Home » Does the Bible Really Say God Chooses Who to Save?

Does the Bible Really Say God Chooses Who to Save?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
6 minutes read

We’ve already discussed the free will of men vs. God’s sovereignty. Now, what about scriptures? Don’t they say God chooses who to save and who to send to eternal destruction?

A few years ago, I was in touch with an ultra-orthodox Jew from Jerusalem who came to faith in Jesus. Fearing for his life, he had to flee the country. Long story short, he got connected with some guy, let’s call him Aspel, who discipled him. At some point, Aspel read him a few verses and taught him that it wasn’t really that he chose to believe in Jesus but that God, before he was even born, chose him and made him believe. He was special.

But as a Jew, the ultra-orthodox guy was baffled. First, because it was a concept foreign to him as a Jew who studied the Hebrew Scriptures his entire life. But what bothered him even more was the other side of that coin, the idea that God elected the rest of his family to everlasting destruction. “What about my grandmother, my mother, my sisters? Did God choose them for eternal destruction regardless of their own will and faith?” Aspel, who was persistent with his own Calvinistic worldview, replied positively. This was too much for the orthodox Jew, who felt this portrayed the God of Christianity as evil and immoral; one he could not follow, “God decided to through my sister and mother to hell because he decided for them not to believe in Jesus? What kind of God is that?” He then left everything and returned to Jerusalem, rejoining his old synagogue. By the time I got in touch with him again and found out about everything, it was already too late. You see, no one told him this is only one view, a Calvinistic interpretation called “double predestination.” It was presented to him as the gospel, backed up with Bible verses. His case is also the case of many others in the world who simply couldn’t relate to the logic of how some Christians present God and the gospel to them. Honestly, it’s hard for me to blame them.

By now, you might be thinking: “Okay, sure. I get what you are saying. But doesn’t the Bible also teach that it is not us who choose to believe in God, but God is the one who chooses in advance who will believe in him and who will be forever damned?” I recognize that some verses might give that impression, but I would argue it is only by reading them out of context. I will only sample some of the verses commonly used to argue that God chooses who will believe in him and show how with the right context, things are, in fact, quite different.

John 15:16

A popular verse often used to teach that God predestined people for salvation is the first half of John 15:16, whereby Jesus said: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” However, the point of John 15, in the context, is that Jesus chose the disciples to join him on his mission or journey. The second part of the same verse reads: “…appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit” The apostles, Judas included, were handpicked by Jesus and accepted his invitation to follow him on his Messianic mission and then go out and preach, heal and do miracles. In Mark 3:14, we read: “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.” This is like a rabbi telling his students that he chose them specifically to join his class or his mission. It’s not about someone’s salvation.

Ephesians 1:4-5

Probably the most quoted verse by those who teach God predestined who will believe in him is Ephesians 1:4-5:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

The first point is that in this passage, Paul spoke of a corporate election. What is a corporate election? The nation of Israel is a good example. Israel was chosen for a role regardless of the faith of each individual in it. When Jews thought of election, they primarily thought of the nation of Israel. As a nation, Israel was elected not for salvation but for service. Still, one could join Israel even if he wasn’t born into it and become part of the elected. The election of Israel by God never meant that each and every individual born into Israel was saved. In that same way, Paul is speaking of the Church. What is the purpose of God choosing the Church? For it to be a body of believers who witness by living a holy and godly life. This is also what he priorly choose Israel for.

The second point is that Paul isn’t saying that God “chose us to be in Christ” but that he “chose us in Christ” to be holy and blameless. What God chose from the foundation of the world was that whoever is in Christ, God would consider them holy and blameless. Suppose one thousand people play the lottery, and ten of them win different prizes. The prizes were set (or predestined) in advance for the winners. But the lottery company did not predestine which individual would win. Similarly, from the beginning of time, God predestined that whoever was in Christ would be considered holy and blameless in his eyes. Now that you’ve chosen to be in Christ, to believe in Christ, what was predestined for the group becomes predestined for you. We, with Paul and the Ephesians, may say that in Christ, we were predestined to be holy and blameless.

The third point is that it is logically impossible to understand Ephesians 1:4-5 as speaking of God choosing who to save because God wants all to be saved: “[God] who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1st Timothy 2:4). If God is love, then it’s only his nature to want everyone to be saved. According to Christian Philosopher Jerry Walls:

If God truly loves all persons, then he does all he can properly do to secure their true flourishing. The true flourishing of all persons is only secured in a right relationship with God, in which their nature as free beings is respected and they freely accept his love and are saved.[i]

If Ephesians 1:4-5 was about the individual election for salvation by God, and God wants all to be saved, then the necessary logical conclusion is that every single person in the world would be saved. But this is not the case. God wants all to be saved, and he allows all free will. Therefore, some are saved, and some are not out of their own will. To summarize, Ephesians 1:4-5 is not talking about God’s choosing individual people for salvation or eternal destruction and taking away their free will. Instead, the apostle was writing about a group of people (the church) that God predestined a purpose for them – to live a godly life and to be considered blameless by him.

2nd Thessalonians 2:13

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.

21st-century readers often read preconceived ideas into ancient texts. In this case, some automatically assume that “salvation” here talks about an individual’s soul being eternally saved. However, more often than not, depending on the context, the use of the word “salvation” in the Bible is speaking of physical redemption. This is true even when considering the Greek word Paul chose to use in this verse against other ancient Greek texts of that time:

σζω and σωτηρία mean first ‘to save’ and ‘salvation’ in the sense of an acutely dynamic act in which gods or men snatch others by force from serious peril.[ii]

And indeed, when the verse is put in context, we find it deals with precisely that: the Day of the Lord. The Apostle just wrote about those following “the man of lawlessness,” who, therefore, will be the subject of judgment. A judgment that is associated with that time of tribulation. Again, this is a physical situation Paul is writing about in this context. Paul was simply expressing his gratitude that, in contrast to the followers of the man of lawlessness, God had chosen to deliver these believers from the judgments of the Day of the Lord. God chose to physically save them from a very tangible life-threatening situation. This verse, too, has nothing to do with God individually choosing people for salvation but with the protection of Believers. It could be by Paul knowing the Thessalonians won’t be there when it happens, by protection or rapture of the church in the last days, or by other means. These were three short examples to demonstrate that with the proper context and understanding of words, things can be quite different than they first seem. Other books and commentaries on these and related verses regarding both free will and salvation are available.[1]

This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
free sample is available here.

[1] Such as:
William L. Craig: “The Only Wise God: The Compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom.”
Robert N Wilkin: “The Grace New Testament Commentary.”

Joseph C. Dillow: “Final Destiny: The Future Reign of The Servant Kings.”

[i] Jerry Walls, ‘Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be a Compatibilist’ (2011) 13(1) Philosophia Christi 95.

[ii] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-c1976). 7:966.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist