A. Have you ever wondered whether you chose God or he chose you?
B. Further, if you chose God, does that mean you determined your salvation and God only responded to you?
C. Or did God choose you and you respond to him?
D. Such questions deal with the matter of election-a topic that has been a seedbed of debate among Christians from the earliest of Christian history and continues today.
E. It has also been a dividing line among Christians and denominations as well as a source of division.
F. The differences have been evident in our denomination and are of great interest at the present time.
G. The following is taken from my unpublished book, Grace Greater Than Sin.
A further question to consider as we examine God’s grace-and one that can certainly magnify our appreciation of it, is the matter of election or predestination. While not exactly the same, the second results in the first. This has been a hotly debated matter in Christian history with the word itself being variously defined. On one end of the spectrum, election is the choice of certain individuals for salvation. It can also refer to God’s choice of nations-such as Israel, as well as to his choice of individuals to carry out certain jobs. Jonah’s assignment to preach to the Ninevites would be an example. For the proponent of free will, election refers to the plan of God that all who believe in Christ will be saved. While it applies to individuals, the choice is the plan rather than the individual.
The doctrine of predestination originated in history with Augustine and was challenged by a British monk named Pelagius. New impetus was given to the discussion with the advent of the Protestant Reformation, materializing itself particularly in the persons of John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. It is a debate that continues to the present. While evangelical denominations hold to one of the two positions, there is a high degree of disagreement within the same denominations.
The debate involves such questions as “Does God pursue individuals based on good he sees in them?” Perhaps his foreknowledge allows him to see that one day they will believe in him. Or is his pursuit based solely on his grace and the fact that they are elect? These are questions that must be addressed as we examine this doctrine that has divided Christians. Where one settles on this issue will not affect a person’s salvation, but it will determine what part they see God as having had in the process itself. It is at this point that a healthy doctrine of sin is necessary (thus the extensive discussion in chapter three). Without this firm footing, one can interpret salvation as something other than deliverance from sin and can go even further by seeing no need of it or even believe that all have it whether they consciously exercise faith and repentance or not.
Before examining further elements of this subject, it is necessary to investigate the matter of special revelation. If a person is elect of God (in whatever way one might understand the meaning) and will thus be drawn to God by the Holy Spirit, it is advantageous to understand the various means that the Spirit works through. All of these means are a part of special revelation.
Defined, special revelation refers to the various means that God manifests himself to individuals that give that person enough information to enter into a relationship with him. As mentioned earlier, it is doubtful that general revelation is powerful enough to bring one into this relationship. As evidenced particularly in the Old Testament, God reveals himself in and through historical events. The reason for using the words “in” and “through” is because some theologians have understood a distinction in how God reveals himself in history. Revelation “in” history has led some to conclude that the Bible is not the Word of God but rather a record of God’s acts and humanity’s response to them. Revelation “through” history is associated with neo-orthodoxy. From this standpoint, God is experienced through the event. Revelation becomes personal. A more biblical view sees the historical revelation “as” history. Historical events do not merely contain revelation or become so because we experience it personally, but rather they are revelation.
Special revelation also involves divine speech or God speaking to people. How God does this overlaps with one’s understanding of inspiration, but the speech is there nevertheless. The divine word may come audibly or through an inward “voice” in the head of the one writing down the divine speech. The writer wrote what they heard God saying inaudibly in their minds. The latter is probably the means by which much of God’s divine speech was recorded. Another suggestion is that as the writer wrote, God placed in their minds what he wanted communicated. The writer may or may not have been aware that God was “inspiring” them, but the message they wrote was what God wanted communicated. God also spoke in visions and dreams. Historical events also come into play at this point-particularly in the Old Testament, as the writer interpreted the event and God’s message in it.
God’s most complete form of special revelation came in Christ through the incarnation. Those who associated with Jesus could actually hear the words of God even though God could not be seen in bodily form-yet in some way was seen in Jesus. People who viewed Jesus could also observe what godlikeness looked like.
Those living on this side of the cross will experience God’s special revelation in several ways. The major way is through the Bible, for it contains a record of the historical events as well as of the life of Christ-the means of special revelation that God has spoken through in the past. As an extension of this norm, God also speaks through the exercise of prayer, circumstances, others and the church. Any of the above means, however, spring from or are an enlargement of the original means of special revelation.
The words elect, election and choose are found some 47 to 48 times in the New Testament. For the predestinarian, to believe that God is totally responsible for our salvation by his grace yet at the same time deny the doctrine of election is to be guilty of gross inconsistency. If it takes God’s grace to procure our salvation, then how is one to receive it unless God elects them to it? If we answer by faith and good works, we have taken salvation from God and given it to individuals. These are not the basis of our salvation but the results of it. Were God to elect based on his knowledge that we would exercise faith and good works, it would be post destination rather than predestination.
Further, God’s foreordination or predestination to salvation cannot rest on his foreknowledge alone. Logically speaking, for something to be foreknown, it must be certain. We cannot know what does not or will not exist. If foreknowledge does not rest on actuality, the only things known are possibilities of what may happen in any given circumstance. Some theologians have proposed this idea of God, but this theory does not appear to match what the Bible teaches. The only things that are certain are those things predetermined. Seemingly, the reason God foreknows is because he has foreordained. The salvation of the elect is certain because he has decreed it to be so. As an examination of the doctrine will reveal, however, who the elect are has been variously interpreted as well as why they are elect. Additionally, according to the predestinarian’s definition of free will, there is no conflict with the above definition of election.
