The “Unspeakable Consolation” of Unconditional Election
Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner: but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God; who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began, but is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel: whereunto I am appointed a preacher, and an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day. 2 Tim. 1:8-12
In this and the next three messages, I want to focus on what some people call “the Doctrines of Grace” as they are expressed in five doctrines, sometimes remembered by the acronym TULIP. Here the T stands for “Total Depravity,” the U for “Unconditional Election,” the L for “Limited Atonement,” the I for “Irresistible Grace,” and the P for “Perseverance or Preservation of the Saints.” Now some folks don’t like this mnemonic because a few of the terms can be taken to misrepresent what the doctrine is actually meant to say. Well, if you don’t like it, I would suggest something I’ve seen in another place. It’s the acronym BACON. In this case, B stands for “Bad People,” A for “Already Loved,” C for “Completely Atoned for,” O for “Overwhelmingly Called,” and N for “Never Falling Away.” You can either say you’re a five-point Calvinist, or you can say you’re a five-strip Baconist. The advantage is obvious, isn’t it? Lots of people may not like John Calvin, but who wants to say they’re against bacon?
Why consider these five doctrines together like this, and where did this come from? Well, as far as I can tell, the TULIP acronym was invented for the English world in either the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.1 But the five points we will be looking at go back further. Of course, we will be arguing that they are Biblical doctrines, but the reason why they are grouped together like this goes back to the early 1600’s in the Netherlands. There, a minister by the name of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) began to teach doctrines that contradicted the confession of faith that was held by the Reformed churches in that part of the world, the Belgic Confession (1561). After his death, his followers drafted a statement called the Remonstrance (1610) in which they expressed their convictions on five controversial points. This is the classic statement of Arminianism. In response to this, an international Protestant synod was called, which met at the town of Dordrecht during the years 1618-1619, known to us as the Synod of Dort. The ministers who made up this synod rejected the Remonstrance and crafted a response in five points in the Canons of Dort. This is why these five doctrines are often now expressed together.
Now I do want to explain and defend these doctrines. However, that is not the primary aim of these messages. My primary aim is to show the practical implications of these doctrines. Why do you think the ministers in the Dutch Reformed churches (and other churches around the world) felt it was so necessary to respond to the teachings of Arminius? It wasn’t just because they believed his teaching was wrong. That was a big part of it, of course, but what caused them to take this so seriously is that they understood that this was more than a debate among scholars on arcane theological questions. They believed that the health and spiritual vitality of the church is at stake here. They believed that the holiness and comfort and faith of the church is at stake here. I agree. These are not abstract doctrines that don’t matter. They matter, and they matter a lot. I want to show you how they matter in such a way that we will become stronger and more faithful followers of Jesus in this world.
In doing so, I’m not going to go by the order you get in TULIP. Rather, I’m going to address these in the order they are addressed in the Canons of Dort: ULTIP, and I’m going to group the T and the I together in one sermon (the Canons of Dort put the third and fourth heads of doctrines together, too), so we’re going to do this in four sermons rather than five.
We begin with the Doctrine of Divine Predestination, or Unconditional Election. It is a key idea in the text we just read from 2 Timothy 1. In our treatment of each doctrine, I want to do three things: explanation (What does the Bible say about this?), vindication (Why should we reject alternative explanations?), and application (How should this impact our lives?), with an emphasis on the application.
Explanation (What does the Bible say about this?)
What do we mean by “unconditional election”? We simply mean this: before the world began God purposed to save through Jesus Christ some of fallen humanity to eternal life and salvation. This purpose by which God chose some and passed over others, is not conditioned on foreseen faith and repentance, (though this does not mean faith and repentance are not necessary). Faith and repentance are the effects and fruits of this Divine purpose, rather than the ground for it. This purpose is a purpose to choose some to eternal salvation. It is not a purpose to choose one nation over another or one individual over another for a historical role in the world (though that’s not to say God doesn’t do that). What we are talking about here is the unconditional election by God before the world began of individuals to eternal life through the redemption purchased by Christ.
This is what Paul is telling Timothy here when he writes, “God . . . saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (8-9). God saved us; what kind of salvation has he chosen us to? It is to “life and immortality” which comes about through the fact that Jesus has “abolished death” by his own redemptive death for us (10). God saw that all humanity would freely choose to rebel against him and plunge themselves into sin and ruin. In that ruin they would be unable to extricate themselves. Not only would they be unable; left to themselves they would have no desire to do so. But God, out of his mere grace and the good pleasure of his will, chose to save some undeserving members of the human race. He didn’t have to save any! But he set his love upon some and purposed to save them by sending his Son Jesus Christ into the world to die for them and to bear their sins, and then by calling them to faith in Christ so that through union with him they would receive the benefits of his atoning death.
You might ask, “But where is this word election?” Well, the word itself is not in our text, but the idea is. But the word does appear in other places, for example, in Romans 9 where the apostle argues that God chose Jacob and not Esau as an example of the principle that “they are not all Israel which are of Israel” (6). He goes on to say, “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth” (11). What Paul in 2 Timothy 1 calls “his own purpose and grace” he here calls “the purpose of God according to election.” Note that this is an unconditional election since it is “not of works” and was done before they were born, “neither having done any good or evil” – in other words, their works good or bad didn’t figure into God’s electing purpose to save Jacob and pass over Esau. But you also see it in Rom. 11:5, “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.” You see it in 1 Thess. 1:4,
“Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.” You see it in 2 Pet. 1:10, “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall.”
But the idea comes through in other ways as well. I love the way our Lord puts it in John 6. There our Lord explains why some rejected him while others received him: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:37-40). What is election? We could put it like this: before the world began, the Father gave a people to his Son to save. As part of this purpose, in time the Son would come into this world in obedience to the Father’s will by becoming a man, and save his people from their sins (Mt. 1:21) by obeying God’s will perfectly, absorbing their punishment by dying on a cross, and then by drawing them to himself in faith. He will lose none of them – not a single one! – but will raise them up, give them resurrection, on the last day. That is the doctrine of election.
Vindication (Why should we reject alternative explanations?)
The Arminian interpretation of election is that God foresaw who would believe in Christ and repent of their sins and that it was on that basis that he chose them. They say that God chooses the believer because they chose him. In this scheme, in the order of God’s decree, he foresees future faith and on the basis of that future faith decrees to save that person.
But how does the Bible say that God saves us? Did he save us because he foresaw what we would do? Did he save us because he saw that we would believe? No! Note here in 2 Tim. 1 that this salvation is linked up in verse 9 with God’s calling. This is important because God’s calling precedes faith and secures it (2 Thess. 2:12-13). God summons men and women to faith in Christ and the reason why he does this for some and not others has nothing to do with them, for God does this “not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” This corresponds to what the apostle told the Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:3-5). There is not a word here about faith as the ground for our salvation; rather, Paul is grounding all spiritual blessings that we have in Christ in God choosing us. He is grounding it in “the good pleasure of his [not our!] will.”
We see this worked out in the book of Acts. There we read, “And when the Gentiles heard this [the gospel preached by Paul], they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Who believed? Those who were ordained to eternal life. This is the opposite that you would expect if foreseen faith were the ground of God’s choice. No, it is not that God choses us because he saw that we would believe; we believe because we are ordained to eternal life in election to salvation by the sovereign God.
You see it also in the passage from John 6. Verse 37 says that all that the Father gives to his Son in the purpose of electing grace will come to him. The logic of the verse is important. It is not that all who come to Christ by faith are given to the Son. That is putting it backwards. Rather, it is those who are given to the Son who come in faith to him. God choosing us is what brings us to faith; it is not the other way around.
This is most clearly seen in Romans 9. Here the election is clearly unconditional. Note what Paul says: “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom. 9:15-18). You can’t get any clearer than that! This is why so many people try to get around this passage by saying that this is not about election of individuals to salvation but rather the election of nations to historical roles. But this will not do, for the entire problem that Paul is seeking to address here is the lostness of many Jews even though God had chosen the nation of Israel to be his special people. It just will not do to solve the problem of the national election of Israel by saying that God elects nations! But this is what the Arminian interpretation of Romans 9 amounts to. No: Paul is saying that the reason why some Israelites are saved at all is not because of the national election but because of God’s sovereign and unconditional purpose of election of them to salvation.
Application (How should this impact our lives?)
But what difference does this make? Now I do want to say here at the outset that we shouldn’t approach the Scriptures with that attitude. In other words, we shouldn’t value a Biblical doctrine by the measure of its apparent usefulness. We should treasure and value all the teachings of God’s word, whether we see their application or not. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to find out how the doctrines of the Bible apply to us. But the order here is important: first, we believe a doctrine which we find in God’s word, then we value it because it is taught there, and then we look for ways it applies to our lives. That’s what we want to do now.
