Is Election Fair?

The doctrine of election is a hard one. The idea of God sovereignly determining, before time began, that only specific individuals would be saved does not mesh well with the view of God many of us have.

People were made, by God, with a strong sense of justice and fairness. When we look at election, well, honestly, something about it just doesn’t seem _fair_.

One answer is that election is more than fair. God would be perfectly fair and just not to save anyone. The fact that He gave Christ to suffer and redeem even a single person goes way beyond fair.

But this is a rather unsatisfying answer. We’re still left with a God who knowingly creates people who He knows will sin and who He fully intends to condemn. And He has no intention whatsoever of redeeming them.

Can this be fair? Can this be our God?

One thing I want to point out is that Arminianism and Calvinism are identical in this. For instance, Arminians have to account for all the American Indians who lived and died before the first Christian missionaries came to America. God creates people all the time, intentionally putting them in places and cultures and situations where He _knows_ they’ll never hear the gospel.

Why didn’t God make everyone be born to a middle-class family in north Texas during the late 20th century, with gospel-preaching churches on virtually every corner? Why did He place me there and then, but causes others to be born and die under militant Islam, with no real opportunity to hear the gospel, let alone believe it? Why did I grow up going to church and Sunday School, and billions of others didn’t? Can _that_ be fair?

Arminianism has no less explaining to do than Calvinism does in this. Unless you are a universalist, you have a lot of explaining to do.

The difference is that Calvinism gives a _purpose_ to all this, where Arminianism _cannot_. Arminianism must answer “that’s just the way it is”. There’s no real point. There _can’t_ be a point, because it would make God somehow responsible for it all, and if God is manipulating events for His glory and purposes, well, there goes free will and fairness and all that.

Calvinism, on the other hand, has an answer. God is doing this for His own glory. These people are vessels of wrath, created to show God’s justice.

It’s not a nice answer, but it is an answer. Whether it’s more or less comforting than no answer at all, is an exercise left to the reader.

So all theological systems have to deal with the willful condemnation by God of people who, for whatever reason, had no real opportunity to be redeemed. Whether God intentionally placed people in certain situations and/or hardened their hearts for His purposes and glory, as Calvinism teaches, or if it’s more or less random and pointless, as Arminians must conclude, we have to deal with it.

Is the concept of election fair? How could God create and condemn people with no intention to redeem them?

The only answer I have is not particularly satisfying, but I believe it to be Biblical: God is sovereign.

Romans 9
10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac;
11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls,
12 it was said to her, “THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER.”
13 Just as it is written, “JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED.”
14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!
16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?”
20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it?
21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?
22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?
23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory,
24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.
Romans 9:10-24, NASB (emphasis added)

Jared has a excellent and scholarly paper discussing election in Romans 8-9.

Paul here draws on undisputed facts from the Old Testament to expound a New Testament truth. Just as God chose Jacob and not Esau, just as He raised up Pharaoh to destroy him, so He also chooses us “not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles” to be His “vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory”.

Is it right for God to have mercy on some and harden others? This is exactly the question Paul takes on. He does so in the context that not all the Jews were elect (see Jared’s paper for a good explanation), but it is also completely applicable to this discussion.

Paul’s sole answer to the charge “Unfair!” is to point to God’s sovereignty. He never directly refutes the charge of unfairness. He simply asserts God’s right to do with us as He pleases.

Verses 11-13 tell us that God chose Jacob over Esau before they were born. The timing of His statement to Rebekah “The older will serve the younger” was not an accident. God told Rebekah this before the boys were born so that it would be perfectly clear: God chose them according to His purposes, not based on their merit. He did it this way deliberately, to make His point. So that God’s purpose according to His choice (election) would stand. No other reason. No apology. No explanation.

Verse 14 articulates the question: Doesn’t this make God unjust? And the answer is simply “May it never be!” (I like the KJV idiom “God forbid” better.)

May it never be. How dare you even imply God is unjust? This is God we’re talking about here!

Verses 15-16 do _not_ explain how God is, indeed, being just. This would be the _perfect_ place for Paul to enlighten us about how God knows things we don’t, about how He makes His choices based on knowledge of what we will do, and so on. But that’s not the answer Paul gives. His answer is simply “it does not depend on … man … but on God who has mercy.” God “will have mercy on whom [he has] mercy”.

It gets worse.

Verse 17 adds Pharaoh to the list of examples. God explicitly said that He raised up Pharaoh to destroy him. God promised to harden Pharaoh’s heart to the point that God would destroy the firstborn of Egypt. This was not a “reactive” hardening. It was preemptive and pre-planned. Pharaoh was fully responsible for his own wickedness, but God is unapologetic – He hardened Pharaoh.

Verse 18 emphasizes “He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires”. It’s up to _His desire_, not our own efforts, desires, or merits. God’s desire. His purposes. His glory.

Then verse 19 implicitly accuses God of wrongdoing. OK, I can handle that God hardens and all that, but isn’t it unfair for Him to turn around and punish us for the hardness that He causes?

Um, no. Again, Paul misses a great opportunity to explain all about man’s free will and all that. But he does nothing of the sort.

Verse 20 “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God?”

Ouch. Back in your place. Remember who you are, and who He is.

Paul then proceeds in verses 20-21 to compare us, magnificent beings that we are, with all this great free will and all these rights and dignity that God allegedly respects so much, to clay pots. Clay pots railing against the Potter. “Why do I have to be the chamber pot? Why can’t I be the pretty vase?” “A cup! Don’t you know I’m quite good clay, better than all that other clay?! I deserve to be something finer!”

The potter has a right over the clay. He can do as He pleases.

There’s an interesting phrase in verse 21 that I missed the first time I read it: “from the same lump”.

I think the word of God is flawless, so I take that phrase to have some signficance. The same lump. Some for honor, some for dishonor and destruction. We’re all essentially the same. Same lump of clay. None of us is inherently any better than anyone else. We have no merit at all. I am no better than hypothetical Lost Larry. We’re the same lump. The _only_ difference is the purpose for which God formed us.

And then verses 22-24 just drive it home a bit more. What’s the purpose of these vessels of destruction? Why is God making them? What’s the point of it?

One system of theology provides an answer.

“[T]o demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known … [and] to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy”

God creates and condemns sinners with a dual purpose. First, to demonstrate His wrath and power and justice on them. Secondly, to provide a stark contrast to the glory and mercy He pours out on us.

Is it fair? He’s the potter, and can do with us as He pleases and for His purposes.

After we accept that, we should try to put it into a bit of perspective. We have no basis to question God on this. The certain condemnation of sinners may contradict _our_ fallen ideas of justice. But God is not bound by our ideas of fairness and justice.

We know some things about God. We can say though He slay me yet I will trust in Him. He wounds and He binds up. Blessed be the name of the Lord. We can rise up early in the morning with Abraham to sacrifice his son. Because we know Him. We know He is holy, and righteous, and good, and just, and merciful, and gracious, and loving.

We must view God’s actions through what we know of God’s character. We cannot sit as judges of God’s actions and come to conclusions about Him.

If we decide to view God’s character through His actions, instead of the other way around, we get to Dean Esmay’s (in)famous declaration:

My assessment would be that if God intends to punish for all eternity everyone who fails to accept that Jesus is the Son of God and the savior of all mankind, then God is fundamentally evil. … I accept that it might well be true that Jesus was the one and only Son of God and that God has determined that all who do not affirm this belief are doomed to eternal torture. I merely assert that if that’s how God really works, then God is evil and unworthy of my worship.

Mr. Esmay is projecting his own sense of justice, and ideas about good and evil onto God, and concluding that God doesn’t measure up. The problem is with _him_ and his ideas of justice, good, and evil, not with God. Similarly, concluding that God is not just if He elects some to be saved and not others is the same thing Mr. Esmay does, although not getting quite as extreme.

We’ve made essentially four points that bear repeating:

# All Christian theological systems have to deal with the question of God knowingly and willfully creating humans, knowing that they will not be redeemed but instead will suffer eternally.
# Calvinism says that God does this for His own purposes and glory.
# “Is this fair” can only be Biblically answered by “God is sovereign.”
# We must view God’s actions through what we know of His character, and trust Him even when we don’t understand.

Next time: Does God want to save everyone? You might be surpised that I think the answer is “Yes”.

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8 Responses to Is Election Fair?

  1. Mac Swift says:

    Simply put, Arminians place the accountability on men. If they miss heaven, it is because they ultimately chose that fate. Calvinism place the accountability on God himself. If men miss out on heaven, it is because God predestined them to hell.

    Which version depicts a more loving God? Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm……

  2. “they .. chose that fate”

    What about they hypothetical Chinese peasant who died without any opportunity to hear the gospel? Did he choose his fate? Of course not!

    Did he choose to be born as a Chinese peasant who would never hear the gospel? No. Who chose that for him? God? Did _anyone_ choose it? Did it just happen? Was there _any_ purpose?

    You claim Arminianism teaches a more loving God, but I absolutely reject that. Arminianism presents a God scarcely in control of His own universe, permitting senseless tragedy and chaos for no reason whatsoever.

    Calvinism presents a God totally in control of the universe, predestinating and controlling things for His own reasons. Given that He is both loving AND in control, this is a much superior view of God IMHO.

  3. Phil says:

    This whole business about “fairness” is moot to be not because of what Calvinism/Reformed theology teaches, but because of what it doesn’t teach.

    I was raised spiritually in churches (AssembLIES of God) wherein I was taught that Calvin, Calvinist and Calvinism was the greatest evil since the Romanists introduced torture into church practice. Their general teaching was that God would send people to Hell even though they’d had spent their whole lives loving, serving, and believing on Christ as their Savior. They also taught that Calvinism meant that you could accept Christ and be saved, yet live a life of total reprobation for the ensuing 40 years or whatever. Simply put, I was taught that “Calvinist salvation” was random, not based on love or fairness, and therefore cruel and unloving. Dave Hunt has now hedged his career on his widely promoted book which portrays something close to this (false) view.

    But as I now understand Calvinism, God will not be sending anyone to Hell who earnestly sought Him with all their heart and soul (ref. Deut. 4:29). Yes, this excludes the “notional” Christians, the my-god-my-way-here-for-my-wants Christians (Word of Faith), Christians who are ashamed of the Gospel (seeker-sensitive), and other wanna-be’s. Likewise, He will not be letting anyone in Heaven who “believed” on Him and then walked away (the metaphorical seed that fell on the rocks). Under Calvinism, as I understand it, those who go to Hell more or less don’t care anyway — be they Muslim, Pagan, feminist or whatever — because they reject Jesus’ Lordship over their life. So, even if God chose not to regenerate them to come to a saving faith in Christ, then the Hell-bound are still getting what they want. Or, more accurately, they’re not going to get what they don’t want anyway: an eternity worshipping Jesus. Since they’re not being deprived of anything they don’t want, how is it “unfair” of God withhold from them what they’re not wanting anyway?


    PS: In regards to the Chinese man who never heard the Gospel, notice I said “reject” Christ because acceptance/rejection of the Gospel is so central to the NT. I believe based on the whole counsel of Scripture that God will judge the hearts of those who have not heard of Christ and thus decide their eternity accordingly. To argue that one MUST have heard of (and of course accepted) the Gospel to get in to Heaven is to argue that Hell is packed with people who never had the chance to hear the Gospel, as well as the mentally retarded who couldn’t understand it, as well as millions of aborted and still-born and miscarried babies. Way too many Scriptures would have to be violated (not to mention His character) for that to be true.

  4. Jared says:

    “Seeker sensitive” guy here. Oh, and not ashamed of the Gospel. And really tired of hearing this stupid and false stereotype.

  5. Phil, I’m not sure what the seeker-sensitive bash was all about. But anyway…

    Your claim that God will judge the hearts of those who have not heard of Christ and thus decide their eternity accordingly runs pretty much in direct opposition to Romans 10, particularly verses 13-14.

    Even if God _did_ judge them in the way you suggest, Romans 2:12-16 tells us what the verdict will be.

    Regarding those mentally unable to understand the gospel or make moral decisions, I trust God will be gracious and good to them, and I just have to content myself with that.

  6. Patrick says:

    This whole idea of fairness/justice is always a dicey thing anyway. The problem is that most things are not both fair and just at the same time. In secular terms, justice is the treatment of everyone in the same way. Black and white… legalistic… you take into account the rule before the person. Fairness is the treatment of everyone on their own terms. Nothing but shades of gray are there. If someone didn’t understand a law, or didn’t know it was there, then they can’t be judged against it if things are fair, but they can if things are just.

    The majority of difficulty with this arguement is that God is both just and fair… and that can seem contradictory. How can you have an absolute law that has exceptions? It cannot both be absolute and relative, can it?

    I don’t have an answer to present here, but I would like to see how everyone responds to this line of thought. I personally am on Phil’s side of this (which Robert won’t at all be surprised by), but want to be involved in the discussion and see if anyone can sway me.

  7. Robert says:

    Patrick, I don’t see any distinction between “fair” and “just” as you’ve presented. I think they are synonymous.

    God is described as “just” in any case, with very little “oh, I’ll make an exception in this case because you just didn’t know”. The only passages I’m familiar with that express this kind of attitude apply it equally to all persons and make no exceptions for Chinese peasants.

    God’s redemption or condemnation of people is not Biblically up for moral analysis. He is sovereign and can do as He pleases. We know He is good and just, so we trust His actions.

    But in the case of the Chinese peasant, it’s straightforward to demonstrate a Biblical case for his damnation.

    John 3:18
    John 14:6
    Romans 3:23
    Romans 6:23
    Romans 2:12-15
    Romans 5:12-21
    Romans 10:13-15
    Ephesians 2:1-5

  8. Patrick says:

    Perhaps I did not fully explain my “fair” and “just” distinction well enough. It is easier to explain in secular terms.

    For instance, look at taxation. The most “just” way to handle income tax is with some form of flat tax. Whether that is a percentage or dollar amount, everyone pays the same thing. However this is seldom considered the fair way to do things, as the first few thousand dollars a year are necessary to handle the basic necessities of life, such as food and shelter. Therefore we apply some basic “fairness” to the equation, by adding tax brackets. Thus we don’t treat everyone with absolute justice. We make some that can afford to pay more in taxes pay more in what amounts to a luxury tax. This is clearly fair, as we aren’t hindering anyone’s ability to live, but it isn’t really justice. We are treating the wealthy differently and more harshly than the poor.

    In a similar way, you’re right when you say that election doesn’t seem fair. If God takes nothing in circumstances into account, then our greatest hope is that God will eventually end the existance of the damned and only keep the saved alive eternally. The sheer cruelty of punishing eternally an infant, someone so mentally damaged as to be unable to understand what is required, or that Chinese peasant we’ve been bandying about, goes against any concept I can have of God being a God of love.

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