Believing that God saves by his grace alone and not because of something he sees in us or knows about us is known as “unconditional election.” It is similar to “unconditional love.” Love is given based on no condition just as God’s choice is made on no condition. On the scale of different theories concerning what this might mean, predestination is the most extreme. Within this philosophy are several breakdowns, each diminishing the harshness of the doctrine. Though of a technical nature, these divisions are important to understand, for where a person falls on the spectrum determines how much or little they think they contribute to their salvation and how much or little God contributes to it. And the latter is most important. Comfort comes in knowing that where one falls on the spectrum does not affect their salvation, but it will color their understanding of it.
The divisions within the various philosophies concern the beginning decrees of God and in what order they were made. Of course, to a degree, this is speculation for no one was there with him, but on the other hand, they are formulated based on the individual’s interpretation of various biblical passages. The reasonable outgrowth of the decree is not to be thought of in logical steps as they will be enumerated in this discussion. In the Divine mind they were one, but since humans are finite and think in logical sequences, the decrees are divided accordingly. We cannot see from the beginning to the end as a whole as God can. Our minds function within time periods while God has the ability to operate outside of time.
The verses most commonly appealed to in such a discussion are found in Romans 8:29-30 where Paul says that those God foreknew he predestined to be like his Son. Those who were predestined were in turn called and justified. All that awaits them is glorification.
The division names in any discussion of predestination are cumbersome but are placed under the labels of supralapsarian, infralapsarian, and sublapsarian. The first is the most extreme and the last the more moderate. No such divisional names are assigned when discussing the doctrine of free will, although proponents have delineated the process in logical steps. For example, Jacob Arminius-Calvin’s opponent in the doctrine, believed that God first designated Jesus to save humanity. The second decree was that all who believed in him could be saved. God gave enough grace to all humans to enable them to believe (known in theological circles as prevenient grace), so the choice belongs to them, not God. From this standpoint, predestination of individuals is based on God’s foreknowledge that they will believe. While this view makes God more palatable and gives individuals the power over their eternal destiny, we must examine whether or not this is what the Bible actually teaches.
The supralapsarian is a double predestinarian. In the very beginning, God decided to create some for heaven and others for hell. Following this decision, the actual creation of those individuals began to occur and will continue to the end of time. God then decided to give them the choice to rebel against him. He would in turn send Christ to die for those created for heaven-the elect. All that remained was to bring them to salvation. This would be accomplished through the “effectual calling” of the Holy Spirit. While God was under no obligation to save anyone, since he decreed to save some from all who were lost in the labyrinth of sin, he had to make himself known to them in some way.
Since the ways of God are so much higher than ours, God had to bring himself to the level of man, or at least to the point of tapping into his understanding. He did this in several ways. The first was his natural revelation. As previously discussed, this is the evidence of God in creation. Listening to the birds, observing the sun and moon, noticing the changing of the seasons, and in a thousand other ways, God can be seen and heard in his creation.
While this revelation made people responsible to God, it was not enough to bring them to salvation. Thus God designed other means to procure that much needed salvation of the elect. He gave his Word through inspired writers and sent his Word through the incarnation. During the short years of Jesus’ ministry, he confronted people with the demands of God. Just as God commanded the prophets before Christ to confront the people with his Word, so Jesus leaves his followers with the instruction to preach the Word to the uttermost parts of the earth. Through the preaching of the Word, the Holy Spirit would prick people’s hearts and bring about the regeneration of the elect. We might say God accommodated himself to us.
The above position is quite harsh and seems to conflict with the biblical picture of God. While God is sovereign in the matter of creation, providence and redemption, his sovereignty will only act in accordance with his character. To arbitrarily create some for heaven and others for hell is certainly out of character for the Divine Being. While God is certainly under no obligation to save anyone or even create anyone, he would certainly not decree to damn one to hell who had no previous chance to sin and thus demonstrate rebellion. Such a scenario obviously makes God a capricious being. We could readily see how some would object to worshipping a God like this. While a very strict philosophy, it does maintain that Christ only died for the elect and not everyone (This is known as “limited atonement” and will be discussed in detail in the next chapter when considering the sacrifice of Christ).
The infralapsarian scenario waters down to a degree the harsh nature of the previous view. In the decrees of the Divine Mind, God decided to create humans. He then permitted them to fall into sin. Seeing all humanity in their lost condition, God decided to elect some of them to salvation, being under no obligation to any of them. Christ was sent to die only for those God elected, and the Holy Spirit sent to procure their regeneration. The remainder were passed over and allowed to go their rebellious way with their fate a consequence of their decision.
This view of the elect and God makes him somewhat more palatable to the objector since God only elects from all who were lost. He does not create some to be lost, which is an important distinction. The individual at least has a chance to rebel before his fate is sealed, unlike in the previous schemata. Once again, Christ dies only for the elect and not all people. However, God is not unjust in his decision since he is under no obligation to save anyone.
A final breakdown of God’s decrees is referred to as sublapsarian. This view is not even recognized by some predestinarians because it waters down the philosophy significantly. As in previous views, God decreed to create humans and then permit them to fall into sin. This is where the similarity ends. Christ is then sent to pay the redemption price, but the price is sufficient for all, not just the elect. God decides to elect some for salvation out of all that Christ has died for. The Spirit then effects the regeneration. This removes a major controversial component of John Calvin’s teaching of limited atonement.
The above view departs from the previous two in that Christ dies for more than the elect. His death is sufficient for all but only efficient for the elect. This immediately, while sounding good, presents a problem because it diminishes the effects of Christ’s sacrifice. Under the supralapsarian and infralapsarian view, none of Christ’s payment is wasted. He dies only for the elect, and all of the elect are eventually saved. In the sublapsarian schema, the payment of Christ does not reach its full potential, for many of those he died for are never saved.
