On Election / W A Criswell
Text: Acts 13.48
(all comments initially moderated)
On television and on radio, by the thousands and the thousands, you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, its service at the eleven o’clock hour. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Doctrine of Election. In our preaching through the Book of Acts, we’re in chapter 13. And in verse 48 the author of the book, Dr. Luke, writes a little concluding clause:
“And as many as were ordained to eternal life, believed.”
Whether we would like it or not, whether we believe in it or not, whether we accept it or not, it is there in the Bible. “And as many as were ordained to eternal life, believed.” This is a work of God; like the wonder of the creation above us and around us and beneath us—just as that is a work of the hand of Almighty God—so this, God’s purpose of redemptive grace in human history. This is as much a sovereign work of God as the creation we behold above and around us.
It is an unusual thing, the way Dr. Luke has chosen to say this, “And as many as were ordained to eternal life, believed.“ That translation, “ordained,” is a following of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. The word is a periphrastic past perfect participle, passive voice, indicative mood: esan tetagmenoi. The basic form of the verb is tasso and it refers—it is a military word, it is a military term. It is a military verb referring to an orderly arrangement. If we were to translate it exactly and precisely as Dr. Luke wrote it, you would translate it “appoint,” or “arrange,” or “set,” or “assign,” or “allot.” So let’s take “appoint.” He writes, “And as many as were appointed to eternal life, believed.” That is an unusual word, he doesn’t say who did the appointing, “As many as were appointed to eternal life, believed.”
Could it be, as some say, that these Gentiles were so disposed to listen and to respond that they believed, they accepted the Lord? Was it their disposition that thus opened for them the gates of heaven and glory? Or, as some would certainly avow—John Calvin, all who followed him—it was God who disposed their hearts to believe, and in that belief appointed them unto eternal life. Certainly it is said here that they believed, they trusted, they accepted—those who opened their hearts and who were disposed in their souls and who were thus were appointed unto eternal life.
Now, in my humble opinion and persuasion, as I study that text the best I can, I think it is both. In my persuasion, I think it is of God—the elective ordained, predestined purpose of God—that these were believing and accepting the Lord, and thus were appointed unto eternal life. I am persuaded also that it arose out of them. “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the Lord and as many as were ordained, as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
You see, it is in contrast to the Jews who rejected that message. Paul and Barnabas say:
“It is necessary that the word of God should have first been spoken to you. But seeing you put it from yourself and you judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turned to Gentiles” Acts 13.46.
And when he turned to the Gentiles, these were disposed to believe and were appointed unto eternal life.
So in scripture there is both, and they are plainly written here on these open pages. There are two great facts that scripture fully reveals: one is the sovereign, eternal, elective purpose of God and that is as much in evidence as the work of the Almighty as the creation we see all around us. God did this. He made the universe, and the galaxies, and the sidereal spheres, and the stars, and all of the universe of the firmament. God did that. God did this also: it is a work of the Lord. The Bible, the Holy Scriptures plainly use those words describing the elective purposes of God. Just listen to these words as I read them out of the encyclical, the general letter that Paul wrote to all of the churches in our Bible called Ephesians. Listen to these words:
God hath chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world.
—Listen to this—
“Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself.”
—Listen to these words—
“Having made known unto us the mystery of His will. According to His good pleasure, which He had purposed in Himself.”
—Listen to this—
“In whom also we have obtained an inheritance; being predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will.”
That’s God! That’s the great Almighty who intervenes in human history. Listen to these words in the passage that you read out of the eighth chapter of the Book of Romans, “For whom God did foreknow,” foreknowledge:
For whom God did foreknow, them did He did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son…
Moreover, whom He did predestinate, them He also called
And when He called, he also justified and glorified.
Who then shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?
It is God who does it, who justifies. That is a fact in the Holy Scriptures: God chooses, He always has. He still does. God chose Abraham out of idolatry. God did it. God chose Moses and sent him down into the land of Egypt. God did it. God chose Aaron and God chose the Levites for all of those ministries in the tabernacle. God chose David and anointed him above his brethren. God did it. God chose the twelve apostles. The Lord did it! God intervened in the life of that arch persecutor, Saul of Tarsus. God chose him and made him the apostle Paul. God did it.
And the Lord chooses to this present day. God does it. I have a brother; we have the same mother, we have the same father, we grew up in the same home. Every outward circumstance, culture, life, education, church, pastor, influence around me was around him. He never felt in his life any call to the ministry. I did. From as far back in the years as I can remember, in the smallest number of days in my childhood, I have felt that God had called me to be a pastor. Not an evangelist, not a professor, not a teacher, a pastor. That one thing—God did it. Why didn’t God call my brother? That’s in the mystery of His sovereign will. Why didn’t God call that boy who grew next door to me in that little town in which I lived? I don’t know. God called me. The elective purpose and choice of the Lord Almighty; a regnant will that is as much in vogue, in style, in sight, in scene, in purpose today as it was in the beginning; this is the Lord.
