There are two positions regarding salvation and the doctrine of election:
Free Will Choice (conditional) – The belief that Christ died for all and that salvation is available to all. This is known as unlimited atonement, or atonement for all. Election is understood as either individual or corporate. In individual election, God knows who will receive Christ as Lord and Savior (through faith), and those are the ones whom God chooses. In corporate election, people become elect as they’re brought into union with Christ (the true elect) and His Church at the point of conversion. The Church is chosen as the corporate people of God, and individuals become a part of the elect people of God upon faith in Christ. Both forms of election are in harmony with the free will of the individual. Free will is defined more precisely as being freed by the Holy Spirit, which enables a sinner to receive Christ or to reject Him.
Sovereign Election (unconditional) – The belief that Christ died only for His elect. This is known as particular redemption (limited atonement). Election is understood as both corporate and individual. God has chosen the corporate Body of Christ (the Church) with all its individual members in view. To speak of one is to speak of the other, for they are all united as one people, and each member foreknown and chosen by God before the world began. Thus, election is best understood as the predetermined choosing of God of particular individuals who come into the world as the elect of God, predestined for salvation (Sovereign election). At some point, God intervenes in their lives and draws them to Christ via regeneration (to make alive, born again) and the gospel message — granting the gift of faith. This drawing is irresistible; it always results in salvation. While irresistible, it’s as natural as sheep hearing and following the voice of their shepherd. This is all according to Sovereign grace and the Sovereign will of God.
If I were to ask you, “do you believe in Divine appointments, where God arranges for someone to hear the gospel message and so be saved?” I believe most Christians would answer in the affirmative, that God does indeed arrange for people to hear the gospel message so that they can receive Christ, and thus be saved. This may be personally through Christians who share their faith; in a church service where the gospel is presented; or it may be through a gospel tract or a book — or the Bible itself.
On the other hand, if I were to ask you, “do you believe that anyone ever gets saved by mere chance, where God is not involved at all, where they just happen to hear the gospel message and decide to receive Christ all on their own?” I don’t believe there would be very many Christians who would believe such a thing. Because most Christians understand that such an idea is not biblical. We know that according to John 6:44-45 and John 12:32 that sinners must be drawn to Christ by God, and that drawing sinners to Christ is always via the gospel of Jesus Christ, as given to us in the Scriptures, especially the New Testament (Ro 10:17). In other words, without Divine intervention, it’s not possible for anyone to get saved — for we are spiritually dead and blind to the truth (Eph 2:1-5; Col 2:13; 1 Cor 2:13-14; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor 4:4-6). It requires the Holy Spirit to open our eyes (via regeneration). And so to be clear, this drawing unto salvation is always via the gospel of Jesus Christ as presented in the written Word of God.
I believe that Divine appointments provide strong evidence of Divine Election — referring to the predetermined Sovereign choosing of particular individuals for salvation. A perfect example of this is in Acts 16:6-10, where Paul was divinely hindered to preach the gospel in certain areas, and divinely directed to preach the gospel in Macedonia (please read). For the remainder of this article, I’ll make a case for this. If you believe that Christ died for all and that salvation is available to all (unlimited atonement), and if you believe that salvation and election is according to free will, I believe that by the time you finish reading this article, you’ll find yourself rethinking that position.
Since we know that no one ever gets saved by mere chance or coincidence, that God is always directly involved when someone hears the gospel and receives Christ as Savior, aren’t these Divine appointments a reasonable and compelling indication of limited atonement (particular redemption) and Sovereign election? In other words, since there is always a Divine appointment involved – working on someone’s behalf to get the gospel to them – where God is specifically and directly drawing someone to Christ, does it not follow that no one ever dies without Christ by mere chance either? Does it not follow that if God chooses not to work on behalf of certain people to get the gospel to them, that this is evidence of Sovereign election?
