I would point out that God's command is man's enabling. The man with a withered hand its a case in point (Luke 6: 6-10). The power was there instantly the word was spoken.
Does a sinner wish to insinuate that he is very anxious to believe, but that God will not give him ability to do so because of certain fatalistic decrees? Tell him plainly it is not true. He is leaving sober fact for the nightmare of fallen reason. Never does the smallest bit of desire toward Christ spring up in a sinner's heart but there is a grace to bring it to fruition in definite faith. Probably the questioner would prove to be a trifler bent on quibbling, in which case we should have to leave him. A really perplexed and anxious soul I would urge (instead of occupying himself about questions as to God's sovereignty, which are, and must be, above the ken of finite man) to rest with simple confidence in the Saviour, and to give heed to those great verities, which are so plainly declared that "the way-faring men, though fools, shall not err therein."
"Never let what you do not know disturb what you do know," said a wise and good man.
Never forget that He who said "All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me," immediately added: " and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out" (John 6: 37).
F. B. Hole