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New Horizons

The Bible Teaches the Doctrine of Election: Part I

Geoffrey C. Smith

I intend to demonstrate in this article that the Bible teaches the doctrine of election. The Scriptures teach that God elects some, and not others, to eternal life, without regard to any worthiness (such as spiritual desire, religious merit, or foreseen faith) in those whom he elects. In doing this, God acts in accordance with his highest purpose, which is, as Paul states repeatedly in Ephesians, the revelation of his own glory.

We will focus our attention on 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15, a crucial text that addresses the question of how God saves lost people. We will see that this passage, understood according to its plain sense, teaches election, as does the rest of the Bible.

The Context

First, let's take a moment to establish the context in which this passage appears. This is the pivotal section of the letter. The Thessalonians had become agitated by some type of "authoritative" report that asserted that the Day of the Lord had arrived. In order to choke off this error, Paul reminds the church of what he had previously taught them, which should have been enough to convince them that the report was false. In effect, Paul asks them, "Where is the great apostasy that I told you about? Where is the man of lawlessness, the monstrous level of evil?" These were to be the unmistakable signs that the Day of the Lord was near. Their prominence and visibility throughout the world would be obvious to God's people. (The Thessalonians may have been persuaded that the local persecution [see 1:3-10] was part of a worldwide phenomenon.) In other words, the universal apostasy and rebellion, coinciding with the appearance of Antichrist, would signal that the Day of the Lord was close at hand.

To strengthen this point further, Paul stresses that all these things must still be future. After all, the mystery of lawlessness, though already operative, was being held in check by a restraining power. Apparently, this restraining power was known to the Thessalonians and was, in fact, present in the world. Only when this restraining force was taken away would lawlessness burst forth, like water through a broken dam. Because the restraining force was still in place, the universal apostasy could not have occurred.

Therefore, the signal that Jesus Christ was about to be revealed (1:7) is the revelation of his sinister counterpart, Antichrist (2:3). The Parousia (the appearing of Christ) will be preceded by the mock "Parousia" of Satan's vicar, wearing Christ's mask (as John Calvin puts it). Because the appearing of the man of lawlessness will be attended by supernatural (but not divine) displays, only those who are sober-minded, alert, and discerning will detect the devil's deception beneath the splendor.

By contrast, the Parousia of the Lord Jesus Christ will be both spectacular (his appearance in divine glory) and definitive (final). His return will be the prelude to final judgment, which will fall not only upon Antichrist (vs. 8), but also upon those loyal to him. Ironically, those who worship "the man doomed to destruction" (vs. 3, literally, "the son of destruction") are themselves even now perishing (vs. 10).

The Great Contrast

This distinct and identifiable class of humanity, "those who are perishing" (vs. 10), provides the jumping-off point for our study of vss. 13-15. Why are they perishing? Paul tells us in the latter half of vs. 10: "They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved." Then, in vs. 12, he elaborates on this by setting up a contrast: these people have not believed the truth, but have taken pleasure in unrighteousness.

The translation "unrighteousness" is to be preferred over NIV's "wickedness," which, in English, connotes the basest sort of evil. Unrighteousness, on the other hand, means "not righteous, not submitting all of life to God's law." This means that "those who are perishing" should not be confined to the most notorious subcategory of sinners. Paul is referring to ordinary unbelievers—non-Christians of every stripe—who, for all their differences, share as their common delight a life that is free from God's rule. Simply put, a Christian is someone who has set his heart on God, while a non-Christian sets his heart on something else.

This brings us to the text we are considering. The first word in vs. 13, "but," signals a contrast. On one side of the contrast is that distinct and identifiable class of humanity, "those who are perishing," who will be condemned at the Parousia of Jesus Christ (vss. l0-12). Presumably, then, on the other side of the contrast is another distinct and identifiable class of humanity, namely, those who will not be condemned at the Parousia. Therefore, we might expect the contrast to take this form: those who are perishing did not believe the truth (and thus will be condemned), but you did believe the truth (and thus will be saved).

However, at first glance the two sides of the contrast do not seem to correspond evenly to one another. The contrast appears to be: those who are perishing did not believe the truth (and thus will be condemned), but "we ought always to thank God for you." The immediate contrast seems to be between God's solemn condemnation of "those who are perishing," on the one side, and Paul's obligation to thank God, on the other.

Now, because these two sides are not evenly balanced, we must go further into vs. 13 by asking what it is exactly that Paul is thanking God for. There we find that he thanks God because God has loved the Thessalonian Christians and chosen them for salvation. This leaves the contrast looking like this: those who are perishing did not believe the truth (and thus will be condemned), but you were loved and chosen (and thus will be saved). (To put it another way, "they did not do something, but you had something done to you.")

Thus, the contrast is not, in the final analysis, between "those who are perishing" and Paul's obligation to give thanks for the Thessalonians. It is not Paul's obligation to be thankful that is set over against "those who are perishing," but his reason for being under such an obligation. In effect, Paul is saying, "Why must we always give thanks for you? Because God chose you—you who are loved by him—from the beginning for salvation."

In view of the terrible judgment that "those who are perishing" will undergo (and, indeed, have already begun to undergo), Paul is moved—as if under obligation—to thank God for saving the ones he has saved. This sense of obligation has the effect of highlighting God's kindness as the distinguishing factor that separates these two classes of humanity. Thanking God for saving his people is equivalent to acknowledging the glory of God's mercy in salvation.

The Language of Choice

Now we can examine vs. 13 in more detail. "Brothers loved by the Lord" has the nuance of "you who have always been loved by the Lord." In this context, it is more than a term of endearment. It serves to distinguish the Thessalonian believers from the rest of the world, while at the same time anticipating the Lord's action on their behalf (choosing them). Paul can call the Christians "loved by the Lord" because of what God did for them, namely, that "from the beginning God chose you to be saved." God's love issues in his choice, and the latter serves as evidence that the former has always been there.