Proponents of free-will election and free-will salvation may well respond, “yes, but God is drawing everyone to Christ, so whether they receive Christ or not, they’re being drawn. Therefore, that does not prove that election is according to the sovereign choosing of God.” That may be a valid argument if everyone – literally every person – was actually being drawn to Christ via the gospel of Jesus Christ, and given the same opportunity. But such is not the case. Every person in the world is not being drawn to Christ via the gospel message. And before you protest and quote John 12:32, what that means is that people from every nation, tribe, and language are gradually being drawn (Rev 5:9; Rev 7:9), and where that drawing will be complete at the time of Christ’s return. However, in this drawing process, there have been millions of people throughout history who never heard the message of salvation. Even since the time of Christ, it’s taken hundreds of years to reach the world with the gospel message, and much of the world is still without the gospel. It’s likely that many millions of people have died without hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Consider the countries around the world where the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in abundance and where it’s not? It’s a matter of fact that in countries like the United States, the gospel message is being preached in thousands of churches and by millions of Christians across the nation. It’s also a matter of fact that there are many countries where the salvation message is barely even on the radar — countries like North Korea and most Muslim countries. Further still, there are tribes around the world who, apparently, have never heard the salvation message. There’s no getting around it, this is all a matter of God’s sovereignty (Acts 17:26-29). According to the sovereign will of God, the gospel is preached in abundance in some places, while the gospel is an extreme rarity in many other places, while there is no gospel presence at all is some remote areas of the world.
Even if you believe that Jesus died for all and that salvation is available to all, you have to acknowledge the sovereignty of God in choosing to withhold the gospel message from a very large number of people around the world. You have to acknowledge that God has chosen not to draw a very large number of people via the gospel message. The result is that many millions of people die without Christ, and that perhaps many millions die without ever even hearing the salvation message. In certain countries where most do not hear the gospel, God chooses that only a few do hear it, where only a few do come to faith in Christ. Even in the United States, we’ll never know how long the American Indians were without the gospel of Jesus Christ before the arrival of the Europeans.
We must also consider the fact that before the cross, the Gentile world was “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12; also Gal 3:13-14). Up until that time, God only spoke to and through Israel. The only Gentiles who came to faith in the true God were those who were exposed to and embraced the Jewish religion. The rest of the Gentiles scattered around the world, away from the center of the Jewish faith, were “without hope and without God.” It was not until Jesus came and died on the cross for the sins of the world, that God chose to reach out to the rest of the world. These facts are highly significant, and strongly argue for particular redemption and Sovereign election. All these facts reveal the selective nature of those who hear the gospel and get saved.
In regard to Israel in the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, I heard a Bible teacher give this illustration: “During the time of the Old Testament, if I were able to look down upon earth, I would see total darkness, except for one tiny light in the land of Israel, where God’s light shined upon that nation.” How is this not selective choosing who receives His light? How is this not Sovereign election? How does this not illustrate Ephesians 2:12?
Therefore, whether you believe that Jesus died for all, or only for the elect, either way, we see the sovereignty of God at work throughout the world. Either way you have to accept the fact that God chooses to make the gospel available to many in some places, while choosing to make it available to only a few in other places.
I must persist, does this not all strongly indicate that election is the Sovereign choosing of particular individuals, and that it was for those particular individuals for whom Christ actually died? If God chooses to leave a large portion of the world without the gospel message – choosing not to draw them via the gospel message – is that not compelling evidence that He has not chosen that large portion of people for salvation? Aren’t these Divine appointments, or the lack thereof, evidence of Divine election?
The working of God in the lives of people around the world is not haphazard. People don’t hear the gospel of Jesus Christ by accident or by mere coincidence. People don’t draw themselves to Christ. People don’t open their own eyes to the truth. The Holy Spirit doesn’t just decide to show up at the moment someone just happens to be hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ, just in time to open their eyes. No, God is sovereign, which means God is directly involved when it comes to sinners coming to faith in Christ—from start to finish. God is actively moving and drawing people to the cross. God is directly working through His people to spread the Good News about His Son.
Therefore, if God has a sovereign plan for the world, if God has a sovereign plan for His Church, if God is working through His Church to spread the Good News (to complete His Church), does it not make perfect sense that people coming to faith in Christ are also a sovereign work of God? That nothing is left to chance? That nothing is by accident? That people don’t come to Christ on their own, of their own will (Ro 3:11; Lu 19:10)?
Or asked another way, if God is actively at work to draw people to faith in Christ via the gospel of Jesus Christ, but not in the lives of others (millions of others), does that not suggest that God has chosen whom to save and whom will believe? I believe there’s only one reasonable answer to these questions.
What’s more, when God created mankind, He knew that many millions or billions of people would die without Christ, while a much less number of people would die with Christ as Savior. Is this not a form of Sovereign election? I think we can reasonably conclude so. The point I’m making here is that whether you believe in limited atonement or unlimited atonement, both sides have to acknowledge that when God created humanity, He did so knowing that it would result in millions or billions of people who would die in their sins without salvation.
