In the early morning hours of January 22, 2019 in Chicago, actor Jussie Smollett stated he went out at 2:00am to go to Subway to eat, when he was attacked by two masked men shouting “This is MAGA country” while yelling other racial and homophobic slurs. After pummeling him, he stated that the perpetrators poured bleach on him and put a noose around his neck. While many public figures, including actors and politicians, spoke out against the alleged hate crime and offered public support for Jussie Smollett, many in the public offered skepticism of the events Jussie described. For starters, he was reluctant to speak to the police as well as his refusal to turn over his cell phone records to Chicago police. In addition, despite all the cameras located in Chicago, no footage was found of the alleged incident. As the police began investigating, two persons of interest came up who turned out to be two brothers, one of which had a work relationship with Jussie. As the police investigated further, the two brothers began cooperating with the police, which led to Jussie being indicted on charges of falsifying a police report. According to Chicago police, Jussie paid the two brothers money to stage the attack in order to build publicity so he could negotiate for a higher salary for his work on the television show, Empire. The investigation eventually led to Jussie’s arrest a few weeks after the incident following charges filed by the grand jury.
Much of the public quickly turned against Jussie, unable to believe that someone could do such a cowardly act as to stage a hate crime. In the court of public opinion, Jussie was found guilty and the public waited to hear how the trial would fan out, especially waiting to see if Jussie would be set to prison for his actions. His scenes in the last two episodes of his television show were cut. Yet, in a stunning reversal, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, who was responsible for prosecuting Jussie’s alleged crime, dropped all charges against him and asking the court to seal the records. Again, the public was outraged at this, demanding justice for what Jussie did. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges alike found this decision troubling and calls for the resignation of the State’s Attorney were rampant. Various police departments and unions staged protests in response. The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board stated, “It’s an indefensible decision, a deal hashed out in secret, with - this is outrageous - Smollet not even required to take ownership of his apparent hoax.” The mayor of Chicago called it “a whitewash of justice.”
As humans, and even especially Americans, we have a strong desire for justice. To not have justice seems anti-American and anti-democratic. We have a strong inclination that if you do right, you get right, and if you do wrong, you get wrong. When this does not take place, it leaves many feeling angry, calling for vengeance. And it is this sense of justice that makes the doctrine of election very difficult for us to grasp let alone rejoice in. If there is one doctrine that can potentially divide believers of all types, it is this glorious doctrine.
What is Election?
The doctrine of election teaches us that before creating the world, God chose some people to be recipients of His saving grace, not based on what He predicted or saw that would happen, but because of His great love. Jesus Himself taught election as recorded in John:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide. (John 15:16)
The Westminster Confession of Faith provides a helpful explanation of this doctrine:
By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men...are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death...Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace...Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
This type of choosing is also referred to as predestination. Because it’s based not on any merit of our own, it is described as unconditional. It is ultimately God’s sovereign choice who He determines to save in actuality. This choice by God was made before the world was created:
Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. (Ephesians 1:4-5)
Paul expounds on this teaching of election in Romans 9 by using the story of Jacob and Esau. In Genesis 25 we find the story of Jacob and Esau, sons of Isaac and Rebekah. As Rebekah noted the children struggling within her (25:22), she inquired of the Lord about why this was happening, to which the Lord responded that two nations were in her womb and the older brother would serve the younger brother. Paul uses this example in describing how twin brothers, perhaps having one of the closest relationships on earth and sharing the same parents and even the same DNA, could still unconditionally elected by God even though neither brother had “one leg up” over the other. Both were in essence as equal as any can be in God’s eyes, yet only one brother was chosen:
Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— (Romans 9:11)
Yet this does not seem fair to us at times. How could God choose someone before the earth was created to bestow grace upon in salvation while simultaneously not choosing others? Paul anticipates that question in Romans 9 by responding using the example of Moses and Pharaoh. When God used Moses to deliver His people from the clutch of Egypt, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to display His glory. God told Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It is important to note God could have saved all humans but chose to save only some to display His glory, and is under no obligation to save anybody and He would be entirely just and loving even if He saved nobody. God does not owe grace to anybody. If God chose neither Jacob or Esau, He still would have been a gracious and loving and just God. Because we are so accustomed to the idea of justice being “fairness” and “equality”, we wrongly assume that if God gives grace to one person or group, He is obligated to give grace to all. Yet, true justice is each member of humanity spending eternity separated from God. While God has the power and right to save all yet chooses not to, He also has the power and right to condemn all yet chooses not to.
