Unconditional Election

revised from original article printed in PCC Bulletin vol. 2, no. 18 dated 29 Oct 2000


Let us begin our examination of the second petal of the Calvinistic Tulip by defining a few terms. These are terms that we can hardly escape from using in this study.

The first term we must define is ‘election.’ Election very simply refers to the act of God in choosing a people unto Himself. Or, to put it in individualistic terms, it refers to God’s choosing of certain individuals to enjoy His love for all eternity. The Canons of Dort puts it this way:

Election is the immutable purpose of God, by which, before the foundations of the world were laid, He chose, out of the whole human race, fallen by their own fault from their primeval integrity into sin and destruction, according to the most free good pleasure of His own will, and of mere grace, a certain number of men, neither better nor worthier than others, but lying in the same misery with the rest, to salvation in Christ; whom He had, even from eternity, constituted Mediator and Head of all the elect, and the foundation of Salvation…(Head 1, Art. 7).

The second term is ‘predestination.’ The most obvious meaning of this term speaks of God predetermining our final destination, i.e. the final destination of our souls. But remember that Biblical predestination comprehends not just our final destination, but all that happens in time and space as we head towards the final destination. To put it in another way, election marks out the elect, while predestination marks out their steps (Ps 37:23, Prov 4:18, Heb 12:1).

A third term must also be mentioned, namely ‘reprobation.’ This is the antithesis of ‘election.’ If God chose some individuals from all mankind to experience salvation, it follows that He must have ordained all the rest to wrath for their sin, and therefore passes them by when He extends grace to the elect for their salvation. The apostle Paul calls the reprobates: “vessels of wrath fitted to destruction” (Rom. 9:22). The Westminster Confession of Faith describes reprobation and the reprobates thus:

The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice” (WCF  3.7).

With these definitions, in mind, let us proceed with our study of the second petal, namely, Unconditional Election. This second petal is incidentally, or should we say, providentially, the first head in the Canons of Dort. There are good reasons for this order, but we will not tarry to show it. It is really not difficult to arrive at an explanation.

Let us begin by looking at the contrary view, namely…


Conditional Election

Considering first a definition of the doctrine of election, viz.:  That God, by an eternal, unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his Son, before the foundation of the world, hath determined, out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath, and to condemn them as alienate from Christ, according to the word of the gospel in John 3:36: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him,” and according to other passages of Scripture also.

If you have been reading the first two articles in this series, you will probably be quite on your guard as you read this statement. You will probably suspect that there is something wrong with it. And so there is, for it is actually the first article of the Remonstrance! But can you detect what the problem is? I am afraid that without prior warning, most modern Christian readers, so used to religious platitudes rather than theological propositions, will simply accept the statement as biblical. Indeed, I suspect that even with warning, many of us may have difficulty pin-pointing where the error in the statement is exactly simply because we are so unused to engaging our minds in deep theological discussions.

What then is the error?

Well, the error lies really in a subtle attempt to redefine the idea of God’s sovereign predestination! Imagine that you are in prison. You hear that a decree has been passed that some prisoners will be released soon. But upon further enquiry, you hear two versions of what will happen. The first says that the decree includes a list of names and also specific instructions on the entire process of releasing them including when and how the elected prisoners will be released. According to this version, a benefactor had done all that is necessary to secure the release of the chosen prisoners. But the second version says that there is no predetermined list; however, it has been unchangeably decreed that some of the prisoners, at least, will get to sit for an examination for which they will also be given help, and those who pass will be released. According to this second version, the benefactor had done good work to secure a way out for the prisoners, and is even given the opportunity to help the prisoners to win their release.

Now, if you read the Arminian statement again, it will not be difficult to see that it is really the second version that is presented.

In other words, when the Arminians say that God “hath determined” to save those who “through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end;” what they mean is that God has determined to save those who would exercise faith (assisted by prevenient grace) to believe and persevere in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what the Arminian understands to be God’s “unchangeable purpose.” But what about the scriptural idea that some are elected unto salvation (eg. Rom 9:11)? Well, the Arminian who is confronted with this question will reply that the elect are simply those whom God, who is omniscient, knew would repent and believe and so be saved.

The favourite proof-text of the Arminians in support of this error is Romans 8:29-30:

For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

The argument is that since the apostle Paul places foreknowledge before predestination, it must be that foreknowledge (of the person’s faith) is the basis of predestination. This is, however, far from what Paul is saying.

  • Firstly, a straightforward interpretation of the verse would suggest that foreknowledge here must be referring essentially to election in Christ or being loved in Christ (Eph 1:4). Paul is imply saying that God predestinates those He elects, and therefore loves and knows.
  • Secondly, Paul goes on to speak about what God would do for those He foreknew, namely: call, justify and glorify. Notice how Paul uses the past tense for each of these acts, including ‘glorified’. This implies that the acts follow one after another in an unbroken chain so that none who were foreknown would not be called, justified or glorified. There is simply no room for any condition based on human response in the chain. Even the call must refer to the effectual call which leads to justification, for if it refers to the external call of preaching, then all who hear the Gospel would be saved.  In other words, Paul was saying that salvation is the work of God from beginning to end. It simply does not make sense for him to be saying that God predestinates those He foreknew will come to faith and persevere. Even if the Arminian does not agree with the doctrine of Total Depravity which we have already explained, this text (Rom 8:29-30) does not allow for any contribution on the part of man to his own salvation.
  • Thirdly, if Paul means that predestination is according to God’s foreknowledge, then predestination effectively means nothing, since the elect will reach their final destination based on their own efforts (though assisted by prevenient grace).

And thus we affirm with the Synod of Dort that—

This election [unto salvation] was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: He hath chosen us (not because we were, but) that we should be holy, and without blemish before him in love (Eph. 1:4) (Head 1, Article 9).


 Biblical Doctrine of Absolute Predestination

The doctrine of unconditional election has its foundation not only in the eternal love of God in Christ, but also in the fact that God has ordained all things that comes to pass according to the counsel of His own will. Ironically, this doctrine is suggested by the apostle Paul just one verse above the text used by the Arminian to prove their doctrine of election by foreknowledge, for he says: “And we know that ALL things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). It would be impossible for “ALL things work together for good to them that love God” if God is not in sovereign control over everything. If God is not in control over just one thing, then the proposition that “all things work together for good to them that love God” is no longer true.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (§3.1-2) states the doctrine most succinctly:

I.  God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

II.  Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath He not decreed any thing because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

This doctrine of absolute predestination is questioned by many because it seems to be counter-intuitive, and appears to make men robots. But the fact that it is biblical can hardly be doubted.

For example, God said through Isaiah:

Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure (Isa 46:9-10).

That the counsel of God comprehends and determines all things and events of every kind,—whether great and small, good or evil,—is also clear from Scripture.

  • In the first place, even events that appear insignificant such as the dropping of our hair from our head are brought about by God according to the counsel of His will (Mt 10:30).
  • In the second place, even things that appear to happen by chance has been decreed and are brought about by the counsel of the Lord: “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD” (Prov 16:33).
  • In the third place disasters are ordained and brought to past by God: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil [i.e. disaster]: I the LORD do all these things” (Isa 45:7; cf. Amos 3:6b).
  • In the fourth place, even the acts of the wicked are ordained by God: “The LORD hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Prov 16:4). This, God does without violating the freedom and responsibility of His creatures. So Judas is condemned though it was decreed that Christ would be delivered by him (see Mt 26:24). So Peter in his sermon at Pentecost condemned the Jews for their wickedness of slaying the Lord though He was “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23; see also Acts 4:28).

It is clear that whatever happens in this world is brought about by God according to the counsel of His will. The counsel of God is His living will. It is sovereignly efficacious. No contingencies can frustrate God’s will because all power belongs to Him (Ps 62:11). It would hardly be possible to conceive of God’s choice of the elect as being contingent upon God’s foreknowledge of what man would do. Surely, God knows all things because He sovereignly decreed them and brings them to past. The god of the consistent Arminian, who knows what is going to come to pass not because He ordained all things, but because He simply foresaw all things, is simply not the God of the Bible, but an impotent god of man’s imagination.


Biblical Doctrine of Unconditional Election

A consideration of the absolute sovereignty of God ought to convince us that our election is unconditional. But there is more. The Bible explicitly informs us of that verity in order to mortify any remnant of pride that we may retain.

  • First of all, the apostle Paul explicitly declares that our election is made before the foundation of the world, according to the good pleasure of the will of God and His eternal love for us on account of our being represented by Christ:

    “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:  According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. …In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph 1:3-6, 11).
  • Secondly, the Scripture is emphatic that election is not conditioned on our good works (including our response to the Gospel). Paul was making this point when he tells us that God has already declared his love for Jacob rather than Esau (who were twins) even before they were born or capable of doing any good or evil:

    “(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger” (Rom 9:11-12)


    The same thought of unconditional election appears elsewhere, e.g.“… there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. …. ” (Rom 11:5-6); and “[God] hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Tim 1:9).
  • Thirdly, the Scripture teaches in numerous places that faith and repentance are the fruit of election. E.g., “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10; cf. Eph 1:4).

    Thus the Lord Jesus Christ declares that all who come unto Him are those whom the Father have given Him in the first place, i.e. elected before the foundation of the world: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (Jn 6:37).


    We believe because Christ first laid down His life for us: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep” (Jn 10:26, cf. 10:14-15). This same truth of faith being the fruit of election is highlighted by Luke: “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:48b).


    If faith and repentance
    are the fruit of the elect, our election certainly cannot be conditioned on them.
  • Fourthly, God claims to have the sovereign prerogative to elect whom He will:

    “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. … So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. … Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? ” (Rom 9:13, 16, 21)

The Biblical evidence from these four angles is clear, and the conclusion inescapable: Our election is entirely gratuitous, and based on God’s sovereign good pleasure. In other words, our election is unconditional, or more specifically, not conditioned upon any contribution on our part.


Conclusion

The doctrine of unconditional election and sovereign predestination is controversial only because man refuses to summit to God’s declaration of His majestic sovereignty and man’s dismal nothingness. Because of this many objections have been harnessed against the doctrine.

Some say: “The doctrine is ridiculous because it makes God drag the ungrateful sinner kicking and screaming into the kingdom, while denying entrance to those who truly want to enter into it.” It does not take much to answer this objection, for no one is ever dragged the kingdom kicking and screaming. Anyone who enters the kingdom enters as one who is born again and finds Christ to be lovely beyond all measures (Jn 3:3). On the other hand no one is denied entrance into the kingdom who wants to enter into it, because no fallen man will ever want to enter but the elect whom the Lord grants efficacious grace.

Some others object that unconditional election makes it immoral for God to hold those who reject the Gospel responsible for their unbelief. This again is easily answered, for none who rejects the Gospel can honestly say: “God prevented me from believing.”

Yet others say: “God is unfair to save only a few.” The apostle Paul anticipates this question and answers it in Romans 9:14-15—

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

The point is, we are saved by God’s unmerited mercy and grace. If we really want fairness, then we are really asking for strict justice, in which case all deserve to perish. Does a prisoner in the death row for treason have the right to charge the king for unfairness if he chooses according to his mercy to release another prisoner guilty of the same crime? Such a person would surely deserve the greater condemnation.

O glorious grace! I was dead in trespasses and sin, without hope in this world, deserving nothing but God’s wrath. I hated my Maker, and the only one who could save me. Yet God in His boundless love sent His only begotten to suffer and die for me, and then in the fullness of time, sent His Spirit to open my eyes so I could see my bleeding Saviour nailed to the Cross for my crime. What can my response be, but a humble “Why me, Lord?” W