Theology in 3D

God’s Choosing and Ours

Greg Stiekes | July 4, 2018
New Testament

Before my daughter and our new son-in-law exchanged vows last month, I challenged them from Colossians 3:12–15 and 17. Verse 12 reads,

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience ….

The first part of that verse I applied to the bride and groom’s new identity. Our son-in-law would from that day be known as my daughter’s husband and she would be known as his wife and even take his name as her new name. But Col 3:12 reminds them that we have a far more precious and eternal identity in Christ. And it is their identity in Christ that will ultimately give stability and longevity to their marriage. Paul describes believers as God’s chosen ones, God’s holy ones, and God’s beloved ones.

Concerning that first description, God’s chosen ones, I made only a single comment. I said, “This means that you belong to God first. And that you did not choose him; he chose you.”

Well, that second statement was not entirely true. The fact is, we do choose God when we embrace the Son of God and his cross work and resurrection for our personal salvation. John 1:12 says that God gave the authority (exousia) to become “children of God” to those who “received him” and “believed in his name.” The urgency of the New Testament call to trust Christ would ring very hollow if it were not true that we could actually choose God.

Fortunately, I have close friends in the ministry who are willing to push back at me if I make a careless statement. In fact, one of them said on this occasion that people who don’t know me are going to think I’m a “Hyper-Calvinist.” That was fair. The designation “Hyper-Calvinism” has been around at least since the early nineteenth century and its precise meaning depends much on who is using the term. But Hyper-Calvinism is sometimes used to signal a theological position that so inflates the sovereignty of God in salvation that the responsibility of human beings to respond to God in faith is severely minimized. Divorced from a Scriptural context my statement could have been misconstrued to say that God saves people mechanically in a one-sided transaction.

But I wonder sometimes if, in an effort to protect the doctrine of salvation by faith, we are overzealous to guard human choice while unintentionally marginalizing divine choice. Is it not equally important not only that we chose God, but especially that God chose us?

The Word of God is crystal clear that God elects people for salvation. The apostle Paul writes, “Those whom he foreknew he predestined [predetermined, marked out beforehand] to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). Paul does not say what he foreknew (using the neuter plural ἅ, as in John 18:21). Paul says whom he foreknew (using the masculine plural οὕς). In the doctrine of Soteriology, God does not foreknow things, he foreknows people. He does not look ahead in time to see an event, such as someone trusting him. He looks ahead in time and chooses people to trust him, people who are yet unborn.

Furthermore, God’s choosing is primary over our choosing him. That is why John can say that we loved him because he loved us first (1 John 4:19). He chose us before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4). We who were dead (Eph 2:1) God brought to life (Eph 2:5). We who were nonexistent God created (2 Cor 4:6Eph 2:10). We who were yet unconceived God gave birth to (1 Pet 1:3). We can no more influence God’s saving work than a dead person, a nonexistent person, or an unborn person.

When I said, “You did not chose God; he chose you,” I was intending only to emphasize the fact that without God’s choosing us we would never have chosen him. This doctrine is a precious and humbling reality for all who know God. The Bible does not call God our “chosen One,” but it says that we are his “chosen ones.” And that is something to celebrate!

So what if, in my wedding address, I had referred to believers as those who have chosen to put their faith in Christ for salvation, and left it at that? What if I had mentioned human faith but did not mention God’s divine election or effectual call? Would anyone have raised an eyebrow? Would some people have felt uncomfortable because I mentioned human responsibility but made no mention of the sovereign choice of God in the matter?

I realize that to speak of God’s electing some and not others makes us feel uncomfortable. Because our brain is telling us that this cannot be fair. In fact, I have had many a conversation over the years with church members who asked nervously about Scriptures such as Ephesians 1:4, where Paul clearly states that God chose us before the foundation of the world. Yet these same believers would talk freely about “God’s chosen people,” the OT Israelites, with no equal consternation. Maybe they thought that Israel did something to merit their status as God’s chosen ones. But the Scriptures tell us only that God called to Abram, who was ostensibly a pagan in Ur for no apparent reason than that he chose him and him alone to bring salvation to the world through his obedience (Gen 12:1–2). Even when God explains to his people why he chose them as a nation, he does not say that his choice is based upon anything that they have done, but simply because he loves them and because he is sworn to keep the promise he made to their patriarchal ancestor, Abraham back in Ur (Deut 7:7–8). Both in the OT and the NT, the Bible describes for us a God who makes choices. And there is no Scriptural guarantee that we will understand all of those choices.

