The Second Sunday in Lent

March 4, 2012

“The Election of Grace and Faith”

St. Matthew 15:21-28


Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed."  But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she cries out after us."  But He answered and said, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, "Lord, help me!"  But He answered and said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs."  And she said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."  Then Jesus answered and said to her, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire."  And her daughter was healed from that very hour. St. Matthew 15:21-28



One of the most comforting teachings of God’s Word is also one of the most controversial and most widely rejected.  I’m talking about the doctrine of election.  The doctrine of election is the doctrine that God chooses his children.  He chooses them in Christ.  He chooses them purely out of his fatherly grace.  He chooses them in eternity.


To elect means to choose.  When God chooses his children he elects them.  We tend to think of elections as events where many people vote and the majority rules.  When it comes to the biblical teaching of election, God is the only one who votes and his vote is final.


God elected Israel.  God knows why.  He called Abraham out of the land of Ur and led him to the Promised Land.  He promised the land to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.  He promised that they would be a great nation.  He promised to be faithful to that nation and he was.  He sent his Son to redeem that nation, that people, God’s chosen people.


So here is Jesus, God’s own Son, sent by God to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  God chose Israel for Christ’s sake.  Christ was sent to Israel.  God does the choosing and God does the sending.  It is God’s grace, after all.  It is divine favor.  It is God’s undeserved love.  It is kindness beyond any human expectation of it.  It is grace – G-R-A-C-E – God’s riches at Christ’s expense.  And Jesus is the Christ, the Son of David.  He has come to keep the promise God gave to the house of Israel.


He goes through Gentile territory, near the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon.  These are not God’s chosen people.  They are heathen.  They are idol worshippers.  They don’t know God or serve him.  They are not the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  They are outside of the house of Israel and therefore they are outside of God election, and since God’s grace is always expressed in God choosing his children, they are outside of God’s grace.


But this woman has a different approach to theology.  It’s not that she denies the doctrine of election.  Nobody with any respect for God and his grace would think of doing that!  It’s rather that it doesn’t occur to her that she isn’t one of the elect.  She must be.  Why?  Because she needs God’s mercy, that’s why!


The Canaanite woman understood the difference between the true monotheistic religion of Israel and the false polytheistic religion of her own people.  The worship of idols is the worship of demons.  To fall down before a false god and adore him is to give your loyalty to the devil himself, who rules over the demons.  This woman’s daughter was possessed by such a demon and was in terrible pain.


But the woman’s faith was not just an affirmation of monotheism over polytheism.  She knew that God’s grace is for everyone.  She didn’t deny or even question the doctrine of election.  But neither did she leap from it to the false conclusion that perhaps God would not be gracious to her.


How could God not be gracious to her?  His Son was standing there.  God’s eternal, only begotten Son has come into this world.  She knew he was the Lord.  She knew he was the Son of David.  She knew he was true God and true man.  She knew that he was full of grace and mercy.  She knew, therefore, that he wanted to help her.


Jesus had already proven his power.  He had healed diseases, stilled a storm, walked on water, cast out demons, and shown to the world that he was God in the flesh with almighty power to rescue sinners from every misery that sin brings upon them.  Jesus had shown his power.


And Jesus had shown his willingness to help those in need.  He was gracious and merciful.  The woman needed grace and mercy.  So she went to Jesus for his help.


Note how the conversation progresses.  It begins by Jesus ignoring her.  His disciples appear to be somewhat embarrassed by the scene she is causing.  They ask Jesus to send her away, presumably by giving her what she is asking for.  But Jesus argues that he was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.


Now this woman is a Canaanite.  The most obvious implication of Jesus’ words is that Jesus was not sent to help her.  It certainly appears that the doctrine of election excludes her.  She is not elect.  She hears the words of divine and gracious election that appear to exclude her.  She is not of Israel, therefore she is not elect.


If this woman were a typical American Protestant, she would respond to Jesus’ apparent rejection by denying the doctrine of election.  But she wouldn’t dare.  She would dare to plead for mercy in the face of apparent rejection.  She is no coward.  When Jesus appears to dismiss her by saying that it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs, she dares to latch on to Jesus’ words and claim the status of a dog.  She dares to humble herself.  She dares to beg.  She dares to hold God to his very words and not let him go.  What a daring woman she is!  What a daring faith she has!  But she would not dare contradict God’s word.  She would not dare call into question the doctrine of God’s gracious election of his children.


