The Doctrines of Grace Part 3: Unconditional Election

In this article, I’ll be addressing what’s called Unconditional Election.  This is the belief that God, from eternity past, has chosen some people for salvation, or that he has chosen to give those people mercy instead of justice.  It is considered unconditional in that His choice is not dependent on any fact about the person himself.  In other words, there is no difference between the elect and the non-elect in terms of their intelligence, spirituality, actions, heart, choices, beliefs, or any other thing that describes all of us.

As Scripture puts it, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ. (Galations 3:28)  It is therefore, according to this doctrine, not a matter of looking into the future to see who will believe on their own and electing them.  For one thing, sin has made them unable to do so.  But also, election is according to God’s plan and purpose, not our actions, including belief.

Election is related to another biblical term, “predestination”.  These are not the exact same thing.  Predestination, roughly defined, is God’s decision beforehand that an event will occur.  It relates to election in that, while the recipients of election are people, those people are predestined for some event.  

An analogy to illustrate this difference might be in order.  Suppose I want to make an apple pie.  I look at my apples and decide which ones to use.  The act of deciding which apples I want is like election.  It is the purposeful separating of some apples from others.  My decision of what to do with them is like predestination.  I’ve made that decision too, in this case, when I decided to make pie.  

The elect, biblically speaking, is a group of people that God has chosen and he has predestined them to salvation, adoption, conformity to the image of Christ, and so forth.

What Unconditional Election Is Not

So, as always, my goal is to cut out a lot of wasted argumentation by pointing out, up front, what I’m not saying in the paragraphs above.

1. Election is not salvation.  This is a distinction between biblical Calvinism and some forms of hyper-Calvinism.  Some hyper-Calvinists believe in what’s called “eternal salvation”, which basically says that the elect person’s place as a friend of God and an adopted son is an eternal thing.  Scripture is clear that all are by nature enemies of God, and while election ensures the eventual salvation of a person, it is really nothing more than a choice in the mind of God.  It does nothing for the person in itself.  Salvation comes during that person’s life.

2. “Unconditional” does not mean “arbitrary”.  Many claim that if election does not consider any facts about the person, then it can only be arbitrary.  This is simply false.  “Arbitrary” means without any reason or purpose.  God does indeed have a reason for choosing whom He chooses.  It is according to the purpose of His plan.  We will go into this in more detail as we look at the Scriptures, but suffice it to say here that Calvinists certainly do not believe that God’s election is arbitrary.  If someone believes that it must be, then that person must offer an argument for it.  Merely making the above claim won’t do.  It must be shown that, unless God chooses based on the person, then God’s choice is arbitrary.

3. Election does not mean that faith is unnecessary.  It is often argued that, if there really is such a group as the elect, then it doesn’t matter what we do, since believing won’t save the non-elect, and sin and rebellion cannot condemn the elect.  The simple fact is that the teaching of Scripture is that the non-elect will always remain in their sin and rebellion, as we saw in the article on Total Depravity.  Also, the elect, though they are by nature rebellious as well, will eventually come to faith.  This event is what the fourth point, Irresistible Grace, describes.  Every elect person will be saved by grace through faith, just as the Bible teaches.

4. Similar to the last point, election does not mean that evangelism is unnecessary.  We may go into it in more detail, but I’ll just say here that evangelism is necessary because (a) it is commanded by God to preach the Gospel to every creature, and (b) the preaching of the Gospel is God’s chosen means by which He saves sinners.  We are to present the Gospel.  It is God’s work to save the sinner.

Election is also just a part of God’s plan.  It is a part of the sovereignty of God.  When a Calvinist talks about the sovereignty of God, he speaks of God’s rule over every detail of His creation.  Sovereignty is ruler-ship.  If God is sovereign over everything, then He rules everything.  For the Calvinist, this means that every detail of every event, whether good, evil, or otherwise, has been decreed by God and is a purposeful part of His perfect plan.  The Arminian usually agrees that God rules everything, but quite often defines that rule as being more loose than the Calvinist’s.  For the Arminian, everything that happens is under God’s control in that He could intervene at any time, and does sometimes, to change things.

It is often claimed by Calvinists that Arminians do not believe in sovereignty.  If they mean their own definition, then they’re right, but Arminians have a definition of sovereignty that is based on what that word means.  A king does not need to actually determine every event in order to be in control of his kingdom.  Even God’s rule does not necessitate determining every event, at least not logically.

The real question is this.  What does the Bible teach about sovereignty?  Does the Bible say that God determines every event?  Does the Bible teach that God determines beforehand who will be saved?  Calvinists put these things under the term “sovereignty”, but I see no problem saying that both Calvinists and Arminians believe God is sovereign.  I just believe that the Calvinistic understanding of how sovereignty actually plays out is more biblical.  Let’s look at some examples from Scripture.

Remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
   I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
   and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
   and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
calling a bird of prey from the east,
   the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
   I have purposed, and I will do it.  Isaiah 46:9-11

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.  Ephesians 1:11

From these two passages, and many others, we see that all things from the beginning to the end happen according to the plan and purpose of God.  And we also see that He is active in fulfilling that plan.  He does not merely know what will happen.  He has “declared” it.  He “works all things”.  He has “spoken” and “will bring it to pass”.

Here in Ephesians 1, we also see that this applies to the salvation of the elect.  Paul begins talking about it before verse 11, though.

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 as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.  Ephesians 1:3-14

Now, this passage really does speak clearly, so not much needs to be said, except to point out some important aspects of it.  Notice that, right away, we see again the distinction between choosing and predestining.  He chose us before the foundation of the world, and he predestined us for adoption as sons.  Notice also that in this whole passage, it is God who is the one in action.  Almost every verb is something God is doing.  The ones that do describe what we do are mostly passive: “have redemption”, “have obtained”, “having been predestined”, “were sealed”, “acquire”.

The only active verb on our part is “believed”.  Some may say, “Ah ha!  You see? We must believe.”  I, of course do not disagree.  We must believe.  Here is the question.  All of these actions of God that came before, does He do all of that for people who don’t ever believe?  I cannot see why we should say so, and several reasons come to mind.  

First, the richness of the language, saying that He has “blessed us…with every spiritual blessing”, and “the riches of his grace, which he lavished on us”, does not seem to speak of those who are being condemned by their unbelief.  Second, whenever Paul says “us” and “you”, he is speaking of Christians, which we see in that very statement, “you also, when you heard…and believed in Him…”

Another thing I notice about this passage is that Paul gives us the basis upon which the elect are chosen.  Is it foreseen faith?  No, it is His “purpose”, “will”. the “riches of His grace”, and “to the praise of His glory”.  All facts about God, not us.  In fact, the only time faith is mentioned, it does not say all of this is ours “if” we believe.  He says that we were sealed with the Spirit “when” we believed.

God’s reasons for choosing to bless some people with salvation are all found in Him and His plans and purposes.  Does all this mean that faith is unnecessary?  Of course not.  It is mentioned above, and this chapter is followed by the chapter that contains the famous passage affirming our salvation by “grace through faith”.  What is clear here is that election is not on the basis of faith.

Two other major passages should be examined on this subject, Romans 8 and Romans 9.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.  Romans 8:28-30

There are many things to speak about in this passage, but let me point out just a few.  The first statement identifies the people who love God with the people called according to His purpose.  Obviously, not everyone loves God, so likewise, not everyone is called in the sense that verse 28 says.

Notice also that, from “foreknew” to “glorified”, every verb is one performed by God.  Each one is also performed to all of those under the preceding verb.  “Those he foreknew, he predestined…those he predestined, he called…justified…glorified.”  So if someone is found in the first group, then he is found in the last group.

Of course, some will say of this passage that it shows that God looks into the future and decides to predestine those that foreknows will believe.  There are several problems with this.  First, there is nothing at all about foreseen faith in the passage.  It is inserted in order to maintain the theological system of Arminianism.  Second, the objects of God’s foreknowing are not facts (whether people believe; who will believe), but people (the believers themselves).  Remember the group that is the object of every verb in the passage?  If people are predestined, justified, and glorified, then it is people who are foreknown.

There is a difference between knowing facts and knowing people, we understand that difference whenever we talk about “really knowing” someone.  Some languages, such as Spanish, even use different words when speaking of knowing facts versus knowing people.  It is that sense in which God knows beforehand those that he glorifies.

Romans 9 could fill a book, it is so rich with teaching, so I will try to be brief.  Let’s look at some sections that apply to this particular issue.  First of all, we know that Paul is talking about individual salvation because of how he begins.

…that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.  Romans 9:2-3

Paul is deeply hurt that his own people, the Jews, have, for the most part, rejected their Messiah.  He argues that the God’s promises to Israel have not failed, though (v. 6).  This is because belonging to Abraham’s bloodline is not what determines who will be saved.  Rather, the true Israel are those, chosen by God “according to promise.”

And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 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 was told, “The older will serve the younger.”  Romans 9:10-12

This statement may be the most clear, self-conscious expression of unconditional election in the Bible.  Election happened when Jacob and Esau had done “nothing good or bad”.  Why then?  To preserve God’s purpose of election “not because of works but because of him who calls”  It is not because of us, but because of Him who calls.

