SIR ROBERT ANDERSON
Secret Service Theologian
THE GOSPEL AND
Chapter Six - ELECTION.
WHEN the gift of life was proffered us, we were conscious
in accepting it that we did so (freely) voluntarily. Since then, we have come
to see that grace did not exhaust itself even in working out our deliverance at
a cost so priceless, and bringing it within our reach, but that our very
acceptance of the gift was the Spirit's work, and as directly the action of
grace as Calvary itself. But more than this, now that we have received the
message, and are come within the scene of joy and blessing to which it bids us,
we have to learn that, in a sense deeper and fuller still, grace is sovereign.
The gospel of our salvation spanned the open door of grace as we approached it;
above the inner portal, we now read the words "Chosen in Him before the
foundation of the world."
And surely this mystery of election is both fitted and intended to bring deep blessing to the believing heart; but the sad fact is too patent to be ignored, that with the vast majority of Christians it is so inseparably linked with controversy as to be removed from blessing altogether. Upon one side, the plain testimony of Scripture is tampered with, if not rejected; upon the other, the doctrine is asserted with a narrowness which is uncongenial, if not absolutely incompatible with truth. To introduce into these pages a treatise upon the election controversy would be obviously a departure from their plan and purpose. I will content myself, therefore, with offering a few remarks in passing, for the consideration of the thoughtful reader. First, the scriptural expression "God's elect" is not the mere statement of a fact, or even of a purpose, but, like "first-born," It is a title of dignity and privilege, applicable exclusively to the Christian. And secondly, the prominent thought in election, especially in this dispensation of the Church (as the very word ecclesia suggests), is rank and privilege, not deliverance from perdition. The distinctive truth of election must not be lost in the kindred but wider truth of the sovereignty of God.
And if a full exposition of election would here be out of place, still more so would be a defence of it. It needs not to be defended, for it is plainly taught in Scripture. But the theological doctrine based upon it is too often pressed beyond the limits of the positive teaching of Holy Writ, and thus the divine mystery which crowns the great truth of sovereign grace, is degraded to the level of a narrow dogma, inconsistent alike with both sovereignty and grace.
A cogent proof of both these statements is afforded by the fact, that the title of "elect," like that of "first-born," primarily applies to Christ Himself. (i Pet. ii. 4, 6 ; Luke xxiii. 35.)
One passage may suffice - "We are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth whereunto He called you by our gospel." (2 Thess. 2. 13, 14).
I desire therefore to treat the subject only as it bears upon my theme, and to show that election cannot either warp or limit the plain meaning of the gracious words in which the gospel message comes to us.
One of the most popular systems of metaphysics is based upon the fact that certain of our ideas seem to spring from the essential constitution of the mind itself ; and these are not subject to our reason, but, on the contrary, they control it. A superficial thinker might suppose the powers of human imagination to be boundless. He can imagine the sun and moon and stars to disappear from the heavens, and the peopled earth to vanish from beneath his feet, leaving him a solitary unit in boundless space ; but let him try, pursuing still further his madman's dream, to grasp the thought of space itself being annihilated, and his mind, in obedience to some inexorable law, will refuse the conception altogether. Or, to take an illustration apter for my present purpose, wild fancy may thus change the universe into a blank, but, though there should remain no shadow and no dial, no sequence of events, the mind is utterly incapable of imagining how time could cease to flow. And the practical conclusion we arrive at is that our idea of "past, present, and future," like that of space, is not derived from experience, but depends upon a law imposed upon our reason by the God who made us.
I am far from appealing to German philosophy in defence of God's truth, but I do enthusiastically appeal to it as a protest against the arrogance, of limiting God by the standard of our own ignorance and frailty. What is, in plain words, the practical difficulty of election in its bearing upon the gospel? Why, that at some epoch in the past, God decided that this or that individual was to be saved or lost; and, therefore, that his future depends, not on the present action of the grace or the righteousness of the living God Who can appeal through the gospel to his heart and conscience, but on what is nothing more or less than an iron decree of fate. May not the whole difficulty depend on the arrogant supposition that God Himself is bound by the same laws that He has imposed upon His creatures? But whatever we may think of the theories of Kant, this at least is certain, that there is no deception in the gospel as proclaimed by God to men. "Truth is one"; and though, to our finite minds, election and grace may seem as far as the poles asunder, and as antagonistic as the magnetic currents which set toward them; to the Infinite they may appear but inseparable parts of one great whole. Every truth has its own place; and there is no more reason why grace should be denied by dragging election into the gospel, than why election should be denied, because, when so thrust out of its proper sphere, it seems to be opposed to grace. "Rightly dividing the Word of truth," is a precept which we need to remember here.
