The Doctrine of Election/”Election is for Everyone”
The Global Gospel Project, Christianity Today
Roger E. Olson
(An edited version of this essay was published in Christianity Today in 2013)
When I was a kid my brother and I would sometimes spend part of Saturday handing out gospel tracts in our neighborhood. We were pastor’s sons and probably felt some obligation to do it (as it was something promoted in Sunday School and youth group), but I can honestly say we also felt it was our contribution to the kingdom of God.
One of our favorite tracts pictured a voting ballot. There were two options: “for you” and “against you” with heaven being the result of one and hell being the alternative outcome. Below the ballot was the statement and question “Satan votes against you; God votes for you; you cast the deciding vote!”
The great preacher Herschel Hobbs, known among Southern Baptists as “Mr. Baptist,” preached a famous sermon based on that tract on “The Baptist Hour” in October, 1967. His sermon was “God’s Election Day” and its main point was “The devil and God held an election to determine whether or not you would be saved or lost. The devil voted against you and God voted for you. So the vote was a tie. It is up to you to cast the deciding vote.”
Without doubt that concept of the doctrine of election has become popular among Christians. After all, we prize our right and freedom to vote. Every four years Americans go to the polls and cast their ballots for (or perhaps against) a presidential candidate. As I write this, that national ritual is unfolding again. The air waves are filled with public services announcements urging viewers and listeners to exercise their right to choose their leaders.
But is that what Scripture means by “election” when applying it to our salvation and service to God’s cause? Is the gospel that God votes for us, Satan votes against us, and we, individually, freely, cast the vote that decides our eternal destiny?
Probably not. Some biblical scholars and theologians would say “definitely not!” It does seem to trivialize the concept of election and especially God’s sovereignty in our salvation. On the other hand, there may be some truth in it even if it does not do justice to the profundity of the biblical doctrine of election.
Unfortunately, the “doctrine of election” has come to be associated especially, even uniquely, with one particular branch of Christian theology—the one people know as “Reformed.” It descends from the Swiss Reformation of the 16th century and most notably from the French reformer John Calvin who lived in and spiritually led the Swiss city of Geneva. Too often “election” is identified as the distinctive doctrine of Calvinism as if no other branch of Christianity believes in it.
In fact, it would be impossible to be a Bible-believing Christian without affirming God’s electing grace and having a doctrine of election. The same could be said about “predestination,” often thought of as a synonym for election. The Bible is filled with references to God’s choice of people, both individuals and groups. Abraham was not just “called” by God but also “chosen” or “elected” by God to be the father of God’s “chosen people,” God’s elect nation Israel. (Genesis 12:1-3 and Isaiah 45:4) The church is elect of God, chosen by God for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 1:5) Paul was clearly chosen by God for apostleship (Acts 9).
It would be no stretch of truth to say that God’s election of people is central to the biblical message, to the gospel. And it can safely be said that people’s election is God’s grace, not human achievement. Nowhere does the Bible even hint that people elect themselves.
That brings us back to the gospel tract and Hobbs’ sermon. All Christians, not only Calvinists, ought to reject the underlying message that election is a human act or achievement. Theologians have a term for that belief: “semi-Pelagianism.” It is arguably the default view of both salvation and service especially among American Christians, but it has been condemned as heresy by all branches of Christianity and completely contradicts Scripture.
Semi-Pelagianism is the idea that the initiative in salvation and service is humans’. We decide whether to be saved or enter into God’s service completely by ourselves, without prevenient, assisting grace. (Prevenient grace is grace that convicts, calls, illumines and enables. Christian theologians disagree about whether it is resistible or irresistible, but all evangelical theologians agree it is necessary for the first exercise of a good will toward God.) I grew up singing “If you’ll take one step toward the Savior…you’ll find his arms open wide.” The hymn’s author probably didn’t mean it to deny God’s initiative, but many have interpreted it that way.
Some years ago a popular television series featured angels in human disguise helping people in distress turn to God. In one episode, a beautiful young angel with a Scottish accent counseled a man to “reach up to God as far as you can and then he’ll reach down and take you the rest of the way.” I call that “Touched by an Angel theology.” By itself, without careful biblical and theological clarification, it expresses semi-Pelagianism.
Contrary to what many think, both Calvinist and Arminian traditions of Protestant Christianity have always emphasized God’s initiative in salvation and service. (Arminianism is the theological tradition named after Jacob Arminius, a 17th century Dutch theologian who affirmed free will.) That is, if any person or group finds reconciliation with God and/or a role in God’s mission, it is due to God’s electing grace and not to human decision or achievement alone.
Unfortunately, the doctrine of election has become a battleground among evangelical Protestants. Three main viewpoints vie for attention and belief. All three appeal to Scripture; all three claim the other two fall short of biblical and theological correctness. Occasionally advocates of the three views fall into nasty verbal combat with each other. Advocates of all three need to realize they share much in common, specifically the divine initiation—that God is the electing One, the One whose grace is prevenient to every good thing a person does—including the first movement of the will toward God.
The first view is classical, traditional Calvinism. It was not invented by John Calvin but came to be associated with his name in English lands through the Puritans. Earlier reformers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli held much the same belief about election.
According to Calvin, election, which is the same as predestination and foreordination, refers to “God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. …eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion III.XXI.5.) Many people refer to this as “double predestination.” Calvin bases it on Romans 9 and other passages that emphasize God’s sovereignty in everything including each individual’s eternal destiny.
