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From Christianity 101 by Bilezikian, pp.150-154
Yet the question remains: If the “saved” refers to all those who respond freely to God’s call, why are they named the chosen or the elect, as if God had selected them rather than they who had chosen God? For instance, what did Jesus mean when he flatly stated, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14, NRSV)?
This saying of Jesus provides an excellent opportunity to define the “chosen,” since it concludes, summarizes, and explains a parable of Jesus on that very subject (Matt. 22:1-14). The parable is the story of a king who offered a wedding banquet, the kind that lasted several days. The invitation was either turned down (v. 5) or abused (vv. 11-13). As a result, the king’s invitation was taken to the streets where all people, good or bad, were offered the chance to attend the banquet. Those who accepted the call of the king became his guests. They were the people whom Jesus named the “chosen,” a select and privileged group of people who had made the right decision. They were “chosen’ because they were a choice group of people who had freely responded to a choice opportunity. The king had not predetermined the decisions of those who turned down the invitation or of those who accepted it. Becoming part of the “chosen” had been their choice all along.
This principle is also well illustrated in the history of Israel as the “chosen people” of God. God had chosen them in Abraham “to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth” (Deut. 14:2 RSV). This would seem to imply that every descendant of Abraham would automatically belong to the “chosen.” However, as the following observations will show, this was far from being the case.
First, God did not guarantee the physical descendants of Abraham that everyone would be part of his chosen people just on the basis of their Hebrew birth. Belonging to the chosen people was dependent on a free decision on their part. Only if they obeyed God and kept his commandments would they become his possession (Ex. 19:5). To give them his blessing, God expected them to respond to him by loving him, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him. But should they decide to disobey God and turn away from him, they would receive a curse instead of a blessing (Deut. 11:22,26-28). Thus, participation in the blessings of the chosen was dependent on each descendant of Abraham making a decision to obey the Lord and choosing to have faith in him. Belonging to the chosen people was a matter of personal choice.
Second, according to God’s original covenant with Abraham, the true descendants of Abraham were not limited to one nation. They were to be from a multitude of nations because Abraham would become the father of this multitude. As a result, God’s covenant was established between God on one hand, and Abraham and his descendants from all the nations throughout their generations on the other. Likewise, and for the same reasons, his wife Sarah would be the mother of nations (Gen. 17:4-7, 16). Therefore, belonging to the chosen people was not a matter of physical birthright. Had this been the case, God would have limited the descendants of Abraham to just one nation. Instead, anyone, Jew or Gentile, who chooses to have faith like Abraham, becomes one of the true descendants of Abraham and a member of the chosen people. To be a child of Abraham and a part of the chosen people was not and is not a matter of racial descendance but the result of personal choice (Rom. 1:16-17; 4:16-25; 9:30-31; 10:12-13).
Finally, it must be sadly noted that God abides by the decisions of humans who exclude themselves from belonging to the chosen people, even when those decisions violate God’s desire for all to be saved. In Christ’s day, the believing minority from racial Israel had reduced itself to a small remnant of Jews who had chosen the kingdom of God (Luke 12:32). In the meantime, God had been extending his hands to a disobedient and contrary people - but in vain (Rom. 10:21). Consequently, according to Paul, though the number of children of Israel is as the sand of the sea, only a minority from among them will be saved. Why? Because the others do not have faith (9:27, 32). Yet the defection of the people who had been called to be chosen cannot thwart the purpose of God. God allows humans to have their own way, but his agenda will be accomplished regardless of their rejection (v. 28).
That which was true for so many Israelites was equally true for their enemy, the pharaoh of Egypt. Pharaoh hardened his heart against God seven times. Consequently and for good measure, God let Pharaoh have it his own way and hardened his heart three more times (vv. 17-18; compare Ex. 7-9). Yet, without knowing it, Pharaoh was actually helping God’s work when he hardened his heart against him (Rom. 9: 17). God does not force himself upon anyone. He is not a tyrant who imposes himself on humans against their own will. God respects the freedom of choice he has given us as his image-bearers.
