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The Doctrine of Election

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Predestination and election are two words that in many circles cause a stir. The mere mention of these words often generates an atmosphere of suspicion, criticality, and defensiveness. Predestination and election, these are fighting words for many – but curiously not for the apostle Paul, or Peter, or James, or Luke or even Jesus for that matter. The words predestination, elect, and chosen are liberally distributed throughout the whole New Testament. In the Epistles we generally find election and predestination in the context of worship and in thanksgiving to God for his gracious salvation, not usually in polemics or elaborate defenses. In fact, the doctrine of election is even used casually at times, for example when addressing the churches: "to those who are elect" (1 Peter 1:1 ESV; cf. Titus 1:1, 2 John 1:1).[1] But sadly there are many today who are afraid to espouse the doctrine of election, relegating it to the sidelines of their theology, or worse even outright denying it. Those who have a basic knowledge of the Scriptures see that they cannot escape the many references to election and predestination. But still, far too many don't know what to do with these words. Perhaps some definitions and some brief sketches of the major positions would be helpful.

What is the doctrine of election? Simply stated, it is the biblical teaching that God chooses some people, before the creation of the world, to be saved.[2] The doctrine answers the questions, "How does someone come to be saved?", and "Why, ultimately, are some saved and others not?". The doctrine deals with the grounds of salvation for the believer. It is crucial to note that the Bible itself provides us with this doctrine. Election is not first and foremost a philosophical construct; it is a biblical teaching. It is because of this that most biblical scholars will affirm this doctrine at least on a basic level. However, not all affirmations are equal and some interpretations of election effectively undermine the doctrine. The positions on this issue generally divide into two, Conditional Election and Unconditional Election.

Positions on the Issue

The position that I will argue for is that of unconditional election: That God chooses, before the foundation of the world, to save certain persons, not because of anything worthy found in them, but based on his sovereign grace alone.[3] I will labor to show the biblical foundation for this doctrine, to give arguments for its coherence, and to address common objections to it. But first I will lay out a snapshot of both main views.

Conditional Election

Many throughout church history have held that divine election is conditional. But what exactly does that mean? Conditional upon what? In this view election is conditional upon the individual person's response to the gospel, namely in repentance and faith. This is the widely held Arminian view of election. In this view God elects those whom he foreknew would personally believe in Christ and continue in their faith.[4] God is pictured as looking down the corridors of time and observing how people will respond to the gospel, and those who respond positively God elects and those who reject his offer are not elected.[5] Simply put, God will choose those people whom he foresees will choose him.

The Arminian view seeks to protect the idea of the free will of man, and a sense of equity among all people. The idea of unconditional election is abhorrent to the Arminian because it implies that those who are saved could not have chosen otherwise, and those who are damned could not have escaped that damnation even if they tried. If people are fated to be either believers or unbelievers, this would imply that they do not have a truly free will. Additionally, the equity of God is championed in the conditional view by asserting that all people have an authentic opportunity to respond either positively or negatively to the gospel, and they will not be constrained one way or another by outside forces. It truly is their choice. This equal playing field is established by introducing the idea of Prevenient Grace. Prevenient Grace is a gift from God given to all people, which restores their ability to accept the offer of the gospel when it comes. Because of prevenient grace everyone is capable of believing the gospel without additional grace from God. The ball is in their court, so to speak.

The doctrine of election is explained then, not as God's plan for history, but as a recognition and affirmation of what certain persons will do freely by prevenient grace. Election is based on God's foreknowledge. This, the Arminian would say, is the idea that Paul expressed in Romans when he said, "for those whom he foreknew he also predestined" (Rom. 8:29). God elects those people whom he knows will receive his gospel when it is presented to them in due time. So in the Arminian perspective, election or predestination do not imply an actual predetermination of the actions of men, but just attest to God's omniscience in the affairs of men.

Unconditional Election

The doctrine of unconditional election has been a major tenet of Calvinistic theology or Reformed theology. It is the teaching that God elects certain persons before the creation of the world unto salvation. God chooses them, that is he predestines them, to be saved. In the reformed view, there is no attempt to base election on God's foreknowledge of what people will do. Election is based only on God's sovereign will and pleasure, his sheer grace. This is what makes election unconditional; it is not conditioned on anything that God sees in man.

The doctrine of unconditional election is often argued first and foremost from Scripture and secondarily through philosophy. The biblical material is of the utmost importance in the argument for unconditional election. The doctrine is not believed because it is palatable, attractive, easy to grasp, or flattering; no, it is believed because it is eminently biblical. Indeed, the doctrine of unconditional election is quite humbling, hard to grasp, repulsive to sinful hearts, and not immediately appealing to most who first hear it. The case for unconditional election is therefore, first and foremost made from the Scriptures. Proponents of unconditional election also challenge the notion of prevenient grace as unbiblical and instead teach that God's saving grace is specifically granted to the elect.

