One of the complaints against conservative theology, or Calvinism in general, is that there seems to be a lack of heart. Calvinism seems to be all head knowledge without pastoral care. There are, of course, Calvinists who are entirely bound up with the knowledge of biblical theology who do not allow that theology to rundown into their hearts. On the other side of the coin, it could be said that there are liberal theologians who are pouring out their heart in pastoral care without considering the implications of loose theology, which is not pastoral. However, that is a discussion for another time.
The doctrine of election is often seen as the one of those hard-nosed Calvinist theologies that is not altogether needed in the day-to-day life of the church because it lacks heart. I do not disagree that at certain times in history those who hold that the Bible teaches election have been fatalistic, however, that does not mean that merely because a small group of Bible-believing Calvinists take election to an extreme can we dismiss the notion of God choosing some for salvation while passing over others for condemnation.
It is my understanding that the doctrine of election, the full and weighty trust in the certain and complete sovereignty of God, is one of the most pastoral doctrines we can preach and teach.
Exodus 33:19 is a wonderful account of this biblical truth. If you recall what previously took place in Exodus: God raised Moses and Aaron up as leaders among the Israelites, God, after extending miracle upon miracle in Egypt, led His people out of slavery, they reach Mount Sinai and Moses ascends the mount to receive the Ten Commandments and in Exodus 32 the people of God decided that they lived better lives under slavery, so they build a golden calf and succumb to idolatry. God’s presence can no longer be in the midst of the people so Moses pitches a tent outside the camp where he speaks with God face to face, as a man speaks with a friend. It is here that Moses, heartbroken over the acts of the people asks to see God’s glory, so that he might know that he has favor in His sight. Moses says, “Show me Your glory.”
“And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.”
There are two truths I would like to point out in this verse. 1) The name of the LORD, as many of you know is Yahweh, often written as YHWH and in our English Bibles it is, LORD. This name was revealed to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3:13-15. Moreover, here in Exodus 33:19 God links His name with grace and compassion. These two attributes are bound up with the very name of God. This is why the Psalms continually praise God’s name. God is not reluctant to show grace and compassion. Calvinists, rightly, preach and teach the wrath and judgment of God, but we also preach the most glorifying love that breaks through heaven and touches earth. This brings us to the second truth. 2) God’s grace and compassion are His to give freely to whomever He wills. There is no questioning God’s favor because His will is bound upon nothing, aside from His own counsel. There are no constraints laid upon God when it comes to grace. This leaves off our pursuit of earning merit, or earning God’s favor, or building a moral ladder to reach into heaven for God’s approval. There is nothing we can do. God will be gracious to whom He will be gracious. Put these two truths together, and including the sins that transpired before this with the golden calf incident, we can appreciate what John Calvin wrote:
“Now, although this [that is, Exodus 33:19] in the first place relates to Moses, still, inasmuch as he beheld the glory of God for the common good of the people, this mercy, which is referred to, extends to them all. And assuredly it was an inestimable proof of God’s grace that, after this most disgraceful fall and wicked apostasy of the people [the golden calf incident], He nevertheless revealed Himself more clearly than before to Moses for their spiritual good.”
The glory of God that is for the common good of His chosen people is His free and determined will to choose His own people. Deuteronomy 7:7-9 tells us as much. The reasons the people of God are the people of God is not because there is anything lovely, or meritorious about the people, but simply that God chooses them above all others. It is His free and undeserved grace and compassion poured out upon those He calls sons and daughters.
How is this pastoral? How can the doctrine of election bring comfort to God’s people? In many ways, but I will focus on a couple, briefly. Resting in the knowledge of God’s will to choose gives us strength to persevere. Let me explain. If, as some say, you choose to come to God and then He accepts you, you are then partaking in your salvation and essentially become your own savior. If you cannot be saved apart from your will making the first move, than Christ ultimately died for nothing because all people are dead in their sins and, left to their own, would never freely choose God. Therefore, if God is the reason you are saved, His will came first in your salvation, you can rest in His choice over your life and pursue righteousness according to God’s Law to please your Heavenly Father (rather than earning your salvation through the Law) until you perish or Christ comes back.
Another pastoral notion is understanding that you cannot save anyone. I think of my son for example. I strive, and will continue to strive, to show him the truth of the Gospel. I will pour out intercessory prayers, I will plead for the covenant grace of God to be poured out upon my children, I will hope in the promises of God that he builds His church on families, I will read Scripture daily to my son, I will pray with him, I will exemplify, magnify, an glorify Christ as best I can day-by-day, so that he will see the glory of the risen Savior. I can do all of these things, but I am trusting in God to save my son, because I can’t. I am a Christian, but I am still a sinner. All of my attempts will fall short. All of my attempts will fail to turn my son’s heart of stone into a heart of flesh. All of my attempts will fail to revive the deadness in his heart. Only the quickening, regenerating power of God’s sovereign will can save my son. To me, this is a comfort. I will fail in my purposes, but God never fails in His purposes.
Theologians and pastors and church members can run in circles all day discussing whether or not the doctrine of election is healthy for the church, or pastoral for everyday life, or necessary at all. It is my conviction that without such a belief in the sovereignty of God we would all fall away from the faith which binds us to Christ. Without such a belief in the all-encompassing, overwhelming will of our Creator we would never make it on our own to the celestial city. God’s grip is tighter than ours, trust in His promises.
“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” Praise God from whom all blessings flow!