Does God choose who He will save, or does He give man a free will to choose? The doctrine of election has long been a hotly debated discussion in churches. It’s not a new debate, but it’s an important teaching of Scripture, even though it may seem difficult to understand in relation to God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. We have to be careful in reconciling these problems though, that our theology is based exclusively on what Scripture teaches and not our emotions or presuppositions. In other words, we need to be faithful to the text of the Bible. There are really only two positions (although some try to take the middle road), but of course, only one can be right. One view accurately represents God. The other view does not. One view is called “Arminianism,” the other view is called “Calvinism,” and before we begin, I think it’s helpful to define our terms.
Arminianism – These are those who hold to what is known as “free will,” which believes that God, before the foundation of the world, knew who would choose Him for salvation, and based on this knowledge, He responded by also “choosing” them or “affirming” them for salvation.
Calvinism – These are those who believe that God unconditionally chooses certain individuals for salvation based on His determinative will. It is not based on man “choosing God.” However, many falsely accuse Calvinists of believing in something called “double-predestination,” but this is a wrong accusation and comes from a wrong understanding of the doctrine of total depravity (the teaching that man is born sinful, wicked, and spiritually dead). Double-predestination means that if God chooses some for salvation, then this must also mean that He is choosing the rest for condemnation. If God is choosing people to go to hell, then how is He just? The problem is, as every Calvinist will affirm, God doesn’t choose men to go to hell. Because of their total depravity, they’re already going there. It’s what they deserve, and God graciously chooses some to be saved.
You can see why these two groups would have a hard time getting along, and this is but one of five major doctrinal distinctions. In this post, we are only dealing with the “U” in TULIP, which is the acronym that has been used for the past 500 years to distinguish the teachings between these two groups. For more on that, you can click here.
So, what do the Scriptures say? After all, that’s the issue here isn’t it? It really doesn’t matter why I might think, or how I might feel. What matters, is that we are faithful to God’s Word.
To begin, there are basically three words that contribute to our understanding of election. The first is “foreknowledge,” which in speaking about salvation, refers to a predetermined love relationship. This word, linked to “predestination” (Rom. 8:29) and “election” (1 Pet. 1:2), usually refers to an act of foreordination or predetermination (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:29; 11:2; 1 Pet. 1:2; 1:20). Only twice does this word refer to knowing in advance (Acts 26:5; 2 Pet. 3:17).
The second word, “predestination,” means “to determine beforehand” (Acts 4:27-28; Rom. 8:29, 30; Eph. 1:5, 11), and the third word that contributes to our understanding of election is, or course, the word “election” itself. This word can also be translated “I choose” in both the OT and NT. In the OT, it refers to God choosing certain tribes (Ps. 78:68), a people group (Ps. 135:4); or specific individuals (1 Kings 8:16; 1 Chron. 28:5). However, it’s important to note that in every occurrence that the Hebrew word for “election” is used in the OT, it’s used in relationship to a choice of a person(s) out of a group. The NT word is much the same, but in the NT, election’s emphasis primarily relates to salvation. In the OT, it often relates to service. This is not to say that the OT doesn’t use election salvifically, just that the NT seems to use the word more exclusively in this way. Understanding this, it’s difficult to support the Arminian view of election with Scripture.
One verse that especially supports the doctrine of unconditional election is John 6:44, which says, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” The context of this passage makes this even more astounding. The day before, Jesus had just performed the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. You would think that as far as miraculous events go, this would be sufficient proof that Jesus was who He said He was. This wasn’t the case though. By the next day, the crowds were demanding that Jesus show do another sign to prove that He was the Messiah. They would not believe, but how could this be possible? It’s because of their total depravity, their hardness of heart, their condition of spiritual death would not allow them to believe, and this is why Jesus turned to His disciples, and said, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” Later, Jesus would declare to His disciples themselves, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you” (Jn. 15:16). There are many other NT passages that support this as well, such as Jn. 5:21; Rom. 8:28-30; 9:11-13; 11:7; Eph. 1:4-6; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:1-2, along with many others.
Arminianism, again, is the belief that God looks ahead in time and sees who will believe in Him and He therefore elects those that choose Him. “Foreknowledge,” to them, instead means “foresight.” The problem with this however, is that Scripture does not ever indicate that God chooses us because of our faith. Instead, He chooses based upon His sovereign grace, not by anything we do or that He foresees we will do. Additionally, although there are some passages where “foreknowledge” can mean “foresight,” there are many more passages, such as Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:29; 11:2; and 1 Pet. 1:2, where “foresight” does not fit their meaning. Rather, understanding foreknowledge as “foreknown” or “fore-love” fits these verses much better. This doesn’t mean that God acts against man’s will however, and man is still accountable for his actions.It should be pointed out though that just because God has chosen to save some before the foundation of the world that chosen are saved from birth. Eph. 2:8-9 makes it clear that salvation is still and always by faith, but the very ability to have faith is a gift of God’s special grace to the believer. From this, it can be concluded that the Bible very clearly speaks about election while rejecting “free will.” Additionally, the Bible’s use of “foreknowledge” also negates the Arminian understanding of election.
Election, although presents a problem for some, really shouldn’t since Scripture is clear that the desire, or will, of every man is to do evil continually and all are in a dead condition that will only continue to reject God. For this reason, God intervenes and has decided to give life to some so that they may serve Him rather than themselves. This leaves man still clearly responsible for his sinful behavior since all deserve God’s wrath having all sinned and fallen short of His glory (Rom. 3:23). This is truly what man’s will is – to continue sinning against God and never to serve Him unless God intervenes. This is indicated in Rom. 1:18-32, which three times demonstrates how God gives man over to the desires of his heart, always resulting in a downward spiral of wickedness. There is no wrongdoing, therefore, if all deserve God’s wrath and He determines to regenerate some for His good will. Therefore, Rom. 9:16 says, “it does not depend on the man who wills, or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (emphasis mine). Believing the doctrine of election to be unjust since God only chooses some for eternal life represents a poor understanding of what we all deserve because of our sin. In conclusion, I have found that the following excerpt by Pastor John MacArthur a helpful consideration: