The doctrine of election, in particular the two dominating positions postulated respectively by Arminian and Calvinistic theologians, is often a highly controversial topic with widely divergent viewpoints. Theological complexities such as the notion of individual or corporate election only serve to further obfuscate the issue. As noted by Leslie Crawford, “though the topic of election is controversial in theological debate, it is crucial to a theological understanding of salvation. One cannot divorce an understanding of election from a correct view of God since God is the agent who does the choosing.”
An understanding of the doctrine of election can only be achieved through a holistic exegesis of the context in which this doctrine permeates the biblical message. One must broach the doctrine of election through the lens of Scriptural exposition with careful attention paid to setting aside presuppositions often based on a particular denominational or authorial stance. Given that finite man is incapable of holistically understanding the actions of an omnipotent God, developing a defined doctrine of election is difficult. This article will show that the unconditional view of election espoused by those of the Calvinistic theological bent adheres most closely to sound biblical exposition and is in keeping with the concomitant principles of salvation and God’s undeserving grace upon believers in Christ.
OLD TESTAMENT CONCEPT OF ELECTION
While arguably the most robust and cogent overview of the doctrine of election can be found in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of the Apostle Paul, the Old Testament is nevertheless replete with references to the divine election of physical items, people groups, offices, and individuals. The most common term used in the Old Testament for election is bachar, meaning to choose. Many biblical scholars have noted “there is no explicit articulation of the idea of election until the Book of Deuteronomy (Dt. 7 and 9).” However, as asserted by author and biblical scholar George Mendenhall, one “cannot give reliable conclusions concerning the existence or nonexistence of a particular religious conviction; patterns of thought may very well exist without specific labels.”
As noted by H. H. Rowley, the primary purpose of election as outlined in the Old Testament is God’s choice of individuals or people groups to fulfill a divine task. This is evinced in the election and empowerment by God of certain individuals to construct the tabernacle and the various elements subsumed therein. Numbers 16-17 clearly notes that Aaron and his progeny were elected or chosen by God to serve as priests. Still further evidence of election in the Old Testament is seen in the election of Cyrus by God to effect the restoration of Israel to the Promised Land. Arguably, the most notable example of election to fulfill a divine task in the Old Testament is seen in the nation of Israel chosen by God as the bearers of the Abrahamic covenant in order to be a blessing to the entire world.
Concomitant to the more familiar New Testament understanding of election is the idea of election for holiness expressed most often in items or people set aside for a holy purpose. Israel was chosen to be a “holy nation” (Ex. 19:6; Deut. 7:6; 14:2) and to reveal God’s glory to the nations (Isa. 43:7). Peter O’Brien saliently avers “Her (Israel’s) election was due solely to God’s gracious decision; it had nothing to do with Israel’s choice or righteous behavior. It was because the Lord loved her and kept the oath he had sworn to her forefathers that he chose her for himself.” Through no specific act of righteousness or personal merit, the patriarch Abraham, from the midst of a pagan culture was chosen by God to be the progenitor of Israel.
The Israelites, as God’s chosen people were commanded to adhere to the Mosaic Law and the Abrahamic covenant, with various blessings and curses attributed to their following or rejection inherent in those agreements. Andrew Lincoln comments “Israel’s election was not for her self-indulgence, but for the blessing of the nations: it was a privilege but also a summons for service.” Thus, the election of Israel as God’s people serves as an “interpretive concept of the plot of the Pentateuch and beyond” connecting the blessing promised Abraham to the ultimate fulfillment of that promise found in Christ. Election in the Old Testament is shown through the lens of individual and corporate selection by God with a shift from the personal election of Abraham seen in Genesis to the corporation election of Israel expounded in Deuteronomy.
NEW TESTAMENT CONCEPT OF ELECTION
The doctrine of election finds its fullest definition and description in the New Testament, particular in relation to the church. As expounded in the Old Testament, the concept of election has both corporate and individual application in New Testament theology. D. A. Carson, in speaking to the corporate idea of election in the New Statement, states, “repeatedly the New Testament texts tell us that the love of God or the love of Christ is directed toward those who constitute the church.” Furthermore, the robust nature of the doctrine of election in the New Testament is seen in the expansion of election from the nation of Israel to now include all those who place their faith and trust in the salvific work of Christ to include Gentiles.
