How Can I Know Whether I am Elect?
I do not need to draw out that we commonly consider the above question rather a curly one. At most inopportune times, the question flies at us: is the gospel of salvation really for me? Am I really a child of God and heir to eternal life? Or will I awaken one day to find myself in hell? How can I be sure of my salvation?
I want to state at the outset that it is possible to be sure of our election and salvation. The apostle Paul, for example, has no doubt that when he dies he shall be with Christ (Philippians 1:23). The critical question is: how can one know of one's election and salvation? Where does certainty come from?
In pursuing an answer to this question, I intend first to show that we cannot obtain certainty from within the doctrine of election itself. I then want to show that assurance is to be found instead in the doctrine of the covenant.
God's sovereign election
With Adam's sin in Paradise, the entire human race fell into sin, and so joined Satan's camp. In boundless compassion God sent His Son to redeem those of the lost whom God chose for salvation. Not all men, then, are saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam, but some only (LD 7.20). This is, for example, what the angel said to Joseph about the baby he and Mary would receive. Said Gabriel to Joseph:
"And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins." Matthew 1:21
Notice: the angel does not say that Jesus will save all people from their sins; rather, "He will save His people from their sins." Implicit in the phrase "His people" is the notion that the human race is divided into two parts, of which one part is "His" and the other part is not.
Similarly, when Jesus was about to go to the cross, He prayed His high-priestly prayer – John 17. In that prayer, Jesus prayed as follows:
"Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him" (vss 1f).
Again, note that formulation. Jesus came to give eternal life not to anybody-and-everybody, but "to as many as [the Father] have given Him." Jesus repeats it in vs 6:
"I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world."
Jesus, then, like the angel, sees the human race as comprised of two parts. There's "the world" and there's "the men whom You have given Me out of the world." The objects of His saving work are not the persons of "the world"; no, the people whom Jesus came to save are limited in number, they are specifically those whom the Father has given to Him. So, in vs 9 Jesus says:
"I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours."
And let us make no mistake: if Jesus refuses to pray for those whom the Father has not given to Him, He's not about to lay down His life for them either!
God, then, has given some to Jesus so that Jesus might save them; these are "His people" whom Jesus will "save from their sins", from eternal damnation. This is the doctrine of election, of which the apostle writes with such enthusiasm in Ephesians 1:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will…" (vss 3 ff).
Sovereignly, graciously, simply because God was pleased to, He chose certain persons from those who had rejected Him and joined Satan. He chose Johnny and left Peter; He chose Susie and left Mary. And those whom He chose He gave to Christ, and Christ in turn laid down His life to pay for the sins of those God chose to life. These are the ones rescued from Satan's clutches, the ones to whom God grants life eternal with Him.
And the others? They are left, they are passed by in God's decision to save. They receive the just sentence all men deserve, and so become eternal testimony of God's righteous judgment (cf Romans 9:22). The fact, then, that some are passed by serves to point up to us the more how marvellous is "the eternal and undeserved grace of our election" (Canons of Dort, 1,15). Truly, how marvellous, how awesome is the mercy of God that He should be sovereignly pleased to pluck some from Satan's clutches!
Here is a matter of enormous comfort. If God has chosen to life, there is not a force in the entire world able to undo what God has determined to do! Those whom God has chosen shall inherit life eternal. For God shall accomplish what He set out to do! (Psalm 138)
Certainty in election?
That brings us to the big question. Can you know whether you are one of God's elect? Can I know whether I am one of His elect? Can I find out whether my neighbour is elect? I read somewhere in the Bible about God in heaven having a "Book of Life" in which are written the names of the elect (Revelation 13:8; 17:8). Are we in some way able to take a peak in this book and learn whose names are written in it?
We know the answer. It's obvious to us that we cannot ascend into heaven to sneak a look in that book. So what happens? This: we make a problem out of this inability to sneak a look in that book. For we want to know whether our names are written in that book. Since no one can climb into heaven itself to check that book, people consider other ways of finding out whether our names are written there. For example:
You need some communication from God that you belong to Him, some special revelation. A light has to flash in you, or a strong conviction has to overwhelm you that God has in fact set His heart in love upon you; you are one of the elect.
You experience a conversion, a penetrating and life-altering sense of the horrors of your sins and the endless grace of God in Jesus Christ. That experience leaves you with no doubt that you belong to God, are elect.
In a word, something happens within you or to you, and as a result you are sure: I am elect, God has ordained me to salvation. Then we're sure: our names are written in the book of life in heaven. As it is, though, there are problems with striving to learn about our election from things that happen to us.
- In the first place, we need to have it fixed in our minds that the question of whose names are written in the Book of Life is simply not our business. The Lord said in Deuteronomy 29:
"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law" (vs 29).
That is: certain matters are God's business, other matters are our business. God has not told us whose names are written in the Book of Life, has not told us whether Johnny is elect or not, has not told us whether I am elect or not. We need to respect the limits God has set.
- In the second place, I remain a very sinful man. That's to say: my experiences can mislead, my experiences are not definitive. A 'communication' from God (a voice or a conversion experience, etc) today may give me assurance today, but tomorrow something else may happen that prompts doubts again, that even leads me to question whether that experience of yesterday was so real.