The reason why I chose 2 Timothy 1 as the place to start here is because the application is apparent. To see this, we must remember the historical context behind these verses. Paul is in his final imprisonment and knows that he is about to die (cf. 4:6-8). He is writing this last letter to his son in the faith, Timothy, who will carry on the baton of the faith into the next generation. Timothy, Paul knows, was not an A-type, gregarious personality to whom you might have expected the apostle to pass on the legacy of his ministry. He was, to be frank, timid. This surely is behind the apostle’s exhortation in1:6-7, “Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands. For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Timothy was apparently prone to fear, and this can lead to spiritual paralysis. And so the apostle urges him to stir up the gift of God, to fan it into flame, and to remind him that God had not given him the spirit of fear, but of power, love, and of self-control (sound mind).
Then comes verse 8: “Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God.” What was underneath Timothy’s fear was persecution on account of the gospel. It was the shame that was attached to the gospel by the world. Now I don’t care who you are, that is a hard thing to battle. No one enjoys being despised by others. No one likes to be vulnerable. In such a place it is much easier to default to cowardice and quitting.
What about you? What sorts of things might prevent you from a bold confession of the faith? Or let me put it this way: is there anything of this earth you could lose that would cause you to lose your faith? Or maybe not lose your faith, but cause you to become so bitter against God that you would have no more desire to let your light shine for him in this world? I am trying to get underneath what causes and promotes cowardice and quitting when it comes to the Christian life. What is it? Is it not the fear of losing earthly things that we are really valuing more than eternal things?
Now what would cause a believer who claims to have an eternal inheritance through Christ to value earthly things more than heavenly and to be in the grip of this fear that they might lose these earthly things? I think there are probably at least two things going on. First, it could be that we don’t really believe what the Bible has to say about the magnitude of these heavenly blessings. We have become so fixated on the here and now that we have lost sight of the glory of the eternal. If that is the case, we need to repent of our unbelief and to rearrange our system of values. But I think another reason is that we don’t really believe that we will inherit these spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ. And I think one of the reasons for this is that we don’t really believe that God would bequeath such blessings to people like us. We look at ourselves, at our spiritual frailty and failures, at our sinfulness and stupidity, and can’t imagine how God would give never-ending, ever-increasing joy at his right hand in the age to come.
But this is exactly where the doctrine of unconditional election, of Divine predestination, can afford the believer what the ministers at the Synod of Dort called “unspeakable consolation.” I think what they meant by this is a consolation and comfort of the soul so great that it is simply indescribable. For this doctrine helps us to see that our salvation ultimately and decisively hangs, not on ourselves, but on the unchangeable, unconditional, and particular saving purpose of God in election. Let me explain.
The consolation of an unchangeable choice.
My will is frail, but God’s is not. My faith is often weak, but God’s faithfulness never wavers. The doctrine of election reminds me that behind my conversion to Christ, behind my choosing to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior, is the unchangeable choice of God for me. It reminds me that underneath my little love is God’s immutable love. We love him because he first loved us, and we will go on loving him because he has loved us and will love us with an everlasting love. The gifts and calling of God are without repentance. If I have come to Christ, it is because God from eternity willed that it be so. At the bottom of my faith is not my faith but the faithfulness of God. At the bottom of my will is not my will but the firm decree of God. It’s like what the Lord told the children of Israel: “There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in his excellency on the sky. The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and he shall thrust out the enemy from before thee” (Deut. 33:26- 27). Election is the everlasting arm of God beneath the wavering believer.
Now I’m not saying that faith is not important. As we will see, the elect will persevere in the faith to the end. But what I’m saying is that the foundation for our hope and assurance and comfort and consolation is not in the steadfastness of our purpose, but in the steadfastness of God’s purpose concerning us. As the psalmist wrote, “The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands” (Ps. 138:8). Consider what he says here. How do we know that God will perfect that which concerns us, will fulfill his purpose for us? Is it not because his mercy, his steadfast love, endures forever? And so it is for that reason that we can pray and do so with utter confidence: “O Lord . . . forsake not the work of thine own hands.”
Brother and sister, salvation is of the Lord. This is what the doctrine of election teaches. It tells us that our hope does not hang on the slender thread of our faithfulness but on the bedrock pillar of God’s. If you belong to Christ, you can be sure that the glory to come will be yours because ultimately it is God’s unchanging purpose that you will have this glory.
The consolation of an unconditional choice.
God does not save the righteous. If that were the case, no one would be saved. And when Jesus came, he said that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Now he doesn’t mean that some people are righteous and don’t need saving. What he means is that there are some people who think of themselves as doing very well, thank you very much. They don’t think they need a Savior. And our Lord said that he didn’t come to call such to repentance. Instead, he came to call those who were weak and heavy laden. He came to call sinners, people who have made a wreck of their lives and know it, who when they pray cannot get more out than the words, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” He came, as the apostle Paul puts it in Rom. 4:5, to justify the ungodly. Who? The ungodly.