Author and theologian Wayne Grudem asserts the “New Testament presents the entire outworking of our salvation as something brought about by a personal God in relationship with personal creatures.” Grudem goes on to rightly note “God’s act of election was neither impersonal nor mechanistic, but was permeated with personal love for those whom he chose.” Such comments are in keeping with John 15:16 which states “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last.”
Additionally, as in the Old Testament, election in the New Testament is a matter of unmerited favor by God to individuals or groups. Furthermore, election is based on God’s grace. Theologian Thomas Schreiner saliently notes the vital connection made in the New Testament between election and grace. He avers “many worry that the choosing of some and not all would be unjust, but this idea overlooks the fact that election is gracious. No one deserves to be elected, and thus the election of any is a merciful gift of God that cannot be claimed as a democratic right.” Further support for the concomitance of grace and election is seen in Ephesians 1:3-14 where the Apostle Paul notes salvation as being a gift from God. As such, “this saving work of God began in eternity past when God elected us to be made holy and blameless through his Son, and it culminates in the future bestowal of our promised inheritance as now guaranteed by the Spirit who seals us for this day.”
Such statements hearken back to the election by God of Israel in the Old Testament to be the bearers of God’s message and the instrument of blessing to the entire world. The fulfillment of this blessing came to fruition in the person of Jesus Christ and through the sacrifice on the cross. As such, the New Testament also teaches the aim of election is the glory of God. Theologian Louis Berkhof suggests “that glory of God is the highest purpose of the electing grace is made very emphatic in Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14.” In the aforementioned verse, Paul declares the very substance of the spiritual blessings he discusses “include election to holiness, instatement as God’s sons and daughters, redemption, and forgiveness, the gift of the Spirit, and the hope of glory.”
Once again, the doctrine of election as explicated in the New Testament bears a strong resemblance to the idea of election in the Old Testament. Arguably, the greatest differentiation is the expansion of the elect to include all who call upon the name of the Lord thus eradicating the Israelites as the sole bearers and participants in God’s blessings and presence. With that said, it is important to note that God’s election of Israel was never abrogated by the coming of Christ or the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan to spread the message of salvation to the world. Theologian Walter Elwell states, “God’s promise to Israel was to all who qualified as Israel, which included the Gentiles.” Furthermore, as stated in Romans 11:28-29, “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” which clearly denotes that “Israel is beloved by God because of the fathers.”
ARMINIAN VIEW OF ELECTION
Arguably, the two dominating positions within Christian orthodoxy on the doctrine of election reside within the Arminian and Calvinistic understanding of this theologically difficult subject. The respective views differ largely not on the existence of the doctrine of election within the pages of Scripture, but conversely, on the nature of election, specifically the idea of conditional versus unconditional election.
Author and theologian Roger Olson asserts that “Arminians interpret the biblical concept of unconditional election (predestination to salvation) as corporate. Thus, predestination has an individual meaning (foreknowledge of individual choices) and a collective meaning (election of a people). Moreover, Jacob Arminius defined election to mean “the decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ, by which he resolved within himself from all eternity to justify, adopt, and endow with everlasting life…believers on whom he had decreed to bestow faith.”
While Arminius did not dogmatically reject the idea of election, his issue with the Calvinistic interpretation of this concept centered on the illogical nature of a God who would purpose to elect some while purposefully condemning others. This stance is clearly evinced in the following statement by Arminius:
If you thus understand it, – that God from eternity…determined to display his glory by mercy and by punitive justice, and, in order to carry that purpose into effect, decreed to create man good, but mutable, ordained also that he should fall, that in this way there might be room for that decree; – I say that this opinion cannot, in my judgment at least, be established by any word of God.
As seen in this statement, the Arminian position on election is largely centered on the belief “the origin (fontem) of faith can be said to be the gratuitous election of God, but it is election to bestow faith, not to communicate salvation. For a believer is elected to participate in salvation, a sinner is elected to faith.”
Arminians aver God elects certain individuals to fulfill a specific role or service to further His message. As stated by Jack Cottrell, “among those predestined (elected) to fill specific roles in the accomplishment of redemption, the primary character is the Redeemer himself, Jesus of Nazareth.” Further examples of election for specific service can be seen in the selection of the twelve disciples as outlined in the Gospel accounts. The Arminian position finds further support for election to service as opposed to salvation in the fact “Judas is among the chosen twelve, though his predetermined role was that of the betrayer of Jesus.” Such a position hearkens back to the Old Testament examples, namely that of Cyrus who, though an ungodly man, was elected by God to effect the return of the nation of Israel to the Promised Land. Such a position, at least in the Arminian perception, supports the idea that not every occasion of election explicated in Scripture results in the salvation of the chosen individual.