Dr. R.C. Sproul tells the story of his students questioning his partiality as a professor. He allowed some of his students extensions for a term paper, yet some students took this for granted. As a result, these students as well as others turned in the next term paper late. Again, he granted an extension to these students an extension. However, as the third term paper led to even more students turning in their work late, Sproul gave them an F. As expected, many students were angry and decried Sproul as being unfair. Sproul replied, “It’s justice you want? I seem to recall that you were late with your paper the last time. If you insist on justice, you will certainly get it. I’ll not only give you an F for this assignment, but I’ll change your last grade to an F you so richly deserved.” The student reluctantly took his F and apologized so as to not earn more than one F. Sproul remarked, “The normal activity of God involves far more mercy than I showed those students with their term papers.”
Because of our views of justice and fairness, we fall into a trap believing that the doctrine of election means that God shows favoritism. D.A. Carson writes, “Never confusion election with partiality. Partiality is favoritism that is corrupted by a willingness to pervert justice for the sake of the favored few; election chooses certain people out of God’s free decision and nothing else, and even then justice is not perverted: hence the cross.” Paul addresses this sense of unfairness later in the chapter:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:14-18)
Paul further enhances his point by using an example of pieces of clay questioning how the potter forms and fashions the clay. Paul states the potter has the right to make some clay for special purposes and other clay not. In 2010, a rare Chinese vase found in a London home kept on a wobbly bookcase after the owner’s death sold at auction for $69 million, one of the most expensive pieces of pottery ever sold. The piece was made for the Chinese emperor by a master craftsmen fired in Imperial kilns. What distinguished this piece of pottery from other cups and bowls made from the same clay found in the same earth? The potter’s hands and the owner of the vase determined its value. Much like us humans, our value is not determined by any special value we have, but by how God chooses us to bestow grace upon us.
See and Savor Your Election
The doctrine of election is a glorious doctrine with many truths therein to rejoice over. For one, this doctrine reminds us that God has meticulously governed every event of our lives for our good. There are no “accidents” and there are no “coincidences.” From the time I woke up today, from the traffic I encountered on my way to walk, to the food I ate for lunch, as well as the difficult conversations I partook in and the encouraging encounters I engaged in were all apart of God’s sovereign will. Because He has chosen me, called me, and justified me, and He will finish the work He started in me to completion, when He calls me home to be with Him and fully transforms me into His likeness, working all events in my life for my good in order to help me become more like Jesus (Romans 8:28-30). This means God is never late but always right on time. He never fails nor makes mistakes. Jeff Robinson writes, “God’s absolute sovereignty wed with His goodness is the best medicine for human anxiety.” It is in Him that we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28) and He upholds all things. As R.C. Sproul says, “There is no maverick molecule if God is sovereign.”
