Can we know that someone is chosen by God? Yes. Paul, writing to a group of believers tells them he knows they are chosen. Peter does the same in 1 Peter 2:9.
In 1 Thess 1:4-5 Paul says this: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
Paul can say he knows this not because he has been given special insight – a superpower, if you will – to see who is and is not chosen by God but because when the gospel comes to someone in word and power, in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, these are all evidences of that person’s election. He knows that they were chosen because they responded to the gospel. They had been given the gift of faith by God so that the desire to respond was there when the gospel was presented.
Paul discerned this by careful observation, and we can do the same.
A Right Response
The right response to observing this evidence is encouragement and celebration. The right response to someone who is not displaying this evidence is not to inform them (as if you could) that they are not chosen, but to pray that God will grant them repentance and that they will accept his offer.
In my readings, in helping me to understand this doctrine (I spent years very disturbed and perplexed by it) I have found the writing of pastor and theologian R.C. Sproul helpful. Of this doctrine he says this:
“Left to himself, no fallen person would ever choose God. Fallen people still have a free will and are able to choose what they desire. But the problem is that we have no desire for God and will not choose Christ unless we are first regenerated. Faith is a gift that comes out of rebirth.” (R.C. Sproul – Essential Truths of the Christian Faith)
We CANNOT know in advance of a personal response who is chosen by God, and we should not try to guess, or worse, base an evangelization strategy on such speculation. Only God knows in advance whom he has chosen. But Paul here gives us a way to identify who has been chosen by God based on their personal response and their repentance, their turning toward God.
Four Summary Points
1. Paul is sure that they are chosen by God based on the effect in their lives FOLLOWING their response to the gospel that Paul preached.
2. Paul’s preaching was instrumental in their salvation, but it was not the cause of their salvation.
3. Paul’s preaching did not save them but God planned to use Paul’s preaching as a means to their salvation.
4. Paul’s preaching didn’t cause them to be chosen, but revealed that they already were chosen.
The above applies to all preachers of the gospel. And this is what we should understand we are doing when we preach – when we use words to proclaim the good news, whether from a pulpit or across the table in a coffee shop.
We should preach the word and hope that every person who hears the truth of the gospel will respond positively. We know that the power in our preaching comes not from our words but from the word of God and his Spirit. We understand that God is using us as instruments to call people to himself. And we are filled with gratitude that he has included us in his process.
In order to lead confidently, you must be reasonably sure that you are someone that others should follow. You must believe that the words you speak and ways you model are worth following if you are going to encourage others to imitate you. But this must be done with care and with a caveat.
If you are someone that people naturally follow there is always a temptation to conform them to your own image. But if we are merely seeking to enlist others into a clone army our domain we will soon become an evil empire, and all the usual totalitarian impulses will rise up in us. We become agitated that those we seek to control won’t get with our clearly delineated program. The ego inflates, the nose elevates, and the eyes can’t bear to look below.
“What is with these people, Lord? Why won’t they become more like me? Why can’t they see that my way is the best way? Don’t they see how balanced/godly/disciplined I am? How can they not want that for themselves?”
Like me, you have probably never said these things to God… out loud! But try saying them to yourself now and see if there isn’t a ring of truth to them. When we ask these questions of God and fail to see how foolish they are, pride stokes the furnace of ego and the fire of evil is not far off. In being frustrated with the lack in others we are reinforced in our impressions of our own superiority.
So there is a dark side to inviting people to imitate us. If we do not deny the temptation to become the focal point of people’s affections, we will end up doing a lot of damage – to them and to us. It is a risky course of action. But it is a risk we are commanded to take.
Inviting people to imitate us only goes badly when when we are the end point of their affections. More than once the Apostle Paul implores the people to whom he is writing, “Be imitators of me” (1 Cor. 4:16; Phil. 3:17). But this cuts two ways and it cuts fast. When we ask others to imitate those areas of our lives which are not conformed to the way of Christ, we lead them into nothing but sin.
Paul says imitate me, but with a caveat. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1) When we speak the caveat, we give permission to reject anything in us that doesn’t conform to that standard. If we do that we will have a chance at keeping the false god Ego in check. We kill that monster of ego with humility.
If you want to learn humility, opportunities are not in short supply. Simply submit to the path that God is pointing you down and begin to walk. Before long, your opportunities will come along.
