On what basis does God choose His people for salvation? Today, Barry Cooper explains that our eternal destiny doesn’t ultimately depend on our free choice—and why that’s a good thing.
On what basis does God elect people to salvation?
Some have argued that God saves a person based on “fore-seeing” that the person will one day repent and believe in Christ. In other words, the person is saved by God because of what they have done, or will do. By contrast, “unconditional election” is the idea that when God saves a person, it is not conditional on anything that person has done or will do. God’s election of a person to salvation is based purely on His own gracious, sovereign will.
The biblical teaching on this, across both Old and New testaments, is summed up in Romans chapter 9. The Apostle Paul uses the example of Jacob and Esau. God clearly set his sovereign love on Jacob rather than Esau, “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad”. Paul explains that this was precisely so that “God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls”. As God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
Some have reacted to these words by questioning God’s justice. If God elects some to salvation, then it follows that he does not elect others. Why? Why not just save everybody?
Of course, the question isn’t answered if we do away with the idea of unconditional election. We could believe, as some Christians do, that people are saved completely of their own free will. But in that scenario, there will presumably still be people who do not freely choose salvation. Why doesn’t God just save them? Why wouldn’t he just “override” their free will?
So that question - why doesn’t God save everyone? - remains, whether or not you believe in unconditional election.
But while asking this question, it’s wise to remember that we’re not God. We don’t have all the information or the wisdom that He does. We’re not as loving or as just as He has demonstrated himself to be, most supremely at the cross. So just because we can’t see a reason why God doesn’t save everyone, it doesn’t follow that there isn’t a very good reason why.
Though I try to be a pretty positive kind of parent, I do sometimes tell my two year old daughter that I can’t (or won’t) always give her the very thing that she really really wants. I believe I always have good and loving reasons for doing so. But is she ready yet, to be able to grasp the goodness of those reasons? No. She probably thinks I’m being mean, and that she has thought of a much better way of doing things than me. But I suspect that when she grows up, she’ll understand those reasons, especially if she becomes a parent herself. So it seems reasonable to suppose that God - who has repeatedly proved His loving and gracious character - has very good reasons for ordering things as He has, even if we don’t understand them yet.
Then there’s this question: if God sovereignly elects whomever he wills to be saved, what is the point of evangelism, or praying for people to be saved? Wouldn’t people just “get saved” regardless of whether or not we share the gospel with them, or pray for them?
Well, I’m sorry to mention my daughter again, but it seems to me she is delighted when I ask her to do things with me. When I say to her, “Sweetheart, can you take this book to mummy for me?”, she loves to be included and involved. She doesn’t see it as pointless, she sees it as a privilege. And even if she could speak fluently, I doubt she’d say, “Oh come on, you don’t need me for this. We both know you would take the book to mummy yourself if I didn’t do it, and to be honest you would probably do it more quickly.” That would be true. I don’t need my daughter to make it happen. But I delight in involving her - and she delights in being involved. So yes, God sovereignly elects people to salvation, and yes, he gives us the privilege of praying for the salvation of others, and holding out that salvation to them.
And actually, it’s very motivating to know that the eternal destiny of the person I’m talking to does not depend on my delivering a perfectly compelling presentation of the gospel. I can’t imagine how paralyzed I would feel in that situation if I didn’t know that God really is sovereign in these matters. Similarly, if a person’s salvation is ultimately down to their own free choice, why bother asking God to save them if he’s powerless to override that free choice?
It seems to me that all of us, when we’re on our knees praying for loved ones, only do so because functionally we are trusting in God’s sovereign power to intervene and save a person unconditionally, regardless of that person’s current attitude toward Him.
Thankfully, unconditional election is just what Scripture teaches. Our salvation does not ultimately depend on us, but on Him. Those who freely come to God are those whom God has freely chosen.