Message 7, Chosen in Christ: God’s Eternal Plan of Redemption:
Few subjects provoke debate like the doctrine of election. As a result, many struggle to see the value of it for Christian living. Yet from a biblical perspective, the doctrine of election is intended to comfort God’s people as well as magnify God’s grace. In this session, Dr. Ian Hamilton shows why God’s eternal plan to redeem His people for His glory is the basis for the work of Christ as our mediator, the foundation for the historical unfolding of the covenant of grace, and the ground for our hope in the gospel.
Well, I’m sure you’ll gather from my accent that I’m not from here, but I hope you won’t be like the little boy near Seattle whom, when I began to preach, turned to his mother and said, “Mummy, is that man from China?” which I thought was a little hard on my semi-mellifluous, educated Glasgow, Scottish accent.
It’s a great pleasure and a privilege for me to be with you at this conference. I think I was 19 years of age or so when I first heard the word “Calvinism.” I’d been converted to Christ two or so years prior to that from a completely non-Christian background, and I had been reading the Bible and had made what I thought was a wonderful discovery.
And I said to the office bearers in the Baptist church where I’d come to faith in Glasgow, “I found something very wonderful in the Bible.” And they said, “What is it, Ian?” And I said, “I’ve discovered that before I chose Christ, He chose me.” And one of the office bearers, a little crossly, said to me, “That’s Calvinism!”
But not knowing what Calvinism was, I said, “No, I read it in Romans chapter 8.” I say that, only now, to say this: that this address is not about Calvinism. It is about the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that God chose us from before the foundation of the world. It is Jesus Christ who is Himself the foundation, the content, the glory, and the telos of the Christian faith. It is in Jesus Christ that we receive all the blessings of the triune God, so my concern, in this first address for me at this conference, is to consider with you the grace and glory of God revealed in our Savior Jesus Christ.
I’ve been asked in this session, essentially to do three things: to show, or at least attempt to show why God’s eternal plan to save His people for His glory is, number one, the basis for the saving work of Christ; number two, the foundation for the historical unfolding of the covenant of grace; and number three, the ground of all our hope in the gospel, and a doctrine of the greatest comfort to Christian believers.
So with that in mind, please turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 6, reading from the 35th verse. John chapter 6, very familiar words, I’m sure, to all of us here today:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me.
And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’”
Let me begin by asking you a question: When you read about, think about, talk about, write about, or preach about the doctrine of God’s sovereign election of sinners to salvation, what thoughts run around your head? For the apostle Paul, the doctrine of God’s sovereign election of sinners to salvation in Christ was never a cause for controversy or perplexity, but rather for heart-stopping wonder and worship. As Paul comes to the end of his magisterial exposition of the gospel in Romans chapter 11, he concludes with those magnificent words:
“Oh, the depth both of the riches and of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His paths are beyond tracing out! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, and who has been His counselor? Who has ever given to God that God should repay him?’”
“For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory,” says the apostle. He has been writing about the profundities of the grace and glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He’s been writing, in chapters 9 through 11, of God’s sovereign election of sinners to salvation, and His sovereign reprobation of sinners.
And as he comes to conclude this magnificent exposition of the gospel, all he is able to say is, “Oh, the depth!” He’s become aware as he has expounded under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the gospel of the blessed God, that he is utterly out of his depth. The gospel has taken him into the deepest of waters. If I can dare quote Søren Kierkegaard in a congregation like this, he wrote once that “life is 70,000 fathoms deep.”
And so is the gospel. And as Paul has plunged himself into the unfathomable depths of the gospel, he has come to this conclusion: “Oh, the depths! How unsearchable and beyond tracing out are the ways of the most high God!” Heart-stopping doxology, not self-preening pride, was what coursed through the heart and mind of the apostle Paul as he pondered the sovereign grace of God in the gospel of His Son Jesus Christ.
And, my brothers and sisters in Christ, if the doxology of Romans 11:33 to 36 is not the adoring pulse beat of your understanding of sovereign electing love, you have never yet begun to understand sovereign electing love. Where it leaves us is not arrogant, and proud, and high-minded. It leaves us marveling and wondering as we consider the God of all grace who has unfathomably stooped down to us where we are in our utter wretchedness and made us alive together with Christ.