Additionally, in opposition to the Calvinistic belief in unconditional election resulting in salvation, the Arminian posits Scripture does not explicitly support unconditional election to salvation in every case. Author and theologian Robert Shank asserts “the Scriptures cite numerous instances of actual apostasy and believers are urgently warned against failing to continue in faith” thus “not everyone who once believes the Gospel is eternally elect and will necessarily continue in faith.” For the Arminian, individual election is “the idea that God predestines to salvation those individuals who meet the gracious conditions which he has set forth.” Furthermore, since Scripture declares that no man is righteous or deserving of God’s unmerited favor, the “election which results from his meeting those conditions remains wholly of grace.” The fulcrum of the aforementioned argument for election is it is the individual who has the ability and freewill to accept the gracious gift of election and thus is the “ultimate cause of the decision”, not God.
Perhaps the most notable difference between the Arminian and Calvinistic views is on the election of Israel as outlined in New Testament doctrine. According to Arminians like Jack Cottrell, Israel fulfilled her mission as the people who were assigned the task of preparing the way for Christ. Thus, “her purpose was accomplished and her destiny fulfilled in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” Israel’s position as God’s elect has been abrogated with the Church as the New Israel. Cottrell points to 1 Peter 2:9 for support for this assertion noting the Apostle Peter’s declaration of the church as God’s chosen people.
CALVINISTIC VIEW OF ELECTION
The Calvinistic view of the doctrine of election also asserts “the Bible speaks of election in more than one sense.” As with the Arminian view of election, Calvinism declares Israel was elected by God for a special purpose and individuals such as Moses were elected to offices of leadership. Where perhaps Calvinism differs from the Arminian viewpoint is on the manner of election as being predestined by God. Calvinists disagree with the Arminian belief that man must meet certain conditions prior to accepting God’s gracious gift of election. In the Calvinist system, as evinced in the lives of Jacob and Esau and further explicated by Paul in Romans 9, God chose Jacob over Esau “before they had done any good or evil, a choice God made that according to choice the purpose of God might stand, not from works but from him who calls.”
As noted by author and theologian Augustus Strong, “election is that eternal act of God, by which in His sovereign pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them, he chooses out of the number of sinful men to be the recipients of the special grace of His Spirit, and so to be made voluntary partakers in Christ’s salvation.” Sam Storms points out “the Calvinist view of election highlights, as does Paul in Ephesians 1, the divine initiative in the work of salvation…there was deliberate, calculated, reasoned intent on God’s part. He knew what He was doing when He chose one but not another.”
Calvinism declares that the Holy Spirit extends only to God’s elect, a “special inward call in addition to the outward call contained in the gospel message.” Calvinists emphasize the Triune nature of the salvific process: God predestined the elect, Christ provided the redemptive element of salvation with His sacrifice on the cross, and the Holy Spirit initiates regeneration of the believer’s sin nature. This understanding is stated by Calvinists to be supported by Scriptures such as I Cor. 2:10-13, 6:11, 12:3 and I Peter 1:1-2 which describe the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Emil Brunner saliently notes in this regard the “basis of election never lies in the one who is chosen, but exclusively in the One who chooses.”
Of particular importance is the Calvinistic belief of irresistible grace. This principle states that once God has initiated the salvific process in the heart of His elect, man is incapable of resisting His efforts as “God’s grace is irresistible because God changes the will of those who would otherwise resist it.” Scriptural support for this idea is found by Calvinists in passages such as Jeremiah 31:31-34 which depict God actively working in the hearts and minds of His elect in an effort to bring them into a saving knowledge of Him. Perhaps the most comprehensive summary of the Calvinistic approach in this area is presented by theologian Edwin Palmer in his statement, “the Holy Spirit will certainly – without any and’s, if’s or buts’ – cause everyone whom God has chosen from eternity and for whom Christ died to believe on Jesus.”
