I have always been extremely hesitant to write about my Reformed theology. Not because of any persecution complex or victim-hood mentality, but I am hesitant because I serve an assembly of the Lord which has many people, staff included, who are not Calvinists. I never want my brothers and sisters in the Lord, within the local assembly I too am a member of to feel ostracized by my writing. Please note then that the ideas expressed here do not necessarily reflect the congregation I am a pastor over or my fellow teachers and authorities there.
This is the second installment of my T.U.L.I.P. series. I am only briefly skimming the very controversial and complicated doctrines of the reformed acronym. My intention is that they would serve as an introduction, not that they would be the presentations to end all debates. However, I do believe the doctrines expressed in the acronym are thoroughly and clearly biblical, and would like to lay out a semblance of a case for them.
Unconditional: An Important Qualification
The term unconditional election is important. It is not fair to my brothers in Christ to say this debate is about election. The debate is not about who believes in predestination and who believes in election. The bible uses those terms with clarity in all reliable translations. One thing is settled: the Bible teaches predestination/election. The question really becomes then, what does election mean?
The emphasis that election is unconditional is crucial. For the options really are in this dichotomy: Did God elect a people based on a foreseen merit? Or, did God elect a people unconditionally, meaning it had nothing whatsoever to do with them or their works?
This is such an important concept. Most people who approach the “Calvinist vs. Arminian” debate are essentially asking this question: Did God elect believers to believe and be saved apart from them, and did He not elect others to be saved?
I do believe the Bible teaches that people who believe unto salvation were elected by God to do so, and those that do not believe are not and never were elected by God. Thus, my position would be this:
Before creation, God elected a particular people unto salvation. He also elected the means by which they would be saved: faith in His Son. Thus, the elect of God will believe, and will be saved. The non-elect will not believe, and will not be saved.
All points of TULIP are inseparably tethered. If what was last argued, that man does not have a condition which allows him to believe, then election is a necessity. However, the Bible certainly teaches the doctrine of unconditional election What are the primary texts in Scripture that lead me to this conclusion? Although I believe there are many passages throughout both Testaments that teach this, I offer four in defense.
Ephesians 1: 3-12,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.
This is a long passage, but each portion is important. First, the passage makes clear that those who are saved are chosen by God, before they existed, to be holy and blameless.
In other words, God chose certain people to be saved (holy and blameless) and this was not based on a condition in them, for they did not even exist yet (before the foundation of the world). The word “chose” is the same concept as election. A person is saved because God chose to save that person, it is not the other way around.
The passage also explicitly uses the term predestination, and teaches that believers were predestined in love for adoption. Again, this is clearly salvific terminology. If a person can be adopted as a son of God, become perfectly holy and blameless, and still go to hell, then quite frankly no one has a clue what salvation is or what it means. To be adopted, holy, and blameless, to be in Christ and to receive redemption by His blood is salvation. And people who experiences those blessings experience them because God chose and predestined them to before they existed.
What Does Election Accomplish?
The constant response to Ephesians 1 from non-Calvinists is that the election of God took place on the basis of a foreseen faith. In other words, God looked down the corridors of time and saw who would believe and elected them on that basis (conditional election).
The biblical and philosophical problems with this claim are numerous. However, I offer two textual responses. First, Paul explicitly states that the election was made before creation. This would be meaningless if it is not intended to communicate that it was not based on our behavior. In other words, why does it matter whether election took place before creation? God could just as well elect a person after they exercise faith. Mentioning the election process as being logically prior to creation is meant to imply the decision God actively made was not a response to us, but on the contrary, our faith is a response to Him.
Second, this renders the action of election useless and redundant. What exactly did election accomplish? Election did not bring about faith, but instead was a response to faith. If faith is what secures salvation, and election was something that proceeds faith, then election accomplishes nothing. It does not cause faith nor salvation. So, what does it do? Election is an active verb. However, without the Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture, it’s hard to imagine what that action is actually accomplishing.
Why Were Some Chosen and Not Others?
So often I hear non-Calvinists ask me “Why are some chosen and others not?” Even as saved people, it’s hard to reconcile God choosing us, knowing the kind of miserable sinners we were.
