We continue our series of posts concerning The Doctrines of Grace, otherwise known as the Five Points of Calvinism. Is it biblical? Let’s look and see. This is post #5 and it is concerning Unconditional Election. Please click here to view #1 Introduction and Historical Information #2 Total Depravity #3 Irresistible Grace and #4 Limited Atonement.
If all of us are so depraved that we cannot come to God without being born again by the irresistible grace of God, and if this particular grace is purchased by Christ on the cross, then it is clear that the salvation of any of us is owing to God’s election.
Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. It is unconditional in that there is no condition man must meet before God chooses to save him. Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.
Faith in Christ is a product of Election
We are not saying that final salvation is unconditional. It is not. We must meet the condition of faith in Christ in order to inherit eternal life. But faith is not a condition for election. Just the reverse. Election is a condition for faith. It is because God chose us before the foundation of the world that he purchases our redemption at the cross and quickens us (makes us alive) with irresistible grace and brings us to faith.
The Bible and Election
Acts 13:48 reports how the Gentiles responded to the preaching of the gospel in Antioch of Pisidia. “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” Notice, it does not say that as many believed were chosen to be ordained to eternal life. The prior election of God is the reason some believed while others did not.
Similarly Jesus says to the Jews in John 10:26, “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” He does not say, “You are not my sheep because you do not believe.” Being a sheep is something God decides for us before we believe. It is the basis and enablement of our belief. We believe because we are God’s chosen sheep, not vice versa. (See John 8:47; 18:37.)
In Romans 9 Paul stresses the unconditionality of election. For example, in verses 11-12 he describes the principle God used in the choice of Jacob over Esau: “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, [Rebecca] was told, ‘The elder will serve the younger.'” God’s election is preserved in its unconditionality because it is transacted before we are born or have done any good or evil.
NOTE: Some interpreters say that Romans 9 has nothing to do with the election of individuals to their eternal destinies. They say that the chapter only relates to the historical roles that are played by the peoples descended from Jacob and Esau.
We recommend The Justification of God by John Piper (Baker Book House, 1983) which was written to investigate this very issue. It concludes that Romans 9 not only relates to the historical roles of whole peoples, but also to the eternal destinies of individuals, because among other reasons (Justification, pp. 38-54), verses 1-5 pose a problem about the lostness of individual Israelites which would be totally unaddressed if the chapter had nothing to say about individuals.
The unconditionality of God’s electing grace is stressed again in Romans 9:15-16, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy.”
We really do not understand mercy if we think that we can initiate it by our own will or effort. We are hopelessly bound in the darkness of sin. If we are going to be saved, God will have to unconditionally take the initiative in our heart and irresistibly make us willing to submit to him. (See Romans 11:7.)
Ephesians 1:3-6 is another powerful statement of the unconditionality of our election and predestination to sonship.
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, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He predestined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace.
Some interpreters argue that this election before the foundation of the world was only an election of Christ, but not an election of which individuals would actually be in Christ. This simply amounts to saying that there is no unconditional election of individuals to salvation. Christ is put forward as the chosen one of God and the salvation of individuals is dependent on their own initiative to overcome their depravity and be united to Christ by faith. God does not choose them and therefore God cannot effectually convert them. He can only wait to see who will quicken themselves from the dead and choose him.
This interpretation does not square well with verse 11 where it says that “we were predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
Nor does the literal wording of verse 4 fit this interpretation. The ordinary meaning of the word for “choose” in verse 4 is to select or pick out of a group (cf. Luke 6:13; 14:7; John 13:18; 15:16,19). So the natural meaning of the verse is that God chooses his people from all humanity, before the foundation of the world by viewing them in relationship to Christ their redeemer.
Jesus died for the elect
All election is in relation to Christ. There would be no election of sinners unto salvation if Christ were not appointed to die for their sins. So in that sense they are elect in Christ. But it is they, and not just Christ who are chosen out of the world.
Also the wording of verse 5 suggests the election of people to be in Christ, and not just the election of Christ. Literally it says, “Having predestined us unto sonship through Jesus Christ.” We are the ones predestined, not Christ. He is the one that makes the election of sinners possible, and so our election is “through him,” but there is no talk here about God having a view only to Christ in election.
Perhaps the most important text of all in relation to the teaching of unconditional election is Romans 8:28-33.
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose, For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
Often this text is used to argue against unconditional election on the basis of verse 29 which says, “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined…” So some say that people are not chosen unconditionally. They are chosen on the basis of their faith which they produce without the help of irresistible grace and which God sees beforehand.
But this will not square with the context. Notice that Romans 8:30 says, “And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Focus for a moment on the fact that all whom God calls he also justifies.
This calling in verse 30 is not given to all people. The reason we know it’s not is that all those who are called are also justified—but all men are not justified. So this calling in verse 30 is not the general call to repentance that preachers give or that God gives through the glory of nature. Everybody receives that call. The call of verse 30 is given only to those whom God predestined to be conformed to the image of his son (v. 29). And it is a call that leads necessarily to justification: “Those whom he called he also justified.”
But we know that justification is by faith (Romans 5:1). What then is this call that is given to all those who are predestined and which leads to justification? It must be the call of irresistible grace. It is the call of 1 Corinthians 1:24 which we discussed above on page 6.
Between the act of predestination and justification there is the act of calling. Since justification is only by faith the calling in view must be the act of God whereby he calls faith into being. And since it necessarily results in justification it must be irresistible. There are none called (in this sense! not the sense of Matthew 22:14) who are not justified. All the called are justified. So the calling of verse 30 is the sovereign work of God which brings a person to faith by which he is justified.
Now notice the implication this has for the meaning of foreknowledge in verse 29. When Paul says in verse 29, “Those whom he foreknew he also predestined,” he can’t mean (as so many try to make him mean) that God knows in advance who will use their free will to come to faith, so that he can predestine them to sonship because they made that free choice on their own. It can’t mean that because we have seen from verse 30 that people do not come to faith on their own. They are called irresistibly.
God does not foreknow the free decisions of people to believe in him because there aren’t any such free decisions to know. If anyone comes to faith in Jesus, it is because they were quickened from the dead (Ephesians 2:5) by the creative Spirit of God. That is, they are effectually called from darkness into light.
So the foreknowledge of Romans 8:29 is not the mere awareness of something that will happen in the future apart from God’s predetermination. Rather it is the kind of knowledge referred to in Old Testament texts like Genesis 18:19 (“I have chosen [literally:known] Abraham so that he may charge his children…to keep the way of the Lord”), and Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations”) and Amos 3:2 (“You only [Israel] have I known from all the families of the earth”).
As C.E.B. Cranfield says, the foreknowledge of Romans 8:29 is “that special taking knowledge of a person which is God’s electing grace.” Such foreknowledge is virtually the same as election: “Those whom he foreknew (i.e. chose) he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”
Therefore what this magnificent text (Romans 8:28-33) teaches is that God really accomplishes the complete redemption of his people from start to finish. He foreknows, i.e. elects a people for himself before the foundation of the world, he predestines this people to be conformed to the image of his Son, he calls them to himself in faith, he justifies them through that faith, and he finally glorifies them—and nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ for ever and ever (Romans 8:39). To him be all praise and glory! Amen.
This post originally appeared on Desiring God website.
Always seeking your joy in Jesus,