What we have seen for the history of Israel applies also to the New Testament community of God’s people. God had decreed even before the creation of the world that he would establish a chosen community of faith comprised of all nations. For example, when Christ receives the righteous into eternal life at the Last Judgment, he will tell them, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34 RSV). When the apostle Paul preached to the Gentiles in Antioch, “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48 RSV). Paul describes believers as “those who are called according to God’s purpose,” and he adds that those whom God foreknew, he also predestined, called, justified, and glorified (Rom. 8:28-30). He wrote to the Ephesian church that God chose believers before the foundation of the world and destined them to be his children according to the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:4-5). The Jewish minority is the remnant “chosen” by grace (Rom. 11:5). And the gospel is a plan decreed by God before the ages (1 Cor. 2:7).
On the basis of such evidence, we must maintain that, although all humans matter to God, not all will be saved. God had decided even before the beginning of time that only people of faith would enter eternal life. In other words, he had ordained that believers should receive salvation.
Having said this, we must quickly add that Scripture does not teach that God has foreordained which individuals will become believers. All biblical statements about predestination, the ones listed above and several others, make reference to predestination as a collective reality. God has decided that there will be a community of faith, but he has not chosen the individuals who will be part of it. This choice is left to “whosoever will.” God makes salvation available; it is up to individual people to accept it or to reject it.
The case of the chosen people of Israel discussed above can serve as a model for the method of admission into the ranks of the chosen. Being born a Jew did not give a Jew a ticket to salvation. To be a member of the “chosen people,” a Jew had to profess faith. Otherwise he or she had no share in the promises of God. Likewise, God has appointed the existence of a new chosen people in Christ from before the foundation of the world. But he did not specifically appoint the persons who become part of this group, nor does he force or manipulate individuals to enter the body of the church. Like the king in Jesus’ parable, God has prepared the banquet of salvation because he knows there will be takers. Then, he invites “whosoever will” to come off the streets to join the festivities as chosen ones.
Among all the references to predestination in the New Testament, there is one that might appear to support the view that God indiscriminately foreordains individuals because he loves some and hates others. In Romans, Paul quotes an Old Testament passage that states flatly, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:13). However, in this segment of his letter to the Romans, Paul is explaining why the Jews failed to obtain salvation in Christ, except for a “believing remnant” minority, while the Gentiles have found access to it (vv. 27, 30). The reason he gives is that it was never enough to trace one’s ancestry to Abraham to be included among the children of God (v. 8). Thus, of the two sons of Abraham only Isaac was included in the promise, and of the two sons of Isaac only Jacob inherited it, so that God’s purposes of election might continue through history (v. 11). To prove this point, Paul quotes the text from Malachi where Jacob stands for the people of Israel as God’s people and Esau for the people of Edom who chose to be the enemy of Israel (Mal. 1:1-5). Again, a whole collectivity is designated as the object of divine election, not the selection of individuals within it.
The illustration of the immigrants cited at the beginning of this section may help convey this point. Periodically, the U.S. government opens its borders to immigrants from overseas. As a result, the immigration service knows that a whole group of people is, as it were, “predestined” to take residency in the United States. However, no U.S. official goes overseas to buttonhole aliens and to propose immigration to them, much less to force them to apply. At its embassies, the U.S. government receives applicants who come there on their own when they learn the good news of the availability of immigration, and upon meeting requirements they are admitted into their new country of adoption. Likewise, sinners who meet the requirements of repentance and faith, on learning the good news of salvation, are admitted into the body to form the new “chosen people. . . a people belonging to God” (1 Pet. 2:9 NIV).
Traumatic world events and nagging questions of belief sometimes cause Christians to be troubled in spirit and to question their assurance of faith. In every generation, believers have struggled with the question of assurance in salvation. As always, the church confronts this issue as both a pressing theological question and as an urgent pastoral concern. Answering these questions anew, we are reminded once again that all doctrine is practical and that the great biblical truths of the Christian faith are meant not only for our intellectual acceptance, but for our spiritual health.
Many Christians suffer from an absence of Christian assurance. They lack confidence in their salvation and are troubled by nagging doubts, perplexing questions, and a lack of clarity about whether assurance of salvation is actually possible. At the same time, the church has always faced the reality of false professors and those who fall away. These are problems that trouble the soul and raise unavoidable theological questions.
Clearly, now is the time for clarification and for the recovery of a biblical concept of assurance. Beyond the immediate questions of assurance and false professors, the church must also confront superficial and inadequate understandings of assurance—concepts that can actually mislead and confuse.
The Apostle Paul assured the Christians in Philippi of his absolute confidence “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” [Philippians 1:6]. The logic of that passage is of vital importance. Paul’s confidence was not that the Philippians would be able to preserve themselves. To the contrary, Paul’s confidence was established in Jesus Christ and in the promise that Christ would complete the work He had surely begun in them.
Coming to the end of his own life, Paul expressed personal confidence that the Lord would “bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom” [2 Timothy 4:18]. Without this confidence, how could Paul have faced the prospect of his own death? His desire was for fellow believers to experience this same confidence and assurance.
Jesus taught His disciples a great deal about the believer’s assurance, ultimately establishing assurance in the Father’s promises to the Son. In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches that “this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I would lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day” [John 6:39]. This is a magnificent promise, and one that makes sense only in light of Jesus’ straightforward revelation concerning the Father’s authority in salvation: “All that the Father gives to Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out” [John 6:37]. Those who are in Christ’s hands will never be lost, for they have been called, drawn, and given to Him by the Father Himself. As Jesus the Good Shepherd said in John 10, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” [John 10:27-29].
Thus a consistent biblical theme emerges from the scriptural text. Jesus assured His disciples that their salvation was rooted in the eternal purposes of God and that those who truly come to faith in Him are safe within God’s mercy. No one is able to snatch believers out of the Father’s hand, and all who come to the Son are preserved by the Father.
Christians should find great comfort in the biblical promises of assurance. This is because these promises are founded ultimately in the eternal purposes of God, in the Son’s accomplished work, and in the Father’s vindication of the Son. Those who truly come to Christ by faith are guarded, preserved, and kept by the power of God. Our Lord did not intend His people to be trapped in a maze of doubt and insecurity. To the contrary, Christ instructed His sheep to trust in Him and His promises.
Assurance of salvation is indeed possible — and is a Christian responsibility. Pernicious doubt concerning salvation may be an indication that the believer does not truly trust the character, power, and purposes of God. Thus a believer’s insecurity—sometimes disguised as an artificial humility—can be evidence of a heart that does not adequately trust in the promises of God.
At the same time, saving faith is demonstrated in a transformed life. Peter, for example, instructed believers to observe their lives, looking for the evidence of authentic faith and the marks of true discipleship. Peter summarizes his exhortation with these unforgettable words: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” [2 Peter 1:10].
How are believers to make their “calling and election sure?” There can be no question that Peter expected Christians to look and strive for the characteristics which should mark those who have been transformed by the power of God. Thus, the believer’s calling and election—the very foundation of the salvation experience—would be evident in a new heart and a transformed life.
Paul also repeatedly warned Christians not to abandon their faith or to fall prey to false teachers. He even went so far as to identify some who had “nullified” the grace of God [Galatians 2:21] and others who had fallen away and abandoned their faith. Demas, for example, “in love with the present world,” had deserted Paul and the gospel [2 Timothy 4:10]. Hymanaeus and Alexander had “made shipwreck of their faith” and thus had been handed over to Satan by Paul “that they may learn not to blaspheme” [1 Timothy 1:20].
In pondering biblical warnings like these, most Christians think of the passages in Hebrews which have spawned so many different interpretations. How are we to understand these warnings—particularly as found in Hebrews 6:4-8? No doubt this is a crucial question, for how we interpret this passage is inextricably tied to larger theological issues—including our understanding of the church itself.
The warnings of Hebrews 6 are seen in the clearest light when put alongside Jesus’ parable of the sower and the soils as found in Matthew 13 and Luke 8. Comparing the human heart to soils of the field, Jesus pointed to the reality that the church would encounter those who would “believe for a while,” but would fall away under testing or persecution. When Jesus identified the shallow soil, He was certainly speaking of those whose faith would be, as described by the Puritans, a temporary or false faith. Thus, those who are described as falling away in Hebrews 6 are those who falsely confessed faith in Christ. As with the soil that bore fruit for a time but withered, so with those who have “tasted the heavenly gift” but fall away. Theirs was not a genuine and enduring faith, but a fickle and false faith. This is an urgent and sober warning.