But the tension that we face in soteriology is not whether God elects people for salvation. He clearly does. The tension is, and always has been, how to reconcile God’s choosing us with our choosing him. Satisfying that tension is the subject for another blog post that I’m confident will never be written. Meanwhile, however, given the Bible’s clear teaching of divine election and human responsibility we dare not overemphasize or neglect either side.

23 responses to “God’s Choosing and Ours”

  1. Jim Houtz says:

    Dr. Stiekes,
    Good post. Never would of thought this theological issue would come up at a wedding. 🙂 But you made a good point.
    I have heard “predestination” explained to mean that God, due to his omnipotence, chose certain people because he knew who would chose him. One glaring problem with that explanation is that it raises the question, “Then why did he chose Israel?” Deuteronomy clearly tells us he chose Israel only because he loved them.
    I am currently going through 2 Thessalonians in Sunday school. Last Sunday I was in chapter 2:13-14. God is the subject and the two verbs are “chosen” (v.13) and “called” (v.14). In preparing to discuss God’s “effectual call” in contrast to God’s “general call” I came across a good illustration from Boice. Here it is:
    “A good illustration of this is when Jesus called Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha who had died four days before, back from the dead. What would have happened if one of his sisters had tried to call to him, ‘Lazarus, Lazarus. Come forth, Lazarus. We want you back. We miss you very much. If you will just get up out of that tomb and return to us, you’ll find that we are all anxious to have you back and will treat you wonderfully.’
    Would he have returned to them? The problem is that Lazarus did not have the ability to come back. The call is given, but he cannot come. But let Jesus take his place before the tomb. Let Jesus call out, ‘Lazarus, come forth,’ and the case is quite different. The words are the same, but now the call is not merely an invitation. It is an effectual calling. For the same God who originally called the creation out of nothing is now calling life out of death, and his call is heard. Lazarus, though he has been dead four days, hears Jesus and obeys his Master’s voice. That is kind of how God’s effectual calling works” (Romans: The Reign of Grace Vol. 2, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 914–915).
    Though I don’t fully understand how it all works, it seems to me that somehow inherent with God’s “effectual call” comes the ability/willingness to freely and voluntarily respond to God’s “general call” that comes to us through the gospel message. Very humbling indeed.

  2. Great post, Greg! Per your question (would anyone have been bothered if you’d referred to believers merely as those who’d put their faith in Christ?), I’m sure you’re right–no one would be bothered, but for another reason as well: you would have said nothing wrong. It may not be the whole truth, but it’s the truth and nothing but the truth. Perhaps no one would have raised an eyebrow either if you’d simply said, “You belong to God first because he chose you first.” It’s the unqualified negative (“you did not choose him”) that disqualifies the original statement from being “truth,” let alone from being the whole truth. (That’s not a criticism, mind you; it’s just a confirmation of James 3:2.) Because as clear as Scripture is that God’s choice is primary and initiatory, it is equally clear that we must and do genuinely choose him. But you’re right; we get ourselves in trouble with the text when we start insisting that what it teaches must satisfy my fallen sense of fairness and understanding.
    P.S. Sometimes I’ll forget that my office door is locked, so when someone knocks and I say, “Come in,” they can’t. It was Dan Olinger who first facetiously quipped, “What was that, a Calvinist invitation?”

