Scriptural Difficulties Relating to the Doctrine of Election
Error in matters of religion is a dangerous thing. Error is a departure from that truth revealed by God in His Word, and it is punished by plagues from Him whose authority has been disregarded (Revelation 22:18). The worst plague of all that can fall fall upon men in this world is to be given up to a “reprobate mind” (Romans 1:28), a mind no longer able to discern truth, but given over by God to “a strong delusion that they should believe a lie.” Not only does God deal with individuals in this manner, as Ahab (2 Chronicles 18:21-22), but also with nations whose ingratitude and sin renders them fit for judgment; thus God sent “a perverse spirit” – that is a spirit of error – upon Egypt (Isaiah 19:14), and deceived prophets in Israel – “If the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet,” Ezekiel 14:9. This being so, when we find ourselves living today in a land where the truth of God was once feared and loved, but where now deceptions and delusions everywhere abound, we have abundant reason to conclude that the solemn displeasure of God is upon the nation. “Woe unto the inhabitants of the sea coast, the Word of the Lord is against you.”
It is our purpose to show those particular truths which have been cast off not only by the professing church but also by many professing evangelicals, namely those truths concerning the Sovereignty of God, that “He worketh all things after the counsel of His own will,” granting salvation to some who are called (converted), not according to their works present or foreseen – for all men are equally corrupted by the fall of Adam – “but according to His own purpose and grace” 2 Timothy 1:9. This purpose of God to save those ordained to eternal life shall “stand” (Romans 9:11), that is, be irresistibly carried out, because it depends not in any respect upon man for its execution and completion. The soul that is given to Christ by being “chosen in Him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), “shall come unto Him” (John 6:37); the enmity to God that is in him by nature being overcome by the mighty operation of the Holy Spirit Who works faith in all God’s elect (Ephesians 2:8; Titus 1:1; Acts 13:48). The whole work of conversion or repentance is attributed in Scripture to God alone, He gives and grants repentance (Acts 5:31, and all who are predestinated in eternity are also called in time as the Holy Spirit states in Romans 8:30. The purpose of God is thus infallibly carried out.
These truths will always be an offense to the natural man, but it is not with such readers that we are now directly concerned. We write primarily to brethren in the Lord, to those who have experienced the love of God in their souls and thereby love Him and His Word; all such have a sincere desire to understand the truth and dare not reject what is confirmed by Scripture. Among these our brethren, whom we trust we love, there are several who when they hear the doctrine of election, dare not deny it, yet feel it is impossible to reconcile it with other passages of Scripture. These other passages of Scripture they have been always accustomed to interpret in a manner plainly contrary to election, and therefore they conclude that God has allowed truths to exist in His Word which are apparently contradictory; but before they drew this conclusion (which throws all Scripture into confusion, so that there is no harmony left between the various parts of the whole revelation of God) they ought rather to have doubted their interpretation of the particular passages.
Before looking at some of these passages let us consider what is necessary for a right study of Scripture. First the love of God in our souls out of which will arise the desire for His teaching; next, before fixing the meaning of a particular verse or word, the context is to be diligently studied, the aim of the Holy Spirit is to be considered, and lastly individual words are to be understood not by how they sound to us by what they generally signify in Scripture. The same word may be used in Scripture with different meanings, for instance “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” spirit in the first place is the Spirit of God in the second that spiritual life derived from Him. Other examples could be given to prove that the meaning of particular words must be determined by the context and the rest of Scripture. The word “world” cannot be rightly interpreted apart from this rule; take John 1:10, “He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.” It would be obviously foolish to take these three references to “the world” in the same sense. The first refers to the inhabited world of men where Christ manifested Himself, the second to the material world – the whole fabric of heaven and earth, and the third speaks of the majority of men living in the world, namely unbelievers. Sometimes the word world in Scripture means every individual living in the world, as in Romans 3:9, but far more often it means only a multitude, or many, as in John 12:19, “Behold, the world has gone after Him!” which world signified only many of one small nation; or Luke 2:1, “That all the world should be taxed,” where only the chief inhabitants of the Roman Empire are meant. Again “The whole world lieth in wickedness” (1 John 5:29),plainly refers not to every individual but only to unbelievers. Several times the many who are left in their sins are spoken of as the “world,” this is the “world” that will be condemned (1 Corinthians 11:32), concerning whom Christ says “I pray not for the world” (John 17:9), and suffered “that He might deliver us from this present evil world” (Galations 1:4). On the other hand the world sometimes refers to that multitude of believers who are called out of every tongue and nation, this is the world spoken of in Psalm 22:27, and Romans 4:13, to mention only two indisputable passages.
Now we come directly to the particular passages that raise difficulties in the minds of some believers. John 3:16 “God so loved the world,” is quoted and interpreted in the sense that Christ died for every individual that ever lived. But why should “the world” be interpreted in such a sense? It does not, as we have seen, usually mean that in Scripture. Moreover many Scriptures express that Christ died for “His people” Matthew 1:21; His “sheep” John 10:11-14; His “church, which He redeemed by His own blood,” Acts 20:28; His “elect,” Romans 8:32-34; His “children,” Hebrews 2:12-14. On what grounds therefore can anyone assert that “the world” in John 3:16, must necessarily mean every single individual?
Furthermore the intention, aim, and purpose of God in so loving this world spoken of in verse 16 is its salvation, “that the world through Him might be saved.” God intends the salvation of those thus loved, therefore plainly if the world here means every individual person either all men must be finally saved or else God has failed to carry out His great intention in sending His Son! Yet it may be objected that the love of God is general to all men but it depends upon whether men will believe, “Whosoever believeth.” But the verse does not say anything about God’s love being conditional depending upon faith, literally it says, “He gave His only begotten Son that every believer in Him should not perish,” the purpose of the words being to show how God communicates life to those for whom He gave His Son; we participate in this love by means of faith, the sentence states only who God intends to save – that is believers. What sense then can there be to interpreting the world as every individual when God purposes that none but believers should benefit from His love? Did not God know who would believe in Christ? Rather did not God know upon whom He would bestow faith? Do not the Scriptures say that to those for whom God gave His Son to them He will also give all things? Is not faith one of these “all things” which God gives? (Ephesians 2:8). Therefore as all men have not faith, Christ was not given for all men. The truth is that only ordained to eternal life believe Acts 13:48. What possible sense then can there be in asserting Christ died for all men, when God intended that none but the elect should believe and benefit from that death?
Thus we take Christ’s words to Nicodemus in a manner which is fully consistent with the rest of Scripture when we understand it to mean – “God so loved the world,” miserable, sinful men of all sorts, not Jews only as Nicodemus thought, but the elect scattered over all the world, subject to all the iniquities of the world, “that,” intending their salvation, “He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him,” all believers whatsoever, signifying the persons whose good God intended, who are loved for no good in themselves – not because of any external or national difference from others – but distinguished solely by faith.
Further light on the use of the term world in the Bible is gained by understanding the erroneous persuasion which prevailed among the Jews that the salvation to be brought by the Messiah would be confined to them alone (see 1 Thessalonians 2:16). The Apostles themselves were misled by this persuasion until Acts 11:18, and thereafter they sought to use general expressions contrary to their former error; such expressions as the world, all men, all nations, knowing that the Gospel was not to be restricted to one nation and family as the Jews supposed. There is an example of this in John’s first Epistle chapter 2, verse 2, where John (there is evidence to conclude) writing to fellow Jews, writes “He is the propitiation for our sins,” that is our sins who are believers of the Jews, but lest he should appear to confirm their former error he adds, “And not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world,” or “for the children of God scattered abroad,” as John 11:51-52, living throughout the whole world, as opposed to the inhabitants of one place or country. The aim of John is clearly to console believers against their sins and failings, and he does so be reminding them them of the effectual remedy provided for them in the death of Christ. If by the whole world he meant every individual what consolation would it have been to tell them that Christ died for innumerable that shall be damned? Would it encourage them to know that they had no remedy except that which is common to multitudes that shall perish eternally? We can therefore conclude that neither John 3:16 nor 1 John 2:2 contain anything contrary to the doctrine of election. The difficulty only arises from the ambiguous word “world,” and it disappears when the word is interpreted in the light of the rest of Scripture.
A further ambiguous word, which has different meanings according to the passage in which it is used, is the word “all.” Sometimes “all” refers to every individual of a certain class of people none excluded, so “all” in 1Corinthians 15:22; Ephesians 4:6; Romans 5:18 is limited to the class of believers (plainly the gift of justification which the last verse speaks of is only to all believers). That the term “all” does not in Scripture refer to every individual that is, was, or will be, can be made manifest from nearly five hundred instances. A general use of “all” is to signify some of all sorts, as in Matthew 9:35 “every sickness” which can scarcely mean that Christ cured every disease of every man, but only that He cured all sorts of diseases. That “all” often signifies “all manner of” is demonstrated by the translation on Luke 11:42, where clearly the Pharisees did not tithe every individual herb, though the original says “every herb,” therefore the translators rightly render it “all manner of herbs,” or herbs of all sorts. The same is the case in Acts 10:12 when Peter sees a sheet containing “all beasts” and the translators naturally render it “all manner of beasts.” The use of the term all in Acts 2:17, John 12:32, Matthew 3:5, Romans 14:2, etc. further confirms this. Therefore when we find “all” used in connection with redemption nothing but inattention to how the term is generally used in Scripture can make us conclude that it must necessarily mean every single individual. When Paul writes of praying “for all men” (1 Timothy 2:1-4), he appears to interpret himself as referring to all classes of men, “for kings and for all that are in authority,” men of all sorts, ranks, and conditions. The same as in Jeremiah 29:1-2 when Nebuchadnezzar is said to have carried away “all the people,” and the “all” there means – as the following verses show – some of all classes of the people. So the aim of Paul in 1 Timothy 2, is to exhort believers to pray even for rulers who might be persecuting them, because God has now opened the door of salvation to all classes of men, He “will have all men to be saved,” the time being come that Old Testament distinctions have been removed, and the Lord purposes to save some of all sorts and nations. Revelation 5:9.
When “all” is understood in this Scriptural manner there is no contradiction between God’s promise to wipe away the tears from “off all faces,” and His declaration that some shall be left weeping and wailing for their sins.
There are a further class of Scriptures that are brought forward and interpreted as contrary to the doctrine of election. Such texts as these, “Preach the Gospel to every creature;” “Warning every man and teaching every man;” “God now commandeth all men everywhere to repent.” From verses like these the following kind of statement is drawn – “If the Gospel contains universal exhortations to repent and believe, and men have not the ability to do this, then such exhortations are meaningless and useless.” To this we reply that it is necessary for the Gospel to be preached in an indiscriminate manner to all, as the elect and non-elect are mixed in this world and ministers cannot distinguish between them. Therefore the invitation and exhortation of the Gospel fall upon the ears of all men alike; nevertheless though the non-elect are also called by the outward hearing of the Word, confronted with their duty of believing God, and left inexcusable for remaining in their sins, yet it was never the intention of God to overcome their disobedience by inwardly illuminating their minds and moving their wills – as He does in the elect. Thus “many are called” by the outward hearing of the Word “but few are chosen,” that is chosen to be given faith. Though sin is the immediate cause of unbelief in those who hear the Gospel, yet the final cause why some are left in unbelief is the will of God; so Isaiah assigns the cause of the Jew’s unbelief by asserting that the arm of the Lord is not revealed to all, Isaiah 53:1, and John states that they could not believe the doctrine of Christ because this curse from God lay upon them, John 12:37-38. Again the Holy Spirit proclaims the same truth in Romans 11:7-8 “The election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded” (According as it is written God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see…). Therefore although men resist the truth because of sin, God has sentenced some to remain in their state of sin, with whom He intends His Word to have no effect, thus the sons of Eli would not listen to warnings “because the Lord would slay them” (1 Samuel 2:25), nor would Pharaoh listen because he was appointed to be a monument of God’s just wrath against sinners (Exodus 9:16). It can thus be seen that though the Gospel is offered indiscriminately to all, and God declares Himself ready to show mercy upon all who desire and implore it, such Scriptures serve to console the elect who find themselves inwardly drawn by God to believe these free offers, while the same offers render the non-elect inexcusable. In short, both Scripture and experience testify that though the Gospel finds all men equally involved in disobedience and guilt, God magnifies His sovereign mercy in granting faith to some, while others are left in their natural state of enmity to Him. In this God can be charged with no injustice for He gives freely to some what He owes to none, no man being in any sense deserving of the grace of God. Nor do these truths in any way lessen a man’s responsibility for his sins – for which his own conscience condemns him as the author. Because God is not pleased to deliver a man from his sins it by no means excuses his guilt.
There are several other passages which could be examined as they are often interpreted as contrary to election, but if believers would weigh well the context, the intention of the words, the teaching of the rest of Scripture, they would cease to hold doctrines contrary to each other, nor be satisfied with such meaningless assertions like “truth lies in both extremes,” (an assertion that reduces all truth into confusion). Rather they would see in Scripture a Divine harmony, though the view of this harmony indeed causes us to cry out, “Thy judgments, O Lord are a great deep.” After all has been said, that can be said upon this stupendous subject; let the short but awe-filled exclamation
of the Apostle terminate all our disputations. Let us with him stand in awe of the unsearchable mind of God, and breath “O the depth!”
-The Banner of Truth magazine, February, 1956