6 – God’s Choosing

As we saw previously, Calvinism believes that who is ultimately saved is a choice that rests entirely with God. “The decision as to which persons He will work in must rest entirely, one hundred percent, with God, since man, being spiritually dead, cannot ask for help. This, then, is unconditional election: God’s choice does not rest on anything that man does.”11

Arminianism believes that the atonement provided the potential for salvation for everyone, but in the end, each and every lost man is responsible for choosing to be saved; and that God presents light to all, and each one must respond to God and come to Him. “The lost sinner needs the Spirit’s assistance, but he does not have to be regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe, for faith is man’s act and precedes the new birth. Faith is the sinner’s gift to God. It is man’s contribution to salvation.”12

The reality is a little different than either of these positions. The lost man is responsible to choose, as the Arminian believes. Yet it is plain from the Scriptures that people are fallen, self-serving beings and do not truly seek God. They have been blinded and have been taken captive by the devil to do his will (2 Cor. 4:4; 2nd Tim. 2:26). And so a lost man is incapable of seeking God for God’s sake apart from the transforming work of salvation; in fact, he is incapable of even responding with the proper choice unless God first sovereignly intervenes in that man’s life to provide the opportunity to do so, knowing that he will. And so, for whatever intellectual position someone would care to take on the point of unconditional election, from a practical perspective, the Calvinist position seems to be more accurate. God does not choose the lost man because of that man’s goodness or good works; rather, He chooses a lost man in spite of himself.

And this seems to bear witness with the way we, as Christians, pray for the lost. Aren’t we all Calvinists on our knees? Isn’t it true that when we pray we are crying out to God because we recognize that unless He changes the hearts of those lost loved ones, they will not go looking for God? We ask God to soften their hearts and confront them with the reality of who He is and what He wants to be in their lives. We ask Him to intervene and affect the times and circumstances in their lives to bring them to a place of surrendering their lives to Him. We ask Him to allow us to become an effective witness of Christ’s truth and love in their lives, so they can see that God is very real. And yet when we do ask, aren’t we doing it because we believe that He really can change a lost man’s heart, and He might actually do so if we ask?

The great Calvinist theologian, J. I. Packer, in his book, The Sovereignty of God says, “the supposition seems to be that you cannot evangelize effectively unless you are prepared to pretend while you are doing it that the doctrine of divine sovereignty is not true”.13

This idea strikes a painful nerve with many Christians. Those at the Calvinistic end of the spectrum recognize the reality of God’s sovereignty and holiness. They clearly see their own depravity and how God moved to save them as a sovereign act. At the same time, many Christians struggle with the whole concept of evangelism and sovereignty. If God has chosen some from eternity past, then why the need to evangelize? And if they are not already chosen in eternity past, then why bother anyway? Many a Calvinist will say that if you have a passion to pray, God foreordained that. So if you resist the Spirit’s promptings and do not pray, you wonder if God also ordained your disobedience. When you then question the resulting frustration caused by the mental gymnastics, the Calvinist will respond that it is not up to man to question God’s workings. Palmer’s Calvinist response to the Arminian’s frustration is typical:

Limited atonement, instead of being a hindrance to evangelism, is a great encouragement to it. For if we believe the Bible that by nature everyone is depraved, and yet that God has His people in every nation, in every tribe, and in every community, and that Christ has taken away the sins of these people, then how encouraging it is to preach the gospel. It isn’t hopeless after all. There will be success. All we have to do is to do our duty and tell others about Christ. And because the atonement of Christ has actually taken away the sins of the elect, there will be an infallible response on their part. People from every tribe and tongue will believe, because Christ died for them.14

For the Calvinist, who believes that none will come to God unless He sovereignly imparts the gift of saving faith, this might be a comforting thought. It may feel like the most hopeful attitude to take when you must deal squarely with the reality that lost men do not—cannot—seek God for God’s own sake while still lost. And it can be very easy for me to accept this when I try to picture the faceless sea of humanity. But my confident assurance that I can preach, knowing some will come to Christ no matter what, may turn out to be nothing more than a convenient way to justify my lack of God-inspired love and compassion for those who will not come to Christ, no matter what (even as they are perishing in my very presence). Unfortunately, if I witness without any true love and they do not respond, then I can simply choose to believe that they are not elect. It is God’s business.

