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New Horizons

The Bible Teaches the Doctrine of Election: Part II

Geoffrey C. Smith

The God who chose the Thessalonians for salvation chose them through his appointed means. He chose them, says Paul, "through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth" (literally, "by sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth") (2 Thess. 2:13). What exactly are these two means, and how do they relate to each other?

The New Birth

At this point, things become a little tricky. For us to determine fully the meaning of "sanctification of the Spirit" would require a fairly extensive study of the words themselves, as well as the concepts related to them, covering both the Old and the New Testament. Therefore, I am going to jump ahead to my own conclusions about this expression. Their validity can be tested by the flow of thought in the context.

The phrase "by sanctification of the Spirit" means "the work of sanctification performed by the Holy Spirit." Generally, this refers to the Holy Spirit's commitment to produce genuine holiness in the people of God—a lifelong process from their standpoint. In the immediate context, it seems that Paul is focusing on the beginning of that process, the Spirit's initial work of regeneration, by which he gives life to those who are dead. (To be sure, these are merely two aspects of the Spirit's singular work [see 1 Thess. 3:13; 4:7-8; 5:23].) In other words, Paul's focus is on their conversion.

Further evidence for this comes from 1 Peter 1:2, where the identical expression is used. As in 2 Thessalonians 2, the subject under consideration is God's choice for salvation: God's elect have been chosen "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father by sanctification of the Spirit" (my translation).

Peter then gives praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ because he, in his great mercy, has given Christians "new birth" into a living hope and into an inheritance (future glory) (vss. 3-4). He did this "through [by means of] the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead"—by uniting them to Christ (see, for example, Eph. 2:5 and Col. 2:13).

The phrase "sanctification of the Spirit" in this context, then, refers to that first work of the Spirit by which he gives new life to those who are dead in trespasses and sins. The God who chose the Thessalonians for salvation achieved that end by sending his Holy Spirit to them and making them alive together with Christ. Before this took place, they were no different from "those who are perishing" (2 Thess. 2:10). However, as a result of the Spirit's work, they were able to believe the truth.

So, although the two means are joined together, it appears that the former logically precedes the latter. That is, "sanctification" is the necessary preparation for "belief in the truth." The first refers to God's work within the human heart, while the second refers to the response that proceeds from the human heart. The wider biblical teaching is confirmed by this text: without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, there could not be belief in the truth.

Actually, we do not have to go too far to find support for this doctrine. Recall that in vs. 10, Paul uses the phrase "love [of] the truth" as a virtual synonym for "belief in the truth." With this in mind, we are well within our rights to substitute "love" for "belief" in vs. 13. If men by nature take pleasure in unrighteousness, how can they possibly, as an expression of that same nature, love the righteous God? Elsewhere, of course, the Scriptures teach that human beings hate God! What power is there in all the universe that is able to turn a human heart from utter hatred to vibrant love? Only the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit can effect such an extraordinary transformation.

Choosing and Calling

At this point, as we move from vs. 13 (eternity) into vs. 14 (time), we should take another look at the parallel structure of those verses:

Verse 13b:

Verse 14:

  1. God
  2. chose
  3. you
  4. through sanctification and belief in the truth
  5. for salvation

  1. He (God)
  2. called
  3. you
  4. through our gospel
  5. for obtaining the glory of our Lord

The words "God chose you ... for salvation" in vs. 13 are echoed by the words "He called you ... for obtaining the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" in vs. 14. If "salvation," as we noted previously, is deliverance from God's judicial wrath on the Day of Judgment, then it has, as its corollary, the inheritance of glory, which is here described as "the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ." In short, those whom God chose for salvation are those whom he called to obtain Christ's glory. Similarly, 1 Peter 5:10 states: "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast."

Calling through Preaching

Now we must consider the means that God employed to call those whom he chose for salvation. Paul writes, "He called you through [by means of] our gospel" (vs. 14). On the one hand, God's means are described as "through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth" (v. 13), and on the other hand, his means are described as "through our gospel" (v. 14). When we bring these thoughts together (as complementary truths), we observe that God's secret, eternal, immutable purpose to choose a people for himself is successfully carried out in time by the outward call of evangelistic preaching. The point is that the Lord's voice is heard by his chosen ones through the gospel that is preached to them (see also John 10:1-6, 11-18).

Paul was armed with this confidence in God's sovereign authority to summon and secure his elect when he first arrived in Thessalonica to preach the gospel (Acts 17:1-9). This meant that the content of his gospel was not polluted by any worldly enticements designed to pander to carnal desires.

Paul would have despised modern-day "church growth" thinking because it runs entirely contrary to the preaching of the Cross. He knew that men and women, left to themselves, would never identify with Jesus Christ crucified. Many modern evangelical ministers, realizing that this is true, draw the conclusion that the message must be revised. Paul, on the other hand, remained committed to the message of the Cross, putting his hope in God, who would work through it to save his own. (Paul's unwavering commitment to the preaching of the Cross is revealed by the fact that he explicitly taught his new Thessalonian converts at the outset of their new life in Christ that they would have to endure persecution [1 Thess. 3:4]. Find that in the church growth manuals!)

Undoubtedly, the Cross was on Paul's mind as he entered the city. The wounds inflicted upon him by the Philippian authorities were only the most recent "marks of Jesus" that had been added to his body (see Gal. 6:17). Despite his sufferings (or, perhaps, because of them!), his message was straightforward: "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ" (Acts 17:3)—specifically, the Christ who was promised in the Old Testament, who had to suffer and die on a cross before he would be resurrected and enter into his glory (Acts 17:3; see Acts 13:16-41 for a fuller account of Paul's basic message).

In Thessalonica, the substance of Paul's preaching was Jesus Christ and him crucified. Based on this, the apostle summoned men to repentance and held out to them the promise of the forgiveness of their sins. That his gospel did not accommodate the unregenerate, but rather provoked them, is shown by the mob's hostility and violence (17:5-9), which forced Paul, once again, to leave town.

Theory and Practice

This investigation into the beginnings of the church in Thessalonica allows us to observe the working out of 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14. Paul faithfully preached his gospel in that city (corresponding to 2:14), while the Spirit secretly worked to sanctify certain of its citizens ("some of the Jews ..., a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women" [Acts 17:4]), so that they would believe the truth (corresponding to 2:13). We might say that 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 serves as Paul's theological interpretation of the events recorded in Acts 17:1-9.

Everyone who was present when Paul preached heard the gospel with their ears. They saw with their eyes that some who heard him responded appropriately. Yet what no one could see or hear that day was no less real: the sanctifying work of the Spirit within those whom God had chosen for salvation, so that they would embrace the gospel by faith. As Luke says about the Gentiles who honored the word of the Lord, "All who were appointed for eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).

What else could Paul mean when, having just mentioned the awful destiny of "those who are perishing," he says to the believers, "We ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved" (2 Thess. 2:13)? If this does not refer to God's sovereignty in election, then what a bizarre choice of words he has made to remind them that they—unlike their doomed fellows—chose God!

If Paul did not teach God's sovereignty in election, he should have said, "They may be perishing, but we congratulate you, brothers, because even though you are loved by the Lord in the exact same way that those who are perishing are loved by the Lord, you made the right choice when the truth was presented to you; therefore you will be saved and obtain glory."

If this had been the case, Paul would have distinguished between believers and unbelievers according to their willingness to believe, not according to God's electing love. So why did Paul muddy everything up by using the language he used? Obviously, he didn't. No one is ever praised or congratulated in the Bible for being willing to come to Christ. All credit for human faith goes to God.

An Occasion for Thanksgiving

In closing, I would like to make a few additional observations about the text we have been examining.

First, Paul is not at all embarrassed to talk about the doctrine of election. As he is elsewhere in his epistles, he is here quite straightforward on the subject of God's choice of his elect over the rest of lost humanity. Paul does not treat this subject as something perplexing or vexing—and neither should we who claim to believe in the authority of the Word of God.

In fact, far from being timid about it, Paul sees the doctrine of election as a cause for praise. Once again, consider the contrast: they are perishing because they have "refused to love the truth and so be saved" (vs. 10). Consequently, God sends them a delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that they will be condemned who have not believed the truth, finding their pleasure instead in unrighteousness (vss. 11-12). "But," declares Paul, "we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you" (vs. 13).

The fact that God loves some with an eternal, electing love that secures their salvation is, for Paul, an occasion for thanksgiving! He praises God for showing mercy to his people, even though they deserve his anger and wrath. The modern Christian might say, "I could never worship a God who chooses only some people for eternal life and not others." Paul, on the other hand, thanks God that he did choose some for eternal life, rather than leaving everyone to perish in their sins (cf. also Matt. 11:25-27 and Eph. 1:3-14; 2:1-10).

Assurance of Salvation

Finally, take note of the inference drawn by the "so then" section of vs. 15: "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you." (Recall the mild rebuke in 2:5, where Paul indicates that the Thessalonians would not be having their trouble if they remembered what he had previously taught them.) This inference ("stand firm and hold"), taken by itself, would appear to suggest the premise that the final success of God's redemptive work is uncertain. The full statement to this effect would look like this: "Because in the end you may fail to gain your inheritance, but in fact may lose your salvation, you must stand firm and hold to what you were taught."

This view agrees with today's conventional "Christian" wisdom, which teaches that uncertainty about final salvation is an incentive to obedience. The corollary to this, which has become a standard criticism of the doctrine of election, is that a belief in the certainty of one's final salvation grants Christians a license to sin. Yet according to verses 13-14, the believer's final salvation is anything but uncertain, for God himself is the one who loves, chooses, calls, and sanctifies believers for eternal glory.

So why does Paul command them to "stand firm and hold to [his] teachings," if there is no doubt about the believer's future inheritance? He wants to encourage them to continue, no matter how formidable the resistance and hostility of the world may prove to be. If believers are assured of the final outcome, they will be motivated to persevere in the meantime, because the goal of their redemption is always in sight.

Therefore, despite conventional notions to the contrary, Paul is saying to the church, "Because you know that God loved you and, therefore, chose you for salvation and called you through the preaching of the gospel to obtain glory with Jesus Christ, you must therefore stand firm and hold on to what you were taught."

The Bible teaches the doctrine of election. This doctrine was not the product of the imagination of some sixteenth-century theologian who lived in a less enlightened era. It was not invented by rigid dogmaticians who were trying to quench the church's missionary zeal. Rather, it is the teaching of Holy Scripture.

Mr. Smith is the pastor of Park Woods OPC in Overland Park, Kans. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 1999.

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