Now, I’m thankful at this conference that I’ve not been asked to defend the doctrine of God’s electing grace. Suffice to say it is not a Calvinistic distinctive. It is not a Reformed distinctive. Neither John Calvin nor R.C. Sproul dreamt it up. It is the plain teaching of the Bible. And if you don’t think it is, you have two great problems. First, you don’t understand the Bible and, secondly, for the next 39 minutes 27 seconds, you’re going to struggle. So consider with me this great theme that I’ve been asked to consider with you this afternoon: Chosen in Christ — God’s eternal plan of redemption.
I’ve got three points to make, each beginning with a question. Point one: how does the Bible explain to us the coming, the living, the dying, the rising, and the ascending of our Savior Jesus Christ? There is, I think, one word that the Bible uses about Jesus that defines for us His work, and it is the word “obedience.” John 6:38, “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of Him who sent me.” Self-consciously, Jesus affirms that He has come into the world to fulfill the will of the heavenly Father, to fulfill His eternal plan to redeem a world of lost, judgment-deserving sinners. If you’re ever to make sense of the life, and ministry, and mission of our Lord Jesus Christ, you will need to understand that He is where He is as the obedient Servant of God.
Remember how, in Isaiah 42 — the first of the great Servant songs in Isaiah — how the Lord God Himself speaks of the promised Messiah: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold.” “My servant.” And it was His servant-hearted obedience that took Him from the throne of glory to the cross of Calvary. As Paul puts it so briefly and yet so magnificently in Philippians chapter 2, “He was obedient unto death, even the death of a cross.” Even as our Lord Jesus Christ surveyed the unimaginable prospect, that His human soul recoiled from, of becoming the sin bearer of the world, of enduring the curse of God in the place of the people of God, He was nonetheless “obedient unto death, even” — and in that little word “even,” there is a cosmos of profundity — “even the death of a cross.”
As we look at the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are to see Him as the obedient Servant of God who has come into the world not as a private man, but as a public man. He has come as the covenant Head, the covenant King, the representative Head of all whom the Father has given to Him in the covenant of redemption in times eternal. He has come in our place, and for our sake, as our covenant Head and King.
I think it was Thomas Goodwin, the, one of the great English Puritan divines, who said that “all humanity is either tied to the apron strings of Adam or to the apron strings of Christ.” That would be true of us here in this gathering today. All of us are either joined yet to Adam in our fallenness or united to Jesus Christ, our risen, ascended Lord. And what we commonly call the “covenant of grace” is simply the outworking in history of the triune God’s promise and oath in eternity to undo Adam’s tragic sin through the perfect obedience of a better Servant Son than Adam. Jesus Christ comes into the world as the perfect Servant Son.
Remember how the heavens are opened at His baptism: “This is my beloved Son. With Him I am well pleased.” And at the transfiguration, that same voice from the cloud of glory breaks into history to affirm the uniqueness and the perfection, to that very moment, of the obedience of this Servant Son. In every phase of His life He was fulfilling the covenant that the triune God made in eternity to save sinners.
And I want simply to underscore the triune God together engaging in that resolve to save sinners and unite them to Christ and, in Christ, bring them to the glory of God. I find it strange that, so often in systematic theology, the covenant of redemption in eternity is focused narrowly on the Father and the Son. And I often wonder, “But where is the Holy Spirit?” He’s not extraneous to the Holy Trinity. He’s not on the margins of the Holy Trinity. All that the Father does, the Son and the Spirit do.
It is by the eternal Spirit that the Savior was upheld from womb to tomb, was it not? And it is the triune God together who resolve, in times eternal, to save a people to the praise of Their glory. And when the Lord Jesus Christ comes into the world, He comes as the sent One of the Father, upheld by the Holy Spirit.
And He comes, in every phase of His life, to give to the Father that obedience that our first head, Adam, failed so dismally to give. In His incarnation in the virgin Mary’s womb, He was saying, “Your will be done, my Father.” At His baptism, as He stood where we stand, identifying Himself with us in our fallenness, He who was without sin, he was saying, “Your will be done, my Father.” And even on the cross, as He cried “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachtani” — “My God, my God! Why have You forsaken me?” — even as He was crying elementally from the cross, He was still saying, “Not My will but Your will be done.”
