‘Why me?’ Deuteronomy 7:1-11 May 24, 1992
We have been referring to the Book of Deuteronomy as ‘the Romans of the Old Testament.’ Well, then, we should not be at all surprised to find in it such a strong statement of the doctrine of divine election, the very doctrine to which Paul devotes such considerable and famous attention in his letter to the Romans. As in Romans, so here in Deuteronomy, we find a very strong statement of the principle of sovereign grace. Out of all the peoples of the world God chose Israel to be his own people and chose her, not because she in some way deserved his favor, she most certainly did not, but entirely and mysteriously because he loved her in defiance of all her great defects and shortcomings. As Paul would later put it: ‘It does not depend, therefore, on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.’
But, also as in Romans, election is given a double aspect here in Deuteronomy 7. Clearly, in one sense, God has chosen a people, a nation. He separated Israel from among all the nations to be his treasured possession. But, as Paul would later put it, not all Israel is Israel. Not every member of the nation was a participant in the blessings of personal salvation. We have that point made here in vv. 9-10. Now there are some who feel that this is all the election that there is. God has chosen a people to occupy a position of special privilege. But whether a person is saved or not, that depends not upon God’s choice, but upon the choice of the person himself or herself. And they would point to vv. 9 and 10 and say: do not these verses say exactly that. Sure, you may be an Israelite, but you will only be an object of God’s saving love if you love him.
Moses does not give us here the same comprehensive treatment of election that Paul does, for example, in Romans 9. Paul tells us there that not only was Israel elect as a nation, but that those Israelites who trusted the Lord and received his salvation likewise did so only because God had chosen them for salvation and had shown mercy to them. There is a general election and there is a special election. It is by God’s choice that Israel was the people of God, but it is also by God’s choice that one comes to believe, to trust the Lord and to love him. Every believing Israelite man or woman loved God because he first loved him or her.
But that point is made in principle here in Deuteronomy as well. For the basic principle is the same and the basic lesson is the same whether we are considering election in the broader sense, as in the election of Israel as a nation, or in the special sense of God’s choice of individuals to salvation. The fact is that God made this distinction between sinful and unworthy people, to call some to himself and to leave others unsummoned. It may be that not all Israel is Israel, that many Israelites were only Israelites after the flesh, according to the letter and not the spirit. But the fact remains that in those days virtually the whole company of the saved were Israelites. It was from that first election that the second election was drawn. The election of Israel as a people was the first step in that process by which God set apart to himself those who would be saved, would be forever with him in heaven. It is his gracious choice in each case, it is his mercy, not human action or merit or desert that is the final explanation for anyone’s salvation.
This, then, is the Bible’s doctrine of divine election. It is our church’s doctrine. We believe that God has been pleased from all eternity to choose certain men and women out of fallen mankind whom, for his love’s sake, he has determined to save by Jesus Christ. For these and these only, Jesus Christ came into the world and it was for these he laid down his life. These men and women, boys and girls, whom God has chosen, He calls in time by his Spirit. He works in them a true faith in Christ, converts, renews and sanctifies them. He keeps them by his grace and power from falling away and brings them at last to glory in heaven. None ever repent and believe in Christ except the elect only. That is our doctrine because it is the Bible’s doctrine.
Now, to be sure, it is a very controversial doctrine. It has been controversial from the very beginning. Paul himself faced this very controversy. In Romans 9 he anticipated that people were going to object; he even anticipated precisely their objections. People are going to say, he said, that this makes God unjust, choosing to save some and not others; and they will further say that this doctrine of divine election robs human beings of their free will and thus destroys human responsibility. Paul made it clear that neither of those objections is valid and each rests on a serious misunderstanding, but throughout church history and still today those are the two objections which are always raised against the doctrine of sovereign grace and divine election, against this doctrine that God chooses us, we do not choose him.