The first thing I would say to this is that the question itself is still presupposing conditional election. Were I to provide a reason for God’s election, one stemming from the person himself, then it would cease to be unconditional election. The questioner is essentially asking “What are the conditions for God’s unconditional election?”
However, the Bible does not state that election is arbitrary. Unconditional election is not synonymous for flippant-election, or haphazard-election. Ephesians 1: 6-7 says, “[God] predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
The emphasis is mine. The Scriptures give a direct, explicit answer to this so often asked question. Why did God choose those whom He did? Because to elect these people was in accordance with His will, and most sufficiently brought praise to the glory of His grace. Any other means would not praise His grace appropriately.
If that answer is not sufficient, if you still desire more, then I again offer two opinions: You are likely still presupposing conditional election, and your issue is truly with Paul. He answered the question explicitly.
Another passage I would turn to would be Romans 8: 28-30,
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
This passage is another passage of Scripture explicitly dealing with God’s sovereignty and control over a person’s salvation. God foreknew the elect, again teaching clearly that the elect were predestined apart from them, before they existed. It also says those foreknown were predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. That’s important for two reasons: first of all, to be conformed to Christs image is clearly a salvific term. To say those conformed to Christ’s image can still deserve to go to Hell is to say Christ deserves to go to Hell. There is no greater thing for a person than to be like Christ. It is the greatest, most miraculous blessing a human being can be given.
Second, this verse teaches that the act of predestination accomplishes something. In other words, the elect are conformed to Christ’s image because God elected them. It cannot be the other way around. The predestination of God accomplishes the conforming of the elect.
Verse 30, famously referred to as the “golden chain of redemption”, is the unbreakable chain of events occurring in the life of the believer. The elect are predestined (an active accomplishment), called, justified and glorified. What’s important about this chain is that God is the one accomplishing all of these things; salvation is of the Lord.
This is why the reformed tradition boasts of being the truly exclusive soteriological camp which can consistently say, “all glory is due God for salvation.” For we believe that every part of my salvation is ultimately (through human means) God’s doing. He predestined, called, and justified me, and it is He who will glorify me.
The last portion of Scripture I would appeal to would be the ever famous Romans 9: 1-24,
“I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 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— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 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.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. 19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 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?” 21 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? 22 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, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
This long passage of Scripture is an unbelievably in-depth explanation of God’s sovereignty over salvation. Time does not permit an in depth study, but allow for brief commentary.
The section begins with Paul expressing his deep anguish for the Jewish people and their mass disregard for their Messiah, Jesus the Christ (1-5).
Paul then anticipates the objection that will inevitably arise from his Jewish adversaries: the Old Testament promised God would save and justify all of Israel. Thus, either Paul is true, or the Word of God is, but they cannot both be true.
Paul answers this by claiming that when the Old Testament promised the salvation of Israel, it was referring to a spiritual Israel, not physical Israel (6-8).
This is important because it establishes that salvation of people is the context at hand, which makes sense since it was clearly the context of chapter 8, and is also clearly the context of chapter 10. Thus, an awkward break of context is not to be imposed on this chapter. Salvation is what is being discussed, and Paul is correcting the Jewish understanding of salvation. It is not given to those of a physical descendants, but to those of the promise.
Paul then defends his position by bringing up explicit Old Testament examples to prove his point, he turns his reader’s attention to Jacob and Esau. Paul quotes from the Scriptures about these two being twins, both born to Isaac, yet God loved Jacob and hated Esau.
Pointing to twins was a brilliant move. For one, we are now no longer permitted to accredit the salvation of one to human circumstances like upbringing or personalities. They had nearly identical D.N.A., and the same parents. However, what is most important is that they are both descendants of Isaac. If the Jewish understanding were true, then they both are Israel: they both have the same blood. However, God rejected Esau. So Paul’s point to the Jews is brilliant. If they think that salvation is a physical election, then how do they account for Esau being hated by God? After all, he too is a descendant of Abraham and Isaac! He is as Jewish as it gets. Paul’s point that being a spiritual Jew is the key to salvation, rather than a physical Jew is proved by the O.T. itself.
