I just ran across an article by Tom Ascol titled, “Is There Really No Biblical Support for Unconditional Election?” I think the answer to that question is rather close to a “Yes,” at least if “unconditional election” is defined as in classical Calvinism. But of course the article argues otherwise. In response to those who claim the lack biblical support for this Calvinist doctrine, Ascol says this:
[W]hen a person claims that “the Reformed idea that God chooses some individuals and not others for salvation has no, I repeat, no biblical support,” it is hard to take him seriously. Gratuitous, dismissive assertions have no place in serious theological conversations. Unfortunately, when a respected person makes such a claim some will be tempted to take him at his word.
In order to help those so tempted and to expose the foolishness of such a claim, here are a few of the Bible’s many teachings that highlight God’s sovereign grace in election. I put the key words in bold simply to highlight the precise way that the Bible teaches that God chooses some individuals and not others to salvation.
I would like to register bafflement at this attitude. There is irony in the line, “It is hard to take him seriously. Gratuitous, dismissive assertions have no place in serious theological conversations,” since this very statement makes the gratuitous, dismissive assertion that the Bible cannot be legitimately read in a way which offers no support to unconditional election.
So my point here is to respond in summary to the verses which supposedly expose the “foolishness” of claiming no biblical support for unconditional election. Rather than foolish, I think the negative claim is the product of good hermeneutics. Here, then, are a few quick responses to the verses Ascol uses.
25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
The basic hermeneutical error here is one which applies to many of these prooftexts: they ignore the irreducibly eschatological and redemptive-historical dimensions to Jesus’ mission and teaching. Jesus was not making a general point about how God tells mysteries to some people and not to others. He’s talking about the historical realities of His ministry. The scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisses were “wise,” but sinful and resistant to God’s purpose. So when the Messiah came, God “hid” the truth from them and instead revealed it to the many peoples excluded and oppressed by their ways, the poor and the tax collectors and the unclean. Jesus spoke so that the hard-hearted would not hear, but become harder of heart, and that the expectant and but unexpected would hear the word and receive it with joy. None of this implies a division made in eternity past. It’s about God’s judgment on Israel at that eschatological moment: the faithful remnant would be revealed the Messiah, while the corrupt leaders would be justly blinded for their corruption.
37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
Ascol writes about this one, “…doesn’t that mean the Father gave some to Christ and didn’t give others to Christ?” Of course, that is true, but he takes it for granted that Jesus is talking about some “giving” in eternity past the point of which is the eternal destiny of many individuals. But the context does not bear this out. Again, the point is unique to a moment in redemptive-history. The whole Gospel of John emphasizes how Jesus’ coming polarized Israel into the faithful remnant, ready to believe and receive their Messiah, and the unfaithful Jews who would rather have Him crucified. Those the Father has given to Christ here are not the aggregate mass of eternally elect individuals, but those who, in the days before Christ, had “heard and learned from the Father” in the Torah and the temple cult, learning to wait patiently for the true Messiah. These people, now that Jesus had come, would all come to Him and believe in Him. The Father thus gave them to the Son, entrusting them into His Messianic hands so that He might bring about the salvation they had been waiting for.
(P.S. Even if you disagree with this interpretation, I would implore you to show why the Calvinist one is any more likely. In particular, what grounds does John 6 offer for the idea that Jesus is speaking of a giving which took place in eternity past?)
1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.…
6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. 8 For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.
Again, Ascol takes this as evidence for a general doctrine of eternal election of all Christians. But that’s not specified. The point remains something Jesus is doing for His people, which means Israel, not a timeless aggregate of elect individuals. The focus has been on Jews throughout Jesus’ whole ministry in all four of the Gospels, with the Gentile theme only hinted at. The point is that Jesus is fulfilling the saving promises which the faithful Jewish remnant had been waiting to see, those few who trusted in God on His own terms rather than in revolution against or compromise with Rome.
It should also be mentioned that in verses 6-9, Jesus is only talking about the disciples, and He specifically does not mention any other believers until later in the prayer. I don’t think that serves well the interpretation which treats Jesus as talking generally about unconditional election and limited atonement.
48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.
This is perhaps the only verse in the whole article which well serves the stated purpose. But even in this case, it is underdetermined. It does not say enough to support the doctrine of unconditional election over and against other possibilites. Indeed, by itself the verse gives no indiciation of when, how, or why these people were appointed. Calvinists must read into this appointment the doctrine of unconditional election, and when they do so, they create the odd situation that apparently every single elect person in that crowd was saved on that one day, and every other person in that crowd was reprobate and never converted afterward. This verse is perhaps at best the strongest “maybe” in the article.
9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
The distinction between Jacob and Esau should be understood as a decison of through whom to continue the covenant promises to Abraham. It functions in Paul’s argument to support His point that God is allowed to redefine the limits of Israel’s election whenever, however, and with whomever He chooses, even to the point of leaving out the majority of Israel when they do not believe in the Messiah, the new head of Israel’s election. The point is redemptive-historical, not about individual soteriology. (I explain this view in slightly more detail in this post.)
13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 2:13–14
I feel this is simply an example of question-begging. The word “chose” does not automatically entail unconditional election. In fact, literally speaking, “chose” all by itself would be compatible with almost any kind of election, even obvious heresies like “election by works.” It takes more than that word to support any specific doctrine of election.
4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.
The locus of choice here is “in him” and “through Jesus Christ,” not ourselves. This text does not support the idea that God chose us individually. Instead, it speaks the same way that the Old Testament could speak of election, where Israel could say that God chose “us,” even though the individual Israelites were not chosen to become members of Israel, but were members of Israel because Abraham was chosen, and they were descended from him. To say that we were chosen “in Christ” is to say that Christ is chosen as the head, and we are “chosen” because we have been united to Him. A random Jew was not in and of himself chosen to be a covenant member, but received this election through his ancestor Abraham. Likewise, we have not been chosen ourselves to be members of the new covenant, but received this election through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
That concludes my responses. These aren’t meant to be complete arguments or to end any debate, but to make the simple point that it is quite easy to claim seriously that the Bible contains no actual support for unconditional election. If you interpret these verses in ways like I have suggested, or perhaps in still other ways, and you believe (as I do) that these intepretations are actually very probably what the texts were intended to say, then you can make the claim without reservation, “The Bible contains no support for unconditional election.” Maybe we’re wrong, but the claim isn’t an unreasonable or disingenuous one.