This study is an important one for several reasons. “Reformed” Churches are becoming more popular in America (“Is There”), and such bodies of faith often feature some of, if not all of, Calvin’s tenets. Calvinism “has been a dominant shaping force in American Protestantism” (Reid). If Calvin’s tenets are false (viz. unconditional election), then this study is of mass importance. Christians need to be aware of false doctrine and its propagators, for their own salvation may depend on it (Rom. 16:17; Gal. 1:6-10; 1 Tim. 1:3; 6:3-4). We must be privy of false teaching, lest we too be like some who have “made shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19, ESV). We ought rather to “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard … in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13).
Definitions and Thesis
First, we must define several terms. The Calvinist Corner defines unconditional election as the following: “God does not base His election on anything He sees in the individual. He chooses the elect according to the kind intention of His will…without any consideration of merit within the individual. Nor does God look into the future to see who would pick Him. Also, as some are elected into salvation, others are not…” (Slick, emp. mine). Likewise, The Lexham Glossary of Theology defines unconditional election as “The Calvinist view that God’s choice of who will be saved is not conditioned on the person’s future faith or merit in any way” (Mangum). John Calvin himself in his Institutes describes how “God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction” (Calvin 937).
Further, Dogmatic Theology explains the process of Calvinistic election: “God elects a sinner to the bestowment of the regenerating grace, and faith in Christ is the consequence” (Shedd 344, emp. mine). Calvinistic election is further defined as “that eternal act of God, by which in his sovereign pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them, he chooses certain out of the number of sinful men to be the recipients of the special grace of his Spirit” (Strong 779). Also, the Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms defines unconditional election as “The view … that election, understood as the predetermination of the destiny of human individuals, is based on God’s sovereign, eternal decree rather than merely on divine foreknowledge of whether they will freely reject or accept salvation through Jesus Christ …” (Grenz 118). Thus, God is the eternal-decree-giver deciding who is saved and who is damned.
The Calvinistic understanding of election emphasizes that God chose individuals to be saved in Christ by only a motive of His mercy and grace. Such election is utterly non-contingent upon the individual’s beliefs or actions, and these individuals will believe, bear fruit, and persevere because God has elected them. However, the Calvinistic doctrine of individual unconditional election is false. Not only does it contradict the biblical principle of conditional, corporate election; but it is also logically incompatible with the nature of God as found in Scripture.
The Doctrine Inspected and Elaborated
When the doctrine of unconditional election is viewed in detail, it becomes evident that it describes not only what God does, but also what He does not do (Antemesaris 2). Proponents of the doctrine affirm that God does elect individuals according to His good will, favor, mercy, grace, love, etc. But, they are also quick to include what God does not do; and that is elect individuals based on “any consideration of merit” within the individual or “look into the future” to see who would decide to follow Him (Slick). The implication being, in traditional Calvinism, that God not only elects who will be eternally saved without “any consideration of [their] merit,” but also who will be eternally damned. If Calvinism is true, then God arbitrarily picks and chooses individuals to go to heaven, or to hell. If one is elected by God unto salvation, he will be saved and there is nothing he can do about it. However, if God elects someone to be lost (remain probate), then he will spend eternity in hell, and there is absolutely nothing he can do about it.
Calvin himself stated that God has an “unchangeable plan” concerning whom He will “devote to destruction” (937). The popular Reformed Theologian R. C. Sproul affirms that God has chosen “some unto election and others unto reprobation” (quoted in Olson 45). Line-towing Calvinist Loraine Boettner writes that by “eternal, divine, decree” God “separates the human race” (solely upon His will), electing some men to everlasting life, “and the others[s] to everlasting death” (quoted in Olson 43). This unconditional election is a necessity in the mind of the Calvinist because all humans are not “morally able to trust and obey” (Horton 56).
However, there are at least two “flavors” of unconditional election. While traditional Calvinism states that God does elect individuals for condemnation, some reject this idea. Others who affirm unconditional election state that “God is not active in hardening [the] hearts” of the condemned in the same way that He is active in softening the hearts of the elect (Horton 56). However, this “softer” view of unconditional election is inconsistent with Calvinism as a whole, as Sproul explains: “If there is such a thing as predestination at all, and if that predestination does not include all people, then we must not shrink from the necessary inference that there are two sides to predestination. It is not enough to talk about Jacob, we must also consider Esau” (quoted in Olson 45). Unconditional election in its purest form necessitates that God chooses not only who will be saved, but also who will be damned.
