Studying the doctrine of election and predestination for the first time can often be confusing and at times frustrating. I have been teaching this to young people for five years now, and I have never met someone who hasn’t struggled with it at first. When I was first introduced to the doctrines of grace I was extremely skeptical for quite some time, and it took me probably a year to see the Biblical truth behind it. The same hiccups and speed-bumps always come up on the path of studying God’s sovereignty in salvation, so here are some helpful rules for the road to keep you from going crazy:
First things first.
- The most important thing for you to believe is the message of the Gospel: that God took on flesh as Jesus Christ, and lived a perfect life, but died a sinner’s death, and then resurrected from the grave, purchasing newness of life and eternity in His presence for anyone who puts their faith in Him, and one day will return to judge the living and the dead . If you reject the doctrine of election, but still rest in the Gospel, you are just as much a Christian as anyone else.
- This takes time, study and prayer to work through. This is not a microwavable teaching that you can master in a few minutes. So don’t be frustrated if you don’t understand all of the implications of it right away. Study your Bible, pray, seek God’s truth, wrestle with it and don’t give up. Read books and articles, listen to sermons and ask people who are smarter than you what they think. The Bible tells us to not be children in our thinking (1 Cor. 14:20) – children give up on something when it gets too hard. Think hard, the Lord will give you understanding (2 Tim. 2:7). If on your first day of Algebra class you peeked inside one of the Calculus books sitting on the shelf for fifteen minutes, you would be overwhelmed with a bunch of stuff you don’t know – but wouldn’t it be foolish to shout out, “There’s no way I’ll ever be able to do that, none of it makes sense, I give up on math!” and walk out of your class?
Trust the Word.
- God’s Word is our standard of truth; we don’t rely on speculation, but on revelation; it can sometimes be tempting to let our opinions and feelings guide us, but we must rely on God’s revelation in Scripture. We can be, and often are, wrong – God’s Word never is (1 Pet. 1:25). Charles Spurgeon said, “The Word of God is the anvil upon which the opinions of men are smashed.” I would a thousand times prefer someone study their Bible and because of what they read, disagree with me, than have someone just blindly agree with me because I said so.
- I don’t know of any doctrine that more directly confronts the pride of the human heart, in so many ways, than the doctrine of unconditional election. Some people bristle at the idea of their self-autonomy being taken away from them. Some people become incredibly gloomy by focusing on their sin so much that they figure they must not be one of the elect, and completely lose sight of God’s forgiveness at the Cross. Some people get angry and frustrated at not knowing all of the answers right away. And some people (worst of all) believe election, but wave it around like a big stick, thwacking people who disagree with them over the head with it. The whole point of the doctrine of election is that you are not the center of the world – God is. Each one of the examples above is a symptom of being overly focused on ourselves. Humble yourself before God and assume that there is more pride in you than you think – that may be why this is so uncomfortable for you. If you are going to reject the doctrine of election, you should reject it because it isn’t true, not because it makes you uncomfortable.
Be aware of your own cultural story.
- Every culture that has ever existed has some sort of story that they believe about why we exist. In Eastern cultures, they believe that they exist to bring honor to their tribe/clan/family. In our Westernized culture, our story is one of self-reliance, self-fulfillment and independence – so anything that seems to jeopardize or challenge that story (which election most certainly does) feels wrong. But, in other cultures there is not anywhere near the same amount of difficulty believing in the doctrine of election. Now, they may have harder times understanding different aspects of God that seem very simple to you, like His love or personal relationship with us. It is so important, wherever you are, to be aware of the story you are telling yourself. From a young age, we are baptized in the culture around us, and with that comes values, beliefs and assumptions about what is right and wrong, or good and bad. These sit, like lenses, over your eyes and inform how you view the world, including your view of God, faith and life. And the danger is to come to the Bible, full of assumptions about the reality of life, and then impose them on Scripture, making it conform to the worldview you already have, rather than letting God’s eternal, unchanging, perfect Word form my worldview. So, when I find something in the Bible that doesn’t feel right, I need to challenge my assumptions by asking myself, “Why do I feel this way? Is my resistance to this coming from what I have learned in the Bible or coming from somewhere else?” We all are tempted to inject our cultural beliefs into God’s Word, so we must be aware of it. So, before you say, “There’s no way that can be true!” ask yourself Why do I believe that?