Another avenue used to make a case for unconditional election is that of the broader doctrine of divine sovereignty. God's sovereignty is his control over everything that takes place. His sovereignty is both exhaustive and meticulous.[6] It is instructive to note that Divine sovereignty is simply a necessary tenet of deism, and is not peculiar to Calvinism or even Christianity.[7]as R.C. Sproul put it so well, "If God is not sovereign, then God is not God".[8] The biblical case for meticulous and exhaustive divine sovereignty is immense; but consider just this one phrase in Ephesians: God is described as the one "who works all things according to the counsel of his will" (Eph. 1:11). What things are worked out according to God's will? All things. This would include the salvation of every Christian and indeed the damnation of every unbeliever. Election is necessarily included under God's sovereignty and general providence. Nothing can happen or will happen apart from his sovereign will, not least of which the salvation of his people.

The doctrine of unconditional election is summarized well at the beginning of Paul's second letter to Timothy. "[God] who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began" (2 Tim. 1:9). These are the types of verses used to establish this idea that God's salvation, specifically in election, is unconditional. Election is established upon God's purpose and grace, not on anything that man could do or would do.

A Note Regarding a Concerning Trend

It would be tempting to focus on just these two views; however, I want to make a note regarding a trend among Christians. When a discussion involving election comes up there is a tendency among Christians to retreat and disengage. There is an assumption that this doctrine is an unsolvable quandary and will never yield anything fruitful. So instead of pressing into further study and pursuing understanding many Christians just give up and label it a mystery. John Calvin warned about this tendency even in his day. He called it the danger of avoidance.[9] So as I make a case for the doctrine of unconditional election, I am considering not only the resolute Arminian but also this non-committal, regular evangelical. Many people today need to see, perhaps for the first time, the beauty of the doctrine of unconditional election.

Support for Unconditional Election

Let us now build the case for unconditional election. The doctrine of unconditional election can be readily supported through biblical study, historical precedent, and theological or philosophical reasoning. The most important of these arenas to draw support for unconditional election is the Holy Bible itself.

Biblical Support

The exegetical evidence in support of the doctrine of unconditional election is frankly overwhelming and decisive. To phrase it in the negative, to deny unconditional election would require jumping over a vast gauntlet of biblical hurdles. There are many passages that allude to the doctrine, assume the doctrine, suggest the doctrine; but even more significant are the many passages that directly teach the doctrine of unconditional election. It is with the most conspicuous passages that I now begin.

In addition to Ephesians 1:11 and 2 Timothy 1:9, which I have quoted above, the word of God is replete with texts that teach unconditional election. Consider the opening words of Ephesians: "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 as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace" (Eph. 1:4-6a). In this passage the Apostle Paul lists election or predestination as one of the chief blessings that the Christian has in Christ. And note the basis, "according to the purpose of his will". And note the ultimate purpose, "to the praise of his glorious grace". This election is not according to any consideration of man or in response to any action of man. God is praised for the sheer graciousness of his choice.

Perhaps the linchpin text for unconditional election is Romans 9. Paul, who had just been marveling at the grace and mercy and strong love of God for his people in chapter 8, now considers the sad state of all those who don't believe. Paul laments that many of his own people, the Jews, are not being saved. He explains this sad state of affairs, not by appealing to man's free will, their choice to respond to the gospel or not. No, Paul appeals to God's purposes, his eternal plan, to the idea of unconditional election. Paul uses Jacob and Esau as an example of God's sovereign, gracious choice: "though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls – she [Rebekah] was told, 'The older will serve the younger.' As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'" (Rom. 9:11-13). Arminian theology apparently was alive and kicking in Paul's day too, for Paul considers the very same objection that Arminians today throw at this doctrine. Question: "Is there injustice on God's part?" – answer: "By no means" (v. 14). Paul further answers the accusation that God is not just by quoting Exodus 33:19, "For he says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy" (vv. 15-16). It does not get much clearer than this. The gracious choosing of some to salvation does not depend on good works, human will, human effort, or any consideration of man at all; rather it depends upon God and his mercy alone. Election is unconditional in that it is based not on any condition in man, but exclusively on God's sovereign grace.

Later in Paul's section on Israel's unbelief he quotes Isaiah, saying, "'Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?' For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Rom. 11:35-36). The Apostle Paul is not simply waxing poetic here; he is dead serious. No one has ultimately given God anything. God is not indebted to any man to respond to him with any good thing. Why? Because everything comes from him and through him and is for him and to him. John Calvin commented on this passage, noting that "men are altogether indebted to the preventing goodness of God, there being nothing in them, either past or future, to conciliate his favor."[10] Election that is based on man's future response to God is unworthy of the biblical term "election". God's election is based only on his goodness, his grace, his sovereign will. If a man is justified and saved it is not ultimately God's response to his faith, it is God's gift of sheer mercy, for even his faith is a miracle owing to God's work in him.

