by Jesse Johnson, at The Cripplegate
Do you remember Blockbuster Video and VHS tapes? When I was a kid, that was how my family watched movies. After watching the video, there would be a bit of an argument over who had to rewind the tape. Our VCR would open after rewinding, pop the tape halfway out, and if there was nobody there to get it, it would try and close, and likely end up breaking. So one of us had to stay up ten minutes longer, all to honor the sticker on the front of the VHS tape.
You know the sticker I’m talking about. It said, “Be kind, please rewind.”
Those stickers are now a thing of the past—along with VHS tapes and Blockbuster for that matter. But the sentiment lives on in some people’s theology, particularly when it comes to the doctrine of election.
The doctrine of election teaches that God chooses whom he will save. Before the foundations of time, God determined to create the world, allow sin into the world, to allow all of mankind to fall into sin, send his Son as a Savior, then send his Spirit to regenerate people through faith. The Spirit does not come to everyone, but rather comes only to the elect, those whom God has chosen to save.
This doctrine is taught in John 6:37, 44-47, 65; Ephesians 1:3-9; Romans 9:6-26; Revelation 13:8, 17:8; 20:12-15 (to name but a few of examples). Despite the fact that election is the clear teaching of Scripture, it is a doctrine that has caused no small controversy. It was controversial in Paul’s day (as evidenced by Romans 9), and it remains controversial today. It strikes us as unfair, undemocratic, and unjust.
If God chooses whom he will save, then how come he doesn’t choose everyone? How can he still hold people responsible for their sin, if their real problem is that God didn’t choose them? Why bother with evangelism if all that the Father gives to the Son will come to the Son?
But despite these questions, the doctrine of election remains in the Bible. It’s still there, starring up at you whenever you read Romans or Ephesians or John or Revelation. Its as obstinate as ever. It refuses to be defeated by questions.
What I mean by that is that asking those questions doesn’t make the doctrine go away. So many people move on from questioning the doctrine and into a different kind of doubt—they endeavor to explain the doctrine into a more palatable form. I’ve heard everything from “God elects everyone for salvation, and the devil elects everyone for damnation, and you cast the deciding vote” to “election is true, but you can unelect yourself because of your free will.”
But the most common explanation I’ve heard which is designed to blunt the force of election is the be kind, please rewind form of it. This explanation says that God has looked down the tunnels of time, and saw what you would do (based on your own free will of course), and then rewound the tape, and chose you to do exactly what he saw you already doing.
In other words, God can choose how the movie of your life will end, because he has already watched it before. Thus God knows the future, your free will is still determinative, and election is not unfair because after all, it is based on what God already knew you would do.
Now, there are all manner of problems with this explanation. First, it makes people responsible for salvation. It may rescue election but it does so by throwing the gospel overboard. In this version of election, God saw something good in you, and that is why he chose you. Obviously that is a huge gospel no-no.
Another problem with this view of election is that it misunderstand regeneration and faith. If you believed because of something inside of you, then your heart is the fountain of your faith. But that is not what the Bible teaches. Your heart is a fount of sin, and you believe because God regenerated you. So the only way God could look down the tunnel of time and see who would believe is if he first saw whom he was going to regenerate. Because anyone who is regenerated is born again, and will have faith in the gospel. This is why the be kind, please rewind kind of theology usually lacks a robust understanding of regeneration. Because any kind of regeneration will void out the whole “tunnel of time” system.
While I think these two objections to this understanding of election are sufficient to refute it, there is another less obvious problem with saying God chooses those that he sees choosing him. It’s a problem that I didn’t fully appreciate until I began preaching through Ephesians 1.
Ephesians 1 teaches that God made all things (1:10, 11, 21, 22, 23). There is nothing made that he did not make. It also teaches that God made every person. We have our existence because he made us. He designed us. We are his workmanship.
The tunnel of time objection to election neuters God’s creative ability. It implies that you, me, we have an existence apart from the precise plan of God. In a sense it deifies us. It makes people like gods, in that it ascribes a pre-temporal existence to us independent of the will of God. It almost sounds as if there is God, and there are people that he sees, and these people came from who knows where, and then he sees how some of them will act, and then chooses them to do those things.
All too often we focus on the problems with the latter half of that scenario (on how it hurts the gospel, or downplays sin, or misunderstands regeneration). But the real problem is further upstream. How can God see people, angels, or anything really apart from him designing them? If God sees future people, then he sees them as he wills them to be. He knows their names and knows their future actions because he made them, and he designed them. He didn’t design us to fit our preferences, but he designed us, all of us, for his glory according to his will.
So no, God did not choose you for salvation because he looked down the tunnel of time and saw how you would one day choose him. He didn’t do that because then your salvation would depend on you, and we all know that you wouldn’t have believed unless God first regenerated you anyway.
But the real problem is that if you think God elected you to do what you were going to do anyway, you are making yourself out to be God. But you don’t exist outside of God. He didn’t see you one day. He didn’t study you to learn about you. Oh no. The truth is, God knew what you would do, but only because he made you.
This should encourage you. The Maker of heaven and earth made you, and knows your name, and calls you to be in a relationship with him. A relationship that he initiated not at your salvation, not at your conception, and not even at creation. God designed you, named you, and chose you before all that. Before even time began, he knew you, because he is God, and you are not.