Our choices are between free will, predestination and a mixture somewhere in the middle. The Bible reminds us that many are called but few chosen. After telling the parable of the wedding banquet, Jesus says this very thing. (Matthew 22:14) Jesus also speaks of a broad and narrow path. The broad path leads to eternal misery but the narrow path to eternal life. Then he concludes that many will find the broad path but only a few the narrow way. (Matthew 7:13-14)
Believing that Christ actually died for everyone, then taking these and other verses into consideration, seems to imply that many for whom Christ died will spend an eternity separated from him. This is an untenable position for the hardcore predestinarian. This also puts us in the precarious position of worshipping a God who exacts his punishment twice: once on his Son and then on the individual for all of eternity. To get around this conclusion means we may have to reinterpret the meaning of the atonement. For the moderate predestinarian, the last position-sublapsarian, seems to preserve the nature and justice of God in a way that the other two do not.
The most famous proponent-though certainly not the first, of the predestinarian view is John Calvin. His doctrine of predestination can be summarized in three words: absolute, double and particular. It is absolute in that it rests solely with God. He does not elect based on his foreknowledge that particular human beings will achieve great things or even believe in him. When God looks into the future, he sees all of humanity totally depraved by sin.
Calvin also believed predestination was particular. God elects particular people, not groups. While God elected the nation of Israel as his covenant people, not all of Israel believed in him. Thus Christ did not die for everyone, but only for the elect. His atonement was limited. Interestingly enough, this doctrine was adopted by many Baptists in seventeenth-century England. They were known as Particular Baptists in contrast to General Baptists who believed in the unlimited scope of Christ’s atonement.
For Calvin, predestination was double. God ordained some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation. Since everyone was under condemnation anyway, God was not unjust in this decision. He referred to this belief as the “horrible decree.” It bears mentioning that this foreordination to reprobation-at least in the minds of many predestinarians, is simply God passing by those who deserve punishment for their sins anyway. It does not necessarily entail believing God created some for damnation with no hope of salvation even if they desired it.
Calvin’s statement on predestination was so definitive that the doctrine is still closely associated with him. While he believed in the practical significance of studying the doctrine, he also warned against delving too deeply into the well. He also disagreed with critics who said believing his doctrine would lead to a morally careless life. He contended to the contrary that knowledge of one’s election would bring a holy lifestyle.
Several types of election are recorded in the Bible. One is national election, and it is illustrated in the nation of Israel. God chose them as his people and entered into a covenant with them. The Bible is also clear that not all who belonged to the nation were indeed God’s children. Paul, in his Romans treatise, maintains that not all who descended from Israel were Israel. (Romans 9:6) This is similar to what Jesus taught when he said that not all who called him Lord would enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 7:21)
National identity was not equal with salvation. There were many in Israel who perished. God also lets them know that there was nothing special about them that led to their election. Moses reminded the people that they were not chosen because of their number for they were the fewest of all peoples. It was simply because the Lord loved them that he delivered them from Egyptian slavery. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8) Further, national Israel becomes a symbol for the elect of all time as God’s grace extends to spiritual Israel. According to Paul’s teaching, all who believe by faith are children of Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. (Galatians 3:7)
There is another example of a national election of sorts from the early church. Paul was forbidden by the Spirit to preach the gospel in the province of Asia. Instead, a man appeared to him and beckoned him to Macedonia. Thus the gospel spread to Europe and eventually to the Americas, going West instead of East. Had it gone East, those in the West may have been pagans and those in the Far East Christian. This resulted from the sovereign choice of God to point the gospel in a certain direction.
For the predestinarian, election is individual where it concerns salvation. Paul emphasizes this in Ephesians when he says that God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world for the purpose of being holy and blameless. This choosing was a predestination to be adopted as his sons and daughters through faith in Christ. (1:4-5) A further verse in Acts is often appealed to as proof. Luke says that when the Gentiles in Antioch heard the gospel message preached by Paul that they were glad, and all who had been “appointed” for eternal life believed. (13:48)
There are also many examples of individual election. Abram lived in a pagan land, but God called him from there to a land he had never observed before. There is no biblical evidence to support the conclusion that God saw something good in him. From all people on the earth, he simply chose him to make a great nation of. Abraham demonstrated his willingness to obey God’s command, and in that we might say he had a choice, but it was the choice of God that began the process.
The Bible is replete with examples of God electing people to his service and this out of or in connection with their already present faith in him. Noah was chosen to warn his world of an ensuing flood, a flood that God would send because of their wickedness. He was allowed to take any with him into the ark of refuge that would come by faith. Sadly, only his family followed.
Moses was called to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. Individual judges were selected to deliver a particular tribe in Israel from their enemies. The prophets were called to deliver messages of doom to those who were rebelling against the commands of God. Jesus handpicked his disciples. Paul was blinded by God on the Damascus Road. Though a godly individual before the experience, he was not a believer in the risen Christ. Following this incident, he would be sent as an apostle to the Gentiles.
Isaiah is a classic example of God’s selection of an individual for his service. Chapter six contains the story of his call experience where he claims to see God high and lifted up. God appeared to him in all of his majesty and glory. As he saw God, he was impressed with his personal sinfulness and cried out that he was a ruined man. (6:5) This was his assessment of his life. Then in a dramatic and painful episode, God removes that sin to prepare him for service. Only after God cleaned him up would he offer himself in service to God. (6:8) We can safely conclude that Isaiah realized it was nothing good in him that led God to elect him for this duty.