  3. Ken Casillas says:

    Layton, perhaps Greg’s original comment could be defended on the basis of John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” This statement is speaking of Jesus’ original disciples, and the passage goes on to speak of their responsibility to bear fruit and pray and love. But it would seem applicable to the salvation of all God’s people, and it uses the absolute language of “not . . . but.” It seems to me that Scripture sometimes uses this kind of rhetoric to emphasize a point and that we can be so quick to integrate other passages that we miss the special force of the text at hand. I grant that such rhetoric or hyperbole can be overdone and lead to misunderstanding and should be qualified at some point, but is it objectionable in principle?

    • Greg Stiekes says:

      I have wondered if John 15:16 applies, because Jesus seems to be talking about his choice to make them his disciples. Most of them were already believing Jews when they were chosen. And his choosing them did not mean they were believers. (“Have I not you, the Twelve, chosen? Yet one of you is a devil?” John 6:70). Also, John Piper received a lot of internet traffic for his interpretation of Jesus’s words in John 10:26, “You do not believe because you are not among my sheep.” Piper explains that the verse means we are chosen to be in the flock, and that is why we believe. In other words, “You cannot believe, because you are not my sheep.” However, in the context of John 10, Jesus is obviously drawing a contrast between those who hear his voice and those whose hearts are hardened. To be among the Lord’s sheep in John 10 is to be one who hears his voice. So you can read the verse to mean simply that the Pharisees are not in the flock because they refuse to listen to the voice of the Shepherd.

      • Ken Casillas says:

        Hey Greg, I was trying to defend you–you’re not supposed to push back. :} But even if we don’t make a connection b/t the disciples’ calling and our salvation, the disciples still had to choose to follow Christ when he called them. So “You did not choose me, but I chose you” is still a rhetorical device meaning “My choice of you was the ultimately determinative one.” Could not that kind of rhetoric also be used for our salvation?

    • A fair point, Ken. Sometimes Scripture does lean hard on one side of the truth to make a point. I had John 15:16 in mind when I wrote that because the context is specific and, imo, decisively non-soteriological; it’s even hard to say that Jesus’ apostolic choice of the twelve obviously assumes their salvation when one of the choices was Judas. I can understand alluding to the passage to make a soteriological point; but as you say, it should be qualified at some point (preferably in immediate proximity:) As I understand Greg’s post, it was the lack of any qualification that created questions. Personally I don’t think it’s wise to apply that statement in a broadly soteriological way without pretty much immediate qualification warranted by (a) the non-soteriological context, and (b) the explanations that many other passages provide in genuinely soteriological passages. I think there’s Scriptural ground for positive affirmations of choosing in either direction (“God chose me” or “I chose to put my faith in Christ”), but not for negative assertions in either direction (“God did not choose me” or “I did not choose Christ”).

      • Ken Casillas says:

        Layton, see my reply to Greg’s reply. We are talking about a rhetorical device, not a precise theological statement. Let me put it this way…. Was it “entirely true” that the disciples did not choose Christ? If not, then our Lord was willing to use a potentially misleading rhetorical device in order to emphasize a point. If he did, then in principle why couldn’t we?

        • Ken Casillas says:

          One follow-up comment in order to avoid misunderstanding :} …. Jesus’ statement was “entirely true” in the sense that he meant it: “You did not [ultimately] choose me, but I chose you.” And that’s what Greg meant by his comment. But that kind of rhetoric is open to misunderstanding b/c probably most people would take it to mean “you did not choose to follow me/believe in me.” That sense would not be true.

        • I think part of the problem here is that we’re equating our common use of the word “choose” with the biblical term, which in NT use always carries a determinative nuance and is never used of our choosing God (or of the disciples’ choosing Jesus). Jesus’ statement in John 15:16 is inherently and self-evidently determinative; I initiated this not you, I’m in charge not you, I’m the Master not you. As such, I don’t see this as a rhetorical device at all but a simple statement of fact. You can say the disciples “chose” him too, but I think it would be more biblically precise to say that Jesus called them and they obeyed, Jesus appointed them and they submitted. The NT simply doesn’t use the language of choosing to signify our response to God.
          That doesn’t mean we can’t use our word “choose” to describe our response God; but the observation above seems to me to undermine the idea that John 15:16 is a rhetorical device at all, let alone a valid stand-alone soteriological statement.
          Let me just clarify, I’m defending Greg too, and agreeing with your first reply that “such rhetoric … can be overdone and lead to misunderstanding and should be qualified at some point.” 🙂

          • Ken Casillas says:

            Very well, then…. With this in mind, Greg was even more justified to say, “You did not choose him; he chose you.” And his reply to any objection should have been: “Go look at how the Bible uses the word ‘choose.'” If we’re going to stick with the biblical terminology, then no qualification should be necessary.

