Calvinism 101: Unconditional Election
When it comes to the doctrine of election, the bottom line is this: Does God choose us for salvation because we first choose Him; or do we choose Him because He first chose us?
Christians of a non- or anti-Calvinist persuasion usually “choose” the former position (pun intended); whereas Christians of a Reformed and Calvinist persuasion affirm the latter.
Those who opt for the former position believe that God’s election of us is conditioned upon something that He sees in us or something we do to earn His choice; whereas Calvinists believe that God’s choice of us in Christ is not conditioned upon anything that God sees in us, whether foreseen faith or works or both; hence the Calvinist view is that God’s election of us is unconditional. God’s choice of us in not conditioned upon anything in human beings that moves God to choose them. Rather, it is because God has chosen them in His grace that His chosen ones respond to His gracious initiative with a living faith, a genuine repentance from sin, and an earnest life of discipleship.
The Bible clearly teaches a doctrine of election. Many passages in both the Old and the New Testaments affirm that God “chooses”, “elects” and “predestines” a select number of people. Consider just a small sampling of Scripture passages on this topic:
“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, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8, ESV; emphasis added)
“Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, O offspring of Abraham, his servant, children of Jacob, his chosen ones!” (Psalm 105:5-6, ESV; emphasis added)
“For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” (Jesus Christ, in Matthew 24:24, ESV; emphasis added)
“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.” (Romans 8:29, ESV; emphasis added)
“Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” (Romans 8:33, ESV; emphasis added)
“And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call – she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”” (Romans 9:10-12, ESV; emphasis added)
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved…In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will…” (Ephesians 1:3-6, 11, ESV; emphasis added)
“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the dispersion…” (First Peter 1:1a, ESV; emphasis added)
And this is just a small sampling of such passages.
As the reader can hopefully see, it is only by a studied avoidance of passages like these that the careful Bible reader can miss being confronted with the biblical doctrines of election and its related doctrine, predestination. But the issue is, how are such passages to be understood? Does a correct understanding of such passages lead to a Calvinistic or a non-Calvinistic doctrine of election and predestination?
We in the Reformed Faith believe that a careful, contextual study of such passages supports the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election, and not non-Calvinist doctrines that result in one way or another in a conditional understanding of election.
Some non-Calvinists appeal to passages which speak of our election in Christ being based upon God’s “foreknowledge” (for example, see Romans 8:29 and First Peter 1:1-2). The “foreknowledge” view of election basically teaching that God chose to save us believers even before He created the world because He foresaw in the future that at some point in our lives we would freely choose to accept Christ as our Savior.
Certainly we Calvinists don’t deny that God foresees everything that happens in the future, including our future choices. (We would point out, however, that the reason God is able to do this is because God is absolutely sovereign and has foreordained everything that comes to pass, as taught in passages such as Ephesians 1:11. The reason that God can foresee the future is not only due to His omniscience, but also because He has planned the future in His eternal decree.) However, we would point out that our non-Calvinist friends have misunderstood the biblical concept of “foreknowledge”.
When the Bible speaks of God “foreknowing” someone, it doesn’t simply mean that God foresees the choices that individual will make. Rather, just as Adam is said to have “known” his wife Eve in the sense of loving her intimately in the context of the covenant of marriage (see, for example, Genesis 4:1), God “knows” us believers in the sense of loving us with a special, covenantal, saving love. Thus, when the Bible talks about God “foreknowing” individuals, it means that He has “fore-loved” them – i.e., He has chosen to love them in Christ with a saving love even from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)! So the “foreknowledge” view of election must be rejected as a false view based upon a misinterpretation of certain biblical passages.
Others seek to explain biblical reference to election by putting forward a doctrine of corporate election. In other words, it is claimed that in the Bible God doesn’t choose individuals for salvation; rather, He chooses corporate groups (Israel in the Old Testament, the Church in the New Testament). In this view the way to be identified as belonging to God’s “chosen” and “predestined” people is by choosing to identify yourself with the company of those who are followers of Jesus Christ – in other words, by choosing to believe in Christ and thus to become part of His elect Body, the Church.
Certainly most Calvinists won’t deny that there are corporate aspects to God’s electing purposes. Yes, the Church corporate can rightly be referred to as God’s chosen people, collectively considered, and I believe the Bible would affirm such a designation. However, a careful study of a number of key biblical texts (especially, for example, Romans chapter 9) will make it clear to the unbiased student of Scripture that God certainly does elect certain select individuals as individuals to be recipients of His saving grace in Jesus, while passing over others in the operations of His saving grace and leaving them in their own freely-chosen sin. (For example, the contrast Paul makes in Romans 9:10-13 between God’s choice of Jacob over Esau makes it clear in that particular context that he is speaking of individual election and rejection, not a merely corporate election of the Israelites over the Edomites considered as collective people groups.)
Whether the non-Calvinist Christian adopts the foreknowledge doctrine of election, or the corporate election view, notice that both of these non-Calvinist doctrines of election assume one major thing: They assume that God’s choice of us depends upon something we decide or something we do. In other words, salvation is not wholly and exclusively by God’s grace, but by a grace plus works combination. God’s election of us is not by His sovereign grace alone; rather, His “grace” of election is dependent, at least in part, upon our own will or our own works (or both). Thus these non- and anti-Calvinist doctrines of election, when taken to their logical extreme, ultimately lead down the road to a false gospel of works-righteousness.
The Reformed and Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election serves to guard the one main point of Calvinism that undergirds all the other points of the Calvinistic system: namely, the truth that we sinners are saved by God’s grace, and by God’s grace alone! From beginning to end, our salvation in Christ was planned, executed, applied by the unconditional grace of God alone, apart from anything we have done or ever can do. And this is why the doctrine of unconditional election is, at heart, a gospel doctrine.
God’s choice to save us in Jesus Christ is grounded in His unconditional, unmerited, free and sovereign grace. Period! Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)! Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone be glory)! Let us glory in this precious Reformation doctrine, and let us proclaim it boldly and clearly in this age which is so saturated with and under the deluding spell of man-centered, man-glorifying, me-centered distortions of the biblical gospel.