John the Baptist is another classic example. The Bible says he was filled with the Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. (Luke 1:15) Taken literally, without any interpretation, it is difficult to explain this any other way than to say he was elected to salvation by God before he ever had an opportunity to do any good deed or place his faith in a Jesus he had never seen. Now we might argue that God knew he would believe and elected him based on that foreknowledge, but that does not explain how he was filled with the Spirit before birth. Surely, he could not believe in the womb before he ever took his first breath of life.
From the predestinarian viewpoint, God’s plan is always prior to that of humans while those who believe in free will normally see God responding to the action of the individual. According to the prior viewpoint, our actions and decisions become a consequence of what God has already decided. This is not only true in the matter of salvation but in all of our other actions and decisions. God determines what we will do, and he is not dependant on what we decide. God renders it certain that individuals will act in a particular way. At the same time, they would not rule out some form of free will since they do not view humans as mere robots carrying out the will of a dominant deity.
Since God is the creator and Lord of all things, he is free to do as he chooses. Since he is not answerable to humanity, they are not in a position to question or judge his actions. One passage appealed to in support of such a conclusion is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard as related by Jesus. Workers were hired at different times of the day. Those hired earlier in the day assumed their pay would be greater than those who had worked a shorter period of time. At the end of the day, the master chose to pay them all the same wages. When those hired earlier complained, he explained to them that he could do what he wanted with what was his. (Matthew 20:1-16)
Another important passage is found in Romans, Referring to a passage in Isaiah, Paul proposes the question as to what right humans have to talk back to God. How can we question the one who formed us about our form or about decisions he makes that affect our lives and even our eternity? The potter has control over the clay to make whatever he wants from it. (9:20-21)
What predestinarians believe about election as it relates to God’s grace can be summed up in the following statements. First, it is an expression of God’s sovereign will that is totally independent of the person. Second, it is efficacious. Those whom God chooses will be brought to salvation by the power of his Spirit and will persevere to the end. Additionally, election is from eternity. God made the decision before he ever created mankind. Fourth, it is unconditional. It is not based on something good God saw in the person, notable acts he foresees them doing or even that they would believe when presented with the gospel. Finally, it is immutable. This has to do with the unchanging nature of God and his election.
As mentioned, a double predestinarian (one who holds to the supralapsarian view) believes in unconditional election to damnation. Just as some are elected to salvation, some are to damnation as well. This is a harsh view but one they find scriptural support for. As previously mentioned, however, this means that God allows some to go their own sinful and desired way and pay the punishment for their choice. He does not force them in that path, but simply allows the choices of their sinful nature to realize their fruition.
Some of Paul’s writings in Romans seem to support their conclusion. He speaks of Pharaoh (ruler of Egypt) and Esau (Jacob’s brother) as being raised up by God for the specific purpose in which he used them. God used Pharaoh for his glory by demonstrating his ability to defeat him and deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage.
Concerning Esau, Paul says that God chose his brother over him before they were born or had an opportunity to choose right or wrong. The choice had to do with God’s purpose in election which was that the older would serve the younger. Then it is referenced that Jacob was loved by God but Esau was hated. (Romans 9:10-13) He then concludes that the election does not depend on man’s desire or effort but rather on God’s mercy. (16)
In speaking of Pharaoh, Paul references God’s message to Pharaoh as to why he was created in the first place. It was for the sole purpose of displaying God’s power through him so that God’s name would be proclaimed to the earth’s inhabitants. (Romans 9:17) Such decisions, from the predestinarian view, are completely left up to God and should not be questioned.
Proponents of free will who believe that in order for God to be fair he must let the gospel be offered to everyone and that everyone must have a choice to respond-and actually has the ability to respond, do not avoid all problems either. If election is based on foreknowledge that someone will believe, then why does God create people whom he knows will not believe but who will continue in their sins and spend an eternity in hell? Why doesn’t he create only those he knows will accept his Son’s sacrifice? Further, if such a state of affairs will frustrate and upset God-since he desires that none perish, why does he form them in their mother’s wombs?
Certainly not all hold to such a strict view of election. Those who fall more on the free will side of the scale proffer that election has more to do with God’s plan than the individual. Simply stated, God does not elect individuals but rather the way by which they must come to him and that is by faith in Christ. Predestinarians reject such thinking by saying that such an explanation of election does not explain the many passages and instances where individual election is definitely in view. This is not to say that God has not elected the way, for he has. Jesus himself stated that he was the way, the truth and the life and that no one could come to the Father except by him. (John 14:6) For the predestinarian, God has elected the way and the individual, which greatly magnifies the grace of God-at least as they interpret it.
Unconditional election, simply put, means God elects no one to salvation based on any good he sees in them or on the fact that he knows they will believe (foreknowledge). Unconditional means not based on any condition. The strict predestinarian believes this election took place before God created anyone. God decreed it before time began. He unconditionally elected some for glory and some for eternal damnation. Concerning God’s choosing some out of the mass of lost humanity that he knew would come into being, Jesus told people that if they belonged the world the world would love them. However, they did not belong to the world for he had chosen them out of it as his own. (John 15:19)
The Westminster Confession states the doctrine as follows: “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestined to everlasting life, and others are foreordained to everlasting death. These angels and men, thus predestined and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it cannot be either increased or diminished.” Note also that according to this viewpoint, the number of elect is set according the decree of God.
Concerning the reprobate, the Confession says; “The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the inscrutable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.”
According to this view of God’s grace and mode of operation, the reprobation of the non-elect serves several purposes for the elect. First, it reminds them of what they would have suffered if not for the grace of God. Second, it gives them a motive to thank God. Additionally, they are led to a deeper level of trust in a God who meets all their needs. Fourth, a sense of what God has done for them and delivered them from provokes a great love for their heavenly Father. Next, it leads them to hate sin, and finally it ensues in a closer walk with God and with each other.
