Does God Play Favorites?
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Have you ever seen someone play favorites based on a person's appearance, bank account, employment, or some other factor—and you weren’t the chosen one? It’s not a good feeling.
Favoritism is nothing new under the sun, and it most certainly was an issue in the early church (James 2:1-4). If favoritism is bad, why do we find numerous passages in the Bible where God clearly favors some people over others, even in the matter of salvation? In his greeting to the Ephesian church, the apostle Paul states:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. (Eph. 1:3-5)
Is God showing a form of favoritism in his election of only some of humanity for salvation? Let’s look closely at this issue and see why God’s electing grace is not favoritism.
James on Favoritism
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 due to the persecution of Christians circa AD 40 in Jerusalem. James’s letter was most likely intended to be read among many congregations to address issues that were becoming problematic in all the churches, one being favoritism—the giving of special attention to people because of their position, influence, or wealth.
In the first verse of chapter two, James warns believers 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). James is concerned about us, and he denounces this practice as one that should never be characteristic of God’s children. He goes on to write:
For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)
God’s Favor versus 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. The salvation God graciously provides by the gift of faith (Eph. 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. Even though sin seems to have won when Adam and Eve’s firstborn, Cain, murders his brother Abel, hope returns in Seth through whom the God-fearing ancestral line would run to the promised Messiah.
In the days of Noah, the increasing corruption on the earth results in God bringing judgment on all mankind. Yet, God, being rich in mercy, shows favor toward Noah (Gen. 6:9-22). God preserves 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 chooses Shem, who alone is favored by being given faith to continue the ancestral line that would eventually lead to Jesus (Gen. 4:26). In Genesis 11:10-26, we read the list of Shem’s descendants. The list ends with Abram to whom God extends His favor by calling him out of a people and nation of idol worshippers in Ur and promising to make him a great nation (Gen. 12:2). That nation would be Israel, chosen by God (favored if you will) to be his people and the apple of his eye (Deut. 32:10).
God also promises Abram offspring as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5). Paul explains later in Galatians that the offspring promised to Abram are spiritual offspring (Gal. 3:28-29). So the favor of God toward Abram extends beyond a physical offspring and a physical land to a spiritual offspring that would include people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rom. 16:26; Gal. 3:8; Rev. 7:9).
From Abram going forward, God continues to choose some but not all. God favors Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; Moses, not Pharaoh; Judah, not Reuben, and on through history until God favors Mary—not any 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)
God’s Favor Is Grace
The Bible clearly shows that God favors some and not all. But God’s “favor” is not sin, where “favoritism” is indeed sin, as James rightly points out. Favoritism is when someone chooses a person or thing because of some perceived merit, worth, or bias; but, as Paul declares in Romans 3:23, 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. Yet, God, by his grace, chooses to give some people faith in Christ and the resulting righteousness that comes through this faith. This reality was as much in play in Israel’s history as it is today.
The 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 (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 20:12) by the Father, who gave his Son a kingdom and a people as a reward for his finished work of redemption by his perfect obedience and atoning sacrifice. All those given to Jesus receive the perfect righteousness of the Son through faith alone by God’s grace alone (John 6:37, 44; 10:26; Eph. 2:8-9). By this, they are qualified for God’s eternal kingdom (John 15:16; 17:9, 24; 1 Cor. 15:23-28).
If God Were to Be Fair, All Would Perish
These biblical 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 this is only because we have a corrupted sense of “fairness.” If God were to be fair, all would perish. Thankfully, 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 to save a people—a Savior who humbled Himself by taking on the flesh of humanity as the “last Adam.” As fully human, Jesus fulfilled the Father’s requirement for righteousness where Adam failed. As fully God, Jesus 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 Cor. 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 (Dan. 7:13-14; Rev. 11:15).
We Find God’s Never-Ceasing Favor in Christ Alone
This redemption accomplished by Christ is the metanarrative—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).
It’s important to recognize that these truths are not the ultimate favoritism but rather the ultimate in favor by a God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son to redeem people who were absolutely unlovable to a perfectly holy God. This is grace that fills us with its never-ceasing comfort—grace that is unmerited favor, not favoritism. Far from being a form of sinful preference, the doctrine of election is the ultimate expression of love and is biblical to its core.
When we drive this message into the very center of our hearts—the message of a Savior sent to redeem a sinful undeserving people—our response is to love and obey God and Christ more and more, which we do through the power of his Spirit. In this way, we confirm the favor—not favoritism—that he has shown us in our election for salvation. May God be glorified in each of us, his children.
Don Strand holds a Master of Arts in Theology, is an ordained minister, and serves his local church as elder, teacher, and worship leader.
Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J. I. Packard; foreword by Mark Dever