We have been working through Romans 8-11 in recent weeks at church, and this has raised the issue of God choosing people to be saved. This is a complicated concept to understand and one that many naturally feel strongly about. After all, we have seen God save people in the past, and it was through them responding to the good news about Jesus. They made a choice, didn’t they? They made the decision – it seems a little odd to claim that God chose them.
However, the only way that anyone can come to trust in Jesus is if God has changed their heart to do so (as explained in John 3). The fact is that all people by nature are dead in their sins (Eph 2:1), deserving the punishment of God for their rebellion against God (Rom 3:23). None of us is capable of choosing God by ourselves. If left to our own devices we would be punished for our sins, not rescued from them. Only God can save us by his grace.
Romans 8 and 9 show us that anyone who is saved is only saved by God’s grace. Grace means that being saved is always something we do not deserve. And understanding that God chooses people to be saved safeguards salvation by grace. If we reject this teaching that God chooses some to be saved, we end up having to say that those who are saved are in some way superior to those who are not. Maybe they are cleverer, or born in better families, or more moral, or have more faith. But the Bible will not allow us to make that claim. We can only become believers if God changes us so we respond to Jesus. It is 100% God’s work, not ours.
And this idea of choosing isn’t some idea limited to Romans 8-11 either; Jesus prays for those who the Father has given Him in John 17:6. God’s people are often called “the elect” (literally ‘the chosen ones’) in places like Matt 24:22 and 1 Peter 1:1. And the idea of being chosen by God through his grace and not our merit is clear all through the Old Testament (see Deut 7:6-8 for an example).
God doesn’t just zap people though – he saves people through trusting in Jesus Christ who died for their sins. A wonderful example of this can be found in Acts 13. Paul has just been preaching in Antioch in Pisidia when the narrator Luke records this response to his message:
8 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. (Act 13:48 ESV)
Did you notice what this says? Who responded to the gospel Paul preached? Well, it was those who were appointed to eternal life (in other words, the ones God chose to respond). Or you could also answer like this: the ones who believed. For trusting in Jesus is the sign that God has chosen someone; the two go together, like two sides of the same coin. You see something similar in 1 Cor 12:3, where only those who the Spirit of God has worked on (that is, those God has chosen) can confess that Jesus is Lord. And you see the same thing in Romans 10 where Paul states the critical importance of people hearing and believing in the good news about Jesus.
So two things are true:
- All who trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour are saved; and
- Those who trust in Jesus are the ones God chose to trust in Jesus.
Indeed, it is a mystery. There is much about this we don’t understand! God works in wondrous and mysterious ways, graciously saving so many who don’t deserve it through faith in Jesus.