Many Christians object strenuously to such a picture of God saying it portrays a cruel God who will reject many who want to be saved. But the predestinarian responds by saying that none who come will be rejected. However, only the elect will come. Predestinarians maintain that free will proponents give a gross distortion when they picture God struggling with disobedient humans, trying desperately to do what he cannot do because of their rebellious wills. He tries desperately to save but only succeeds in a few cases. The predestinarian proposes a powerful God who accomplishes what he decrees. The non-elect-as they experience eternal condemnation, are an eternal exhibition of the justice of God and his hatred for sin and are only experiencing the just consequence of their choice to reject him.
For the predestinarian who wants to soften the blow of double predestination, there is the proposition that God’s election takes place after creation. God decided to create, then give humans the choice to follow him or not. God knew they would choose the path of rebellion, and this would lead to the sin nature plaguing all individuals. From the entire mass of lost humanity-which God is able to see in one full glance, he would choose some for salvation and this unconditionally. The choice had to be unconditional for there was nothing good in them to base his selection on.
The above view of election seems fairer and more in line with their view of God’s nature. Since no one deserved God’s mercy, a complaint cannot be lodged against him choosing some when he is under no obligation to choose any. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that we are all unclean and even our meritorious acts are not capable of saving us. (Isaiah 64:6)
Predestinarians propose that advocates of free will place God under obligation to humanity by adhering to a doctrine which maintains that a person has the ability to choose or reject salvation. But this objection is met by the argument that man can choose but only in the realm of his nature, which is bound by sin. Paul, in explaining that our old self was crucified with Christ, reminds us that this took place so we would no longer be slaves to sin. (Romans 6:6)
God cannot be placed under obligation to us because he is God. Rather, we are obligated to him. We are responsible for our sins whether we like it or not. Our situation in life, as grievous as it is, is our fault and not God’s. We choose to sin. He does not make us sin. Thus that God chooses to save any of us is a miracle in itself. He would be perfectly just in letting us all perish. This all Christians can agree on no matter what we may believe about free will and predestination.
Believing in God’s unconditional election does not necessarily negate the possibility of believing in free will also. Sin has removed our ability to exercise our freedom properly. Our fallen nature can be compared to a bird with a broken wing. The bird is free to fly but cannot because of its impending situation. In like manner, humanity is free to come to God but cannot because of our sinful condition. It is only as the grace of God operates on our life that we are able to see the folly of loving sin. Only as we understand this folly can we come to Christ.
Perhaps an analogy might help in understanding unconditional election. Picture an orphanage filled with children who have no parents or whose parents no longer want them. Then imagine a lady who wants a child, just one child, but cannot have any. She resorts to the only method she knows: adoption. Keeping in mind that she is under no obligation to any of these unfortunate children, she decides to adopt only one. The other children that she does not choose cannot rightfully cry that she is being unfair, for she is under no obligation to relieve any of them from their miserable condition.
The above illustration can aid in understanding the unconditional election of God. We are orphans, separated from God by our sin. He is our heavenly parent. He was under no obligation to restore that relationship because we left him like the prodigal son. That he chooses to adopt some of us when he is not obligated to any of us demonstrates his amazing grace. How can any of us cry “Unfair?” Nor can we consider foreknowledge and election to be the same. God certainly is aware of all who will believe and the good things they will do, but his foreknowledge of this has no bearing on his election. Election is based solely on his grace and is for his glory.
If this tenet seems harsh, it is because we often tend to hold a distorted view of God. When rightly understood, unconditional election in no way calls into question the justice of God. Our problem often lies in an elevated view of ourselves instead of seeing humanity as God’s Word describes it. It is in our nature to think we are self sustaining and good in our person. The difficulty lies in accepting God’s assessment when not in a relationship with him. If nothing more, a predestinarian view promotes a deep sense of humility and at the same time an exalted view of God.
Our election is something we look back on. At the same time, our salvation is not something we boast about. We should never play the “I’m in, you’re out” game. Such leads to pride which the Bible repeatedly warns against. Our perspective should be expressed in the words of John Newton’s hymn, “Amazing Grace.” We love God because he first loved us. (I John 4:19)
God’s children should be overcome with humility. Seeing our unworthiness yet witnessing God’s love for us in election should stir in us a most humbling attitude no matter how we define and interpret election. The apostle reminds us that God demonstrated his love toward us by letting Christ die for us while we were still sinners. If we were already good, there would have been no reason for the cross. (Romans 5:7-8)
Those who object to a God who loves and saves only the elect often appeal to John 3:16. This verse proclaims God’s love for the entire world. Through Christ, anyone who believes can have eternal life and will not perish. Another verse is found in Ezekiel 33:11. Here God proclaims that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but would rather they turn from their sinful ways and thereby receive life. A further verse is located in II Peter 3:9: Peter explains the apparent slowness of Christ’s return by coupling it with a reminder of God’s patience. He desires that any and everyone repent.
If God truly loves all then he must at least make some attempt to save all, so the argument for free will contends. Strict predestinarians would not believe that God loves all people or at least that he does not love them equally. He has a greater love for the elect. Again, we must caution ourselves against placing God under obligation to save us. He may love what he created, but humanity chose to rebel against him. This does not in turn obligate him to save them. The above verses, however, cannot be dismissed lightly.
John Calvin, the foremost advocate for predestination, explained John 3:16 by saying that the evangelist used the all inclusive term “whosoever” to cut off any excuse by unbelievers. By inviting all, they could not accuse God of unfairness. However, while eternal life is promised to all who believe, only the elect have their eyes opened that they might believe. Calvin believed the verse simply attested to God’s love for the human race.
