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Understanding Election

A defence of Biblical Calvinism

by James Eglinton

 In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul writes of the current evidences of the genuine Christianity practiced the recipients of his epistle (‘[R]emembering without ceasing your work of faith, labour of love, and patience of hope’[i]).  Signs of grace at work satisfied the great Apostle that the Thessalonians were Christians[ii].  Paul, however, had to acknowledge why they were Christians – ‘[K]nowing, beloved brethren, your election by God’[iii].  At face value, this verse states that Christians are Christians because they have been chosen by God in His sovereignty – however, this is seen by many as an over-simplistic explanation.  Indeed, it is even rejected outright by many professing believers.  Such a contentious issue must warrant further investigation.

The Sovereignty of God

As with the existence of God, the Bible does not attempt to prove that God is sovereign – it simply assumes that He is in control of all things at all times.  When God appeared to Abraham in Exodus 6:2, it was with the name El ShaddaiShaddai pointing to God as being all-powerful in heaven and on earth.  It,

‘contemplates God as subjecting all the powers of nature and making them subservient to the work of divine grace’[iv]

It is surely a sad sign that the sovereignty of El Shaddai must be defended at the apologetic level within the realm of evangelical Christendom.  Particularly controversial is the issue of ‘God’s sovereignty in salvation’.  Egocentric Arminianism has asserted her own definitions of human rights, justice, equity and fairness on the sovereignty of God, reviling the concept of a God who is literally El Shaddai as unjust.

Arminianism – a ‘knee jerk’ reaction to God’s Sovereignty

Arminianism, the movement stemming from the theology of James Arminius, is a variation of Protestant Christianity originating in the Netherlands.  Taking a distinctive stance on predestination, Arminianism teaches it[v] from the understanding that,

 ‘this predecision on God’s part is to save the ones who repent and believe.  Thus its view is called conditional predestination, since the predetermination of individuals is based on God’s foreknowledge of the way in which they will either freely reject Christ or freely accept Him.’[vi] 

This ‘knee jerk’ theology came about as Arminius’ reaction to the supralapsarian[vii] teachings of Theodore Beza[viii] and Francis Gomarus[ix].  Beza and Gomarus taught that prior to creation, God had determined the destiny of each person. 

Slightly to the left of the supralapsarian position is infralapsarianism[x],[xi] (the view of Augustine[xii] and Luther[xiii]), which would place the creation/salvation decrees in the following order:

(1)    God decreed the creation of a sinless humanity

(2)    God decreed that mankind would be allowed to fall due to its own self- detrimental nature

(3)    God decreed to save some of the fallen

(4)    God decreed to leave the rest to their deserved condemnation

(5)    God sent Jesus to redeem His elect

(6)    God sent the Holy Spirit to effect redemption among the elect

The infralapsarian doctrine is perhaps best summed up as,

 ‘[T]he view that Adam’s sin was freely chosen but that, after Adam’s fall, the eternal destiny of each person was determined by the absolute sovereignty of God.’[xiv]

Arminius rejected both ‘lapsarian positions, deeming them to be unscriptural (giving, in his Declaration of Sentiments, twenty arguments against supralapsarianism).

From the general to the particular

Moving from discussing the divine decrees to predestination is, as Berkhof notably points out, still ‘dealing with the same subject, but [we] are passing from the general to the particular.’[xv]  Berkhof asserts that a belief in predestination based on foreknowledge of human response is semi-Pelagian[xvi].  Pelagianism, a view instigated in the fourth century, is essentially a denial of the gravity of sin.  Emphasising the idea that man can take the first step to salvation by his own efforts, the presence of God’s special grace is deemed redundant.  Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin causing mankind to be inherently spoiled through the fall of Adam (an impossible denial to make unless one is willing to completely ignore the Biblical concept of covenant and its following effects on the progeny of those in covenant[xvii]).  Berkhof’s accusation is a serious one – if Arminianism teaches doctrines which deny key Biblical concepts (such as ‘original sin’ and ‘covenant’), it must be a teaching met with all caution and sobriety.

A self-centred salvation?

If the Arminian Christian were to be asked, “Why are you a Christian but your neighbour isn’t?” it would most likely prompt a response along the lines of, “Because I accepted Jesus as my Saviour, and my neighbour didn’t.”  However, this answer isn’t sufficient – it is incomplete, so the Arminian must be asked, “Why were you able to accept Jesus when your neighbour wasn’t?”  The Arminian can only give a self-centred answer – it may be, “Because I was willing to admit I was a sinner”.  But again, it is a leading answer which brings the inevitable question of, “Why were you able to admit your sin when your neighbour wasn’t?”  Without embracing the doctrine of unconditional election, the Arminian is left with the answer “Because I was more humble” – a proud, self-centred answer without a shred of Biblical text in support.

