Unconditional Election

This is from my Theology class. Let me tell you, few things are more … interesting … than teaching election to folks who don’t believe it. It is not conducive to getting out of class on time. :-) We’ve been going on election for 3 or 4 weeks now, and still have at least one week to go. I had been just posting my teaching notes on my Theology 101 site, but I decided to kill two birds with one stone and post an expanded version here.

Election answers the question, “When and why did God decide to save me?

Did He decide to save me at the instant I put my faith in Christ? Did He decide to save me from the foundation of the world? Did He choose me because He looked into the future, saw what I’d do (receive Christ) and then ordained what would already come to pass? Did He see something special in me, that I was somehow “better” (in any sense) than others, and choose to save me because of that? Or did He choose me for His own reasons?

There are two ways of dealing with election. One is “corporate election” which says that God chose “all who are in Christ” but did _not_ define who was in that group. It’s an undefined group. God chose to save “all who are in Christ” but the membership of that group is decided by humans.

This is in contrast to the idea of “individual election”, which says that God chose particular individuals for salvation. Not only did He choose to save “all who are in Christ”, but He also defined who would be in that group.

The following scriptures support the idea of individual election:

* Acts 13:48
* Romans 8:28-30
* Romans 9:11-18
* Romans 11:5-7
* Ephesians 1:3-12
* 2 Thessalonians 2:10-14
* 2 Timothy 1:9
* 1 Peter 1:1-2
* Revelation 13:7-8
* Revelation 17:8

This is not a comprehensive list, but I think it demonstrates election is not taught in just a few isolated passages. Luke, Paul, Peter, and John all speak of it here. Sometimes it’s just mentioned in passing.

There are ways to explain each of these verses to make them teach something other than individual election. You can “explain away” just about anything you want. But if we just read them, and take them in their plainest sense, taking all of them together, I believe the Bible clearly teaches that, from the foundation of the world, God chose individual people to be saved.

We were chosen because God knew us. This is entirely different than saying God knew about us or knew about what we would do. In other words, God did not look into the future, see that we would believe, and then predestine (elect) us. Predestination is not based on our faith. Election is unconditional. God knew us, so He chose us. And by “knew us”, I mean, He thought of us in a saving relationship to Himself. He did not base His choice on our merit or lack thereof.

When my oldest son was about to turn 3, he announced “I am going to turn three, and then I will be the boss!” And to establish his position as the boss, he began to tell us what to do. But my son is sneaky. He knew if he just ordered us around, it wouldn’t work. So he’d wait until we were about to do something, or even in the middle of it, and then tell us to do it.

God’s election based on foreknowledge of our faith is roughly equivalent to my son’s attempts at being the boss. It’s meaningless to predestine or ordain something that is going to come to pass anyway. God’s sovereign decrees are not meaningless expressions of events that would happen anyway.

It’s helpful to consider the logical consequences if election were based on God looking into the future to see what we would do.

First, it would mean that something other than God was ultimately in control of the universe! If God can know, with absolute certainty, that something is going to happen, then it’s going to happen. But why? What makes it happen? What ensures that God isn’t wrong?

Ignoring the absurd notion of an additional, higher divine influence, we are left with two options: (1) God, or (2) fate / random chance.

If you answer that God causes these things to come to pass, then we’re back where we started. God knew I was going to come to faith, and caused it to happen. That’s not really different from election. You still have God causing some to come to faith, and by definition, passing over others.

If you answer that “fate” is ultimately in control, then you’ve essentially de-throned God. And in His place, you’ve but a cold, impersonal, mechanical fate. Things just happen, for no apparent reason. I came to faith “just because”, and Lost Larry is going to hell for the same non-reason. Bah. As troubling as election can be, at least it gives us some meaning for the eternal damnation of souls. It’s better than “just fate”. At least a loving, personal God is in charge and ordaining events in accord with His good character. Things didn’t “just turn out that way”. He caused them to go that way, for His own good purposes.

The second implication is that salvation would be to some extent based on my merit, not God’s grace alone. If God saved me because of something He saw in me, the you know what? I do have grounds to boast. I was smarter, I was wiser, I was more moral, I was raised better, I was more spiritual. Because after all, God saw something in me that He didn’t see in Lost Larry. In that area, I’m better than Lost Larry. I chose Christ, and Lost Larry didn’t, because ultimately I’m better than Lost Larry. Boasting is indeed justified!

There are only two answers to the question “What makes people different when it comes to salvation?” One answer is “something in man”. The other is “God’s favor alone.” If the answer is “something in man”, then salvation is based ultimately on the presence or absence of whatever that trait is. Which means, ultimately, salvation is based on merit. God gave me grace because I was/am (fill in the blank). Whatever goes in that blank, that’s merit, and that ultimately got you saved.