Further still, God also could have chosen to save every person born into the world (which would be the only true definition of unlimited atonement), but He chose not to do that. This too both sides have to acknowledge, since most Christians agree that universal salvation is not taught in the Bible (very few hold that view). The main point I’m making here is that regardless of which side of the atonement/election fence we happen to be on, there is a form of Sovereign election both sides must recognize and acknowledge. Therefore, those who believe in unlimited atonement, it’s not truly unlimited, and they have no just cause to accuse proponents of limited atonement with teaching a position that makes God unjust. In truth, no matter which side we’re on, we have more in common than what we realize or what we normally admit to.
That being the case, it makes better sense to understand and accept that the sovereignty of God regarding salvation and election is according to a divinely ordered plan — wholly consistent and precisely directed.
At this point some may be thinking about all the other events of the world. What is God’s role? While God is sovereign and moving all things according to a grand plan, the Bible is positively clear that God hates sin and evil, and condemns it from cover to cover. The very reason Jesus went to the cross was because of sin and our need for forgiveness. Therefore, God is in no way responsible for the sin and evil of the world. In no way does He orchestrate sin. Yes, when He created the world, He did so knowing that every person would commit sin—of all kinds. But God does not cause these things to happen. Sin and evil occur in the context of God’s permissive will, that He allows these things to happen according to people’s own sinful, evil heart. That is precisely why God must miraculously intervene in the lives of sinners to draw them to Jesus in an irresistible manner (but as natural as sheep responding to the voice of their shepherd). Human beings are dead in sins and totally depraved and unable to seek God or to choose Christ without Divine appointments and Divine intervention. All of this helps confirm the validity of limited atonement (particular redemption) and Sovereign election.
Since God draws sinners to His Son via the gospel message, and since God is at work through His Church to spread His message around the world (to millions of people in certain areas, to only a few people out of millions in other areas, and to no people at all in some isolated places), is it not best to understand the doctrine of election as the Sovereign choosing of particular individuals, that the atonement of Christ is for those particular individuals?
Because either way, even if you believe that Christ died for all and that salvation is available to all, you’re faced with the reality that God chooses not to reach all. A large percentage of the world never hears the Good News. I believe one of the most compelling indications that the atonement is limited and that election is according to God’s sovereign will is the fact that in many countries only a few people hear the gospel message and come to faith in Christ. That’s evidence of Divine appointments and Divine intervention, where God miraculously intervenes on behalf of His elect. And if need be, that may even mean a personal revelation of Christ Himself to those in remote areas where Christians can’t get to with the gospel. We do hear of such cases. God will do whatever it takes to get the gospel message to His elect, because according to Rev 5:9 and Rev 7:9, God saves people from “every tribe, language, people and nation” (eventually).
Whether you believe the Bible teaches limited atonement or unlimited atonement, the truth of the matter is that God chooses to withhold the hearing of the gospel from a large percentage of the world. So no matter which side of the election aisle you’re on, both must acknowledge a form of Sovereign election.
Therefore, all things considered, does it not make better sense to accept that the Bible teaches particular redemption and Sovereign election? There is a consistency with that position that we don’t see in the Arminian “free will” position — where Christ died for “all,” but where only a small percentage of the great many actually get saved. With that version of atonement and election, there’s too much that has to be explained (or explained away) in order to get the details to fit that position.
However, when we accept that God is sovereign and that He is involved in drawing every single person who ever comes to faith in Christ, and that He does so via the Holy Scriptures, and that no one ever comes to Christ on their own or by chance or by accident, then it makes better sense to understand that the atonement and election are with particular individuals in view—chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), according to His grace and His own will.
Final Note: When it comes to the sovereignty of God and how He carries out His plans and purposes in the world, there will always be questions that we can’t answer this side of Heaven. But one thing we can count on is the holy character of God. God is a just Judge and must punish sin. But He’s also a merciful Judge, and no one ever gets what they don’t deserve. God is altogether good and just and righteous and loving and merciful in all that He does. These are the things we can and must rest in—for He is worthy.
For further reading about the atonement, click here. Between both articles, the argument for limited atonement (particular redemption) is powerfully compelling.