Other verses that provide difficulties for the predestinarian are found in Mark’s gospel. Concerning the two most important commandments, Jesus reminded his listeners that they were to love God with all their soul, mind and strength and their neighbors as themselves. (12:29-31) It seems incongruous that Jesus would do something and command humanity to do something that even God does not do. And surely Jesus is not referring to our “elect” neighbors, as some stringent predestinarians would have the “world” of John 3:16 refer to for we have no way of knowing who the “elect” are.
Additionally, the Bible maintains that Jesus fulfilled the law in every respect. Thus he must have loved everyone. Since he and the Father are one, God must in some sense love all people also, though not equally, at least for the predestinarian. Rather than limit the love of God, as some attempt to do, we should let John 3:16 speak of the wonder of God’s love, a love that reaches fruition in the election of individuals to salvation.
We can also offer Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler as proof of his love for the non-elect. The young man asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus quoted some of the commandments, to which the young man replied that he had obeyed them. Before commanding him to sell all his possessions and follow him-a request that drove him away, the Bible says that Jesus looked upon him with love. (Mark 10:21)
There are several conclusions we can reach at this juncture. God loves only the elect. The converse is that he hates the wicked. Further, God has a special love for the elect, shown graphically in his calling them to salvation. Finally, God loves all people but is not under obligation to save them just because he loves them. The second and/or third seem more preferable of consideration.
In order to maintain what appears to be a harsh position, predestinarians propose that while God has a love for all humanity he does not love them all equally. Just as humans have different degrees of love for others which in turn affects whom we socialize with, so God could do the same. He has a general love for all but chooses to enter a relationship only with the elect. If God chooses to love sinners, and obviously he does, it results from his own sovereign choice and not because he is required to. Believing in individual election certainly means that God’s love for them is superior. At the same time, this does not mean that God does not have compassion, mercy, goodness and love for the non-elect. The Ezekiel passage referenced earlier is proof of this conclusion.
God’s compassionate love does have limits. A person can spurn, reject and resist that love. From a predestinarian view, however, this can only be done for so long if the person is of the elect. Eventually, they will respond. Whereas God’s love should be accepted by the non-elect sinner, because of the wickedness of his heart he will reject it. When God’s love is rejected and the sinner continues in that wickedness, God’s love will express itself in holy hatred and ultimately lead to eternal death. The psalmist spoke of how the Lord examines the righteous but hates those who are wicked and love violence. (Psalm 11:5)
God’s hatred for the wicked is of course not comparable to the hatred humans possess. His is a holy abhorrence for sin because of his righteous nature. Thus the fact that God has a love for all humanity does not require him to save all. This destroys the argument of the Universalist.
So while God has a general love that is universally experienced by all, he has a special love for his children. John maintained that Jesus’ expression of his love on the cross demonstrated his love to its fullest extent. (John 13:1) The expression in Greek is eis telos and can mean “completely, perfectly, fully, or comprehensively to the uttermost.” God’s love finds its fullest expression in his love for the elect. He expresses this love by making us joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), by conforming us to his image (Romans 8:29), and by bestowing the riches of his grace upon us.
Christ’s love for the elect is unconditional. This is viewed regularly in Jesus’ encounter with his followers, especially his disciples. They were often cowardly. In fact, as he hung on the cross, most of them deserted him. They were often disloyal and frightened. Some of them, even after Jesus demonstrated servanthood by washing their feet, argued about which of them was the greatest. In spite of their actions, Jesus loved them and attempted to get them to understand who he truly was and what their responsibilities were in light of their relationship with him. Jesus did not repay them with fairness but with unconditional love.
Eternality of love is also captured in the term eis telos. Christ’s love for his elect will never end. Jesus loved his followers to the end of his life, to the end of their life, and will love them throughout eternity. Jesus told his followers he was going to prepare a place for them and would return to take them where he was. He assured them that there was sufficient room in heaven for all his children and that he would return to get those who belonged to him. (John 14:2-3) God’s particular love for his children extends from eternity past to eternity future.
Such a love as this does not negate God’s anger toward the wicked. Psalm 7:11 reminds us that God is a righteous judge who expresses his wrath against the wicked every day. The human experience reminds us that it is very possible to love someone we are angry with. A parent does not cease to love their child who has provoked their wrath through some wrongful behavior.
Those who take exception with unconditional and individual election maintain it is not fair for God to deny some the chance to accept him and that this teaching is an unfair expression of his grace. This is a true argument. Fairness would mean everyone should receive what they deserve. Because of our sinfulness, eternal separation from God is what we deserve. It is only the mercy and grace of God that leads him to save us from our awful fate. Those who hold to the predestinarian view of election maintain that for God to elect some when he is under no obligation to any is certainly a wonderful demonstration of his love and mercy. In addition, fairness is not the issue in election; grace is.
The doctrinal issue of unconditional election only makes logical sense if humanity is in the terrible state that the Bible places them in. If our natural condition is one of total depravity, only election will bring us out. If we are totally wicked in our nature then only God’s grace can bring us out of our terrible dilemma. We cannot deliver ourselves but must depend solely on God. That he chooses to save any is truly a marvel.
One verse that seems to contradict the above position of predestination and point more toward foreordination as the basis of election is found in Romans 8:29. This order of events stands in sharp contrast to those proffered by the predestinarian. However, the foreknowledge referenced is more than just knowing someone or something about them. The idea is that God knows them intimately. He does so because he has predestined them to salvation. Additionally, the verse does not say that they were foreknown for their good works, as if this would be the reason God would decree their salvation.
