Sunday, November 02, 2008


No, I am not about to come out for either Obama or McCain. I am tackling the knotty problem at the start of I Peter.

The doctrine of election is anathema to many Christians. They can't bear to think of God choosing some for damnation. But there it is in Scripture, "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ to God's elect." This is not an isolated instance. Paul writes to the Ephesians "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world," and John writes "to the chosen lady" and Jude "to those who have been called."

The thing is that not only is it plainly present in Scripture, but it is also absolutely necessary. Jesus died on the cross to purchase everything needed for salvation. Whether you are a little old lady in Bognor Regis or a Napoleon of crime there is nothing you have done to is too dirty to be washed away. Dishonesty, lying, theft, extortion, adultery or any sexual sin, bullying, betrayal, greed, lust, laziness, gluttony, selfishness, brutality, even murder; none of them is so large or so heinous that they cannot be washed clean by Jesus. But here's the rub, whether you are a Napoleon of crime or a little old lady in Bognor Regis, there is no-one so clean as not to need washing. White lies, speeding, failing to declare something small on your tax return or not declaring a foreign purchase to the Customs Officer, lascivious thoughts enjoyed even if left unacted upon, a bus fare unpaid as a child, an apple stolen from a stall, a secret passed on as gossip, perhaps disguised as a prayer, an angry word, rudeness to a call center, cowardly backing down when you should have stood up for what is right, acquiescence at evil, neglect of those in need, a joke told against the helpless or weak or undefended minority; there is nothing so trivial that it doesn't need paying for. The Bible tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Sin in English is a technical word from archery. It is used when an arrow falls short of the target. Unless you hit the bullseye every time you are a sinner in need of a savior. Does Tiger Woods get a hole in one every time on every par 3? Does David Beckham score every time with every free-kick from just outside the penalty area? Did every Beatles record go straight to number 1? Is every hit a homer from Alex Rodriguez? Did Mohammad Ali win every fight by a knockout? Even the best professionals aren't perfect; do you expect to be?

So you'd better repent. Isn't that what all Christian preachers demand?

And just how do you think you are going to do that? The Bible says that we were all dead in trespasses and sins. Paul's letter to the Ephesians chapter 2 begins: As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

We had no capacity to save ourselves. Even though Jesus had done everything that was necessary to spare us from the consequence of our rebellion against God, we could do nothing to grasp hold of it. Can the dead live? In Christ, God has demonstrated that they can, but only if God makes it so. God, who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ when we were dead in transgressions. We are alive in Christ because God has chosen to make us alive in Christ; of our own strength we could not have done it.

Certain theologians want to make salvation a joint activity. Christ paid the price on the cross and we did our bit by choosing Christ. How did we do that when we were dead? For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9)

How does that square with human responsibility? If we are only saved on God's whim and we can do nothing about it, how can we be blamed for not believing?

Human responsibility is also taught in Scripture. Imagine a ward full of drunks all in liver failure. Who is responsible for their being there? It's my ward, but I never made them drink. Indeed, I and doctors like me have been telling anyone who listens that alcohol is dangerous and can cause cirrhosis. I have been warning that younger and younger people are coming into hospital with damage to their livers. I have been trying to make them stop.

Is the fault of the shops who lower the price of alcohol as a loss leader and thus make it easier for them to drink? I think the shops who do that are irresponsible, but I, like millions of others walk straight by the stack of gin bottles in the supermarket and don't give them a second thought.

Is it the fault of their parents who set them a bad example or ill-treated them when they were young? There are thousands of children who come from bad homes yet turn into model citizens.

Is it the fault of the kind people who give money to beggars and don't consider that the money will go straight into the next bottle of spirits? I think giving money to panhandlers is silly - far better to buy them a sandwich, but even so the donors were only being kind.

Is it the fault of their genes? Some people can drink with impunity. Yes, but many alcoholics are rescued by AA and don't end up on the liver ward.

No, when it comes down to it the person who ends up with alcoholic liver disease, despite all the excuses, can only accept that he or she is personally responsible.

Suppose, now I come along and offer one of the patients a liver transplant. He doesn't have to pay, all he has to do is accept. Will you blame me that I don't offer a transplant to every patient? Will you tell me I am being unfair? Will you say that I have chosen to condemn all the others to a terrible death?

I would be being unfair. If fairness came into it I would leave them all to take the consequences of their drinking. Just as if God chose to save none he would be being fair to all. God's offer of salvation is not about fairness, it is not about justice, it is not even because some deserve mercy. It is all about grace - undeserved mercy. No-one should demand their rights from God -if they got what was due to them they would be excluded from His presence for ever.

Others hold back at the presumption of predestination. Verse 2 of 1 Peter 1 says that the elect are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father. Does that mean that He zipped round to see the ending and then came back in time and chose those who would eventually choose Him? By no means. The word translated 'according to' does not mean 'depending on' but 'in harmony with'. God certainly knows the end from the beginning; from His point of view the future is fixed - but not from ours. There is no future is relying on destiny. We live our lives in the hope of every possibility. Yesterday, Liverpool (top of the league) played Spurs (bottom of the league) Within 3 minutes Liverpool were ahead and thereafter peppered the Spurs goal with monotonous regularity. They seemed destined to win easily. Then, the Liverpool central defender inadvertently scored for the opposition and in the last minute of overtime Spurs scored an improbable goal to win the match. It's never over 'til it's over. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great preacher of the nineteenth century was once admonished for spreading pearls before swine. "There is no point in preaching to those who are not elect, sir."

"I agree, " said Spurgeon, "Perhaps you would be so good as to put a chalk mark on the shoulders of those who are elect. Then I will be certain only to preach to them."

Why God chose whom he chose is a mystery. Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. (Matthew 25:11,12) All we can say is they are chosen for the Father's good pleasure.

How is it done? How do the dead live? Through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. This is the work of the Holy Spirit

Why was it done? For obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.

Here is the answer to those who say, "Once saved always saved; therefore I can rest on my laurels." We are saved for obedience and when we stumble as we all do there is still the sprinkling by his blood to cleanse us anew.

The grace of God is a wonderful doctrine. Spurgeon again, "He must have chosen me because, knowing my heart, I should never have chosen Him. And He must have chosen me before I was born, because he certainly would not have chosen me after I was born and started sinning."

"I'm forever grateful" goes the chorus, and from that gratitude comes every good work of the Christian. We don't strive for good works to earn our salvation - how would we ever know if we had done enough. We strive for good works because of our salvation - not to repay the cost, but out of gratitude and praise.


Anonymous said...

Dear Terry,
Thank you for writing such an exceptional article.

Just how are you going to repent? It is because of Christ’s atonement that we can choose to repent. There is a process: recognition of the sin, feelings of remorse, confession to God and those harmed, restitution, forsaking the sin. Repentance proceeds forgiveness. Salvation comes only through repentance. We cannot choose as a ‘default’ an option ‘to suffer’ in lieu of repentance. The gift of the atonement is repentance made possible. Prior to the atonement repentance could never lead to salvation, however genuine.

So the task is a constant striving to become like Christ. He is the Master to emulate. Whenever we fall short of the mark repentance provides the means for mercy and forgiveness. Christ did His part. Now its our turn.


Terry Hamblin said...

The point is that repentence is motivated by the Holy Spirit. We are unable to repent without the power of the Spirit. But if you do repent it means that you are one of the elect.