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What is Election

Divine election is certainly one of the more profound and controversial doctrines in Holy Scripture. To some it is an idea conceived in hell, a tool of Satan wielded by him to thwart the evangelistic zeal of the church and thus responsible for populating hell with men and women who otherwise would have been reached with the gospel message. To others divine election is the heart and soul of Scripture, the most comforting and reassuring of biblical truths apart from which grace loses its power and God his glory. To the former, then, election is a primary reason why people are in hell. To the latter, it is the only reason why people are in heaven!


This radical difference of opinion concerning the doctrine of election and predestination is illustrated beautifully (and humorously) in a poem which appeared in The Continental Journal, March 11, 1779. It was entitled “On Predestination.”


“If all things succeed as already agreed,

            And immutable impulses rule us;

To preach and to pray, is but time thrown away,

            And our teachers do nothing but fool us.


If we’re driven by fate, either this way or that,

            As the carman whips up his horses,

Then no man can stray --- all go the right way,

            As the stars that are fix’d in their courses.


But if by free will, we can go or stand still,

            As best suits the present occasion;

Then fill up the glass, and confirm him an ass

            That depends upon Predestination.”



Two weeks later an answer appeared in the same newspaper.



“If an all perfect mind rules over mankind,

            With infinite wisdom and power;

Sure he may decree, and yet the will be free,

            The deeds and events of each hour.


If scripture affirms in the plainest of terms,

            The doctrine of Predestination;

We ought to believe it, and humbly receive it,

            As a truth of divine revelation.


If all things advance with the force of mere chance,

            Or by human free will are directed;

To preach and to pray, will be time thrown away,

            Our teachers may be well rejected.


If men are deprav’d, and to vice so enslav’d,

            That the heart chuses nothing but evil;

Then who goes on still by his own corrupt will,

            Is driving post haste to the devil.


Then let human pride and vain cavil subside,

            It is plain to a full demonstration,

That he’s a wild ass, who over his glass,

            Dares ridicule Predestination.”


[Both of these poems are quoted by Charles W. Akers, “Calvinism and the American Revolution,” in The Heritage of John Calvin: Lectures, ed. John H. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), pp. 170-171.]


Much of the disagreement and most of the animosity concerning this doctrine proceeds from a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means. Our analysis of divine election must, therefore, begin with an attempt to clarify precisely what is at stake and, at the same time, correct misrepresentations of it.


When I am asked, and I am asked often, “Sam, are you a Calvinist?”, I immediately respond with a request of my own, “Tell me what you mean by ‘Calvinist’. Then I’ll tell you if I’m one!” Often the person then defines “Calvinism” as a rigid, fatalistic system of theology, devoid of life and joy, in which God is portrayed as a celestial bully who takes sadistic glee in sending people to hell whether they deserve it or not. “If that is what you mean by ‘Calvinist’, then I most assuredly am not one!”


The problem is that Arminians often run into an equally distressing caricature of their own position. Sadly, many Calvinists think of Arminianism as an intellectually flabby, overly sentimental view of the Christian faith that borders on liberalism, if not universalism. The “God” of Arminianism, I once heard someone sarcastically say, is actually “man” spoke of in a very loud voice. I hope these studies will go a long way in dispelling such unkind and terribly misleading caricatures of what people really believe.


Whereas much may and will be said of election in these studies, the point of dispute is surprisingly simple. No one who believes in the Bible disputes the fact that election is taught there. It isn’t the reality of election, or even its source, author, time, or goal that has elicited so much venom among professing Christians. It is rather the basis of divine election, that is to say, why and on what grounds some are elected to salvation and life and others are not. There are essentially only three options, the first of which is more pagan than Christian.


First, it has been argued that God elects those who are good. In this view, election is a debt God is obliged to pay, not a gift he graciously bestows. It is on the basis of inherent or self-generated righteousness that God elects men and women. This is the doctrine of Pelagianism, named after the British monk Pelagius who popularized the view in the fifth century. One would be hard-pressed to find an advocate of this perspective within the professing Christian church.


Second, others contend that God elects some who are bad who, notwithstanding their being bad, choose to exercise faith in Jesus Christ. It is on the basis of this foreseen faith that God elects them. This is the doctrine of Arminianism, named after the Dutch theologian James Arminius (1560-1609). It has also been called Wesleyanism because of the influence of John Wesley.


Third, there is the view that God elects some who are bad who, because of their being bad, are not of themselves able to exercise faith in Christ. It is on the basis of his own sovereign good pleasure that God elects them. This is the doctrine of Calvinism, named after the French theologian John Calvin (1509-1564).


We are concerned with the latter two options. The question reduces to this: Does God elect people because they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, or does God elect people in order that they shall believe in Christ? Jack W. Cottrell, an Arminian, is to be complimented for acknowledging that this is in fact the issue separating Calvinists and Arminians. “The Calvinistic mind,” says Cottrell, “sees election as bringing about the transition from unbelief to belief, hence making unbelievers the object of election. The Arminian says that this transition is made by a free act of will; election then is an act of God directed toward the believer after the transition has been made” (Jack W. Cottrell, “Conditional Election,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock [Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975], p. 72). Perhaps the most cogent recent exposition of Arminianism, particularly in its view of God, providence, and predestination, is Cottrell’s work, What the Bible Says About God the Ruler (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1984). The article cited, “Conditional Election,” has been revised and included in this more recent work in the chapter “Predestination,” pp. 331-52.


Thus the Calvinist says that God elects unbelievers and predestines them to become believers. The Arminian, on the other hand, says that God elects believers and predestines them to become his children.


The issue is not whether there is a cause or basis of God’s choice of people, but whether that cause is some condition (faith) fulfilled by an individual acting from free will or the sovereign good pleasure of God. Does God elect a person because that person wants God, or does God elect a person because God wants that person in spite of the fact that the person does not want God? We are not disputing whether faith and repentance are necessary for salvation. Indeed, one may even speak of faith and repentance as the condition for salvation, in the sense that one must believe and repent in order to be saved. The question, rather, is this: Are faith and repentance produced by free will and thus the cause of election, or are they produced by the Holy Spirit and thus the effect of election?


According to Arminianism, election is that act of God whereby he foreordains to eternal life those whom he foresees will respond in faith to the gospel. According to Calvinism, election is that act of God whereby he foreordains to eternal life those who, because of sin, cannot respond in faith to the gospel. Which of these two views is the one the Bible teaches? Or is there a third, mediating option? That is the question which I have set myself to answer in these studies.