Salvation: The Choice

The issue of personal salvation involves a number of questions. The temptation will be to narrowly define the issue so that only certain questions are studied – particularly if the student is tied to a certain theological tradition. Those with inclinations toward the Reformed or Wesleyan-Arminian tradition will be most interested in the “who” question. The Reformers emphasized that God is sovereign in the saving process, tracing salvation from its starting point in election. Arminians emphasize human freedom to respond to God.

In this work, while human responsibility is taught, God’s sovereignty in salvation trumps it. Salvation is described as a work of all three persons of the Trinity. The Father chooses, not at all based on the foreseen worthiness of the objects of his choice, but entirely by his grace. The Son sacrificed himself on the cross to atone for the sins of the world potentially, and especially for those who will respond to his atonement in faith.[1] The Holy Spirit applies that atonement to the lives of believers, transforming and regenerating those who are predestined to it.[2]

Equally important to the “who” question, salvation is also a “what.” It is important to nail down just exactly what it means to be saved, and what it means to be unsaved. For that reason, this work delves into questions as to what a saved individual does and does not do. There are traits in a person’s life that serve as indicators of salvation. These include a changed mind (repentance),[3] a redirected mouth (testifying to the gospel)[4] and a life of confidence in God and his future (faith).[5] These “what” questions are not entirely separated from the “who” question. This is where the human responsibility comes in. These indications of the transformed life are also obligations for individual believers. They are also a matched set. We can portray all the confidence in the world that we are saved, but if that confidence is not accompanied by a transformed mind, and a gospel-oriented testimony and life, then our salvation is still in question.

The Choice

A good starting point to help us begin studying the “who” question of salvation is Paul’s salutation in his letter to the Ephesians:

 3 Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in love before him. 5 He predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ for himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he lavished on us in the Beloved One. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he richly poured out on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 He made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in Christ 10 as a plan for the right time– to bring everything together in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth in him. 11 In him we have also received an inheritance, because we were predestined according to the plan of the one who works out everything in agreement with the purpose of his will, 12 so that we who had already put our hope in Christ might bring praise to his glory. 13 In him you also were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of the possession, to the praise of his glory. [6]

It is quite clear from this text that Paul is describing a connection between himself and the Ephesians. That connection is the fact that he is a saved individual and he is addressing saved individuals. Notice how Paul describes salvation as a blessing that all the saved have been blessed with by God the Father (3,6). That blessing originated in God’s choice in the past, affects the believer’s status in the present, and will lead to ultimate salvation (glorification) in the future.

vs. past present future
3 God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing

A choice that God made in the past has affected the atmosphere in which we walk today. We experience some of the material blessings that go along with our allegiance to the Lord. But we experience all of the spiritual blessings. The material blessings may come and go during this life, but the spiritual blessings are permanent. Our future will include an immeasurable supply of both material and spiritual blessings. In fact, there will be no difference between the two. Presently, our Savior warns us to place our priority on seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness (spiritual blessings), and challenges us to trust God for the things that we need.[7] He has a plan and purpose for our lives, and, for now, the spiritual blessings are all we need to accomplish that purpose.

vs. past present future
4 God chose us to be holy and blameless before him

God’s choice was not merely a rescue from death or disaster. He had a purpose, and that purpose included our becoming like him. We are to (and will) reflect his holiness and blamelessness. Without that choice made by God in the past, humanity had no hope of ascending to God’s level. Babel taught us that we cannot build ourselves up to heaven’s height from the ground up. The work had to be done from the top down. God destroyed Babel not because he actually feared that man would reach perfection without him, but because he knew that man would ever incline himself toward that futile attempt. As long as Babel existed, God’s plan of grace would always be our second choice.

vs. past present future
5 God predestined us

according to the good pleasure of his will

for adoption

Again, the choice of God in eternity past is being highlighted. No one becomes a son of God by his or her own choice. The choice is an adoption. Children may seek adoption. They may ask for it. But the parents are the ones who adopt. The child’s status does not change unless the potential parent chooses to become an actual one. Paul and the Ephesians celebrated their mutual status as adopted children of God not because of their own works, but because of works done for them in eternity past.

