Why Choose Me?

Question
As I study the doctrine of election my burning question is not: Why not everyone? That seems like God's prerogative to choose whom he will, but rather my question is why me? Why would God choose me, how can I know that passages such as Eph 1:4 are mine to claim? It seems arrogant to me to look and my life and proclaim that I am part of the elect. I look at my life and see failures in God's eyes, failure to be obedient to him, sinning without effort, sinning at times willfully. I love Christ and I do see the difference in my life and mind since I was saved but it sure often seems that my love of God is a conditional love, very imperfect. I can certainly relate to Paul in Romans 7:18-20.

I am a sinner, in need of grace. I have done nothing to deserve his grace (and I know we are saved by grace not our own works). Is it just simply grace? Is that what I must ultimately rest in? Is the answer to "Why me?" - God's grace.?

Where can I go to get answers to why me? How can we be sure of our election? How can we be confident that we not just fooling ourselves?
Answer
You have raised two questions that theologians have wrestled with for ages: assurance of salvation, and the nature of God's prerogative in election.


Election

The traditional answer to the question "Why me?" is "Because it pleased God to do it that way," and that is perhaps the best answer I can offer. God certainly could have chosen everyone. He also could have chosen no one. And he could have chosen other people than he did. But he did not; he chose whom he chose. The Bible does tell us that the basis for his choice was his love for us (Eph. 1:4-5; Col. 3:12), and that he loved us because he reckoned us as belonging to and being united to Christ (Rom. 8:29; Eph.1:4-5,10-11; 1 Pet. 1:2). But this only pushes your questions back a couple steps to "Why did he reckon us in Christ?"

Now, the Bible does offer some insight into this question, but even this insight will not satisfy all our curiosities. For example, Paul wrote that God chose us to "nullify the things that are" (1 Cor. 1:27-28). That is, he chose the ones the world does not value in order to demonstrate his glory by exalting the humble and humbling the exalted. Granted, in this context Paul is speaking more directly of effectual calling, but the two are intimately related (cf. Rom. 8:30), and he does speak of calling in terms of God's choice. In any event, the idea that God called us on the basis that we were not exalted seems to base his choice on a prior understanding of who we would be. But since who we would be is something that he foreordained (Eph. 1:11), his choice was based ultimately on his own foreordination. That is logically consistent, but it still doesn't really answer our questions to our entire satisfaction.

And Peter wrote that we were chosen in order to proclaim God's excellencies (1 Pet. 2:9). But this does not tell us why someone else could not have proclaimed God's excellencies equally well.

In Romans 9:22-23, Paul indicated that God's choice of both the elect for salvation and the reprobate for destruction was for the sake of glorifying the elect. This indicates that God did not chose everyone because that arrangement would not have best served his desire to glorify certain ones. But again, we have to wonder why God couldn't have created a world in which it would glorify him and the elect sufficiently if he saved everyone.

God has hinted at reasons that he chose some over others, and he has made it clear that these reasons are not based in human merit. He has chosen us because he loved us in Christ, and he has chosen us in order to glorify himself and us. Beyond this, he has not told us, and we need to be content knowing that God still has some secrets (Deut. 29:29).

For my own part, I think Paul's illustration of the potter in Romans 9 offers some relief to the tension we feel over this issue. There, Paul indicates that God chose to create certain individuals for glory, and others for destruction. In other words, God had it in mind that he wanted two groups of people, so he created some to put in one group, and he created others to put in the other group. Paul's argument here shows similarities with supralapsarianism, though you might want to see my comments elsewhere on supra- and infralapsarianism: Q&A and Q&A. In short, though, Paul indicates that God did not look at the mass of people he would create and make an arbitrary decision to favor some and not others. Although, given Paul's reasoning here, if God had made an arbitrary choice, it would have been well within his rights.

