DOCTRINES OF GRACE: TIP TOE THROUGH THE TULIPS "U" (3 of 6)
by Jeff Hagan
(Tacoma, WA, USA)
Unconditional election is a phrase used to summarize what the Scriptures teach regarding the predestination – or the election – of people for salvation. It represents the “U” in the acronym TULIP. Some of the terms used for this doctrine also include “unmerited (unearned) favor,” “sovereign election,” and “adopted by God (or adoption).” All of these names are appropriate because each one shows some aspect of the doctrine of election. However, far more important than the term we use to describe the doctrine is how accurately the doctrine expresses what the Scriptures teach regarding these very important topics.
The disagreement over unconditional election is not about whether or not God elects or predestines people to salvation, the disagreement centers around on what basis He elects them. Does He elect them based on His foreknowledge or is it based purely on His sovereign choice? As the word “unconditional” indicates, this position holds that God's election of people to salvation is done “with no conditions attached, either foreseen or otherwise.” God elects people to salvation purely by His own sovereign choice and not because of some future action they will carry out or some condition they will meet. Those who come to Christ become God's children by His will, not by their own. “They were not God's children by nature or because of human desires. God himself was the one who made them his children” (John 1:13, CEV).
“God, before the foundation of the world, chose to make certain individuals the objects of His unmerited favor or special grace (Mark 13:20; Ephesians 1:4-5; Revelation 13:8; Revelation 17:8). These individuals from every tribe, tongue and nation were chosen by God for adoption, not because of anything they would do but because of His sovereign will (Romans 9:11-13; Romans 9:16: Romans 10:20; 1 Corinthians 1:27-29; 2 Timothy 1:9). God could have chosen to save all men (He certainly has the power and authority to do so), and He could have chosen to save no one (He is under no obligation to save anyone). He instead chose to save some and leave others to the consequences of their sin (Exodus 33:19; Deuteronomy 7:6-7; Romans 9:10-24; Acts 13:48; 1 Peter 2:8).”*
When one looks at all that the Scriptures teach about election and predestination, it becomes clear that God's choice was not based on any known future act or response, but entirely on God's own good pleasure and sovereign will. Correctly understood, God's unconditional election is “one link in the unbreakable chain” of salvation found in Romans 8:28: “For those God foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the likeness of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those whom he justified, he also glorified” (NIV).
All those who God has predestined will be saved (John 6:39; Romans 8:30) because they are the ones that God the Father gives to Jesus Christ (John 6:37). They are Christ's sheep (John 10:1-30) who hear His voice and for who He died (John 10:15) in order to give them eternal life and make them secure forever in the hand of God (John 10:26-30).
There are several common misunderstandings regarding unconditional election. First, the doctrine does not teach that God's choice is based on His mood or some kind of random selection. It is not made without reason. What it does teach is that God elects someone to salvation not because of something of worth that He finds in the individual, but because of His unfathomable, mysterious will. He makes the choice as to who will be saved for His own reasons, according to His own perfect will and for His own good pleasure (Ephesians 1:5). Some oppose the doctrine of election because they see it us “unfair,” it is nevertheless based upon God's will and it pleases Him; therefore, it must be good and perfectly fair.
A second misunderstanding is that unconditional election suppresses evangelism; the truth is the exact opposite – it empowers and confirms it. When one understands that God has not only elected certain individuals to salvation but has also ordained the means of salvation – the preaching of the gospel (Romans 1:16; 10:14-17) – it empowers the spreading of the gospel message and the call to evangelism. We see this exact thing in Paul's writing to Timothy in the middle of serious persecution: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain salvation which is in Christ...” (2 Timothy 2:10, NIV).
A correct understanding of election encourages evangelism and guarantees its success. It conquers the fear of failure when sharing the gospel and empowers people to stay faithful to the message in times of great struggles. They know that the power lies in the gospel message itself as well as in God's sovereign election and not in their feeble presentation. A biblical understanding of election helps one share the gospel freely with all people, knowing that any one of them could be Christ's sheep whom He is calling into His flock (John 10:16). It is not up to us to decide or discover if someone is elect or non-elect, and there is always a hope for salvation for anyone who will confess their sin, repent, and believe in Christ. The gospel message should be preached to all people with the knowledge that God will use it to draw His sheep to Himself.
Third, unconditional election also does not mean that there will be people in heaven who do not want to be there, nor will there be people in hell who wanted to go to heaven but could not be because they were not elect. Unconditional election appropriately recognizes that, apart from God's supernatural work in the life of a sinner, humanity will always choose to reject God and rebel against Him. What unconditional election does properly recognize is that God intervenes in the lives of the elect and works in their lives through the Holy Spirit so that they willingly respond to faith in Him. Because they are “his sheep...they hear his voice and follow him” (John 10:1-30). As for the non-elect, God is still gracious to them, but because of their sin they are not appreciative of that grace, nor do they acknowledge Him as God (Romans 1:18-20). As a result, they receive the punishment that is due them. Those God elects are beneficiaries of His sovereign grace and mercy, and those whom He does not elect receive the justice they have earned.
Those who disagree with unconditional election often use verses like 1 Timothy 2:4 and John 3:16. How do we reconcile election with a verse like 1 Timothy 2:4, that says God “wants all men to be saved” (NIV), or John 3:16, that says God “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV)? The answer is found when one has a proper understanding of the will of God and the love of God. God's “passive” will needs to be understood in contrast to His “decreed” will (those things He foreordains to happen). The passive will of God includes the things He might desire, in a sense, but does not foreordain or bring to pass. Surely, if God is sovereign and all-powerful He could cause the salvation of all people if that was His will. Reconciling these and other verses with the many that show election to be an unconditional choice of God is no more difficult than recognizing that there are things God might desire but does not predetermine to happen. It could be said that God does not desire for people to sin but as part of his predetermined plan He allows them to sin. So, while there is a true and legitimate sense in which God does not take pleasure in punishing the wicked and wishes that all would be saved, His predetermined plan allows for the fact that some will indeed go to hell.
In a similar way, regarding John 3:16 and God's love, the difference is found in God's general love for all of His creation versus His specific love for His children, the elect. The difference is that God's love for His elect is an intense love that has Him actually doing something about their lost condition instead of simply sitting by wishing that they would turn to Him. In a generic sense, God wants all to be saved and He loves all of humanity, but that is entirely different from the specific love He has for His elect and His provision for their salvation.
When one examines what the Scriptures teach about election and predestination, it becomes clear that the doctrine of unconditional election accurately represents what Scriptures teach on this important topic. While this – or any of the other doctrines of grace – can certainly stand on their own merit, their importance becomes even clearer when they are considered together systematically with all that the Scriptures teach about salvation. They essentially serve as building blocks, with each one providing a necessary part of a Scriptural understanding of salvation. Total depravity defines humanity's need for salvation and reveals our hopelessness when left to our own resources. It leaves us with the question “Who can be saved?” The answer is found in understanding unconditional election – God's sovereign choice to save people despite their depravity and based entirely on His redeeming for Himself people from every “tribe, tongue and nation.” And this He does by predestining them to “to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:5, NIV). A correct understanding of this doctrine should not cause one to question the justice of God, but instead one should be in awe of His great mercy. The question we should really be asking is not why God chooses only some to salvation, but why would He choose anyone at all.
*“Question:'Unconditional election – is it biblical?'” (gotquestions.org).