The Gospel and Choice, Part 1 – Is the battle for belief played on an even field?

Have you debated the doctrine of election, jaw clenched, over coffee? In a classroom? In your small group?

"Election!"  "Free will!"
“Divine sovereignty!”                                      “Free will!”

It’s a vital topic, but your venue is ill-chosen. Rather, we should be discussing the doctrine of election to the extent we are doing evangelism and being eyewitnesses to God’s transforming power.

That’s how the apostles did it, as traveling evangelists who by the Spirit were applying God’s truth to real life, analyzing their preaching and prayer life, and later the psychological, cognitive and behavioral transformation of their hearers. Only then did they draw conclusions about whom God had elected.For example:

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1 Thess 1:4-5).

The Thessalonians were, according to the evidence, saved after Paul had shown up in their city and preached the gospel with clarity and in the power of the Spirit. And if they had resided a couple of towns over, or been born a little earlier, or been Chinese, they might have lived and died and never heard a peep about Jesus Christ. When it came to hearing and receiving the gospel, the playing field was uneven. [1]

Some Christians point to Romans 1-2 and argue that everyone has an even chance to believe in Christ, but all the examples in the Bible tell how people receive the gospel only after they have heard it! The Ethiopian (Acts 8) and Cornelius (Acts 10) already had access to the Bible, and Cornelius had a vision, but they came to Christ only when a Christian told them the gospel. Even Saul/Paul knew the Bible and almost certainly knew all about the gospel before he had his Damascus Road. Yes, there are reports today that Muslims are coming to Christ because of dreams they had of Jesus but even then, the dream pushes them to hear the gospel from another person, at which point they convert. [2]

None of these people were playing on a level field. Paul went so far as to say to non-Jewish Christians:

you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph 2:12-13)

Strangers. Aliens. Far away. Locked out. No access. The door was triple-locked, and stumbling around in the darkness, they wouldn’t have even known which door to bang on had they wanted to.

No fair, right?

By contrast, if anyone was born in a world of spiritual privilege, it was I – the Bible had been available in my language for centuries, it was easily available, and I could read. I was a citizen of a country with religious freedom built into its Constitution and a strong Christian tradition.

Did I have an advantage over a boy who was raised in another faith, had never heard the name of Christ, did not have the Bible, could not have read it if he had? Or a child who was told that God was a myth, a concept invented to oppress the poor? Most certainly. And even if someone comes to Christ because of a dream, the stories often state that someone has been praying for the individual. In other words, some Muslims have an advantage over their fellows: they come to Christ because they happened to know a Christian who could pray for them by name.

The playing field remains uneven, precipitously so.

Let’s take things further.

I hail from a town with more than one church that preached the gospel. My parents became believers a scant six weeks before their first baby – yours truly – came along. That means I was taken to church and Sunday School from day one.

A lady near our house decided to open her home to us kids for a Good News Club, where I first heard and understood the gospel. I was just old enough to attend; had I been born a few months later, they would have taught the gospel to a bunch of kids a bit older than me.

When that lady explained the gospel I was, if memory serves, the only child to raise his hand that day.

But what if, and let’s think through real-life possibilities, what if I had been in the bathroom? What if the boy next to me poked me at just the wrong time? What if the teacher had used a big word instead of the small, understandable word she used in that one key sentence? Would I have gone hurtling along, apart from Christ for all eternity?

I had advantages and disadvantages compared with kids born the same year. Who lived in my own town. On my street. Under the same roof. Even compared with myself in some hypothetical parallel universe.

Before we pretend to understand advanced topics such as election, let’s concede that when it comes to the things of God, no two people in history have ever played on exactly a level field. If we’re going to define “fairness” as “equal access to the saving message,” than fairness is a myth, and opportunities are unequally distributed, usually widely so.

So how is it that one person finds salvation in Christ, while a thousand do not?

Continued in Part 2

[1] Indeed, one of the objections to the gospel is “What about those who have never heard the gospel?” The question is an important one, but not our main focus here. I recommend this page from the Gospel Coalition:

[2] When I first penned this essay, I was very skeptical about these accounts, and said so, especially because these things can be passed from hand to hand as rumors. I have now had a chance to follow up further, with some people who have first-hand information, and this seems to be a genuine phenomenon.

“The Gospel and Choice, Part 1 – Is the battle for belief played on an even field?” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

5 thoughts on “The Gospel and Choice, Part 1 – Is the battle for belief played on an even field?

  1. Hi Gary. If I got the point, I am agree with you! Election is a precious truth but nobody can be saved without hearing the gospel preaching. We are expecting the part 2.
    God bless you
    Pastor Pablito

    1. Blessing, Pablito! Yes, and my other point is that which I will develop later, that we are not, every one of us, at a exactly equal “tipping point” between disbelief and belief.

  2. Hello Gary,
    Very interesting piece.
    The abuse some so-called Christians hurl at those who believe in “election”, you wouldn’t believe! (I think you would!). In my own studies, When I came to believe in the “five points”, I didn’t and still don’t call myself a ******ist, it is just a name given to doctrine taught in God’s Word, that is all! Yet some would throw us in the same basket as the RC Church!
    I don’t believe the Bible says anywhere that God is fair? The parable in the vineyard in Matthew 20 demonstrates that? God is righteous, just, merciful etc. This “fairness doctrine” is humanistic.
    This IS a big subject, especially when I consider the multitudes of aliens, strangers, heathen etc in the OT. It blew my brains apart when I learnt, and believed that the only reason God raised up Pharaoh and the great nation of Egypt was so that He could deliver Israel and demonstrate His great power! (Romans 9.16-18). The Sovereignty of God!
    God bless you.

    1. Hi Colin, yes, I’m very familiar with this sort of verbal abuse. However, I’ve seen an equal amount of arrogance coming out of my own team. How can a person claim a superior understanding of divine grace and be so proud of it?

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