John MacArthur once wrote that doctrine is intensely practical, because it teaches us what to believe, and what we believe directly informs how we live. Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wrote in Lies Women Believe that a fundamental axiom of human living is that we live out what we believe—not what we say we believe. Churches that avoid doctrine in the name of practicality and application are at minimum forgetting that we can’t apply truth we don’t know, and that practice divorced from a clear and thorough doctrinal foundation risks moralism, self-righteousness, self-effort, and lack of brokenness.
It is because of this that it should not be surprising Peters opening to his letter to suffering believers is packed tightly with doctrine. Doctrine shows us the truth about God, the truth about ourselves, the truth about God’s program for the world, and how these three intersect in a way that satisfies the soul and honors the One planning it all. Doctrine enables us to place ourselves in a divinely-wrought context, not merely vertically (before God), but forwards and backwards and all the way around. For only God’s revealed truth gives shape and proper interpretation of who we are, where we have been, where we are going, and how it all fits together in a plan and unto an end far more important and far grander and more worthy than ourselves.
In 1:1-9, Peter discusses three great doctrines: election, regeneration, and preservation. Sunday’s message covered 1:1-2a and dealt with the doctrine of election and its implications for the Christian life. Since this sermon is beginning a larger series I will still use an outline form, even though technically there was only one point.
A. Election (vv. 1-2a)
Verse 1 and the first part of verse 2 discuss the fact and nature of election, while the second half of verse 2 discusses the effects and goal of election. We will only cover the first part today.
The Apostle Peter—apostle means emissary, or representative—was one of the Lord Jesus’ inner-circle members writing to persecuted church saints who as such were aliens, strangers in a foreign land (the fallen world Jesus will one day renew). He wanted them to embody and express the right response to their suffering—namely, a sanctified, fruitful, humble, God-honoring life and faith (e.g., 1:6, 15-16; 2:12-15; 3:9-10, 14-17; 4:12-16, 19; 5:10). Since truth internalized, believed, and acted upon is that which transforms (Jn. 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 3:17-4:6; 1 Pet. 1:22-23), Peter delves into doctrine, and one of the most controversial, challenging, and hard-to-accept doctrines in Scripture: unconditional election.
Man is proud, and man’s sense of justice and fairness is skewed (interestingly, this latter point almost never surfaces in discussions of the moral rightness of God to unilaterally choose some to be saved and not others). As such, he does not like God to be, well, God, in that God is the One in final and sovereign, overruling control of which spiritually dead, antagonistic rebel He saves. Nor does he like God to do things that he thinks are unfair, as though the fallen, distorted, sinful creature has any right to challenge God or His revelation (cf. Rom. 9:20).
Many poorly-taught believers chafe at the idea of God being in total control of who is saved. They prefer a God who tries so very hard to convince everyone to be saved, but can’t actually save anyone until they decide to respond to the wooing of the Holy Spirit, who never woos any one person more than anyone else; a God who became a man and died on the Cross bearing wrath for people burning in Hell for thousands of years before He died; a God who loves Judas and the Antichrist in exactly the same way He loves His bride; an omnipotent God who is limited by the will of a fallen creation. Perhaps they do not realize this, since very few people think through the implications and logical conclusions of their beliefs. But the anger and fear with which some Christians react to a genuinely sovereign God—a God for whom sovereignty actually means something, and isn’t simply a theoretical category to which we give mental assent—does much to betray the genuine, radically fallen nature of our flesh and how infallibly necessary uncompromising, compassionate Bible teaching is to slay the flesh and allow the new nature to have the ascendancy.
That God’s choice is in some way connected to salvation all conservatives agree. Where we disagree is (a) whether God chooses individuals, instead of a group, plan, or His own response; and (b) whether the choice is unconditional. I will briefly deal with each of these issues below.
What Did God Choose?
Certainly God chose a plan of salvation (though “chose” for this aspect might be a bit of a weak word, as God did more than merely pick one of several equally viable options, but rather orchestrated, devised, and executed an all-encompassing plan for the best possible outcome in time and eternity). Certainly God chooses to respond to those who trust Him with salvation. Calvinists do not deny any of these things. Nor do we deny that humans are responsible to make a real, effectual, reality-altering, eternity-impacting act of their will in order to be saved. We do choose Christ. We do believe. The question of questions, however, is why? Why did we choose Christ and someone else (at least for the moment) has not? Calvinists answer this question by saying God unconditionally chose certain individuals to be saved before creation. But not all people agree with this notion.