Difficult as it may be, I want all of you to believe this doctrine with all your heart. I believe that it lies at the very center of the Bible’s teaching of salvation and one must believe it both to understand and to appreciate God’s great salvation in Christ aright. I have no doubt that one of the reasons why Christianity is so weak and so pale and has produced such unimpressive Christians in our day is precisely because the church has lost touch with the Bible’s doctrine of salvation sola gratia, by grace alone. It has lost its sense of wonder at the sheer and unmitigated love and mercy of God. It is the sense that one owes absolutely everything to God, that from its beginning to its end, our salvation, our eternal life, our inheritance in heaven is his gift, his work, his doing; it is this sense welling up in the soul that produces the love, the wonder, the gratitude, the zeal, the passion, and the humility which makes for a truly Christlike life.
So let me give you some of the reasons why you ought to believe that it is God who makes Christians, that it is God’s choice of them not their choice of him that makes them his children.
First, and foremost, we should embrace with all our hearts the doctrine of divine election because it is so often, and so emphatically, and so clearly, and so unmistakably taught in Holy Scripture. I do not deny that this doctrine of election is very deep and shrouded with mystery and that not even the deepest and wisest Christian has eyes to see it fully. It is not particularly difficult to see why no part of the Christian religion has been so disputed and reviled as this. Multitudes of self-professed Christians who claim to believe the atonement, and justification by faith, and salvation by grace, refuse to accept this doctrine of election. The very mention of it will often make them angry. Paul as much as said that this would be the response of many to his teaching. But, after all, is not the doctrine of election as I have stated it the plain teaching of the Bible?
Whether it is here in Deuteronomy 7 or in the Psalms or the Prophets or from the mouth of the Savior himself as so often in the Gospels, or the pen of the Apostle John or Paul the doctrine that salvation is of the Lord — in its plan, its execution, and the choice of its recipients — lies on the face of the Bible. It is said in so many different ways and so bluntly that the importance the Lord attaches to our understanding and accepting this doctrine cannot be doubted. The fact that so many of the most straightforward statements of the doctrine of God’s sovereign and discriminating mercy are made by the Lord Jesus himself is perhaps to be explained by the fact that the Lord anticipated the objections which men would raise to this idea and gave it his own imprimatur.
‘I thank you, heavenly Father, that you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children, for so it seemed good in your sight.’
I have other sheep which are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice…’
‘All that the Father gives me will come to me and I will raise them up at the last day.’
And many other such statements as these, to which are to be added Paul’s systematic statements of the doctrine, and literally hundreds of other texts throughout the Bible.
‘God has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world.’
‘Who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.’ And text after text like these.
It is, after all, a most interesting and important fact that almost all of the most important figures in Christian thought, the great framers of Christian theology, have taught that the salvation of any person is finally to be explained by God’s choice of that person, by divine election. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin all held that view and what is more, they came to hold that view simply because of their conviction that they were to believe whatever was taught in the Bible. Augustine acknowledges that at first he thought that men chose God rather than the other way around. But his study of the Bible changed his mind.
And that has been true ever since. Why after all, do you meet so many people in the church who used to hold another view but now firmly believe in divine election as the ultimate cause of anyone’s salvation while you almost never meet anyone who used to believe in divine election but now believes that God only chooses those who have chosen him first. The reason is that if one reads the Bible with an open mind, sooner or later he is going to be impressed by how impossible it is to deny that, in considering the salvation of human beings, the Bible always gives first place to the sovereign mercy of God.
I have long wondered how many Christians must read the Bible, passing over so many passages which so plainly say what they are determined to deny: that God shows mercy on whom he shows mercy and that, as Luke put it, it is only those whom God has chosen for eternal life who believe in Christ.
Second, we should embrace the doctrine of divine election because it has not only been the faith of but has been the living pulse of the spiritual lives of most of the church’s best men and women through the centuries. Surely it ought to strike us as very important and, if we incline to the other point of view, surely it ought to give us pause, that so many of the finest Christians that have adorned the history of the church have not only heartily believed in divine election as the true source of salvation and of their own salvation but have felt that it was the keystone of their understanding of salvation, of love, and of the Christian life.
