What follows is not a neatly wrought paper, but simply the notes from a talk I gave recently on the difficult and often hotly debated topic of the doctrine of election as taught in the Bible. Hopefully, it can be of some use to those who have wrestled thoughtfully with whether or not the Bible teaches a doctrine of election, and if so, what some of the implications are in getting a solid grasp both of what it is, and is not.
A Brief Discussion on the Doctrine of Election
4 Controlling thoughts:
- No one is lost BECAUSE they are not elect – people are lost because we are fallen in sin.
- No one who desires to believe and obey the Gospel and be saved – is denied.
- Because God is just, no one can either be under-punished nor over-punished.
- God owes salvation to no one.
- The Bible teaches Election – the freedom and right of God to make choices in all sorts of contexts.
We must allow before anything else, that God has the right to make choices – period.
Election – first and foremost = DESIGNATION – the context must define the purpose of the election.
The question will be – does He make choices of any kind which have to do with people – and if so, what does that look like?
- There are different types of election.
- Jesus is spoken of as God’s ELECT – but it is clear this has nothing to do with salvation out of sin: Isa. 42:1
- Israel is spoken of as God’s ELECT – a chosen “people” – but not all are saved – this is not regarding salvation out of sin: Isa. 45:4. ; Romans 11:28
- Some angels are spoken of as ELECT without relation to being saved out of sin, but from falling into sin: 1 Tim. 5:21.
- God makes choices regarding individuals in terms of abilities and disabilities –
Exodus 4:10–11 (ESV) — 10 But Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” 11 Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?
Exodus 31:1–6 (ESV) — 1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, 4 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, 5 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. 6 And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you:
- God makes determinations regarding when and where we each exist –
Acts 17:26–27 (ESV) — 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us,
- In prophecy – God determines how all kinds of events occur and play out –
Joshua 23:14 (ESV) — 14 “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.
Isaiah 46:5–11 (ESV) — 5 “To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? 6 Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! 7 They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble. 8 “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, 9 remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ 11 calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.
- God’s electing right is displayed in His choosing people and nations both for all kinds of purposes, AND unto salvation.
Deuteronomy 7:1–7 (ESV) — 1 “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire. 6 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. 7 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,
- Election does not occur ONLY within the context of salvation from sin.
- Sonship / In this context, we have the freedom of a Father to choose between sons (all other things being equal) as to who will be the “firstborn” – the head of the family.
Ephesians 1:3–6 (ESV) — 3 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, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
- Bride of Christ / In this context, we see God does no wrong to any when He chooses a Bride for His Son out of those available.
- People of God / In this context, we see God choosing a particular nation or group of people He desires to call His people – His own, out of all the nations of the earth. There is no wrong done to any in such choosing.
1 Peter 2:9–10 (ESV) — 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
- Displaying mercy & grace / In this context, fallnness is part of the equation. We must be in a pitiful state to receive pity.
We have the large number of passages which tell us about God’s right to choose, and that He does choose some in GRACE unto salvation – while leaving or passing over others who will experience justice.
Mark 13:20 (ESV) — 20 And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.
Luke 6:13 (ESV) — 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles:
John 15:16 (ESV) — 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
1 Corinthians 1:26–30 (ESV) — 26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,
2 Thessalonians 2:13 (ESV) — 13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
We must recall that He owes salvation to no one – tho in the Gospel He offers it to all.
Therefore, the extension of grace to some is neither unfair nor unjust.
We must bear in mind as well, that due to the nature of our fallen condition, if it weren’t for election, none would be saved at all – for left to ourselves, we would never choose Him. Just like Adam, we would always choose ourselves first – which is confirmed as fact every time we sin now, choosing our own will above God’s.
For me, the first 3 are the controlling concepts, because they would function irrespective of the Fall.
Election within the context of salvation from sin comes after the fact.
In other words – I “think” – election must be understood first as a plan to set some of mankind as a people, and as sons in a unique familial relationship; then to bring those sons into an ever deeper relationship as Christ’s Bride. And as a result of the Fall, those first objects must find their fruition with the additional aspect of redemption from sin.
He redeems from sin, those He had all along intended to adopt as sons and make into a Bride for His Son.
- If election does not humble us, but rather becomes a source of pride – we have misunderstood it completely.
It is our UNIVERSAL unworthiness which must be accounted for.
1 – A universally guilty mankind.
2 – A God who is holy and cannot simply overlook sin or dismiss the charges.
3 – A God who has sovereign discretion over His creation and all its creatures – including man.
4 – A God who nonetheless desires to reveal His capacity for and exercise His mercy and grace upon undeserving creatures.
5 – A substitutionary sacrifice which He accepts in the place of those He pardons, so that justice is not in any wise compromised.
We find all of these elements present in the biblical record.
What it would take for God to be unfair or unjust in election would be things like –
- If God promised salvation to all, and then refused.
He has NOT promised that all will simply receive mercy.
He HAS promised that all who repent and believe can have mercy.
2. If God condemned all for no reason.
He has not condemned mankind for NO reason
He has condemned mankind both for ADAM’S sin (and our part in it) and for our OWN sins.
3. If God changed the agreement or terms.
The terms ALWAYS were – Sin and you will die.
4. If God OWED salvation to any and then denied them.
God OWES all men justice, in that He is holy, and cannot pervert justice.
God owes NO ONE mercy. Mercy and Grace by definition are gifts, not rewards.
There is no prohibition in being generous, there IS a prohibition against stealing.
5. If God had no absolute RIGHTS over His creatures.
If God did what He did not have the right to exercise mercy as he sees fit.
Election & salvation fits none of these
God has never promised salvation to all men, but HAS announced the Gospel and will receive all who come in faith.
God did not condemn mankind for no reason, but for its cosmic rebellion as a race.
God has never changed the terms by which He dealt with mankind – “In the day you eat of it, you will die”.
God owes mercy and forgiveness to none.
God HAS absolute rights over His creatures.
God has the right to exercise mercy as he sees fit.
- (14) Is God being unjust in Election?
- Why not?
- (15) Because God has said “mercy and compassion” are matters left up to His discretion.
Mercy is VOLITIONAL, not COMPULSORY.
Someone owed a debt has the power or right to forgive the debt. But he or she is never REQUIRED to forgive it, or it ceases to be an act of GRACE.
Grace to be grace must not be something OWED – Grace by definition is UNDESERVED.
- (16) Mercy isn’t the product of either the will or the exertion of the one desiring it – but a product of the One SHOWING IT!
The intensity with which one desires mercy doesn’t make it happen
All condemned men want mercy.
In fact: Attempts to earn mercy try to make it a duty on the other person, not a free gift.
- (17) Judgment on the other hand IS earned – e.g. Pharaoh. (Judicial hardening)
It is us getting exactly what is due us.
We must keep this in mind. God is doing no one wrong by carrying out their just judgment, even as He is doing no one wrong when He shows mercy – which is His to show.
– Even God’s mercy must somehow be “just” –
- Substitutionary atonement
Sin is never “overlooked” in one case and prosecuted in another. It is ALWAYS dealt with.
- (18) Conclusion – Mercy is a matter of God’s own discretion, and hardening is a matter of His justice.
Mercy for some
Justice for some
Fairness to all.
Neither is being treated unfairly.
- (19) Some will still ask – Then why does God find fault? If this is His plan (His electing grace) and none one can violate it – Why does He still find fault?
Some will be dissatisfied because they do not trust God with that kind of power.
They DO however trust themselves with it.
9-a. (20) Who are you (fallen creature), to try and judge God’s plan or righteousness?
A betrayal of the suspicion that God is somehow unjust or unrighteous in His arrangement – because we cannot work through the details to our personal satisfaction.