“If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of God.” (Galatians 1:10)
Paul set a good example of disregarding people’s expectations if those expectations were in conflict with God’s. In other words, he didn’t play politics with the pastorate. He didn’t care about pleasing people who could “do something for him” or help him move up the ladder. (The whole concept of “moving up the ladder” in terms of pastoring is an oxymoron. But I digress… fodder for another post…)
If we pastors today could be so absolute and so bold about pleasing God and not man our churches would be better off, and we would probably face rejection and hardship more often.
But let’s not err on the opposite side. Paul wasn’t at odds with everyone, just with those who were at odds with God. This is a distinction we need to be careful to learn. He wasn’t one of those guys who did the opposite of what he was told just to prove that nobody was going to tell him what to do.
Many pastors worry that if a number of people in the church don’t like them they must be doing something wrong. Others worry that if too many people like them they must be doing something wrong.
Either could be true, or untrue. Sometimes people dislike a pastor for reasons that should concern him and about which he should do something. In other cases, people dislike a pastor for reasons that should not concern him and about which he should most certainly not do anything. There is a lot of discernment involved in this occupation.
But we know this: people do love to be pleased, and many pastors feed off of approval. This type of symbiotic relationship can develop but it is a relationship with deadly consequences.
Churches often hire people-pleasing party planners instead of prophetic types because prophets throw very strange parties and very few enjoy them. (But the ones who do, REALLY do.)
So the people-pleaser could receive the praise and support of the people while an obedient servant would be bound, gagged, thrown on a raft and sent down the river by the same people. The next time you see a guy floating by, bound, gagged, on a raft… there may be very good reasons to just let him pass. But it could just be that he’s just the guy you’ve been looking for. You won’t really know until you have a conversation.
If a man’s chief aim is to please people he is probably more likely to remain employed – you know, polls and approval ratings and all that – but he will also inevitably disappoint God. And this will always be to the eventual detriment of any church. The praise of man improperly received, once metabolized, mutates into poison for the soul.
But if a man’s chief aim is to please God, people in the church will be blessed even if he is eventually rejected by the majority. So there is your choice: choose today whom you will please.
When a gift is given that you neither consciously desired nor openly requested, what is it for?
Some of you may remember that I was a musician once. For a few years as a young adult writing songs was the passion of my life. Every spare moment was used for writing and recording songs. That changed when Anne Marie and I began our family and I transitioned, out of necessity, to quieter forms of writing. There was some grieving over that, but I followed where it led and eventually found some writing gigs, and even some writing gigs that paid a little bit.
I honestly didn’t think I would ever be making music again, but I am. I wrote and recorded a full album in 2000 and then did demos of many songs in the following years. My last batch of demos were recorded in 2007 and then a few more trickled out in 2011. So it’s been a while. Last year I figured it was long enough and the verdict was sure, so I sold some vintage gear, thinking I was done with my music making ways.
Then late last year I decided I would organize and read through the personal journals I have kept since 2000. There are about 30 journals filled with my thoughts on life and theology and my attempts at poetry. I also found a lot of song lyrics that I had never put to melody and this seemed to spark something in me. Melodies came for these lyrics. I paired those melodies with these unused words and with the wisdom that comes with age, I modified, edited and overall strengthened these lyrics and made them into new songs.
I can see in my journals that after 2002, when Madeleine was born, the writing is less lyrical and far more intellectual. So after 2007 or so there wasn’t much in the way of unused lyrics to put melodies to. I wondered if that would be the end of a brief foray into songwriting. It turns out that was just the practice phase, just the warm up. For the last seven or eight months songs, completely new songs, have been showing up regularly. This hasn’t been the case in at least ten years, probably closer to twelve years. But here I am, knocking out one new song after another. There are twelve that are complete and ready for production and a bunch of others that are incomplete but have potential.
Now, this has put a real kink in the plans I had at the beginning of 2018. The plan was to pursue a Masters degree in theology over the next few years. I was already taking steps to put that plan in motion as this gift of writing songs was being given back to me. And that is really how I see it and how I hold it. What is God’s purpose in putting this back into my hands? I admit that I’m baffled by it. When a gift is given that you neither consciously desired nor openly requested, what is it for?
It’s possible that this is given to me just for my personal benefit. The process of capturing the moment of inspiration and bringing a song into existence are moments of great intuition and great catharsis. It is definitely my favourite part of the process, although I do enjoy the art of studio work as well. The catharsis is much needed. I have a lot to process about the last five years – actually, the last decade of my life. When you hear these songs and read the lyrics you will hear a lot of pain processing.
