Soteriology Series: Election / Predestination


Election / Predestination

Often when considering salvation, people immediately consider the present aspect of salvation—how a person can be delivered from eternal judgment for his sins. However, each person’s salvation begins before time. This is the doctrine of election or predestination. Scripture teaches that before time, God chose some to salvation and passed over others. This is a very difficult doctrine, but it is taught throughout the New Testament. Consider some of the verses:


Ephesians 1:4-6 says:


For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love. He did this by predestining us to adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of his will—to the praise of the glory of his grace that he has freely bestowed on us in his dearly loved Son.


Paul taught that believers were chosen (or elected) before the foundation of the earth. They were predestined to become children of God. Likewise, in 2 Timothy 1:9, Paul said: “He is the one who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus before time began.” The basis of God’s choosing was not works that these people did, since God chose them before time. He chose them based on his own purpose and grace. In fact, in Acts, when people accepted Christ, Luke, the narrator, often pointed to their election before time. Acts 13:48 says, “When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed.” Furthermore, the apostle John, describes how in the end times, everybody will be deceived by the Antichrist accept those whose names were written in the book of life before God created the earth—referring to the elect. Revelation 17:8 says:


The beast you saw was, and is not, but is about to come up from the abyss and then go to destruction. The inhabitants of the earth—all those whose names have not been written in the book of life since the foundation of the world—will be astounded when they see that the beast was, and is not, but is to come.


Certainly, this is a challenging and potentially disturbing doctrine, but Scripture clearly teaches it.


Why did God Elect Some to Salvation?


As mentioned, everybody believes in election, since it’s so clearly taught in Scripture. However, not everybody agrees on why God elects. Some believe that God elects based simply on his right as God, apart from any merit or future merit in those called. (This is the Reformed view often held by Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, Reformed Church of America, etc.). Others believe God elects based on his foreknowing the fact that specific persons would accept Christ as their Lord and Savior in the future. (This is the Arminian view often held by Wesleyans, Methodists, Pentecostals, etc.). Those who believe this point to verses like Romans 8:30 which says: “because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Also, 1 Peter 1:1-2 says: “…who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father by being set apart by the Spirit for obedience and for sprinkling with Jesus Christ’s blood.” Clearly, these texts say that God’s foreknowledge is the basis of election. However, those who disagree with the view that God elects based on his foreknowing that people would accept him, point out that this “foreknowledge” is not referring to knowing certain facts about a person, it is referring to knowing somebody intimately and experientially in a saving manner. This is how the word is used in 1 Corinthians 8:3. It says, “But if someone loves God, he is known by God.” To be “known by God” here means to be known in a saving sense. Also, Christ uses “know” in the same way. When talking about those who professed him as Lord in the end times but weren’t truly saved, Christ said to them, “I never knew you” (Matt 7:23).


For further support, the word “know” was also used of intimate relationships in the Old Testament and not simply knowing information about someone. For example, Genesis 4:1 (ESV) says, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.” Knowing something intellectual about a person doesn’t create a baby; that happens by an act of intimacy. That’s what Romans 8:30 and 1 Peter 1:1-2 are referring to. Before God created the earth, God knew certain people in a special way, and that way is referring to a saving relationship. In addition, with Jeremiah, God said to him, “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I chose you. Before you were born I set you apart. I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). “Chose” can also be translated “knew” (ESV, NIV, NASB). God wasn’t saying to Jeremiah that he knew specific information about him before he was born. God was saying that he knew Jeremiah intimately and called him for a special purpose—being a prophet.


Therefore, election is not God’s saving of those who he foreknew would believe in him—a view often called conditional election. In that case, God would simply be confirming their future belief and election would not involve God’s choice at all (cf. Eph 1:4). God’s election of some to salvation is unconditional—based simply on God’s choice. Because of this, Wayne Grudem defines election as, “Election is an act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign good pleasure.”[1]


Human Inability


Further evidence that God is not electing people because he foresees their future faith is what the Bible teaches about the sinful state of unbelievers. Scripture teaches something called human inability, also often called total depravity. When sin entered the world, it affected people in such a way that they will not choose God apart from God choosing them. Consider the following verses: Romans 8:7-8 (ESV) says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Before salvation, people are naturally hostile to God and cannot submit to his laws. First Corinthians 2:14 says, “The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” It’s not that people don’t have free will to trust and follow Christ. They do! However, their nature has been so eroded by sin, they will always reject Christ. A lion will eat meat over grass 100 out of 100 times because it’s his nature. In the same way, people, apart from God’s grace in salvation, will reject God 100 out of 100 times because of their nature.


Then, how can God save anybody? He must elect some and give them faith to believe. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.” Even the faith that a saved person professes is a gift from God. Likewise, Philippians 1:29 says, “For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him.”


Therefore, in election we see the character of God. Because God is just, sinners will be condemned to hell to pay their sins. However, because God is merciful, he elects a remnant to save.


Based on God Not People


On what basis does God elect some then? Though no text ever points to a human’s decision as the basis of election[2], Scripture gives various other reasons: (1) Ephesians 1:4 says God elects because of his “love.” (2) Ephesians 1:5 says “according to the pleasure of his will.” (3) Romans 9:19-24 simply argues that God elects because it’s his “right” as Creator. In discerning that some would view God’s election of some and passing over of others as unfair, Paul says:


You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has ever resisted his will?” But who indeed are you—a mere human being—to talk back to God? Does what is molded say to the molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use? But what if God, willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath prepared for destruction? And what if he is willing to make known the wealth of his glory on the objects of mercy that he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us, whom he has called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?


