Posted On January 11, 2021

Unconditional Election

by | Jan 11, 2021 | Theology

The biblical doctrine of election is God’s unconditional, eternal, immutable, particular, and effectual choice to save specific persons in Christ according to His own pleasure and not on the basis of foreseen faith or merit. This precious doctrine is the wellspring of every other salvific blessing believers experience for without election, other tenets of soteriology like regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification could never be applied to or enjoyed by sinners since these realities would ultimately depend upon the fallen and depraved will of men to effect. When properly understood, then, the doctrine of election ought to be cherished and defended by believers here on earth as it is in heaven.

Election Defined

Technically, the doctrine of election can be distinguished from that of predestination. Loraine Boettner notes that, “[The] doctrine of Predestination…extends…to every event in human history from the creation to the judgment, and includes all the activities of saints and angels in heaven and of reprobates and demons in hell.”1 In this sense, predestination deals with every event great and small in the history of the universe. Election, however, only deals with which persons will inherit eternal life.[2]

Nevertheless, it must be noted that in the scope of Church history, the words “election” and “predestination”, are often used interchangeably in reference to who will be saved. The 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, for example, says, “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated, or foreordained to eternal life through Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glorious grace; others being left to act in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of his glorious justice.”[3]

Since the doctrine of election deals with so vital a subject, as opposed to say, how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, no small amount of energy has been spent on understanding this truth among fellow believers. The doctrine of election has seen its fair share and then some of controversy in the history of Christianity. The issue today is by no means resolved among genuine Christians who fall into various camps regarding this important doctrine. Though these camps are numerous, they can be reasonably narrowed down to two competing positions.[4]

The first, and probably most popular position, is that of “conditional election.” Jack W. Cottrell, who self identifies as a classical Arminian, defines predestination as “the view that before the world ever existed God conditionally predestined some specific individuals to eternal life and the rest to eternal condemnation, based on his foreknowledge of their free will responses to his law and to his grace.”[5] Election, therefore, is said to be conditional as it is conditioned not upon the sovereign pleasure of God, but the foreseen actions of men. Though it is important to distinguish between Arminianism and Pelagianism[6], Herman Bavinck makes an important point when he writes that, “[T]he pelagian position…is nothing other than the decree to grant eternal salvation to those whose faith and perseverance God had foreseen, and to consign others, whose sins and unbelief he had foreseen, to eternal punishment. [Thus, this system] is…undeserving of the name ‘predestination.’ Not God but humans make history and determine the outcome of it.”[7]

The important issue Bavinck identifies is that “conditional election,” no matter how carefully nuanced, ultimately drains the words “election” and “predestination” of any real meaning. In this system, election is not ultimately a decision God makes, but one sinners make for Him. Douglas Wilson rightly identifies the issue when he writes, “We must…come to grips with the fact that the Bible itself again and again refers to Christians not just as saints but also as the chosen or the elect. It is only proper to conclude that these words actually mean something.”[8] Those espousing conditional election end up denying, “the meaning of these words, or, worse yet, stand them on their head.”[9]

Unconditional Election

The second position regarding election is that of “unconditional election.” This position sees election as flowing from the good pleasure of God alone rather than being conditioned upon the faith or merit of man. Wilhelmus à Brakel articulates this view when he writes, “Election is the foreordination of God whereby He eternally, certainly, and immutably has decreed to lead some specific individuals, identified by name, unto eternal salvation, not because of foreseen faith or good works, but motivated purely by His singular and sovereign good pleasure, to the glory of His grace.”[10]

Louis Berkhof defines election as, “That eternal act of God whereby He, in His sovereign good pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them, chooses a certain number of men to be the recipients of special grace and of eternal salvation.”[11] Similarly, Cornelis Venema says, “God does not elect His people on account of any holiness in them, or by virtue of their having done anything that would commend them to His favor. Rather, God elects those who are underserving and unholy in order that they may become holy.”[12]

It is only the unconditional view of election that squares with all biblical data on the subject and gives full glory to God since it attributes all glory to God for His grace and demonstrates that all of salvation is of the Lord (cf. Jonah 2:9). Since man is dead in his trespasses and sins it is both unbiblical and foolish to rest the hope of salvation upon his fallen and depraved will.  The unconditional view of election rightly attributes election and ultimately salvation to God’s will alone.[13]

Election Defended

Having defined election, it is essential to defend it biblically. If the Scriptures do not teach unconditional election, then it must be rejected. However, not only do the Scriptures teach this truth, but they reveal that unconditional election is eternal, immutable, particular, and effectual.