To His dying breath, and with His dying breath, our Savior fulfilled the commission entrusted to Him by His Father. “I have come from heaven not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent me.”
To say, then, that Jesus Christ is the foundation of God’s saving decree is to say simply that God’s eternal plan of salvation was laid in Christ to be accomplished by Christ. He is the heart, the core, and the glory of the covenant of redemption. God chose us in Him from before the foundation of the world, and the sovereign decree of God, in Christ, is the foundation of all His saving counsels regarding His children.
And that is simply to say this one thing: that your salvation — if indeed you are a saved man and a saved woman — your salvation is impregnably anchored in the invincible, eternal, sure purpose of the triune God. And that is to say this: that all your hope lies outside of yourself. All your hope is extra nos, “outside of you.” There is nothing of any value, hope, or worth in you. All of your hope, if you are a Christian at all, lies outside of you in the glory of the triune God, in Their eternal counsel to save you, and in the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ who, even unto death, even the death of a cross — the sin-bearing, wrath-exhausting, curse-enduring death of the cross — there lies alone all your hope.
But secondly, I want to ask this question, to more narrowly focus what I’ve just been saying: What then actually is the ground of our hope in the gospel? What actually is it, if it can be narrowed down at all? If it can be concentrated in the fewest of words, what actually is the ground of our hope in the gospel?
Now, I’ve been saying that salvation comes to us from the electing love of God. And it does. “He chose us,” Ephesians 1:3 and 4, “He chose us in Christ from before the foundation of the world.” Salvation comes to us, originates in the electing love of God. There would be no salvation whatsoever but for God’s electing love and His invincible sovereign purpose.
But it is not electing love that saved you; it was Jesus Christ, the gift of the Father’s electing love, who saved you. This is not an arcane, sophisticated theological distinction. It is not electing love per se that saves. It is Jesus Christ, the gift of the electing love of God, who saves. He is the ground of our hope, and He alone.
If you’re a Christian believer here today, it’s not God’s eternal plan as such that has saved you, but the Son of God, who is Himself the incarnate embodiment of that plan. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” All the ground of our hope rests outside of ourselves, not ultimately in the eternal plan of God, but in the eternal Son of God, made flesh for us and for our salvation, and who yet bears in His glorified body the marks of our redemption.
His finished work for us on Calvary’s cross, and His continuing work on our behalf at the right hand of the Father is the ground of all our hope and of all our comfort. When the Lord Jesus Christ cried, “It is finished,” God was assuring us that the work given to Him by His Father, the work of making perfect propitiation for our sins, had been completely, absolutely, and irrevocably completed.
The perfect atoning blood of Christ, not my weak inconstant faith in Christ, is the ground of all my hope. Is that true of you here today? What is the ground of your hope? That you’re a Reformed Christian? That you believe in the inerrancy of the Bible? I hope you do. That you support the work of Ligonier — the wonderful, excellent work that Ligonier does? But is all your hope and all your confidence before God alone in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who loved you and who gave Himself for you?
That’s why, if I can say this, that Reformed preaching should always be noted not for words like “elect” and “non-elect,” “reprobate” and “sovereignty,” true though those words are. Reformed preaching should always signally be noted for words that concentrate on Jesus Christ, His grace, His glory, His mercy, His love, His kindness, His majesty.
I think often we’ve a very truncated understanding of what Reformed Christianity actually is. I think, if you were to ask John Calvin — if I can transport myself back five or so centuries and ask, “Brother John, what is the Reformed faith?” — I think you would be very surprised, there are many of you who would be very surprised what I’m sure would be his answer.
What is the Reformed faith? It is the faith that glories in God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And you might say, “But brother John, what about God’s sovereignty?” That goes without saying. He is the absolute, unconditionally sovereign Lord of the heavens and the earth. But the glory of the Reformed faith is not that we preach divine sovereignty, but that we preach God in His glory, and in His triune glory.
John Calvin has a magnificent passage — well, they’re all quite magnificent, I think — but in book one of the Institutes, book one, chapter 13, I think section 17, he writes about something he’s read in Gregory Nazianzen, a 4th century church father, that vastly delighted him. And he goes on to tell us what it was in Gregory that vastly delighted him. And he quotes a few lines from Gregory’s Baptismal Oration No. 40.