Now, the other fact plainly revealed to us on the sacred page is no less dynamically pertinent and true. This also is a fact in life and in the Holy Scriptures: God made us free. We are human agents, able to choose for ourselves. God did that, too. We are absolutely free, we are morally responsible. We can choose for ourselves, and we do. In the beginning, the apostle Paul says in I Timothy, 2, Paul says that Adam was not deceived. Eve was deceived; the subtle serpent led her astray, but not Adam. Adam chose to eat the forbidden fruit; he chose to die with his wife rather than live without her. He had the power of choice in the beginning, Adam was not deceived. He made the decision that has followed through all generations since and comes down to us. Choice is a fact of human experience and human life.
Moses stood in the midst of the camp as the Israelites danced naked around the golden calf. And he called saying, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come and stand by me,” choice. That grand hero of the faith, the captain of the host of Israel, Joshua closes his book with an address in which he concludes saying, “Choose you this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”—choice. And the [eighteenth] chapter of the 1 Kings, Elijah is on top of Mount Carmel, saying to the people of Israel, “If Baal be God, serve him. But if Jehovah be God, serve Him!” Here again, “Choose which one you will serve” [1 Kings 18:21], the power of choice is given to us.
In the life of our Lord, how many beautiful and precious and tender appeals will you find in the words and in the heart and in the language of the Lord Jesus? “Come,” He will say, “Come, come unto Me all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” [Matthew 11:28], the power of choice. In the 2 Corinthians letter, chapter 5, the apostle Paul says, “We then, are ambassadors for God, and as such, we beseech you in Christ’s stead,” as though Christ Himself were making the appeal, “we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God,” choice, response.
And the last invitation closes the apocalypse:
“The Spirit and the bride say Come and let him that heareth, the one passing by; the sojourner, let him repeat the glad refrain, Come. And let him that is athirst, come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”
The elect, the “whosoever wills”; the not elect, “ the whosoever won’ts”. The power of choice is written on the sacred page as the elected sovereignty of God. Now, this truth revealed in the scriptures is always just like that. But it is never, it is never contradictory. It is all in God’s purview, in God’s revelation and in our experience. Sometimes we have difficulty seeing all of the things of God and all of the things of us. But we will never view it clearly until we are able to see both the ableness and the sovereignty of the Almighty and the free human choice we have in our lives.
There is a language that describes One, the Almighty in glory, in heaven, and there is another language that describes us down here in the earth, we mortals. There is a language, a nomenclature, a vocabulary that is used only for God in glory. That language and vocabulary will have words like this: “Almightiness,” that’s God; “Sovereignty,” that’s God; “Foreknowledge,” that’s God; “Election,” that’s God; “Predestination,” that’s God. Those are the words, and that’s the nomenclature and the language of heaven.
And then there is another vocabulary and another nomenclature that describes us down here in the earth. When you come down to mortal men, to us, these are the words you will use: “free moral accountability”, “free agency”, “free will”, “the power of choice,” that’s down here.
Our problem arises when we misapply and mix-up those words. You can’t take the words that apply to the Almighty and make them apply to us. It becomes ridiculous and inane—they don’t fit. You have to use your vocabulary truthfully, faithfully, words that belong to the great Almighty, and words that belong to us who are carnal and dying.
For example, “Almightiness,” Almighty, God, “Jehovah Almighty.” He alone is that. When you apply it to us down here, it becomes inane. The monarch that reigned the longest in Europe, and I suppose in the world, was Louis XIV of France; he was a despot by the first order. He said, “I am the state!” When Louis XIV died, the minister who presided at his memorial service, stood up and long, long, looked down at the casket. And then long, long raised his head and looked up toward heaven and then finally said, “Only God is great!” There are words that apply to the God Jehovah in heaven: “almightiness”, “sovereignty”, the whole destiny of the world in His mighty hands. “Foreknowledge,” that’s a “God in heaven” kind of a word; it doesn’t apply to us.
Haven’t you heard me say here many times, “I can tell you how to be a billionaire in no time at all”? I can tell you how to be a billionaire, if you can know the future for two minutes. You see, God knows it for the eons and the ages yet to come. He prophesies in His Book things that are coming thousands of years hence. The eons and the ages and the eternity is just present before Him. But we? If you have foreknowledge, two minutes, I’ll tell you how to be a billionaire. Just buy a stock on the New York Stock Exchange just before it goes up and sell it just before it goes down. You’ll be a billionaire in no time—just two minutes.
