Who Decides Who Can Be Saved?
Who Decides Who Can Be Saved? by Rev. L. John Gable
October 22, 2017
Introduction: This morning we continue our series on “the five points of Calvinism”. You will recall that these distinguishing principles of Presbyterian theology form the acronym TULIP. Last week we talked about T-Total Depravity; today, U- Unlimited Election; next week, L- Limited Atonement; then I- Irresistible Grace, and finally, P- the Perseverance of the Saints.
When we talked last week about the doctrine of total depravity, as awful as that sounds, we came to the understanding that it simply means that everything we say and do and think is touched and tainted by the pervasive power of sin. This is not to say that everything we do is bad, rather it is an honest acknowledgement that we are a broken and sinful people, and despite our best efforts and intentions, we are powerless to fix what is broken within us or to free ourselves from the bondage and corruption of sin, both individually and collectively. The doctrine of total depravity is the recognition that we need God to act on our behalf and to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, namely to save us, which is exactly what God has done for us in Jesus Christ; which brings us to our topic for today, the second of Calvin’s principles, Unconditional Election.
In recent months we have witnessed countless acts of horrific devastation and tragedy, think hurricanes in Texas and Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, wildfires in California, the horror of the mass shooting in Las Vegas and the devastation of addiction and violence we read about every day in the paper. These are sober reminders that there is something to this principle of total depravity. Yet even as we get fixated on the tragedy of these events we mustn’t overlook the good that is being done in the midst of them. I am sure you are familiar with the story told by and about Fred Rogers. As a child he was terrified by the tragic events he read and heard about in the news, until one day his mother invited him to redirect his perspective, rather than looking at the tragedy, she encouraged him to look at all the good people who were rushing to the scene to help, even as others were rushing away from it. “Look for the helpers”, she told him. That one bit of advice was life-changing for the child we came to know as the gentle, caring Mr. Rogers.
In the midst of those tragic events, first responders and regular citizens offer heroic acts of service, seemingly instinctively, impulsively. They don’t stop to ask whether the person they are going out to rescue is deserving, or whether it was their foolish actions which put them in danger in the first place, or whether they have resources of their own to take care of themselves; rather they simply respond, they move in to action, most times without even knowing who it is they are going to help, often exposing themselves to great risk of personal danger. Why do they do this? Simply because they hear a cry for help and feel compelled to respond.
The same is true of God’s action toward us. Upon hearing our cry for help, as faint as it may be, God’s immediate response is to come to our aid, whether we deserve it or not. This is the clear teaching of Scripture and the bold promise of our faith. God is ever moving toward us with love and compassion.
Listen again to this promise from John’s Gospel. We are all familiar with John 3:16, perhaps the most recognized verse in Scripture, but listen now to the oft-neglected verse which follows. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”(3:17). God’s motive is not to rebuke or punishment, but mercy and love. He sent His Son not to condemn us, but to save us. Why? Because we are His children and He loves us and He knows we need His help. While we may deserve His anger and punishment, God desires our redemption and wholeness. That is called “grace”, God’s undeserved love for us. As theologian Paul Tillich puts it, grace calls us “to accept the fact that we have been accepted.”
Friends, God’s desire for us is restoration and redemption. He desires us to be set free from our bondage to sin and be made whole once again. And not only us, but the whole world. Remember, “For God so loved the world (the Greek word is kosmos) that He gave His only Son.”(3:16) . His love for us is not an after-thought on God’s part. It is an essential part of God’s character, perhaps it is the defining part of God’s character. The theological term for this is “the prevenient grace” which means that, even before the foundations of the world, God chose us in His love, and He did so knowing full well that one day He would have to rescue us from the sinful condition in to which we have fallen. There is no greater promise or confidence that we can be given than this: that God, before He created the heavens and the earth, thought of you and me, and chose us to be His children. This doctrine called Unconditional Election, means that God’s first impulse toward us is loving kindness and everything else we can ever know about God flows from it. We have been chosen by God for redemption, not because of anything we have done or can do to deserve it, but only out of His free love for us. Out of God’s grace alone He has chosen us to be His children.
Now, given our past history and our present condition this really is a remarkable promise. But it’s not something we can boast or brag about because remember we had nothing to do with it; rather we have been chosen by God for service and responsibility. We have been called into service not because we are God’s favorites, but because there is work to be done and we are the ones God has graciously chosen to do it.
It is important that we tie these first two theological principles together because until we understand the depth and dimension of our sinful condition (Total Depravity), we will not fully understand our need for a Savior, much less the miracle of the free gift of God’s grace for our salvation (Unconditional Election).
