Sometimes a person will give evidence of saving faith in Jesus Christ only to abandon the faith altogether a decade later. These situations are perplexing. In the theological realm, the conversations quickly shift toward apostasy and whether or not one can lose his or her salvation. Only God knows who belongs to him and who doesn’t (2 Timothy 2:19). But from a human perspective, we will better make sense of those who desert the faith once we understand the difference between historical election and eternal election.
In his excellent book, The Doctrine of God, John Frame writes about the two different elections cited above. Election means “choice.” Other words or expressions that come to mind when we think of election, as Frame includes, are: choose, set apart, prepare beforehand, and so on. You get the idea. But chosen and set apart for what?
Historical election teaches that certain people can be chosen for specific tasks, usually ministerial in nature, without receiving the blessings of saving grace. Plainer: Sometimes God uses people in ministry whom he doesn’t intend to save eternally. As Frame says, “God’s election of people for his service does not necessarily imply that those people will finally receive the blessings of salvation” (317).
An Old Testament example is Saul. God chooses him for high-level leadership positions, but Saul fails to endure in the faith. “Scripture does not affirm that Saul died in fellowship with God; it leaves his personal salvation uncertain” (317). Or think of Judas of Iscariot. He was one of the twelve original disciples. In fact, Judas even preached, received power and authority from Jesus, and proclaimed the kingdom of God (Luke 9:1-12). And yet, despite Jesus’s choice of Judas as one of the original twelve and Judas’s involvement in ministry for a season, Judas betrays Jesus and is known as one of the biggest enemies of God in all of Scripture.
What we can learn from Saul and Judas (along with many other examples in Scripture) and some who walk away from Jesus after doing ministry in his name for a season is that just because one is influential for the Christian faith for a period, doesn’t mean they have received the benefits of salvation. Just because God uses someone doesn’t mean he’s pleased with them, for the brilliance and power of God is such that he is able to use the reprobate to advance his kingdom agenda.
So this is one way to think about someone who seems to bear fruit for a season but eventually walks away from the faith. They may be historically elected, but not eternally elected. We can’t say for sure because only God knows the heart and that person may repent in private without us knowing about it. But Frame’s outline of historical election at least gives language to these sorts of bizarre and painful examples.
“But in Scripture,” Frame adds, “there is also an election that cannot be lost and that is not at all conditioned on human faithfulness or works” (325). This is the election that most of us think about when we think about the doctrine of election, the election that Paul describes at length in Ephesians 1, among other places, where Paul says that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world,” (Ephesians 1:4). Eternal election describes people who receive the benefits of salvation. It describes people who are truly, eternally saved.
Apostasy and spiritual abandonment doesn’t always make sense to the human mind, but differentiating between historical election and eternal election at least provides some kind of structure to help us better grasp what happened when someone leaves the faith.
This discussion should not make the faithful feel paranoid. While someone else’s fall is a good time for self-reflection, we need not be overly self-introspective. We should, instead, look to Jesus, seek to grow in holiness, and remember that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).