I took a staycation this week to properly demo some of the songs and so I’ve been in my study/recording room the last few days. And just like old times, as I get into the creative flow, more new songs are showing up. This is the way it’s always been for me when I’m in this mode.
Am I going to stay in this mode? I honestly don’t know. What am I supposed to do with these songs? Just write them? Write and record? Write and record and perform?
In case you are one of those people who didn’t even know that I did music, here is some to listen to:
I want to tell you a bit of my journey in coming to understand this doctrine the way I do. I hope this is helpful for giving context to our conversation.
I understand that this is a subject that can cause stress, confusion and anxiety. In my journey to understanding this doctrine I have experienced all of that. It is a big one! So, when the time comes that this doctrine shows up in the passage I am preaching on in a given week, I am always a little bit extra stressed, knowing that there is potential for strife because of what I will say. This is not the only doctrine I preach that causes this type of stress, but this one causes it most easily.
I also want to say up front that I don’t require anyone to believe what I believe. I will always gladly enter into conversation with other truth-seekers. I want what I believe to be pressed and tested. I want to either repent of what I believe and believe the truth or I want to fortify what I believe and be strengthened.
This is not a doctrine that I grew up believing. I was aware of it while I was growing up but was never required to believe it… and I didn’t. In fact, I mocked this belief and generally believed the opposite all the way into my late 20s. It wasn’t until after God began to call me into ministry and I began to really take his word more seriously that I began to believe what I do about his sovereignty.
In 2007, knowing that God would eventually move me into pastoring somewhere, I began to take Bible college courses. In one of the first courses I took the prof asked if we had read the Bible from cover to cover. Although I had read the Bible all of my life I realized that I never had disciplined myself to read it from front to back. And so I set out to do that.
I still remember over that year of reading coming to the realization numerous times that God really did seem to work in ways that were different from what I believed. The stories of Pharaoh and the plagues, Job, and Paul’s writings in Romans were beginning to confirm to me that I was not on track with what I believed. It has been a gradual but steady journey since then but each time I read through the Bible again from front to back I am more convinced of God’s sovereignty in all things, including election.
At first, it was a reluctant realization. “Ugh, it really does work that way?!” was basically where I was at. I really didn’t want to believe it because I knew it would put me in the theological minority. However, over the last dozen or so years it is something that I have become both more convinced of and increasingly comforted by. Now, please don’t read into that that I have it all figured out, or that I no longer feel any discomfort with the implications, or that I am entirely comfortable with some of the conclusions that must be drawn.
As I came to a passage in Thessalonians that I was going to preach that dealt with this doctrine in 2015, I addressed it in a sermon and there was certainly some controversy. In the ensuing conflict some people said to me that they simply did not believe in predestination, that it wasn’t taught in the Bible and I shouldn’t be teaching it. I was baffled at this. My only response was “You can’t NOT believe in predestination. It is clearly taught in the Bible. We might understand it differently but neither of us can say that it isn’t taught in the Bible.”
Early in 2016 I took a seminary course on Calvinism and Arminianism. This was a deep dive into the theology of both sides of this debate and was taught masterfully by Dr. Stan Fowler. I learned many things in this course but I think the best thing I took away from it was the realization that we can believe different things about this doctrine and still work and worship together.
Dr. Fowler demonstrated that there are most certainly passages of scripture that seem to clearly teach one way of seeing things, and other passages that, if read in isolation, lead to a different conclusion. It is up to the student of scripture then, Dr. Fowler told us, to examine everything God’s word says on the subject and decide for ourselves where we believe the greater weight of evidence lies.
In other words, no one should arrogantly believe that they have an airtight case for either side. There is room for difference, and there must be much humility in our conversations.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: when pastors preach at the weddings of younger people, we are often aware that they do not fully appreciate what is happening in the wedding ceremony. In a way, we envy them! We’re happy for them because the reason they can’t fully appreciate what is happening is that they have usually not been touched very deeply by the suffering, mourning, and loss that the two people involved in a later-years wedding have experienced.
So in one way we envy them, but in another way, they should envy those who get married later in life, perhaps after the death of a spouse. It is through the experience of suffering, mourning, and loss that we come to a greater appreciation of God’s goodness and God’s faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:16-24 (NLT and ESV combined)
He has made me chew on gravel.
