When discussing biblical doctrine, the subject of Unconditional Election can be an emotional, dynamic trigger for many Christians. For some, such as myself, it spurs immediate reflections on God’s sovereignty, grace, and divine nature. And for others, it provokes thoughts of injustice and partiality. Yet, as much as the latter might not like it, the doctrine of divine election is very biblical.
In this, the 3rd article in my series on Calvinism, I will aim to address the “U” in the TULIP acronym – Unconditional Election. If you’ve missed the first two articles, I encourage you to consider reading them. This is especially true for the article on Total Depravity. A correct interpretation of biblical election is dependent on also having an accurate understanding of the doctrine of man and his fallen condition.
Succinctly, due to this sinful, fallen condition, we’re incapable of coming to Christ and repenting on our own – God must act first. Moreover, when we compare our wretched nature to the requirements of a righteous and holy God, we see that the entirety of the human race deserves condemnation. It is as Romans 3 teaches us, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3:23).
Unconditional election teaches us that the gift of grace given to the elect (those in Christ) is chosen solely upon the good pleasure of God’s divine will and sovereign decree. Due to our aforementioned fallen nature, humans do not possess the ability to influence God’s sovereign choice of election. We are unable to save ourselves and contribute nothing to the act of salvation. Put differently, salvation belongs solely unto the Lord (Psalm 3:8). We cannot convince and/or influence God’s decree because of some good within us; God’s love and election are given unconditionally.
By contrast, a common, alternative explanation of election is that God looked ahead in time and saw everyone that would choose Him. Then, based on this result, the effectual call of salvation is extended to these elected individuals. In other words, God responds to man’s exercised ability. There are several problems with this interpretation of biblical election. Most importantly, I would argue that it is not taught anywhere in scripture. Secondly, it conflates the separate acts of divine foreknowledge and predestination (Romans 8:29 demonstrates a clear distinction between these two). Thirdly, it suggests there was a point in eternity past when God lacked some knowledge (He had to look forward in time to gain understanding). This undermines God’s all-knowingness. Finally, it presupposes that man possesses some measure of goodness, or ability, to influence how and who God will save (conditional election). On the whole, this interpretation does not work. It misappropriates what the bible teaches about the nature of mankind and God.
While there are many places we can commence a study, Romans 9 arguably offers the most transparent and concise presentation of Unconditional Election. It reads:
“…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 him who calls— she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—” (Romans 9:10-23)
In this text, Paul is essentially giving an argument for Unconditional Election. We know this because he says it plainly. He introduces this section of scripture by saying, “in order that God’s purpose of election of might stand”. Then he proceeds to give us the example of Jacob and Esau. Paul explains that God chose Jacob (disrupting the natural birth order right) before he was even born and before either of them had done anything “good or bad”. In other words, God chose Jacob because He wanted to, and He was not influenced because one was better or worse than the other.
Paul anticipates that some will object to this; look at the following verse. He says, ” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” To me, this anticipation only validates this reading of the text and the biblical nature of election. Our natural inclination is to default towards a free autonomous human will – the equal ability to choose good or bad. Yet, Paul is saying this is not the case. It is only God who chooses.
Paul continues his defense for Unconditional Election by then citing Exodus and God’s interaction with Moses on Mount Sinai. God said to Moses, “‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’” Paul explains his use of this Old Testament reference such that “it [salvation] depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” I don’t know how Paul could be more clear.
An interesting point worth making surrounding the context of the verse in Exodus is that when God responds to Moses, He is responding to a plea. In Exodus 33:18, Moses implores God to “Please show me your glory”. God answers to Moses with the text Paul quoted above, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” In other words, God is illustrating a direct correlation between His glory and His divine right of sovereign choice. The fact that God possesses the ability to give mercy to whom He pleases (Unconditional Election) is rooted in what it means to be God. Our natural inclination towards desiring autonomous free will is actually an act of troubling, sinful rebellion. It is the same sin that took place in the Garden of Eden; we want to god. This is a sobering thought! How deeply sinful is our fallen nature!
Moving on in our primary text, Paul resumes by giving us another example of divine election in the person of Pharaoh. He explains that God can distribute mercy to whom He wills and also harden to whom He wills. Paul anticipates some discomfort this truth might have for some readers (again, this anticipation works as validation of our interpretation.). He rhetorically asks, “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault?” In other words, if God is sovereign over this, how can I be faulted for not seeking Him? Paul’s response is utterly silencing. He asks, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” Paul ends his response appealing to the fact that God reserves the right to be God, and we have no right or place to dispute this.
If you are wrestling with this reality, know that Paul anticipates this. There is a natural (a result of the fall) distaste for such truths – you are not alone. I recall the first time I was faced with the weightiness of this text – I was very bothered and devoted months trying to explain it another way. But over time, the Lord worked on my heart, and I fell in humble submission to God’s divine nature of election.
Here are a few things that God taught me:
First, there is comfort in knowing that the God of the universe acts like God. He is not a “gentleman” as some preachers say. No, He is an almighty, powerful God to whom the entire cosmos bows in submission. He lacks nothing and requires nothing from us. He is the Creator and we are His creation; we should never think too highly of ourselves. I don’t even deserve a relationship with such a holy, magnificent being. And yet, He loves me. He receives me. He sent His Son to die on a cross so that I might be with Him forever.
Secondly (as the final verse in our primary text points out), this truth forces us to be in awe of saving grace. There is nothing within me that caused God to choose me or you (if you are in Christ). It was only a good pleasure. He saved me because He wanted to – what amazing grace! Unconditional Election should force us to stop and ask “why me?” Such questions spark genuine worship and awe.
We should also remember that those who do not receive grace are not getting something they don’t deserve. God is not unjust. By nature, we all deserve wrath. The fact that God would save any is a true miracle. It is very easy to come away from this text with a “that’s not fair mentality”. I would agree it’s not fair. Fair would be to send every single person to hell. But God has chosen, by His good pleasure and for His glory, to save some. He also promises to receive all that would come to Him.
In closing, let us consider the words of the famous hymn, Amazing Grace, written by John Newton, a Calvinist.
“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see”