The Biblical answer, though, is “God’s grace alone.” Which means God didn’t see anything that makes me better than Lost Larry; indeed, He didn’t even look. I am no different, ultimately, than Lost Larry – except that God, incomprehensibly, chose me.

So those are two very negative logical consequences of insisting on election based on God’s foreknowledge of our character or deeds.

Ironically, this incorrect view still doesn’t give you free will. If God knows you will come to faith, then you’re coming to faith. You don’t have absolute free will if God can know the future with certainty. He knows it, it’s happening. If it didn’t happen just like He knew it would, then His knowledge would be imperfect. That can’t be the case. So whatever view you take of election, you simply can’t get free will out of it unless you deny God’s total and correct knowledge of the future and replace it with God the Good Guesser.

Given all that, we must be careful not to reach unbiblical, but seemingly logical, conclusions.

In my class, at this point I work a math problem beginning with “a=b+1” and going through what appear to be simple algebra steps. In the end, I come up with “a=b” and thus “b = b+1” and from there, “0=1”. (You can see this problem here.)

Then I ask, “How many of you think I just proved that math is wrong? Or that 0 is in fact equal to 1?” Nobody raised a hand. Then I ask, “How many think I did something wrong?” Of course, all the hands go up. And then I ask, “How many of you can tell me what I did wrong?” And all the hands come back down.

The point of this exercise is that you don’t have to know where I messed up to know that I did. You can see that I start with a perfectly valid beginning, and apply what appear to be some valid transformations. But you know my result is invalid because it contradicts known facts.

Similarly, we can apply logic to the doctrine of election and come up with apparently logical, but clearly unbiblical, conclusions. These unbiblical conclusions do not disprove election. They only mean our logic is flawed, even when we don’t know where.

The doctrine of election does not logically mean that our choices are somehow less than real, or that we are puppets. God is the one who decides whether or not our choices are real, and He says they are. Even though He also takes “credit” for many of the choices we make.

Exodus 4:21-23 The LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.”‘”

Much ado is made about how often the Bible says “Pharaoh hardened his heart” and “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. But in this passage, none of that had happened yet. And God is clear – He is going to harden Pharaoh’s heart, to the point of the Passover. But He also holds Pharaoh responsible for his refusal to free Israel.

Or Proverbs 16:9 “The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.” You make your plans, but God directs your steps. And He holds you completely responsible for those steps. They are real, voluntary choices you make. But they are in line with His eternal decrees.

The doctrine of election also does not mean that the lost never had a chance to believe, or that we had no choice but to accept Him. Rather, God always lays the blame for disobedience and rejection at the feet of those who disobey and reject Him. And Jesus treats our acceptance of Him as a free, voluntary decision we make. But He also speaks of God’s sovereignty.

In almost one breath, Jesus says “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” And then He says “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him;” (John 6:35-37, John 6:43-44)

You can’t come to Christ unless the Father draws (drags!) you, and if God has given you to Christ, you will come. But the invitation and responsibility is still “Come”, and He rebukes them because “you have seen Me, and yet do not believe.”

These things are both true. God drags us, violating our fallen, depraved natures, to Himself. We come to God, making a voluntary decision. Two apparently paradoxical things, both true.

One thing I remember from high school physics is the idea of relativity. Pretend you have a person in a transparent railroad car, moving relative to the ground at 20 mph. There’s also an observer on the ground. The man in the railroad car drops one of those super bouncy balls. He sees the ball bounce straight up and down. The man on the ground sees the ball bounce along a curved path.

Relativity says they are both right. It just depends on the frame of reference of the observer. But they are both right. For the man in the railroad car, the ball did bounce straight up and down. And for the man on the ground, the ball did bounce along a curved path. It didn’t just look like that, it was that way.

I think this is true when it comes to election. From one perspective, yes, God ordains everything that will come to pass and we are following a script. God will harden Pharaoh’s heart. From another frame of reference, we are making voluntary decisions. Both are right. Both are Biblical. It is a paradox.

Can I just be real honest and confess I do not understand this? I don’t. I’m a programmer. I like if-then-else, do-while, and so on. I like to make diagrams showing how my code should work. I like nice and simple cause-and-effect. Even multithreaded applications bug me, because I don’t like to deal with concurrent data access.

But God doesn’t work that way. These things are both true. You can’t diagram it. It won’t fit in my cause-and-effect box. And I just have to deal with it, just have to believe it without understanding. Much like I deal with the Trinity. Or the eternity of God. I just know it’s true, and have to leave it at that.

This is a lot more than I plan to usually post, but I couldn’t find a good breaking point. It took me a couple of weeks to get through all this in class. The next topic I address will be, is election fair?

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13 Responses to Unconditional Election

  1. Jared says:

    Excellent post!
    I just may have to link to it this week.

    Btw, if you have the time someday, I have a paper on individual election in Romans posted in the Thinklings’ Writings section. You might find it interesting.

  2. J.C. says:

    Excellent! I have thought along these lines, but was never able to articulate them as well as you did. This seems to create a bridge that both the election and free-will crowd can accept, which tells me it must be close to the truth. God bless.

  3. Robert says:

    Thanks for your kind comments.

    This seems to create a bridge that both the election and free-will crowd can accept

    AFAIK, only hyper-Calvinists would even possibly have an objection to saying “man makes voluntary choices”. This is entirely different from libertarian free will; i.e., we freely make choices, but the choices we make are foreordained. We voluntarily make decisions that are in absolute accord with God’s eternal decrees.

    While most Calvinists do not deny men make choices voluntarily, Arminians tend to absolutely deny that God has ANY real causal role in the choices we voluntarily make. They exchange “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” with “God allowed Pharaoh to harden his own heart” which is entirely unbiblical.

    That’s why I introduced the idea of frames of reference. It’s meant to explain how God causes us to make decisions, but we freely make them.

    Spurgeon wrote of walking between the mountains of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will; I do not believe there are two separate mountains, but one mountain which looks very different from two different vantage points. Of course, it’s just a metaphor, and from my (limited) readings of Spurgeon, I’ve yet to see any difference in what he believed and what I do.

  4. Robert says:

    Jared, when I read your paper, the first thing I thought is “I wish I were smart!” and the second thing I thought is “Wow, I really need to improve on what I just posted!” It was a very enlightening and helpful paper.

    I’m not sure I’d put it in an intro to theology class though… :-) Pretty deep stuff!

  5. Jared says:

    Thanks, Robert. I think you are perhaps the first person to read it despite my sporadic advertising of it! (Except for Bill, who had to format the whole thing for posting, poor thing.)

    One thing I mentioned in the paper that I think bears repeating in election convos is the example of Paul’s conversion. Lots of people like to look at it from the angle of how it affected “his” view of election (as if his is any different than God’s). But I think it’s important to realize that Saul was most certainly not looking for the Son of God, He was not seeking Jesus, only to kill His followers.
    And there was no invitation, no real choice of any kind evidenced. Jesus showed up, blinded him, named him Paul, and transformed him. All against Paul’s will, apparently.

    I think we need only one example of God violating the free will of a person to demonstrate that free will is not the sacred thing Arminians tell us it is.

    Again, thanks for the encouragement.

  6. Mac Swift says:

    “At least a loving, personal God is in charge and ordaining events in accord with His good character.”

    It is not a loving personal God who would consign many to hell without any desire to see them repent. (Nor is it Scriptural)

    “salvation would be to some extent based on my merit, not God?s grace alone.”

    This is fallacious though. If someone gives me a birthday gift and I accept it, are you telling me that the act of accepting it amounts to merit? It’s a distorted view of free will, but one that would be necessary to build the case for calvinism.

    Christ also once said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw ALL men unto me.” Clearly God draws all, and that such drawing is not compulsory as it is possible to “draw back” to perdition, an act made only possible because God has allowed man this capability in keeping with his desire to give in men the ability to choose whether to accept or reject him.

    God hardening the hearts of unbelievers is also reactive, as it clearly shows in Scripture:

    “…because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved….for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie”

    I equate the strong delusion to the hardening of hearts. It’s clearly saying here that God’s action in hardening the hearts was in response to their rejection of the truth. These are the conditions in which God moves to “harden the hearts” of the wicked for his own purposes.

    And with regards to predestination, have there not be quite a few in Scripture who God predestinated to do great things, and who failed him miserably? We know also that God is not a liar, so the promises unfulfilled by these men had to be their own doing, rather than God foreordaining (causing) it to happen.

    Back to lurking…

  7. Mac Swift says:

    Oops, forgot to include a link to demonstrate men who miss their God ordained destiny:

    Here it is.

  8. Robert says:

    It is not a loving personal God who would consign many to hell without any desire to see them repent. (Nor is it Scriptural)

    Mac, I agree that it is not scriptural to say “God has no desire to see any given person repent.” God does indeed want all men to be saved, but we know that most men won’t be saved. I will address that in a future post. It’s not a unique problem to Calvinism.

    are you telling me that the act of accepting it amounts to merit?

    I’m only answering the argument here that predestination is based on foreknowledge about a person or their deeds. If you deny individual election entirely, then my point about this is irrelevant.

    The willingness to repent and come to Christ, with a _Biblical_ view of all that entails, is certainly something praiseworthy. What does Scripture say about the Bereans’ hearts?

    If God gave me grace because He saw something – anything – in me that made me different than someone who He did not elect, then whatever it was He saw, is my merit. I merited grace more than the next guy. The ultimate cause of my salvation is whatever quality that God saw in me.

