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 (or at least that the translators didn’t pick a squishier rendering of proorisas). But if what we have said about depravity is true, predestination is a good word; if my heart is set in hostility towards God, then the only one who could possibly have the great idea to bring me into the family of God is God himself. This is certainly a logical next-step. However, if apparent logical necessity was the only justification for affirming unconditional election, we would be in serious trouble. Thankfully, this doctrine of unconditional election is emphatically there in scripture, and so we are doubly justified for affirming it.
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 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 shoes. 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, Ephesians 1:3-14, 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?”)
- Ephesians 1:3-14 – Paul is praising God for the blessings that he enjoys in Christ, along with the saints in Ephesus. He revels in the fact that “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” He then states again that “we have been predestined according to the purpose of him works all things according to the counsel of his will.” That last clause is a descriptive characteristic; God works all things according to the counsel of his will, and in keeping with this trait, he predestines–before the foundation of the world–to adopt sinners into his family. This is true of all who are in Christ Jesus; which is to say, it is true of all who are saved.
- 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. Therefore, the foreknowledge of verse 29 cannot simply be an observing eye, which surveys the entire human race (the entire human race will not be predestined, called, justified and glorified). It is a grasping foreknowledge; a gracious foreknowledge. (much more can be said about this word “foreknowledge,” but the intended takeaway here is the corresponding scope of individuals who are glorified and those who are foreknown and predestined)
- 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 (I would insist, a non-dispensationalistic purpose, but that is for another post at another time), 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 two common objections to this reading both have to do with God’s apparent predestining of Pharaoh for destruction. (1) The first 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 the Pharaoh is doing, it corresponds with Scripture’s statement, “For this very purpose I have raised you up.” (2) Which brings me to the second objection, which is that the “raising up” does not refer to God’s sovereign act of bringing Pharaoh to power, but his sovereign act of mercy to preserve Pharaoh in the seventh plague (Exodus 9:16). In other words, the “power” that God intends to have proclaimed in all the earth is his “power” to have mercy on Pharaoh. But this won’t work, partly because God only preserves Pharaoh long enough to pulverize him more emphatically in just a couple more chapters, and partly because God does not develop a reputation among the nations for powerfully showing temporary mercy to Pharaoh. He does, however, develop a reputation for delivering a nation of slaves from the grip of a tyrant, while powerfully crushing it. This leads me to believe that when God was speaking to Pharaoh in Exodus 9:19, he was referring to his promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-14, that Abraham’s descendants would be afflicted in a foreign nation for four hundred years, and that said foreign nation would be judged upon their exodus. Thus, the “raising up” to demonstrate “power” does in fact correspond with God’s “hardening,” which is done out of his good pleasure.
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.
The traditional concept to synthesize these two desires is something commonly recognized as “the two wills of God.” On some level, this is a theological concept for everyone; Calvinist and non-Calvinist alike. The bible often necessitates that God wills two things simultaneously–like his will for men not to sin, and his will for Jesus to be murdered at the hand of sinful men, for example (Acts 2:22-24)–and since God does not lie, we must recognize that his wills differ from one another on some level. God can’t will for people not to sin and also, in the same way, will for people to sinfully murder Jesus. They are different in nature, but that does not necessarily mean that they are contradictory. To use a somewhat trite example; I can imagine that, in one sense, the masterminds of Disney did not want to see Mufasa trampled to death at the hand of Scar in the Lion King (it’s a really sad moment; I’m sure they didn’t delight in upsetting their young audience), but in another sense, they did want to see Mufasa killed (it makes for a better story in the long run). Similarly, God’s desire for all to be saved is a genuine desire; but another desire of God–an overarching desire–ultimately keeps that initial desire from finding its consummation.
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. For the Calvinist, this 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). So which view is more consistent with biblical themes? The view that God’s desire to preserve free-will limits his desire to save everyone, or that his desire to be glorified completely limits his desire to save everyone? I’ll let the reader decide.
The Instinctual Problem
Most of the time, objections to unconditional election don’t start with chapters and verses (those are normally gratefully received as ammunition), 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. It’s like if I were put on my favorite shirt, and someone were to object with, hey, wearing that shirt isn’t Sam-like. Well… I am Sam; anything I do is by definition Sam-like. The same is true with God’s relationship to fairness; anything he does is by definition fair. 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 more deserving 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, and our demeanor ought to reflect an awareness of that fact. 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 are simply recognizing how scandalous it is. And it is scandalous.