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Unconditional Election

by Tim O'Hearn

Authors are often faced with a dilemma: who is writing this book, anyway? The author thinks that they have the right to write the book the way they want. The characters, on the other hand, say that they want to go a different way. The end product may not be anything like the author intended in the first place. Other authors say that there is no conflict; any change in direction is from their own mind based on their own creativity. The issue comes up in a number of fictional works, most notably L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky. Are we characters in some author’s novel? If so, to what extent do we, as characters, have free will to rewrite our story? This is the heart of the debate over Calvin’s point of Unconditional Election. Can man choose to be saved, or has God prewritten the story for every person?

It is a question of free will versus absolute and specific predestination. A Dutch reformer, Jacob Arminius, came into direct conflict with the doctrines of John Calvin. Arminius argued in favor of free will in man, and conditional predestination. Although Calvin sometimes misrepresents Arminian theology, he seems to have resented the challenge to his authority and thus much of his later writings were directed specifically at ArminianThe doctrine is that God elects some to salvation and others to reprobation irrespective of anything that man can do. belief. Going back to Augustine for the bulk of his doctrine, rather than going back to the scriptures only, he insisted on the five points that have been represented by the acronym TULIP, and which were the major points of disagreement with Arminius. Calvin argued that free will, particularly as it relates to conditional election (the concept that God’s saving grace is dependent on man’s accepting it by his own free choice) denied the power of God. He said it made God’s sovereign will dependent on man’s choice. He says that God’s counsel is unchangeable, so that if he elects man without condition that election cannot be denied or rejected. This, of course, flies in the face of several scriptures. God “repented” that he had made man. (Gen 6) He allowed Abraham to negotiate the destruction of Sodom, with the indication that he would have saved the city on each of the conditions Abraham proposed. He allowed Moses to talk him out of destroying the entire Jewish nation (on more than one occasion). If God himself grants that his sovereign counsel is mutable, then we must look more closely at Calvin’s doctrine of Unconditional Election.

Unconditional Election

We shall never feel 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 all promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others. … It is only when the salvation of a remnant is ascribed to gratuitous election, we arrive at the knowledge that God saves whom he wills of his mere good pleasure, and does not pay a debt, a debt which never can be due. (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 21)

The doctrine of unconditional election, simply stated, is that God elects some to salvation and others to reprobation irrespective of anything that man has done or can do. Calvin goes on to say that it is inextricably tied to the doctrine of predestination and specifically contradicts the doctrine of free will. Calvin felt that even Martin Luther did not go far enough in his objections to salvation earned by works.

Indeed, if any one of the five points of Calvinism is denied, the Reformed heritage is completely lost. But it is certain that the truth of unconditional election stands at the foundation of them all. (The Five Points of Calvinism by Herman Hanko, Homer Hoeksema, and Gise J. Van Baren, Copyright 1976)

If unconditional election, and indeed the question of free will, is the foundation, then that foundation must be based in scripture. Of all the five points, this is probably the one for which its believers quote the most scripture.

For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. (Rom 8:29)
He hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will. (Eph 1:4-5)

This doctrine goes hand in glove with the doctrine of total depravity, that nobody can even think to do good and therefore cannot will to be saved. The doctrine leans heavily on an interpretation of the book of Galatians that equates “works of the Law” with any action of man. The argument that man cannot, of himself, achieve salvation is emphasized by Paul. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8)

Calvin appears to have had a proper understanding of this verse that many of his followers do not. Grammatically, in English and in Greek, the verse says that faith is the gift of God. (Today many say that the verse says grace is the gift, which cannot be.) God’s grace provides faith in man that leads to salvation. In the Calvinist view, this saving faith is granted to the elect and those to whom God does not explicitly grant this faith cannot achieve it. Thus the term unconditional election. This election is not based on any condition that if man does something God is obligated to save that person. Rather the only condition, if it can be called that, is that God is pleased to make the election.

There are many more passages that are quoted to support the idea that God makes the election. He elected Israel. He chose some of the prophets before their conception.

Along with unconditional election, though, comes the necessary thought of reprobation. If God elects some, then those he does not elect are necessarily chosen for reprobation.

Election itself could not exist without being opposed to reprobation. God is said to separate those whom he adopts to salvation. Whom God passes by, therefore, he reprobates, and from no other cause than his determination to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his children. (Institutes, Book III, Chapter 23)

Some might object that this appears unjust in God. Why would a just God choose to save some and not save others based on his own whim or will? Calvin’s answer to this objection is found in what Paul wrote to the Romans.

Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory. (Rom 9:20-23)

Logical Objections

The argument of God’s injustice is just one of several arguments against the doctrine of unconditional election raised by opponents. While these may seem to be valid objections, since they are based on human reasoning or emotional response they have very little validity.

Others might object to the fatalism of the doctrine. The elect have no say in their election, nor do the lost in their reprobation. Why then, should a person worry about salvation? If the ultimate fate of an individual is already decided, then a person might as well not (or in the Calvinist view, cannot) make an effort one way or the other. If saved, rejoice in salvation; if lost rejoice in sinning.

That fatalism raises another objection. Of what value is preaching? Evangelism is meaningless. If a person is elect, they are elect regardless of hearing the scriptures. If one is reprobate, then preaching is a waste of time. To this, Calvin responds, “As the wicked, with obstinate heart, despise them [exhortations], they will be a testimony against them when they stand at the judgment-seat of God; nay, they even now strike and lash their consciences.” (Institutes, Book II, Chapter 5) When the reprobate reject preaching it just adds to the evidence against them at judgement. But what need is there of forcing additional guilt? If a sinner is guilty and to beObjections based on human reasoning or emotional response have little validity. eternally punished, of what value is one additional charge? It is similar to sentencing a mass murderer to life imprisonment five consecutive times; how can he serve more than one of those sentences?

A similar objection questions the value of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus. If God has elected some to salvation through his sovereign will, then he does not need a sacrifice for sin. In fact, there is no value in the sacrifice. Calvin spends much time showing that salvation is in Christ alone, but he fails to show, other than that the scriptures say so, why this is true. The scriptures do show us that it is only in Jesus that we receive the blessings, and that the shedding of his blood was necessary. If election is unconditional, then it is not dependent upon the condition of a sacrifice.

All of these objections are essentially empty because they are based on man’s logic. Calvin responded to most of them, but with arguments that were essentially as empty.

Scriptural Objections

If we are to confront unconditional election as a false doctrine, we must do so on the basis of scripture. This should not degenerate to pitting one scripture against another, because the word of God does not contradict itself. Instead, we must show how the passages used by Calvin and his followers harmonize with those 200 or more passages that imply free will.

That there is an election by God we cannot dispute. Calvin proves that with many passages. What can be disputed is the unconditional election of a specific some and the concomitant reprobation of all others. To say that specific election is by God’s sovereign choice and that by making that choice he necessarily chooses the rest for reprobation flies in the face of scripture. God is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." (2 Pet 3:9) That does not sound like he has willed that the majority be condemned. "[God] will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4)

How then do we reconcile the seemingly contradictory passages? The concepts of corporate or conditional predestination (see Minutes With Messiah, July 2018) may help some resolve this. A closer look at some of the primary passages used by the Calvinists might be in order.

First it must be noted that certain specific individuals were called for a specific purpose. In that few would disagree with the passages about the predestination of Moses, David, or Jeremiah. The danger, though, is in extending the specific to the general. God told these individuals that they were chosen before birth for a specific task. Unless God reveals the same to us individually, we can’t say we have the same calling.

The bedrock passages on predestination (and therefore unconditional election) seem to be the passages in Romans and in the first chapter of Ephesians. The book of Romans has one basic purpose: to show that the gentiles were in no way superior or inferior to the Jews. The first three chapters (as we have it divided) show that the Jews are guilty, the gentiles are guilty, and therefore all are guilty. If the book is about corporate guilt, then it stands to reason that the predestination in chapter 8 is corporate rather than specific. The passage in Ephesians 1 uses almost identical language, and the context is also about gentiles and Jews rather than individual people.

The one absolute predestination was that Jesus would die to remove the sins of man. (Acts 2:23) We can say with absolute certainty, additionally, that God does not choose that certain individuals will be condemned; he knows it will happen, and it grieves him. This in itself implies a certain measure of free will, which is what the doctrine of unconditional election opposes.

The Calvinist argument that free will makes God entirely a puppet to man’s choices may also be seen to be spurious. Rather than weakening God, free will confirms God’s sovereignty. Logically (which we have granted is a weak argument), God’s sovereignty would be negated by taking away man’s will; rule over a nation of robots is not true sovereignty. Free will does not contradict the grace of God. Rather it emphasizes the importance of that grace.

In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ. (Eph 1:11-12)

Man may freely choose to accept the grace, or reject it. The atonement is available for all, by the grace of God, but not all will accept it. Which leads to the third of Calvin’s points.

Because Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement are two sides of one coin, a deeper analysis will be made, God willing, in the next issue of Minutes With Messiah.