NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The question of God’s divine sovereignty and man’s “free agency” as The Baptist Faith & Message describes it, has vexed serious Christians for centuries.
How do we reconcile two great eternal truths, seemingly one in contradiction to the other, proclaimed by the same apostle under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration — that “He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight” (Eph. 1:4); and that God has an “earnest desire” for everyone to be saved and come to an epignosis or “full knowledge” of the truth , and that God gave Himself as “a ransom for all” (I Tim. 4:6)?
I believe that there are two truths which allow us to construct an “eternal now” model of election which resolves the tension.
First, the Bible reveals two different kinds of election, and much confusion has resulted from failing to see this distinction. Abrahamic Election is substantially different from Salvation Election. Abrahamic Election (Gen. 12:1-3) explains how God chose the Jews to be His chosen people. Salvation Election pertains to God’s elective purpose in how He brings about the eternal salvation of individual human beings, both Jew and Gentile, in both the Old and New Testaments.
Abrahamic Election is corporate, is to special people status, and is not related to anything. Salvation Election is individual and is to eternal salvation. In God’s providence, He has chosen to reveal His dealings with His people more fully in the New Testament. In doing so, a third difference between Abrahamic (corporate) and Salvation (individual) Election is underscored. God revealed in the New Testament that Salvation Election is somehow intertwined with foreknowledge in a significant way (Rom. 8:29-30; 11:2; I Pet. 1:2).
As Paul anticipated Jewish objections to the preaching of the Gospel of grace to the Gentiles (Rom. 9-11), He explained that God always had “a remnant chosen by grace … His people whom he foreknew” (Rom. 11:1-5), those such as Abraham in the Old Testament and the apostle Paul in the New Testament, who experienced Salvation Election as well as Abrahamic Election.
Calvinists formulated their doctrine of election without distinction between Israel and the church. Thus, they did not allow that God might deal differently with Israel as a special people and the individual elect.
When the differences between Abrahamic and Salvation Election are as substantial as they are, one should not treat them as interchangeable. For example, whenever these issues are raised people ask, “What about Jacob and Esau?” (Rom 9:11-13). H.A. Ironside explains the differences between Abrahamic and Salvation Election succinctly, and why they should be differentiated: “There is no question here of predestination to Heaven or reprobation to hell; … we are not told here, nor anywhere else, that before children are born it is God’s purpose to send one to heaven and one to hell…. The passage has entirely to do with privilege here on earth.”
Romans 9-11 should be read from the perspective of two types of election — Abrahamic (corporate) and Salvation (individual), remembering that “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendents” (Rom. 9:6-7).
The second truth, concerns God’s relation to, and the experience of, “time.” While God experiences “time” in the linear, time-space continuum, as a function of his omniscience and omnipresence, He alone is not bound by “time’s” constraints or parameters. Unlike man, God has always existed in what C. S. Lewis termed the “Eternal Now”.
God has always experienced the totality of time — everything before time (eternity past) and after (eternity future) as the present. God lives in the Eternal Now and knows and experiences all things simultaneously.
Is the Bible telling us in the concept of “foreknowledge” that God has, and always has had, the “experience” of all things, events, and people as a punctilios present moment? That, I believe, is precisely what is suggested by the biblical concept of foreknowledge. From God’s perspective there can never have been a single moment when God has not had the totality of His experience (their acceptance and after, or their rejection and after) with each and every human being as part of His “present” (i.e. eternal) experience and knowledge.
God has always experienced those accepting Him and praising Him in the New Heaven and New Earth as well as those who have rejected Him and have been sent to perdition. Thus, the ones He has always experienced accepting and worshipping Him are elect and He works in an especially solicitous way to make their call effectual and they will believe vs. must believe.
Conversely, He has always experienced the rebellion and the rejection of those who are lost and will not accept his invitation and call (vs. cannot accept, as in the Calvinist model).
There is a big difference between a model where the elect will be saved and one where the elect must be saved … and an even bigger difference between saying the non-elect won’t be saved as opposed to declaring the non-elect can’t be saved.
So, how does this alternative view of election impact the other four points of the Synod of Dort’s T.U.L.I.P.?
D.E.S.I.R.E. is a theological summary that shows how the “Eternal Now” election model impacts Calvinism’s five doctrines of grace.
“Desire” comes from Paul’s first epistle to Timothy where he declares that God has an earnest desire that “all men be saved” and come to “the knowledge of truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) and that Jesus “gave himself as ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6).
“D” stands for “Disabling Depravity”, meaning no part of man has escaped the moral wreckage of the fall. However, man is not so depraved he has to be the object of “irresistible grace.”
“E” stands for “Eternal Now” election as explained earlier.
“S” stands for “Sufficient Salvation”, meaning that Jesus Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross is sufficient for all who respond in faith to His, and the Holy Spirit’s, “initiatory call of conviction.”
The “I” in D.E.S.I.R.E. stands for the the Holy Spirit’s “Illumination of the truth of the Gospel.” God must take the initiative, but His call is not “irresistible” — He enables man to understand his fallenness and lostness (1 Cor. 2:14-15).
“R” stands for “Regenerative Grace.” As a person attempts to respond to God’s initiatory call and conviction, God gives him saving faith and regenerates him from above. “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift, not from works, so no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Moreover, we cannot lose our salvation because it is not ours. We are not saved by “our” faith, but by our God-enhanced, Spirit-completed faith.
The “E” in “D.E.S.I.R.E.” stands for “Eternal Security”, which means “our” salvation is eternally secure in His grace and sovereignty. From the moment of conversion forward the Lord Jesus has promised that nothing can separate us from His love (Rom. 8:35-39).
The great Victorian Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said it best when he called it “Perseverance of the Savior”
There it is — God’s “D.E.S.I.R.E.” for you. It isn’t the T.U.L.I.P., but it’s not Arminianism either!
Richard Land is president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. His upcoming book, “God’s desire for you,” is an in-depth look at D.E.S.I.R.E. as an alternative to T.U.L.I.P.