According to Paul's illustration, God is a potter who wants to make a nice piece of pottery for display. So, he takes a bit of clay and molds it to be just what he wants. Then he decides to make a plain old bowl for his dog. So, he takes some more clay and makes a bowl for Rover. The picture is not one in which God made two vessels and then chose one for display and one for the dog. Rather, the picture is of God deciding to create an artistic piece and a common bowl. In this context, it doesn't make much sense for the artistic piece to ask "Why wasn't I a bowl?" The choice was not between being an artistic piece and a bowl. Instead, the choice was between existence as an artistic piece and non-existence. Either he makes you into a pretty vase, or he doesn't create you at all. Why did he choose to create a vase? Because he wanted one. Why did he create your person to put into the vase? The vase had to have some person in it, so God created a person that was fitting for the vase, a person whom he would love. He made a person that was appropriate for the use he intended for the person.

Now, this is not the only way the Bible presents the picture of election, but I think it is a helpful one. I also believe it is valuable to speak of God sorting through individuals he has already decided to create, akin to infralapsarianism (see the links above that reference "supralapsarianism"). I think the truth of the matter is that both perspectives are true. But when we approach election from the "supralapsarian" perspective, the question "Why me?" give us less tension.

As to the question of why God created any dog bowls at all, the answer is that God had a purpose for them to fulfill, so he made vessels that would fit that purpose, namely destruction. Why did God have this purpose? I don't know. I can offer some suggestions, though. For one thing, it glorifies him to express his attributes, including attributes like righteous anger, as well as justice. So, punishing sin glorifies God. But couldn't God have punished all sin in Christ and sent no one to hell? Yes. Why didn't he? The Bible doesn't say. What it does say is that the secret things belong to God alone (Deut. 29:29). In some matters, we just have to be content that God has not told us everything.

In any event, there is no need to attach any arrogance to election. We are not chosen because we are better. If anything, Paul indicates that we are chosen because we are worse (1 Cor. 1:27-31). Perhaps it is best to say that we are just luckier.

Finally, our election has a goal: We are to be conformed to Christ's image (Rom. 8:29). But that doesn't mean that we won't sin badly on the road to conformation. In fact, only two things are guaranteed in this regard: 1) we will eventually be perfection; and 2) we will never be perfect in this life (e.g., 1 Kings 8:46). Being elect doesn't make us better than anyone else. It only ensures that eventually we will be perfected, though the grace of God, by his work (Phil. 1:6).


Assurance of Salvation

The question "Am I elect?" is distinct from "Why am I elect?" Interestingly, not all within the Reformed tradition agree on the answer to "Am I elect?" Some theologians even divide the question "Am I elect?" from the question "Am I saved?" suggest that while only the elect are saved and that unfailingly, it is possible to have assurance of salvation but not assurance of election. Their reasoning is basically that salvation is experiential and temporal, and therefore knowable, whereas election is an unknowable eternal decree. Personally, I come down in favor of the idea that we can and ought to have assurance of election and of salvation, but that it is possible to be saved and not have assurance.

Proper assurance of salvation can come from at least two sources. First, there is the theological conviction of the gospel's content and efficacy. If we know that everyone who believes and obeys the gospel is saved, and if we know that we believe and obey the gospel, then we should also know that we are saved.

Believing and obeying is pretty simple. Believing is, at a minimum, knowing and affirming the truth that because Jesus died for us, we will be forgiven and saved if we trust in him for our salvation. Obeying the gospel in a saving way is simply turning to Christ in faith and repenting of our sin. If we believe and have done these things, they we should have assurance of salvation. Paul put it this way in Romans 10:9: "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." It's pretty simple, really. We don't need advanced knowledge or perfect lives to be saved. Even a child can understand the gospel sufficiently to be saved. If these things are true of us, then we are saved. And if we understand that this is all it takes to be saved, and that these things are true of us, then this knowledge ought to give us assurance of our salvation.

