Election, Merit and Boasting
God’s choices are based on his grace, not our merit:
My somewhat cryptic title refers to the fact that God freely chooses, his decisions are not based on human merit, and therefore none of us can boast. Since I am now reading through the book of Deuteronomy again, I find all this clearly spelled out in various places.
Before looking at some of those passages, let me say that for many folks the biblical doctrine of election is too controversial or too troubling. Well, as I just said, it IS a biblical doctrine, whether we like it or not. Sure, how we are to understand it all is another matter. But that the Bible speaks to it time and time again can not be disputed. For an introductory look at such texts, see this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/06/12/predestination-election-new-testament-data/
We know that God called Israel out of all the nations of the earth, and the matter of election is found elsewhere in the Old Testament. And there is much about this found in the New Testament as well. All throughout Scripture, the emphasis is on God’s choice, not our merit or worth. As but one passage, consider what Romans 9:9-18 says about this:
For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
But let me return to the Deuteronomy passages. Some of the main ones on this matter are found in three consecutive chapters:
Deut. 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
Deut. 8:17-20 “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God.”
Deut. 9:4-7 “Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord.”
These passages make it quite clear as to the reasons why Israel was – and was not – chosen. And other texts speak to this as well. Just one more: Ezekiel 36:22 says this, “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone.”
So Israel’s calling was based on God’s own wise choices, not on their own goodness or virtue. Some comments by others are worth drawing upon here. Christopher Wright says this about the Deut. 7 passage:
Thus far, the chapter has moved from the instructions as to what the Israelites were to do (vv. 1-5), to the basis of those instructions, i.e., Israel’s identity as the holy, chosen, and treasured people of Yahweh (v. 6). Israel’s status is grounded in the action of God in such a way as to remove any possible claims on Israel’s part that their chosen status reflected their own superiority. Three times, in fact, Moses sets out to prick any self-inflated bubbles of Israelite pride. Numerical superiority is rejected as even a remotely possible reason why God should have loved them; they were a minnow among the nations. Economic arrogance is targeted in 8;17; they owed everything to the gift of God. Finally, moral self-righteousness is trounced most heavily of all in 9:4-6; the Israelites were a congenitally stiff-necked people. The bottom line remains, as it always does in the OT, the inexplicable, self-motivated love of God.
And Eugene Merrill offers this comment on the Deut. 9 passage:
Reflecting the warning of 8:11-18, Moses went on to urge his people to refrain from taking credit for the victory once it had been achieved, as though it were a natural corollary to their righteousness, something they deserved because of their own merit. To the contrary, it was because of the wickedness of the Canaanite nations that they would be expelled to make room for Israel. This shocking and humbling disclosure, far from placing Israel’s election on any basis other than grace, emphasizes that very truth; for the whole point here is that all peoples, Israel included, are wicked and undeserving of any divine favor.
And Daniel Block says this about the same chapter:
Earlier Moses had denied that the call to salvation and mission for the Kingdom of God might be based either on the greatness (Deut. 7:7) or the special gifted-ness (8:17-18) of those called. This episode opens with a truth that pervades all of Scripture, namely, that the call to relationship with God is never based on merit. In response to Israelites, who might be tempted to attribute their status in the divine scheme to their superior righteousness (in contrast to the Canaanites), Moses demonstrates that the Israelites had been undeserving of the mission to which God had called them; from the beginning they had demonstrated that they were fundamentally depraved and that if they had been rescued from Egypt and would be handed the Promised Land as their grant, these were privileges granted by grace alone. And so it is with us.
God’s calling of Israel was all a result of his grace. He chose them of all the peoples of the earth for his own sovereign purposes. They certainly did not deserve this calling and election. Indeed, grace has nothing to do with any human merit or effort.
And it is of course the same today. God does not call us or choose us because of anything in us that strikes his fancy or impresses him. We are all sinners who spurn God and reject his claims upon us. Yet he graciously pursues us and reaches out to us. And there is no reason why he should, other than his own mercy and grace. All we can do is thank him for this amazing grace.
And that should always keep us humble and on our knees.
2 Replies to “Election, Merit and Boasting”
Thank you Bill. I started out as an arminian but I’m now a firm Calvinist. I’m doing a sermon soon on the subject.
I was going to ask you for some thoughts on the subject. But here it is. So thanks again.
Thanks Andrew. Although one need not be a hardcore Calvinist to accept the biblical teachings on election and predestination – but it can help!