10-b. (21) God has a RIGHT to deal with His creation as He sees fit – period.
The forming of one for honor and another for dishonor – presupposes a fallen LUMP.
Water pail? I can use the same water for drinking or for cleaning my floor – without in some way being “unfair” to the portion used for cleaning.
11-c. (22-24) Why is it a problem for you that He has refrained from judging all peoples in one fell swoop and withholding His final fury, while He opens an opportunity for multitudes to come and be saved – both Jews and Gentiles?
Especially when He owes salvation to none?
John 21.22 – “What is that to you? Follow me!”
- Our sense of fair play must be rooted in God’s justice as revealed in His Word, not radical egalitarianism.
- Our sinful hearts are never more revealed than in the uncomfortably we feel when contemplating God’s absolute power and authority over His creatures without having to answer to anybody.
We are back in the Garden – making Him suspect.
- Mercy is not ours to earn or obtain by effort, God DOES call us to seek it! He willingly receives all who come and DO ask. He refuses none.
One thing that can be noted, which is not commonly known among the Reformed, is that there is a difference among the Reformed about so-called “unconditional election.” For instance, someone like William Twisse (and some later theologians in Saumur, contra Turretin) distinguished between 1) election unto faith and 2) election unto salvation. The first, he (Twisse) said, is unconditional, but the latter is conditional. God purposed to give all the elect faith apart from any conditions in them, but He purposes to *save* the elect *through the condition or instrumentality of faith*, and so the latter is conditional in that sense. No one is saved apart from the instrumental condition of faith, but through that prerequisite, which God himself grants.
So did Twisse hold to “unconditional election”? It depends on what one means by that simplistic label.
What is interesting is when one looks at the symmetrical appearance of the two notions among the Reformed:
1) The symmetrical opposite of an unconditional election TO SALVATION is an unconditional election TO DAMNATION.
Some of the Reformed try to dodge that second blasphemous notion of an unconditional election to damnation (and frequent accusation against them by non-Calvinists) by saying that the non-elect are only damned *on condition* of their sinning, and so the decree of pre-damnation is asymmetrical (not symmetrical) to God’s election of some *to salvation*.
Nevertheless, the symmetrical pattern still looks like and seems to entail this:
A: unconditional election to salvation
B: unconditional pre-damnation
The decretal patterns and opposites look much more reasonable and biblical when considering the second , or Twissian and Saumurian conception:
2) The symmetrical opposite of an unconditional election to faith is an unconditional passing over of others in the grant of faith; the symmetrical opposite of a conditional election to faith is a conditional appointment to damnation.
God owes no fallen sinner the moral ability to believe. If He graciously purposes to give some faith, or the moral ability to believe, there is no injustice if He refuses that grace to other sinners. It’s simply His prerogative, and there is no condition contemplated or foreseen in either human entity when God makes His gracious discrimination. However, there is something required in the sinner in order for them to be saved, namely their faith in the Son of God. Salvation is only granted through the sinner’s believing in the Redeemer. Also, damnation is not unconditional. As you say, no one is damned merely by God’s decree. They must be in the condition of being sinful in order for God to be just in damning them.
The symmetrical pattern looks like this:
A: unconditional appointment to faith with a conditional appointment to salvation
B: unconditional passing over in the grant of faith with a conditional damnation
Given these disputed issues, one can further see how misleading, simplistic and reductionistic the TULIP acronym is, even when it comes to the “U”, not to mention the problems with the other petals!
Grace to you,
#2 should read this way above:
2) The symmetrical opposite of an unconditional election to faith is an unconditional passing over of others in the grant of faith; the symmetrical opposite of a conditional election to *SALVATION* is a conditional appointment to damnation.
Always good to hear from you Tony – and I have read the subtle distinction in Twisse, and like it a lot. I think it is very helpful. Thanks for your others comments. Useful as always. AWESOME!