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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:What is the basis of God's election?
Text:CD 1 Articles 9-10 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 47

Psalm 65:1,2

Hymn 64

Hymn 1

Psalm 150

Scripture reading:  Romans 9

Catechism lesson:  Canons of Dort 1.9-10

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Saviour Jesus,

We’re familiar with the idea of election from the world of politics.  We elect our government representatives.  How do we do that?  If we’re responsible voters, we consider the individuals on the ballot.  We look for the best people.  We use our Christian principles to evaluate the candidates and find out who is worthy of our vote.  In government elections, we need to look for the best. 

However, that principle doesn’t apply to God’s election.  Remember, God’s election is his choosing of a certain number of definite individuals to salvation.  God the Father chose the elect from before the creation of the world, before history.  The question we’re focussing on this afternoon is why.  What’s the basis of God’s election?

Loved ones, you first have to understand the vital importance of this question.  What is God’s election based on?  How you answer that question is going to determine who gets the credit for our salvation.  The answer to this is a matter of glory or praise.  In politics, the candidate who gets elected gets congratulated by his friends and supporters.  They congratulate him because he was obviously deemed worthy by voters of being elected.  He was elected based on his worth in their eyes, and thus he gets praised for his election victory.  Similarly, the basis of election in our salvation is also a matter of praise or glory.  Who really gets congratulated, so to speak, for our election?

As we look at the answer given in article 9 of the first chapter of the Canons of Dort, we have to remind ourselves of some history.  The Canons of Dort were written by the great Synod of Dort in 1618-19.  Though it was held in the Netherlands and most of the delegates were Dutch, there were also many international delegates.  They came to the Netherlands to deal with a problem that was affecting all the Reformed churches of Europe.  That problem was a new theology known as Arminianism. 

Arminianism is named after a Dutch theologian, Jacob Arminius.  He started having doubts and questions about certain teachings in the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism.  He taught at Leiden University and passed on his views to his students.  After he died in 1610, his students carried his torch and spread his views far and wide.  The Arminians were gaining a following and the Reformed Church needed to do something about it.  That something was the Synod of Dort.  Their way of answering the Arminians was this confession that we call the Canons of Dort.

The Arminians had their own view about the basis of God’s election.  We have to recognize that the Arminians believed in election.  They believed God chooses people to salvation.  Historical Arminians believed that and modern Arminians do too.  Where the Arminians went wrong was on this very question of the basis of election. 

They said that when God made his decrees about election before the foundation of the world, he based it on what he saw happening in the future.  Like us, the Arminians believe that God is all-knowing or omniscient.  That means he knows everything, including everything that will happen in the future with every single person.  So God uses this knowledge in his decrees about election.  He looks in the future, down the hallways of time, and he sees what people are going to do.  In particular, he sees that certain people are going to have faith.  God looks into the future, and he sees that a certain person is going to use their free will to cooperate with his grace and decide to believe in Jesus Christ.  God then chooses that person because they chose to believe in the Saviour.  Human choice is the basis of God’s choice.  Human decision is the ground of God’s election, according to the Arminians.

And that’s just where it began for them.  The historical Arminian view spoke about several decrees of election.  For our purposes, we can just note that they said that God’s decisive decree of election is based on foreseen perseverance in faith and godliness.  In other words, if God looked into the future and saw that you would stick with your faith and walk in good works then, on that basis, he would choose you to definite salvation.  The important thing to see is that in this decisive decree of election, good works also played a role in the basis.

But the historical Arminians haven’t been the only ones to include good works.  There were medieval theologians who taught that good works were the basis of election.  Following in their footsteps there have also been Roman Catholic theologians who have taught that or something like it.  I would say that the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church definitely leans in that direction as well.  The Roman Catholics today lean in the direction of election based on foreseen human merit. 

Now what’s the problem with teaching that election is based on foreseen faith or foreseen holiness/good works?  To begin with, there’s the obvious fact that it’s just not taught in Scripture.  There’s no place in Scripture which says that God chose believers because they believed.  Instead, there’s Acts 13:48 which says after the preaching of Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”  Notice the order:  first there’s appointment to eternal life.  That’s what God does in election.  Then there’s faith.  Got that?  Election is the basis of faith.  We believe because we are chosen, not the other way around. 

When it comes to good works, again Scripture never teaches that God chose believers to anything because he saw them doing good works off in the future.  Instead, there’s Ephesians 1:4 which says that God chose the elect not because they were holy and blameless, but that they would be.  Holiness and good works are the purpose or result of election, not the basis.