If you’re interested at all and you want to have a good read tonight, look up, Google Gregory Nazianzen Baptismal Oration 40. It’s absolutely stunning. It’s just magnificent. And Calvin quotes these few lines from Gregory. It’ll take you about five minutes to read, but Calvin quotes three lines. And Gregory simply says, “When I think of the One, I must think of the Three. And when I think of the Three, I must think of the One. And when I do, my mind is overwhelmed, tears fill my eyes, and I have to turn aside and worship.” And Calvin writes, “This vastly delights me.”
And there, I think you have the heart of what the Reformed faith essentially is ultimately about. It is about glorying in God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — the triune God who, from times eternal, conspired together in covenant kindness to save a people to the praise of Their glory throughout the ages of eternity. And that’s what Reformed preaching should be noted for above all. These men glory in God! They proclaim Jesus Christ in all the magnificence of His majesty, and humanity, and dignity, and humility, and mercy, and kindness, and justice, and righteousness. Because it is God in Christ who is the ground of all our hope.
But then, thirdly, there is this question: Why is this doctrine the greatest of comforts to believers? One of the great signal moments in a young Christian’s life — I wonder if you can identify with this — is when it dawns upon him or her that doctrine matters; that moment when the light gets switched on, and you realize that doctrine is not for the rarefied few, but for all the people of God. And then you make this discovery: that all that has come to you in Jesus Christ rests upon the unchanging and unchangeable nature of God’s electing love, a love that was sealed forever in the blood of the everlasting covenant.
I don’t think anyone, at least in my limited reading, has understood this better than John Owen, the great, perhaps the greatest of the English Puritan divines. Writing in volume two of his works, which must be one of the greatest volumes ever penned by man outside of Holy Scripture; Owen writes, in volume two, “I, the Father, as love, look not on Him as an always disapproving Father but as One most kind and tender. Let us look on Him by faith as One that hath had thoughts of kindness towards us from everlasting.” From everlasting.
Owen was deeply concerned that many Christians failed to grasp the grace of the Father’s love in Christ. He was concerned for Christians who were, in a sense, comfortable with Christ, but were a little uncertain about the Father behind Christ. And Owen continues in that volume two — “unacquainted with, unacquaintedness with our mercies and our privileges is our sin as well as our trouble.” “Unacquaintedness with our mercies and our privileges is our sin as well as our trouble.”
What do you consider to be the great hindrance in your Christian life? Owen writes in another place, “The greatest hindrance we have in the Christian life is not our lack of effort, but our lack of acquaintedness with our privileges.” And what greater privilege do we have than Jesus Christ? He is, Himself, the gospel. The gospel isn’t something that God gives to us through His Son; Jesus Christ Himself is the Good News. He is the embodiment of the gospel. In Himself, He is the fullness of God. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Christ, and it is Christ who is held out to us in the gospel — not justification, not redemption, but Jesus Christ.
Let me put it as starkly as I can: according to the Bible, there is no such thing as “justification.” There’s no such thing as “redemption.” There’s no such thing as “faith.” And there’s no such thing as “grace.” Now, how do you hear me say that? Do you think, “What on earth has Ligonier done inviting this heretical Scotsman?”
What I mean is this: faith means nothing apart from Jesus Christ. It is faith in Christ that saves us. It’s not grace, as some kind of depersonalized, spiritual blessing, that comes to us. That’s Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism abounds in grace, but it’s a kind of “entity” that God gives to you. God gives us not “entities.” He gives us His Son Jesus Christ, in whom is the fullness of grace. And the same with justification: we are justified in Christ, by faith alone. It is Christ’s redemption that redeems us. Everything is concatenated in Jesus Christ. He is the gospel Himself
And so Owen, if I can quote Him again — my Christian life, much like Sinclair Ferguson’s, at a much lower plain that Sinclair’s, has been shaped by four Johns: John the apostle, John Calvin, John Owen, and John Murray, and my congregation in Cambridge feel a little impoverished if at least, on at least one sermon on a Sunday I don’t quote Calvin or Owen, so let me quote Owen again.
