How I Came to Believe in God’s Sovereign Election

Dear Reader,

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.

Fighting Despair With Gratitude

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!