In his epistle to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul wrote the following words, words clearly intended to be an encouragement to the believers there:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who 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. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1:3–10)
Paul is telling the Christians at Ephesus that God chose them before the foundation of the world, predestining them for adoption as sons according to the purpose of His will. Because of this, Christians have redemption through the blood of Christ. This is true not only of the Christians of Ephesus but of us as well.
In these words of Paul, we find one of the clearest statements of the doctrine of election in all of Scripture, and we find it being used by the Apostle Paul to encourage the Ephesian believers. Many Christians, however, do not find these words to be the least bit encouraging. They find them to be a source of anxiety.
Why? Why is the doctrine of election, which Paul used as a source of encouragement, a source of stress for many believers today? The answer can be found in a single question: How can I know if I am elect? If only those whom God has chosen from before the foundation of the world are redeemed, how can I know that I was chosen before the foundation of the world?
God has not placed a special physical birthmark on the elect. The elect do not have the word elect divinely tattooed behind their right ears or anywhere else. The elect are not members of a particular identifiable race or ethnic group. The elect are from every tribe and tongue and nation. But how do I know that I am one of those of whom Paul speaks, one of those who has been blessed “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”?
This is an important question and one that was dealt with at the Synod of Dort in the early seventeenth century. The Synod of Dort was an assembly of Reformed theologians called to deal with a controversy that had arisen due to the teachings of Jacob Arminius. Arminius and his followers differed with the Reformed church in the Netherlands on a number of doctrines, including the doctrine of election. The Arminians taught that “faith and perseverance in the true faith” are “a condition prerequisite for electing.”1 In other words, the Arminians taught the doctrine of “conditional election.” According to this idea, God foresees who will have faith and persevere in faith, and He elects those people to salvation.
The Synod of Dort rejected this doctrine, believing that it contradicted the teaching of Scripture. They taught instead a doctrine of unconditional election. This doctrine is explained in detail in the first main point of doctrine in the Canons of Dort. After explaining the context of the doctrine of election in Articles 1–6, Article 7 explains:
Election [or choosing] is God’s unchangeable purpose by which he did the following:
Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, he chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery. He did this in Christ, whom he also appointed from eternity to be the mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation.
And so he decided to give the chosen ones to Christ to be saved, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ’s fellowship through his Word and Spirit. In other words, he decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of his Son, to glorify them.
God did all this in order to demonstrate his mercy, to the praise of the riches of his glorious grace.
In other words, God did not choose any of us because He saw that we would believe. He chose in order that we would believe, and this was conditioned only upon “the free good pleasure of his will.”
So, how can I know if I am one of these who have been chosen according to “the free good pleasure of his will”? The canons address this question in article 12 on “The Assurance of Election.” This article reads as follows:
Assurance of this their eternal and unchangeable election to salvation is given to the chosen in due time, though by various stages and in differing measure. Such assurance comes not by inquisitive searching into the hidden and deep things of God, but by noticing within themselves, with spiritual joy and holy delight, the unmistakable fruits of election pointed out in God’s Word — such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.
There are several points in this article worth noting:
- Not every Christian has this assurance to the same degree. Our assurance is sometimes mingled with doubts.
- We cannot know whether we are elect by trying to search the hidden things of God. This is probably the point on which most Christians have become the most confused. They are looking for the equivalent of a divine tattoo behind their ears. We do not have access to the secret things of God, so we cannot gain knowledge of our election by looking at election from a God’s-eye perspective.
- We can know whether we are elect only by observing “the unmistakable fruits of election pointed out in God’s Word—such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.” You shall know them by their fruits, Jesus said (Matt. 7:16), and you can know yourself by your fruits as well, the Synod of Dort said.
So, how can I know if I am elect? By asking myself whether I have the fruits of election. In other words, by honest self-examination. If I have faith in Christ, if I am sorrowful for my sins and repenting of them, if I am cultivating the fruit of the Spirit and putting to death the deeds of the flesh, I am showing the fruits of election. Election is the invisible cause. Spiritual fruit is the visible effect. We can’t see the cause, but we can observe the effect. In short, we can know we are among the elect if we and others observe the fruits of election in our lives.
If I sin, does that mean I am not elect? Because we remain in this body of death at present, we do not reach a state of sinless perfection in this life (Rom. 7), so we will always be racked with doubt if we assume that being elect means sinless perfection. The fruits of election are not sinless perfection in this life. Jesus taught His disciples to pray “forgive us our sins,” something He would not do if He expected them to reach sinless perfection immediately. We are to be mortifying the flesh, but when we sin, the fruit of election is godly sorrow for sin, genuine repentance. If we repent and confess our sins, He will forgive us (1 John 1:9).
If we stop trying to search into the hidden things of God and look at election in the way we are counseled to by the Synod of Dort, we can read Ephesians 1 and understand how this doctrine can be a great encouragement to us as followers of Christ. It reminds us that our salvation is, from beginning to end, all of grace. To God alone, then, be all the glory.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on September 13, 2019.
- “The Opinions of the Remonstrants,” in Peter Y. De Jong, ed., Crisis in the Reformed Churches (Grandville, Mich.: Reformed Fellowship, 2008), 263. ↩︎