The doctrine of election, sometimes referred to as predestination, is surrounded by controversy and disagreement. My aim in this article is to clarify the doctrine and answer some of the common objections to it.
What is Election?
Simply stated, the doctrine of election says that before creation, God chose (elected) those who would be saved.
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will--to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. -Ephesians 1:4-6
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. -Romans 8:29-30
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. -Ephesians 1:11
The Bible plainly says that God chose and predestined some to be saved. To deny it, you would have to simply deny the truth of the passages above. The controversy is not whether God chose and predestined some to be saved, but how he chose. The Reformed (Calvinist) understanding of election is that it was the sovereign choice of God, and not based on his foreknowledge of any person's decision. The Arminian understanding of election is that God looked into all eternity and chose those who he foreknew would choose him, which makes God's choice wholly dependent on man's choice. This difference is at the heart of the issue between Reformed and Arminian theology.
Below will be some common objections to the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of election, along with a discussion of each.
1. Calvinism teaches Man does not have a free will, and therefore Man is only a puppet in the hands of God.
Like most things up for debate, we need to first have clear definitions of the words we use. The term "free will" used in this objection means that a man's will-- that part of him that makes choices, decides what actions to take, etc.--cannot be controlled by something outside of himself. That means that though he is influenced to some extent by everything he encounters, ultimately the determining factor in the decision he makes is completely within himself..."free."
This doctrine of the "free will of Man" results in a new dilemma: If Man is completely free, then God is not! This is because the Bible teaches that God has "chosen" those who will be saved. Either God has a "free will" to choose or Man has a free will to choose God. Both of these cannot be true at the same time and in the same way. Notice that the verses above don't only say that some were chosen but also that they were predestined. To "destine" means to fix the destiny of someone or something. To "predestine" is to fix that destiny in advance of it happening. If God predestined some to come to faith in him, then they are not able to reject him, for their destiny is fixed. If you argue that God did predestine, but based on foreknowledge (knowing the future), then the person's destiny is still fixed, and they are left without a "free" choice. In this case, he didn't really predestine them at all, but rather predicted (stated in advance) their faith.
The reformed position still affirms that man has a free will, but it needs to be defined. God doesn't force men to choose something that they don't want. In fact, you can't choose something you don't want, for the reason you choose anything is that you ultimately want it more than the other options. What reformed theology argues is that God changes your inclination against him to an inclination toward him. In the end, you choose God because you want to. The issue being debated is why you wanted to. Without God changing your inclination, you would never choose him. No, you would instead oppose and rebel against him. Affecting a person's inclinations is an act of God's grace. It is grace because you did not merit any part of it....you didn't deserve it. You would be hopeless without God's intervention. God receives all glory for a person's salvation, because he accomplished it....from the start to the finish.
2. If some were not chosen to be saved, then God never gave them a chance. That is both unjust and unloving.
This argument is not sound because of a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of God and the nature of Man. The argument rests on two premises: 1) God gives everyone a chance to believe in Him, and 2) Man deserves a chance to be redeemed. The first premise is actually true. God does give everyone a chance to believe in Him. Paul teaches in the first chapter of Romans that "men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened." Men are without excuse, and they justly deserve the wrath of God. The second premise--that man deserves a chance to be redeemed--is false. When we say that something is deserved, we are talking about an obligation. God is indeed obligated to be just, because justice is part of his own character. If he were unjust, he would be a hypocrite. God is not obligated to be gracious. Grace, by definition, is voluntary. If man received what he deserved, it would be just, and he would receive the wrath of God...whom he rejected. All of mankind deserves God's wrath, for we have all sinned against him. Salvation from this wrath is a result of God's grace. God is not obligated to save anyone. If he wants to save some, choosing them in his own way, we can make no accusation against him.
It is is purely by grace that God has chosen anyone to be redeemed. This is the argument Paul is making in Romans 9 with regard to God choosing Jacob over Esau.
Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad--in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls--she was told, "The older will serve the younger." Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."
Notice that Paul includes, "Before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad--in order that God's purpose in election might stand..." The obvious implication of this statement is to say "It had nothing to do with what the twins would do...good or bad." Then he adds "in order that God's purpose in election might stand." This is the point where this second objection is raised the loudest. This is precisely the objection that Paul anticipates and answers four verses later, starting in verse 19.
