Favor vs. Favoritism in the bible.
One of the earliest writings in the New Testament is the letter by James to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” a way of referring to the Christian Church that was scattered throughout Asia Minor by the persecution of Christians in the early 40’s A.D. in Jerusalem. It was most likely intended to be read among many congregations to address issues that were becoming problematic in all the churches. One of the issues he addresses is favoritism, the giving of special attention to someone because of his position, his influence of his wealth.
In the first verse of chapter 2, James warns against showing favoritism. He writes, My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. (James 2:1, ESV). While we can understand the fallen human inclination to show favor to those we think might give something in return, isn’t God showing a form of favoritism in His election of only some of humanity for salvation? Some have suggested so. Let’s look closely at this issue and see why it is that God’s electing grace is not favoritism.
The favoritism James warns against in James 2:1-4 is different in every way from the favor God shows in choosing to save some but not all humans. God’s choosing people for salvation by the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) begins in Genesis 3:15 with the promise to Adam and Eve of a Savior. His favor begins to take further shape in Genesis 4:25 with the birth of Seth to Adam and Eve. Cain, their firstborn was banished for the murder of his brother Abel. So when sin seemed to have one, hope returned with the birth of Seth. He began again the God fearing ancestral line that would run through Noah, and ultimately to the promised Messiah (Genesis 5:28).
In the days of Noah, the increasing corruption on the earth resulted in God bringing judgment on all mankind. But God, being rich in mercy showed favor toward Noah. Genesis 6:9 says Noah was righteous and walked with God, and Hebrews 11:7 explains that Noah’s faith was the basis for his righteousness and for that God showed him favor. God preserved Noah and his family through the water judgment so that the plan of God, announced in Genesis 3:15 would continue.
Of Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, God chose (favored) Shem. He alone was favored by being given faith to continue the ancestral line that would eventually lead to Jesus (Genesis 4:26). In Genesis 11:10-26 we read the list of Shem’s descendants. The list ends with Abram to whom God extended His favor by calling him out of a people and nation of idol worshippers in Ur and promising to make him a great nation (Genesis 12:2). That nation would be Israel, chosen by God; favored if you will, to be His people and the apple of His eye as Deuteronomy 32:10 makes clear. God also promised Abram offspring as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:5). Paul explains later in Galatians that the offspring promised to Abram are spiritual offspring (Galatians 3:28-29). So the favor of God toward Abram extended beyond a physical offspring and a physical land to a spiritual offspring that would include people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Romans 16:26; Galatians 3:8; Revelation 7:9).
From Abram, the list of God choosing some but not all continues. God favored Isaac, not Ishmael. He favored Jacob, not Esau, Moses, not Pharaoh, Judah, not Reuben, and on through history until God favored Mary, not some other woman, to be the mother of the Son of God. Notice how the angel Gabriel explains this to Mary. “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31–33, ESV)
The Bible clearly shows that God favors some and not all. But God’s “favor” is not sin where “favoritism” is as James rightly points out. Favoritism is when someone chooses a person or thing because of some perceived merit or worth. But as Paul says in Romans 3:23, where he quotes King David from Psalm 14:3 and 53:3, all people have sinned and fallen short of God’s righteous requirements. There is no human being who justly deserves God’s favor. Instead, all people deserve the wrath of God. But to some God, by His grace, chooses to give faith in Christ and the resulting righteousness that comes through faith.
This decision of God to choose some for salvation is not because of any inherent goodness in the person. It is simply God’s prerogative, and it demonstrates His unfathomable grace. It was a decision made in eternity past (Romans 8:29; Philippians 4:3; Revelation 20:12) by the Father, who gave His Son a gift consisting of a subset of fallen humanity to redeem by His atoning death. All those given to Jesus receive the perfect righteousness of the Son through faith alone. By this they are qualified for God’s eternal kingdom (John 6:37, 44, 53; 8:47; 10:26; 13:18; 15:16; 17:9, 24; 1 Corinthians 15:23-28; Ephesians 2:8).
These Bible truths are centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This objective fact is the Gospel. We struggle because God’s decision to choose some but not all seems unfair but only because we have a corrupted sense of “fairness.” If God were to be fair, all would perish. Fortunately, God is just and also gracious.
Whether we accept this doctrine of election or not doesn’t change the Bible’s central message about a Savior promised by and sent from God the Father who humbled Himself by taking on the flesh of humanity as the “last Adam.” As fully human He fulfilled the Father’s requirement for righteousness where Adam failed. As fully God, He was able to bear the wrath of the Father for the sins of those He was saving. So as Adam brought death to all, Christ brings life to all who trust in Him (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). His sinless life qualified Him to be the final “Passover Lamb” so that all who believe in Him will not face the final judgment. His resurrection from the grave and His enthronement at the right hand of the Father is proof that the Father was satisfied by the work of His Son (Daniel 7:13-14; Revelation 11:15).
This redemption accomplished by Christ is the meta-narrative; the main story of the Bible. And central to the redemptive story is a God who is sovereign over all things, including the freely made choices of men and women to do good and to do evil.
Here is how Peter explained God’s sovereign control. “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:22–24, ESV).
It’s important to recognize that these truths are not the ultimate favoritism. Instead, what we have here is the ultimate in favor by a God who so loved the world that He gave His only Son to redeem a world that was absolutely unlovable to a perfectly holy God. This is grace writ large; grace that is unmerited favor, not favoritism. The doctrine of election is not a form of sinful favoritism, it is the ultimate expression of love and is biblical to its core.
When we drive this message into the very center of our hearts, our response is to love and obey God and Christ more and more, which we can do through the power of His Spirit. In this way, we confirm the favor, not favoritism, which He has shown us in our election for salvation. May God be glorified in each of us His children.