What a wonderful lesson she teaches us.  Jesus praised her faith, not for her sake, but for ours who hear this account read to us year after year after year and see in this woman the answer to the most vexing theological problem we will ever have to face.


They call it the theologian’s cross because it is a contradiction in God’s word.  God can’t contradict himself so there can be no real contradiction in what he says but there is an apparent contradiction that leads many to deny what God clearly teaches. 


Here is the apparent contradiction.  On the one hand the Bible teaches that a sinner is saved by grace alone, without any contribution of his own will or works.  God simply chooses to be gracious to the sinner for Christ’s sake.  Indeed, it is a one way street.  The doctrine of grace alone is the doctrine of election.  God chooses.  God elects.  The reason the sinner is saved is because God chose to save him.  He chose him in Christ; it was for Christ’s sake.  It was on account of Christ’s vicarious suffering and death.  And God chose the sinner from eternity.  It is an eternal election of grace.


On the other hand, the Bible teaches that God wants all people to be saved.  God’s grace is universal.  No one is excluded from it.  God loves everyone.  Jesus died for everyone.  Since Jesus assumed our human nature he redeemed all of humanity.  Since God loves the whole world he invites the whole world to salvation and his grace is sincerely intended for all people without exception.


Why are some saved and others lost?  We cannot say.  If someone believes it is because God brought him to faith.  That’s grace alone.  If someone does not believe it is his own fault and not because God didn’t want to save him.  That’s universal grace.


We must hold firmly to both teachings.  If we are saved it is because of God’s grace.  He chose us.  We did not choose him.  He elected us.  We did not elect him.  And we must insist that God loves all people and wants to save all people.  If someone is damned it is his own fault.  It is not God’s fault.  God gets all the credit for the salvation of a sinner.  The sinner gets all the blame for his damnation. 


Grace alone is true.  I take no credit at all for the fact that I am a Christian and have a Savior in Jesus.  Universal grace is true.  I know that God loves me and forgives me and is gracious to me because God loves, forgives, and is gracious to all.


The theologian’s cross cannot be resolved within a neat and tidy theological system.  Protestants are divided between those who affirm grace alone and deny universal grace and those who affirm universal grace and deny grace alone.  We must insist on affirming both.  If you are saved it is not because of your choosing God, it is because God graciously chose you in Christ to be his child before time began.  And God sincerely desires the salvation of all sinners.  Why do some believe?  They believe because God graciously chose them.  Why do some refuse to believe?  They refuse to believe because of their own perverse and wicked will.


It looked like the doctrine of God’s gracious election of his children excluded that poor Canaanite woman.  Jesus came for the chosen people.  She wasn’t chosen.  There!  Take that, you heathen.  God hasn’t chosen you.  You aren’t his child.  You can’t rely on his grace.  You are a dog.


Yes, Lord.  She agreed.  Call me a dog.  I’ll claim what any dog would claim.  You can’t deny the dog the crumbs that fall from the table.  To what does the woman appeal?  She appeals to God’s grace.  She won’t be denied.  She won’t be ignored.  She won’t be humiliated.  She’ll face down the denial and endure the humiliation for the sake of obtaining what God graciously gives.


And what was she?  Tell me.  Was she a dog?  No!  She was a child!  She was a true child of God.  She was more a child of Israel than anyone in Israel.  She was elect.  She was chosen by God.  From eternity God saw her in her need.  God saw her daughter’s pain.  God loved her in her sin and weakness.  God chose to deliver her and her daughter in his boundless grace.


Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but these lost sheep aren’t just of one race or tribe or people or language.  They are all over the world.  They are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy.  Have you cried out for mercy to the Lord Jesus?  Are you trusting in the blood he shed for you on the cross to take away your sins?  Do you believe that he will deliver you from every evil, from death, and from the power of the devil?  Are you listening to his voice in his gospel and sacraments and claiming for yourself what he promises?  Then know this.  Your faith is no accident and it is no passing notion.  God chose you in Christ to be his dear child before time began and he will keep you as his child forever and ever.  Amen