The question of God’s divine sovereignty and man’s free will, or “free agency” as The Baptist Faith & Message describes it, has vexed, teased, tantalized, and bedeviled serious Christians for centuries. How do Christians reconcile these two great biblical truths?
When I was asked to deliver the message that became “Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation From an ‘Eternal Now’ Perspective” in Whosoever Will, I accepted the challenge with humility and gratitude. Humility because it is an intimidating subject, and gratitude because I have been wrestling with this issue as a Christian and as a professor of systematic theology for decades.
My goal was to find a model of election that would allow me, or any preacher, to expound every verse of Scripture with equal confidence and not have to soft pedal or ignore those passages which are problematic to one view or the other. What model of election would allow preachers to, with equal clarity, proclaim Ephesians’ declaration that “He chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight” (1:3-5), as well as Paul’s declaration that God has an “earnest desire” for everyone to be saved and come to an epignōsis or “full knowledge” of the truth and that God gave Himself as “a ransom for all” (I Tim. 4-6)?
How do we reconcile these two great eternal truths proclaimed by the same apostle under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration? I believe that there are two truths which allow us to construct a congruent or “eternal now” model of election which resolves the tension.
First, we must understand that the Bible reveals two different kinds of election, and much confusion has resulted from failing to see this distinction. Abrahamic Election is substantially different from Salvation Election. Abrahamic Election (Gen. 12:1-3) explains how God chose the Jews to be His chosen people. Salvation Election pertains to God’s elective purpose in how He brings about the eternal salvation of individual human beings, both Jew and Gentile, in both the Old and New Testaments.
Abrahamic Election is corporate, is to special people status, and is not related to anything. Salvation Election is individual and is to eternal salvation. In God’s providence, He has chosen to reveal His dealings with His people more fully in the New Testament. In doing so, a third difference between Abrahamic (corporate) and Salvation (individual) Election is underscored. God revealed in the New Testament that Salvation Election is somehow intertwined with, and connected to foreknowledge in a significant way (Rom. 8:29-30; 11:2; I Pet. 1:2).
As Paul anticipated Jewish objections to the preaching of the Gospel of grace to the Gentiles (Rom. 9-11), He explained that God always had “a remnant chosen by grace….His people whom he foreknew) (Rom. 11:1-5), those such as Abraham in the Old Testament and the apostle Paul in the New Testament, who experienced Salvation Election as well as Abrahamic Election.
I go on in the book to suggest as gently as possible (because historically they have understood a lot more correctly than they have understood incorrectly) that the reason Calvinists formulated their doctrine of election incorrectly is that they defined their ecclesiology incorrectly. Since they failed to see the difference between Israel and the church, they were not attuned to God dealing differently with Israel as a special people and the individual elect in Salvation Election.
When the differences between Abrahamic Election and Salvation Election are as substantial as they are, one should not extrapolate between them as if there were no differences and they were interchangeable. For example, whenever these issues are raised people ask, “What about Jacob and Esau?” (Rom 9:11-13). H. A. Ironside explains the differences between Abrahamic Election and Salvation Election succinctly, and why they should be differentiated and not conflated:
“There is no question here of predestination to Heaven or reprobation to hell; …. we are not told here, nor anywhere else, that before children are born it is God’s purpose to send one to heaven and one to hell….The passage has entirely to do with privilege here on earth.” (Ironside, Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 116)
I challenge all interested readers to read Romans 9-11 carefully from the prospective of the two types of election-Abrahamic (corporate) and Salvation (individual), remembering that “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendents” (Rom. 9:6-7).
The second truth, relating to the understanding of Salvation Election, is understanding God’s relation to, and the experience of, “time”. While God experiences “time” in the linear, time-space continuum, or chronical experience as a function of his omniscience, and omnipresence, He alone is not bound by “time’s” constraints or parameters. Unlike man God has always existed in what C. S. Lewis termed “Eternal Now.”
God has always experienced the totality time and everything before time (eternity past) and after (eternity future) as the present. Thus, God is described as living in the Eternal Now and knowing all things simultaneously.
What if the Bible is telling us in the concept of “foreknowledge” that God does not just know all things that have, or ever will happen, as if they were the present moment to Him, but that He has,
and always has had, the “experience” of all things, events, and people as a punctiliar present moment? That, I believe, is precisely what is suggested by the biblical concept of foreknowledge. From God’s perspective there can never have been a single moment when God has not had the totality of His experience (their acceptance and after, or their rejection and after) with each and every human being as part of His “present” (i.e. eternal) experience and knowledge.
God has always experienced those accepting him and praising him in the New Heaven and New Earth as well as those who have rejected him and have been sent to perdition. Thus, the ones He has always experienced accepting and worshipping him are elect and He works in an especially solicitous way to make their call effectual and they will believe as opposed to must believe.
Conversely, He has always experienced the rebellion and the rejection of those who are lost and they will not accept his invitation and call (as opposed to cannot accept, as in the Calvinist model).
I for one, see a big difference between a model where the elect will be saved and one where the elect must be saved. And I see an even bigger difference between a model that says the non-elect won’t be saved as opposed to the one that says the non-elect can’t be saved.
So, how does this alternative view of election impact the other four points of the Synod of Dort’s T. U.L.I.P.? I have been praying and thinking quite a bit about that very thing in the months since the “Whosoever Will Conference” in November, 2008, after all, Whosoever Will is “a biblical theological critique of five-point Calvinism”.
In fact, I am now finishing a full-length book entitled “God’s Desire for You” based on a new alternative to T.U.L.I.P. called D.E.S.I.R.E. “Desire” comes from Paul’s first epistle to Timothy where he declares that God has an earnest desire that “all men be saved” and come to “the knowledge of truth” (I Tim. 2:4) and that Jesus “gave himself as ransom for all” (I Tim. 2:6). D.E.S.I R.E. is thus an alternative acrostic to T.U.L.I.P. and illustrates how the Congruent or “Eternal Now” election model impacts the other points of the T.U.L.I.P.
“D” stands for “Disabling Depravity”, meaning no part of man has escaped the contamination and moral wreckage of the fall. However, man is not so depraved he has to be the object of irresistible grace.
“E” stands for “Eternal Now” election as explained earlier.
“S” stands for “Sufficient Salvation”, meaning that Jesus Christ substitutionary death on the cross was, is, and will be, sufficient for all who respond in faith to His, and the Holy Spirit’s, “initiatory call of conviction”.
Thus, the “I” in D.E.S.I.R.E. stands for the fact that, as the apostle Paul says, “the natural man does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him” (I Cor. 2:14).
The lost man must be the object of the Holy Spirit’s “initiatory call of conviction” which enables him to understand his fallenness and lostness and illuminates the truth of the Gospel to him. God must take the initiative, but His call is not “irresistible”.
“R” stands for “Regenerative Grace”. In the D.E.S.I.R.E. model, as a person attempts to respond to God’s initiatory call and conviction, God gives him saving faith and regenerates him from above. The apostle Paul declares to the Ephesians, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift, not from works, so no one can boast” (2:8-9).
We cannot lose our salvation because it is not ours. We are not saved by “our” faith, but by our God-enhanced, Spirit-completed faith.
Consequently, the “E” in “D.E.S.I.R.E.” stands for “Eternal Security”, which means “our” salvation is eternally secure in His grace and sovereignty. From the moment of conversion forward the Lord Jesus has promised that nothing can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:35-39).
The great Victorian Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said it best when he called it “Perseverance of the Savior”
There it is-God’s “D.E.S.I.R.E.” for you. It isn’t the T.U.L.I.P., but its not Arminianism either!