Furthermore, Calvinism purports the doctrine of election as a comfort for believers, a reason to display at all times thankfulness to God for being among His elect, and a clear reason to pursue evangelism. Wayne Grudem, in support of these assertions, points to Paul’s statements in Romans 8 declaring God’s conforming to the image of His son those whom He has predestined or elected before the foundation of the world. Gruden states “from eternity to eternity God has acted with the good of his people in mind. But if God has always acted for our good and will in the future act for our good, Paul reasons, then will he not also in our present circumstances work every circumstance together for our good as well?” While the Arminian view of election posits the need for man to achieve at least a minimal conditions, the Calvinist points to 2 Thessalonians 2:13 as proof we can praise God that it was He who chose the elect of His own accord, thus diminishing “any pride that we might feel if we thought that our salvation was due to something good in us or something for which we should receive credit.”
Finally, in response to those who assert that unconditional election abrogates the need for evangelism, R. C. Sproul comments “we find God’s external call in the preaching of the gospel. When the gospel is preached, everyone who hears it is called or summoned to Christ. But not everyone responds positively.” It is because of our inability to know those whom God has chosen that we are implored to fulfill the Great Commission thus leaving the choosing of the elect in the hands of God.
BIBLICAL VIEW OF ELECTION
Regardless of whether one ascribes to an Arminian or Calvinistic view of the doctrine of election, one cannot deny that election exists as a dominant them within God’s Word. This does not diminish however, the mystery that surrounds the doctrine of election. The condition under which God elects some and not others is ultimately the grounds of debate between the Arminian and Calvinistic mindsets. One thing is certain and that is God has chosen the elect from the foundation of the world.
Some question whether free will should be included in the doctrine of election in an effort to determine whether man can reject the election of God. Scripture continuously depicts diverse situations in which man chose to reject God’s commandments and His call to repentance even when the resultant consequences were clearly evident. As noted by Geisler, “all who receive His grace will be saved and all who reject it will be lost.” The free will nature of man in relation to responding to God’s call is clearly evident in Scriptures such as Deut. 30:19 which outlined God providing a choice for Israel to make. They either chose to follow God’s commands with the resulting blessings or they could reject His commands and endure the horrific consequences of that choice. The story of Adam and Eve presents another valid support for the Arminian position of free will. Geisler notes that the commands given to Adam and Eve “imply the ability to respond.” Unfortunately for man, as stated in Jeremiah 17:9, “their heart is exceedingly wicked” and often the result of the gift of free will is the rejection of salvation.
Ultimately, despite the myriad of issues facing one who seeks to understand the totality of the doctrine of election as revealed in Scripture, believers must assert that God, in keeping with His divine plan has elected some in order to display His glory. As noted by G. C. Berkouwer, “when the church of Christ understands her election, not as a fatum or a dominium absolutum, but as a sovereign, gracious, undeserved election, then she also understands her service to the Lord in the world, a service which is indissolubly connected with her election.” A true biblical doctrine of election is centered on the necessity of living in service to the One who elected us. Our of thankfulness to God who before the foundation of the world has unconditionally chosen His elect to fulfill His divine purpose, the body of Christ should seek to enlarge the kingdom of God by fulfilling the Great Commission, proclaiming the day of redemption is nigh.
Arguably, it is not for us to seek to holistically understand the machinations by which God elects some and not others as such things are truly beyond the capability of the finitude of the human mind. What we can ascertain is God is holy and his methods are pure and righteous. There is no arbitrariness within God’s election and for that, we should be forever grateful. As noted by Millard Erickson, “election is immutable. God does not change his mind. Election is from all eternity and out of God’s infinite mercy; he has no reason or occasion to change his mind.”
The stance espoused by Calvinism and Arminianism present often two polar opposites of the mainstream evangelical views on election. Scripture is replete with passages that seemingly support to varying degrees both Calvinism and Arminianism. Perhaps the best approach to a holistic understanding of the modalities by which God works His mysteries in the lives of His people is to adhere to the teaching found in Deut. 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” While neither treatise may be unconditionally incontestable through Scripture, one thing is sure: God desires that none should perish and He has commanded His people to be diligent to fulfill the Great Commission. Believers, regardless of which side of the Calvinist/Arminian fence they may reside, must never lose sight of the necessity of reaching the lost soul for the Kingdom of God for this is what we have been called to do as the elect of God. Arguably, it is not for us to seek to wholly understand the machinations by which God elects some and not others as such things are truly beyond the capability of the finitude of the human mind. What we can ascertain is God is holy and his methods are pure and righteous. There is no arbitrariness within God’s election and for that, we should be forever grateful. In the words of author and theologian Karl Barth, “the election of grace is the whole of the Gospel, the Gospel in nuce…the very essence of all good news.”
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