Paul simply says, God is God. He has the right to do what he wants, just like a potter making various vessels—some for honor and some for regular use.


Is Election Fair?


This brings up the fairness of election. When considering salvation, it must be remembered that the only fair result would be the condemnation of all. Scripture teaches that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). The fair wage for even a wrong thought is eternal separation from God. God would be just if he condemned the entire world to hell. Also, it must be remembered that before humanity fell into sin, there was a fall in the heavens among angels, of which God spared none. Second Peter 2:5 says, “For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but threw them into hell and locked them up in chains in utter darkness, to be kept until the judgment.” Therefore, God’s election is him being merciful. And it is just because he paid the penalty for the elect’s sins through his Son’s death (cf. Eph 5:25, John 3:16).


In addition, it must be remembered that those who never had the chance to hear the gospel will not be condemned to hell because they rejected Christ. They will be condemned for disobeying the knowledge they had—not the knowledge they didn’t have. For example, Scripture teaches that every person is without excuse for believing in God because of the witness of creation. Romans 1:19-21 says:


because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened.


If somebody sees a magnificent painting, nobody in his right mind will think the painting didn’t have a creator. The order and beauty of the painting convincingly argue for one. This is even more true when considering the complexity of a human cell—it is more complex than an airplane. People who don’t know the gospel will be judged for their rejection of the true God. Even the worship of false gods is a rejection of the true God. Romans 1:22-23 says: “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.”


Furthermore, humans will not only be condemned for rejecting God but breaking his known laws, which are written on their hearts, within their conscience. Romans 2:14-16 says,


For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them, on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.


Proof of the conscience is evident in how almost all societies—no matter what part of the world they are in—have identical laws: do not lie, do not steal, and do not kill, among others. This is proof that God’s laws are written on people’s hearts.


Therefore, God is just in condemning sinners, even if they never heard the gospel. They are condemned based on the knowledge they do have—about God and his laws. For this reason, those who are condemned will have differing punishments based on the knowledge they had and their obedience to it (Lk 12:42-28). Likewise, those in heaven will have different rewards based on their knowledge and obedience to it.


Common Questions About Election


1. If unconditional election is true, doesn’t that make everybody robots—people without free will.


Though this may appear to be a logical conclusion, when considering Scripture’s teachings on God’s sovereignty (control over people and events) and human free will, it is clear that these somehow co-exist together. Scripture teaches that God is in control over every event happening on the earth, and yet, each of us freely makes decisions—some good, some bad, and some inconsequential. Ephesians 1:11 says God “accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.” And yet, Scripture challenges us to love God, love others, to not lie, to not steal, and to repent and follow Christ, among other things. These exhortations prove that we can and must make choices. Therefore, the coexistence of God’s sovereignty, including the election of some and passing over of others, and humanity’s free will is a mystery. God is sovereign, and humans make free choices, which they will be rewarded or condemned for.


2. If unconditional election is true, doesn’t it remove the need for evangelism? Why evangelize if the elect will eventually be saved anyways?


The God who ordained who would be saved, also ordained the means of salvation, which is the preaching of the gospel. In Romans 10:14, Paul says, “How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them?”


In addition, Paul shared that God’s election motivated him, instead of de-motivating him, to preach the gospel. In 2 Timothy 2:10, Paul said, “So I endure all things for the sake of those chosen by God, that they too may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus and its eternal glory.” Often people are scared to preach the gospel because they know some will reject. In that same sense, election is a motivation because we know some will accept.


3. If unconditional election is true, doesn’t it mean God chose some for hell?


Scripture never uses the same language when talking about those who will go to hell. God does not need to choose people to go to hell because everyone is on their way to hell because of their sins. God needs to choose to have mercy on some who are on their way to hell. In addition, election is always spoken about in a positive way, while the condemnation of the lost is not. Believers are often called, “the elect” (1 Pet 1:1). Also, in speaking of God’s election—the hardening of some and God’s mercy on others—Paul boasts in “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Rom 11:25-33). Election is something that should make us rejoice in God’s great wisdom, mercy, and grace. In contrast, Scripture always talks about those who will go to hell in a negative sense. For example, Ezekiel 33:11 says,


Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’


God does not rejoice in the death of the wicked. Also, 2 Peter 3:9 says he desires that none should perish but that all would repent. Therefore, it is unbiblical to use language such as God electing some to hell. People go to hell as a just payment for their sins. People are elected to salvation because of God’s unmerited and undeserved favor on them. Scripture does not describe the two events as the same. One is deserved and the other is undeserved. One should lead us to sorrow and the other to joy.



Reflection


  1. What stood out most to you in the reading and why?

  2. What is election and why is it so controversial?

  3. What is the difference between the Reformed and Arminian view of election?

  4. Which view do you feel is most biblical and why?

  5. Why should we preach the gospel to unbelievers if God already elected some to salvation before time?

  6. What questions or applications did you take from the reading?




[1] Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 670). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.


[2] Aaron, Daryl. Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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