ELECTION, CALVINISM, AND THE BIBLE, PART TWO
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 4:02pm
In part one of this essay, I said that the Biblical language of election is used in several different senses or applied in several different ways. In that part, I explained the first four such ways: (1) the election of Jesus as the incarnate God the Redeemer; (2) the election of individuals to service, e.g., the patriarchs and the apostles; (3) the election of groups (especially Israel) to service; and (4) the election of groups as categories of individuals to whom God offers his gift of salvation, specifically the Jews and the Gentiles.
Now, fifth and finally, the language of election (predestination) is sometimes used in the Bible to refer to the fact that God has indeed chosen or predestined some individuals to salvation. Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists recognize this, of course. The difference between these groups is not that the former believes in predestination while the latter does not. No, the key difference lies in the fact that the former (Calvinism) believes that such election is unconditional, while the latter (non-Calvinists) believes that it is conditional. In TULIP, the Calvinist acronym for its doctrines of sin and salvation, the “U’ stands for “unconditional election.” The key word here is “unconditional.”
When Calvinists say that God chooses individuals unconditionally, they mean that in eternity past he surveyed in advance the entire future sinful human race and chose to save some while allowing the rest to remain unsaved and go to hell. They also mean that God does this without any regard whatsoever to any responses the chosen individuals have made to God’s announced conditions for salvation. Indeed, there ARE no such announced conditions for being thus chosen. From our perspective, the election is arbitrary; and we have no say in it at all.
The non-Calvinist approach is just the opposite of this. It has three main points. First, God does choose (predestinate) some individuals to be saved. The language of election or choosing is definitely applied to us as individuals (see Rom. 16:13). We are “the elect,” the ones chosen by God. See, e.g., Matt. 24:22, 24, 31; Mark 13:20, 22, 27; Rom. 8:33; Col. 3:12; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1-2; Rev. 17:14.
The second point is that our election is conditional. I.e., God specifies in advance what conditions a sinner must meet in order to be chosen for salvation. In this New Covenant age these conditions, as clearly taught in the NT, are faith, repentance, confession, and baptism. (See my book, The Faith Once for All, chs. 19, 20, for an explanation of these as conditions for salvation.) These actions are decisions we must make in order to be chosen by God for salvation. Faith and repentance are not gifts which God bestows arbitrarily upon some sinners while passing others by. Ephesians 2:8 does NOT say that faith is the gift of God; Greek grammar does not allow this interpretation (see The Faith Once for All, 200). Nor should Acts 13:48 be translated as saying that “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (NASB). The verb here is tasso, and it should be taken in the middle (reflexive) voice, not passive. I.e., “as many as turned themselves toward eternal life believed.”
The bottom line is that some choose to meet these conditions, and some do not. The Bible says emphatically that God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:2-4; 2 Peter 3:9), a fact that is clearly inconsistent with the whole idea of the unconditional election of only some to salvation. The Bible also clearly says that not everyone is willing to meet the conditions God specifies in order to be among the chosen. Jesus said these words over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” But in spite of Jesus’ own earnest desire (“I wanted”), he sadly acknowledges—“and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37). Jesus wanted to choose them, but they did not want to be chosen.
This is how we must understand texts such as John 5:21, which says that “the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” In general he wishes to give life to all sinners, but Scripture makes clear that he will actually give life or salvation only to those who do those things he has specified as conditions for receiving it. These conditions are part of the gospel, through which God draws all men unto himself (see John 6:44, 65; 12:32). The word of the gospel draws ALL who hear it, but some resist its drawing power. God calls and draws sinners unto himself, but this calling and drawing are universal and resistible, not selective and irresistible (contrary to Calvinist teaching).
The third point is that God from eternity past in his foreknowledge has already foreseen who will and who will not meet his gracious gospel conditions by obeying his gracious gospel commands. (On the concept of obeying the gospel, see Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8.) Based on this foreknowledge, in eternity past those whom he foreknew would meet these conditions were predestined to be with him in glory for eternity future. See Rom. 8:29; 2 Thess. 1:9; 1 Peter 1:1-2. God did not predestine anyone to believe and repent. He foreknew that they would believe and repent along with obeying the other gospel commands, and as a result he predestined them to final salvation.
Those who want to see more detailed discussions of these points should consult my published works thereon: What the Bible Says About God the Ruler (originally College Press, 1984; now Wipf and Stock), especially chapters 4-5, 8-9; What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer (originally College Press, 1987; now Wipf and Stock), pp. 389-399, “Is Grace Conditional or Unconditional?”; The Faith Once for All (College Press, 2002), ch. 19, “Conditions of Salvation”; ch. 20, “Baptism”; and ch. 22, “Predestination”; my essay on “The Classical Arminian View of Election,” ch. 3 in Perspectives on Election: Five Views (Broadman & Holman, 2006); and my commentary on Romans (College Press, 2-vol. ed., 1996, 1998; 1-vol. condensed ed., 2005), especially the comments on Rom. 8:28 and on ch. 9.