He has rolled me in the dust.
Peace has been stripped away,
and I have forgotten what happiness is.
I cry out, “My splendor is gone!
Everything I had hoped for from the Lord is lost!”
The thought of my suffering and wanderings
is bitter beyond words.
I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
These are vivid word pictures, but the sentiment is not unfamiliar to those acquainted with this depth of sorrow. Grief is like chewing on gravel. Despair is like being rolled in the dust. The peace we once experienced when life was going along as we expected is stripped away and at times we can’t seem to remember what happiness even feels like.
At times everything we hoped for seems to be lost: the relationship we never thought would be shipwrecked by conflict; the job we expected to provide for our material needs; the spouse we expected to spend the rest of our lives with. What we hoped for seems to be lost.
And what often follows is a period like the one described by the writer of Lamentations: “The thought of my suffering and wanderings is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss.”
There is a common saying that claims that “time is the healer.” I have not found this to be true. I have found that time dulls the blade of the pain, but some of the pain and certainly a scar remain. When time does heal, it often leaves a nasty scar. Even though this is true, it does not give us licence to allow our mourning (which is encouraged in scripture) to blossom into a consuming despair. It seems that the writer of this lament in scripture had dwelt on the memories of his afflictions for so long that his soul was overwhelmed with despair
It should not be so, and yet we find ourselves in that state too often – at least I do. Calvin said that “since faith is the mother of hope, it follows that when anyone is overwhelmed with despair, faith is extinct.” These are difficult, hard, but truthful words. But we should again remember to be thankful that we serve a God who can bring what is extinct back into existence!
There is very good news here as well. As the writer of the lament turns his focus away from his own trouble towards a faithful Creator: “Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this:” And here is what he remembers. And this is what we should remind ourselves on a daily basis to remember:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
How can it be that hope and mourning dwell together within us at the same time? It can be because this is how God created us to live, so that sorrows and the mourning over these sorrows would push us forward in our sanctification. And while this is happening we cling to the reality of God’s faithfulness, and this gives us hope. We experience the pain of life. We mourn, we lament, and yet we celebrate. And this is the normal rhythm of life for God’s people.
We do a disservice to our children in Sunday School when we teach them only the highlights, and not the low points, in the lives of Moses and David and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the others. When we do not also show them that these heroes of the faith also struggled with hopelessness and despair, we create a false picture of the life of faith.
Every believer who ever lived who was concerned with God’s will above their own has experienced a similar rhythm in life: sorrow and joy, elation and heartbreak, brokenness and the peace of God.
It always has been and it always will be… until Jesus returns, and then no more mourning, no crying, no sickness, no pain, no grief over losses, no despair to wrestle with. The coming of that day is an event in which we can place all our hope, because that day will come!
In the course of our intermittent faithfulness to God, in the middle of our suffering, when we are tempted to look for someone to blame, God declares to us, “I have done no wrong here!” And in every sorrow and trial and circumstance, this is true.
And if we’re honest we struggle to believe that. When disaster strikes, when a spouse is lost, when the diagnosis is cancer, when a heartache doesn’t seem to end. All of the great heroes of our faith struggled at times to see the goodness in God’s plans.
But all of the great heroes of our faith clung to the truth that we would all do well to continually remember, in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”
This theme echoes through all of scripture, and we would not have time in this life to meditate deeply on every example, but the common thread in all of these examples is this: when we are tempted to despair we should set our minds on the goodness of God, and we should encourage each other to express gratitude for all his blessings, at all times and in all circumstances.
There is a great poem that was written and later turned into a song that many of us know. When we finally get to the wonderful lyrics of this beautiful hymn based on these verses in the book of Lamentations, we understand that they are not just an opportunity to praise God for his faithfulness. These words reflect a commitment to fight despair with gratitude.
To acknowledge our own lack of faith and to strive to cling to the one who is absolutely faithful.
To admit that we sometimes embrace weakness when strength is available.
To recognize that we sometimes wallow in despair when we should instead choose to give praise.
To confess that instead of remembering God’s goodness to us, we instead remember all of our own afflictions, rehearsing them in our minds as if these calamities, rather than God’s goodness and sovereignty over them are the point.
Let these words be a reminder to us to remember:
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!
God is faithful. True to his word. Keeping all his promises. Steady in his affection. Loyal to his children. Constant in his love.
Psalm 30:11-12 (NLT)
You, O Lord, have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!