Choosing or Chosen: Is Election Conditional or Unconditional? (1)
Choosing or Chosen: Is Election Conditional or Unconditional? (2)
Choosing or Chosen: Is Election Conditional or Unconditional? (3)
Choosing or Chosen: Is Election Conditional or Unconditional? (4)
Problems with the Doctrine of Conditional Election
Not only is unconditional election well-supported Biblically and theologically, conditional election suffers from several devastating theological problems. The first problem concerns conditional election’s consistency with biblical texts that affirm gracious election. Second, conditional election appears to give grounds for boasting in one’s salvation. Third, the adjective “conditional” empties the word “election” of any true usefulness and begs the question, What did election actually accomplish? Finally, the necessary doctrine of “previenent grace” required by conditional election is not well-supported in Scripture.
Conditional Election Cannot Affirm Truly Gracious Election
One major theological problem that plagues the argument for conditional election is the question of whether or not it can affirm, without contradiction, truly gracious election. Several texts in the New Testament establish the graciousness of God’s election of individuals to salvation (Matthew 11:25-30; Romans 9:11, 16, 18; Ephesians 1:3, II Timothy 1:9-10). Yet, if grace is understood as God’s unmerited favor toward sinners—a definition which these texts support—then how can this unmerited favor be said to rest on those whom God has foreseen will have faith in Christ? If God’s election is based on foreseen faith, then it cannot be said to flow from grace, since it is grounded, at some level, on the will of the person who exercised faith. It appears conditional election cannot affirm truly gracious election since foreseen faith is what ultimately brings God’s election about. This wreaks havoc on several New Testament texts.
Conditional Election Provides Ground for Boasting
Paul’s statement in Romans 3:27, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded,” is contradicted by conditional election. If God’s election of sinners to salvation is based on anything God foresees in a person—even saving faith—then that person is by necessity able to boast in himself since it was his faith that ultimately set him apart from others. Yet the sin of boasting in oneself is consistently confronted with great vigor all throughout Scripture (See Deuteronomy 8:17; I Samuel 2:3; Psalm 20:7-8; 75:4; Jeremiah 9:23-24; Daniel 4:28-33; I Corinthians 1:31; 4:7; Romans 4:1-3), and appears as one of the primary reasons the doctrine of election is given is to combat pride and promote the praise of God’s glorious grace (see Ephesians 1:6, 12,14). Tom Schreiner notes, “Paul’s teaching on election has a practical aim: to nullify human pride and exalt the grace of God” (New Testament Theology, 343). This cannot occur if election is understood to be conditional.
“Conditional” Empties the Usefulness of the Word, “Election.”
When the adjective “conditional” modifies the word, “election,” one is forced to ask, “If election is based on God seeing one’s faith beforehand, what exactly does God’s act of election accomplish?” At best, it appears superfluous. Proponents of conditional election might argue that election sets in motion that particular person’s salvation in space and time. But the question remains: why is election necessary? Cannot God simply wait for the person he has foreseen will exercise faith to exercise faith in space and time? More to the point: what does election produce that foreseen faith does not? On the other hand, the adjective “unconditional” preserves the usefulness of the word “election” by highlighting the totality of God’s initiative in choosing who will be saved.
The Necessary Doctrine of Prevenient Grace is Not Well-Supported in Scripture
In order to make sense of how man, despite his pervasive depravity and inability to come to Christ, is able to exercise saving faith, Arminians appeal to “prevenient grace.” This grace is grace that God has given all men. Now, although man is depraved, he can exercise saving faith in Christ if he so chooses. Paul Enns, in The Moody Handbook of Theology, defines prevenient grace as,
…the ‘preparing’ grace of God that is dispensed to all, enabling a person to respond to the invitation of the gospel…This leads to a belief in synergism, ‘working together’ or a ‘cooperative action’ between man and God with regard to salvation. Because God dispenses prevenient grace, the effects of Adam’s sin are reversed, enabling the person to respond in faith to the gospel (496).
Thus, those whom God foresees exercising this faith, he elects to salvation. The doctrine of prevenient grace, however, has weak biblical support. The three texts which are said to support prevenient grace (John 1:9; Titus 2:11; John 12:32) do not say anything explicit about a grace which enables all men to exercise saving faith. John 1:9 speaks of a light which “enlightens every man,” but says nothing of salvation or faith. Titus 2:11 speaks of a grace which brings salvation to all men, but this can be understood as a salvation which is available to all kinds of men (that is, all nations and races), or a grace that brings the opportunity of salvation to all men. Finally, in John 12:32, Jesus says that when he is “lifted up” he will draw all men to himself. Again, this passage says nothing about salvation or faith and can merely refer to the fact that Christ will draw all kinds of men to himself when he is “lifted up. Nothing in these verses provides concrete evidence for the doctrine of prevenient grace.
The doctrine of unconditional election, though debated and opposed throughout church history, is not only strongly supported by Scripture, it makes sense in light of our sinfulness and provides great coherence to other doctrines which relate to our salvation: effectual calling, justification and perseverance. The doctrine of unconditional election is not meant to be merely a point of speculation and debate, however: it was given for our comfort and for our worship. May we live in the joy of a secure salvation and worship the God who has chosen to save us “from before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).