- The doctrine of unconditional election is not some weird, rare teaching that a few crackpots, hiding in their basements, believe in. If you study church history you will find the most brilliant minds and prominent leaders in the church have heartily affirmed and taught this truth. It has only been in the last century or so that the Evangelical church as a whole has struggled to accept it (See Footnote). But still, even today the majority of serious Bible scholars, pastors and teachers clearly teach this; there are few theologians who disagree with it. Now, just because something has been taught for a long time or is popular does not make it true, but it should make us pause and consider.
Be content with mystery.
- Duet. 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” There are things that we do not totally understand in the Bible: God exists in Trinity as three distinct persons, but one God; God has never had a beginning, and never will have an end; The eternal, immutable, infinite God became a man; I am responsible for my decisions, and God is completely sovereign over everything. I do not understand how all of those things work out, that is a mystery to me – but they are clearly taught in the Bible. It is tempting when I encounter mysterious teachings in the Bible to try and tack on some explanation that makes more sense to my tiny, finite mind. But only a proud heart can look to the all-knowing God and say “Yea, that isn’t a good enough explanation – I’m going to come up with something that makes more sense.” Let us rest in the mystery of an eternal God who is beyond us, and let His secrets remain in His possession without us trying to pry His fingers open. But let us whole heartedly sink our teeth into the things that are revealed to us. Notice that we are to become so familiar with what God has revealed (the teaching of the Bible) that we are to teach them to our children – so if God has revealed it, we are to teach it.
Learn to disagree.
- This is a subject that it is completely okay with disagreeing with other brothers and sisters over. This doesn’t mean that we never discuss the matter, but enter good healthy discussions, full of love and respect for each other as equal members of the Body of Christ. I know that most of the time disagreements end up with feelings hurt and angry emotions – but wouldn’t it be something if we as the Church could model what healthy disagreement looked like? If your worldview is so fragile that you can’t be around people who disagree with you, that just means you have a really weak worldview. Paul explains that sometimes we need to have our worldview crushed (2 Cor. 10:5). You will learn the most about your faith when someone who disagrees with you challenges you – don’t run from it, embrace it and grow.
Pray, Pray, Pray.
- 1 Cor. 2:10-14 explains that the Holy Spirit is the one who “interprets spiritual truth” to us. If you are an intellectual kind of person, you might be tempted to rely too much on your logic to understand this. If you don’t consider yourself an intellectual kind of person, you might be tempted to just run away from this, pretend it doesn’t exist, and hope it goes away. Both of those responses are wrong and both rob glory from God. We are to rely on the ministry of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth (John 16:13). Brilliant and simple minds alike are not enough to try and understand the wisdom of Heaven – we must plead with the Lord to reveal His truth to us, as we study His Word. Regardless of our IQ, we all have equal access to the Holy Spirit.
Use the Church.
- The Christian life was never intended to look anything like the Lone Ranger. God’s means for growing and maturing His children is not isolation, but community – the Church (Eph. 4:11-16). God has gifted His body with teachers who can help in rightfully teaching good doctrine. This means we should wrestle through difficult things in the Bible together, openly and honestly. It is tempting to feel like we must hide our doubts and questions, but that is a lie from Satan, intended to isolate you and make you feel like you must pretend, and don’t belong. Ask questions, meet with your pastor, ask what someone else’s view is on it – by asking the question, you may be freeing someone else to feel like they too can voice questions and doubts.
Hope these help! God bless,
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
– Romans 11:33-36 –
Footnote: emphasis on “as a whole”, there were people who have rejected unconditional election all throughout history, but it has never been the amount that it is now. St. Augustine’s rebuke of the heretic Pelagius in the fourth century centered on demonstrating that we are saved by sheer grace alone. Augustine’s theology stood as the authority and high watermark till the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.