What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone brings up the topic of God’s saving grace? For most believers—frankly, for most people—it’s the cross of Christ. That makes sense—it represents the climax of God’s redemptive work, and the fullest depiction of His love for lost sinners.
But while the grace of God is most clearly and fully manifest in the sacrifice of His Son and His redemption of sinners, its expression is not isolated to the Person and work of Christ. God’s grace is older than history, reaching back before the creation of time itself. It is not merely poured out in the moment of salvation; it is evident throughout His eternal plan of redemption. After all, He chose those whom He would save before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).
Grace and Election
Theologians refer to this precious truth as the doctrine of election, and it has been a major point of debate and division in the church. The truth about election is essential to understanding who God is, His plan of redemption, and His design for the church. But some who profess love for God and belief in the Bible nevertheless resent and even despise this doctrine.
But rejecting this doctrine has major negative implications, especially with regard to the practical aspects of evangelism and Christian ministry. Christians who don’t believe God sovereignly draws His elect to Christ are forced by their theological perspective to take a very pragmatic approach to evangelism. They become more concerned with what “works” than they are with what’s true—because their doctrine leads them to believe everything hinges on their own skill, cleverness, or persuasive abilities. What an enormous burden and responsibility they have taken on themselves!
However, the doctrine of election should not extinguish the church’s evangelistic efforts—if anything, it ought to spur us on. While the Lord knows whom He chose in eternity past, we do not have insight into His electing work (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29). Instead, we must fervently pursue every sinner while there is still time to repent. We need to proclaim the blessed truth of Isaiah 59:1-2 faithfully to every ear that will hear:
Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short that it cannot save; nor is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.
We who know and love the Lord bear the responsibility of faith: As long as we draw breathe, we are duty bound to preach the good news of Jesus Christ as winsomely and persuasively as possible, so that others may be led to a saving knowledge of Him. “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Corinthians 5:11).
Moreover, we need to hold the doctrine of election with great humility. Our salvation is not a credit to us, but an unearned gift from a gracious God. And He has left us in this world for the time being to extend that gift to others through the proclamation of His Word.
Understanding God’s sovereign grace is at the heart of what the church is and how it functions. A right view of God’s grace informs how we relate to other believers. It informs how we evangelize the lost. It defines a pastor’s role. It touches every aspect of life in the Body of Christ.
Grace and Justice
The typical complaint of those who are skeptical about the doctrine of election (or even opposed to it) is that it makes God seem unfair. And that may indeed seem to be the case—if you measure what’s “fair” by fallen human judgment. Why doesn’t God treat everyone the same? we think. That’s what I would do.
But God doesn’t think the way we think or do the things we would do. “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). He is wiser and more just than we are. He is not to be measured by any human standard. Remember the words of the apostle Paul, who said, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” He goes on to say, “How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33).
Furthermore, the question we should ask when we ponder the doctrine of election is not “Why doesn’t God save everyone?” but “Why does God save anyone at all?” He’s certainly not obligated to show mercy. That’s what makes grace gracious.
When considering what’s fair in the matter of election, all human presumptions and standards must be set aside. Instead, the nature of God must be the focus—specifically: What is divine justice? Simply stated, it is an essential attribute of God whereby He, infinitely and in perfect justice, does what He wants. As William Perkins said, “We must not think that God doth a thing because it is good and right, but rather is the thing good and right because God willeth and worketh it.”  Cited in Arthur Pink, Studies in the Scriptures, vol. 9 (July 1938), 218. God defines justice. He himself is by nature just and righteous, and whatever He does reflects His nature. So whatever He does is right. His own free will (and nothing else) is what determines justice, for whatever He wills is just; and it is just because He wills it, not vice versa. There is no higher standard of righteousness than God Himself.
In Revelation 19:6, we’re told “the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.” Both in heaven and on earth, He is the controller and disposer of all creatures. He is the Most High, and “all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, but He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Daniel 4:35). He is the Almighty who works all things out according to the counsel of His will. He is the heavenly Potter who takes good-for-nothing sinners and shapes them into useful vessels. Scripture pictures the fallen human race as a lump of clay—a dirty, formless material which left to itself would certainly harden into something utterly worthless and altogether unattractive. From that one common lump of muck the divine Potter forms unique objects for various purposes. Like an earthly potter who makes both ashtrays and fancy serving dishes, the heavenly Potter fashions vessels for honor as well as dishonor (Romans 9:21)—some to show His grace and glory; others to serve as vessels of His wrath. Every expression of His righteous character—including His utter hatred of sin—is thus put on display in accord with His sovereign will. And Scripture furthermore says He always accomplishes His perfect design with patience and kindness, never with malice or ill will:
What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which He has prepared beforehand for glory? (Romans 9:22-23).
Ultimately, then, God is the one who decides and determines every man’s destiny. As our Creator and rightful Ruler, He carefully governs each detail in His universe—which is another way of saying He is God, the sovereign and almighty Lord.
Frankly, the only reason to believe in election is because it is found explicitly in God’s Word. No man, and no committee of men, originated this doctrine. It’s like the doctrine of eternal punishment: it conflicts with all the natural inclinations and preferences of the carnal human mind. It’s repugnant to the sentiments of the unregenerate heart. And—like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the miraculous birth of our Savior—the truth of election, because it has been revealed by God, must be embraced with simple, solemn, settled faith. If you have a Bible and you believe what it says, you have no choice.
As we think about the justice of God being representative of His character and not subject to fallen assumptions, we begin to understand that God—in the nature of His own sovereignty—defines everything that He does not only as just, but also as perfect. The Creator owes nothing to the creature, not even that which He is graciously pleased to give. So God does exactly what God chooses to do. Nothing can thwart His will or overpower Him. That’s actually the very essence of what we are confessing when we acknowledge Him as Almighty God.