When I was in seminary, one of my good friends was Jeb Magruder of Watergate fame, or infamy. You younger folks can Google him. He was convicted and served time for his part in the cover-up during the Nixon administration. One day at lunch Jeb was wearing a suit, so I asked him what he was doing that afternoon and he said he was going to meet with the FBI. I asked why and he told me he was applying, again, for an executive pardon. Though he had served his time, he was still a convicted felon and he was seeking the President’s pardon to have his record expunged. He then said, “John, if the President offered you an executive pardon it wouldn’t mean much to you because you have nothing you need to be pardoned for, but it would mean everything to me.”
Friends, the same is true in our relationship with God. To hear God say, “I love you and I forgive you” only has real meaning for us when we realize that we are unlovable and in real need of forgiveness. The sheer wonder of God’s unconditional election only has meaning for us when we acknowledge the totality of our sinfulness and the depth of God’s love for us despite it. What a great God we have!
We read in Romans 8, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (:28). That is another of the great promises of Scripture, but then we read on, “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn within a large family. And those He predestined He also called; and those He called He also justified; and those He justified He also glorified”(:29-30). This is the text most often referred to when we talk about another great Reformation principle, predestination. Naturally we ask, “Who is this talking about? Who did God foreknow and predestine to be glorified?”
If we take in to consideration all we have just talked about, the answer is us, all of us, but not just us, rather the whole world. From the very beginning of time God has chosen us, every one of us, to be His children. God has “pre-determined” His desired destiny for all of us; that is our redemption and salvation. That is really good news, but it begs the question, if that is God’s desire and God is in control, then why don’t all people believe? Or asked another way, “Who decides who will be saved? God or us?” Admittedly this is part of the mystery of faith, but I think it is safe to say that given the fact that God has already chosen for us we must then also choose for God.
I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the flood that hit the mid-western town and the man who prayed that God would save him. As the waters got to his doorstep the man’s neighbors came by in a boat but he refused to get in saying, “No, God will save me.” The waters continued to rise to the point that the man was forced to stand on his roof, so again he cried out, “God save me!” and before long a helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a ladder, but the man refused saying, “No, God will save me!” Well, the man drowned and when he arrived in heaven he was cold, wet and angry. He asked God, “Why didn’t you save me?” And God answered, “What more did you expect Me to do? I sent you a boat and a helicopter!”
So, who decides who will be saved? Without question, God does and He has already decided in our favor. God desires our salvation and has unconditionally elected us to be His children. But God won’t take away our free will or force on us anything we don’t want for ourselves, so we too have to decide whether we will accept His election. God has acted, now we must respond.
We may rightly ask, “Who could possibly reject the love of God?” It is hard to imagine, but many people certainly do. Some, perhaps, do not believe simply because they have not yet heard the Gospel message. This then is our responsibility. God has told us to share His Good News with all people, in all nations and languages, around the world and in our neighborhood. We dare not keep this message to ourselves.
There are others who do not believe because they have not been told rightly. This is our responsibility as well. We need to share the Gospel message in a way that is winsome and convincing, showing the difference God has made, and is making, in our lives, as we invite others to experience the same. Scripture tells us, “We are ambassadors for Christ. God is making His appeal through us” (II Cor. 5:20). So we need to make sure that our appeal is appealing.
I believe there are still others who do not accept the love of God simply because of their own life experience of abuse and neglect. The idea that God loves them is inconsistent with what they have experienced from others who have also professed their love, but then acted with neglect or violence. We need to be particularly sensitive with these people, and I believe God will deal with them in a special way.
But still there are those who have had every opportunity to hear, and hear rightly, yet still refuse to believe. Perhaps they have considered the claims of Christ and come to the conclusion that they don’t need what He has to offer, or they have considered the conditions of life in the Kingdom of God and have chosen instead to reject that way of living. That is what John was getting at when he writes, “the light has come in to the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed”(3:19-20). Despite God loving desire for them that certainly is their right and free will, to reject His love. We should hold these people with greatest concern, because these are our neighbors and friends and family members, who deny the very One they want and need.
Author and pastor Max Lucado tells of ending a sermon he was preaching on grace by offering a one dollar bill to anyone who would come up and take it. He offered it as a free gift, but no one took him up on it; they got it, he’d made his point, and who really needs a dollar? But then he asked, “What if I offered $1000, $10,000, a pair of tickets to the Super Bowl? That would get your attention, wouldn’t it?”
What then if the offer was of God’s grace and forgiveness, freely given, unconditionally offered to anyone who would come forward to receive it? Would you take it then? Surely you would if you recognized your need for forgiveness; if you understood that that is God’s first and greatest desire for you. Surely you would if you understood that from the foundation of the world God has unconditionally chosen you to be His child and to know His love. Surely you would if you understood that all you have to do to experience the saving grace of God is “accept the fact that you have been accepted.”