According to Wesley, faithfully following Arminius, election, predestination, means that “God foreknew those in every nation who would believe, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things.” (“On Predestination” in John Wesley: The Best of All His Works [Thomas Nelson, 1989], p. 71) He based this on Romans 8, especially verses 29 and 30. Like all Arminians (and many who do not use that label but agree with its essential doctrine of election), Wesley affirmed free will, enabled by grace, because otherwise “If man were not free, he could not be accountable for his thoughts, words, or actions.” (Ibid.)
Most contemporary evangelical Christians lean one way or the other—either toward Calvin’s view or Wesley’s view of election. All agree that God elects people to service; the flashpoint of controversy is election to salvation. Is it unconditional and irresistible or conditional and resistible? All agree that God chooses to have a people (corporate election).
The divide is over individual salvation and especially whether God predestines some people to hell. Arminians find that abhorrent and damaging to God’s reputation based on passages such as John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4. Calvinists argue that to attribute to humans power to resist and thwart God’s will is to limit God and, however unintentionally, diminish his deity. Belief in free will in matters of salvation, they also claim, inevitably implies that sinners can contribute to their own salvation so that it is not all of grace.
Both sides in this debate can pile up mountains of verses and arguments to support their view. It seems doubtful that equally God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians will ever reach consensus about the matter. Except, consensus already exists that, whatever role humans play in their salvation, salvation is God’s work. Even Arminians, at their best and truest, believe sinners called by God through the gospel receive saving grace only because God enables them to receive it with the free response of faith.
A third view appears among contemporary evangelical Christians. Whether it leans closer to the classical Calvinist doctrine of election or the Arminian one is much debated. So-called “evangelical Calvinism” is championed by followers of Scottish theologians Thomas and James Torrance who, in turn, were influenced by Swiss theologian Karl Barth and, before Barth, by British theologians John McLeod Campbell and P. T. Forsyth. It has recently been spelled out and defended by twelve leading evangelical theologians in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church edited by Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (Pickwick, 2012).
According to evangelical Calvinism (something of a misnomer as all Calvinists consider themselves evangelical in some sense), Christ must be central to election who is both its object and subject. (p. 14) God elects Jesus Christ to be the Savior and people only “in him.” In Jesus and his cross, God has said “Yes!” to all people; there is no corresponding divine “No!” If a person is in union with Christ, saved, it is because of God’s election of Jesus Christ and their inclusion by grace in him. If a person rejects his or her election in Jesus Christ, union with him, it is solely because of their inexplicable rejection of the grace extended to them by God in Jesus Christ.
Evangelical Calvinists affirm that “All are created good by God, that all are included in Christ’s salvific work, and that salvation is by grace alone and Christ alone.” (p. 11) Election to salvation is good news because it is not dependent on the frail and faltering free will of sinners and no one is excluded except those who willfully exclude themselves.
Classical Calvinists and Arminians find much with which to agree in evangelical Calvinism, but both find it inconsistent at certain crucial points. Their main common complaint is that it falls into contradiction by affirming the universality of electing grace, lack of free will with regard to being in union with Christ, and free will to reject the truth of one’s status as elected in him.
Evangelical books about the doctrine of election abound. Unfortunately, most of them are polemical—spending more time arguing against another view than underscoring and explaining what evangelical Christians agree about. Especially in the past two to three decades the doctrine of election has become more a cause of division than of unity among evangelicals. More attention needs to be given to the broad and profound agreement and less to areas of diversity. Evangelical Christians, at their best, share a common doctrine of election; the devil is in the details, especially when they become points of polemical accusation and opportunities for charges of heresy or biblical infidelity.
All evangelicals agree that salvation is God’s work and not ours. Our good works, even our free decisions or signs of grace are, when compared with God’s electing grace and power, like English architect Christopher Wren’s deceptive pillars appearing to hold up the second story of Windsor’s town hall. Installed to please the wary city fathers, Wren left space between their tops and the ceiling of the first story, to show future generations that his original architectural plan, using a new method of support, was sound. The space was so miniscule as to be invisible until years later when workmen built scaffolds to clean the ceiling and discovered the pillars did not reach the ceiling!
If a sinner comes to Christ and receives salvation, all evangelicals agree, it is due to God’s electing grace and not at all due to any meritorious work. Calvinists, Arminians, and evangelical Calvinists disagree about whether the others are consistent, but inconsistency is not heresy.
All evangelicals agree that God is sovereign in salvation; election is one biblical way of expressing that sovereignty. The whole of Ephesians 1 extols God’s sovereign election of his people. There, as elsewhere, however, it is possible to interpret election corporately. All evangelicals agree that God’s election of a people, Israel and the church, is unconditional. God chooses to have a people for his name and for his glory. He chooses to have a people on whom to lavish his love. He chooses to have a people to be a light to the nations and a testimony of God’s greatness and goodness to the spiritual beings that populate the invisible world.
Evangelicals can and do disagree about whether individuals’ inclusion in God’s elect people involves any level of free will, but all agree that the existence of the people of God is not dependent on human choice. A famous line in the movie Jurassic Park is uttered by a skeptical scientist who says “Life will find a way.” Evangelical faith of all types and tribes agrees that “God will find a way” to have a people for his name.
Perhaps evangelicals divided by differing beliefs about the details of the doctrine of election could rally around a prayer. The great English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, saved in a Methodist church but a passionate Calvinist, frequently prayed a seemingly inconsistent prayer at his church’ evening prayer meetings: “God, call out your elect. And then elect some more.” Evangelicals of varying opinions may cringe at the apparent contradiction embedded there, but all can rejoice at the spirit of generosity and hope that pervaded Spurgeon’s appeal.