How God Decides

God will welcome many to his glory in eternity. Yet this good news touches a sensitive issue: it’s clear from the Bible that God draws some—but not all—to join him.

So how does he make his choices?

Does he measure the quality of human conduct, as in a naughty versus nice equation? Or before creation did he foresee those who, by grace, would behave well enough to please him? Or are his choices strictly arbitrary—disconnected from anything in us?

Debates about this were lively in seminary both when I was a student and when I taught. And the various assumptions and answers in the debates usually seemed Bible-thin. Yet in my Bible reading the question never seems to have troubled the writers—or the Spirit who guided them.

In my reading this morning, for instance, I came to the contrasts between Saul and David in 1 Samuel. On the one hand Saul was chosen by God and then rejected; and then David was also chosen but he stayed chosen and was eventually elevated to the highest standing imaginable.

What’s going on here?

Let’s look at Saul first. As context the text alerts readers to a value conflict: God preferred to lead his people by using spiritual guides—“judges”—but Israel wanted kings instead. A king in that era was always a dominant military-political leader: someone who could form and lead successful armies. In the imagery of a pyramid-based society the king was the peak figure: bigger, stronger, wealthier, and wiser than all the other warriors around him.

So God gave the people what they wanted. Saul was born to “a man of wealth” (1 Sam. 9:1). What’s more, “There was not a man among the people more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.”

Yet as the story of Saul unfolds we find a man who initially vacillates between weakness and strength. He then hardens and turns into a rigid leader. But his firmness is self-centered rather than God-centered—despite his still doing many God-related activities.

The discriminating feature was Saul’s pragmatic disregard for God’s word—he would pick and chose what he wanted to obey. And another value shaped his choices: “behold, [Saul] set up a monument to himself” (1 Sam. 15:12).

So the prophet-judge Samuel confronted him on the core issue: “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God” (13:13). And, in a separate violation of trust, “you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel” (15:26).

It seems that in Saul God selected what the people wanted: a self-concerned king for a self-concerned people. For both the nation and their king God was just a useful resource. Saul was devoted, ultimately, not to God but to monument building and to his personal security.

So what about David?

The narrative offers a preview in the setting just noted—in 13:14—“The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart.” Yet this man, David, isn’t identified until chapter 16. And there God’s choice startled both Samuel and David’s own family!

This selection was what we might call ‘un-pyramid-like’—or, better, a divine reversal of human expectations. Instead of finding a man with a commanding presence, God chose a castaway son—the youngest boy of eight who was relegated to shepherding chores.

Once again the defining issue in the moment of selection was David’s heart. He told Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature [speaking of David’s impressive-looking older brother, Eliab], because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (16:7).

In the next chapter we discover what a God-centered-heart looks like when David confronted the giant Goliath. This despite the scorn of his outwardly impressive brother, Eliab, who chastised David for leaving “those few sheep in the wilderness.” But David wasn’t daunted by the question of birth-order or appearances. His heart had a different focus.

David was, in fact, upset by the giant’s arrogance. Goliath was a man—who just happened to be gigantic—ready to “defy the armies of the living God” and who needed to “know that there is a God in Israel!” (17:26&46). David’s focus was on God and not on human issues: “I come to you [Goliath] in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”

There’s a pattern here. Let’s trace the language of rejection. Saul was all about outward appearances and status; and in the process he rejected parts of God’s word. So God rejected him.

So, too, Eliab—who had seen his younger brother chosen and anointed by Samuel because of his heart for God—was angry with David for challenging Goliath who was, by the way, challenging God and his armies! Why, we ask, didn’t Eliab challenge Goliath instead of David?

In this account, then, God has an eye for hearts. So let’s extend the point: he created all of us, but who among us responds to him? In the Bible we find that no one is ever forced to love him. Yet he loved the world and sent his Son to express that love. But humanity, without exception, despises his love in favor of loving “darkness rather than light” (in John 3). Adam’s enduring ambition to be godlike always distracts us.

Yet in some hearts—mainly among the humbled, least godlike, sorts—he persists and draws a response. He woos humbled hearts with his humble words. And his word always offers the Son as its ultimate focus—as in Psalm 2. And as in the gospel portrayal of a crucified king.

So do we have an answer here to how God decides? Could it be that many are called but few are chosen? That he choses those whom he knows will eventually respond to his winsome love? And that even before the creation he knows whose hearts will be most tender in a fallen, proud world? Perhaps the poor, the weak, the lame, and the unlikely shepherd boys?

I think we may have the biblical answer.



  1. Rick

    Ron, as usual you stir my thoughts, although on this topic they may differ from yours a little.

    What if ‘when God gave the people what they wanted’ in reference to Saul; a king instead of a judge to rule, God also wanted Saul to be king, but for a completely different reason (in other words, what if God was the ultimate causation in that choice, using the sinful desires of His people to bring about His purposes?) What if He also wanted to give them David, a shepherd to be king (and eventually the King of Kings – the one true shepherd Jesus), but He first had to give them Saul to get to David (and Jesus)? I think God decides (all things) according to His ultimate purposes and plans – some revealed and many hidden to us. And I think it’s also true as it relates to salvation.