Some teach that God merely chose a group of people, but not the individuals who will comprise that group. Or similarly, He chose the Elect One, Christ, but not those who are “in Him,” merely choosing to save whomever ends up being united to Christ. Or, He chose a plan—to send Jesus to die for sinners, etc.—or chose to save whoever would come to Him in faith.
The Bible, however, does not teach such nonsense. Everywhere, God is depicted as loving, knowing, selecting, abiding with, and pursuing individuals. Romans 8:29 is important here. It does not say God foreknew a decision or a response, but individuals, “whom He foreknew”—specifically, the real, individual souls who made up the Roman church to whom Paul wrote, people he later greets by name in chapter 16. John 15:16 says Jesus chose the apostles, not a plan. Ephesians 1:4 says we (Paul and the individuals in the Ephesian church) were chosen—united to the Savior, yes, but not merely as a faceless mass. Paul says to the Thessalonians that they—not some massive group—were loved by God and that is why they, specifically, were chosen by God (2 Thess. 2:13). Similarly Paul tells the Colossian church that they are loved by God and ties this in with His electing them to salvation (Col. 3:12). God chose us—individually, by name, personally, us—in union with and inextricably bound to our Beloved, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Was God’s Choice Unconditional?
Some admit God chooses individuals for salvation, but that His choice was conditioned on knowing ahead of time they would believe and be saved. God knows everything, so He knows the choices people will make. He knows who will accept and who will reject, so He chooses those He knows will receive Christ. Verses like Romans 8:29 and our passage here in 1 Peter are marshalled as proof. The appeal in this view is, quite simply, it sucks the meaning and independence of God’s choice out of the word “election” while still being able to give lip service to the undeniable reality that God chooses individuals, not a plan. It makes God’s choice reactive and dependent, safeguarding man’s autonomy and leaving him in control, making God respond instead of initiate and pursue.
However, the full biblical portrait is that election, though unto a particular decision of man’s (regenerated, Spirit-enabled) will, is not based or conditioned on man’s choices or faith, but solely on God’s own will. God chooses whom He will save unconditionally—that is, His choice is not conditioned on anything outside of His own will and purposes. How do we know this? Part of it has already been explained above in the comments on Romans 8:29. God does not foreknow (in the sense of strict, mere prescience) decisions, but individuals. Here, Paul relies on the rich and multitudinous revelation of the Old Testament, where God’s knowledge of people is not merely awareness of, much less a response to, facts, but an involved, predetermined, personal, relational knowing. (Here is yet another opportunity to appreciate the intense Jewishness of the New Testament!) Exodus 2:25 says God took notice of (lit. “knew”) the sons of Israel during their Egyptian captivity. 1 Samuel 2:25 says the sons of Eli were worthless men who did not know the Lord (do you think priests didn’t know facts about Him?). Amos 3:2 says Israel is the only one God has chosen (again, literally “known”) of the families of the earth. Thus verse is instructive: For God to know and choose are the parallel; He chooses those He has decided to know. Proverbs 27:23’s parallelism is helpful. There, “know” is contrasted with “pay attention to”; the latter can be more literally rendered as “direct your heart.” To know is to direct the heart towards, implying studying, detailed observance, intentional pursuit.
Can all this be mere passive knowledge of, and response to, facts?
The sermon made an important point that should be repeated. First, is God sovereign? All Christians agree that He is sovereign, or else He isn’t God (though we disagree on precisely what “sovereignty” means). Second, is His sovereignty total, or partial? By definition it must be total, or it isn’t sovereignty. Third, is He sovereign in salvation? He must be, given the answers to one and two.
Yet God’s sovereignty in salvation is threatening to the innate desire of fallen man to be sovereign. We do not want that loss of control, and our antagonism and inclination to unbelief means we do not want God to have that control. Yet ironically it is only that sovereignty that will give us what we most desperately need: a personal, loving, restored relationship with the One to whom we owe blood and breath and is the only One for whom the deepest contours of our souls were made.
Nota Bene: I am indebted to Rolland McCune’s A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume Three for his excellent study of the OT concept of foreknowledge; most of the verses and explanations I used for that discussion originated with him.