An Interview with J. I. Packer
MR: Dr. Packer, what exactly do people mean by unconditional election?
Packer: It is a phrase which folk use to express this thought: that because we sinners are helpless, God has to take all the steps that are necessary in order to bring us to faith and fellowship with himself and finally to eternal life.
Unconditional election is the name for the choice God makes to do that in any particular case, and it has to be unconditional because if God waited for man to merit it, he would wait forever.
MR: Dr. Packer, why do we need an election?
Packer: Because we will never be saved unless God chooses to save us. Election leads to the saving action of God in his lordship, and if we were left to ourselves we would never respond to God on our own at all. This is what people don't seem to appreciate, that all of us by nature are anti-God in our deepest instincts (see Romans chapter 3). We don't always realize this because many of us think we are seeking God, and frankly, people want a God they can manage and manipulate and have as a safety net. Those are facts about human life, and very familiar facts. But when it is a matter of responding to the real God and responding in a way that he calls for --that is by humbling ourselves before him, learning to trust his word absolutely, turning from sin, taking our hands off of the reins of our own life and letting him be in control --we wake up to the fact that we don't like this at all and we shy back from it. That is our nature. So you see, God has to take action otherwise we shall never come to him at all because that is the state in which fallen humans find themselves.
MR: Doesn't this detract from our responsibility to respond to the gospel? If I'm one of the elect, God will save me, and if I'm not I cannot be saved anyway so why worry about it?
Packer: No, that isn't the way to look at it because God has made us folk who act of their own will and he keeps us that way. And so he takes account of us for the things that we have done because they really were our own actions. The fact that we haven't got it in us to respond to God in a positive way doesn't mean that we don't choose not to respond to God. We do choose not to respond to God, and it's for that choice that we're responsible before him. The truth about us is that we are like drowning folk who can't swim and left to ourselves would just go under and eventually not come up again. God takes action, as it were, to dive in, swim to us, grab hold of us and save us. Election, as we said a moment ago, is his decision to do that, and in his lordship and power he does it, and so our salvation is entirely due to him. But all the time we are responsible for being the people that we are, drowning in our own moral mess.
MR: Isn't foreknowledge the basis of election? Didn't God choose us because he looked down into the future and foresaw that we would believe in him?
Packer: He foreknew us all right, but he foreknew us as we are by nature, that is, he foreknew us as folk who wouldn't respond to him unless he first changed our heart, so he chose us to have our hearts changed. But it's all his initiative, all his sovereignty first to last. The Bible describes this human condition in many ways. It tells us that we are spiritually blind, spiritually deaf, our hearts are hard--that is to say we are unresponsive to God, and we are spiritually dead. The Bible says all those things. You couldn't express the thought of unresponsiveness more strongly.
MR: Wouldn't it be unfair for God to elect one person to heaven, but then not elect my next-door neighbor?
Packer: Well the thing to remember here is, first of all, that why God does what he does is often times a mystery to us. He doesn't tell us why he chooses one and not another. To ask the question therefore is foolish; it doesn't get us anywhere. But we should remember, secondly, that in fact as God sees us we all actually deserve to be condemned because we're all actually choosing every day to live in defiance of his laws and his way, and to follow our own way instead; that's rebellion, and that's sin. Well now, it's out of a body of humanity, every one of whose members deserves to be rejected, that God has in fact saved some. The Bible makes it plain that he doesn't choose to save all, but he is under no obligation to choose to save all. In fact, he's under no obligation to choose to save any, because we all deserve from his hands condemnation and punishment.
MR: Would you agree with Spurgeon when he said, "What's hard for me to believe isn't that he didn't choose to save everybody, but that he chose to save me"?
Packer: Well, that I believe is the way to look at it. The marvel in this business is that anybody is saved, and certainly that I am saved. Of course, we all know the inside story of our own lives better than anybody else. We, after all, are the people who have lived those lives. We know how bad we are. I can't understand any Christian who isn't constantly amazed that God saved him or her in spite of all that badness, twistedness, depravity and sinfulness inside. That certainly is how I feel about myself.
MR: How essential is this doctrine to our understanding of salvation in general?
Packer: Well, if we aren't clear that God's election and God's lordly grace is responsible for our salvation--that is, if we aren't clear that it is God who saved us and not we who saved ourselves with His help, then we won't trust him as we should and we will rely on ourselves to keep ourselves going, whereas the Christian who knows God's grace relies on God to keep him going. Furthermore, we won't be praising God on a day-to-day basis for all that we ought to be praising him for. He saved us and we ought to be thanking him for our conversion and for the fact that each day he keeps us in grace just as much as we thank him for sending his son to die for our sins. But it will only be 50 percent of the praise we ought to offer if we don't appreciate that it was he who saved us by bringing us to faith.
MR: So this is something really practical for the Christian and not something that should be left in the seminary classroom for theological debate?
Packer: Oh, indeed no. I am not saying that we ought, when we preach and teach in local churches, to be drilling people in the basics of historical theology with all of its technical terms. But when it comes to the nitty gritty of practical Christianity, we certainly ought to be teaching people that all grace is God's free gift, and that none of it is earned. We also ought to teach that all Christian life is the fruit of God's grace, none of which is our contribution. God has taken us in hand, God has chosen to save us, and we ought to be very thankful. This doctrine of election is a matter for worship rather than for debate and argument and it is only human pride, incidentally, that keeps people debating and arguing about it because deep down within us we want to be able to say, "Well, I saved myself at one point anyway. I did contribute something." The Christian can't say that, however. God has humbled him beyond that point, but that humility is part of his happiness actually. When the Christian knows that he can trust a faithful God he is suddenly liberated from the need to keep everything going by his own effort and he is free and joyful in the Lord and the paradox is that he then worships more wholeheartedly and runs faster in obedience. This doctrine which sounds as if it ought to impede human effort does in actual fact lead folk to run that much more vigorously in the path of obedience because they know how much they owe to God.
MR: Dr. Packer, if this doctrine is true, is there any reason to believe that the gospel invitation is genuine?
Packer: Yes there is. The most obvious and basic reason is that Christ died to guarantee the truth of the gospel invitation, and the promise of salvation attached to it, wherever that gospel invitation goes. In other words, everybody who hears the word of invitation from God, "Who so ever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely..." or, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life...", can be sure that because Christ died, that word is true for him. So the decision he makes in response to or disregard for that word really is the decisive decision for his destiny. There is nothing phony about the gospel offer. It is true for everyone who hears it. And the death of Christ guaranteed that that was so. The gospel is to go to all the world, and that means that all the world is to be invited to receive eternal life.
MR: But how can you reconcile "God so loved the world..." with the idea that God elects to save some but not others?
Packer: We have to understand that "world" in the Scriptures is a word which is sometimes used not statistically for the world in all its numbers, such as x billions of people, but for the world in its moral quality, that is, the world in all its badness. When it says that Christ is the Savior of the world, part of the thought at any rate is that Christ saves men out of every race and kindred and tribe and tongue in all their badness and rebellion against God.
MR: Doesn't a doctrine like this help us to get beyond the shallow evangelism of the contemporary church?
Packer: Yes, there is certainly more to Christianity than the Jesus trip.