In sum: I cannot be certain of my election by striving to read God's Book of Life. Nor can I gain certainty by looking at the heavenly things I've experienced in my life. How, then, can one be assured of one's election and salvation? How shall I know whether I am saved by Christ?
God's gracious covenant
I refer again to Deuteronomy 29. "The secret things belong to the LORD our God," that passage had said, and that includes the matter of who is elect. But the passage said more:
"those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law" (vs 29).
What has God revealed about your salvation and mine? Has God said anything to you and to me about plans He might have to rescue us from Satan's clutches? Yes, He has. For God has established His covenant of grace with us. God was very personal when He established His covenant with us; He left us no doubt that His covenant extends to us. So this is our business.
To determine what that covenant is all about, we need to recall Genesis 17. That passage tells us that God in heaven, holy and righteous, reached down to earth and addressed the sinner Abram. Remember: Abram the sinner had, through his fall in Paradise with Adam, placed himself in Satan's camp. Holy God spoke to him in Satan's camp and did not say: 'I condemn you to the hell you deserve'; no, holy God instead addressed that man in Satan's camp and said to him:
"And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you." Genesis 17:7
A covenant is a bond, an agreement. What's the agreement that holy God lays upon Abram, that sinner-deserving-hell? This: I will be your God (cf vs 8). We understand: this does not mean that God is going to leave Abram in hell, hand him over definitively to Satan. It means instead: God promises to give Abram life, redemption, deliverance from Satan, salvation. Instead of God being Abram's enemy, instead of God being the righteous judge who will punish Abram with the just judgment he deserves, God will be Abram's friend (Isaiah 41:8), Abram's shield (Genesis 15:1), To say it in New Testament terms: in the covenant He graciously established with Abram, God promised to be Abram's Father and so supply his every need, promised to adopt him as His child and heir. In that covenant, He promised to wash Abram's sins away through the Saviour He would send. In that covenant He promised to renew the depraved Abram so that he could live as a child of holy God.
This man Abram, then, though so deserving of the just and eternal judgment of God in hell, was told that this righteous Judge would be his God. Freely, graciously, God imposed His divine claim on Abram. And lest Abram would forget God's declaration of salvation, God told him to place a mark on his own body. Never should he forget it: instead of sending him to the pit he deserved, God claimed Abram for Himself. Surely, there is no gospel so gracious and awesome as this! Talk about comfort, reassurance for Abram! His assurance came not from a sneak preview Abram might have in God's book of life, it lay not either in some experience Abram may have had; his comfort lay in the covenant God established with him.
Nor was the assurance of the covenant valid for Abram alone. For God said to Abram that He established His covenant not just with the individual Abram, but established it also with any children God might be pleased one day to give to Abram. That's what God said: "I establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you," So, in time to come Abram could put his son Isaac on his knee and tell his boy with God's authority that God claimed the lad for Himself, that the righteous Judge of all the earth was his God, that this Judge would not consign Isaac to hell. For that's the content or the covenant: sinners deserving hell are addressed by God and told that He graciously frees them from the sentence of damnation they deserve, makes them instead His children and heirs; He is their God.
So, when Isaac in turn became the father of two sons, Isaac and Rebekah, upon authority of God Himself, could know these two infants in their nappies to be God's children – separated from the children of unbelievers. Isaac could set his twin boys on his two knees and say to both of them, on God's authority, that God gave to them the gift of deliverance from the horrors of God's just judgment. Isaac could insist: God had said that both boys were children of God, both heirs of righteousness and life.
In the course of the centuries since, nothing has changed; God's covenant is still made with believers and their children (cf Acts 2:38; I Corinthians 7:14). When we today, then, consider our own place before God and consider the place of our children, we too may know with Abram and Isaac that God has made His covenant of grace with us and the little ones He has entrusted to us. Though we and our children, through our fall in Paradise, placed ourselves in Satan's camp, God – in the covenant signified and sealed at our baptism – imposed on us His divine decision to be our God. So: our future, and our children's future, is not hell but heaven, is not death but life, is not judgment but grace. See there the glorious comfort of the covenant.
Covenant = election?
Does this mean that the names of each of us and of all our children are in fact written in God's book of life in heaven? Does the fact that God has established His covenant of grace with us mean that we and our children in fact are elected to salvation? To put the question differently: does the circle denoting God's covenant people overlap exactly the circle denoting who are elect? From what I said concerning Isaac – he could tell his boys that both of them were God's children, that both had the gift of deliverance from the horrors of God's judgment – we might be tempted to conclude that yes, the group of the covenant is identical to the group of the elect.
Yet it is not so. For the Lord has told us in His Word that Isaac's two children – though both had the identical covenant promises – did not both escape the pit of hell. For the Scripture says:
"Jacob I have loved; But Esau I have hated." Malachi 1:2 f
Paul in Romans 9 refers back to this verse from Malachi to make clear that Esau was passed by in God's decree of election (cf Romans 9: 10 ff). Here, then, is distinct warning for us not to confuse the doctrine of election with the covenant. The two are not identical. Though in the covenant God gives very rich promises, so that I may know myself and my children to belong to God and be promised forgiveness and life (deliverance from hell), that fact in itself does not mean that my name and my children's names are written in God's book of life. The two are not identical!