You see, there are words that apply to the great mightiness of God. And there are words that apply to us. You can’t mix the two. When you are talking about God, then you talk about sovereignty; and you talk about purpose; and you talk about God’s will through the ages; and you talk about foreknowledge; and election; and predestination. But when you talk about us, we know nothing of those things. There is no almightiness in us; there is no foreknowledge about us—that’s God. When you talk about us, then you talk about free moral agency and spiritual responsibility and freedom of choice.
Now, when we think about those two, to us they are diametrically contradictory. How can a man be free and at the same time God be sovereign?
How can God carry through His elective purpose and, at the same time, I am perfectly able to make any choice that I like? How can that be?
Well, our problem lies in our astigmatism—our spiritual and moral near-sightedness–we can see one thing at a time. But apparently we’re incapable of seeing two. We can see the sovereignty of God, the Almightiness of God. And we can see the free moral agency of a man, but because of our astigmatism, we can’t see both at the same time. To us, they are contradictory.
Now, you’ll find that always in the works of God. When we try to understand what God has done, immediately we come into the unfathomable and the inexplicable. There is an inexplicable side about every doctrine in the Bible, every one of them. And no less, there is an unfathomable facet about every work of the creative hand of God—everyone of them.
For example, in astronomy, looking at these telescopes, looking at these suns and the planets around them. In astronomy there is a force called “centripetal,” centripetal force. Centripetal force is a force that pulls everything to the center, it pulls it to the middle; centripetal force. In astronomy, there is a “centrifugal force”, a centrifugal force. That is a force that flings things to the outside, flings it away from the center to the outside, flings it off into space—a centrifugal force. To us, they are opposites. A centripetal force pulls it this way, a centrifugal force pulls it that way; they are opposite to us. And in the mightiness of Almighty God, that’s what holds these planets in their orbits.
There is a force that would pull it into the sun called “gravity”. There is a force—the centrifugal force—that would fling it out into space as these planets swing in their orbits. And the force of the one that pulls it back and the force of the other that flings it afar, keeps that planet in its orbit without a second or variation through all of the unending ages. To us, they are two forces diametrically opposed to each other, but if we had the mind of God, we would see them as one—as one.
Same thing is illustrated time and again in physics. There are things, laws that are seemingly so contradictory in physics. One is the law of expansion and contraction, in cold and heat. The law of physics says if a thing gets cold and colder and colder it will contract. The same law says, if a thing gets hotter and hotter and hotter, it will expand. That’s why we’re having to spend millions of dollars repairing our roads because of the contraction and the expansion of heat and cold in snow and ice and sleet. That’s the law of physics. Wonderful, we can see that law of physics; that when a thing is cold, and colder, and colder, and colder it contracts and contracts. That’s very fine, we can see that.
Then, then—in the mystery, inexplicable unfathomable of God and His universe—water gets colder, and colder, and colder, and contracts in volume and contracts and contracts. And then suddenly, for no reason at all, another law of God intervenes: and when water gets to be thirty-two degrees and freezes, it expands—just the opposite and the contradictory opposite of the law of contraction. To us, those are opposites and to us, they are unfathomable. But if we had the mind of God, they’d be just one. they would be just one.
So in all of the mystery of God’s revelation of Himself, to us, these things are so inexplicable and contradictory that God should be sovereign, that God should elect, and at the same time that we should be perfectly free.
That’s why the apostle Paul closes his marvelous discussion of election in Romans 9, 10, and 11 with an exclamation, “Oh, the depth both of the riches and of the knowledge of God, how unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out”.
Now, may I conclude? I cannot understand, we don’t understand anything, all we do is observe—we just observe, we just see, that’s all—we don’t explain anything, nor does anybody else explain anything. We just look, we just look. The mysteries of this world are voluminous and infinite. Finite mind cannot encompass the infinitude of God. We can’t contain Him in our mental processes.
We’re not big enough to hold God in our hearts and minds. But in the revelation of the Lord, there are things that show us why the sovereignty, why the election, why the foreknowledge, and predestinary decrees of God. And they are two-fold. One concerns us and the other concerns our blessed Lord Jesus. Number one, why the election of God? It is for our sakes—it is an election. It is a decree of grace, of pity, of mercy, of redemption, of salvation. Election, predestination, is the working out of the purposes of grace and redemption in the human race. God has chosen that in a world of sin and damnation and judgment, there shall be also salvation through grace, through mercy, the love of God—always that.
The human race, by nature, is perverse and finds aversion to the will of God. Every newspaper we read blatantly headlines that; every issue, every page, every day. The human race is lamentably sinful and it is heading toward itself own self destruction. The human race has in it the seeds of perdition and finally death. Nor is there any hope for the future, for there are no generations that shall ever be born that we know of that will be any different from the sinful generations that are in the past and to which we also belong. That is a lost, condemned, a dying world.