But, along with that appreciation for the grace of adoption comes an expected change in behavior and lifestyle that reflects the new status as sons. So, Paul would challenge these same Ephesian Christians with the words: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[8] It was “through the church (that) the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”[9] Paul challenged the Ephesian believers to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”[10] Their choices must reflect the same intent as God’s saving choice. That is how they show that an adoption has taken place.

vs. past present future
6 God has blessed us with

his glorious grace

that we might praise him

for his glorious grace

Our praise of God is a reflection on what he has done for us that we did not deserve. Grace is God’s choice in eternity past that has resulted in our worship in the present. Grace is more than just the fact that God has made salvation possible. We worship God for something that he did. His choice is the grounds for our praise. His blessing is the reason for our worship. He is the divine Chooser, and we are the human choice. He chose us. It was a choice based on his grace. So, now we praise him for that grace.

vs. past present future
7 God has blessed us with

his glorious grace

that we might have redemption

that we might have forgiveness

God’s sovereign choice to save us has also redeemed us from the slavery associated with sin. We are free in the present not to sin. We have also been forgiven for all our past sins. Our status has changed. The bondage which was our inheritance from Adam has been replaced because God has blessed us with grace. A slave is in no condition to demand release. A condemned man can seek forgiveness, but he has no ability to make someone forgive him.

vs. past present future
11  having been predestined In him we have obtained an inheritance

God’s sovereign choice to save us has given us a present inheritance. We have hope for the future because of what he has done for us in the past. That hope is a present tense reality. It assures of a future even though we do not deserve one. It is not at all evident what that inheritance will entail. Were we to get even a small glimpse of what we will be throughout eternity, it would overwhelm us. Faith takes the challenges of each day with confidence that even if there is failure today, there will eventually be eternal (permanent) victory. God has predestined it.

vs. past present future
13-14 you were sealed with the

promised Holy Spirit

who is the guarantee of our


until we acquire possession of it

The Holy Spirit’s involvement in the lives of believers links God’s sovereign choice in the past with our eternal inheritance. His presence within us is our guarantee that the forces that war within and seek to undo our deliverance will not ultimately win. Even when we face temporary setbacks and times of fear and failure – He assures us that these are only temporary. Our guarantee is more than simply knowing that we have been chosen. Along with that election, God has also predestined us to ultimately win. Along with that predestination, he has provided a living guarantee within us, his Holy Spirit.

The who behind it all is God, who has chosen us of his own free will in eternity past. This was Paul’s basis for the connection he felt with the Ephesian Christians. This was the reason for Paul’s confidence that they would triumph over the problems that they faced. The more we know about who is behind our salvation, the more confident we can be. For that reason, it is helpful to review some of those key texts in Scripture that affirm God’s initial choice, which the Bible calls his election.

“Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15, NET).

Jesus told a story about day laborers, hired to work in a vineyard. It is important not to abuse the stories that Jesus told by making them “walk on all fours” – that is, making them say more than they were intended to say. So, it is important to establish that the reason Jesus told this story was to illustrate God’s sovereign choice in saving people. The act of working in the vineyard was not what Jesus was emphasizing. It was the choice of the owner to decide who works, and how much each is paid. The fact that the owner chooses to pay each worker the same indicates that the payment is a result of grace, not it was deserved. So, eternal salvation is the issue.

God’s sovereign choice is seen in the fact that the owner of the vineyard asks the question “Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me?” – a question that we must all consider when debating this issue of election. Often election is rejected on the grounds that it does not seem fair for God to decide who gets paid long before the work is done. But that is the picture we see here. Of course, there is also human choice involved. The workers were not coerced into their toil. Each was willing to work. But the point of Jesus’ parable did not relate to that. His objective was to defend the free will of the owner, not the workers.

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44, ESV).

Jesus had been explaining that he was the bread, the manna sent from heaven: he was the solution to the spiritual hunger in all of us. Yet God did not send manna to everyone, only to the Israelites. Likewise, as the new era of salvation dawns, not everyone will come to Christ and be saved. The door to salvation opens wider when Christ is revealed, but it does not open for everyone. Those who come to Christ are drawn to him by the Father. It is these who have been drawn (the elect) who will be raised up to eternal life on the last day.