    This is contrary to Scripture. We cannot conclude that election is based on foreknowledge about a person.

    God hardening the hearts of unbelievers

    I’ll try to deal with that more fully in a future post on reprobation. It’s the topic of my class this Sunday, so I’ll post about it soon.

    the promises unfulfilled by these men had to be their own doing, rather than God foreordaining (causing) it to happen.

    It’s not an “either-or” choice. God caused it. Man caused it. Both true.

    By definition, if you are predestined for something, or if it’s your destiny, you _can’t_ fail to fulfill it.

    Did God lie when He didn’t destroy Nineveh?

  9. Mac Swift says:

    If God gave me grace because He saw something – anything – in me that made me different than someone who He did not elect, then whatever it was He saw, is my merit.

    This statement tells me that you are still viewing this from a Calvinist angle. God’s grace is ultimately realized by those who choose to respond to his calling in the affirmative. Even from a Calvinist perspective the issue of merit still exists. There’s obviously some reason why you would merit more grace than unsaved Larry. Calvinism simply doesn’t do away with that as much as you would claim that we are all equally depraved, yet obviously we are not all equal in God’s eyes, since he favours some over others. There’s obviously SOME endearing THING about the elect that God would choose them while consigning everyone else to hell.

  10. Robert says:

    This statement tells me that you are still viewing this from a Calvinist angle.

    Given that I freely label myself a Calvinist, this should not be too surprising! :-D

    There?s obviously some reason why you would merit more grace than unsaved Larry… obviously we are not all equal in God?s eyes, since he favours some over others. There?s obviously SOME endearing THING about the elect that God would choose them while consigning everyone else to hell.

    No. Absolutely not.

    We are made from the same lump of clay, some for honor, some for destruction (Rom 9:21). There is no difference.

    “[i]t does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16)

    Why did God choose Jacob over Esau? Scripture says that God made His proclamation “The older will serve the younger” _before_ the boys were born, precisely so that it would be clear that the decision was based on God’s purposes, and _nothing_ in the boys.

    Edom and Israel were descended from the same stock. Both sons of one man. But God hated Esau, and “made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inhertiance for the jackals of the wilderness” (Malachi 1:3). Edom “may build, but [God] will tear down”.

    Was there any difference between the brothers? In the early part of their lives, there’s much more to respect about Esau than about Jacob. Esau was a manly man. Jacob was a “mama’s boy” so to speak. Esau was favored by his father. Jacob schemed with his mother to deceive his own father. Jacob extorted Esau’s birthright from him. Two men of the same father. God chose one, and blessed his descendants, and cursed the other and his descendants.

    I am of the same lump as any reprobate sinner. The only difference is that God chose me.

    Paul is quite clear – there is nothing good in an unregenerate man. He’s spiritually at absolute zero. No one is “deader” than another. Nothing good at all. How could God compare us? There’s nothing positive in me or Lost Larry either one.

  11. Mac Swift says:

    Mamma’s boy, heh.

    The difference was in Jacob’s zeal for obtaining the covenant promise. Esau despised it even though he was set to inherit it, while Jacob yearned for it. We try to keep a scorecard on who did more good than other other, but the only thing God is concerned with is faith.

    I find it interesting that you would use the example of God stating that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days, demonstrating that such things would not happen if people repented, proving just because God states something will happen does not automatically mean it will be so. Yet God’s words regarding Esau and Jacob are written in stone, never to be contested, amen and amen. Harumph. This double standard makes it hard to argue the finer points here.

    Hebrews 12:16-17 “…as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.”

  12. The difference was in Jacob?s zeal for obtaining the covenant promise. … the only thing God is concerned with is faith.

    You’re missing the point of Paul’s reference to Jacob and Esau. Before they were born, neither of them had any zeal or faith or anything. And that is precisely why God declared “the older will serve the younger” before they were born. He was not _predicting_ the future, but _ordaining_ it!

    There was no difference between these boys before they were born, spiritually speaking. Neither had a greater faith or love for God or _anything_. That’s exactly why God announced His election of Jacob to Rebekah _before_ she gave birth – so it would be perfectly clear.

    You are right that Jacob was very zealous to receive the blessing. But this zeal _followed_ God’s pronouncement and _was caused by it_.

    God stating that Nineveh would be destroyed

    I sort of forgot where I was going with the whole Nineveh thing. If I remember, I’ll be sure to pursue it! :-)

    Esau was not destined by God to receive any birthright or blessing. God ordained “the older will serve the younger”. _Isaac_ intended for Esau to receive the blessing, but God’s purposes were fulfilled.

  13. Park Nelson says:

    How can ANYONE read the 9th of Romans and come to any other conclusion that God chooses people for His own reasons? I brought absolutely nothing to God for me to merit my election.

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