The Choice -
Man's or God's?
by Peter Eldersveld
"According as He hath chosen us
in Him before the foundation of the world, being predestinated according to the
purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will" -
ONE DAY SEVERAL YEARS AGO, the surveyor was working on our street, checking
the property lines of vacant lots where new houses were to be built. I noticed
that he was very careful about placing his transit-compass, the instrument
surveyors use for measuring. When I questioned him about it, he told me that it
was absolutely necessary to locate the exact point-of-beginning before any
surveying could be done. His transit-compass had to be set precisely over this
point, for otherwise all the work would be in vain. If the point-of-beginning
were wrong, everything else in the whole area surveyed would be wrong, too;
property lines would be confused, and houses misplaced; and the courts would be
overrun with cases of angry citizens whose property rights had been violated. So
great is the danger, that builders refuse to begin their work until the surveyor
has completed his.
There is a lesson in that for a world that is badly askew. Sin has brought
disorder and chaos. But the problem has been immensely replicated by our failure
to find the right point-of-beginning in the matter of our salvation. We are
always prone to think that we must begin with man --- which is another evidence
of our sinfulness. We should begin with God; He is the only right
point-of-beginning in the search for salvation. And if we don't begin with him,
we will only go farther astray. Not only in the world at large but even in the
history of the Christian Church do we find evidence of our failure on this
score, Both preaching and theology, whether conservative or liberal, have often
made man, instead of God, the point-of-beginning. We are so easily tempted to be
man-centered in our conception of the gospel. Evangelism seems to be more
appealing that way, and theology, too. But that humanistic approach has often
led the Church astray, for it invariably accommodates the Word of God to suit
the notions of men. In fact, almost every instance of heresy in the history of
the Church can traced directly to that wrong point-of-beginning.
You cannot bring men back to God unless that way of their salvation begins
with God, Humanism always ends where it starts, namely, with man. The Bible also
ends where it starts, namely with God -which is where we want to be, isn't it?
The predicament in which we sinners find ourselves is so utterly hopeless that
divine redemption is our only way out. The Bible says, what we know to be true
from our own honest introspection, that we are "dead in trespasses and
sins." And such dead men cannot begin their own resurrection. They must be
raised by another-by God. You cannot expect sinners who are depraved by nature
to initiate the work of their own redemption. It will have to be initiated by
The Word of God proves beyond all doubt that He is our
point-of-beginning. The classic passage on that is Ephesians 1:4-12. Among other
things, it says: "He hath chosen us in Him [Christ] before the foundation
of the world - having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus
Christ to Himself according to the good pleasure of His will - in whom [Christ]
also we have obtained a inheritance, being predestinated according to the
purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will,"
The doctrine of divine election is mentioned no less than
times in the New Testament alone!
Now, that doctrine of divine election is mentioned no less than forty-eight
times in the New Testament alone. And no wonder, for it is one of the grandest
things we know about God. His plan of redemption is not an afterthought,
something He had to devise when man fell into sin; it was not occasioned by the
contingencies of history, nor does it depend upon the will of man. From eternity
God chose sinners to be saved, and He did so according to the good pleasure of
His will without qualifying conditions of any kind. It was His doing. Its
point-of-beginning is with Him in eternity, where also its end will be. This
means that our salvation has its origin as well as its destiny in the
However, oddly enough, this glorious truth, which is one of the fundamentals
of our faith, is also one of the most controversial teachings in the Bible. It
makes some people stiffen with resistance and even wince with pain every time they
hear it. This is particularly true among certain Christians who have a more
humanistic theology. And, of course, the reason for their antagonism is quite
natural. For the other side of this glorious truth is that if God chose to save
some, He necessarily chose not to save others. So, He is not only a God of
election but also of reprobation. And that's the part men don't like.
They seem to feel under obligation to defend the character of God against the
stigma and responsibility of election and reprobation. The fact that God very
plainly assumes this responsibility does not seem to impress them at all. They
believe it is better to have men choose God than to have God choose men. And so
they take the ultimate decision, as to who will be saved, out of the hands of
God and place it in the hands of men, who must then make the choice themselves.
And thereby they make man the point-of-beginning - and ending, the Alpha and
Omega of his own salvation. He can frustrate God if he wants to.
Now, personally, I am deeply grateful that the Bible presents a God who
chooses the sinner, rather than a God who must wait to be chosen. I know that
teaching confronts us with some very real and difficult questions which we shall
never be able to answer, but I would rather live with those questions than try
to escape them by adopting humanistic notions that conflict with God's own
revelation of Himself. The fact that we cannot comprehend the mystery of His
mercy does not disprove it.
After all, He would be a pretty small God if the sinful human mind could
comprehend Him. And if His plan of salvation were comprehensible, if we could
make it fit our thinking, it would be like all human plans of salvation which
make sense to us but never save us from our sins.