But God intervenes, and He intervenes in grace; He intervenes in mercy; He intervenes in love; He intervenes in salvation; all of the decrees of God are for our redemption—all of them. God never decrees damnation and judgment, it is the will of God that all come to repentance and salvation. As the Lord saith in Ezekiel 33:11:
“As I live, saith the Lord, as I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked. But that the wicked would turn from his evil way and live.
—and then the appeal—
“O turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die?”
That is the Lord, always intervening in His divine sovereignty, in grace, in mercy, in love, in redemption, in salvation—always that is the elective purpose of God.
There is only one place in human story where election is without pity and without mercy and without human kindness and that is the position taken by the pseudo-scientists of the world. They take the word “election” and put a little “s” in front of it and they call it “selection”. That is, the doctrine of “the survival of the fittest,” the doctrine of selection, the doctrine of evolution. And that is the horrible doctrine of the fang and the tooth and the claw that has no part of love and mercy. That is election as the scientist—pseudo, as the evolutionist teaches it and believes it.
Not so the child of God. When he looks at history and the revelation of the purposes of God, there is in that doctrine, always that merciful, tender, loving, presence of the Lord God, and His choices are always that we might be saved.
He chose Israel—the Book says so—God chose Israel; they are His chosen people. But God chose Israel that they might be the missionaries and witnesses and teachers of the whole world; He says so.
In the forty-third Chapter of Isaiah says: Israel is my witness.
In the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Exodus, the Lord God says, “Israel, I give to you my oracles, the ten commandments,” in the twentieth chapter, “and you are to be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” A kingdom of priests—that is, they are to represent man to God and God to man. They’re to be the teachers and the preachers and the missionaries, witnessing to the whole world; that’s the purpose of God.
It is no less in His church: “Ye are a chosen generation,” a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, “that you should show forth the praise of the glory of God” [1 Peter 2:9]. That the whole world can see the beauty of the Lord in us; that they might be drawn to the Savior. All individual election is like that. The Lord said about Saul of Tarsus, “For he is a chosen vessel unto Me. That he might bear My name to the Gentiles and to the kings, to the house of Israel and I will show him how great things he must suffer for My namesake.” All of the elections of God are for the healing of the nations, for the salvation of the lost; that we might find eternal life in Jesus.
Just a word about the second purpose of God’s sovereign election: not only is it for us, the second reason for the sovereignty of God is for Jesus. The Lord God in heaven said to the Blessed Savior, “You suffer and you die for the sins of the race, and I promise You,” that’s a promise of the Father, “I promise You that You will have a people who will love You and believe in You and give their hearts and their lives and their souls in trust to You. I promise You that.“ That is election and that is the purpose of the sovereign, redemptive grace of God. “You die for the sins of the people,” and God says, “I will give You a people.”
In John 6:37, the Lord said, “All the Father hath given to Me will come unto Me. And he that cometh unto Me, I will in no wise cast out.” God has promised Jesus a people. And those that God hath promised to the blessed Jesus will come to Him. And these who come, the Lord with open arms, stands ready to love, to bless and to receive.
O God in glory, how could I thank Thee enough? That in Thy providence and in Thy grace, and in Thy purpose, I heard the gospel message. I listened to it when I was a lad, I responded with my heart and soul. How shall I thank Thee, God in heaven, that my name should be included in that Book of Life, that I should have been an object of the tender love and mercy of the Lord Jesus. And how shall I thank Thee Lord enough, that my heart was disposed to receive Thee and believe in Thee and accept Thee and love Thee and trust Thee? O the depths and the heights of the love of God in Christ Jesus that reached down, even to me.
That is God’s love, God’s grace, God’s election, God’s purpose—that Jesus should have a people and that means, bless God, you as well as us. You are not here by accident, God sent you here. You’re not listening to this message from the holy Word of God adventitiously, God sent you here. His divine purposes of grace are being realized in you this day. “And as many as are ordained to eternal life believe,” and you will be one in that number, listening to the voice of the Lord.
“He has spoken to me, pastor, and I’m coming. Before angels, and before man, openly and publicly do I give my life, and my soul, my every tomorrow, in faith and trust to the Lord Jesus. I do it now, I shall do it in the hour of my translation and death. I shall trust Him at the Judgment Day of Almighty God, and I hope to see you someday in that golden city prepared for those who have found refuge, comfort, and hope in Him. That’s God! And that’s God’s wondrous goodness to us. O bless His name, that we should have been included.
In a moment we shall sing this hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, in the throng in this balcony round, in the press of people in this lower floor, “Pastor, I’m coming. I have made that decision for God, I’m on the way.” Down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles, “Here I am, pastor, I have decided for God and I’m here. This is my wife, both of us are coming; these are our children, the whole family is coming.” Or, “Just I,” a one-somebody you. While we sing the appeal, while we wait in the presence of the Lord, make that decision now and come. Do It now, l make it now, while we stand and while we sing.
Copyright © 2014 The W. A. Criswell Foundation.
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Posted with permission.
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