However, what is important for our purposes is the view of salvation Paul juxtaposes with the Jewish error. And Paul presents God electing a particular people as being the true alternative to the Jewish misunderstanding.
Paul makes the crucial point that God’s choice to hate Esau and make him serve Jacob (11-12) happened “before they were born and had done anything good or bad” (11). Just like Ephesians 1, the choice was made apart from them, by God. Jacob’s election was unconditional; he could not have done anything to earn it, he had not yet been born.
Paul even ventures to tell us why God would do it this way: “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls” (11). Election is the only means of salvation where God gets all credit and glory. Any other system leaves some remaining room for boasting. However, if salvation is determined before we are born, and is based on God’s call, not our efforts, then God receives all due glory.
Thus, ask yourself, why are you saved and others are not? Apart from unconditional election, the climactic distinction is in you. You were smarter, or better, or spiritually stronger, you name it. Only according to unconditional election can any person honestly say the only difference between the saved and the lost is grace.
If God is trying equally hard to save everyone, and not everyone is saved, then there is a distinction between the saved and unsaved which is wholly separated from God’s grace, and was also instrumental in determining the eternal destiny reached. Thus, a very important and large part of salvation is completely dependent on man, not God. So what is it about you that is so much better than the lost that you responded appropriately to the Gospel and they did not? What is it you will boast about on judgment day?
Time and room again does not allow for an in-depth response to every objection to Romans 9 and Ephesians 1. I would like to address a few.
One common response to Romans 9 is that the passage is dealing with the nations that Jacob and Esau represented, not with individual salvation.
This has been dealt with above already. That would demand a wild and arbitrary break in the flow of thought and argument as Romans 8 and Romans 10 are both dealing with individual salvation. However, the easiest way to disprove this is to let Paul tell us how he is interpreting these Old Testament characters.
We can know Paul is dealing with them individually and not nationally through many means. One, he appeals to other figures like Moses and Pharaoh, Isaac and Rebekah. Do they represent nations too?
However, what is most important are the anticipatory objections Paul raises. Paul gives us these objections and they serve as check-points along our interpretative trail-hike. These trail markers keep us on track with Paul.
The first objection Paul anticipates is this, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” (14).
The first thing Paul anticipates is the common objection, “that is not fair!” This is often the very first thing Calvinists hear when explaining Calvinism, and Arminians almost never hear this objection.
How does Paul answer this objection? God says to Moses that He will have compassion on whomever He pleases. And then Paul tells us, “So then it depends not on human will or effort but on God who has mercy…So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills” (16, 18).
Again, the O.T. is clear that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, not the nation of Egypt. We are dealing with individuals, not nations. Secondly, Paul is speaking like a black-coffee Calvinist here. He explicitly says that salvation does not depend on human will, but rather on God. He tells us that God is actually free to harden people away from salvation!
Do you have room in your theology for those two verses?
The next one Paul anticipates is, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (20).
Paul knows his opposition will hear him and respond with the question of divine sovereignty and how it relates to human accountability. They want to know why God would judge someone when they were, at the end of the day, only doing what His will demanded. Why would God find fault in a person for carrying out what God willed in that person?
Why Judge Those Whom Were Not Elect?
We Calvinists hear this all the time. The primary objection to Calvinism is the idea that it is unfair for God to elect some and not others, and that it does not make sense to judge someone for sin when they had no option not to. This is the exact objection raised in verse 20.
It seems Calvinism takes its seat among good company. When we teach Calvinism, we hear the same objections Paul did; objections Arminians never hear. What does that say about who is teaching Paul’s message?
However, how do any of these objections mesh with the idea that this passage is about national service rather than personal salvation? If this were just about nations serving nations in slavery, then Paul would have answered the objector a different way. He would have explained how God gave men a free-will and based His election on that free-will, rewarding those who in and of themselves found the strength to repent. However, Paul answers this way, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”
And therefore, I ask one final question: is this answer sufficient for you? When we ask the question, “why would God judge the non-elect?” and the answer “who are you, as a mere human, to question God?” is not sufficient for us, then our issue is truly with Scripture and with Paul. It is not with a modern theological position named off of a 16th century Reformer.
For a further discussion on biblical election, listen to pastor Douglas Wilson discuss it here: