In this article, we’ll look at the second petal of the TULIP, that of the doctrine of Unconditional Election.
Our first look into the TULIP, the doctrine of Total Depravity, revealed a Scripturally sound position that was somewhat eschewed by presupposed Reformed theology. My research of Unconditional Election has, more or less, come out the same way. Let’s begin with an assumption of the doctrine.
As its namesake implies, God, in His sovereign will, unconditionally foreordains certain people for salvation or destruction. The ones predestined to salvation are known as the elect. Glen Millar in his useful summary in link 1 below notes the position by the Reformed teachers who hold it.
- They explicitly reject the ‘arbitrary’ word.
- It is grounded in God’s morality (i.e., goodness, fairness, empathy, integrity, non-duplicity, non-favouritism, desire to expand goodness, etc.)
- God has “causes and reasons” for His choices, though these are “internal” to God (i.e., not derived from the creature).
- His ‘will conspires with His wisdom’.
These causes and reasons are based on His infinitely wise and all-knowing character. He knows who is going to do what at any and every given moment, thus He knows who the elect and non-elect are. He knows who will receive grace and who will reject it, and only He knows. As noted in our last article I can find no Scriptural reason to conclude some people cannot be saved, as if God chooses their resistance, but that they will not be saved due to their own hearts.
Where things get murky is how one approaches God’s sovereignty. Reformers and Calvinists such as A.W. Pink and Edwin H. Palmer describe God’s sovereignty as an all-encompassing, ever working act of God in time.
“…God’s sovereign plan, whereby He decides all that is to happen in the entire universe. Nothing in the world happens by chance. God is in back of everything. He decides and causes all things to happen that do happen. He is not sitting on the sidelines wondering and perhaps fearing what is going to happen next. No, he has foreordained everything ‘after the counsel of his will’ (Eph. 1:11): the moving of a finger, the beating of a heart, the laughter of a girl, the mistake of a typist — even sin. (See Gen. 45:5-8; Acts 4:27-28…)”- (Palmer, The Five Points of Calvinism, p.24.)
It is with this approach that complete agreement is difficult to find. Firstly, no one can argue against God’s sovereign nature. He is sovereign and rules over all. But how this equates with controlling and foreordaining every movement and moment, even down to the twitch of a finger, is unclear.
The verse used to support this highly literal view is Ephesians 1:11. It is this will we turn our attention to.
“In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will…”
It’s Paul’s use of “all things” that cements the above position. However, it should be noted that such a highly literal interpretation does not sit with other verses that contain the same phrase. Take Mark 4:34, a favourite of mine in arguing for the hyperbolic genre of certain Biblical texts to fundamentalist atheists.
But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples. (Emphasis mine)
Would “all things” in the above verse mean the Holy Spirit taught the disciples advanced algebra? Obviously, “all things” does not always mean all things in a literally wooden sense, contextual limitations must apply. Regarding the verse in Ephesians “all things” is contextually limited to the purpose of God. Although God’s plan and purposes are impossible to accurately pin down, as no one possesses a full and detailed account of God’s purpose for every person, we can reason that eating a single slice of pie isn’t contributing to His plan. That’s not to say it absolutely cannot be possible, it just isn’t necessary. The conclusion is God doesn’t need to control every action of every moment to bring forth His perfect will. This brings up another question: does suggesting that God’s sovereignty must entail the decree and causes of every moment establish a limitation of His power?
Let’s look at an extreme example. If God desired to cease a war, would He have to control every single minute moment in order to cease it (including the killing of good people), or could He cease it by doing just one thing? How about causing an earthquake? Or even causing a single weapon to misfire? If God is infinitely powerful there’s no reason to believe His purpose and will cannot be fulfilled through a single action.
Some have noticed this is suggested at in Scripture, such as Isaiah 54:15.
“Behold, they shall surely gather, but not by me….”
Does this mean there are instances where God is not the cause? This seems to suggest so. The question to ask now is, can God fulfil His purpose through the most minimal of actions and allow them to take their natural course after? Does this position rob Him in any way of His power and sovereignty?
Commentators such as Pink often point to instances in Scripture where God has an active hand in a situation, such as Jesus calming the storm in Matthew 2:9 or commanding ravens to feed in 1 Kings 17:2-4. They are certainly not wrong for doing this as these are examples of an active God, however, how do we conclude from these particulars that God works the same way for every action, including the twitch of a finger? There’s another point we can make. Can the decision to do nothing be a sovereign decision itself? I have yet to see any objection to this, although I am still looking.
It can also be noted that this hardly means God isn’t active in our everyday lives. Take Paul’s words in Acts 17:28.
“For in him we live, and move, and have our being…”
Even if God doesn’t cause every action we take He still sustains a continual relationship with His creation, guiding us and teaching us. So even when He allows life to turn ill (or allows the devil to do so), He’s still present. It is said that God allows trials and tribulations to teach us, but what is the lesson? To learn to rely upon on and trust in Him and what He has promised and to stand firm in our faith, not to sit, wallow, or accept the hardship as God’s plan or design. He may allow suffering, but the outcome is always victorious and, we might add, glorious if we learn to seek Him.
But doesn’t this place the outcome in man’s hands? If the outcome of an event (or even salvation) is determined by human hands doesn’t that rob God of His glory and honour as a sovereign ruler? Not necessarily.
Professor James White says that “If salvation is in any way synergistic in its ultimate accomplishment…then God’s glorious grace must share glory with the ‘free will decisions’ of men!”
White cannot be faulted in desiring to be absent of glory so that God may possess it all, however, how does such synergy rob God of His sovereignty and grant glory to us? Say I beat a boss in a game by using a cheat code that kills him instantly. Can I then boast about beating him? Not unless I’m crazy. I was utterly aided by an outside source, all I did was activate it. Same with grace. Can we truly boast of salvation if all we do is say “I accept”? Any glory we share is invalid. We’d be making fools of ourselves.
Some may point to Ephesians 2:9 (“…not of works, lest any man should boast.”) in defense, but as I noted in the article on Total Depravity, the ancients did not see intellectual decisions as “work.”
A final verse we’ll touch on here is 2 Timothy 1:19, which states,
“Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began…”
This verse is intended to support the view that God grants grace to the elect exclusively. The question is, where does it exclude those outside from the offering of grace? That grace is given to us doesn’t nesseccarily mean grace isn’t offered to the non-elect. The verse doesn’t include those outside, so we have no grounds to conclude grace isn’t offered to them here.
Althought there are many more writings on this that I haven’t come close to touching on, I’ll sum what we have so far thusly: The traditional view of Unconditional Election isn’t so much based on Scripture as it is on modern theological presuppositions. God knows who the elect and non-elect are based on His infinite knowledge, and works within that knowledge to bring about His good and perfect will (One may point to Proverse 13:22 here). I’ve yet found no reason to conclude He causes every moment of our lives, or that grace is offered exclusively to the elect (as we’ll see in the article on Irresistable Grace), but that He works within His creation to fulfil His purpose, whether He manuvers every moment or just one. And above all He is always present, teaching us and guiding us and working within us.
Next we’ll begin an exegetical examination of Romands 9.
Link 1 here.
Link 2 here.
Referances: White, James. The Potter’s Freedom. p. 178