    If you mean by the following sentence that prior to regeneration someone’s heart (nature, being) is substantively different than another’s as it relates to their sinfulness and falleness: “And that even before the creation he knows whose hearts will be most tender in a fallen, proud world?” – I would have to disagree – scripture seems to indicate that all have fallen short, no one seeks after God, all our dead in sin etc.A ‘most tender’ sinful nature needs the same atoning sacrifice as proud, hardened sinful nature.

    I think if some of His elect are poor, weak, lame and unlikely shepherd boys; that too is His doing in making them vessels of mercy and not wrath (afterall, He knit them together, appointed where and when they would be born and to whom etc.) Another Saul (Paul) doesn’t seem to fit this category (poor, lame etc.), nor does it mean that because one is poor, weak, lame and an unlikely shepherd boy that they will be one of His elect – they may be poor or lame and a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction, but with a purpose of fulfilling His desire to show His wrath and to make known His power (note: I’m not saying that this is what you are saying, just commenting on the topic).

    The Potter has the right to make out of the same lump of clay one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonerable use – we are all subject to the Potters decisions (and I would understand this text as referring to election/salvation).

    I think I can say that I would not have loved God apart from Him first loving me. Apart from Him regenerating me and making me a new creature in Christ, making me alive when I was dead – I would not have loved Him. Did He ‘force’ me to love Him? No, but he did have to recreate me (renew me, make me to be born again, regenerate me) so I could (and would) love Him – He had to give me a new heart and a new spirit, a heart of flesh and remove my heart of stone – and apart from Him doing that, I would never have loved Him.

    So maybe we see God a little differently on this topic, but I am always challenged in my thinking and pondering when I read your posts.

  2. R N Frost

    Thanks for engaging this, Rick.

    I know I’m not tracking with some deeply rooted traditions here, but I think it’s crucial to hear the broad thrust of Scripture and even the particular texts I’ve used. Their face-value content is usually crushed by theological axioms. As in treating “heart” as something other than the center of all our motives, i.e. of what we love and the basis for all our motives. I just don’t see Stoicism in the Bible.

    I’m happy to affirm God’s rule over all things from beginning to end; and total human sin … just as the Bible does (and notice that I’ve honored that in what I wrote). I also see God displacing Saul with David according to his great plan (as anticipated in Genesis, Micah, Ruth, etc.). But, to go to the crux issue here, I see God’s love as something humans can resist today, just as much as Adam did in the Garden. And God created us knowing that we would all sin and explore the love of self that defines sin.

    What I think we’re missing is that those who most resist God’s love are those who are most ‘successful’ in trying to ‘be like God.’ E.g. the Rich Ruler who walked away from Christ who “loved him.”

    So your example of Saul/Paul is intriguing because he actually sees himself on the “foolish” side of the election debate in 1 Cor 1. And he treats God’s love in Christ as his basis for new life in 2 Cor. 5.

    My point is to invite a reading of Scriptures that listens to how love defines our status. It’s what I’m seeing in my Bible reading: as a loud, clear, and regularly portrayed theme.

  3. Rick

    Thanks Ron. I think most of what I replied with is rooted in scripture (although I didn’t use chapter/verses), but I know you would be familiar with where they are located. And it seems like these issues are within the broad thrust of scripture (i.e. Romans 9 is very much rooted in much of the O.T., as well as N.T. references to ‘election’).

    I agree that ‘humans can resist God’s love today’, but I would go one step further and say that until they are regenerated they ‘will resist God’s love’. Again, according to scripture, they are dead in their sins, not seeking God etc.

    I think because we are all (prior to salvation) ‘in Adam’ and trying to ‘be like God’ and even as believer’s anytime we sin and walk/live according to the flesh we are still trying to ‘be like God’ – which I think really is the sin beneath all sins. Thanks again for stirring thoughts.

  4. R N Frost

    To be clear, Rick, I don’t dismiss Romans 9. My blog isn’t an attempt to debate election and predestination – both of which i embrace. Instead I’m reflecting on how the heart is critical in God’s choosing us. Saul and David are timeless illustrations of this.

    It’s important. Many Bible readers today aren’t sensitive to an affective or heart-based reading of the Bible even when the theme is as clear as it is in 1 Samuel. There are reasons for this – which I’m not chasing here but I do explore in my academic writings.

    As for regeneration I agree with you that it’s critical. So let’s turn to John 3 where Jesus affirmed it. The word is theo-jargon for what Jesus spoke of as being “born again” or “born from above” by the coming of the Spirit. So it’s really all about “who” rather than “what.” He, the Spirit, comes to each soul (or so I believe) at some point and offers God’s love: “For God so loved the world…” But the problem, again, is affective – “but men loved darkness rather than light” because of their active preference for evil.

    And so on. Romans 5:5, for instance, sets up Romans 7, 8, and 9 if we pay attention to the issues of the heart.

    So I hoped to stir some thoughts. Thanks for offering your own here!

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