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  • Daniel Klassen

TULIP: Unconditional Election

When it comes to the doctrine of election, otherwise known as predestination, the common understanding amongst many evangelicals is that John Calvin came up with the idea. However, he did not. This doctrine had been taught long before Calvin. In fact, he was only reiterating what Augustine, Paul, and Christ had taught. The doctrine of election, simply put, is that God chose those whom He would save before the world began. It teaches us that God was the one to choose us, not vice versa.

God unconditionally elects sinners for salvation. He is no respecter of persons when He chooses whom He saves. This goes directly against the idea that the basis of God's choosing was Him looking down the corridor of time, looking for those who would repent and believe. It says that those He foresaw would repent and believe were the ones He chose. Such an idea would put us in the driver's seat of salvation, making our salvation dependent on us and not on God. This would make God's election conditional, and would only respect those who had the intellectual ability, moral competence, and spiritual aptitude to grasp God and His salvation.

The original Arminian position, as stated in the Five Articles of Remonstrance, is that God elects sinners for salvation. However, the way in which they twist their statement leaves plenty of space for an unbiblical perspective. They state that God has determined, before the beginning of the world, to save sinners "in Christ, for Christ's sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, shall believe on this his son Jesus." The Arminian theology is correct when it states that we must be saved from the wrath of God through the atoning work of Christ by the grace of God. But what they misunderstand is the extent of the grace of God towards sinners. Both Arminians and Calvinists believe that it is by the grace of God that we are saved, but it is the definition of that grace in which they differ completely. What is not evident in their article, though pervasive in their teaching, is that they believe the grace given by the Holy Spirit is a prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace is a general grace given to all people so that the effects of the fall are not felt as much as they would without it. It is not effective in procuring salvation, but it only makes the sinner neutral – able to decide for themselves as to whether they will believe in God or deny Him. It is a universal grace given to all men to make them neutral toward God. This is because the autonomy of the human will (free-will) must be upheld. When it is all boiled down, it is the autonomy of the human will that is most important to the Arminian. All biblical theology, according to Arminians, must bow to man's free-will (that is if he has such). Therefore, prevenient grace must be upheld.

Since prevenient grace is universal, it still places all men on the same level ground, just a little higher than before when they were dead in sin. So it may be by grace that we can choose, but it is our choice that merits the full measure of grace. This prevenient grace is enough to free all of us from our total bondage to sin, but not enough to make us children of God. It is only a partial grace that allows for mankind to choose for themselves what they want to believe. The emphasis is placed on man's choice, not grace, making our salvation of ourselves and not of God. God's election of sinners is then placed on the condition that men believe on Jesus, not that our election causes our belief in Jesus.

Nowhere in the Scripture do we find such a view of grace or of election. Grace, in its basic definition, is unmerited favor. No one can earn God's grace. However, prevenient grace portrays a God that grants grace to those who of themselves choose Him. Jesus rightly orders our salvation when he states in John 10 that "you do not believe because you are not among my sheep" (John 10:26). He did not say, "You are not among my sheep because you don’t believe," making our salvation contingent on our belief. Rather he makes our belief contingent on our salvation, and more specifically, our election. "Because you are elected (among my sheep), you believe," is the essence of what Jesus is saying here. Election is not carried out on the condition of belief, but rather it is unconditional.

In Luke 4, an interesting interaction between Jesus and those at the Synagogue occurs. Christ has just read from the prophet Isaiah concerning himself, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”

After He had spoken these words, He sat down, and the eyes of everyone in attendance were glued to him. He broke the silence by stating that everything He had just said was now fulfilled by Him. Everyone applauded Him for what He spoke and were amazed that such an amazing man could come from a lowly carpenter. However, Jesus continued, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well’”’ (v. 23). He knew that they would only be after signs and wonders rather than true saving belief, so He continued:

“Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” (v. 24-27)

What He spoke to them, in essence, was that God did not work on the basis of human will or understanding. God Himself sovereignly chooses whom to heal, and ultimately, whom to save. While we may think that this place deserves to see miracles (Jesus' hometown or Capernaum), or that person deserves to be saved (the self-righteous or the sinner), God decides of His own will to choose whom He will save.

How did the people react to Jesus' statement? The Scripture says they were filled with rage and wished to push Jesus off of the cliff located on the outskirts of town. They were intent that their own works could save them. Such is the reaction of the Arminians, holding tight to their free-will, they distort the sovereign grace of God to accommodate their good works.

Paul likewise proclaims this doctrine throughout his letters to the various churches. To the Ephesians, he writes, "Even as [God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him" (Eph. 1:4 ESV). Note the order. God chose us so that we would be holy and blameless. Our holiness and blamelessness are dependent on God's election of us. To the Thessalonians, Paul tells the church the reason he gives thanks to God is "because [He] hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth" (2 Thes. 2:13 KJV). It is clear with Paul, and with Christ that God has chosen (or elected) from before the world began, those whom He would save.

God elects on the basis of His own will by His grace. One thing that must be noted is that this doctrine of God electing those He will save does not do away with the preaching of the Word. It is not that since God has elected them, He will save them apart from the preaching of the Word. Salvation is still belief in Christ for salvation. It is still hearing the Word by faith and believing in Jesus that saves us. Election does not do away with evangelism or preaching, but rather teaches us the grace of God in displaying the order of salvation. In fact, it will give us confidence that our proclamation of the gospel will not be in vain since we know that there are still other sheep which Christ must bring into his fold (John 10:16).

The doctrine of unconditional election is a doctrine which displays the grace of God towards sinners in full. It tells us that our salvation was never, and will never, be on the basis of our works. It is a gospel doctrine, and a doctrine which ought to inspire deep adoration towards God, and a solid confidence in evangelizing a lost world.

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