And yet this is where Palmer’s response, typical of Calvinism, can also be so frustrating—at least for those who lean more toward the middle or the Arminian side of the debate. In a more familiar context, for example, it can appear almost absurd. Suppose, for instance, that I had such an attitude about the salvation of my own wife or children. It would then seem at once that something was desperately wrong. I don’t believe that God wants me to simply be comfortable with the idea that He can do what He wants about my child’s eternal destiny. He wants it to matter to me. I believe that our God, who is a God of compassion, is wanting to birth in me the same passion for that lost friend or family member that He had for me when He set His saving love on my perishing soul. And in doing so, I will be moved to intercede with effectual, fervent prayer. And I will become a part of the process of His working of salvation for that one He has now made me to passionately love just like He loved me.

Calvinism is basically correct about total depravity. It seems true from the Scriptures that there is nothing in the lost man that causes God to love him. But Calvinism is flawed in that it doesn’t seem to recognize the incredible potential the saved man has to influence God’s heart. “The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). God’s electing choice is not conditional on anything the lost man does. But it is conditional, in part, on what the saved man does on the lost man’s behalf. Calvinism does not seem to understand that God truly desires and sometimes specifically chooses to set His love on the lost and save them because of the prayers of the saints (1 Tim 2:1-4). It seems apparent from the Scriptures that the difference between God’s will and God’s desire is not merely apparent or academic, but very real; and it is a gap which is bridged, in part, by the prayers of intercession and the Spirit-enabled evangelistic activities of the church. In Ephesians we read:

To me…this grace was given, that I should preach…the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, Eph. 3:8-12.

I believe that God chooses to set His sovereign love, imparting His awakening light and saving grace, at least upon some, specifically and only in response to the prayers of the saints on the behalf of those lost sinners around them, who will not seek God in their lost state. I am not talking about a “prevenient grace” that God makes available to everyone, and by which some respond and some do not. I believe it is a special and effectual grace imparted to certain of the lost specifically in response to the prayers of the saints.

I believe there are passages of Scripture that support this concept quite strongly. A perfect example is when God spoke the idea through the prophet Ezekiel when He said:

I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land, so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with My fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD (Ezek. 22:30-31).

In the Psalms we see an instance where God specifically changed His mind about what He was going to do in direct response to the intercessory prayer of His chosen one, Moses:

At Horeb they made a calf and worshipped an idol cast from metal. They exchanged their Glory for an image of a bull, which eats grass. They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

So He said He would destroy them—had not Moses, His chosen one, stood in the breach before Him to keep His wrath from destroying them (Psalm 106:19-23).

Just as the father loves the believer for Christ’s sake (John 17:6, 21), the Father chooses to set His love upon others (currently lost) for the sake of the saved (John 17:20) because those now saved are conformed to the image of His Son (1 Cor. 3:23). When He looks at those who are saved, He sees in them the righteousness of Christ. This pleases Him (Eph. 1:3-12). And so the saved one’s desire for the salvation of the lost moves God’s heart. God loves His own. His heart is moved to intervene in the lives of the lost as the church grows to love the lost and intercede on their behalf (John 17:20-23). As we do so, we complete the object lesson for the principalities and powers that Paul spoke of in Ephesians.

Those now saved are being conformed to the image of Christ. They are growing in character into His likeness. They are coming to desire those things that Christ desires—namely, to seek and save the lost. And as they are transformed into His image, they can then operate with the transforming power of His love. They intercede in effectual prayer for God to move. And they evangelize with a true Spirit-anointing that can manifest the nature of God’s love to the lost. I believe God takes delight in saving the lost. But mature believers have Christ’s own passion to seek and save the lost brooding in their hearts, too. I believe God enjoys saving the lost even more when it satisfies that passion.

>>> Next: Chapter 7