I repeat, there is no deception in the gospel. Some men who can preach with freedom to a multitude, are very often puzzled when face to face with an individual the heart and the head are at issue directly, and they either throw their theology overboard, and preach grace boldly, or else they state the gospel so ingeniously that the difficulty created by their views about election is kept out of sight. In the gospel of God there is no reservation whatsoever. And let us remember that it is His gospel, "God's good news concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord." Mark also that it is not "concerning the sinner." To some the distinction may appear self-evident, and to others it may seem so trifling as almost to savour of a quibble; but in fact it is at the root of many of our difficulties and mistakes in gospel preaching. The gospel then is God's good news about Christ. And this gospel is as true for a single individual as for a crowd; and, moreover, it is absolutely and unequivocally true whether men believe it or not. Another most important practical distinction is that the gospel is, strictly speaking, not a doctrinal statement, but a divine proclamation. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved" was Paul's answer to the question of the jailer at Philippi, to explain to him that salvation was on the principle, not of doing, but of faith in Christ. The next verse adds, "and they spake to him the word of the Lord" ; that is, they preached the gospel to him. Now, some preachers, instead of proclaiming the gospel, appeal unceasingly to their hearers to believe in Christ; and the consequence is that too often, instead of having their thoughts turned to the person and work of the Saviour, people are occupied with efforts to get faith. And the difficulty is frequently increased by reading the second chapter of Ephesians as though "the gift of God" there spoken of were faith. Salvation is the gift of God: "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God."
But the distinctions I have noticed, important though they be, serve only to clear the ground for the consideration of the real question here raised - How can grace be compatible with election? The gospel proclaims universal reconciliation, and grace is "salvation-bringing to all men."' Election, on the other hand, assumes that the believer's blessings are the result of a divine decree. These, it is objected, are wholly inconsistent, and one or other of them must be explained away. Doubtless they may appear to be incompatible, but to maintain that therefore they are so in fact, is to put reason above revelation, or in other words, to place man above God. Is the Christian to reject truths so plainly taught, because, forsooth, they are beset with difficulties of a kind which even German metaphysics would suffice to solve
True it is that what is clearly contrary to reason must be rejected; but so far from what is here contended for being against reason, it is perfectly consistent with a recognised system of metaphysics, than which, moreover, when separated from the jargon of a certain school, none is more philosophical. This then is the object of my appeal to Kant. I should deprecate the pedantry of introducing a discussion of the critical philosophy in such a connection and I do not pretend that it affords the true solution of the seeming paradox of election and grace; I notice it merely to show how easily the difficulty may be solved. Surely the Christian may be contept to accept the mystery, and to trust God for the solution of it.
Nor are the difficulties here involved at all peculiar to the present question. The very same objection which many Christians urge against the gospel, is used by the infidel to prove the absurdity of prayer. Will the great God, "with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning," change His purpose at the cry of a sinful creature? A man once "prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months; and he prayed again, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit."' Nor can we tolerate the figment that the prayer itself was but another result of the inexorable rule of fate. We do not trust in fate, but in "the living God," and we are taught the solemnity and reality of prayer, not merely by the record of the blessings it has won, but by the ominous words, "He gave them their own desire," endorsed on many a rebellious cry sent up to heaven by His people.
But there is another prayer, of which the solemn record should suffice to set at rest every doubt that a perverted use of the doctrine of election has cast upon the truth of grace. The Lord Himself, though come down to earth that He might drink the cup which brimmed over upon Calvary, could pray, upon the very eve of Calvary, that that cup might pass from Him. He, "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world "- He, who, ere a few days had passed, could chide His doubting disciples with the word "Ought not Christ to have suffeted these things?" recapitulating in their wondering ears the oft-told record of prophecy which Calvary fulfilled - He found, neither in that record, nor in the divine purpose it unfolded, anything to hinder the prayer of Gethsemane, "0 My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me." With Him the dire necessity to drink it arose from no stern and irrevocable edict of the past, but from the sovereign will of a present living God, Who, even then, would hearken to His cry if redemption could be won at any price less terrible and costly and. yet there are some who would rebuke a Christian mother for pouring out her heart in prayer, without reserve or fear, that God would save the children He has given her !
Among the strange phenomena of practical Christian life, one of the saddest is that so often witnessed of Christian parents attributing to a divine decree the fact of their children growing up unconverted. "Having believing children" was one of the qualifications of a bishop, because it was a pledge and proof of the parents faithfulness to God. (Tit. i. 6.) The precept "Bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord," implies a promise; and God's implicit promises are sure and certain.