One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory--even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?
Take a modern analogy. Say someone wants to give away a car by drawing a name out of a box. In the box are the names of every person in the community. When a name is drawn at random and the winner announced, there are a lot of disappointed people. Would someone be right in saying that the drawing was not fair? Absolutely not. No one did anything to deserve the prize, and it cost them nothing to be entered for the drawing. Instead, the one that won should be overwhelmed with gratitude.
Now I am not suggesting that God had a random lottery to choose the elect, but that God was not being unfair when he chose a limited number of people to be saved from his wrath. What should surprise us is that God should choose anyone to be saved! This is the place we find ourselves when we understand our own sinfulness in light of God's holiness. We shouldn't be surprised if we experience God's wrath for our disobedience, but we should be eternally grateful if we receive the imputed righteousness of Jesus and atonement for our sins.
The Arminian Position - The "Good" Person Chooses God
Arminian theology teaches that salvation comes to the sinner by grace alone, not by works. It teaches that God has provided the possibility of salvation to all people through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. All sinners have to do to make this salvation apply to them is to repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus alone for the forgiveness of their sins. Arminian theology indeed teaches that it is by faith alone that one is saved. It does not teach that sinners are saved by any merit of their own, but on the merit of Jesus' work.
Why then, do some choose to place their faith in Jesus and some do not? If sinners have a completely "free" choice (God hasn't affected the choice), then why do some choose him and others do not? When someone rejects Jesus, they do so because they are sinful, and have evil inclinations. Isn't the opposite true then of one who receives Jesus...isn't it because of our "morally good" inclinations? To say in another way, the sinner that chooses Jesus is "better" than the sinner that rejects him. Moreover, this goodness is an intrinsic goodness of the person who chose Jesus. Would this not give the Christian something legitimate to boast about? The answer is yes, it would. It is not to say that they alone are responsible for their salvation, for they did not provide the means for atonement and righteousness. They are utterly dependent on God's mercy to atone for their sins and impute Jesus' righteousness to them. But...with Jesus' work accomplished, man is now left up to himself to choose...by himself...freely. If this is true, then saying that someone came to faith because they were a "better person" (morally) than one who did not come to faith would be completely accurate.
What things affect a person's inclination toward good? Is it not their environment, upbringing, DNA, etc? It is interesting to me that within Arminian theology, it is taught that "You can't argue someone into heaven." While I believe that statement to be true, Arminian theology would have a difficult time supporting that position. Why can't you argue someone into becoming a Christian? Why can't you convince them of the truth simply by argument? Even the Arminian says that it takes the Holy Spirit to convince and convict a person of their guilt and of the truth of the Gospel. Does God, through the Holy Spirit then work equally hard with all individuals? If the answer is yes, then why do some choose him and some do not? We're back to the goodness of the man who chooses the good, and the evilness of the man who chooses the evil. In this system, the one who ultimately comes to Christ is the one who has enough intrinsic goodness within himself to choose the good. Furthermore, since we can see that these inclinations can be heavily influenced by the environment we live in, is God not also responsible for conditioning everyone's environment so that everyone has an "equal opportunity" to make a free choice about him? If not, then God can be blamed for disbelief, because some people didn't have the ability to make an informed decision. If God does give an equal opportunity to all, then we're back to the goodness of the one who chooses him.
Why Talk About It?
Many today don't think it is worthwhile to even discuss this issue. It has been hotly debated for hundreds of years with seemingly no resolution, so what benefit could this discussion have within the Church? As one who holds to the reformed position, I believe that it is God who is responsible for the salvation of the Christian, ultimately even the choice to receive Jesus, which would not have occurred apart from God's intervention. If that is true, then it would be slanderous to God for us to take credit for our choice, saying that our choice was the result of our goodness, when it was actually an act of grace by God. The more obvious reason is simply that the Scriptures teach it. If we are thinking Christians (and we should be), we must think through what God has told us. God hasn't given us everything in short, pithy sayings and maxims. Many things have to be thought out...reasoned out...applying the whole of Scripture...always in context. Why talk about it? Because truth matters.