Free will proponents do not avoid all problems either by teaching that God elects based on his foreknowledge that a person will believe and do good works. This belief, however, avoids the harshness that God elects some to salvation and passes others by. Yet, if God foreknows all things, why would he create those he knows will not accept him? These are difficult questions.
The word foreknowledge is never used to refer to advance knowledge of what a person will or might do, though God certainly knows that too. It is rather used of the person. God foreknows the person, not their actions, such as that they might believe in him. That person is then affected by the foreknowledge.
Other than in the book of Romans, there are only two other Scriptural references where foreknowledge is used, and in each one the idea of election is involved. Acts 2:23 is the first, and it speaks of Jesus being foreknown by God. The second is in I Peter 1:2. Again the foreknowledge refers to the election of certain people.
Many who criticize the predestinarian’s interpretation of election do so because they feel it leads to only a small number of people experiencing salvation. Most adherents of predestination, however, believe no such thing. Why believe God would be so narrow as to save only a few? Why further take pride in ourselves as being one of the few? There is no need to place a narrow hedge about God’s grace. Instead, we might believe the elect to compose a great multitude of people. John describes a heavenly scene where there is a great multitude from all nations standing around God’s throne and worshipping him. The number was so great that it was beyond calculation. (Revelation 7:9)
Opponents might still offer Jesus’ teaching about a broad and narrow way that leads to different destinies. (Matthew 7:13-14) The narrow way leads to eternal life while the broad way leads to eternal death. He concludes by saying that few go the narrow way but many the broad. It is possible, however, that he was speaking to his generation at this point. More likely, he means that of all who will live while time exists, more will choose the broad way than the narrow.
Having considered the various matters in the idea of God’s election, it is now necessary to try and decipher the confusion. No one would deny that the Bible teaches election. The differences arise over what is meant by the term. Is election directed toward a person or does it concern the plan of God to save people through Christ? Additionally, what place does God’s foreknowledge play-if any, in the election? Our answer will not affect the outcome of our salvation, but it may color our conclusions about ourselves, God’s nature and God’s grace.
While the earlier discussed divisions among predestinarians are confusing and some say unnecessary, they are important. A person who believes in predestination must determine whether they are of the supralapsarian, infralapsarian or sublapsarian persuasion. Their position will color their conclusions on the important verses concerning election.
Some who dispute the validity of predestination and its teachings concerning election believe the election is in Christ and refers to God’s method of saving people-through faith in Christ. Those who accept Christ are the elect because they have obeyed God’s plan for how salvation will take place. This still leaves us with the fact that not everyone is elect because not everyone will respond to the gospel. Of course, in this line of thought, they are not elect by their own free choice. Still, we are left with a dividing point between the elect and non-elect.
While the elect are certainly elect in Christ, which refers to participating in God’s plan for salvation, the weight of biblical evidence still points to election as directed at individuals, not simply some plan or program. Even in the Old Testament where Israel is the elect of God, we are reminded that not all who belonged to the nation were true followers of God. (Romans 9:6) There was election of particular individuals even though they could still be considered that because they chose to follow Israel’s God.
Those who appeal to verses telling of how God is not willing that any should perish or that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (as already referenced) do not affect the predestinarian’s doctrine of election. Since God is the creator of all life, he certainly takes no pleasure in seeing any of his creation rebel and perish because of it. God is not a deity who receives pleasure when individuals do not turn to him for salvation which in turn gives him the opportunity to see them punished for all of eternity.
If election is directed toward individuals, the question of why God does not elect all to salvation is admirable. Yet it is perfectly possible and acceptable for God to love all without saving all. We must remember that God did not leave us. We left him. This being the case, he is not required to save anyone. For some reason, the human mind wants to obligate God. We cannot do this nor is there any justification for this path. Our understanding of the atonement (discussed in the next chapter) and its extent will affect our position on this matter.
Predestinarians do not see God exerting any outside force on the non-elect to keep them from coming to him. It is our sinful nature that keeps us from him. Until this is changed by our repentance (change of mind and direction) and faith, we cannot come to God. That God chooses to give that ability to any is amazing and quite unjust. If he was to be completely fair, he would have to let us all perish. The predestinarian simply believes that God gives that ability to the elect only and passes the others by. Or rather lets them go their own sinful way by their own choice. We should not question the choices God makes.
When God made the choice of who was going to be among the elect determines where a predestinarian falls in the various modes of thought. Not all predestinarians believe in double predestination (supralapsarian) as John Calvin did. It is however the staunchest view of God and untenable to many predestinarians.
Many who adhere to predestinarian thought fall in the sublapsarian camp. This is the most moderate form. For them, the sacrifice of Christ was sufficient to save all who believe but will in fact only save those God has elected to salvation. This removes the stigma that Christ did not die for all. This view also attempts to maintain the character and nature of God portrayed in Scripture. He is not a harsh deity who determines before creation that he will indiscriminately create one for hell and another for heaven. Rather, he gives individuals the choice to rebel or not. Knowing they will rebel, he decides to send his Son to pay for their sins, a sacrifice that is sufficient for all. Then out of the host of lost humanity, he chooses to save some to enjoy salvation while leaving others to their fate of rebellion.
Being elect as defined by the predestinarian does not relieve one of the responsibilities of responding to God’s call nor from living a life of holiness thereafter. However, they are only able to respond in time when God changes their nature and gives them the ability and desire to come to him. What distinguishes the predestinarian from the one who adheres to total free will is not God’s decree to save some and bypass others but the fact that God chooses to elect some based on his sovereign choice alone rather than on some good work he foresees that person will do, even if it includes believing.
