Second Sunday in Lent
February 17, 2008
“God’s Gracious Election and the Prayer of 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.
God chose Abraham. God knows why. He won’t tell us why he does what he does. Divine grace is impenetrable. Who has known the mind of the Lord? Who can explain the heart of God? Who can delve into its inner recesses and define it for us? God is love. And God’s love is very specific. God chooses specific people.
God chose Abraham. He called him out of the land of Ur. He called him out of the idolatry he inherited from his fathers. God chose Isaac. Isaac was the child of promise. God chose the one whom he promised not the one who had legal primacy. God chose Jacob, though Esau was born first. He said that the older would serve the younger and so it was. God’s gracious choice cannot be questioned. If you question God’s election of grace you question grace altogether. The very nature of grace is that it is entirely God’s doing and choosing. Grace does not depend on us. It depends on God.
Listen to what God said to his chosen people of old, the nation descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We read in Deuteronomy 7, 6-8:
For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Grace alone determines it. It does not depend on us. It depends on God. St. Paul explains in Romans 9, 16: “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” God graciously chooses his children. Jesus said to his disciples as recorded in John 15, 16: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” As we sing in the hymn:
Lord, ‘tis not that I did choose thee
That I know could never be
For this heart would still refuse thee
Had thy grace not chosen me.
St. Paul teaches the doctrine of God’s election of grace in Romans 8, 28-30 where we read:
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
This is a tremendously comforting doctrine for us Christians. Many have denied God’s eternal election of grace because it contradicts human standards, which say that you get what you pay for. But God may not be judged by human standards. When God says that he has predestined his children to be conformed to the image of Christ this is a wonderful promise that ought not to be despised. Everything that God does in time for our salvation he gracious determined to do for us in Christ before time began. He knew us. For Christ’s sake, he predestined us to eternal life. He called us. He justified us. And he will surely glorify us with Christ. Why? Out of his boundless love in Christ Jesus our Savior, that’s why.
When we question our faith, suffer nagging doubts, and wonder if we can possibly stand firm as Christians, God reminds us that we stand by his grace alone. We see our weaknesses and our sins. God reminds us of his faithfulness. It was no accident that made us Christians. It was the eternal gracious decree of our loving Father. Jesus is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Even so, the Holy Christian Church is elected in Jesus Christ from the foundation of the world.
Sinners who know their weakness and desire God’s gracious forgiveness find great comfort in this precious teaching. Those who despise God’s grace and trust instead in themselves, whether it be their piety, their obedience, their choosing, their running, their persevering, or their faithfulness, reject this teaching.
Sinners think that God’s election of grace is unfair. What impertinence! That the sinner should judge the grace of God! But this is what sinners do. They despise what they cannot understand.
God’s grace is always for Christ’s sake. That God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendents after them was not on account of any racial bloodline, or on account of any of their spiritual accomplishments. It was always for the sake of Jesus, the true Son of God, and the Son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel because he wrestled with God. Jesus was an Israelite. He came for the people of Israel. He came for the lost sheep of Israel to call them back home. He came for those whom God had chosen. He came for his elect.
And this poor woman was not of Israel. She was a Gentile. She was not a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, God didn’t choose her. Therefore, Jesus has nothing to give her. He has come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It appears that God’s gracious election of his people is a cruel teaching after all. It has excluded her. She desperately needs what only Jesus can give but if she is not elected then Jesus did not come to help her.
She persists. Against the appearance that she is not one of God’s chosen and that she is shut out of the kingdom of God she persists in her faith. Because she knows something most theologians never learn. The doctrine of election is all about Jesus. It’s not about figuring out or explaining the inscrutable movements of God’s mind. It’s about Jesus. And note well that she never questions Jesus’ words, she does not argue with the doctrine of divine grace, and with the right of God to be gracious to whom he wills and to choose whom he wills. She does not let the unanswered and unanswerable questions that arise from the great mystery of divine election deter her. She won’t give up on Jesus. She falls down and worships him.
In response to her worship Jesus calls her a dog. It isn’t right to throw the food of the children to the little dogs. “Take that you Gentile! You don’t belong. You’re on the outside looking in. Yes, I have what you need. Yes, I can rescue your daughter from demon possession. But I don’t want to. You have no right to what I have to give because you don’t belong.”
But Jesus did not say this, did he? It appears as if he did, but he didn’t. Faith holds God to his word. Faith doesn’t go by appearances. It goes by the clear promises of God. If God didn’t promise it, faith does not claim it. But if God promised it, faith rests upon it and won’t take no for an answer. You say I’m a dog? Fine, I’m a dog. Now give me what a dog is entitled to! She takes Jesus at his literal word and holds him to what he has said. Faith reminds God of his promises and won’t stand on pride.
What had God promised? God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and made his covenant with them and their descendents. He graciously chose his people Israel – and no other nation – as his holy people. What had he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? To each in turn he promised, “In your seed, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” Standing before the Canaanite woman was the promised seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She called him, “Son of David,” confessing that he was the Christ, the promised Savior. In him is centered all of the gracious promises that God has ever given. This unlearned Gentile woman shows herself to be a master theologian by focusing single-mindedly on Jesus and claiming him as her Savior.
God’s grace is above and beyond our ability to grasp except by faith. The woman from Canaan was indeed one of God chosen. She was a true child of God. From eternity God knew her, loved her, chose her, and predestined her to be glorified with Christ and Christ’s Church in heaven. In time God called her and made her his child. We don’t live in eternity. We live in time. If we’ve never seen demon possession we can still understand this woman’s pain. We’ve seen those we love suffer. We’ve suffered with them. We’ve felt that our prayers have gone unanswered. It has appeared that the Lord Jesus has ignored us or denied us or wanted to be rid of us. But we don’t base our faith on appearances. Appearances can’t change God’s promises. From eternity to eternity our faithful God will deny us no good thing.
Jesus said, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” (John 6:37) Take him at his word and don’t give up praying in his name. Not only did he cast out the demons that were tormenting the Canaanite woman’s daughter, he went to the cross where he destroyed all demonic power. He bore all our sin in his body. He washed our sins away by his blood. We pray in Jesus’ name and by his invitation. God may try us. But he will never deny us.
Rolf D. Preus