How do you explain the doctrine of election to an unbeliever?

The first thing I would say is that it is not the place to begin in talking to an unbeliever.

The second thing is that since the reality of election is grasped only by faith, that's what we really need to emphasize.

The third thing I might say, however, is that the one thing the doctrine of election does is underline that we are utterly helpless, and we need God to save us. I think it's true that people sing about that, and yet when you ask them about it they say, "No, I don't really believe that."

What's the most common song of a religious or spiritual kind that people seem to sing with gusto in the United States? It's "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me." But once those people stop singing wherever they're singing it en masse and you say, "Oh, so you're a wretch are you?"

What the doctrine of election really says is you have no capacity to save yourself. God needs to save you.

In that sense, one of the things that the doctrine of election may do when a non-Christian hears about it is bring out their rebellion against God. It may bring out their sense of self-sufficiency, which then makes it possible to probe a little and to show them that such is their spiritual condition that they're not capable of coming to faith in Christ without God first of all loving them and drawing them to Himself.

Sometimes people have said to me in response, "Well, I choose to follow Jesus Christ whenever I want." And I say to them, "I'm your friend and I really care about you, so that's okay; but would you do it just now to prove to me that you really can do it when you want?" If you know people well enough to press that a little on them, I think it may help them to realize they're absolutely powerless to come to Christ themselves.

This transcript is from a live Ask Ligonier event with Sinclair Ferguson and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.