An example would be a criminal pardoned by the governor of some state. The prisoner is locked away with no hope for parole. Through a stroke of good fortune, the governor decides to pardon him. When the pardon is official, the prisoner is set free to leave his cell. Yet the prisoner must respond to that offer of freedom. He may choose to stay in the cell and refuse the pardon. This, however, is unlikely. Just as the prisoner must respond to the offer of pardon, so the elect of God are still responsible for heeding the effectual call of God. How glorious the grace of God that leads him to offer salvation when he is under no obligation to help us at all.
One final matter that is often discussed when considering the meaning of election is the eternal destiny of infants who die in infancy. If election does indeed refer to the individual-as predestinarians maintain, then are some infants lost? After all, we all enter the world with the stain of “original sin” and are thus guilty before God. While this is true, most that hold to predestination see the grace of God as extending to all who die in infancy. This is not to say that all infants are “elect” but that those who die in infancy are. Non elect infants will live beyond the age of accountability and eventually express their non election in acts of “actual sin.” Those who maintain the free will of the individual would not contend with the above mindset. Even though infants have not chosen Christ by their own free choice, neither have they rejected him, not having had the chance because they have not reached the age where they have recognized and actually committed sin. In these cases, God’s grace covers them. It would be a most unfeeling individual indeed who would view God as allowing infants to suffer eternally in hell. It also seems quite out of character for the God revealed in Scripture.
Our position about God’s grace as observed in his choice (election) is three-fold. We can view election as God’s personal choice of individuals for salvation based on nothing but that. It has nothing to do with foreknowledge that they will believe and is not based on any good words they may do. It is simply God’s sovereign choice to deliver them from their sinful condition. This is the position of the predestinarian. A second choice is to view election as God’s personal choice of individuals, but his choice is based on his foreknowledge that they will believe. While the previous position limits the number who will be saved, this view opens the opportunity to all but limits it to those who respond to God’s invitation. A final choice maintains that election refers to the plan of God to save people through Christ based on his work and Calvary and not individuals, even though individuals are obviously involved in the process. We are elect in Christ.
Each believer must examine the passages that have been referenced-as well as others that are pertinent, for themselves and make their own conclusions, bearing in mind that whatever conclusion they make has no bearing on their salvation. If they have accepted Christ, they are “elect” and have been made the recipient of his grace. It is also important to avoid arguments and division with other believers where one’s definition is concerned. Serious students of God’s Word have held all three positions throughout Christian history and still do at present.
There are some common objections to the entire thought of predestination and especially where it relates to election. One is that it evolves into fatalism. While it is true that both fields of thought share some common points, there are wide differences in the conclusions. Fatalism does propose that “whatever will be will be.” Predestination proposes that whatever God has decreed (which is everything) will come to pass. In that sense, these two philosophies share a commonality. Where the roads divide, however, is that one sees all things coming to pass by chance or blind fate while the other views events as occurring because of divine providence and because a higher power has decreed that they transpire. That God has decreed the ends does not eliminate the means that bring the final destination.
A further objection is that election is inconsistent with the free will of man, but rightly understood this objection must be discarded. While it is true that Adam and Eve were the only humans who had a truly free will, all individuals still possess it in that no outside force-God included, forces them to act in any certain way. They are free to act according to the dictates of their nature. The problem lies in that their nature will always lead them away from God. Nevertheless, it is a course they freely take.
Those who object to predestination thought also propose that it makes God the author of evil. Correctly understood, however, such a conclusion is not necessary. While sin is within his plan-otherwise there would be forces occurring outside the sovereign rule of God, he did not create it but simply allows it and even overrules it and brings good out of evil circumstances as well as out of the sinful actions of men. God is not the author of sin, nor does he tempt anyone to commit sin.
Those who react adversely to the matter of predestination also state that such a philosophy takes away a person’s initiative. If God has all things planned out, and they will come to pass no matter the actions of humanity, what then is the use for any action, initiative or the setting of goals? But believing that God has ordained the ends does not alleviate our need to exert energy, for he has also ordained the means to those ends, and this is where humanity’s responsibility enters.
If God has indeed only selected some individuals to salvation, does this make him a respecter of person? Herein is a further objection against predestination and its accompanying doctrine of election. This objection is met by a complete understanding of the doctrine of sin. If all are sinners, then God is not unjust in choosing some for salvation when he is under no obligation to choose any. Complete justice on his part would result in all paying the penalty of their sin by an eternity in hell. Nor is he partial, for his election extends to all manner of persons from different races, cultures and social levels. The one who holds to free will and the universal extent of the gospel does not escape this difficulty either, for they have to explain why God does not eliminate sin and why he allows the righteous to suffer. And after all, if Christ’s death actually paid for sin-rather than just making salvation possible, why then are not all people saved?
Nor does unconditional and individual election-at least to the predestinarian, preclude a sincere offer of the gospel to all people. Though God knows who the elect are, we do not. Therefore, the church must extend the salvation offer to all people and allow God to work in the hearts of those who are his elect. Additionally, the gospel offer does have some redeeming effects even on those who will not accept it as it makes them aware of God’s standards. God’s Spirit can then work on them in a general sense to convict them of the immoral nature associated with their actions and attitudes.
A final objection is that predestination and election contradict the universalistic Bible passages that use such words as “all” and “world.” However, a thorough biblical examination of these words will readily reveal that “all” and “world” are not always used to mean every single individual.
While the above objections will not suffice for the one who believes in the free will of the individual as well as the universal atonement of Christ, they are worthy of consideration when formulating one’s doctrine of election.
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