This precious doctrine also reminds us that our salvation is ultimately secure in Him. Ultimately we know that everyone whom the Father has given to Jesus will come to Him and not be cast out and will never be lost (John 6:37-40). No matter what we’ve done or will do will ever cause us to be snatched out of the hand of God (John 10:28) nor can anything separate us from His love (Romans 8:38-39). As a big Disney aficionado, I love reading stories from behind the scenes at Disney World. Disney has some of the strictest employee requirements, especially for its costumed characters, including height restrictions and always staying in character. In addition, “cast members”, as employees are called, cannot point with only one finger, cannot have tattoos or body piercings, and have their social media monitored in order to prevent “ruining the magic” by posting behind the scenes business. While working at the “happiest place on earth” has these strict regulations to maintain employed, as believers, we have the privilege of experiencing the joy giving relationship both here on earth and consummated in eternity with our Lord and Savior without requirements governing our standing with Him. Election reminds us we are totally secure in Him and nothing we can do will ever change that. We are forever His. John Calvin has said:
For there is not a more effectual means of building up faith than the giving our open ears to the election of God, which the Holy Spirit seals upon our heart while we hear, showing us that it stands in the eternal and immutable goodwill of God toward us; and that, therefore, it cannot be moved or altered by any storms of the world, by any assaults of Satan, by any changes, by any fluctuations or weaknesses of the flesh. For our salvation is then sure to us, when we find the cause of it in the breast of God
The doctrine of election is designed to spur on our holiness and maturity in Christ. This seems counter-intuitive. If I have been chosen to receive the greatest gift in the world - salvation in Christ alone - why would I have to do anything that would suggest I am “working” for it? But this understanding fails to understand fully the doctrine of election. Our election is not merely “fire insurance,” ensuring that we do not go to hell. Rather, it is part of God’s grand plan to give a people for His Son who are pure and blameless. Titus 2:13-14 makes this point clearly:
“waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:13-14)
Likewise, both Paul continues to affirm this in writing that our election goes hand in hand with the ultimate goal of believers being holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4) and Peter writes that our election coincides with the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our lives (1 Peter 1:1-2). In fact, Peter goes on to exhort his readers to make their election sure (1 Peter 1:10) which involves evaluating one’s life to see if it is marked by progressive obedience to God’s commands, and John’s epistle reminds us that our pursuit of holiness is an indicator that we have an authentic relationship with God (1 John 1:6-7; 2:2-6).
As adherents of this doctrine, we are often faced with the accusation of lacking in missional awareness and practice. If God decides who ultimately will be saved, what is the point of reaching the lost? Of making disciples? But it is only through a poor understanding of this doctrine that would lead to that conclusion. J.A. Medders writes,
God’s sovereignty in salvation maximizes our mission. When we know that God is the only unstoppable and unfailing force in the universe - and that we are on mission with Him - then our hearts and eyes widen for the lost. Far from hamstringing our efforts and endurance, the doctrines of grace energize us and remind us why we plant churches: because God saves sinners. Or, as Jonah simply puts it, “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).
Election reminds us that God is not hindered by subcultures or social groups. He has chosen a people for Himself to mirror Him and be on mission for Him. We do not need to fear rejection or ridicule, or failure or fruitlessness, because election guarantees successful response to those God has already chosen. We are free to focus on faithfulness to the message and method. Whomever responds to the gospel is out of our hands. We can have this in mind like Paul:
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. (2 Timothy 2:10)
Paul himself was not unmotivated or hindered by his belief in election in his missionary endeavors, and was encouraged by the Lord to not be afraid as he preached the gospel (Acts 18:9-10). When I was considering purchasing a home some years back, I would scour through Redfin trying to find houses and set up appointments to look at houses. Yet I constantly felt guilty, feeling like I was wasting their time at the number of houses I would visit, especially given the different agents who would facilitate the visits. That was until I spoke to an agent who said they get paid a salary whether or not I buy the house they toured with me. Much like Redfin agents, we are free to introduce others to Jesus without being overly concerned with the results. We can be faithful in preaching the gospel unadulterated and without gimmicks knowing whomever is elected will ultimately respond to the gospel. We do not work on “gospel commission.” Like a father asking his young child to help him make dinner, the doctrine of election helps us realize we are not “needed” by God, yet God chooses to include us in His work.
Lastly, the doctrine of election rids us of spiritual pride. We have nothing to bring to Christ nor do we have anything of worth. Why did God choose us? Who are we to be worthy of being adopted into the family of God? In the words of hymn writer Isaac Watts, “Would He devote that sacred Head to such a worm as I?” Ultimately it was for God’s eternal purpose and good pleasure to choose who He chose (Ephesians 1:5). We cannot take any percentage of credit for our salvation. God saw fit in eternity past to choose a people for His Son that had nothing inherently good about them, no worthiness or honor, yet freely and in love bestow His grace and mercy upon. This truth should humble us and remove any spiritual arrogance we can have toward unbelievers as well as other believers who struggle with believing this doctrine. Election puts praise on our lips, thanksgiving in our mouths, affection in our hearts, and humility in our spirit. It helps us make much of Christ and less of ourselves.