Unconditional election and the broader doctrine of God's sovereignty are rightly argued from Romans and Ephesians, but one cannot overlook the gospel of John and its manifold expressions of these doctrines. Consider this short sampling: "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13 emphasis mine), "All that the Father gives me will come to me" (6:37a), "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (6:44a), "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all" (6:63a), "but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand." (10:26-28). It is hard to imagine not affirming unconditional election from this text. It is eminently clear that the decisive factor in the conversion of the "sheep" is that the Father has set them apart and has given them to Jesus. They hear Jesus's voice, they believe, they follow him, all because they are God's elect. The reverse is simply not true. They are not elect because they do these things, they do these things because they are elect. The passages that support unconditional election in John continue to pile up, but perhaps we can quote one more: "You did not choose me, but I chose you" (John 15:16a). Some have tried to limit this text to the original twelve disciples; but that would be both un-called for and inappropriate given the context. It is universally applicable to all believers.[11]

The list of biblical texts could go on and on; and indeed, we have only looked at the brightest examples. Before moving on, consider just a couple key texts from the book of Acts. As Luke tells the story of Paul and Barnabas's ministry in Pisidian Antioch he says these words, "And when the Gentiles heard this [gospel], they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48 emphasis mine). This really is a stunning verse that points to the ultimate cause of faith. Luke makes mention of the providential hand of God earlier in the book as well. After Peter recounts the conversion of the Gentiles to the Jerusalem church those present conclude, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11:18b). Now this verse truly does throw a wrench in the idea of conditional election. God here does not respond to the people's repentance he grants it.

Theological/Philosophical Support

It is important to not only understand the many biblical texts by themselves, but to put it all together. So how does the doctrine of unconditional election fit theologically? Short answer – it fits gloriously! Perhaps three specific areas of theology should be examined – the doctrine of God, the doctrine of sin, and the doctrine of salvation.[12]

One of the most prominent areas of study in the doctrine of God is the doctrine of God's providence or sovereignty. So what exactly is Divine sovereignty? Simply put, it is God's control over all that takes place. God's sovereignty is both exhaustive and meticulous.[13] The important point regarding the doctrine of unconditional election is this: the salvation of man is not exempt from being under God's exhaustive and meticulous control. So unconditional election then is a basic implication of God's providence. In the words of B. B. Warfield, election is "only a particular application of the general doctrine of the decree to the matter of the dealings of God with a sinful race."[14] Indeed, one could argue from the lesser to the greater, if God deems it necessary to control all the little things – the life and times of sparrows, individual's hair-count, various historical details – then would he not show even greater concern with the most important matters such as the salvation of his people? If God is sovereign, then he is sovereign everywhere and over everything.

The doctrine of sin also dovetails perfectly with unconditional election. The Scriptures reveal man's sin to not only be wicked, evil, and damnable, but also enslaving. To quote the famous words of Paul, "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom. 8:7-8). Or in another place, "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God" (Rom. 3:10-11). Man is so sinful that he will not seek for God, he will not submit to God's law, and indeed he cannot do these things, for he is enslaved to sin. So if election was conditioned upon what man would do, not a single human being would be saved. Again, no one seeks for God. If God called men to repent, none would obey the call – not unless God gave that person special saving grace. And thanks be to God, that is what he does, to certain individuals, namely the elect. Thus a biblical doctrine of sin undergirds the need for unconditional election.

Lastly, the nature of grace is upheld and indeed magnified by unconditional election. One of the irrefutable truths of Scripture that at least all evangelicals would agree upon is that salvation is by grace. I would argue however that only unconditional election is in accord with grace. Conditional election effectively ruins the principle of grace. One of the clearest passages on this is in the letter to the Ephesians, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). If God's election is based on what sinners would do when presented with the gospel, then it is actually based on works. In this conception of grace only the machinery or system of salvation is by grace, but the operating of it is a work of man. It is like God graciously gave men the opportunity to be saved, but left it up to them to decide if they wanted to be saved. The passage quoted above is giving us no room for that conception; instead, Paul is emphatically stating that all of salvation is a gift of God, even the faith to receive it is a gift. This also eliminates boasting on the part of man, because the only thing differentiating the saved from the unsaved is God's gracious intervention – which finds its root in election. The ground of salvation is God's choice; he is decisive, man is responsive.

Objections to Unconditional Election

Let us now consider two serious objections to the doctrine of unconditional election. The first is this: that this doctrine renders human choice completely superfluous and irrelevant. This first objection takes issue with the idea that the ultimate reason someone believes is not their own choice but God's choice. If God simply chooses who will be saved, then you can hardly call the person's choice an authentic choice. God is simply ruling over a universe of robots.