We have mentioned already Augustine, not only one of Christianity’s greatest minds, but one of her holiest sons. But what of Wyclif and Huss, the morning stars of the reformation, or of the Reformers themselves, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, and the rest? And what of the English martyrs of Bloody Mary’s day — Ridley, Latimer, and Hooper; of the Puritans in England such as John Bunyan, John Owen, and Richard Baxter, and the great Scottish men of the second Reformation: Samuel Rutherford and the covenanter martyrs? What of the men of the Great Awakening: Whitefield, John Newton, Daniel Rowland, and Jonathan Edwards? What of the great missionary pioneers: William Carey, David Livingstone, Henry Martyn, John Paton, and the rest. What of Spurgeon and Ryle in 19th century England, of McCheyne and the Bonars in Scotland at the same time; and what of Lloyd-Jones, Jim Elliot, and Charles Colson in our own times. I have given you but the smallest list; but it could be made very long and would contain the largest number of those names any well-instructed Christian would recognize. I could have mentioned many women as well –less prominent in church history, because their work was behind the scenes– but no less committed to and in love with the doctrine of divine election. These are the men and women whose lives have brought great credit to the gospel and to the Savior. And they believed that they had been saved in the final analysis because God chose them to be his very own, his treasured possession.
Third, we should embrace the doctrine of divine election as the wonderful truth about our salvation and all salvation because this alone can explain the fact, the phenomenon of the new birth and conversion as it happens in the world.
You cannot read the account of the conversion of the Apostle Paul and believe that Paul chose the Lord. No, God had set his love upon Paul — indeed before the world was made, as Paul himself would later say — and then sought Paul out, changed his heart, turned his natural hatred of Christ into faith and love. Paul would never have chosen to be a Christian — he was Christ’s sworn enemy, but, as the Scripture beautifully puts it: ‘the Lord made him willing in the day of his power.’ But that is exactly what happens whenever an unbeliever is converted, even if it does not happen so spectacularly as it did for Paul. How many conversions there are which bear witness to the reality of divine election. Thomas Goodwin, the Puritan, used to call such conversions ‘election-conversions’ precisely because they show us, by example, how completely is this the work of God and the power of God and the grace of God, when a person becomes a new creature in Christ. You can think of many such election conversions in the Bible: Lydia and the Philippian jailor, the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, and so on.
But there have been many more since those apostolic times: Augustine’s remarkable conversion, and Luther’s, and Calvin’s. We know nothing about Calvin’s conversion except the single remark he himself makes about it in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms: ‘ …while I remained thus so obstinately addicted to the superstitions of the papacy that it would have been hard indeed to have pulled me out of so deep a quagmire, by sudden conversion God subdued and made teachable a heart which, for my age, was far too hardened in such matters.’
And then there is the case of John Bunyan, whose accounts of his own conversion three times over: first in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, then in Pilgrim’s Progress, and finally in The Holy War were nothing if not demonstrations of the fact that his coming to faith in Christ was a divine work from beginning to end. And so with John Newton and the Wesleys and Charles Spurgeon and C.S. Lewis and Charles Colson and so with some of you who were brought to faith by one of those ‘election-conversions.’ [Arrowsmith]
What do all of these conversions demonstrate but that salvation is of the Lord, that nothing in men and women themselves can explain why all members of the church are not saved but only some, why some believe and others do not, and how it is that from time to time implacable enemies of Christ and the gospel in a moment become his most devoted followers. What does all of this come to but divine election, but to God’s choice, and God’s power in the service of his discriminating grace.
In the fourth place we should embrace the Bible’s doctrine of divine election because of the undeniable fact that many covenant children have been Christian from their earliest recollection. David spoke of his trusting the Lord from his mother’s breast. The author of Psalm 71 said, similarly, that he had relied upon the Lord from his birth. And great multitudes of Christians throughout the centuries have said the same thing. They have never known a period in their lives when they did not know and trust the Lord. It is my own experience and that of many of us in this church today.
Now it is perfectly plain that Christians such as these did not choose the Lord. They were chosen by him and drawn to him and granted faith in him before they were old enough to know what any of this meant. And what is this but divine election? How can we account for this common experience of salvation so early in life, indeed, before one comes into full possession of rational powers, except by the sovereign choice and mercy and working of God and his Holy Spirit?
In the fifth place, we ought to embrace divine election as the true principle and explanation of our salvation because, whatever our doctrinal theories may be, it is the instinctive conviction of the Christian heart that
God and God alone makes the difference in salvation. It is easy to demonstrate this and especially in two ways.