Who gets to go to heaven? The saved. Who are saved? The ungodly!
Now that doesn’t mean that God saves those who continue on in their unbelief and sin. After all, he came to call sinners to repentance. He came to make us new. But we must not think that God’s love for us depends upon our moral or spiritual fitness. If you are a Christian it is because God chose you, and he did not choose you because he foresaw that you would be holy; he chose you to be holy. His choice of you was not conditioned upon your response, upon anything in you. He chose you according to the good pleasure of his will.
Here is mystery, to be sure. In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle describes us as by nature dead in sins, enslaved to the devil, to the world, and to wicked lusts. In such a state he says that we are “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3). Paul is not talking there about angry people; he is talking about the wrath of God. There was a time when the believer, before he or she came to Christ, was under God’s wrath, exposed in unbelief and sin to God’s eternal judgment. But Paul goes on to say that God has rescued us from his just wrath and judgment, and here is how he did it: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, by grace ye are saved” (Eph. 2:4-5). This is the amazing thing: that God’s love has saved us from God’s wrath. Think about that for a minute: even when we were deserving of God’s wrath, it was God’s love that brought us up from a spiritual death and gave us life in Christ.
Why would we think things have changed since our conversion? Do you think that God loves you less when you sin or that he loves you more when you do the right thing? No, for God’s love is an unconditional love. “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth” (Rom. 8:33). This is not an excuse or motive to sin, for God’s love does change us. Those who truly know this love want to be holy. It is only the wicked who twist doctrines like this into excuses for sin, who take the talent and bury it and then blame God! Rather, we should take this as an encouragement to keep seeking the Lord, to keep coming to him in prayer, to get back up when we fail because we know that we are running into the arms of our Father who loves us unconditionally in Christ.
The consolation of a particular choice.
I love the way the apostle Paul put it to the Galatians: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Hear what the apostle says: “who loved me and gave himself for me.” He is dealing in specifics here. God does not elect generic groups. He elects specific people. If you are a believer, it is because God chose you from eternity and set his love upon you. In fact, he loved you so much that he sent his only-begotten Son into the world to die for you. You are not a face without a name. You are not lost in the crowd. The God who knows the stars by name knows your name. He knows the number of hairs on your head. He knows all your needs before you even ask. He knows when you sit down and when you get up and he knows your thoughts before you even think them. He knows the number of your days. He knows you in fact better than you know yourself. And here is the amazing thing: with all this knowledge, he loves you with an everlasting love!
Believer, does this not afford you great and unspeakable consolation? Does this not strengthen your hope in his promise? Does this not bring heaven nearer?
From consolation to courage
But let not the application not stop at consolation; let it lead to courage. This is what the apostle Paul was aiming at. If I may paraphrase him, he is saying: “Timothy, don’t be afraid; don’t be ashamed of the gospel. Rather be fearless and bold in your ministry, in the faith of Christ. Why? Because God has called us and saved us, not according to our works but with an unconditional, unchangeable, and individual purpose that will rescue us from death and give us life and immortality.” Paul goes on to show that he himself had banked his entire life and purpose on God’s unchanging and saving purpose of election: “For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). Paul’s confidence and courage was not based on himself, but on God. Believing the doctrine of election is what teaches us to think this way.
Brothers and sisters, do you see the doctrine of election in this way? It is not a cudgel to smite the Arminians with. I’m not saying we shouldn’t defend it against Arminian misrepresentations. But we do so because it is medicine for weary souls. It is balm for the heavy heart. We don’t want this precious truth to be tainted with the mixture of unbiblical ingredients. We don’t want to have it taken away from us. Election reminds us of God’s everlasting love, a love which embraces us into the very fellowship of the holy Trinity. It is the love that the Father has for the Son, shared with us. Let it give you unspeakable consolation. And let that create in you unbreakable courage for Christ.
Now some people say that if you believe this doctrine of unconditional election, you will never be able to share the gospel with those who are lost. That is just not true. History proves that it is not true because many of the greatest evangelists and missionaries have been Calvinists: Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, Adonirum Judson and Charles Spurgeon. So let me end with a word to those of you who have not yet embraced the Lord Jesus as Lord and Savior. It is true that you cannot yet get any comfort from this doctrine, for it is only for those who have repented of their sins and have put their trust in Christ. But here is the good news: the door to Christ stands open and our Lord himself assures you that all who come to him he will never cast away. And what that means is that every soul who comes to Christ in faith and repentance can claim the comfort afforded by the doctrine of election. Why then do you wait? Turn from your idols and come to Jesus today!
1 See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/origin-of-tulip/