Election is eternal in the sense that it took place in eternity past. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:4 that God, “chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.” Commentator S. M. Baugh notes, “The verb rendered ‘he chose’ (ἐκλέγομαι, eklegomai) is an ordinary term for ‘choosing’ or ‘selecting’ something or someone.”[14] Thus, Ephesians 1:4 reveals that God’s choosing or selecting believers happened before any of them were created, before the foundation of the world.

Unconditional election is immutable in the sense that it does not change. À Brakel says, “Since God’s purpose originates in eternity, it is not contingent upon the condition of goodness or evil within man, but proceeds solely form the good pleasure of God. It is thus impossible for this purpose to change.”[15] This is why Paul can say in Romans 8:30, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Hence, everyone predestined is also glorified.[16]

Unconditional election is particular in the sense that it is not a system or only Christ that has been elected, but actual individuals known by name. R. L. Dabney writes, “A number of passages of Scripture assert God’s election of individuals, in language too clear to be evaded: Matthew 24:24; John 15:16; Acts 13:48; Romans 8:29, 30; 9:11, 16, 22, 24; 11:5, 7; Ephesians 1:4, 11; Philippians 4:3; 2 Timothy 1:9; 2 Timothy 2:19.”[17]

Some, in the conditional camp think of the doctrine of election as corporate. That is, God chose “the church” — essentially, in this specific conditional view, an amorphous blob — and then whichever persons of their own volition believe on Christ become part of the elect. Representing this view, Clark H. Pinnock says, “[Election] is about ecclesiology and missiology…not about the destiny of individual persons.”[18]

In Ephesians 1:4, however, the object of God’s election is not ecclesiology or missiology. Rather, it is “us.” The grammar of the text demands the interpretation of God choosing “us in Christ” rather than seeing it as “God chose Christ for us.” Though other passages certainly speak of Jesus as “the Elect One” (cf. Isaiah 42:1), the clear point of Ephesians 1:4 is not that God chose Christ for whoever might choose Him, but rather that He chose believers in Christ. Venema notes, “The beneficiaries of God’s acts of election and predestination are those whom God has purposed to save, not Christ.”[19]

Ephesians 1:4 is unequivocal. God does not elect an amorphous blob. The object of election is not a soteriological, missiological, or ecclesiological system. Election is personal. In eternity past, God chose particular person with names to save by His grace and for His glory. À Brakel writes,

Election pertains to specific individuals; that is, God has made a distinction between men and men. ‘Many be called, but few chosen’ (Mat. 20:16); ‘…but the elect…and the rest…’ (Rom. 11:7). The elect are specific individuals, identified by name, in contradistinction to other specific individuals. God neither chose individuals because of qualities or virtues nor because of faith or godliness, but His choice relates to specific identity only. ‘For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate’ (Rom. 8:29); ‘The Lord knoweth them that are His’ (2 Tim. 2:19); ‘…whose names are in the book of life’ (Phil. 4:3).[20]

Similarly, R.L. Dabney notes, “The Scriptures in the most express and emphatic terms declare that it was no goodness in the elect which caused God to choose them; that His electing love found them lying in the same mass of corruption and wrath with the reprobate, every way deserving the same fate, and chose them out of it for reasons commending themselves to His own good pleasure, and in sovereign benevolence.”[21]

As Bruce Ware writes, “God has a special, deep, selective, particular, covenantal, and saving love for his own people.”[22] This does not mean, however, that arbitrariness can be attributed to God as if the election of particular individuals means that God is random, or meaningless in His choices, plans, and purposes. The Scriptures speak the exact opposite since He “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11). Thus, the election of particular individuals must be consigned to the delight of a wise and holy God who does all that He pleases (cf. Psalm 115:3).[23]

Lorraine Boettner helpfully notes, “For reasons known only to Himself, [God] sees that it is not best to pardon all, but that some should be permitted to have their own way and be left to eternal punishment in order that it may be shown what an awful thing is sin and rebellion against God.”[24] Therefore, personal, unconditional election extols God as exhaustively sovereign and shows that His plan for the salvation of whom He chooses is good and flows from His own wise and gracious prerogative unto the end of the praise of His own eternal glory.