What then? How are we to understand this? We need to remember that the covenant God made with us contains two parts. That is: there's a promise and an obligation. The promise is clear: God promises redemption from the pit, deliverance from the judgment we deserve. And the obligation? Consider an illustration to make the point.
Demand of the covenant
Suppose I should decide for no cause to give you a present. I've prepared the matter well, to the point of writing your name on the gift. Now I come to you with my gift, and I tell you what my gift is: a most mouth-watering box of chocolates. I approach you, I hold it out to you, you can see what it is, you can see your name on it; it's obvious that it's for you.
Does that mean you can actually sink your teeth into the chocolate? Not really, for there is something between me giving that box of chocolates to you and you enjoying its taste. Between those two steps you need to do something. Do what? Earn the gift? No, for I'm standing before you holding the box out to you. What you need to do? This: accept my gift. If you keep your hands in your pockets, you will not receive what I'm giving – and so won't be able to enjoy its taste.
So it is with God's promises in the covenant. His gift is glorious in its content; He declares that particular sinners are His, declares that the work of His Son would cover their debt with Him so that these sinners can be reconciled to God. That's what God gives – freely. And Isaac could tell both Jacob and Esau of God's gift to them. But now both boys had to receive what God gave, both boys had to accept, embrace it.
One receives the box of chocolates by stretching out the hand of the body, closing your fingers around the gift, and drawing it to oneself. One receives God's promises in the covenant by stretching out what Calvin called the hand of the soul. That action of stretching out the hand of the soul, embracing the gift God gives, drawing it to oneself – that is faith.
In the Catechism (LD 7) we ask,
"Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam?" The answer is "No.” Explanation? "Only those are saved who by a true faith … accept all His benefits."
Note that word "accept.” There's the notion of receiving what God gives. This is what faith is; faith is the soul-reaching-out to accept, to embrace, to receive what God in mercy gives.
This is what Esau did not do. He left his hands in his pockets, he did not accept what God gave. So he could not sink his teeth into it either, could not enjoy God's gift. So he remained in Satan's camp, and on the day of his death appeared before the judgment seat of God and was found wanting. There was with him no faith, there was with him no appetite to accept God's gift of salvation promised in the covenant. This was according to God's eternal decree; God had passed him by in his election.
Jacob was different. Though he remained a sinner, he accepted what God gave, embraced it as a treasured gift freely given to himself, and so could enjoy the riches of that gift; according to promise God for Jesus' sake declared him righteous and gave him deliverance from Satan's camp, life eternal. This was according to God's eternal decree; God had chosen him to life everlasting. No, covenant and election are not the same. Election is God's business; the covenant is ours.
How we respond to the promises of God in the covenant demonstrates whether or not our names are written in God's Book of Life. This, then, is the obligation God lays before each of us – covenant children as we all are; receive, accept, embrace the riches God in mercy has prepared for us, gives to us.
God's boundless comfort
What, now, is my comfort? This, that I've had a peak in God's Book of Life? No, for I cannot climb into heaven to check that Book. Is my comfort this that I've had an experience of some form so that I may conclude that I am elected? Not that either, for I remain too sinful to be able to interpret my experiences rightly.
What then? My comfort is that God established His covenant of grace with me! He said: you are Mine! He said: I will be your God. If God has said that, if He gives me such wealth, shall I consider myself still squarely in Satan's camp and fearing God's eternal judgment? O yes, if I keep my hands in my pockets and refuse to accept what God gives, I indeed had better live in great fear of God's just judgment. For not all men are saved by Christ.
But I'm not refusing to accept what God gives; though with much weakness I'm accepting what God gives to me. And with a great deal of awe in my voice I echo what God has said in that covenant He made with me, and I confess in the brokenness of this life that
"I am not my own, but [I]? belong with body and soul, both in life and death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ."
I know that my rightful place is in the abyss of hell, and I know that God would act most justly if He would seal me in that pit forever. But God has said that He'd be my God, and so with a voice breaking with joy I confess that Jesus Christ "has fully paid for all my sins and set me free from all the power of the devil."
And the God against whom I transgressed in Paradise and still sin every day? I fear Him not! Why not? Because He said that He's my God, and so I cling to His promise and I call Him Father, and I am sure that
"He so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head, indeed, all things must work together for my salvation."
"Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam?" No, they're not. To escape the just punishment of holy God one needs to accept, embrace in faith, the redemption God prepared in Jesus Christ.
Am I saved by Christ just as I perished through Adam? Yes, yes I am! My name is written in God's Book of Life in heaven. How do I know that I'm elect? No, I haven't peaked in the book. And I haven't had a thrilling experience. But I know I'm elect because God promised me "forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation" – and He gives me grace to accept His gift.
Talk about comfort for the people of the Lord! Our comfort is rooted not in God's secret election, but in God's revealed promise-in-the-covenant! As we consider the matter of our salvation, then, it's not the doctrine of election that should occupy our thoughts, but rather the doctrine of the covenant.