If a God-honouring answer is to be reached to the question, “Why are you a Christian?” it can only be because, “I have been chosen by God.”[xviii]  This acknowledgement of divine election is like a spiritual Grundnorm[xix] the apex of a causative pyramid which, through numerous connections, leads to the conversion of a sinner.

The veiled invasion of Process Theology

The most notable contemporary departure from the Biblical doctrine of predestination is found in Clark Pinnock’s, The Openness of God, in which the author abandons God’s sovereignty in favour of a veiled form of ‘process theology’.  Pinnock’s ethos is that; God does not know the future, God must await mans’ choices before deciding what He will do next, God is open and thus the future is also open, God is subject to change (and this changeability is his only immutable attribute).  At the most rudimentary level, this is pantheism[xx] dressed up in vaguely Christian robes.  It teaches that nature can determine God’s will – contradictory to the creation ex nihilo of Genesis 1:1 and Jesus’ sovereignty over the waves in Matthew 8:26.  Its narcissistic nature is highlighted by the focus on man being at the centre of nature, thus man being able to change the very nature of God.  While the original thinkers behind process theology made no claims to be evangelical, some contemporary Christian scholars have tried to prove a that slightly modified model of process theology is Biblical.  History, however, has proved the Christianisation of godless theory (for example, Thomas Aquinas’ attempted fusion of Roman/Hellenistic natural law theory and Christian theology) to be a disastrous practice.

Predestination and Scripture

The phrase “free will” isn’t found in the Bible.  This interesting fact, though, is merely to be taken as obiter dicta, and not an argument against the concept – to do so would be unscholarly and inconsistent (despite being a Scriptural teaching, “The Trinity” isn’t a phrase used in Scripture, nor is the word “God” found in the book of Esther – no Reformed Christian would reject the concept of a Triune God or the God-centred book of Esther on these grounds).  Conversely, “predestination” is mentioned fourteen times in the New Testament (“proorizo[xxi] is used six times, “tasso”[xxii] is used eight times).

“Predestination” is also implied in numerous Scriptures (such as Jesus’ choice of His disciples in John 15[xxiii] and God’s choice of Jeremiah as a prophet before his birth[xxiv]).

Free Will and Scripture

Free will is perhaps best defined as ‘an autonomous, self-governing nature’.  Much has been written of this power to decide (or lack of) – Martin Luther writing Bondage of the Will and Jonathan Edwards writing Freedom of the Will.  Despite two initially incongruent beliefs being apparent, on closer inspection a cogent theological theme emerges – Luther argued against free will (his conviction being that man is enslaved to sin) whereas Edwards said man had free will, but only free will to do that which is sinful[xxv].  RT Kendall[xxvi] says that a distinction must be made between man before and after the fall:

 “Before the Fall he was autonomous and had the power to choose (Gen. 2:16)

After the Fall he was said to be a dying man (Gen. 2:17).”[xxvii]

Within the whole body of Scripture, there are many verses which imply that man is not free (Eph. 2:1[xxviii], John 5:21[xxix], 2 Cor. 4:4[xxx], John 6:44[xxxi], John 3:19[xxxii]).

However, there are also verses which imply (at least) some level of human responsibility (if not an element of free will).  Man is called to make a choice (Joshua 24:15) and to repent (Acts 17:30).  Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they did not accept Him (Matt. 23:37).

These verses, among others, clearly show that human responsibility exists within salvation.  However, human responsibility does not necessarily equate with free will.  Nor does a loss of free will negate human responsibility.  Human responsibility can exist without free will – indeed, there is no need for the two to co-exist.  Responsibility is an obligation, an extra-human compulsion.  The will is an intra-human characteristic; it is part of man’s internal composition and constitution.  The logical fallacy that some kind of symbiosis must exist between the two does not stand.

Predestination & human responsibility – an incompatible juxtaposition?

The question remains – can we believe in the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation and yet still accept that an element of human responsibility exists simultaneously?  If so, it must be acknowledged as an antimony (when irreconcilable, parallel truths co-exist while both remain true).  The concept of antimony is found in Christ’s two distinct natures  – how can He be 100% God and 100% man at one time?  Despite being logically incompatible, these truths are of the utmost factually veracity.  The combination of election and human responsibility also creates an antimony (though it should be noted that this is not an antimony which existed before the Fall[xxxiii]).