Look, if you take the position that election is on the basis of foreseen faith or good works, the biggest problem is that you make election depend on what human beings do.  It’s on the basis of our actions, even if that action is just faith.  But in the historic Arminian system, it’s not just faith – it goes on to include the obedience of faith and our personal holiness.  Salvation is therefore not 100% grace – it includes our human contributions.  If that’s the case, then God is not receiving 100% of the credit and glory for our salvation.  Man is robbing God, and that’s always a dangerous thing to do!

But by denying that election is on the basis of foreseen faith or holiness, we’re not saying that those things are unimportant.  Loved ones, faith is hugely important.  You won’t be saved without placing your trust in Jesus Christ.  Faith still matters.  But when it comes to election it has to be understood in its proper place.  Before creation, God chose definite individuals to salvation.  Then, in history, he works faith in their hearts with the Holy Spirit.  Faith comes because of election.  It’s the same thing with good works.  Once God sends his Holy Spirit to bring someone to spiritual life and faith in Jesus Christ and once the Spirit does that, that person is going to begin living differently.  That person’s life will be changed.  A Christian is a person who loves God and wants to follow his will.  That too is ultimately because of election.  Election set in motion all the things that would need to take place to make that happen.  The Canons of Dort put it well in article 9, “Election, therefore, is the fountain of every saving good, from which flow faith, holiness, and other saving gifts, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects.”  Election is the fountain, election is the source of all these good things. 

Article 9 focuses on the negative, what election isn’t based on.  Article 10 then gives the positive teaching, what election is based on.    

Quite simply, election is based only on God and what he wants.  It is solely the good pleasure of God.  In the words of Ephesians 1:5, election is “according to the purpose of his will.”  God decides to choose these definite individuals and he did it because he wanted to.  And if anyone wants to press God on the issue, he says, “No, that’s all I’m saying about it.  You have to accept my answer.”

Let’s look at Romans 9 and what it teaches about this.  Paul begins the chapter by speaking about his fellow Jews.  He looks at them and he sees countless Jews who don’t believe in Jesus Christ.  Yet they’ve been so privileged.  He lays out their privileges and blessings in verse 4.  They had “adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.”  They were God’s people.  They had the patriarchs and they can claim to be the biological line from which Christ came. 

Yet he points out in verses 6 and 7 that for many of them, all these privileges didn’t help them because they didn’t believe in Jesus.  They are descended from Israel, but they do not truly belong to Israel.  They may be biological descendants of Abraham, but they are not his spiritual descendants.  In our terms, we would say they were part of the covenant, part of the church, and yet they were heading for hell. 

What it means is that amongst human beings there is a distinction.  There are two groups of people.  There are those who are going to be saved through Jesus Christ, and there are those who will not be saved.  According to Romans 9, this distinction isn’t just out there in the world, it also runs among the covenant people.  This distinction runs in the church.  Amongst God’s covenant people in the church, there are elect and there are those who are reprobate, not elect.  Loved ones, no one should be under any illusions.  No one should trick themselves into thinking that baptism is a ticket to heaven.  No one should think that just because you’re baptized or you’re a member of the church, it doesn’t matter what you believe or even whether you believe.  No.  The Holy Spirit makes it clear here that you can have all sorts of covenant privileges and then throw them away through unbelief.  Covenant does not equal election.  Brothers and sisters, do you understand that?  Let me say it again:  covenant does not equal election. 

Look, being in the covenant of grace is not the same thing as being one of God’s elect.  Otherwise all of Israel would have been saved, and Paul wouldn’t agonize the way he does in verses 1 to 3 of Romans 9.  If covenant equals election, Paul could have looked at his fellow Jews and just said, “Well, they’re all part of the covenant, so whether they believe in Jesus or not doesn’t really matter.  What matters is the covenant, they’ll be saved through the covenant.”  That’s not what Paul says.  Rather, he says that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart.”  It tears him up that they won’t believe in Christ.  He’s burdened for the Jews.  Why?  Because without Christ they’re lost.  Without Christ, everybody is lost.  Paul even says that he wishes that he himself could be damned if it would mean saving his fellow Jews.  It’s a dramatic statement, but it illustrates that Paul understands the reality of the situation.  Election is not a given for everyone within the covenant of grace.

This is something that goes back a long way in history.  In verse 13, Paul refers back to what God did with Jacob and Esau.  These were the twin sons of Isaac.  God chose Jacob to be in the line of promise leading to the Messiah, but rejected Esau.  Now notice what it says in verse 11, “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.”  God gave no consideration to what he foresaw Jacob or Esau would do in the future.  He didn’t base his choice on seeing Jacob believe or him doing other good things.  It was God’s good pleasure to choose Jacob instead of Esau. 

