Dependent on God’s mercy…
It’s a question theologians and laypeople alike have asked throughout the history of the Christian church: “Why are some saved and others not?” It’s a question that intrigues the human mind not only because it confronts us with one of the most pressing truths of our existence but also because it seems to elude a straightforward answer. Why are some saved and others not?
While it’s true humans have tried to answer that question in a variety of ways and have offered various (and sometimes opposite) explanations, God in his word in fact does provide a straightforward answer to that question. He tells us when someone is saved, that fact results entirely from God’s mercy. He also tells us when someone is not saved, that fact results entirely from mankind’s sinful unbelief.
The Lord used the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans to teach us about these matters. In the ninth chapter of this letter, Paul writes about election, the teaching of God’s word that describes how God chooses people to be believers. In the matter of election (like every other facet of the way God saves us), everything depends on God.
Paul uses the example of Isaac and Rebekah’s twin boys, Jacob and Esau. Remember that God chose Jacob to receive the promise he had first made to his grandfather Abraham, even though as the firstborn Esau would have been the expected choice. In addition, Paul writes, the Lord made this choice before the twin boys were even born. Paul’s point is that God didn’t arrive at his choice because Jacob was such a better young man than his brother Esau. No, even before they were born, God chose Jacob, entirely out of his mercy for Jacob.
“It [God’s election] does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy,” Paul writes. The Apostle uses an earthly illustration to proclaim a spiritual truth. Why are some saved? The answer is always the same: None of us, from the greatest believers in history like Abraham and Paul down to you and me, deserve it. Instead, God entirely by his mercy chose us to be his own in Christ even before the creation of the world (cf. Ephesians 1:4), sent his Son Jesus to redeem us from our sin, sent his Holy Spirit to create faith in our hearts through his word and sacrament, and in doing all these things has saved us. From start to finish our salvation is God’s work. And he did it not because he saw in us deserving recipients but because he shows mercy and compassion.
Why are some saved? Scripture gives a clear answer. Some are saved because God is merciful. But what about the second half of the question? Why are others not? At this point, our human nature wants to interject, and that’s where the problems begin. Paul anticipates that when he asks the rhetorical question, “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” In other words, if everything depends on God’s mercy, then it cannot be our fault if we don’t believe. So says our human reason.
It sounds logical, but the problem is, it isn’t biblical. Instead, while the Bible tells us God works our salvation from start to finish, it also makes the point God does not elect or predestine people to condemnation. The Lord, for example, in Ezekiel 33:11 says, “‘As surely as I live,’ declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.’” Yes, the Lord wills sinners to repent and be saved. The Bible, therefore, assigns responsibility for condemnation squarely on the shoulders of those who don’t believe. Condemnation results from a sinner’s unbelief, and that unbelief is the fault of the sinner.
Paul describes this truth when he goes on to say, “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory?” Notice that last verb is active. God prepared us for glory. Notice that the previous verb, however, is passive. God did not prepare objects of wrath for destruction. Instead, they were prepared. By what? By their sin and unbelief.
In examining this age-old question, therefore, Paul teaches us several key truths. First, we can praise God that in his mercy he has saved even us. No news in all creation could offer us comfort like that. Second, we cannot allow our human reason to theorize that this somehow means God did not choose others but instead condemned them to wrath. That belief flies in the face of clear scriptural truth. Third, God instructs us not to spend our time speculating on questions like this too grand for our human reason to comprehend. Instead, he tells us to preach the good news to all creation that more and more can know the truth and be saved (Mark 16:15). Finally, we want to see the biblical of truth of God’s election as a teaching of comfort. What a comfort to know that God chose me, that he knew my name and wanted me to be his own child, even before the creation of the world. What a comfort to know he gave his own Son to death on a cross for my sins so it could be possible. Yes, the doctrine of election is one of comfort, not one for us to use to speculate about unbelievers. So, in the end, the question isn’t, “Why does God save some and not others?” The question can be, “Has God saved me?” and to that we know the answer without a doubt. In Jesus, the answer is an eternal yes.