To further stretch the manna analogy, the Father’s drawing is like giving us an appetite for the bread of life. We might think that we have complete control over our destiny, but our control (our free will – if you will) is limited to the fact that we are free to choose what we want. But who controls our wants? Jesus speaks here of the Father drawing us to Christ. The fact that we wanted to be saved suggests that this drawing had taken place.

So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen. 19 Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?” 20 No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? (Romans 9:18-21, NLT).

This text deals with another possible objection to election on the grounds that it is not fair. The issue here is the opposite of that which Jesus dealt in his story of the vineyard. It has to do with the perceived unfairness of God’s judging those who do not believe. If salvation is based on God’s electing grace, why would he punish those whom he chooses not to elect?

If Paul had merely wanted to say “You misunderstand, God chooses fairly based on the obedience he sees in our future” he could have said that. Instead, he uses this potter and clay analogy, which suggests that salvation is entirely the result of God’s electing grace. Paul argued that we are the results of God’s artistic choice. He decides which jar gets used for which purpose. The choice is entirely his.

When it comes to the issue of fairness, we seem to forget that our very existence in the first place is not fair. When our ancestors rejected God’s way in Eden, he should have destroyed our species entirely. That would have been fair, because we violated his prohibition, and the penalty was death. We deserve non-existence. But God in his grace gives us life. He also, by his grace, has chosen to redeem some of us through the substitutionary death of Christ.

Our real problem with election is with that word some. It seems entirely unfair that God would only choose some as recipients of his grace. There is even a significant movement within Christianity which suggests that all will eventually be saved. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins explains how he and others can come to such a conclusion.[11] He argues that God has to win ultimately, and that means that eventually all those suffering in hell will repent, and so all will be saved. Of course, the problem is that hell is the second death. Those thrown into the lake of fire will suffer, but even hell will end. It will be emptied not by people repenting, but by their being destroyed.

Paul’s argument in Romans 9 is that God is fair in destroying and discarding those whom he chooses not to save. God is right in creating the jar destined to be used to hold garbage. His glory is not diminished because everyone does not become an eternal masterpiece. That is fair because both the decorative art and the garbage pail are creations of the same artist.

All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast– all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world (Revelation 13:8, NIV).

The picture of the elect that presents itself in Revelation 13 is that of a book with people’s names written in it. It is a registry, a divine database. There may or may not be an actual book. The point is that salvation is limited. If John saw a book with names in it, he perhaps saw your name or mine. This was thousands of years before we were born, yet the record of the saved was there – and complete at that time. It is comforting to think of one’s name being written there, but what about those whose names are missing. Is it unfair for God to do that? No, because those whose names are not written in the book of life will worship the beast. No one will die in hell who does not deserve death because of his or her own sins. There is fairness in God’s judgment.

The Starting Point

God’s sovereign choice in election is the logical starting point in discussing salvation. Yet many get so hung up on that issue that they can scarcely go any further. The Bible has so much more to say about the process of salvation. In order to understand salvation, one needs to accept the fact that by grace he has been saved, and then ask more questions. It is to these further questions that this study will now turn.

As the Messiah, Jesus came to give up his life by crucifixion in order to rescue us from Satan’s grasp.[12] It was necessary that Christ be put to death to accomplish salvation. The question as to why this was necessary, and just exactly how his death saves anyone belongs to the locus of soteriology, and particularly the doctrine of the atonement.

By Rev. Jefferson Vann

(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)


[1] see An Advent Christian Systematic Theology, chapter 50. The Sacrifice.

[2] see An Advent Christian Systematic Theology,chapter 51. The Regenerator.

[3] see An Advent Christian Systematic Theology,chapter 52. The Change.

[4] see An Advent Christian Systematic Theology,chapter 53. The Testimony.

[5] see An Advent Christian Systematic Theology,chapter 54. The Life.

[6] Ephesians 1:3-14 CSB.

[7] Matthew 6:33.

[8] Ephesians 2:10.

[9] Ephesians 3:10.

[10] Ephesians 4:22-24.

[11] Rob Bell, “LOVE WINS: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” (Robert H. Bell, Jr. Trust, 2011).

[12] See chapter 36.

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