          • Greg Stiekes says:

            Thanks, guys, for bringing the fireworks to my post. I was mildly reproaching myself for not posting something patriotic today, so this makes up for it!
            God is not our Chosen-one, but we are his chosen-ones is an allusion to the fact that eklegomai and its cognate noun almost always refers to divine choosing, not the other way around; and when God chooses it appears to be determinative, like you said, Layton. Still … the use of the verb in Acts 15:22, were the Jerusalem council selected men to go with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch … does the word have to mean anything more than that they were selected? And, if so, can’t we just say that Christ selected his disciples with the same sense of the verb? Do you think that context is what makes the verb determinative? I’m just asking what you think.

          • I agree completely. I think that’s exactly what the verb means wherever it shows up. So no, it’s not the context that makes the verb determinative, but the verb that makes the context determinative. And that’s why it seems to me that John 15:16 isn’t a rhetorical device to emphasize a point, but a statement of fact. I hope that makes sense.

      • Nick Claxton says:

        I apologize…but I couldn’t help being intrigued by the conversation and launching myself into this discussion with men who have far more intelligence than I! But I wonder if it’s really so decisive that John 15:16 is non-soteriological. Notably, when Jesus utters these words, Judas has already left (13:26-30). In the immediate context, Jesus is discussing the fact that His disciples have a relationship to Him as friends, not just servants. The implication seems to be that all of Christ’s followers are friends, not just the eleven gathered. Additionally, the choice that Jesus makes is that the disciples “should go, and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain.” Clearly, this type of choice couldn’t apply to Judas, whose fruit clearly didn’t remain since he apostatized and finally rejected Christ. But…I’m way out of my league here!

        • Greg Stiekes says:

          Nick, thanks for jumping in! You make a great point. The difficulty I have with that view, however, is John 6:70, where Jesus refers to his choosing “the twelve,” yet admits, “one of you is a devil.” So Judas is included in the 12 he has chosen. True, the disciples are called “the twelve” even after Judas is dead (John 20:24). But in John 6:71, John explains that when Jesus said, “One of you is a devil,” he was speaking of Judas, one of the twelve, who betrayed him. So this verse further cements the fact that Judas is one chosen by Christ in John 6:70. So, because Jesus uses same language to speak of his choosing the disciples in John 15:16, I’m not ready to say that John 15:16 necessarily carries any more soteriological weight than John 6:70. But I am willing to be corrected on this point!

        • Some great observations from the context, Nick. By saying that John 15:16 is a non-soteriological passage, I don’t mean that there are no soteriological connections or implications; in that sense there’s hardly a non-soteriological passage in the NT. What I mean is that those implications are secondary in the context. I.e., when Jesus says “I have chosen you” is he intentionally referencing his soteriological election of them before the foundation of the world? I think it’s a terrific stretch to make that argument. In addition to Greg’s observations I would add that, to my knowledge, the NT never accords soteriological election to the Son. Yes, there’s a sense in which all members of the Godhead share in the actions of the others; but one of the classic arguments for distinguishing the members of the Godhead is the fact that the Scripture distinguishes them by their distinctive works. In soteriological contexts that specify, we are always described as “God’s elect”; and Eph. 1:4 clarifies exactly what that means when it identifies soteriological election as the distinctive work of God the Father. That’s why I agree that Greg’s right to be wary of citing the language of that text as a statement of soteriological truth (without qualification).

