Amazing Grace: Unconditional Election
'Election'... 'Predestination'... say these words to a room full of Christians and many of them begin to feel very uneasy, if not outright contempt. (Technically these are slightly different theological concepts, the latter being broader than the former, but we will use these terms synonymously in this post). These terms should not bring this kind of reaction. They are, after all, biblical concepts. Nobody can say they don't believe in election and predestination for the simple reason that these concepts permeate ALL of Scripture. You may not like certain aspects of the doctrines attached to these words, but you cannot say you don't believe in them... at least not if you also claim to believe in the truth, infallibility and inerrancy of God's word.
Let's establish a definition of what the doctrine of election is:
God does not foresee an action or condition on our part that induces Him to save us. Rather, election rests on God’s sovereign decision to save whomever He is pleased to save. (Ligonier)
Election is an act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign good pleasure. (Grudem)
These definitions highlight both aspects of divine election that are key for us to understand.
It is God's choice alone - he saves whomever he pleases according to his own will and for his own purposes (to the praise of his glorious grace - Ephesians 1:3-14)
It is an unconditional choosing - God's choice of who will be saved rests on his sovereign decision alone - it lacks external conditions (such as an act of faith seen in the future). God consults only himself when choosing who to save.
This means that God does NOT look down the corridor of time to see who has faith and then elects them unto salvation. His choice is NOT conditional on anything or anyone. He chooses that which he desires, that fit within his eternal purposes, and thus his choice of whom he will save is free, unconditional, independent and sovereign.
As Sam Storms articulates - election demonstrates the monergistic saving grace of our salvation. Election...
is not grounded or based upon any act of man, for good or ill. Election “does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). That God should set his electing love upon any individual is not in any way dependent upon that person’s will (Rom. 9:16), works (2 Timothy 1:9; Romans 9:11), holiness (Ephesians 1:4), or obedience (1 Peter 1:1-2). Rather, election finds its sole and all-sufficient cause in the sovereign good pleasure and grace of God (Ephesians 1:9; Romans 9:11; 11:5; Matthew 11:25-26; 2 Timothy 1:9). Were election to be based upon what God foreknows that each individual will do with the gospel it would be an empty and altogether futile act. For what does God foresee in us, apart from his grace? He sees only corruption, ill will, and a pervasive depravity of heart and soul that serves only to evoke his displeasure and wrath.
The biblical witness to this doctrine is overwhelming, so I will only review a few. See the following links for a fuller explanation of the most relevant texts - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
Romans 9 - "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 his call, she was told, “The elder will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”" (vv. 11–13)
Ephesians 1:3-14 - “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.” (vv.4–6); “We who first hoped in Christ have been destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory” (v. 12).
2 Thessalonians 2:13 - “We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth”
2 Timothy 1:9 - God is the one “who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago.”
Revelation 13:7 - “And authority was given it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.”
Revelation 17:8 - “The dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world will marvel to behold the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.”
It is patently clear that Scripture teaches unconditional election as defined above.
There are always objections whenever election is discussed. Let me deal with a few of the main ones:
Why wouldn’t God save everyone if he has the power to do so? - Only God can answer this question. Thus we should be careful in seeking answer to it. It is a hard question, but it cannot be used as an argument against the doctrine of election.
Romans 8:29, "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son." Does this not suggest that God's election is a result of seeing our faith? - Short answer is no. This text says that God foreknows people ("whom") not their faith. To suggest the opposite is to read into the text something that is not there.
Election is fatalistic / mechanistic; it makes people into robots who simply do what they were eternally programmed to do - Again, no. Our God is a personal God who is engaged with human persons. It was "in love" that he predestined us (Ephesians 1:5). We are also told that those who are to receive salvation must come to God (more on how this happens in a later post) and believe in the gospel by faith. There is an important personal dimension to our coming to faith that is hardly a fatalistic or mechanistic way of receiving salvation. Listen to the words of Jesus himself, “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18) No fatalism or mechanism here.
Election is not fair! - Two things we need to understand. First, fair means that we deserve to get salvation. The underlying assumption of this objection is that we should all have the same opportunity to receive salvation because we all deserve it, or at least we deserve an equal chance to receive it. But as we outlined in our previous blog on sin, we deserve only damnation and hell. So what is 'fair' for us to receive is eternal punishment, not salvation. Second, we need to listen to Paul's words from Romans 9:20-24 "But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me thus?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?" We may think election is unfair, but we are not God and have no right to make this accusation against him. To suggest such is to suggest that God is not perfect, not holy, not just, not loving... in short, that he is not God. This is blasphemy.
If election is true, then there are unbelievers who die in sin who never had a chance to believe - The Bible never presents the former situation in the latter way. Scripture always says that the blame for rejecting Christ always lies at the feet of the individual. For example in John 8:43-44 Jesus explains that it is the individual who is to blame when they reject salvation. Jesus puts the blame on their willful choice to reject him, not on anything decreed by God the Father - “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” We may not be able to comprehend this, but since this is the way Scripture presents it, we must believe it.
The Bible says that God wills to save everyone - This objection comes from two passages. Paul writes that God, “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4); and “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But look closely at them and they can't actually suggest what this objection states. No matter your theological perspective all are NOT saved so you have an immediate problem. Your options are three in order to solve it - 1) Paul and Peter are not telling us the truth about God's will (clearly an unbiblical idea); 2) God doesn't get what he wants when he wills something to be (clearly an unbiblical idea as well); or 3) God wills something greater than the salvation of everyone (which seems to be the case in these texts and on account of the greater witness of Scripture). The Bible says that God deems the pursuit of his own glory to be of ultimate importance to him (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14); of even greater importance than saving everyone. For if saving everyone was his highest pursuit, then everyone would be saved for God's will cannot be denied. So what do we say about these passages. God does will that everyone be saved, this is is revealed will as expressed in the external gospel call. But his secret, decretive will is that only the elect will be regenerated and thus come to faith in Christ.
Conclusion (Sam Storms)
The Calvinistic concept of divine election proceeds on the assumption that God saves men and women in accordance with a plan formulated in eternity past. The events we see unfolding in time and history are not haphazard or chaotic, appearances notwithstanding. They are the divinely ordained means by which God is bringing this universe to its proper consummation in Jesus Christ. We would not think very highly of God if we knew him to have created all things without a clue as to what he intended to do with them. We marvel at God’s wisdom and find him worthy of praise precisely because we know that all things have been created not only by Jesus Christ but also for him (Colossians 1:16).
This world and all that is in it exist principally as means to the fulfillment of a divine purpose, “the summing up of all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10). Jesus himself declared that he came to this earth in order to accomplish the Father’s will (John 6:38). That is why our Lord’s redemptive sufferings occurred as a result of the “predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23; cf. Acts 4:27-28; 1 Peter 1:20). In sum, God works all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11).