In a sermon on John 6:37,

‘All that the Father giveth Me shall come to Me; and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out,’

the late Rev J. Douglas MacMillan[xxxiv] said:

 “In these words, the Lord Jesus fuses two truths together that theologians for about two thousand years have been attempting to separate from one another.  The fact that Christ fuses them together and sees no contradiction between them should have made all the theologians quite happy.  Some are quite happy to accept the first truth, divorce it from the second statement and on that first part build a whole system of theology.  Some people mistakenly call these theologians Calvinists.  I don’t think any Calvinist would be guilty of so grave an error as to build a system of theology on a half-truth.”[xxxv]

Drawing on the wisdom of C.H. Spurgeon, MacMillan reaches an elevated viewpoint on the antinomy of divine sovereignty & human responsibility.  His lucid thought gives an understanding of the relationship from a mezzanine floor where there is enough liberty to accept what cannot be fully understood:

“When someone asked C.H. Spurgeon how he could reconcile these two truths in this text he replied, ‘I never try to reconcile friends.’  These two truths are in harmony for they both speak of the undeserved favour and blessing of the holy God who was sinned against.  They view salvation as from two different standpoints.  They view salvation first of all from the God-ward side and then from the man-ward side.  We are to be concerned, as Scripture says, not with the things that are hidden and dark, ‘for the secret things belong unto the Lord our God.’  There is no doubt that election and predestination are among the secret things.  Far too many people probe these mysteries and try to discover what God is doing instead of repenting and believing the gospel.”

 As the late Rev. Donald A. Macfarlane once remarked;

“The Father gave the Redeemer a flock, and who they are we are not to enquire into; but we are to enquire into the Shepherd.”[xxxvi]

[i] 1 Thessalonians 1:3a

[ii] This being in accordance with the Biblical teaching that ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2)

[iii] 1 Thessalonians 1:4

[iv] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 49

[v] Rather than ‘ignores it’, as some selectively-minded ‘hyper-Calvinists’ would assert – Arminius did believe in sola Scriptura

[vi] Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 97

[vii] Supralapsarianism comes from the Latin words supra (meaning “above” or “before”) and lapsus (meaning “concerning the fall”) – hence this name for the doctrine regarding the decrees of God before the fall.

[viii] Beza being John Calvin’s son-in-law & Arminius’ teacher in Geneva.

[ix] Gomarus being Arminius’ colleague at the University of Leiden.

[x] Sometimes referred to as sublapsarianism.

[xi] Infralapsarianism comes from the Latin for “after the fall”.

[xii] Augustine debated the issue with Pelagius at the Synod of Orange in 529.

[xiii] Luther debated the issue with Erasmus in Freedom of the Will and Bondage of the Will.

[xiv] Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, p. 97

[xv] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 109

[xvi] “Augustine’s view found a great deal of opposition, particularly in France, where the semi-Pelagians, while admitting the need of divine grace unto salvation, reasserted the doctrine of a predestination based on foreknowledge.” Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 110

[xvii] Acts 17:26, Romans 5:12-18, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, Genesis 2:16-17

[xviii] 1 Thessalonians 1:4

[xix] The concept of Grundnorm was developed by the Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen as the basic legal norm by which all legal norms are justified.

[xx] Pantheism – that God is all or that all is in God.

[xxi] NT Greek Proorizo, meaning ‘to foreordain’ or ‘to predestinate’.

[xxii] NT Greek Tasso, meaning ‘to appoint,’ ‘to order’ or ‘to arrange’.

[xxiii] “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.  Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in My name”, John 15:16

[xxiv] “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5

[xxv] Both theories seems consistent with the Westminster Confession of Faith’s teaching on this subject.

[xxvi] In Volume Two of his Understanding Theology series (Christian Focus Publications).

[xxvii] RT Kendall, Understanding Theology Volume II, p. 276

[xxviii] “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins,” Ephesians 2:1 (man is dead spiritually).

[xxix] “For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will.” John 5:21 (man is spiritually dead and must be quickened).

[xxx] “[W]hose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.” 2 Corinthians 4:4 (man is blind).

[xxxi] “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him.” John 6:44a (man cannot come to Christ).

[xxxii] “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19 (man is rebellious).

[xxxiii] As noted by RT Kendall in Understanding Theology Volume II, p. 297

[xxxiv] Formerly minister of St. Columba Free Church (Aberdeen) and St. Vincent Street Free Church (Glasgow) and Professor of Church History, Free Church of Scotland College (Edinburgh).

[xxxv] J. Douglas MacMillan, The God of All Grace, p. 136

[xxxvi] Donald A. Macfarlane, I Shall Arise, p. 130


 ·        The Holy Bible: New King James Version (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980)

·        Berkhof, Louis - Systematic Theology (Banner of Truth, 1998)

·        Kendall, R.T. – Understanding Theology, Volume II (Christian Focus Publications, 2000)

·        MacMillan, J. Douglas – The God of All Grace (Christian Focus Publications, 1997)

·        Macfarlane, Donald A. – I Shall Arise, edited by John Tallach (Faro Publishing, 1984)

·        Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Edition, edited by Walter A. Elwell (Baker Book House Company, 2001)

·        The Shorter Catechism for Today, 5th Edition, prepared by Roland S. Ward (New Melbourne Press, 1998)

·        McCoubrey, Hilaire & White, Nigel D. – Textbook on Jurisprudence (Blackstone Press, 1999)

·        Kelsen, Hans – Pure Theory of Law, translated by M. Knight (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1967)