As Americans raised in a democratic republic, we cling tenaciously to the principle “one person, one vote.” It is very easy (and almost natural) to carry over this principle to our understanding of the doctrine of salvation. It is easy to simply assume that God should give everyone a chance to go to heaven, and if people refuse God’s gracious offer, then people, in effect, send themselves to hell by refusing God’s gracious gift. This makes perfect sense on democratic presuppositions because in the political sphere each individual is assumed to be entitled and empowered to determine their own course in life. And if this is true in American political life, then it should be true when it comes to the salvation of sinner. Right? Well, no. The Bible does not allow us to understand humanity’s redemption from sin in such rosy terms.
Because of Adam’s sin, we are all sinners by nature and by choice, and we are born guilty for Adam’s act of rebellion in Eden. The Bible speaks of this as being dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1), meaning we are unwilling and unable to do anything to save ourselves. Because we are dead in sin, we cannot even take those first steps toward God that some Christians mistakenly think we should be able to make (John 6:44). It is common to hear Christians describe God’s grace in generic, non-specific and medicinal terms such as, “grace is like a medicine which, if we are willing to take it, enables us to come to Christ,” or that “grace is a life-ring which we must grab and cling, or we will drown in our sins.”
Our problem is not that we are spiritually sick, somewhat impaired by our sin, or that we are morally weak. It is much worse than that. The Bible says we are dead in sin. Dead people do not, and indeed cannot, come to God. God must come to us while we are dead in sin, and then make us alive with Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:1-10). This is where we find the very heart of God’s saving grace. God does everything necessary to save us from our sins, when we are so unworthy of such salvation, and completely unable to do anything about our predicament. Democratic presuppositions simply don’t apply to matters of sin and grace. Humanity’s plight and God’s sovereign grace are the proper categories here. From beginning to end God must save us because we are unable to do anything to save ourselves.
The only reason why any one of us presently trusts in Jesus to save us from our sins is because God chose to save us in Jesus Christ from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). God did so, Scripture says, based upon his own sovereign good pleasure and purpose–in other words, for reasons known only to himself, but fully consistent with God’s holiness and justice. When addressing this very subject, Paul spells this out in no uncertain terms. “In love, [God] predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:3-7). God chooses us in Jesus Christ, and he does so for reasons known only to himself. But he chooses us nonetheless.
The critical point here is that unless God chose to save us in Jesus Christ, not one of us would be saved! God did not look down the corridors of time and see who would and who would not trust in Christ as is commonly argued. If that were the case, then God’s election would be a response to a human action (a decision to accept Christ) which people who are dead in sin cannot perform. Those not chosen are left in their original condition in Adam, under God’s curse and just condemnation. It is not as though those not chosen are treated unfairly. Rather, they will be dealt with according to divine justice, not God’s saving mercy in Christ. Those not chosen will get what they truly deserve. They we get what we truly deserve, had God not chosen us in Christ.
The Bible is very clear that God’s election is based upon the good pleasure and purpose of God, that election is “in Christ” (which means that all those who trust in Christ were chosen in Christ), and that God provides the merits of Jesus Christ (through his suffering and obedience) to save those whom God has chosen, from both the guilt and power of sin. Those whom God chooses to save will be saved by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, which is applied to us in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is where we find the meaning of sola gratia (grace alone).
In love, God predestined us in Jesus Christ to be redeemed from the guilt and power of our sin.