Today’s blog continues a short series on the doctrines of grace. The purpose of this blog series is to give a brief primer on reformed theology, though not as brief as in the article “Is Veritas Church Reformed?” Ultimately, we believe that right thinking and right affections lead to right living. In order for us to live faithfully for Christ, we need to think rightly about God, and we need to use our affections for God. We want to view everything (and we do mean everything) through the lens of scripture.
In Calvinistic thought, it’s often useful to use an acrostic to remember the “five points” of Calvinism: TULIP
T– Total Depravity
U– Unconditional Election
L– Limited Atonement
I– Irresistible Grace
P– Perseverance of the Saints
Today we look at the second point of the acrostic, Unconditional Election.
Unconditional Election is the doctrine that God chose to save certain people (the elect) from before the foundation of time (predestination), and that He made this decision unaffected by the merits or lack thereof (unconditionally) in those people.
If we have established that people are totally depraved, and thus are incapable of making a choice for Jesus in and of themselves, we next have to deal with election.
The debate around election has to do with the nature of predestination. In the Calvinism vs Arminianism debate, the opposing doctrines which attempt to deal with this question are:
1. Conditional Election
2. Unconditional Election
Another way to say this is:
1. Predestination based on foreseen faith, in which God looks through the corridor of time, and chooses those who choose him.
2. Predestination based on divine decree, in which God elects people unconditionally, not due to foreseen faith or other merit.
What is predestination?
Predestination is the doctrine that all events have been willed by God. However, usually the conversation about predestination hinges on election. There are some who would say that they don’t believe in predestination, but typically they actually mean they don’t believe in unconditional election. If a person genuinely doesn’t believe in predestination, they are rejecting scripture and must resort to extrabiblical arguments to make a case.
Does God predestine believers?
We first need to ask: Does God predestine believers? Does predestination exist? Since this is such a contentious doctrine, let’s see if we even have to answer it. If God’s word makes no mention, then we might be in the clear.
Romans 8:29-30 – “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son…”
Ephesians 1:4b-5 – “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ”
Ephesians 1:11-12 – “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”
So we have the predestination coming straight from scripture. Next we need to ask:
Why does God predestine people?
Let’s look at the same verses:
Romans 8:29-30 – “…predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” – God predestines believers to be conformed to Christlikeness, so that Christ would be over all people who are Christlike.
Ephesians 1:4b-6 – “he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” – God predestines believers so he may adopt them, so that they would be blessed (on the behalf of) Jesus, so that they would praise Him and his glorious grace.
Ephesians 1:11-12 – “So that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his Glory” – God predestines believers so that those who see the salvation of Christ would praise God’s glory.
God predestines people so that he may show the glory of Christ. God saves people for the glory of Christ to be shown to all.
How does God predestine believers?
If we know that God does indeed predestine believers to salvation, and we know why he predestines believers to salvation, we can ask how he predestines believers to salvation. This is where the doctrine of election must be settled.
Earlier, we started by juxtaposing conditional and unconditional election the following way:
1. Conditional Election – God predestines based on foreseen faith. God looks through the corridor of time, and chooses those who, when presented with the opportunity, choose him. God reacts to the hypothetical choosing and brings these God-choosers to faith.
2. Unconditional Election – God predestines based on divine decree. God elects people, not due to faith, works, or other merit. God pursues and chooses his own people. God creates faith in believers.
Typically, we will see arguments for conditional election based on the following and similar verses:
John 3:16 – “…that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Romans 8:29-30 – “For those God foreknew, he also predestined…”
2 Peter 3:9 – “The Lord is… not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”
Revelation 22:17 – “The Spirit and the Bride say “Come.” And let the one who hears say “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.”
The argument is that, if a person wants to come to God, then God will grant them repentance. Therefore, the condition of election is on the “wanting” or the “desiring” to be saved, or on “whoever” believes.
Let’s grant that we agree the above verses are true because they are the inspired word of God. But these don’t do anything to prove conditional election, and they might actually work against it.
If faith is the mark of salvation and is given as a gift (as Ephesians 2:9 says), then we conclude that “whoever” believes in the Son was given the faith to believe in him.
This also means that those who were given faith in Romans 8:29-30 were given faith because God foreknew them in a saving manner.
That God desires that none should perish doesn’t deal with election at all. Often there is a missing distinction between what kind of wills God has. In this particular case, we need to understand two of these wills.
God’s preceptive will has to do with God’s precepts. God desires that men should be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4). This is preceptive. How do we make this determination? Because not all men are saved. God commands that all men repent (Matthew 4:17). This is preceptive because we know that not all men repent. God commands the establishment of his law, because it is life (Psalm 19:7). This is preceptive because not all men obey or desire to obey God’s law.
God’s decretive will has to do with God’s decree. Whatever God decrees comes to pass. In this sense, he does all that He desires. We distinguish God’s decretive will by answering the following questions: What has come to pass? What is coming to pass right now? What does God promise will come to pass? These are ordinations or decrees of His will. For example: God commanded Pharaoh to let His people go, and God decreed that Pharaoh would not obey (Exodus 7:1-13).
Therefore, we see that these two wills are not conflicting but represent different, cooperative wills of God. As 2 Peter 3:9 demonstrates, God doesn’t want men to die in their sins. God may preceptively will that all be saved, without decretively willing that all be saved.
Scriptural support for unconditional election
So, none of these verses can be used to disprove unconditional election. But there are plenty other verses besides the aforementioned which prove unconditional election.
John 15:16 – The disciples did not choose Jesus. Jesus chose them. Jesus chose them and appointed them so that they would bear fruit. Jesus’ choice produced the fruit.
Acts 13:48 – “As many were appointed to eternal life believed.” – The word order is important because the appointment occurred before the belief. Regeneration precedes faith.
Romans 9:15-16 – God has mercy and compassion on whom he wills. This mercy and compassion doesn’t depend on human will or exertion, but on God, who has that mercy.
Ephesians 1:4-5 – He chose us before the foundation of the world (before creation itself), so that we would be holy and blameless before him.
Ephesians 1:11 – Predestination provides an inheritance, according to the purpose of God who does all things according to his will. God chooses because of his purposes and will.
Philippians 1:29 – For Christ’s sake, it is granted that you would believe in him (and suffer for him). You are saved by Christ for Christ.
2 Thessalonians 2:13 – Paul is thankful because God chose those in the church to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit, and belief in the truth.
2 Timothy 1:9 – God saved and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave in Christ Jesus before the ages began.
Notice that the emphasis in these verses on election is not the faith of believers but the faithfulness of God. God initiates. God calls. God brings men to himself. God does so in such a way that He will be glorified. Christians are all destined for hell when they are born, by virtue of human nature, sin, and choice. But they are also predestined to eternal life, that they would believe on Jesus Christ. God saves so that people will believe.
Does God actively work to condemn sinners?
If you’ve been following along with this, you may have read between the lines on this next one: If God actively pursues, calls, and achieves the salvation of the elect, does He do inversely so for the unrepentant? There are three major competing views:
“Single” predestination: God chooses to save the elect — but does not make any choice regarding the reprobate. God actively produces faith in believers.
“Double” predestination: God chooses to save the elect, and implicitly chooses not to save the reprobate. God actively produces faith in believers, and passively prevents the reprobate from coming to faith (by passing over them in their sins).
“Equal Ultimacy” predestination: God chooses to save the elect, and implicitly chooses not to save the reprobate. God actively produces faith in believers, and actively prevents the reprobate from coming to faith.
As it stands, in Reformed theology, “single predestination” is a misnomer. The Reformed position, “double predestination” is that you necessarily have two sides of a coin, and God’s decision to save one group of people (elect) necessarily implies that God determined not to save another group of people (reprobate). So now the question is: Does God actively work to ensure that the reprobate does not come to faith?
What do the Reformed Confessions say?
The difficulty of double predestination is that it often makes God out to be the author of sin. Yet, if we look at documents like the Westminster Confession of Faith, we may see that, in light of the biblical evidence, this is not the case:
“God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
“By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death.”
“As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected . . . are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power. through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.”
“The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His Sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.” (Chap. III — Articles I, III, VI and VII)
The Westminster Divines determined from scripture that God wills and ordains everything that happens to happen, but is not the author of sin. By His willing, all creatures will.
God foreordained some men and angels (which is different from predestining them) to everlasting death.
God withholds mercy from those who are not elect.
What does Romans 9 say?
These are hard words, but perhaps not nearly as hard as Romans 9:
“For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 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—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”
(Romans 9:9-24 ESV)
God loves Jacob. God hates Esau. Is God unjust? No! Because God is the owner of mercy and compassion. Nobody deserves mercy, but God gives it freely of His own will. God proclaims to unrepentant Pharaoh that he will “show [his] power in you, that [his] name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” How does God’s might receive proclamation from the wicked? When God executes judgement. And we are told that God raised Pharaoh up for this exact purpose. Then we see the restatement: God has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. God makes all the choices.
Seeing the coming objection, Paul’s response is to say “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Can clay object to its potter? Does metal have any right over the ironsmith? Does wood object to the craftsman when some of it is ground into sawdust, some thrown in the fireplace, and some used to build a house? Yet, this is the response of sinful men to the idea of a sovereign God making sovereign choices. God has the power to produce beauty and destruction. And we have no right to answer back.
Double predestination is true. But is it asymmetrical or symmetrical (“equal ultimacy”)?
John 12:36b-40 tells us that Jesus performed signs, yet the people did not believe him. The reason they did not believe was in fulfillment of Isaiah 6:10:
“He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes,
and understand with their heart, and turn,
and I would heal them.”
(John 12:40 ESV)
So now we ask if God blinded their eyes and hardened their heart simply by (negatively) not doing anything to unblind them and soften them, or by performing a (positive) action to produce their unbelief. The Reformed position is that this blinding and hardening is a negative action, because to believe otherwise is to make God the author of sin. We therefore conclude that predestination is asymmetrical.
There is strong biblical support for double predestination, but not equal ultimacy. We serve a God who loves to save, and saves with no regrets or reluctance. God elects people in order to save them, and that choice is not dependent on the believer; rather the believer’s choice is dependent on God’s divine will. This has massive implications for the atonement. After all, if God chose to save certain individuals, then who did Jesus actually die for? This topic will explained in the next series’ article on Limited Atonement.