Finally, the Bible reveals that unconditional election is effectual. The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith rightly summarizes the Scripture’s teaching when it says,

As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so he hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto; wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ, by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation; neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only. (1 Peter 1:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:9, 10; Romans 8:30; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:5; John 10:26; John 17:9; John 6:64)[25]

All that God has decreed from eternity past will certainly come to fruition including those whom He has chosen for salvation. All of the elect will undoubtedly make it to glory, while none of the non-elect will inherit eternal life (cf. John 10:26–29).

Election, the Wellspring of Soteriology

There is a crucial connection between election and the rest of soteriology. “Scripture binds election and salvation together with an unbreakable knot.”[26] Paul makes the relationship clear in Romans 8:29–30 when he writes, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

In this passage, it is made evident that all the soteriological blessings believers enjoy in Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:3) “find their ultimate and original source within God’s eternal purpose of election.”[27] If we begin at the end of this passage and work backward, we see that those glorified are only those who have been justified. And those justified are those who are called. And those who are called are those who have been predestined. And those predestined are those foreknown, or “foreloved” by God, before the foundations of the world. Venema rightly comments, “God’s gracious election and loving predestination form the fountainhead from which flow all the blessings of redemption in Christ that become the inheritance of the believers in time.” [28]

God’s election of whom He will save happens in eternity past. Yet, this choice has an integral connection to time both in the redemption accomplished by Christ in history, and the application thereof in time by the Holy Spirit. All three persons within the Godhead work in perfect harmony in salvation. The soteriological blessings of regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification believers enjoy in time are the fruits of eternity past when God the Father elected particular persons and gave them to the Son. The Son agreed to be their Surety, and the Holy Spirit joyfully completed this covenant agreement in His approval to apply Christ’s redemption to these undeserving elect.[29]

In the gospel there is undoubtedly a well-meant offer for all persons. À Brakel writes, “[T]here is an unconditional offer of the gospel, to which the promise of salvation is annexed upon the conditions of faith and repentance.”[30] That is, any person regardless of age, skin color, socioeconomic status, nationality, or vileness who will come to Christ in faith, may have Him. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). Paul also notes that, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).

The problem is that all unbelievers who know of the gospel refuse to come to Christ that they may have eternal life (cf. John 5:40), and all unbelievers who do not know the gospel suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness and ultimately live as a god unto themselves as they live in enmity with the One true God of the Bible (Romans 1–3). “[Fallen man] possess a fixed bias of the will against God, and instinctively and willingly turns to evil.”[31]

The universal offer of the gospel, then, “meets of itself with no success.”[32] This is not because the gospel is deficient, but because of the hardness of the human heart and man’s unwillingness to “have their sins exposed…[and to] submit to God’s authority.”[33] Thus, the effectual call of God to the elect whereby they willingly embrace Christ as Lord and Savior is “due to the purpose and act of God. Matt. 11:25; Rom. 8:29, 30; Rom. 9:15, 16; 1 Cor. 1:26–31.” [34]

So, R. L. Dabney writes, “The doctrine of predestination…is not inconsistent with the justice and impartiality of God. His agency in the fall of…men was only permissive – the act and choice was theirs. They having broken God’s laws and depraved themselves, it would have been just in God to leave them all under condemnation.”[35]

The point here is that without God’s gracious decree of election, no one would be saved because all persons have gone astray and love the darkness over the light (John 3:20). The doctrine of election is not meant for anger but awe; not for contempt but commendation; not for ridicule but rejoicing; and not for pride, but praise. Without election all would justly perish since, as the Prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:23).

Therefore, the many who do come to Christ in saving faith must attribute their salvation not to overcoming their evil with their own goodness, but all to the sovereign grace of God (cf. Ephesians 2:8–9). And any who do not come must attribute their damnation to their own stubborn refusal to lay hold of Christ by faith and their resolute determination to persist in sin. “God prevents no one from obtaining salvation, but man excludes himself since he sins willfully.”[36]

Any person who willfully decides to turn away from their sin and to Christ as his or her only suitable and all sufficient Savior ultimately does so because he or she is elect. À Brakel says, “[E]lection is not a consequence of any foreseen faith or good works. These issue forth out of election, being the means to make the elect partakers of the salvation ordained for them.”[37] And again, “All spiritual blessings proceed from election, which includes faith, it being a special blessing and gift of God. This is equally true of sanctification.”[38]

As a consequence of election, persons in time are effectually called under the proclamation of the gospel. As the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) expresses, “Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners.” Only because of the decree of election are sinners regenerated. They then choose to come to Christ in faith and are justified by faith alone in Christ alone. They are adopted as sons or daughters of God. They continue a lifelong journey of progressive sanctification. They persevere to the end. They die in Christ and on the last day are resurrected in a glorified body to enjoy God and His people for all eternity in the New Heavens and the New Earth. And all of this is unto the praise of God’s glory for His grace.

