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The Calvinistic Concept of Election

The Calvinistic concept of divine election proceeds on the assumption that God saves men and women in accordance with a plan formulated in eternity past. The events we see unfolding in time and history are not haphazard or chaotic, appearances notwithstanding. They are the divinely ordained means by which God is bringing this universe to its proper consummation in Jesus Christ. We would not think very highly of God if we knew him to have created all things without a clue as to what he intended to do with them. We marvel at God’s wisdom and find him worthy of praise precisely because we know that all things have been created not only by Jesus Christ but also for him (Col. 1:16).


This world and all that is in it exist principally as means to the fulfillment of a divine purpose, “the summing up of all things in Christ” (Eph. 1:9-10). Jesus himself declared that he came to this earth in order to accomplish the Father’s will (John 6:38). That is why our Lord’s redemptive sufferings occurred as a result of the “predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23); cf. Acts 4:27-28; 1 Peter 1:20). In sum, God works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11).


No less a part of this divine plan is the salvation of fallen sinners. However else one wishes to conceive it, God’s election of individuals to eternal life antedates creation. It is a pre-temporal act which the biblical authors describe as having transpired “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8; 17:8) or “from the beginning” (2 Thess. 2:13). Election is a result of God’s gracious purpose to save sinners, according to which we have been “predestined” to obtain an inheritance (Eph. 1:11). All of which, Paul tells us, “was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Tim. 1:9). One may wish to argue about the basis upon which God made his choice, but that it was a choice made in eternity past seems beyond dispute.


Like everything else that God does, election has a goal. The immediate goal of election is the salvation of those chosen. God has chosen us from the beginning “for salvation,” declares Paul (2 Thess. 2:13; cf. 2 Tim. 1:8-10). Of course, this does not mean that the eternal destiny of individuals is the only objective in election. The nation Israel was the recipient of God’s elective blessing, in that the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were chosen to be the heirs of temporal, earthly, theocratic privileges (Deut. 4:37; 7:6-8; 10:15; 1 Chron. 16:13; Hos. 3:1). We have already seen that Jesus Christ was himself the object of an electing act by God the Father. He is, in a very special sense, God’s “chosen one” (Isa. 42:1; Matt. 12:18; Luke 9:35; 1 Peter 1:20).


The church as a collective body is also chosen of God (1 Peter 2:9). And even in the case of individuals, election is not always to salvation and life. Some, such as kings (1 Sam. 10:24; 16:7-12), priests (Deut. 18:5), prophets (Jer. 1:5), and apostles (John 6:70), are chosen to office and service. Our concern in this study, however, is with that form of election in which individual men and women are “ordained to eternal life” (Acts 13:48, RSV). 

But the will of God for his elect does not terminate when they come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Paul makes it clear that God the Father chose us in Christ in order that “we should be holy and blameless” in his glorious presence (Eph. 1:14). The apostle Peter likewise insists that God has chosen a people in order that they might “obey” Jesus (1 Peter 1:1-2; see also 1 Peter 2:9; Rom. 8:29). But surely the ultimate or final goal of God’s electing love is God’s own glory. He chose us that we should be both justified and sanctified, all of which is designed to redound to “the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6,12,14; cf. Rom. 9:17-23).


I am sure that many Arminians have agreed with much, if not all, that I have said to this point. They have no quarrel with the idea that God elects men and women from eternity past, and that he does so in order that they might have eternal life. They certainly would insist, no less than I, that the eternal life graciously bestowed on fallen sinners serves to bring glory and honor to his most holy name. It is when the basis or ground for God’s choice is discussed that the Arminian parts company from the Calvinist. As we saw above, the Arminian insists that God elects men and women on the basis of what he, from eternity past, knows that they, in present time, will do when confronted with the gospel. Thus the basis or ground for being chosen by God is one’s own freewill choice of God. God’s election of us is, in effect, a divine response to our election (or choice) of him.


The Calvinist, on the other hand, insists that election is not grounded or based upon any act of man, for good or ill. Election “does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). That God should set his electing love upon any individual is not in any way dependent upon that person’s will (Rom. 9:16), works (2 Tim. 1:9; Rom. 9:11), holiness (Eph. 1:4), or obedience (1 Peter 1:1-2). Rather, election finds its sole and all-sufficient cause in the sovereign good pleasure and grace of God (Eph. 1:9; Rom. 9:11; 11:5; Matt. 11:25-26; 2 Tim. 1:9). Were election to be based upon what God foreknows that each individual will do with the gospel it would be an empty and altogether futile act. For what does God foresee in us, apart from his grace? He sees only corruption, ill will, and a pervasive depravity of heart and soul that serves only to evoke his displeasure and wrath.


What this means is that Calvinism is monergistic (made up two words that mean “one/sole” and “energy/power”) when it comes to the doctrine of salvation. This simply means that when a person is saved it is due wholly to the working of one source of power: God. Arminianism is by necessity synergistic, in that it conceives of salvation as the joint or mutual effort of both God and man. However, in fairness to my Arminian friends, it must be pointed out that virtually all of them insist that God takes the initiative and that people then respond. Thus the word “synergism” simply means two or more forces or powers working together with each other to accomplish a common goal. Some believe that the implications of this serve to undermine saving grace. G. C. Berkouwer, for example, says this:


“In no form of synergism is it possible to escape the conclusion that man owes his salvation not solely to God but also to himself. Still more accurately, he may thank himself – by virtue of his decision to believe – that salvation actually and effectively becomes his in time and eternity. To be sure, synergism is constantly seeking to avoid this conclusion, and it is seldom expressed in so many words that salvation really depends partly on man. Nevertheless, this conclusion cannot in the long run be avoided and it is clear that we actually are confronted here with the real problem of synergism as it results in a certain amount of human self-conceit” (Divine Election, 42). 

How, then, may we define election as it is conceived by those who call themselves Calvinists? Divine election may be defined as that loving and merciful decision by God the Father to bestow eternal life upon some, but not all, hell-deserving sinners. This decision was made before the foundation of the world and was based not upon any act of will or works of men and women, but solely upon God’s sovereign good pleasure. One does not enter the ranks of the elect by meeting a condition, be it faith or repentance. One enters the ranks of the elect by virtue of God’s free and altogether gracious choice, as a result of which he enables us to repent and believe. Thus, election is both sovereign and unconditional.


May I remind the reader that neither Arminians nor Calvinists believe what they do about divine election simply because of something said by the men from whom these labels have come. Arminians believe in conditional election because they believe that is what the Bible teaches. Calvinists believe in unconditional election for the same reason. All Calvinists would agree that “Calvin did not invent a new teaching any more than Columbus invented America or Newton the law of gravity. As Columbus and Newton merely discovered what had existed all along, so Calvin uncovered truths that had been in the Bible all the time” (Edwin Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism: A Study Manual [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972], p. 6).

The biblical proof for this notion of divine election will come from several lines of evidence, to be examined in subsequent lessons. We will focus on the doctrine of total depravity, according to which fallen man, apart from grace, is neither able nor willing to believe in Christ. Related to this understanding of human nature are those biblical texts which affirm that faith and repentance are gifts of divine grace and not the fruit of free will or prevenient grace. We will also have occasion to examine the biblical doctrine of grace itself. The question that cries out to be answered is whether or not grace and salvific synergism are compatible. Finally, we shall look at a number of passages which either explicitly or implicitly teach the doctrine of unconditional election. Following all this will be an attempt to answer the objections most frequently leveled against the Calvinistic concept of divine sovereignty.