Ask Steve: Doctrine of Election


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Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions

by Timothy Keller

Category: Christian Living

Dutton, 2013





Question: Steve, I’m not too sure if the Reformed/Calvinist definition of election is true. It does not seem fair to me and I think it violates man’s free will. Can you explain the doctrine of election to me? Maybe I am misunderstanding it. Doesn’t this doctrine violate the free will of man?

Answer: The doctrine of election is a major point of dispute between Calvinism and Arminianism because of the implications it has on human free will and God’s character. Both camps do not deny the teaching of election, but have different understandings of what election means. Election is certainly a biblical truth and has a clear meaning based on the many illustrations from Scripture. Election can be simply defined as God’s plan in eternity, before the creation of the world, to save certain sinners from hell and/or to accomplish His specific purposes for His glory.

The term can also be used interchangeably with predestination, meaning that God knew and choose people before the foundation of the world to come to repentance and have eternal life. God did not choose people because of any foreseen merit or goodness in them. It is not because they were worthy people or because they were capable of exercising exemplary faith that God chose them. God willfully chooses the sinner according to His own mysterious and sovereign purposes, which means He can choose the hardened murderer as much as He can choose the law-abiding citizen who grew up in a respectable family.

Contrary to opposing beliefs, election does not mean that God simply looked into the future and saw who was going to respond in saving faith, therefore electing them. Instead, election means that God personally and volitionally chose certain people to be saved while He passed by others to not be saved (reprobates). God not only knew about people’s salvation in the future, but personally carries out the certainty of their salvation by His grace.

The steps involved in this process vary from tradition to tradition, but according to most biblical understanding, the steps (ordo salutis) typically involve election, the gospel call, regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, death, and glorification (roughly based on the theological contents of Romans 8:28-30). This means that everyone whom God elects will ultimately come to saving faith and experience glorification. No one whom God elects can fall away from the faith or not come to saving faith by the end of his life. This demonstrates that salvation is primarily a work of God from start to finish (although this does not negate human responsibility or accountability to act whatsoever). Those whom God has not elected will never experience God’s saving grace, whether they be the ones who commit the unpardonable sin or false converts of Christ who sincerely thought they were saved. The unelected are reprobates who end up being judged and sentenced to the lake of fire, not because they are shunned by God from coming to saving faith, but because they willfully reject the true gospel message due to their own accord (Jn 3:18; Gal 6:7).

Arminianists are the largest opponents of the Calvinist and Reformed definition of election because of what it implies. They think that God’s election is unfair, unloving, and unjust, since He chooses some to be saved and leaves others to be reprobated. Arminianists contend that this definition of election negates free will, which is the unhindered right of human beings to choose whether they want to be saved or not. They believe that election implies a sense of determinism and fatalism in that certain men are destined to hell, no matter what they do about it. These people essentially have no freedom to choose where they end up for all eternity. Arminianists believe that true love respects the free decisions of people to choose or reject God.

The Arminianist view of election is that God simply foresees the salvation of those in the future based on their merit, or ability to believe. God does not personally choose some people to be saved, “overriding” their freedom to choose to accept or reject Him. God allows prevenient grace to neutralize the sinner’s bondage to sin so that they can have enough freewill to actually choose Christ willingly, based on their own strength and merit. Therefore, the basis of election is on the person’s character, some actually being good enough to choose God while others reject Him because of the hardness of their hearts.

In defense of the biblical view of election, I must first say that the Reformed view of election is taught in many places in Scripture, including Mark 13:20, Ephesians 1:4-5, and Revelation 13:8. The Bible uses the term calling, election, and predestination to teach that God chose people from before the world to be saved. Thus, those who are chosen will be saved, no matter how wretched or depraved they are, before they die.

Now the question remains: Does this act violate the free will of men? Is it unjust or unfair? First, we have to understand whether men truly do have “free will” or not. Free will is the ability to choose based on no internal influences or motivations that makes one bias toward a particular decision. This is not entirely possible, as the Bible describes men as slaves of sin and dead to sin (Rom 6:15-23). They are totally depraved and incapable of choosing holy and righteous things. If this is true, then it must mean that men do not truly have free will, but their wills are bonded to sin. Therefore, men will always choose to reject God (Rom 3:10) because that is who they are by nature. This is why God’s gracious intervention (by granting regeneration, faith, and repentance) is necessary for any human being to respond in faith.

When I say that men have no free will, I do not mean that humans do not have the responsibility to act. The Bible clearly calls for men to respond in repentance and faith, showing that they have the duty to make a choice to respond to or reject the gospel. There is no external force that coerces or makes people come to Christ or reject Him. In this sense, people have the right to choose, which is why they will be held accountable for whatever they decide to do with the gospel. Because have this responsibility and accountability, they cannot be characterized as victims of fatalism or determinism, which states that things happen the way they are regardless of what men choose to do or react to. This is the not the case with Scripture, as the Bible presents a God who showers the world with common grace and allows people to continue to live in this world so that they may have an opportunity to respond to the gospel. However, men are spiritually dead (Rom 3:10), which means that none of them ever will come to God unless He intervenes in their hearts to grant them faith (Jn 6:44). And this process begins with election.

Election does not mean that God is unjust in that He chooses some arbitrarily and passes by the others. If God were truly just, then He would pass by everyone and sentence them to eternal punishment. It is because of God’s compassion and mercy that He chooses anyone to be saved from hell. This is why the doctrine of election cannot be characterized as an act of fairness or justice, but an act of love and grace.

Whether God elects individuals to be saved, individuals to be extremely gifted for ministry, or nations likeIsraelto carry out His covenant purposes, God’s election should always humble us. It should cause us to see our own sinful condition, our inability to please God through our own strength, and to see the rich value of God’s grace, which saves us and sanctifies us everyday. We rightly elevate God and praise Him for His sovereign goodness, since His election is not based on we have done, but something God does in His sovereignty. For that, we should praise God all the more for His kindness. 

Recommend Resource: Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul