In the discussion of the doctrine of divine election, two primary positions arise to the forefront of the conversation. Historically, these two positions have been stated and defended by those who would classify themselves as classical Arminians and moderate Calvinists, respectively. Classical Arminians maintain that God’s election of men and women to salvation before the foundation of the world comes as a result of God foreseeing that particular person’s faith in Christ. God, in eternity and before he creates, foresees what specific people will place their faith in Christ and, at that point, elects them to salvation. This is commonly referred to as “conditional election,” since God’s election of a particular person depends upon their meeting a condition, namely, faith in Christ.
Origen (d. 254), argued that the “predestination language of the Bible encouraged pagan fatalism”(The Cross and Salvation, Bruce Demerest, 99) and thus spoke rather of a foreknowledge of men’s piety which preceded foreordination of their salvation. John Chrysostom of Antioch (d. 407), held that “God elects persons on the basis of his foreknowledge of their personal worthiness” (100). John Wesley (d.1791) vigorously opposed the “horrible decree” of predestination.
Jacob Arminius (d. 1609) whose name now designates the theological position under discussion, defined man’s free-will as his power of contrary choice. Spiritually speaking, this means that man has the ability to either choose Christ or reject him. Ultimately, however, the choice lies with the man. Although Arminius held to total depravity—man’s utter inability to repent and believe in Christ—he did maintain God gives “prevenient grace” to every man that decreases the effects of original sin and provides the ability for a person to choose Christ. God thus foresees who will choose him and subsequently elects them for salvation in eternity past.
Those who would be categorized under the heading of moderate Calvinism would assert that God’s election of men and women to salvation is based on nothing within or about the person, but is rather grounded solely in God’s own sovereign choice. This position would argue that God does not base his choice of particular men and women to salvation on any foreseen merit, including faith. Instead, God, in eternity and before he creates, chooses whom he will save. As time unfolds, God brings those people to genuine repentance and faith in Christ. This is generally called “unconditional election” since the election is not based on man meeting any condition.
Although the unconditional election was not explicitly articulated until Augustine (d. 430), there were some who demonstrated a growing commitment to God’s initiative in salvation. Men like Tertullian (d. 220), Athanasius (d. 373), and Ambrose (d. 397) spoke at times of those who were “prepared beforehand,” and of God’s sovereign choice to save those whom he chooses to save (114). Thomas Aquanis (d. 1274), John Gill (d. 1771), Charles Haddon Spurgeon (d. 1892) and A.H. Strong held that election is God’s unconditional choice of who he will bring to faith in Christ, not his conditional choice of those who he foresees will place their faith in Christ. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) provides a clear definition of unconditional election:
Those of mankind that are predestined unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith or good works, perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all the praise of his glorious grace (3.5) (116-117).
In this article I will attempt to provide a biblical and theological defense of unconditional election, followed by answers to a common objection to unconditional election and a final essay outlining a few of the most glaring problems within conditional election.
Election in the Old and New Testaments
The idea of unconditional election is not exclusive to the New Testament; it is found both implicitly and explicitly through much of the Old Testament. Although the words “elect” or “chosen” are not used in God’s interactions with Abram in Genesis 12-17, the notion of sovereign, unconditional election is clearly there. In Genesis 12:1-3, God reveals himself to Abram and promises to make him a great nation without any apparent or stated external compulsion, and despite Abram’s lack of personal merit or faith. Regarding God’s choice of Abraham, Tom Schreiner writes
Some statements in the Scriptures could be interpreted to say that God chose the fathers by virtue of their merits (Deut. 7:8; Rom. 11:28). Such a view is a bad misreading of the biblical evidence. Joshua says that Abraham and his family were idolators (Josh. 24:2) and Abraham’s new life is attributed to the work of God, ‘I took your father Abraham from beyond the River’ (Josh. 24:3, NRSV; The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 451).
The idea of unconditional election becomes more prominent and nuanced as the biblical narrative proceeds from Abraham to the promised nation that came from him. Throughout the Old Testament text, God makes it unambiguous that he has “chosen” the nation Israel to be his people (Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2; I Kings 3:8; Psalm 33:12; 135:4; Isaiah 41:8-9, 43:10, 44:2, 49:7; Zechariah 3:2). God’s choice, however, was not based on anything inherent in Israel—anything righteous or distinctive that would warrant God’s attention. Just the opposite! God reminds Israel that it was neither their size (Deuteronomy 7:7) nor their righteousness (Deuteronomy 9:4-5) that provoked God’s decision to make them his treasured possession; rather, it was his sovereign love that he had shown through the promises he had made to the patriarchs (Deuteronomy 7:8; see also Deuteronomy 10:15).
As we turn to the New Testament, the doctrine of unconditional election finds much greater expression and detail. What was once a concept applied only to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament is now applied to the recipients of salvation in the New Testament, yet with richer vocabulary and more explicit articulation. In the gospels and epistles, we see God has “elected” or “chosen” a people for his own redemptive purposes (Matthew 22:14; 24:22, 24, 31; Luke 18:6-8; John 15:16; Romans 8:28-33; I Thessalonians 1:4; II Thessalonians 2:13; Titus 1:1; I John 4:19; Revelation 17:14). This choice for sinners to be brought into Christ was made “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), apart from any righteousness or merit on their part (II Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5), to be forgiven of their sins (Ephesians 1:7) and brought into conformity to Christ (Romans 8:29). B.B. Warfield highlights the graciousness of this act of election when he writes,
The very essence of the doctrine is made, indeed, to consist in the fact that, in the whole administration of his grace, God is moved by no consideration derived from the special recipients of His saving mercy, but the entire account of its distribution is to be found hidden in the free counsels of his own will (Works of B.B. Warfield, Vol.2: 62)
At this point, proponents of conditional election will appeal to Romans 8:29 where Paul explains that predestination (that is, election) is grounded in God’s foreknowledge. When God predestines a person to inherit salvation (vv.29-30: calling, justification, conformity to the image of Christ, glorification), his choice to do so is grounded in his foreknowledge of that person’s faith. God foreknows who will believe in Christ and subsequently predestines those persons to salvation. A closer examination of this passage, however, reveals the inadequacy of this interpretation.
Romans 8:29 and God’s “Foreknowledge”
First, although the etymology of the word “foreknow” in both Greek and English suggests that it can mean “know beforehand,” the New Testament usage of the word and its cognates does not appear to conform to this general usage. Douglas Moo observes that of the six times “foreknow” is used in the New Testament, only two mean, “know beforehand.” The other four uses, all of which have God as their subject, do not refer to intellectual cognition (“know before”), but refer rather to “choosing, determining, or entering into relationship, before” (Moo, Romans, 532).
Secondly, the verb “foreknow” in Romans 8:29 only has a simple personal object. Paul does not say that God knew something about us (namely, that we would exercise personal faith in Christ), but that he knew us. This seems to tie in with the Old Testament sense of “know:” (Moo, 532-533). God set his love upon particular people and predestined them to salvation before they were born (see Ephesians 1:4). Thirdly, the word “faith” is not used in this passage—that “foreknow” is referring to faith must be implied.
Finally, to maintain “foreknow” in this passage refers to God’s knowledge of one’s faith fails to recognize the thrust of Romans 8:1-39 as a whole. This passage is meant to deliver comfort to Christians by declaring to them the glorious truth that their salvation is secure and cannot be lost because it is tied unassailably to God’s eternal purpose to save sinners. Regarding this purpose, Tom Schreiner comments,
God’s unstoppable purpose in calling believers to salvation cannot be frustrated, and thus he employs all this to bring about the plan he had from the beginning in the lives of believers…the good realized is not due to fate, luck, or even the moral superiority of believers; it is ascribed to God’s good and sovereign will (Schreiner, Romans)
Upholding the concept of “foreseen faith” in Romans 8:29 weakens the force of the assurance this passage is designed to deliver since it introduces the idea that salvation is not wholly a divine work, but depends, in some measure, on the person chosen. Salvation is no longer God’s work from beginning to end—a truth it appears Paul is laboring to refute in Romans 8:1-39.