Scriptures Frequently Used to Justify Position
There are several verses frequently used by Reformed theologians to support the doctrine of unconditional election. However, Calvinist doctrine transcends any one interpretation of any one verse, for Calvinism is at its base a framework for interpreting Scripture (Kenyon 236). One of the most popular sections of Scripture alluded to by the doctrine’s proponents is Romans 9-11. In this section of Romans, Paul is discussing the unbelief of Israel, the universality of the gospel message, and the grafting in of the Gentiles. The most frequented verses in this section by those who affirm unconditional election are found in Romans 9:13-24 and 11:28-32, though these verses are discussing national distinctions (Jew and Gentile), not unconditional individual election. Likewise, in defense of this doctrine, several phrases are often cited including Romans 8:29: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined …,” Second Thessalonians 2:13: “… God chose you as the firstfruits …,” and Ephesians 1:4: “… even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world …”
However, a citation of Scripture does not equate Scriptural soundness. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, wife-beaters, and racists all quote Scripture to support their positions. To twist a Scripture is easy. To view Scripture through a biased lens is easy. To build a biblically-consistent view of God and salvation based on a balanced, unbiased view of Scripture is much harder. Regardless of its difficulty, such ought to be the endeavor of all mankind.
What Does the Bible Teach?
The fact that the Bible affirms election is not up for debate (cf. Eph. 1:3-14). The question rather revolves around whether God unconditionally elects individuals according solely to His will, or if He has foreordained a plan (mode) for man’s salvation by which all who follow that plan thus become the elect to be saved. The difference may seem subtle, but the gulf fixed between the two positions could not be any wider. While Calvinists and other Reformed thinkers affirm the eternal, individual election of man, the Bible affirms that God has elected a group (those in Christ, i.e. the church cf. Eph. 5:23) to be saved and predestined a plan (adoption) by which man can be reconciled to God (Eph. 1:4-5). Wayne Jackson accurately observes that “God ‘foreordained’ that people be saved ‘through Jesus Christ unto himself’ by means of the ‘in Christ’ relationship (Eph. 1:3-7). He ‘foreknew’ those who would do so, but he did not unconditionally predestine their fate” (3, emp. in orig.).
One of the most pertinent questions to this study is, “Why are people saved or condemned?” The answer to this question will determine whether or not unconditional election is true. If it is, then the answer to the question at hand must be, “because God chooses so.” The Calvinist by necessity must affirm that those who are saved are saved solely because God chooses them to be saved, and vice versa for the lost. However, the Bible teaches that men are saved or condemned because they choose so. The apostle Peter urged his Jewish kinsman on the first Pentecost after Jesus’ death saying, “save yourselves from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). The necessary inference being that there is something that those men could do to access the grace of God. Those who received Peter’s words took action to do just that (Acts 2:41, 38). In Acts 2, we can read of individuals responding to God’s word and taking action to be added to the elect group of God, that is, the church: “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47 NKJ; cf. 1 Cor. 15:24; Eph. 5:23).
Throughout the Book of Acts is recorded the conversion of countless individuals to Christianity. They all did something (Acts 2:38-47; 8:12, 26-39; 16:13-15, 30-33; 18:7-8; 19:3-5; 22:6-16). The New Testament consistently calls upon men to act to avoid destruction. Whether it was Jesus’ telling men to repent (Lk. 13:3, 5), Peter’s telling men to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38), or Paul’s telling a man to believe in God (Acts 16:31), the New Testament plea is action. Salvation, though a gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9), is not forced upon men against their freewill. It is accepted by men through obedience. If men were saved solely by the sovereign choice of God, there is no reason to tell men to repent, be baptized, or even have faith. Yet, from Jesus to Paul, that is exactly what New Testament figures did.
If unconditional election were true, then men would be lost because they have been elected by God to remain reprobate. However, Paul states in Second Thessalonians 1 that there are those who will “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his great might” (v. 9). Will these individuals experience eternal punishment because God’s eternal decree devoted them to destruction? Nay, for Paul writes that these individuals will be punished by God because they are those who “do not know God” and “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (v. 8). Thus, individuals are lost because of their own choices; because their sins have separated themselves from their Creator, and the only way for them to be reconciled to God is to accept His gift of salvation by becoming “obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching” (Rom. 6:17). Nobody will go to hell because of God’s arbitrary, “sovereign” decree. Those who spend eternity in hell will do so because of their own choices.
