The doctrines of grace: Unconditional election

We have already examined the biblical doctrine of total depravity, and concluded that salvation, if it is at all possible, is so only by the grace of God. Salvation must necessarily be of the Lord. That is where the doctrine of unconditional election enters the picture.

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith says, “Those of mankind who are predestined unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving him thereunto.” (3.5)

Unconditional?

Unconditional election is not arbitrary election. When we say that God elected unconditionally we do not mean that he had no reasons for electing those whom he did. God does nothing without a reason, and so it is safe to assume that he chose specific people for a specific purpose. What unconditional election teaches is that the basis of God’s election was not something worthwhile in man. God did not condition his election based in some merit that he foresaw in them.

If man is indeed dead, captive, blind, deaf, uninstructable and naturally sinful, then salvation must necessarily lie completely outside of him. Man cannot raise himself from spiritual death. But that is precisely what happens at salvation: Man is raised to life, born again. If he cannot do this himself, and yet it happens, it must be someone or something outside of man that does the work. Specifically, it must be God.

At the same time, it is evident that not all are raised to spiritual life. There are those who, already spiritually dead in trespasses and sins, die physically in that spiritual state. If God alone can raise the spiritually dead, and yet not all the spiritually dead are raised, it follows that God does not raise all the spiritually dead. He raises some, but chooses to allow others to die in their sins. How he determines who to raise and who to leave is a mystery that lies entirely within himself. But we can clearly affirm, on the basis of total depravity, that that decision is not based on anything inside of man.

Arminianism

The Arminians taught that God chose1 to save those whom he ultimately foresaw would choose to be saved.

Arminians, broadly speaking, hold that election is based upon God’s foreknowledge of who will actively co-operate with God in the saving of his own soul. Lutherans hold that it is based upon God’s foreknowledge of who will not resist his invitation to accept salvation as an outright gift. Wesleyans believe that it is based upon God’s foreknowledge of who will persevere to the end.2

This supposition is largely based on Romans 8:29, where Paul writes, “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.” The Arminians understand the word “foreknew” to speak of intellectual knowledge of something before it happens.

Note that God foreknew people, not actions. He did not “foreknow” that people would do something, but he foreknew the people whom he would save.

On what basis?

The simple fact is that God did not elect us because he knew that we would do something (i.e. receive his Son). Instead, he elected us in order that we might do something (i.e. receive his Son). Belief follows foreknowledge. God’s foreknowledge is causative; that is, we believe the gospel because God foreknew us, and not vice versa. It is those who are “appointed” to eternal life who believe (Acts 13:48). We are not elect because of our belief, but we believe because of our election.

Faith itself is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8–9). We have no ability to produce faith; it is something that must be produced in us by the sovereign grace of God. And it is produced by God not because of anything of value that he sees in us, but purely because he has, for reasons known only to him, elected us.

Election or selection?

I heard of someone who once complained that Calvinism teaches not election but selection. In fact, the Bible does teach selection. It teaches quite clearly that God selects some to salvation and not others. Election is selection, and vice versa.

God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans and left the rest to their heathenism. He loved Jacob but hated Esau. And why? Was Jacob any more lovable than Esau? Hardly! As God later said, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7).

Jesus said in no uncertain terms, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:6). Again, God said through Paul, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). Ephesians 1:4–5 speaks of believers having been chosen in Christ from the foundation of the world and having been predestined for adoption as sons.

What does it mean?

The doctrine of unconditional election is so important because it places the salvation of men precisely where it belongs: in the hands of God. We are saved by grace alone. As Calvin said,

We shall never be clearly persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election, the grace of God being illustrated by the contrast—viz. that he does not adopt promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others. It is plain how greatly ignorance of this principle detracts from the glory of God, and impairs true humility.3

Sadly, many simply do not like the reality that the reason for God’s choices lie wholly within God. We want to know why God does what he does. We want to offer a reasonable explanation for everything he does, despite the clear claim of Scripture that “he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:34–35).

This is not to say, of course, that God never explains what he does. However, we must recognise that, while there are many things revealed, there are also a great many secret things that belong to God alone (Deuteronomy 29:29).

  1. Arminians do not deny election because the Bible speaks clearly in terms of election. They simply define it differently than do Calvinists.
  2. Brian Schwertley, “An Examination of the Five Points of Calvinism—Part II: Unconditional Election,” http://goo.gl/W3ZxuX, retrieved 15 February 2011.
  3. John Calvin (translated by Henry Beveridge), Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), III.21.1

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