That God’s election of sinners was executed apart from any righteousness or merit—including faith—on man’s part is made even more clear by considering this issue under two theological headings. First, the impact of sin on the human will and second, how the doctrine of unconditional election coheres with other aspects of salvation.
The Impact of Sin on the Human Will
The argument that God’s election is based on the condition of foreseen faith is not only without strong biblical warrant, it also fails to take into account the profound and pervasive effect sin has had on the human will. For our discussion, the question is this: Is it possible for a human being in his natural state to fulfill the condition of exercising saving faith in Christ? Although we are held morally responsible to believe in Christ, Scripture appears to affirm a depravity so comprehensive (see Genesis 6:5; Psalm 51:5, 58:1-5; Proverbs 22:15; Jeremiah 13:23; 17:29; John 1:12-13; 6:44), that faith in Christ must be a gift from God, based on an unconditional choice of God to rescue individual sinners from their unbelief and sin. When we understand the devastating effects of sin on the human will, we are better able to see the necessity of divine, unconditional election.
The Coherence of Unconditional Election with Other Aspects of Salvation
How unconditional election fits together with other aspects of our salvation also helps us to better see its truth. First, it fits well with the doctrine of effectual calling. There are many passages in the New Testament which indicate that God’s call to salvation truly brings people to Christ. There is a general gospel call to all people (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24; Acts 17:30; Revelation 22:17), but there is also an effectual call that brings sinners to faith (I Corinthians 1:9-26; Romans 1:6-7; 9:23-24; Galatians 1:15). The effectual nature of this call coincides well with unconditional election: those whom God has chosen to save, he brings unfailingly to Christ by way of his effectual calling. In this call, he provides those whom he has chosen with faith to believe in Christ. This is why Christ can say, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).
Second, unconditional election fits well with the Bible’s teaching on justification. Justification is God’s act of declaring guilty sinners righteous based on the righteousness of his Son Jesus Christ. Our justification is grounded a work accomplished completely outside ourselves, apart from anything we have done (Romans 4:5-6; Titus 3:5). The doctrine of unconditional election maintains the gracious nature of salvation by keeping every aspect of that salvation within the realm of God’s initiative and work.
Finally, it solidifies eternal security and final perseverance. In Romans 8:30, Paul ties election together with final glorification. The security and perseverance of those whom God unconditionally elected to salvation is certain—the believer can have the utmost confidence that God will carry his plan through to completion and that nothing can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:35-39; see also John 6:37-40). Unconditional election highlights the comforting truth that salvation belongs to the Lord from beginning to end.
How is God Just? An Objection to Unconditional Election
One of the main objections against the doctrine of unconditional election is that it affirms injustice in God. It is unfair, proponents of conditional election aver, for God to choose some to salvation and not others based solely in his initiative and choice. This objection, however, betrays a misunderstanding of God’s justice. In light of our sin against God, justice requires God to condemn the guilty. All humans have sinned (Romans 3:23) and therefore, all are guilty and liable to condemnation and death (Romans 3:19-20, 6:23).
God, on the other hand, is not obligated so save anyone. J.I. Packer, in Concise Theology, states the case succinctly when he writes, “God owes sinners no mercy of any kind, only condemnation; so it is a wonder and matter for endless praise, that he should choose to save any of us, and doubly so when his choice involved the giving of his own Son to suffer as sin-bearer for the elect” (Romans 8:32) (149). Any movement of God toward our salvation is pure grace. Thus, the charge of injustice against unconditional election cannot stand.
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).