Before anyone accuses me of reading too much into this text, we need to consider the Greek word translated "chose" in this verse. The word is used three times in the New Testament: (1) here (the only place where God is the subject), (2) in Philippians 1:22, where Paul asks, "What shall I choose?" when faced with two alternatives (to go on living or to die), and (3) in Hebrews 11:25, where the author says of Moses, "He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time."

In Philippians 1:22 and Hebrews 11:25, choose means "choose one thing over another." It seems perfectly reasonable, then, that choose in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 means "choose some, but not others." What is more, this meaning suits the context, where Paul establishes a contrast between two different groups of people.

The two groups are treated differently by God. To one group, God sends deception, so that they believe a lie (they receive the judgment they deserve). The other group was chosen and, subsequently, called to salvation. In other words, if all we had in front of us was this much of the text, we would conclude that God's choice is what makes the difference between the two groups.

This, of course, is the biblical doctrine of election—the very doctrine that has been the cause of so much friction within the Christian church. Yet it is the plain teaching of this and other biblical texts that God's choice is the singular explanation for the distinction between the two categories of humanity, the saved and the lost. Pay close attention to how the word but functions in the following verses by taking note of what precedes it and what follows it.

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of [literally, according to] his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

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 [literally, our flesh] 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. (Eph. 2:1-5)

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor. 1:18)

In the first two examples, Paul looks back at the condition of Christians (including himself) before they were converted. Paul and the other believers were once just like everyone else in the world; they shared in the common lot of humanity, sinful through and through, by nature worthy of condemnation. Why, then, are they—Paul and the Christians to whom he is writing—no longer in that condition? Because God loved them and saved them! He did not, as some teach, love them and merely make salvation available to them. No, he loved them and saved them, thus separating them from "the rest" (whom he did not love and save).

In the third example, Paul contrasts how two classes of people perceive the message of Israel's Messiah dying a miserable, shameful death on a Roman cross. One class, "those who are perishing" (the same phrase as in 2 Thessalonians 2:10), interpret the message of the cross according to ordinary human standards—as foolishness. The other class, those who are "being saved" (note the passive voice: something is being done to them), interpret it differently, seeing it as God's power. Presumably, "those who are being saved" would also regard the message of the cross as foolishness, except for the fact that they are being saved!

Two Views of Election

So far, we have focused upon the broader structure of the contrast between the two categories of humanity set forth in 2 Thessalonians 2:10-13. At this point, we will turn our attention to the details—the words, the grammar, and the syntax—of these verses.

We must first take note of the parallel structure of vss. 13b and 14. The verses share five elements in this order: (1) God, (2) God's action, (3) the object of his action, (4) the means he employs, (5) the final goal. Observe how this pattern works out in each verse:

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

(Note: for item 5, each verse has the Greek preposition eis, "for.")

In each verse, the only one who is acting is God, who employs his means to fulfill his purpose. The believers ("you") are merely the beneficiaries of God's action. And this explains why Paul thanks God! Salvation, which is nothing less than deliverance from the coming wrath (1:7-9; 2:10-12), occurs when God sovereignly and graciously extracts his elect from the common mass of lost humanity. It is his work.

The parallel structure in vss. 13b and 14 suggests to us that Paul is describing the same thing twice, the same event (salvation) from two points of view. In vs. 13b, he describes redemption within the context of God's eternal plan. In biblical idiom, "from the beginning" is the equivalent of "from eternity past." Recall from our discussion of "loved by the Lord" that this love originated in the distant past and was present when Paul wrote this letter—a love made known by God's choice of the Thessalonian believers.

Then, in vs. 14, Paul moves from eternity into time, describing redemption in terms of its being worked out in history. (Paul does the same thing—viewing election from eternity, then in time—in Romans 8:29-30.) God's secret choice (from eternity) is manifested in his saving call (in time). What he determined to do "long ago," before he formed the planets and the stars, he is now accomplishing in the world. As Paul says elsewhere, "He chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight" (Eph. 1:4).

The Sovereignty of God

Before we move forward, I want to ask if it is really so hard to believe that God chose some for salvation and not others. Is not the idea of election in perfect harmony with the God of the Bible? What Paul writes here, far from being an aberration to be explained away, is entirely consistent with what all the Scriptures teach us about God. It is merely one manifestation of his sovereignty; election is a divine prerogative.

After all, did God not choose to create all things out of nothing? Was this not a sovereign act? Did God not choose Abram and call him to leave Ur for Canaan? Did he not choose Jacob over Esau for covenant blessing, so that "[his] purpose in election might stand" (Rom. 9:11)? Did he not choose Moses—while in his infancy—to be the deliverer of Israel? Did he not choose the nation of Israel to be delivered, so that they could be his covenant people and he could be their covenant God?

We could go on. Did God not choose Samson, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, and even his own dear Son, all before their birth? Did he not choose David and his house to rule over Israel? Does he not choose either to install pagan kings on their thrones or to remove them from power? Did our Lord Jesus not choose his twelve from among his disciples, revealing only to them what was hidden from the rest?

So when Paul writes about election in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15, he is in step with the rest of Holy Scripture. "God chose you" is not a strange, mysterious phrase that should leave us puzzled or confused. Rather, it is simply one more instance in which God expresses his sovereignty. It fits neatly into place with all the other expressions of his sovereignty. Here God has treated one group as they deserve to be treated, but he has sovereignly chosen to be merciful to the other group.

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

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