Election, “All” in Scripture, and Evangelism

Most Reformed theologians, while emphasizing that God is indeed at work in sanctification, also note that man is active. Both sides are necessary to stress in order to preserve the balance between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. The best book is Stephen Marshall’s book called _The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification_. He was a Puritan, and understood the Gospel as few today do.

The Reformed faith believes that all are headed to hell unless God does something. So it is not as if humanity is grouped in between heaven and hell, and God splits some off that group to go one way, and the rest He diverts from their original course of neutrality to go to hell. That is not a correct picture. Predestination is not symmetrical. Those whom God has not chosen are passed by, in order to receive justice from God, while those that God chooses receive God’s mercy. God is not some kind of homocidal maniac. Read Romans 9 very carefully (the passage that Arminians always skip), and read Ephesians 1.

With regard the words “any” and “all” in Scripture, we have to remind ourselves of the most important factor in biblical interpretation: context. Supposing I had a group of kids surrounding me, hounding me for a piece of candy. One particularly selfish boy asks me if I would only give candy to him. I say, “No, I am giving candy to all.” The word “all” there is in a context: I am not giving candy to the entire world. Rather, I am giving candy to all of the group. The context determines what the “all” refers to. We cannot let our predetermined ideas about God obliterate the context in which the word “all” occurs.

So, in 1 Tim 2, when Paul says that God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, we have to look back and see what the “all” is to whom Paul is referring. Are there any clues? Yes, there is verse 1, which uses the phrase “all people,” and then describes who the all people are. That is, they are kings, and people in high positions. In other words, God’s grace is not limited to any social class. But Paul is not making a head count of the world.

Similarly, in 1 John 2:2, where John says that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ous only but also for the sins of the whole world, we have to understand here the historical context. The above example examined the literary context, whereas this one revolves around the historical context. John’s readers were dealing with Gnosticism, a sect that believed in exclusivity with regard to knowledge: if you belonged to their clique, then you would have access to specialized knowledge. You weren’t really “saved,” as it were, unless you were initiated into their special group. This is much like the Masonic tradition today. So John is saying that salvation is not limited to a small group, but is for every tongue, language and nation. Therefore, John cannot be made to say that Jesus Christ was the propitation for every single person head for head.

The other reason we know that this is the correct interpretation, by the way, is that Jesus’ propitation actually accomplishes the salvation of His people (“It is finished”). If it actually accomplished the salvation of every single person in the world, then all people would actually be saved. But we know that not every person in the world is saved. Therefore, Christ did not die for the sins of every single person in the world.

B.B. Warfield once put it this way: the Atonement of Christ is like butter, and people are like bread. Now, if the bread over which this butter is to be spread includes everyone in the world, then the butter would not completely cover the bread: our sins would not be forgiven. However, if the bread is smaller, then the butter would cover it completely. We must balance this analogy by saying that Christ’s death has infinite value, and could cover everyone’s sins. However, what we are trying to do is to understand why it is that not everyone is saved. Now, how does this fit it with the free offer of the Gospel? For that is the next question usually asked. The answer is that God not only ordains the result, but He also ordains the means by which the results are reached. In other words, I as a Reformed person cannot just sit back and say, “Oh, God is going to do it all, therefore I don’t have to do anything.” The reason is that God has ordained that I be an instrument through which He accomplishes His purposes. It is really amazing to think how God can use fallen me to accomplish His eternal purpose.

But then you might ask, “But is the offer of the Gospel sincere or not?” It is sincere. All who repent and turn away from their sins will be saved. The place of the doctrine of election is not in evangelism (“Some of you are elect, and some aren’t. all you have to do is discover which on it is for you”). That is a caricature of the Reformed faith. The real truth is that the doctrine of election exists to comfort doubting believers. Imagine salvation as a door. On the front side is an inscription, “All who will may enter.” You walk through the door. On the back side of the door is this inscription, “Elect from all eternity.” The point is, you can’t know whether or not you are elect, unless you walk through the door, and even then it might take you awhile to be able to read that door correctly.

Actually, the doctrine of election not only requires evangelism, but undergirds and strengthens it. This has always been recognized in truly Reformed circles. It is the reason why Reformed churches have sent more missionaries into the field head for head than any other form of Christianity. What do I mean by election requiring evangelism? what I said above about God electing the means by which His people come to faith. The means is us! the doctrine of election also frees evangelism from the “anxious bench” syndrome common with Finney-style evangelism, where the salvation of the person depends on the eloquence of the speaker. I can share the Gospel in plain, unadorned speech, knowing that God will use it to bring His elect to salvation regardless of my eloquence. Furthermore, I know that no amount of eloquence will persuade someone who is not elect. All I have to do, then, is simple sharing of the Gospel.