From Gospel Translations
As a young pastor, I heard the charge every Reformed pastor has heard: “If God ordains all things, choosing some for eternal life and rejecting others, He is an arbitrary God.” With zeal and confidence, I took the one who made this charge to Matthew 20, to the parable in which the vineyard workers who began at the 11th hour got the same wages as the men who began at the first hour. Since the one making this charge affirmed the authority of Scripture, I assumed he would have to yield to the correctness of God having mercy on whom He will have mercy.
But the premise Jesus took as axiomatic was denied by my opponent. He agreed with the complaining workers, saying it was unfair for the landowner to do what he wanted with what was his. My opponent even intimated that if his employer were to give other workers more than their contract stated, he would sue the employer for not giving him his fair share.
But if Jesus said the landowner was justified, we know that it is wrong to conclude that he owed more to the earlier workers. Thus, God may say to the saved as well as the unsaved: “‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. . . . Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?’” (Matt. 20:13–15a).
God does not owe any of us His mercy and His gifts. If He is gracious to others, we may not conclude that we have a “right” to His grace. Sovereign grace is not an entitlement!
But is God arbitrary in choosing to save some but not all? Before we address that question, we need to see the starting point. All men are dead in sin. That God saves some and leaves others to perish may be understood only against the background of sin and its just wages. What we deserve, if God is just, is damnation. If He saves you and me, an unsaved man may not argue that he therefore should be spared punishment, too. God does not owe him salvation just because He saves you and me.
When it comes to the word arbitrary, dictionary definitions give inadequate guidance. The primary meaning of arbitrary is “depending on the will or discretion of an arbiter or judge.” There is no inherent problem there, but the second and third meanings for arbitrary are “fixed or arrived at through will or caprice” and “despotic.” Every believer knows God is neither capricious nor despotic, as the words are commonly understood. Yet the word despot also has a benevolent meaning, and could well describe God as sovereign and gracious. Therefore, to say yes or no to the question of an arbitrary God is too simplistic.
The Bible commands us not to impugn the holiness of God. In Acts 10:34, Peter declares, “‘In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality.’” Paul likewise says, “There is no partiality with God” (Rom. 2:11). This does not mean God treats all people alike, simply that He is not partial to someone because he is a Jew or a Gentile, rich or poor. In Romans 3:1–2, we are told that the Jews have a distinct “advantage.” In Matthew 11:25, Jesus thanks the Father because “‘You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.’” God, therefore, exercises discrimination with His gifts. “‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy’” (Rom. 9:15; cf. Ex. 33:19).
Is this the same as saying God is arbitrary? Dutch theologian G.C. Berkouwer is very uneasy with attributing arbitrariness to God. He has a chapter of almost 50 pages on “Election and Arbitrariness” in his book Divine Election. Yet he recognizes the difficulty in defending his aversion “when we attempt to distinguish sovereignty from arbitrariness.” In fact, no less a giant than Jonathan Edwards has no hesitation about using the word. “We are dependent on the goodness of God for more now than under the first covenant. . . . We are now more dependent on God’s arbitrary and sovereign good pleasure. . . . It is from mere and arbitrary grace” (Sermon on 1 Cor. 1:29–31). And in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards says with respect to sinners suspended over the pit: “All that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance, of an incensed God.”
The key point is that men have no right to censure God in the free distribution of His grace. Sinners have forfeited any claim of mercy. Damnation is a debt due sin, but grace is free and unmerited. To sinners, election is unconditional; there is no reason in anyone for God to choose him or her. Thus, one may decide for prudent reasons not to use the word arbitrary with its negative baggage, but it may be used, as Edwards does, to point out the unconditional nature of God’s grace.
But saying there is no reason in man for God’s choice is not the same as saying there is no reason. God’s choice reveals His reason — to “show His wrath and to make His power known . . . and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy . . . whom He called” (Rom. 9:22–24a). This is no despot who unjustly deals with us, but one who is willing to show mercy to undeserving sinners.
There are some important lessons we need to grasp from all this. Regarding the charge that our God chooses men arbitrarily, we may not simply reply “yes” or “no.” To agree to the charge is to run the danger of being understood as using the pejorative definition. If we simply say “no” to the charge, there is the danger of implying that God’s election is in some way “conditional” and the reason for it is in us. The “yes” or “no” must be qualified. God is indeed partial; He freely and sovereignly chooses whom He pleases. But there is no hint of injustice in His choosing.
Furthermore, whatever unconditional means ( whether or not the word arbitrary is used), it must never be seen as contradicting the explicit words of Jesus: “‘Whoever believes in [Christ] should not perish but have everlasting life’” (John 3:16) and “‘The one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out’” (John 6:37). If any sinner hears the Gospel and is not saved, it is because he will not come. Sinners perish because of sin. When they sinfully reject the Gospel offer of mercy, God with perfect justice declares, “‘He who does not believe is condemned already’” (John 3:18).
God will not force a person to believe against his will, though He may, if it pleases Him, graciously, unconditionally give that person a new will with which to believe. But for a sinner to blame God for his damnation is not an excuse; it is an aggravation of his sin. He thereby throws contempt on the precious blood of Christ. That God graciously, unconditionally chooses to save some is only cause to praise His matchless grace. It is no cause to condemn God’s choice as arbitrary in a pejorative sense. To hate God for such love and grace shows the depth of personal sin. Praise God that in His mercy and grace He saves even those who once despised His mercy as “arbitrary.”
There is one more lesson we need to learn in the haste with which we are prone to suggest that God might be unfairly arbitrary in choosing some, but not all, to salvation. Any pastor who has ever rushed to the hospital or a home in response to a sudden and tragic event has heard something like this: “What did he do to deserve this?” or “It’s just not fair; he was such a saint.” And many will think, if not outwardly express, “What did I do to deserve my particular plight?” Surely this is one of the most ungodly responses that can come from the lips of someone who professes to be a Christian. If I have any presence of mind at all, this much I know: I do not want what I deserve! If God gave me what I deserve, I would be without any hope. Wrath, hell, damnation, curse, eternal punishment — those are the words that describe what I deserve. They describe what you deserve as well.
To say, as our critics do, that eternal punishment is not what they deserve, that sovereign grace is an entitlement, is dangerous. But if you think carefully about this blasphemous opinion that God owes you grace, that God in condemning you is not giving you what you deserve, you may have a helpful framework in which to understand the glorious truth of unconditional election as the heart of the Gospel.
Think of it this way: There is salvation for those, and only those, who get what Christ deserves. God did not lower His standards in order to save you; He sent a substitute to meet those standards. If God chose you and gave you a new heart and working faith, Christ is your substitute. If Christ is your substitute, praise God you get what He deserves even as, on the cross, He got what you deserve. And if God lets all or some of the human race get what they deserve, “the wages of sin,” that simply glorifies His perfect justice.
We might have grounds to question God’s justice in unconditionally choosing some to eternal life and not punishing them had Christ not received what they deserved in His substitutionary death. Arbitrary? Jesus put it this way: “‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?’” Do you want to try to charge God with injustice, or would you not rather rejoice in the infinite mercy of receiving what Christ deserves?