  4. Greg Stiekes says:

    Jim, thanks for sharing that great Lazarus illustration. Classic Boice! I’m in complete agreement with your conclusion that we do not understand fully how God works all of this out, but if I believe in the infinite God that the Scriptures describe there should be many things I cannot expect to understand about him, even in eternity. So trying to say that God chooses people who are going to choose him just to alleviate the tension is no answer; it still makes our choice primary and not God’s choice.
    Layton, in an original version of this post I suggested what the response would be if I had said, “God did not choose you; you chose him.” I hope that would have raised equal concern! LOL Classic Olinger! 🙂

  5. I wonder if the comment at the wedding was provoked not just by a lack of precision, but a discomfort with discussing election. Forgiving Greg’s imprecision, an Arminian would not take exception to the idea that God chooses us. Even the key points made in this post do not rule out Arminianism, and are not decidedly Calvinistic. They do not touch on the key dividing issue between Calvinists and Arminians, namely, compatibilism. It makes one wonder what ultimately provoked the discomfort. Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, is a great resource on the key differences between Arminians and Calvinists. Great post, Greg.

    • Greg Stiekes says:

      Richard, I believe you are correct about the fact that people get nervous about election, especially when there are some who try to take that precious doctrine to mean that we have no responsibility to evangelize (some forms of hyper-Calvinism). So a residual misunderstanding–or lack of complete understanding–about election pervades in some of our churches because of those who are therefore unwilling to fully and openly investigate what the Bible teaches about it. The same could be said of issues in Pneumatology. Cessationist churches tend in some ways to marginalize the doctrine of the Holy Spirit for fear of sounding Pentecostal. I’ve also known of pastors who teach that repentance is never taught in the Bible as a part of coming to Christ for salvation because they are fearful of adding works to saving faith.
      But regarding compatibilism, while it’s true that both Arminians and Calvinists agree that there has to be an initial work of God in the process of salvation, is it not also true that Arminians view this work as universal (everyone is a recipient of prevenient grace)? While the Calvinistic view of election is that some are elected while others are not elected? So I wonder if there is not some reticence toward embracing the doctrine of election in the name of perceived “fairness.” A professor of mine once quipped in class, “We’re all born Arminian!”

  6. John Morgan says:

    Great post! So true!

    • Greg,
      There is a slight false antithesis between your two questions. It is not that Arminians believe in universal prevenient grace as opposed to Calvinists who believe some are elect and others are not. Both Arminians and Calvinists believe that some are elect and others are not. It the ground of that election that distinguishes them. Arminians reject the idea that God can unconditionally foreordain some to eternal destruction and still be loving, just and not the author of sin (they reject that those two ideas are compatible).
      Now, as to whether Arminians believe in universal prevenient grace, I actually don’t know! I believe that Arminians embrace middle knowledge, so the world as we know it is the best possible world in God’s ordination. That presumes then that God foreknew how all people would respond in the optimal circumstances, and ordained this world as the best of those possible worlds. That would then indicate universal prevenient grace, or at least universal equal opportunity. But I can’t say that for sure, and I would not want to misrepresent Arminians. I speak as a Calvinist fool…
      I do agree that initial opposition to election is often based on an assumed idea of fairness. That idea of fairness may not necessarily correspond to the Arminian view of divine love and justice.

      • Greg Stiekes says:

        Granted, I did not phrase my question with the proper nuance of the Arminian position! However, I believe prevenient grace in Arminian doctrine (in Wesleyanism, for example) is universal. This view is attractive because it lets God off the hook in terms of perceived fairness. True, in both systems God only elects some and not others; but in Arminianism he elects those whom he knew were going to trust him in the first place, who all had the same opportunity to trust or reject. So, applied to my initial musings, I wonder if this sense of human fairness that we have is what makes even those who are more Calvinistic rush to defend human responsibility before they would think to defend divine sovereignty. (Of course, now you’re going to tell me there’s no such thing as Calvinistic … there’s either five points or no points! 🙂

  7. Regarding the comment, “You’re going to tell me there’s no such thing as Calvinistic … there’s either five points or no points,” that sounds to me like a great idea for your next post!

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