First, when Christians are deeply affected with desire to see someone saved, a friend or a loved one, for example, it is their universal practice to pray for it, to ask God to save that man or woman or child. Whatever they may say when they are standing on their feet discussing theology, when they are on their knees they are pleading that God would save that sinner. This was pointed out centuries ago. It was an argument used to good effect by Prosper of Acquitaine, a disciple and defender of Augustine.
The old writers had an adage: lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of faith. Which is to say that you find out best what someone believes by hearing what he ways when he is on his knees before God. And the universal experience of Christians at prayer is that they look to God to save their friends and loved ones. But what is this but the heart acknowledgement that salvation lies ultimately in God’s hands not man’s and that God decides, he chooses.
And then, our instincts betray our truest understanding in another way. No Christian ever takes credit for his own salvation. Why is that? After all, many Christians, when they are speaking about salvation in an abstract or theoretical way, will claim that God has only made salvation possible, but leaves it up to the free will of man to decide to make what is possible actual. It finally rests on the free choice of human beings. So they say. But does it not necessarily follow that the ultimate decision then rests not with God, but with you. According to this way of thinking, God does nothing more for those who are being saved than he has done for those who are finally lost. He has done the same thing for those who are now in hell that he has done for those who are now in heaven. You make the final difference, not God the Father, not Christ the Redeemer, not the Holy Spirit. But why do we never see any of these believers who think this way patting themselves on the back for making such a good decision, for being so wise, for doing the right thing. It was their decision, not God’s, so they say. Why don’t they ever say so and acknowledge their own decisive contribution to their eternal salvation? Well, I will tell you why. The Christian heart knows better, whatever the Christian head might be foolishly thinking. Every Christian knows by unerring intuition that he or she is saved by grace and grace alone, that God did it all and that he or she owes it all to him. Something happens to the shoulder muscle when someone is born again. From that moment on, you just can’t get your arm back far enough to pat yourself on the back for saving yourself! What is this but the instinctive acknowledgment of our divine election!
Now, I do not deny that there are great questions which swirl around this doctrine and depths which we cannot plumb. I most strongly avow that great care must be taken to state the doctrine correctly, so that justice is done both to it and to all the other doctrines which are likewise taught in the Bible: such as the universal guilt and depravity of mankind, man’s free will, and so on. Before any Christian should object to the doctrine of election, he or she should be sure that it is rightly understood, and that he or she has a true sense in the heart of human sin and guilt and of divine justice and mercy.
As John Bradford, the English bishop and martyr once put it: ‘God does not send people to the university of election before they go to the grammar school of faith and repentance.’
But as we close let me point you back to Deuteronomy 7. Moses’ point there is not merely that God has chosen his people, but that that fact ought to make them deeply grateful for the salvation they did not deserve but have been given as a gift and that in their gratitude they ought to seek the Lord’s pleasure by keeping his commands. That will always be the truest result of people embracing this fact, for fact it is, that they are Christians not because they chose to be, but because God chose them — for nothing in themselves — but only for love’s sake, a love that cannot be explained but neither can it be denied.
That is the true end of this doctrine: it points us to God’s love for us and awakens in us a deeper love for him in return. It is all about love, an amazing love which God has had for us in defiance of our unloveliness and a love which it creates in our hearts for God, whom by nature we hate, resent, and fear, and would never love. Only someone who believed in election and had embraced it as the truth about his own salvation could ever have written:
‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.’
What made John Newton a believer in Christ? He knew it was divine grace. What made him to be suddenly different from those who continued to be what he once was? He knew it was divine grace. What was it that changed his whole understanding of himself, of God, and of the world? He knew it was the grace of God which had been pitched on him, had sought him out in his rebellion, illuminated the darkness of his mind, softened the hardness of his heart, broke the stubbornness of his will, and drew him to Christ.
And knowing as he did that he owed his salvation, his deliverance from sin and death, in every part to God, he understood that it would be his duty as well as his privilege and pleasure for the rest of his life to seek to do nothing else but give glory to God! That is the effect of this doctrine of divine election in the heart and of the fact of it in a Christian’s life. It makes a person want nothing so much as to give glory to God. God grant that this truth should be written on all of our hearts to the same wonderful effect.