Second, there is inward assurance that comes from the Holy Spirit. This is what we might call "inner peace" that comes from our living relationship with God. It is part and parcel with the "peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension" (Phil. 4:7). It can be strengthened when we are obedient to God in our daily lives. Such obedience is fruit (Gal. 5:22-23) that demonstrates, validates and proves our salvation (Jam. 2:18-20). By the same token, it can be weakened when we fail to live as God has instructed. It can also be strengthened by communion with God (e.g., prayer, Scripture reading and meditation) and the use of what Presbyterians like to call the "means of grace" (such as the sacraments, the preaching of the word and prayer). Correspondingly, it can be weakened when we fail to do these things.

In my experience, most people who do not have assurance of their salvation focus on those passages of Scripture that teach that believers will not sin as much as unbelievers (e.g., 1 John), as well as on passages that speak of the way that Christians ought to be growing to maturity in Christ. The standard Reformed doctrine of progressive sanctification is perhaps the greatest culprit I know for causing people to doubt their salvation.

For the record, I don't believe in progressive sanctification as it is typically stated. I do believe that the Bible teaches that sanctification is continual, but I don't believe that it teaches that continual sanctification necessarily produces improvement in one's life. That sanctification is ongoing only proves that our need for sanctification is also ongoing. If we were getting better, our need for sanctification would be decreasing, but the Bible gives not indication that this is the case. It seems to me that the Bible presents Christians as people who sin and require regular forgiveness, and thus as people who need ongoing sanctification. Now, it is also true that the Bible teaches us to press on toward maturity, and to purify our lives so that we are constantly becoming less sinful. But this is a command and a goal, not a guaranteed result of coming to faith. Christians should be getting less sinful, but many of us are not. This is not proof that we are not saved. It is simply proof that we need to repent.

I also think many of us misunderstand books like 1 John, and other passages that speak of Christians living near-perfect lives. For example, 1 John 5:18 says, "No one who is born of God sins." By a simplistic reading, John is saying that if you commit a sin, then you prove that you have not been saved. But that would mean that no one who is saved is capable of sinning, which John himself denied (1 John 1:8-2:2). I don't pretend that every text such as 1 John 5:18 is easy to understand, but we need to be very careful to let all Scripture inform our understanding of all other Scripture. In the case of 1 John 5:18, the most natural explanation is that John was still referring to the sin that leads to death (1 John 5:17), not to sin in general. Each such passage has an explanation that harmonizes with the rest of Scripture, but sometimes it takes a lot of thought and study to discover it.

Getting back to assurance, it is true that the worse we are, the less assurance we should have. And when we gain little assurance from the inward leading of the Holy Spirit, it is worth asking whether or not we really believe and obey the gospel (2 Cor. 13:5). But if the answer to that question is "yes," then we should draw assurance from our theology.

We should also not judge ourselves by a harsher standard than the Bible uses to judge us. We are pretty good at emphasizing grace, mercy and forgiveness when we talk about the gospel with unbelievers, and we need to remember that these things are still the guiding standard once we come to faith. God doesn't accept us in Christ when we come to faith only to make us sink or swim by our own merit thereafter. And think about the biblical examples of faithful men. Peter temporarily denied Christ before men (Matt 26:69-75; cf. 10:33), but he was still saved. David was an adulterer and a murderer (2 Sam. 11), yet he was saved the whole time. If you haven't been worse than these giants of the faith, you haven't got sufficient cause to believe that your failure to conquer sin in your life proves that you aren't saved. This isn't to say that some of us aren't self-deceived, because some of us surely are. But unless our sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, it is only an indicator, not proof.

With regard to the idea of having assurance in our election, I would say that because we know that all who truly believe the gospel are elect, to have assurance of salvation is also to have assurance of election. God's eternal decrees are often hidden from us before they are brought to pass. But once they are brought to pass, they are revealed through general revelation, and they should then be recognized. If I am truly saved, then I am truly elect. Therefore, if I am assured of my salvation, I should also be assured of my election. I think Peter allows for assurance of election in 2 Peter 1:10 when he says, "Make certain about his à choosing you."

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.