Unconditional Election & Shepherding
Unconditional election, when rightly understood, is one of the most freeing doctrines for the under shepherd to embrace and one of the most assuring doctrines for the Christian to hold. It is beautiful because it reveals the beauty of our God whose grace is sovereign and whose mercies are new every morning. It reveals the immense power of a Father who has lovingly determined to give a certain number of sinners to His Son, Jesus, as an eternal gift (John 6:37). It proves that the Church is never in danger of failing, but always being built up as God has intended (Eph. 1:3-14, 2:19-22). Rightly understood, unconditional election is a powerful testimony unto the goodness of God and a tool for missions and evangelism. But what happens when it is ignored?
When Unconditional Election is Neglected
In my own experience, Calvinism is typically rejected because the rejecter cannot reconcile election with the free offer of the gospel. However, the result of rejecting Calvinism, or unconditional election, is usually detrimental to the pastor and his congregation.
I, unfortunately, write from experience. When I first started preaching, I was still young - both physically and theologically. I was sixteen years old and had grown up in Holiness circles which held firmly to a system of works-based-righteousness. Underneath this framework, I had been taught that it was basically up to sinners to save themselves through their own efforts and that salvation had to be maintained through a great deal of effort. One slip up, I had been taught, was enough to cast the saint away from Jesus. The Christian life became a game of hide and seek, where salvation was constantly lost and had to be found again.
The impact of this teaching upon my preaching at the time was obvious enough. I regularly preached doom and gloom sermons, warning of the wrath and judgment of God to come, but without any true lasting hope for the sinner; after all, salvation was likely to only be temporary until the next sin was committed. Similarly, I carried a very unnatural burden upon myself. I knew that Heaven and Hell were real destinations, and I even understood (at least fundamentally) that the gospel was the only real hope for sinners, but I thought the salvation of sinners literally depended on me preaching well.
Most of the churches I preached at had what we called “altars.” The basic idea was that, after a sermon, the preacher called on the congregation to “make a decision for Christ,” and, for those who responded in faith, they were invited to come forward to pray and make a public profession of their newfound faith in Jesus. For younger me, the amount of people at the altar at the end of a sermon became the baseline to judge whether I had preached well or not. After all, the salvation of sinners depended on that altar being filled.
The result? Depression, anger, unfulfillment, and despair. I thought the salvation of sinners literally depended on me and I wanted so badly for everyone to be saved. So, when the altar wasn’t filled at the end of a service with praying sinners, I would go home and beat myself up until the next Sunday rolled around. This also meant that my preaching was never truly in depth—how could I focus on edifying the saints when everyone’s salvation was conditional, and we were all constantly in danger of the fires of hell?
When, by age eighteen, I began to embrace some of the Reformed doctrines, I found a peace I had never known before.
When Unconditional Election is Embraced
My embracing of election, and Calvinism as a whole, did not come without a price. Many pastors I had called mentors stopped talking to me and instead began accusing me of heresy. But the price has been worth it. Over the past decade, I have found unconditional election to be both a comfort and driving force for me as an under shepherd over a local church. Here are some positives of the doctrine upon shepherding:
1. Unconditional election is a reminder that God is sovereign, and not the pastor. God chooses who to save, when to save, and how to save. I simply must be faithful to preach the whole counsel of God’s Word, trusting Him to be sovereign over the rest because the gospel will always be successful wherever God has intended for it to be successful.
2. Unconditional election is a reminder that my success as a pastor is not in the number of souls I see saved, but in simply being faithful to preach God’s Word.
3. Unconditional election is a reminder that, once a sinner has been saved, salvation itself is unconditional. Those who repent of their sin and believe in Jesus by mere faith alone are saved forever. As an under shepherd, I can lift my congregation before the true Shepherd in prayer, knowing He cares for them eternally.
4. Unconditional election is a reminder of God’s unconditional love, which propels me as a pastor to aim towards the unconditional love of my sheep; yes, even the unruly and difficult ones.
5. Unconditional election is a reminder that just as surely as God elected and then saved a Christian, He will bring about their conformity into the image of Jesus Christ by completing the good work He began in them (Phil. 1:6). This frees me to preach expository sermons, trusting that the Lord can and will take my feeble efforts and use them to edify, strengthen, and conform the saints into the image of Christ. The edification of the elect is not an abstract possibility, but a definite reality. The chain of salvation is forever and always an unbroken chain.
Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons and is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace, releasing late 2022.