There are certain sermons that you know are going to produce questions. I very much had a sense of that when I preached on Sunday from Romans 9. Essentially it covers the doctrine of election- that God in His sovereignty has called and chosen His people.
There are various reasons why I think this is a great doctrine. Only through election can we be humbled and God glorified. Furthermore, and I didn’t make this point on Sunday, only through election can I be assured that I will get to the end of my life as a Christian: otherwise it would depend on my will power. I am thankful to God that He calls people to salvation and keeps those He has chosen.
However, there are questions that remain and that I was asked subsequently. I had some really good conversations with people and I sort of wished they had happened before the sermon as there is extra material I would have included as a result. But that didn’t happen: hence this blog. Here are a few key questions that I was asked and didn’t address in the sermon.
What about “free will”?
There is a long standing theological debate as to what extent you can describe humans as having free will. So in the early church Pelagius stressed human ability to choose good and evil and was slapped down by Augustine who argued that humans have much less freedom to do good than that. During the Reformation, Erasmus wrote The Freedom of the Will and was sharply (“When I read your work I felt profoundly sorry for you…”) rebuked by Luther in his Bondage of the Will. Essentially Augustine and Luther were arguing that, this side of the Fall, humans are not free to choose good. We only ever choose that which is evil. Often we do so in a respectable way- doing nice things for people and so on. But the essence of sin is that we can do respectable things in a way that ignores the God who had made the world and given us life.
I think Scripture is on the side of Augustine and Luther which is why I would never use a phrase like “Humans have free will.” We are only free, in the end, to choose evil. That’s why the doctrine of election is good news because it really is my only hope. I can only be rescued from my bondage to sin if God chooses to intervene and gives me His Spirit so that I have a new desire to know and live for Him.
So does that make me totally passive?
There is an obvious follow up question. What’s the point in me exploring the Christian faith? If I am not chosen, what can I do about it? Is there any reason in praying or witnessing if God already knows who is going to be saved?
It is clear that is not where Paul’s mind went. He preached the Gospel inviting people to respond to it. In chapter ten we see him both praying and urging that the Gospel be proclaimed.
Of course there is a degree of mystery here. As we said on Sunday, God is God and we are not and we need to recognise our limits. However, I want to say that properly considered the doctrine of election is encouraging to us.
God doesn’t achieve His purposes through our passivity but through our participation. So the person considering the Christian faith who comes to it with humility before their Creator and a recognition of the deep importance of Christ will invariably bump into the fact that the Lord is, at the very same time, at work in them, drawing them to Himself.
The same could be said of prayer and witness. Truth be told, it is only worth praying for somebody to know the Lord if you do believe in election. If you don’t then God doesn’t have the power or willingness to answer a prayer for somebody’s conversion- it is all down to them. In reality of course God could save people without our prayers or our witness- He can do what He likes. But He doesn’t work that way- He desires to give us the privilege of participation in His purposes. We even get to be called His co-workers- because God achieves His purposes through us not despite us.
So why does God choose some and not others?
Now that is a very good question. And the honest answer is this- I don’t entirely know. We saw on Sunday that at times the hardening of some is part of God’s purpose in bringing an greater appreciation of His glory to others. We know that nobody deserves to be chosen. But as for why one is called and another not, we can’t really know. It certainly doesn’t seem to be on the basis of whether we would turn out to be good or bad people- what Paul writes about Jacob and Esau appears to rule that out.
Of course, it is not just an abstract question. “Lord, why haven’t you saved my husband, my parents, my children?” That is a cry uttered from the anguish that the apostle Paul himself speaks about. And I can’t give you an answer.
So what do you do with that? I want to give a couple of responses. In the second part of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Matthew is faced with the question as to what he does when he struggles to understand some aspect of Scripture. His response is helpful- “I think God is wiser than I.” That is a helpful approach to adopt. In the end, to throw up our hands against God is pride. We do need to learn- often through pain- to submit to the God who is wiser and greater than us.
But there is a second thing to say- which, incidentally, is what I would want to say to Stephen Fry. Of course we don’t fully understand all that God does and allows. But what do we know? We know that God came to earth to experience all the agonies of this world. We know that He chose to die in unspeakable agony, tortured and mocked by the very beings that He had made. And He did it for those who were His enemies, for those who had no interest in Him whatsoever. Of course, we have our questions. But this side of the cross we cannot doubt His goodness and His love.