And then you find that quote from Malachi 1, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”  That sounds harsh.  Sometimes people stumble over these words.  Does God actually hate some people?  Well, it says in Psalm 11:5, “The LORD tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.”  So, yes, Scripture says that God does have hatred for some.  It’s in Psalm 11:5.  Psalm 5:5 as well:  “you hate all evildoers.”  As true as that is, the verse from Malachi 1 refers more to God’s choice and his rejection.  God chose Jacob and that comes across as love.  God rejected Esau and that comes across as hatred.

Paul then anticipates an objection.  It’s an objection that people still raise today.  People will say that God is being unfair.  By choosing one and rejecting the other, God is being unjust.  To that, Paul quotes another passage from the Old Testament, from Exodus 33:19, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  God can choose to do whatever he wants.  He doesn’t owe us an explanation.  We don’t have a right to know God’s reasons.  We’re not entitled to judge him and what he decides to do.  He’s God.  We’re not.  Then he reminds us of the basis of election in verse 16, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.”  The reasons God chose Jacob and not Esau are with him.  He chose to have mercy.  Why?  Because he wanted to.  He doesn’t owe us any other explanation. 

Paul then gives another example:  Pharaoh in the days of the Exodus from Egypt.  God told Pharaoh that he had a purpose for him, but it had nothing to do with his salvation.  God was going to show his power through victory over Pharaoh.  Through all the plagues on Egypt and by throwing Pharaoh into the waters of the Red Sea, God was going to announce the glory of his name.  Then verse 18 says, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”  The key words there are “he wills.”  God wills to do it.  Out of his own good pleasure, he shows mercy to some, also in his decree of election. 

There are still those who are going to object.  They’ll say, “If God is sovereign, how can he hold us responsible?”  To that, Paul replies that pottery has no business talking back to the Potter.  He compares human beings to pottery, a good illustration since Adam was created from the dust of the earth.  He says that God is the Potter, he’s the Creator.  The Creator can do whatever he wants with his creation and his puny little creatures have no right to argue with him.  Know your place.  We’re not entitled to question his motives or reasons.  He knows what those reasons are, and we have to simply accept that in humility.  And as for human responsibility, it’s still there, for sure.  God is sovereign in election, but human beings are still responsible for the wrong that they do.  Both things are true.  Scripture teaches both things.

So in Romans 9 we see that there are vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath.  That’s using the pottery image again to describe human beings.  God has chosen some to be vessels of his mercy and some to be vessels of his wrath.  But both are going to exalt him.  The vessels of wrath are going to make known his power and patience, says verse 22.  In the end, they are going to exalt God’s justice.  God will be glorified through them receiving the just wrath they deserve.  But the vessels of mercy are going to exalt God’s grace, says verse 23.  God will be glorified through their salvation in Christ.  But both are going to glorify God.

That’s the heart of the matter when we’re talking about the basis of election.  God says that the basis is solely in his good pleasure.  Why?  So that we would give all the glory to him.  God tells us what he does about the basis of our election so that we would not be tempted to steal his glory.  By nature, we are prideful.  In ourselves, we want to take credit.  We want to get at least a little pat on the back for being Christians.  But God says, “No, you sit down.  The glory belongs to me and to me alone.”  In our Reformed heritage, we often use the Latin expression “soli Deo gloria” – it means “to God alone be the glory.”  That’s what’s at stake here.  We’re not chosen because we’re more worthy.  We’re not chosen because of who we are or what we do.  We’re chosen because of God’s grace and for his glory.  We haven’t deserved to be chosen.  Far from it. 

So, loved ones, do you place your trust entirely in Jesus Christ for your salvation?  Do you love God and aim to live for him in every area of our life?  That faith and that commitment are gifts of God’s grace, and they flow from the fountain of election.  It’s God’s election based on his good pleasure.  So brother, sister, give him the praise.  Give him the thanks, give him the glory, now and forever.  AMEN.


Heavenly Father,

You are the Potter, we are the clay. You are our Creator, and we are your creatures.  We humble ourselves before you.  We acknowledge your sovereign power over everything, including us.  Thank you for your sovereign grace in election.  We confess that the basis for our election is in you, and not in us.  Father, seeing that we are yours, please let your Holy Spirit help us to praise you for this.  Not to us, but to you be the glory.  We have no proud of our election, because it wasn’t our doing at all.  O God, help us always to be humble before you and before one another.  Please help us also to trust your holy Word and what it teaches about these things.                                                                 

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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