A Look at Logic
Logic is “reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity” (Soanes). It is the mode by which we can rationally determine if a proposition corresponds with reality. With that said, we must examine if logic allows the God of the Bible to unconditionally elect individuals to salvation / condemnation based solely upon the intention of His will. It is easy to read a Bible verse with a preconceived bias, but logic leaves no room for biases. The following sound logical syllogisms will demonstrate that unconditional election as defined by the Calvinist is a logical impossibility. Before examining logic, the term “arbitrary” will be defined. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines “arbitrary” as “based on random choice or personal whim” (Soanes). The similarities between “arbitrary” and “according to the kind intention of his will” are clear. Likewise, the verb “choose” is defined as “to select freely and after consideration,” “to have a preference for,” and simply “to make a selection” (Merriam-Webster). To choose something inherently implies some kind of partiality. This partiality is shown for that which is chosen.
First, it will be established that Calvinistic unconditional election is logically contrary to the nature of God as revealed in the Scriptures:
P1: If it is true that God is impartial by nature in regards to man’s salvation, then He is by nature incapable of arbitrarily choosing individuals to be saved / lost based solely on the kind intention of His will.
P2: It is true that God is impartial by nature when it comes to the salvation of man (Acts 10:34-35).
P3: Therefore, God is by nature incapable of arbitrarily choosing individuals to be saved / lost based solely on the kind intention of His will.
The logical case against unconditional election will be furthered. However, in order to do so, it will first be established that the doctrine of Universalism is false:
P1: If the Bible teaches that some men will spend eternity in an unsaved condition, estranged from God, and outside of heaven, then Universalism is false.
P2: The Bible teaches that some men will spend eternity in an unsaved condition, estranged from God, and outside of heaven (Mt. 7:13-14, 21-23; 25:41, 46; 2 Thes. 1:6-10; Heb. 10:26-31; 2 Pet. 3:7; Jude 4-16; etc.).
P3: Therefore, Universalism is false.
It will now be established that unconditional election is false by necessity:
P1: If it is true that God unconditionally elects man unto salvation with no consideration of human exertion, and if it is true that God desires all men to be saved, then it is true that all men will be saved (i.e. Universalism is true).
P2: It is true that God desires all men to be saved (Ezk. 18:23, 32; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9).
P3: Therefore, either it is true that all men are saved (i.e. Universalism is true), or it is false that God unconditionally saves man with no consideration of human exertion.
P4: It has been established that Universalism is false (cf. syllogism above).
P5: Therefore, it is false that God unconditionally elects man unto salvation with no consideration of human exertion.
Also, consider the following syllogism regarding unconditional election and man’s behavior:
P1: If it is true that man’s eternal destination is determined by God without any consideration of his actions and before he is born, then it is true that man’s behavior has no part in determining where he will spend eternity.
P2: It is false that man’s behavior has no part in determining where he will spend eternity (2 Cor. 5:10)
P3: Therefore, it is false that man’s eternal destination is determined by God before He is born and without any consideration of his actions (adapted from Jackson 3).
Thus, it has been established that the doctrine of unconditional election contradicts the nature of God and His judgment as presented in the Scriptures. The doctrine is unbiblical and illogical.
The Biblical View Clearly Stated
While election is certainly a biblical principle, individual, unconditional election is not. What God has elected is the “in Christ” relationship—He has elected the plan by which men are saved, not the man to be saved (Eph. 1:4-7; Col. 1:11-14). Likewise, individuals are not saved or lost because of the whim of God. Those who are saved are saved because they have accessed Christ’s blood through baptism (Acts 22:16). Those who are condemned to hell will spend eternity apart from God because of their own actions and choices (cf. Isa. 59:1-2; 1 Jn. 1:5; 3:4; Jas. 1:13-15; 2 Thes. 1:6-10), not because God has assigned them by decree to reprobation. While “salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2:9), man is capable of choosing whether or not he will serve the God to whom salvation belongs (cf. Josh. 24:14-27). The choice of life or death, salvation or condemnation, has always been—and until Christ returns—will always be in the hands of men:
See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you … But if your heart turns away … I declare to you this day, that you shall perish … I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live … (Deut. 30:15-20, emp. mine).