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.  Romans 9:15-16

Does it depend on our free will?  Literally, verse 16 reads, “Therefore it does not depend on the willing man or the running man, but on the mercying God.”  It does not depend on the willing man.  It depends on God showing mercy.  Salvation depends on whether or not God “mercies” a person.  Again, this is not a denial that faith is necessary.  It is a denial that salvation ultimately depends on it.  Faith, as we are seeing and will continue to see in subsequent articles, depends on election, not the reverse, as those who reject the Doctrines of Grace believe.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?”  Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?  Romans 9:19-21

This is a very important passage, because Paul is answering the primary objection to the Doctrines of Grace.  If God has determined everything, how can He “find fault”?  How can He hold us morally responsible?  What is Paul’s answer?  Who are you to challenge God?  He is our Maker.  He is the Potter.  He has the right both to determine our destiny and to hold us responsible for our actions.  The Scriptures are clear about both.  As we seek to understand His ways, we must not deny the Scriptures in order to more easily embrace our favorite side of this coin.

For many Arminians, God’s election and predestination are denied in favor of moral responsibility.  For hyper-Calvinists, responsibility goes by the wayside to preserve election.  To be faithful to the words of Paul, and to avoid making the same objection he answers, we must embrace both, for they are both Scriptural.

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—  Romans 9:22-23

And here we find, phrased in the form of a question, the same thing we’ve seen before.  We see God deciding the destinies of His creations, and His reasons are given.  They sound just like what we saw in Ephesians 1: “to make known the riches of his glory”; to “make known his power”.

All of this is to point out that the true recipients of God’s promises to save are not just ethic Israel, but all of God’s elect, whom He has called from both Jews and Gentiles.

even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,

    “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
   and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.'”
    “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
   there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.'”  Romans 9:24-26

And just a couple of other snippets that also support Unconditional Election.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.  John 15:16

Is Jesus saying that it doesn’t matter if we choose Him?  Of course not.  He is just pointing out that their position as “friends” (v. 13) is not based ultimately on their choice but on His.

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.  Acts 13:48

The believing is based on being appointed to eternal life.  It does not say, “as many as believed were appointed to eternal life”.  Election determines whether we will believe, not the other way around.

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  1 Thessalonians 5:9

God has destined us for salvation.  Notice Paul’s use of “us” here, which refers only to God’s people.  God has not destined everyone to salvation.  Just those He will actually save.

Some Objections

The primary objection to the doctrine of election is that it makes us “puppets” or that we cannot be held morally responsible for our actions if God determines everything.  As I pointed out before, this objection is not foreign to the Scriptures.  Paul answers it in Romans 9, saying rather pointedly that it is not our place to judge the actions of God.  For him, the truth of God supersedes all of our philosophical concerns.  God’s truth shows our reasoning to be in error when our reasoning leads to conclusions that contradict it.  Notice that Paul assumes this, and condemns the objection without even answering the question on the basis that the question leads to the conclusion that election is false.

Does this mean that there is no answer?  I believe there is, but it will not satisfy those who continue to place the conclusions of their own reason above Scripture.  There is indeed a tension between the fact that God rules over every detail of creation and the fact that we are held morally responsible for our actions.  Probably the best explanation of an answer to this tension is found in Jonathan Edwards’ work The Freedom of the Will.

Edwards does not deny that there is free will, but he seeks to define it as Scripture defines it, not as Arminians often define it.  I will try to capture the essence of the argument.  Basically, seeing that Scripture holds us morally accountable for our actions, those actions must be engaged in willfully.  We can only be held accountable for what we’ve chosen to do if it was our choice.  However, we cannot deny the Scriptural teaching that God determines everything.

So, how is it that we are held accountable?  For the Arminian, it is the belief that our moral actions are not determined, which denies the Scriptures we’ve addressed.  For the Calvinist, it is that we engaged in those actions according to our own desires.  It is our motives in doing what we do that makes our actions “free”.  In other words, we do not want one thing but do another simply because God determines it.  The fact that we act according to our own desires that makes us free.  Not only is this compatible with the fact that God determines everything, but it is also taught in Scripture.

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.  Genesis 50:19-20

Joseph’s brothers “meant” their action of selling Joseph into slavery for evil, but God “meant” that same action for good.  Notice that it does not say that God turned it into good, or that he made it good, as if God’s actions were after the fact.  It says that God had a good purpose and motivation for selling Joseph into slavery, while Joseph’s brothers had an evil purpose and motivation.  The event was just as willful on God’s part as on the brothers’ part.

Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger;

   the staff in their hands is my fury!

Against a godless nation I send him,

   and against the people of my wrath I command him,

to take spoil and seize plunder,

   and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.

But he does not so intend,

   and his heart does not so think;

but it is in his heart to destroy,

   and to cut off nations not a few…

When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes.  For he says:

   “By the strength of my hand I have done it,
   and by my wisdom, for I have understanding…

Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
   or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
   or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!  Isaiah 10:5-7,12-13,15

The king of Assyria is like an axe or a saw.  He is sent against Israel and there is no indication he has any ability to do otherwise.  Why is he then judged?  Because judgment against Israel is not what he “intends”.  The intentions of the king of Assyria condemn Him.

Finally, there is the crucifixion of Jesus Himself.

For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.  Acts 4:27-28

Was the execution of the sinless, innocent Son of God a sinful act?  Of course.  But this event happened exactly according to God’s “hand” and “plan”.  Were they able to do otherwise?  Not unless they can thwart the plan of God.  They were held responsible, not because of their ability to do otherwise, but because they “freely” chose to do what they wanted to do.

One response to this is to question how we can be held responsible if God determines everything, including our desires in the first place.  To that, all the Scriptures say is what Paul says in Romans 9 and some of what is said above in Isaiah 10.  God is the potter, the axe-wielder.  He has made us and has the right to do with us as He pleases, just as a potter has rights over the clay.  

This doesn’t really answer just how we are responsible.  God has not given us a detailed explanation.  He has said that our moral responsibility lies in our motives.  We know that He steers those, too.  If we object, His answer is clear:  He is the Potter.  We have no right to object to how He runs His world.  So, despite our ignorance of the details, if we press the objection, we must deny something that Scripture teaches, either that moral responsibility is found in our motives, or that God has the right to do what He pleases with His created things.

There are some other objections that mainly have to do with a few verses that non-Calvinists quote, usually without much exposition, that supposedly refute the in-depth, clear passages quoted above.  Let’s look at some of these:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  John 3:16

This verse is not usually interpreted much, except to quote it, emphasizing “the world!” and “whosoever!”.  But does it really deny election?  As for the word “world”, there is nothing in the verse or anywhere that says that we must understand it to mean every single individual person.  John uses it several different ways, sometimes to mean this sinful system, sometimes, as I believe it is here, to refer to Jews and Gentiles inclusive.  God did not just love the Jews, but loved Jews and Gentiles.

Whatever we say “world” means here, what is important is the next statement.  For all of the emphasis on “whosoever”, it is not actually in the Greek.  It is added to make it read more like the way we speak in English.  A rigid, literal translation of this phrase would be, “that the believing ones in Him should not perish…”  On examination, this doesn’t change the meaning, but it shows something very important.

Why did God give His Son?  So that all the believers should have eternal life.  Not so that the “world” should have eternal life.  This passage limits the intention of God’s saving work to a group of people out of the world, the believers.  Nothing in the verse says that everyone can believe.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  1 Timothy 2:1-4

Basically, there are two Reformed interpretations of this that I believe are just as plausible as the Arminian one.  I can’t say for sure which one is true, but I lean toward the second.  The first is that God’s “desire” here refers to His “will of command”, or “prescriptive will”.  This refers to God’s will as expressed in His commands, “do not steal”, “do not commit adultery”, etc.  This will of God is obviously not always fulfilled.  So we could perhaps infer that God “desires” that we follow His commandments, and so His desire that all people be saved is like that, it doesn’t contradict the fact that His “declarative” will, expressed in statements like “let there be light”, and “I send you against a rebellious people”, does not seek to save all people.

The second interpretation is that God is not speaking of all individual people, but all kinds or categories of people.  He prefaces this statement by speaking of kinds of people when He talks about kings and people in authority.  It is the same as what He actually accomplishes when we see in heaven people from “every tongue, tribe, people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9).  So, on this interpretation, God achieves what He desires.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, ruler nor ruled.  Human distinctions and characteristics do not play into who God determines to save.  This is just what unconditional election teaches.  For this reason, we should pray for everyone and not discriminate, because all of our reasons for doing so are human reasons, not God’s reasons.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  2 Peter 3:9

Some Calvinists argue that every time Scripture says “all” it means the elect.  As we saw with 1 Timothy, not all Calvinists argue this way.  With this passage, however, I believe that “all” should mean all of the elect.  I think so for two reasons.  First, it makes perfect sense in context.  Jesus is waiting to return until all of the elect reach repentance.  If the Arminian understanding, that this “all” means every person, then when will God stop waiting?  If the Arminian says, “until all that God knows will believe actually believe”, then his position turns out to be no different than the Calvinist’s on this verse, except that, for the Arminian, God does not get what He wishes.  For the Calvinist, none (of the elect) perish, so God’s plan works out just as He wishes for it to.

The second reason supporting the Calvinist position is that Peter says that God is patient toward “you”.  Like Paul, Peter uses “us” and “you” to refer to God’s elect.  He doesn’t say that God is patient toward “them”, the unbelievers.  God is patiently waiting for all of “you, the elect” to reach repentance.

Obviously, there are more objections to deal with, but space prohibits.  Suffice it to say that the clarity of Scripture in affirming the sovereign election of God is plain to see.  The strongest objections would have to deal with the passages I’ve raised and many others, in context, without basing the objection on some unscriptural definitions of terms or other concerns.