Listen to this: “How few of the saints are experimentally acquainted with this privilege of holding immediate communion with the Father in love. With what anxious, doubtful thoughts do they look upon Him? What fears, what questionings are there of His goodness and goodwill? At the best, many think there is no sweetness at all in God towards us but what is purchased at the high price of the blood of Christ.” “Many think there is no sweetness at all in God towards us but what is purchased at the high price of the blood of Christ.”
Some years ago, one of my assistants in Cambridge came to me after a sermon. He was a little ashen-faced. He was deeply emotional. And he said to me, “Ian, I’m not sure I’ve ever really understood that before.” And I looked at him a little quizzically, and I said, “Well, what do you mean?” He said, “You were saying tonight that Jesus Christ did not come to win the love of the Father for us; that He came as the gift of the Father’s love to us.” He said, “I’m not sure I have really grasped that before.”
And I think that’s probably true for many Christians. We look at the cross and we think that, by His cross, Jesus Christ has won for us the approbation of the Father. But it was the love of God for us that sent the Son into the world to save us. Jesus Christ is the gift of the Father’s love to us. And in the covenant of redemption in times eternal, it was the love of the Father that sent forth the Son to seek and to save the lost, to reconcile us and restore us to Himself. Chosen in Christ.
Election is in Christ, not apart from Christ. The Father gave to the Son a people, “that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day,” and “all that the Father has given to me will come to me.”
Some years ago, I was attending a minister’s conference in the United Kingdom. A dear friend of mine was preaching. And he said something that absolutely riveted me. He quoted some words of Geerhardus Vos. And Vos said, “The best proof that God will never cease to love us lies in that He never began.” Now, I stopped. Everything else stood still for me, actually, in that conference.
And I played those words over, and over, and over again in my mind — “The best proof that God will never cease to love me lies in that He never began.” And Vos was simply commenting on Jeremiah 31, verse 3: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” I found that an amazing, almost, in that moment, life-transforming thought. Theologically, I think I knew it well. But experientially, the proof that He will never stop loving me lies in that He never began because, in times eternal, He loved me and gave me to His Son Jesus Christ, who came in the fullness of time to redeem me, justify me, and eternally reconcile me to God. Charles Spurgeon understood this well.
He said, “Everlasting love shall be the pillow on which I rest my head tonight.” “Everlasting love shall be the pillow on which I rest my head tonight.” That lies at the heart of the divine election. And that’s why, throughout the ages of eternity, will this not be true of you as, please God, it will be true of me.
We will ever be asking, “Why, Oh Lord, such love to me? ” Will that not be the question that will absorb us through the ages of the ages, as we ponder the Lamb crucified for us and now at the heart of the throne of God, bearing yet in His body, the marks of our redemption, looking at Him who endured the cross, despising its shame, who was obedient unto death, even the death of a cross? “Why, why, Oh Lord, such love to me, such love to me?”
I began by telling you of the day that I first, I think, recollect hearing the word “Calvinism.” I’d been invited to that church about two years earlier with a boy at school. Another friend at school had invited us. We went along. I remember vividly, and my first instinct was to look around to find if there were any good-looking girls around that I could perhaps fasten my attention upon.
And my friend and I sat there, and the man leading the service had been told, “There are two unconverted boys here today.” And he scrapped his sermon, and he preached on John 3:16. I’d never heard John 3:16. I didn’t know anything in the Bible. I didn’t possess a Bible. I couldn’t have told you one thing in the Bible except for David’s lament over Saul on Mount Gilboa, but that’s another story. And my friend and I sat, and hardly had the man opened his mouth when I sat there absolutely gripped by God. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”
I left that church a new man in Christ, a young boy. God saved me. My friend left unmoved, unchanged and, as far as I know, to this day remains the same. Why me? Why me? Sovereign, sovereign, electing kindness. And so what is the great note of people who believe in sovereign, electing love? Heart-stopping wonder, worship, and thankfulness. Why, Oh Lord, such love to me?
Let us pray.
Lord, we come before You as men and women, boys and girls, who simply can but marvel that You have loved us and given Your only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to save us. Oh that the wonder, the grace, and the glory of the Savior might increasingly penetrate into the very depths of our being and cause within us to rise before you heart-stopping wonder, love, and praise. Oh gracious Father, make us men and women who glory in You, the triune God. And we ask it through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.