Who Will Be Saved and Who Could Have Been?

The Bible is a considerably large body of knowledge, still there are times when I think, “So little information and so many questions.” I wish the Bible gave me more on a specific topic, but I and everybody else are left with a mystery.

Today’s mystery for your consideration is a seeming contradiction within the pages of Scripture. One set of passages seem to suggest that God will only save a rather small minority of people which He foreknew. Another set of passages seem to suggest that God wants all to be saved and that there is hope that over time a significant portion of those people can be saved. Those are opposing views at least on the surface. They have given birth to different theological traditions with different approaches to ministry. I believe that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. Apparent contradictions are just failures to understand. How do these passages come together?

Here are some of the passages that suggest a very limited salvation:

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matthew 7:13-14

Jesus doesn’t just give good news. This is arguably the worst news from his mouth. Another to consider:

 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
    eyes that would not see
    and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”

Romans 11:6-8

This passage contains the term “elect”. The elect are those God chooses for eternal life and actually foreknows before the creation of the world. Here, speaking specifically about certain generations among the Jews, it also speaks of God shutting down or at least not opening up these people to saving faith.

There are more passages like these, but for the sake of brevity, let’s show some of the opposite.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

The 2 Peter passage has always bothered me. If Matthew 7 above is true, aren’t we not sending more people to damnation the longer God let’s this world move on? Also, does God really desire everyone to be saved when he clearly declared that certain groups of people had crossed a line and would never be included?

The Apostle Paul, author of two of these passages on either side of this issue, declares at one point, “The mystery of faith is great”. Even he struggled to understand how this all goes together. So we should set our expectations of full understanding rather low.

Here are the parts that can be drawn from this mystery. God never created human beings to damn a portion of them. He takes no pleasure in doing it. God is a being who strongly abides by his own law. He doesn’t compromise it because he can. As such, the giving of a truly free will to our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, has resulted in billions of people who cannot know or believe God at all on our own. Further, the majority will not come into a necessary faith in God’s Son even with the help of God’s Holy Spirit. Why not? I know not.

Certain generations or people groups have proven so corrupt and provocative to God that God has declared that he would not even try with them. These blanket disownings are found in the Old Testament, but the main one affecting certain Jews persists until Jesus’ time at least. This suggests that the problem could be genetic at the core of it.

The toughest thing to wrap your mind around is how can God foreknow and call “elect” those who will be saved before the creation of the world and in “real time” act and ask us to act as though anybody and everybody can be saved? This where we have to admit that we cannot fathom what it is like to be God.

It is pretty clear from Scripture that people will be damned even though Jesus died for everyone’s sin. The breakdown in saving everyone comes in making the connection between people and Jesus. Forming that bond has its limits. The result is significant losses and even though it deeply grieves God and everybody who cares, God will not use his unlimited power to fix this.

It is not right to develop a form of fatalism in response to the first set of passages I quoted. Unlike God, I do not know who will believe the promise that a person can have eternal life with God and immediate forgiveness of their sinfulness simply by believing God’s promise and baptism into Jesus’ death. I will only continue to proclaim this to people because I care about them and hope that they can believe.

The way God dealt with the problem of human sin through Jesus was a surprise. Maybe God still has another surprise to deal with unbelief.

May you be one of the elect.

Author: tdwenig

Tom is the Senior Pastor of the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Evansville, IN. He has served his congregation since 2000. He has a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO

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