Notice the conditional “if, then” statements. Notice the emphasis on the people’s choice. Such is the nature of God’s favor: a gift of God to be received by the freewill of man. If it was not the choice of man to be saved / lost, God would infringe upon our freewill to save man, or arbitrarily assign men to eternity in hell. Thankfully, the unfair god of Calvinism does not exist—the God of the Bible does not condemn men to hell by blind decree.
The logical implications of Calvinism ought not to be overlooked. The syllogisms provided above should be studied, nulled over, and inspected. They are valid in form and sound in conclusion. The Calvinist’s corner is more than just a website for the doctrine, it is a logical dilemma encountered by reformer after reformer. Some may claim that unconditional election accurately portrays the sovereignty of God. Rather, the logical implications of the doctrine portray a deity who is irreconcilable with the nature of God portrayed in the Scriptures. Logically, God cannot be impartial and unconditional election be true. Likewise, according to logic, either Universalism is true or unconditional election is false—both are proven false above. Also, it has been demonstrated that the Bible teaches that man’s actions while on this earth play a part in determining where he will spend eternity: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10; cf. Mt. 12:35-37; 25:31-46; Jn. 12:48).
The New Testament likewise has much to say about a person’s obedience (Jn. 3:36; Acts 5:32; 6:7; Rom. 1:5; 2:8; 6:12-17; 15:18; 16:19, 26; 2 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 10:5; 2 Cor. 10:6; 2 Thes. 1:8-9; 3:14; Heb. 5:9; 1 Pet. 1:2, 14, 22; 1 Pet. 4:17; 1 Jn. 5:2). Such would be superfluous if a man’s salvation was unconditionally determined ages in the past. Salvation is not up to man entirely, but neither does it exclude him from taking actions or making decisions. Salvation involves the gift of God, and the faith of man (Jn. 3:16-18).
Overall, the Bible is clear. Election is corporate in that God has elected the mode of salvation rather than the man for salvation (i.e. all who are in the “in Christ” relationship). Similarly, election is conditional in that man must do something to be added by God to the church, the body of Christ which will be saved (cf. Acts 2:37-41, 47; Eph. 5:23). Salvation, is a gift of God accessible by obedience to Christ: “and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9, RSV). Unconditional election may have a long history of being proclaimed in the ivory halls of the Reformed tradition, but it is unbiblical, illogical, and unprofitable. If we all endeavored to “buy truth, and sell it not” (Pr. 23:23, KJV), unconditional election would never have been bought in the first place.
All Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted
Antemesaris, Forest. “When Tulips Stink.” The Proclaimer 1.6 (2015): 1-2. Print.
Barry, John D. et al., eds. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015. Print.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 1975. Print.
Grenz, Stanley, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling. Pocket dictionary of theological terms. 1999. Print.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001. Print.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.
Horton, Michael. For Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
“Is There a ‘Reformed’ Movement in American Churches?” Barna. Barna Group Inc., 15 November 2010. Web. 17 November 2015.
Jackson, Wayne. “Calvinism—Part 3: Unconditional Election.” Christian Courier 45.1 (2009): 1, 3. Print.
Kenyon, Rick. “Calvinism’s Influential View Of Sin.” Do You Understand Sin? Ed. Brian Kenyon. Lakeland, FL: Florida School of Preaching, 2016. Print.
Mangum, Douglas. The Lexham Glossary of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014. Print.
Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary. 2003 : n. pag. Print.
Olson, Roger E. Against Calvinism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
Reid, Daniel G. et al. Dictionary of Christianity in America 1990. Print.
The Revised Standard Version. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1971. Print.
Shedd, William Greenough Thayer. Dogmatic Theology. Ed. Alan W. Gomes. 3rd ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 2003. Print.
Slick, Matthew J. “The Five Points of Calvinism.” TheCalvinistCorner.com. The Calvinist Corner, 2012. Web. 19 November 2015
Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds. Concise Oxford English dictionary. 2004. Print.
Strong, Augustus Hopkins. Systematic Theology. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907. Print.