Does this charge stick? No, I don't believe it does. The objection is based on an unbiblical notion of the human will, and a deficient conception of God's sovereignty. According to this objection a will is only free if it has the power to always choose otherwise. This is called libertarian free will. And though we cannot deal with this at length now, suffice it to say that there is good reason to believe that the will can be meaningfully free without being libertarian and dispassionate. This is seen in the Scriptures. We see God using people as they are by nature, orchestrating events such that they fulfill God's plan as people generally do what they most want to do. God's is in control over every single word, deed, and thought in the whole cosmos, but that doesn't mean that people experience that control as something foreign and intrusive. This is because God is good at being sovereign. He is not clumsy in the orchestration of his plan; quite the opposite, the Lord reigns majestically (Psalm 93:1). Every person has a will and makes choices, and will be held responsible for those choices – but God is sovereign over it all.

The second objection, which flows from the first, is this: that unconditional election is unfair. If God doesn't elect somebody, they will not be saved because they could not be saved. This is seen by many to be a gross injustice on God's part, and therefore must not be true. In this scenario God is condemning people who never had a chance. Because of this the charge is levelled that unconditional election is unfair.

To answer coyly, I would simply say, "Yes, quite unfair indeed!" You see, the impulse behind this question is a desire for an even playing-field, for universal equity, and for justice. But that line of thinking is completely missing the idea of grace. The whole point of grace is that grace is not fair. Grace and mercy are not words describing fairness and justice, rather they describe a glorious situation where God doesn't treat people as they deserve. R.C. Sproul put it beautifully, "God does not always act with justice. Sometimes He acts with mercy. Mercy is not justice, but neither is it injustice. Injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace and does no violence to righteousness."[15] So if God chooses to save some but not all, he has not done an injustice to those whom he doesn't save. In fact, they receive perfect justice. Those whom God saves however, avoid the just wrath from God that they deserve, and instead receive mercy. To quote Sproul once more, "God never owes mercy. God is not obliged to treat all men equally."[16] The proponent of conditional election wants to protect the idea that all men are equal before God, but they don't want to become Universalists. They solve this issue by suggesting an even playing-field where all people are helped by prevenient grace to either choose salvation or not, thus putting the salvation of sinners in the hands of men, not God. But as I have already demonstrated this is a fool's errand which denies copious amounts of Scripture, conflicts with orthodox theology, and effectively undermines the grace of God.

Conclusion

The doctrine of unconditional election cannot be easily denied. Evidence from the Scriptures, and arguments from theological reasoning do find a way of mounting up against any other view. But I would suggest one last thing. Why not love the doctrine of unconditional election? It has been noted by many that unconditional election magnifies the mercy of God, it encourages true humility, and grounds the believer's hope in something far more stable than himself.[17]Unconditional election should not be just a point of theological debate, rather it should be cause for exultant worship. When the believer comes to grips with this doctrine, he finds that God's love has never seemed so big, and himself seemed so small. O to be filled with wonder and awe at the thought that you are saved, not ultimately because of that day you first believed, but because on that ancient day, before the creation of the world, God set his love upon you and chose you for himself.

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[1] All Scripture Quotations taken from the ESV Bible.

[2] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. p. 670

[3] Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. p.670

[4] Gregg Allison, Historical Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. p.456.

[5] Cottrell, Jack W. "The Classical Arminian View of Election" in Perspectives on Election: five views ed. Chad Owen Brand. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006. P. 84-85

[6] Ware, Bruce A., God's Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004. p.78

[7] Sproul, R.C., Chosen by God. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 1986. p.16

[8] Ibid, p.16

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008. 3.21.9, p.608

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008. 3.22.3, p.617

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008. 3.22.3, p.617

[12] Sam Storms, Chosen for Life, 31

[13] Ware, Bruce A., God's Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004. p.78

[14] Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, 325

[15] Sproul, R.C., The Holiness of God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1985. p.145.

[16] Sproul, R.C., The Holiness of God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1985. p.166.

[17] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008. 3.21.1, p.607 

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allison, Gregg R., Historical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.

Cottrell, Jack W. "The Classical Arminian View of Election" in Perspectives on Election: five views ed. Chad Owen Brand. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Sproul, R.C., Chosen by God, Carol Stream. IL: Tyndale, 1986.

Sproul, R.C., The Holiness of God. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1985.

Storms, Sam. Chosen for Life: An Introductory Guide to the Doctrine of Election. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987.

Ware, Bruce A., God's Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004.

Warfield, Benjamin B., Biblical and Theological Studies. Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1952.

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Wednesday, 24 April 2024