Unconditional Election: How God Planned the Rescue

Embracing what the Bible says about the nature of man described in the previous article (totally depraved, spiritually dead) must leave us asking, “Who then can be saved?” The answer of the Calvinists goes something like this: “For his own good purposes, God has actively chosen a specific number of wrath-deserving sinners to escape judgment, experience his salvation and be transformed into the image of his Son.” This doctrine leaves none of us the right to become the hero of our personal salvation testimony.

Underlying the doctrine of unconditional election is an emphasis on the free will of God rather than the free will of man. In other words, God could have justly condemned the entire race. As the Canons of Dordt said:

Since all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death, God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the entire human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn them on account of their sin. As the apostle says: The whole world is liable to the condemnation of God (Rom. 3:19), All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

The 20th question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism reads, “Did God leave all mankind to die in sin and misery?" The answer reads:

From all eternity and merely because it pleased Him God chose some to have everlasting life. These He freed from sin and misery by covenant of grace and brought them to salvation by a redeemer.[1]

Unconditional election leaves man with no role in God's choice. That is why I add “For his own good purposes” to my definition. Since the Bible is so full of references to divine election, those who are uncomfortable with the doctrine as defined above prefer to say that God foreknew events and chose based on that knowledge. They say God looked ahead and, seeing the future faith of some people, chose them on that basis. If I turned to Christ on a certain day I might say that God saw this ahead of time and chose me based on my choice. This is called “conditional election,” one of the five points of the Arminian Remonstrance.

The misguided words of the contemporary altar call song that says, “If the truth will ever set you free depends on you,” shackle the nail-scarred hands and place the key in mine. Without trying to sound haughty (not consistent for someone believing the doctrine of total depravity), these distinctions should make it clear why Calvinists believe Arminianism is a man-centered theology. Aside from making the sovereign God learn something, conditional election as it is defended by our Arminian friends cannot stand up against an abundance of biblical evidence:

  • God’s choice was not based on anything in man (Romans 9:11-12; 2 Timothy 1:8-9).
  • God foreknew people, not events (Romans 8:29).
  • God chose the means by which people would be saved (Romans 10:14-15).
  • God’s choice was for his own good pleasure (Luke 12:32).
  • God’s people will be saved (John 6:37).
  • God’s people will be fruitful (John 15:16).
  • God’s glory must be the end result (Ephesians 1:3-14).
  • God’s messengers will have success (Acts 18:10; 2 Timothy 2:10).

Objections to this teaching and responses:

  1. “If this is true, some people will never have a chance to be saved.” When the fairness issue is raised, it is imperative that we understand the holiness of God and the depravity of man. Men do not suffer wrath because they are non-elect, but because they replace God (Romans 1).
  2. “If this is true, it is a waste to send missionaries.” This is an unbiblical application of a biblical doctrine. It is disobedient to not preach the gospel. The gospel is the means God has chosen to bring the elect to himself.
  3. “If this is true, it violates man’s free will.” From what is man’s will free? What about God’s free will? Some people picture the God of the Calvinist like a heavenly bouncer checking ID cards at the gates of heaven and turning away the non-elect who wish to come in. The doctrine of unconditional election properly understood yields no such picture. Apart from a work of God's sovereign grace, sinners have no “will” to go to heaven. A security detail is no more needed to bar the gates of heaven to the totally depraved than one is needed to keep fire out of water.

Believing this makes a difference in “real life” because, like the doctrine of total depravity, it is pride-crushing. The identity of the believer is bound up in the eternal choices of God. I can take no more credit for turning from my sin to the Savior than could a man who jumped from a burning building to a firefighters’ rescue net on the ground. If my identity is wrapped up in my temporal choices, the instability of this temporal world can mess up my identity. If my identity is wrapped up in God's sovereign work on behalf of my soul, my life is hidden with Christ in God. I do not live but Christ lives in me.

[1] The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English, p. 8, © 1986 The WestShor Group

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