There are certainly many in the visible church today, and always have been, who reject the clear teaching of Scripture regarding the sovereignty of God in salvation and find it offensive. This is especially so when it comes to the doctrine of election. In his book Old Paths, J.C. Ryle writes,
“No part of the Christian religion has been so much disputed, rejected, and reviled as this. None has called forth so much of that enmity against God which is the grand mark of the carnal mind. Thousands of so-called Christians profess to believe the atonement, salvation by grace, and justification by faith, and yet refuse to look at the doctrine of election. The very mention of the word to some persons is enough to call forth expressions of anger, ill-temper, and passions.”p.432
And in at least some cases this rejection can be traced back to a misunderstanding of what it does or does not mean. Ryle also states:
“No doctrine of Scripture perhaps has suffered so much damage from the erroneous conceptions of foes, and the incorrect descriptions of friends, as that which is now before us [i.e. election].”Ibid
In other words, many of those who reject it (whom Ryle calls “foes” of this doctrine) conceive of it wrongly, often caricaturing it in such a way as to distort it; and even many of those who accept it do such a poor job of explaining it, that they bring it into disrepute.
In his very helpful little book, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, J.I. Packer makes the case that many of those who reject the sovereignty of God in salvation and the doctrine of election, etc., show in some ways that, at least in practice, they really do believe in it in their heart of hearts.
He offers two or three arguments (depending on how you number them), all of which are related to how we pray. See if you identify with these things in the way you pray. (You may be a closet Calvinist after all!)
The first thing that he mentions is simply that we pray. He says, “The very fact that a Christian prays is thus proof positive that he believes in the Lordship of his God.” (p.12) If you believe in God, you believe that He is sovereign over all things. If not, you are believing in a god of your own imagination.
The first argument or proof that Packer offers in relation to this is that when we pray, we thank God for our conversion and salvation! He says,
“In the first place, you give God thanks for your conversion. Now why do you do that? Because you know in your heart that God was entirely responsible for it. You did not save yourself; He saved you.”Ibid
Paul himself certainly thanked God for the conversion of believers, as we saw back in 2 Thessalonians 2:13. Paul was always thanking God for the faith and salvation of believers. One of my very favorites passages is Philippians 1:3–6, where Paul writes:
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Italics added)
Whom did Paul thank? And why? Did Paul thank the Philippians for believing? No! He thanked God that they believed! He thanked God for their “partnership in the gospel from the first day” (v.5). And just in case that were not clear enough, he goes on in v.6 to say that he was sure or confident ‘that He who began [!] a good work in them would bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.’
The second argument related to prayer that Packer mentions seems inescapable to me. Not only do we pray. Not only do we thank God for our own conversion and salvation. But we also pray for the conversion of others! He writes:
“When you pray for unconverted people, you do so on the assumption that it is in God’s power to bring them to faith. You entreat Him to do that very thing, and your confidence in asking rests on the certainty that He is able to do what you ask. And so indeed He is: this conviction, which animates your intercessions, is God’s own truth, written on your heart by the Holy Spirit. In prayer, then (and the Christian is at his sanest and wisest when he prays), you know that it is God who saves men; you know what makes men turn to God is God’s own gracious work of drawing them to Himself; and the content of your prayers is determined by this knowledge.”p.15
This is simply the plain, unvarnished teaching of Scripture. God is sovereign in the salvation of sinners. He has chosen from all eternity those who are the objects of His mercy. And we pray accordingly!
Do you find yourself struggling to accept this great doctrine of grace? Perhaps it is because you do not perceive that that is exactly what it is – a doctrine of God’s grace! That is what this doctrine that is found and taught all throughout God’s Word – in both the Old and New Testaments – is about: God’s grace in saving sinners.
If God did not choose and choose to save, none would ever choose to believe and be saved; none would be saved, and we would all justly perish in our sin and unbelief. But thanks be to God that He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” (Ephesians 1:4)