In the final analysis, the gift of assurance rests on the biblical doctrine of perseverance. This doctrine teaches that true believers are those who persevere in and by faith. Their endurance—having been preserved by the power of God—becomes the demonstration of their salvation and the mark of authenticity. The biblical doctrine of perseverance corrects misunderstandings implied by more superficial conceptions of the believer’s state. Some teach that anyone who has at any time made a profession of faith in Christ or exercised the slightest belief is secure. These teachers actually argue that true believers may demonstrate absolutely none of the marks of gospel authenticity. In other words, such persons never repent of their sins, and may even repudiate the faith—but are supposed to be secure in their salvation. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Furthermore, the doctrine of perseverance harmoniously links the believer’s assurance of salvation to the larger scheme of redemption. God’s determination to save sinners is affirmed from beginning to end. The believer’s faith in Christ, exercised as an act of the believer’s will, is understood to be itself a gift of God and a result of God’s calling. Thus, the doctrine of perseverance grounds assurance in the eternal purposes of God, by which God determines to redeem His people through the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to preserve Christ’s church throughout all the ages.
In his first letter, Peter reminded Christians that the Father “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Believers are promised “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” [1 Peter 1:4-5]. The Christian’s proper assurance of salvation is God’s gift—a gift given to the believer by the very God who has accomplished our salvation. True believers are those who have genuinely responded to the call of the Gospel, whose belief is evident in a life transformed by God’s grace, and whose profession of faith in Christ is accompanied by repentance from sin and an eagerness to follow Christ.
Believers do sin, and may sin grievously, but they can never finally remain in sin. Peter promised that God will guard His own through faith, even as salvation will be revealed “in the last time.” In the end, the gift of assurance and the doctrine of perseverance take us back to the very essence of the gospel—we are saved by grace through faith. Grace alone . . . nothing more and nothing less.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention make up a small minority but are steadily growing, particularly among younger Baptists, a recent study showed.
Nearly 30 percent of recent SBC seminary graduates now serving as church pastors indicate they are Calvinists, according to Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research. Only around 10 percent of SBC pastors at large affirm the five points of Calvinism, or Reformed theology, noted Stetzer, comparing the latest results with an earlier 2006 survey conducted by LifeWay Research.
The five points of Calvinism, also called the doctrines of grace, include total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.
Stetzer presented the data at the “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” conference, which concluded Wednesday, at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. The recent study was conducted by the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research which surveyed those who graduated from master’s degree programs at SBC seminaries between 1998 and 2004.
The number of gradates who affirmed Calvinism rose steadily between students who graduated in 1998 and those who graduated in 2004, Stetzer said.
“It would be difficult to say that Calvinism is not a growing influence in SBC life – and certainly a growing influence in the graduates of our seminaries,” he told the conference crowd.
However, the steady growth may be a growing issue for Southern Baptists.
“I recently read that one key Southern Baptist leader was quoted as saying the two biggest problems in Southern Baptist life are contemporary churches and Calvinists,” Stetzer said. “So there is obviously a growing concern but we’re here to talk and build some bridges.”
“Calvinism has generated a lot of interest in recent years in Southern Baptist life,” Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, noted. “Unfortunately we have often talked at and not with one another. Unhealthy rhetoric and misrepresentations from all directions have led to confusion and even ill will among brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Nevertheless, Stetzer could not deny the growth of Calvinism in SBC life.
“Calvinism is on the rise among the most recent seminary graduates,” he said. “If present trends continue, Calvinism will continue to grow as an influence in our convention.”
The Nov. 26-28 conference was designed to facilitate honest discussion on theological issues and help Southern Baptists gain a common understanding.
Explaining the evangelistic implications of the recent studies, Stetzer noted that churches pastored by Calvinists tend to have smaller attendance and typically baptize fewer persons each year. While the study did not look at the “why” factor, it also revealed that the “baptism rate” – the number of annual baptisms relative to total membership and a statistic used to measure evangelistic vitality – of Calvinistic churches is virtually identical to that of non-Calvinistic churches.
A majority of both Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic churches believe that local congregations should be involved in sponsoring missions and planting new churches. Also, Calvinistic recent graduates report that they conduct personal evangelism at a slightly higher rate than non-Calvinists.
At the end of the day, however, both Calvinists and non-Calvinists in Southern Baptist churches are failing to engage “lostness” in North America, Stetzer highlighted.
“This theological discussion has to lead to missional action and that missional action needs to cause Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike to love each other and to encourage each other and to provoke one another on to love and good deeds.”