Doctrines of Grace, Part 3: Unconditional Election

Doctrines of Grace, Part 3: Unconditional Election

This is a 7 week series. Be sure to read parts one and two. Join us next Friday for part four.

So here we are; a race totally depraved, hostile to God and deserving of nothing less than eternal wrath. The only kind of love that God could possibly have for us at this point is an unconditional kind; a gracious kind. And so we arrive to the next lovely pedal of the Calvinist’s favorite flower: Unconditional Election.

This is the doctrine that deals with God’s role in determining who will be saved. It figures that a theology that is unembarrassed to insist that God freely ordains whatever comes to pass will not be nervous to include the salvation of sinners in that “whatever.” And yes, we’re talking about that dreaded word on the tip the tongue: predestination. Before I became a Calvinist, I was really uncomfortable with the doctrine of predestination; and I was secretly quite frustrated that Paul didn’t pick a squishier word in Ephesians 1:5.

A Positive Case for Unconditional Election

Unconditional Election is not first about trying to discover who’s in and who’s out of heaven. The heart of unconditional election is God’s sovereign freedom; he is bound and compelled by nothing but his own good pleasure, and as the ontological beginning and teleological end of all things, he is absolutely justified in choosing to act this way. Why did God glorify himself by creating the universe? Because he wanted to. This means that God’s interaction with his creatures are entirely his prerogative; he does not–and cannot–owe humanity a thing. Why did God make Adam? Why did God choose Abram, rather than some Joe-shmoe next door? Why did God choose Isaac rather than Ishmael? Why did God choose Jacob rather than Esau? Why did God choose to save Jacob’s family with Joseph rather than Benjamin, and why did he choose the line of Judah for his Messiah? Why Israel and not some other nation? The answer: because God wanted it this way.

He was certainly not compelled by any particularly desirable trait that these men had. Abram was a cowardly husband, who was willing to pimp his wife out to secure his own safety (not once, but twice). Isaac was an apple not fallen far from the tree, and he followed in his dad’s footsteps. Jacob was a sleazy con-artist. Joseph was a cocky little brat. Do we need to mention Judah’s little episode with his daughter-in-law, Tamar? And Israel, as a whole, proved to be no less idolatrous than any of her neighboring nations. God did not catch a twinkle the eyes of these people which convinced him that they were beautiful little snowflakes, and that their endearing qualities were simply to die for (no pun intended). God did not choose these people because of them; he chose them because it was his fancy to do so. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)

Lest we think that his sovereign unconditional election only pertains to temporally significant destinies, let us briefly explore four passages that emphatically deal with God’s decision to eternally save sinners: Acts 13:48, Romans 8:29-30, and Romans 9:18.

  • Acts 13:48 – So Paul and Barnabas stroll into Antioch in Pisidia and preach the gospel to a crowd of Gentiles, and some of them respond with saving faith. Question: which ones believed the gospel? Answer: “as many as were appointed to eternal life.” (I don’t think we need we ask, “appointed by whom?”)
  • Romans 8:29-30 – Paul describes God’s decisive role to bring his elect to himself. Note, it is God who is the active party in these verses. Some have rashly assumed that this text’s order of “foreknowledge” before “predestination” implies that God predestined to save those who would freely choose to accept the gospel invitation, and that his foreknowledge revealed to him who those people would be. In other words, they would say that God looked into the future and saw who would receive the gospel invitation, and on the basis of their choice, he predestined those people for salvation. But this won’t work, because the scope of people at the end of this journey (glorification) is the same as the scope of people at the beginning of the journey (foreknowledge). All of those individuals foreknown are predestined, and all of those individuals predestined are called, and all of those individuals called are justified, and all of those individuals justified are glorified. God has a general foreknowledge (which is what’s advocated for by the non-Calvinists here) of the entire human race, yet he does not predestine, call, justify and glorify the entire human race. Therefore, the foreknowledge of verse 29 cannot simply be an observing eye. It is a grasping foreknowledge; a gracious foreknowledge. It is a foreknowledge that applies uniquely to those who will travel akibg this golden chain to glorification.
  • Romans 9 – We can’t deal too extensively with this chapter, but notice some of the key elements. Paul is faced with the problem that many of his kinsmen of the flesh (Jews) are not saved, and are therefore damned to hell; yet they were collectively chosen by God for his purposes (v. 1-5). For the next three chapters, he will explain how God is not unfaithful to his collective chosen nation, Israel. He affirms that God does in fact have eschatological purposes for Israel, and that this apparent failure on God’s part is no true failure at all (not all of Israel belongs to Israel). In the meantime, Paul explains how God is faithful to his purposes in the present by describing what kind of God he is; that is, an electing kind. So, for example, Paul goes out of his way to describe how Jacob and Esau, “though they had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls,” were positioned decisively by God: “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” (v. 6-11) He then reiterates that God’s decision to show compassion on some and not others is contingent upon nothing other than his own sovereign freedom; and he juxtaposes the mercy that he shows Moses with the judgement that he brings on Pharaoh to illustrate his point. (v. 14-18)The primary objection is to say that God’s act of hardening Pharaoh’s heart was simply a way of solidifying what Pharaoh had already begun doing; thus God’s hardening was reactionary, rather than causal. But this won’t work for a couple of reasons. First, God’s hardening is contrasted with his mercy, which has already been established as not being reactionary (v. 11, 16). Second, the hardening does not here correspond with anything that Pharaoh is doing, it corresponds with Scripture’s statement, “For this very purpose have raised you up.”

 

“Problem Passages” for Unconditional Election

We cannot talk about biblical passages in support of predestination without addressing those passages that seem to contradict it. I’m talking specifically about those passages that express God’s desire for all men to be saved. Passages like 1:Timothy 1-4, 2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 18:23, Matthew 23:37. Which is it? Does God want all men to be saved, or does he specifically save some to the neglect of others? On a very basic, take-the-bible-at-its-word kind of level, we have to say: both. The question for biblical inerrantists is how to synthesize these two desires of God; his desire to save some (and harden others) and his desire for all men to be saved.

This is not unique to Calvinists; non-Calvinists agree that God’s desire for all to be saved is limited by another, more ultimate desire. For the non-Calvinist, this is the desire for all men to utilize unencumbered volition without his decisive intervention. In other words, God wants for all men to be saved, but he doesn’t decisively save all men because he wants to preserve their free-will even more. For the Calvinist, this ultimate desire is for God to demonstrate the full range of his glory; the vibrant, bright hues of grace, along with the dark hues of wrath. In other words, God wants for all men to be saved, but he chooses only to save some because his ultimate desire is for the full range of his glory to be displayed (Romans 9:19-23).

The Instinctual Problem

Most of the time, however, objections to unconditional election don’t start with chapters and verses; most of the time they start with the instinctual reaction, that’s not fair! Of course, biblically speaking, this objection is, in itself, self-contradictory; God is fair. It’s a characteristic that he necessarily holds, and fairness is a category that we only know in relation to him. This is why Paul responds to this very objection the way he does (Romans 9:19-23).

I do want to add this though: the appropriate disposition to accompany this doctrine (along with all the doctrines of grace) is humility. It is astonishing how believers of this doctrine can hold their position with a haughty attitude. Is it possible to say, “I was dead in my trespasses and deserving of the full wrath of God, but God saved me according to his own will, owing to nothing that I deserve and nothing that sets me apart as a greater recipient of grace than my unbelieving neighbor” all while giving your listener a perfect view of the inside of your nostrils? This doctrine should bring us low. It’s a mystery that he would save any of us at all! We ought to engage on this topic with the understanding that this doctrine is incredibly counter-intuitive, and those who initially object are not stupid, they simply recognize how scandalous it is. Because it is scandalous.

2 Comments

  1. Great articulation of this position. As a pastor I return over and over to John 6:44. The doctrine of grace takes the weight off of me. In Institutes Calvin states, “For it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear.” (p. 608). I find the synergist wants to prioritize a freedom I don’t find in Scripture. Often this results in granting God’s freedom to creation; I can’t do that.

    Thanks for the post.

    Dave

    Reply
    • Thanks Dave! I appreciate the feedback.

      Sam

      Reply

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