There are so many things we don't understand about God. As the Bible says,
His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts; He is past
finding out. That's because He is God! And we ought not to allow our unanswered
questions about Him and His Word to prevent us from believing what He declares
to be true, even when that conflicts with the confused reasoning of our sinful
minds. If we cannot bow humbly and modestly before Him, we have lost our God,
and then we have lost also the only real point-of-beginning in the matter of our
It is interesting to observe that contemporary theologians, both conservative
and liberal, who evidently do not believe this Biblical doctrine of divine
election, are nevertheless compelled to recognize its underlying principle. Here
is one, for example, who says: "In Christianity the initiative is always
with God, never with man. All human action is just our response to the active
prompting of the living God. It may be an obedient response, or a perverse and
willful response. This conception distinguishes Christianity from all other
faiths... Before we seek Him, He is out in search of us; and when we think we
are discovering some new truth, we are in reality apprehending His
self-revelation - Man did not come here by his own volition; he was brought
here. God was here before man arrived!"
Well, of course that's right. But then why should we try to take the
initiative away from God when it comes to the matter of our own salvation? That
certainly proves the perversity of our sinful human nature, doesn't it? Consider
what is at stake here.
To begin with, how could you ever become a Christian if you had to choose God
rather than be chosen by Him? Why, you know from your own experience as welI as
from the Word of God that the natural inclination of your soul is away from God,
not toward Him, If He left the matter up to you, do you think you would ever
make the right choice? If God did not choose you and then find you in your sin,
do you think you would ever choose Him and then find salvation in Him?
Furthermore, how could we ever bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to sinners if
we didn't know that God chose from eternity those who will be saved? Consider
the inconsistency of it. We tell men that they are hopelessly lost, dead in
trespasses and sins, as the Bible says But then we would proceed to tell them to
do something which is utterly impossible for dead men to do, namely, to turn
from sin and give their hearts to God. Now those two things are
self-contradictory, aren't they?
The only way we can make sense with the gospel is to tell sinners that God
has done something about their sinful condition; and not only that He has made
salvation available, but that He has actually chosen from eternity those who
will receive it; and that they will precisely because He first chose them. As
Paul put it in Romans 8: "Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to
be conformed to the image of His Son ... whom He did predestinate, them He also
called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them
He also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who
can be against us?... Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is
God that justifieth."
The whole mission effort of the Christian Church rests ultimately upon this
doctrine of divine election. Even before we go out into the world with the
gospel of Christ, we know that it cannot fail. For those whom God has chosen
from eternity will be called, and justified, and glorified. They will be saved,
not first of all because they want God, but because He wants them. When we go
out with the gospel, we don't know in advance who the chosen ones are, but we do
know that the gospel will find them, whoever and wherever they are.
This is the secret of the phenomenal success of the mission effort of the
early Church. For example, when Paul and Barnabas preached at Antioch, they
found a ready response among the Gentiles, who "glorified the word of the
Lord." All of them? No, not all of them. How many? Well, we find the answer
in Acts 13:48- "As many as were ordained to eternal life believed."
Now that's the whole story of New Testament missions.
"As many as were ordained to
eternal life believed." [Acts 13:48]
Only those whom God has chosen actually come to believe the
The same thing is true today. We preach the gospel everywhere. But only those
whom God has chosen actually believe it. There is no other way to explain the
difference between a believer and an unbeliever. Both are sinners by nature. The
believer is no better than the unbeliever - perhaps worse in some respects. The
difference lies in the good pleasure of God, who knows what He is doing, even
when He doesn't tell us what it is and why He does it. As the apostle John put
it, those, who receive Him, and who become the sons of God, are 'born, not of
blood, nor of the will of man, but of God ".
No, Christianity is not a failure in this world
because so many people reject it.
God never intended to save all men. He tells us plainly in His Word that He has
chosen some and not others. And if that disturbs us, if it raises questions in
our minds about the justice and love of God, then let us seriously ponder the
solemn fact if God had not done the choosing, none of us would ever choose Him!
And whatever He does with the rest of us is His business, not ours. One thing is
certain we would never find salvation if it were up to us to find it.
Sometimes you will hear people say this doctrine makes men complacent and
careless about the matter of their salvation, for they are made to feel that
there is nothing they can do about it anyway, since everything depends upon God;
if they are chosen, they will be saved somehow; and if not, well, nothing they do will
make any difference.
But is that really true? Do you know any unbeliever who actually uses that as
an excuse for his unbelief? No, of course not. That's not why he rejects the gospel.
The only people who raise that objection are Christians who think this doctrine
will offend and antagonize those whom they want to win for Christ. How strange
that God doesn't have the same fear! He certainly wants to bring sinners to
Christ, and yet He doesn't hesitate to use this doctrine to call them! And
Christ Himself did the same thing. He said. "No man can come to Me, except
the Father which hath sent Me draw him." Are we supposed to be wiser than
God? Do we think we can make the gospel more appealing and more effective if we
omit this basic doctrine of divine election, and let sinners think that their
salvation depends upon their own free will, which is sinful and depraved, rather
than upon the sovereign will of God?
Which is really the more compelling thing to say to men who are sinners by
nature, prone to evil, slaves of sin - that they must choose God, or that God
must choose them? Which would you rather have me tell you - that God cannot save
you unless you first come to Him, or that He has come to you because you would
not and could not come to Him?
Well, to ask the question is to answer it. And Christians like to put that
answer in the words of an old hymn:
T'is not that I did choose Thee,
For, Lord, that could not be,
This heart would still refuse Thee,
Hadst Thou not chosen me.
Thou from the sin that stained me
Hast cleansed and set me free;
Of old Thou hast ordained me,
That I should live to Thee.
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