Therefore, this doctrine of election ought to be cherished and defended by believers here on earth as it is in heaven. It ought to be cherished because, without this blessed truth, none would be saved. Apart from God’s unconditional, eternal, immutable, particular, and effectual choice, no one would have eternal life. No one would experience the new birth. No one would grow in holiness — believers were chosen for holiness, not because they were holy (cf. Eph. 1:4). No one would persevere to the end. All would be justly damned. This is a precious truth that believers ought to glorify God for now, because they unquestionably will in glory.

Certainly, this truth must be handled with care. And, of course, there is a certain level of mystery that goes along with the deep things of God, including this doctrine of election. With that understanding, however, this truth is too precious to not be defended in love and humility by Christians. Since all soteriological blessings flow out of the wellspring of election, this doctrine ought to be taught so that believers can better understand God and His grace and worship Him all the more and live for Him in joy and humility.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the biblical doctrine of election is God’s eternal and immutable choice to save particular persons by name in Christ according to His own pleasure and not on the basis of foreseen faith or merit. This glorious truth is the wellspring of every other soteriological blessing believers experience. Flowing forth from election are all of the numerous soteriological blessings including, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Fallen sinners would enjoy these realities in of themselves since they would never ultimately choose to surrender their hearts to God in Christ. Therefore, when properly understood, the doctrine of election ought to be cherished and defended by believers here on earth as it is in heaven.


[1] Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, (Phillipsburg, NJ P&R Publishing, 1991), 13.

[2] Technically, election also deals with angels. See 1 Timothy 5:21. Elect and non-elect angels, however, is beyond the scope of this writing.

[3] The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689. 3.3, (emphasis mine).

[4] I do understand that it is a bit simplistic to say this, but for the scope of this writing two positions must suffice.

[5] Chad Owen Brand, ed, Perspectives on Election: 5 Views. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 72 (emphasis mine).

[6] Wayne Grudem defines Pelagianism as the view “that man has the ability to obey God’s commands and can take the first and most important steps toward salvation on his own.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1251. Arminianism and Pelagianism are not the same thing as Arminians would rightly reject this view and acknowledge sinners’ need of God’s grace.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI Baker Academic, 2006), 383.

[8] David G. Hagopian, ed. Back to Basics: Rediscovering the Richness of the Reformed Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1996), 31.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1: God, Man, and Christ, Bartel Elshout, trans., Joel R. Beeke, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 217.

[11] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 114.

[12] Cornelis Venema, Chosen in Christ: Revisiting the Contours of Predestination, (Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2019), 121

[13] This does not mean that the human will is not involved in salvation. It is certainly involved in conversion and sanctification. But it is not involved in election and other aspects of soteriology.

[14] S. M. Baugh, Ephesians: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, ed. Wayne H. House, Hall W. Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 80.

[15] à Brakel, 217

[16] Ibid.

[17] R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology. PDF accessed at www.monergism.com, 321.

[18] Brand, 279-280.

[19] Venema, 123.

[20] à Brakel, 218.

[21] Dabney, 335.

[22] Brand, 271.

[23] “The reason for election is nothing but the sovereign good pleasure of God.”, à Brakel, 218.

[24] Boettner, 306.

[25] The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689, 3.6.

[26] à Brakel, 240.

[27] Venema, 119.

[28] Ibid., 121.

[29] As John Flavel notes, “[T]he Father hath elected, and the Son hath redeemed; but until the Spirit (who is the last cause) hath wrought his part also, we cannot be saved. For he comes in the Father’s and in the Son’s name and authority, to put the last hand to the work of our salvation, by bringing all the fruits of election and redemption home to our souls in this work of effectual vocation.” John Flavel, “The general nature of effective Application stated.” The Whole Works of the Reverend John Flavel, vol. 2, (London, England W. Baynes and Son, 1820), 20.

[30] à Brakel, 232, (emphasis mine).

[31] Boettner, 62.

[32] James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, (Cape Coral, Fl: Founders Press, 2006), 369.

[33] Ibid., 369-370.

[34] Ibid., 371.

[35] Dabney, 342.

[36] à Brakel, 215.

[37] Ibid., 219.

[38] Ibid., 236

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