Eternity is God's domain, but no less is "the living present" in His hand, and if the doctrine of election become a limitation of His power to bless and save, it degenerates into a denial of the very truth on which it rests - the sovereignty of Jehovah. The plausible but empty objection may perchance be urged, that the relations between the Father and the incarnate Son, are so different from those which govern His dealings with sinful men, that the inference here drawn from the record of Gethsemane is worthless. I will therefore press the matter further, and call attention to the fact that this paradox of election and grace, so far from being in any sense without a parallel, is merely a single phase of the great mystery of divine sovereignty in relation to human will. A passage in Peter's Pentecostal sermon may be cited to illustrate my meaning: "Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain." The murderers of Christ were acting in fulfilment of a divine decree, and yet their deeds were really and absolutely their own. Theirs were "wicked hands," and guilt of necessity supposes the action of an independent will. When this can be explained, that they who set up the cross on Calvary were fulfilling a divine purpose, though acting in direct antagonism to the divine will, the clew will have been found to every difficulty here alluded to,
Nor is this mystery peculiar to great and momentous events foretold in prophecy; it surrounds our life from first to last. To recognise and act upon the fact of our own responsibility and freedom, and yet to accept the consequences of our acts as coming from the hand of God, is the part of a spiritual Christian. But to act upon the truth of divine sovereignty, yielding to blind impulse as guiding the execution of its decrees, is the part of a heathen fatalist. As I leave my door, I am conscious of being absolutely free to turn to the right hand or to the left. The one path may lead to the attainment of some signal blessing, the other to the commission of some terrible sin : I make choice, and in choosing the wrong path I am sensible, not only that I have power to take the other, but that I am going in direct violation of the will of God in not taking it. When the consequences are startling, as for instance if my error cost me my life, every one recognises the sovereignty of God in the whole matter, but that truth applies as really to the fall of a sparrow as to the death of a king. And thus every day of our lives we act upon a principle which appears to be absolutely incompatible with sovereignty; and yet we recognise this truth of sovereignty in reviewing our actions and their consequences.
And so it is precisely with the true evangelist. He goes forth with a proclamation which seems to ignore election, as the full gospel revealed to the Apostle of the Gentiles always does but, as he reviews his labours, his thought is "As many as were ordained to eternal life believed."
If the truth of election hinders or even shapes his testimony, it is proof that he has yet to learn the truth of grace. Sin reigned once. God was dealing with men on the ground of their being what they ought to be, while by their very nature they were what they ought not to be. God's attitude toward the sinner therefore was adverse. There was a covenant no doubt, but that only served to make the doom of the world more definite. God was imputing sin, and the normal and legitimate result to men was death. But now sin is dethroned, and grace is reigning. God is no longer imputing sin, but preaching peace. He to whom all judgment is committed is now seated on a throne of grace. It is not that He has grace for the elect and judgment for all besides, but that grace is the great characteristic of His reign. He is a Saviour, and not a Judge. He shall yet come to judge; but now, the amnesty has been proclaimed, and judgment waits. It is not, as in a bygone dispensation, that there is mercy for a favoured class, but that there is mercy, and nothing else, for all without distinction. The day is coming when judgment will be as unmixed as grace is now, but during all this " acceptable year of the Lord," His throne is a throne of grace, and the guiltiest sinner upon earth will find there only mercy.
And this is "the good news of the grace of God." Election can in no way limit it. To raise the question whether unconverted men around us are elect, is to betray ignorance both of election and of grace. "Secret things belong unto the Lord," and it is not ours to attempt to fathom the deep mysteries of that death on Calvary; but this at least is plain as the noonday sun, that that death has in such sense settled the question of sin, that sin is no longer a barrier between the sinner and his God. The sin is still opon his head, and judgment will overwhelm him if be die unsaved; but it is none the less true that the death of Christ has made it a righteous thing in God to proclaim Himself a Saviour, and to preach pardon and peace to every creature.
There is no shuffling of the cards; there is no deception in it. If forgiveness is preached to all, it is because all may share it. If God beseeches men to be reconciled, it is because He has provided a reconciliation; if He appeals to them to come to Him, it is because the way is open right up to His throne and to His heart. It is impossible that election can ever limit the value of the death of Christ, or the power of that mighty name to save and bless. Sovereignty! Why, the universe will have no such proof of the depth of His counsels and the almightiness of His power, as that of heaven filled with sinners saved from hell.
With some the difficulty springs from treating the gospel as though it were a problem as to the amount of suffering endured by Christ, and the numerical quantity of the sins atoned for. But God points us to the cross with a far different object ; and the power of the gospel is to know what it is to Him. It is Himself that God would present before the sinner, and He points to that cross in proof of the vastness of the sacrifice, and the boundlessness of the love that made it. He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son - and He adds, not as a cold formula which the initiated know to be overshadowed by the doctrine of election, but as the expression of the longing of that mighty love -"that WHOSOEVER believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
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