Is There Really Any Biblical Support for Unconditional Election?

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.”
Matthew 11:25-27

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.
John 6:37

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.
John 17:1–9

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.
Acts 13:48

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.”
Romans 9:9–13

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.
Ephesians 1:4–5

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.

Is There Really Any Biblical Support for Unconditional Election?

Romans 9 in 500 Words or Less

Romans 9 is an interesting and often difficult passage. I’m going to very briefly sketch the way I am inclined to read it, particularly to note the way I don’t think it supports the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election, but rather undermines it.

Contextual setup: Paul has been defending his Gospel of justification by the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah and our union with Him instead of justification by observing the Torah. This naturally leads to the question: what has happened to the Jews who have rejected Jesus? They seem cut off from the promise. What does this mean for God and His faithfulness to the covenant?

First, Paul explains that he really does care. He loves his people, and he wants them to be saved. They’ve gone through so much with God already. But that’s just it. God hasn’t been unfaithful. God has always worked this way, limiting and redrawing the limits of the people of God by His sovereign choice. It began with Abraham, but being a descendant of Abraham was not enough to inherit the promise later, when God chose to narrow election to Isaac’s line. Was this because Isaac was more worthy than Ishmael? No, for in the next generation God narrowed election through Jacob rather than Esau before either had been born.

Did this make God unjust? Certainly Paul knew his audience would agree God had the right to do this. He has mercy as He wills, and sometimes He actually hardens people in order to accomplish His purposes in election. When He chose Moses and Israel under his leadership to finally come out as His people, He hardened the (already wicked) Pharaoh so that His salvation for Israel might be all the more fully displayed, and indeed that His name would reach the ends of the earth. (Paul gives no indiciation here of a reprobation to damnation for Pharaoh. All that has been mentioned appears to be a particular act at a redemptive-historical moment for Pharaoh to rebel.)

This is entirely justified. God is allowed to redraw  election and harden its enemies whenever and however He pleases, despite man’s objections. He can freely form and reform Israel as a potter does clay and judge the vessels which are cut off by this reshaping. Therefore now Israel is shaped around, her election narrowed to, Christ rather than merely Abraham and circumcision or Moses and the Torah. There is no injustice in this, even if a great deal of clay is now set aside for damnation.

But ironically, Paul points out that this narrowing also expands election. By making Christ the new head of Israel’s election (as God did before with Isaac and Jacob) and hardening many of the Jews to reject Him, the door has swung wide open for Gentiles to inherit the promise and join the people of God. Now even the Gentiles can enter the chosen people through union with Christ by faith, the barriers of the Torah and Abrahamic descent overcome.

Romans 9 in 500 Words or Less

6 Theses on Election

  1. Election begins and ends with Jesus Christ. As Barth has said, Jesus is both the electing God (Col. 2:9) and elected Man (Luke 9:35). He is the origin of creation (John 1:1-3) and its goal (Eph. 1:9-10). Anything else we say about election must trace back to this source, to the election of Jesus Christ as the one predestined to be revealed as God for us (1 Pet. 1:2).
  2. All other “elections” are grounded in relation to Christ. Of course, in Scripture Jesus is not the only one called “elect” or “chosen” by God. The terminology is applied to Israel (Deut. 7:6, 1 Chr. 16:13, Ps. 105:6), David (Ps. 78:70, 89:3), Moses (Ps. 106:23), the followers of Christ during the coming suffering (Matt. 24:22), Christians in general (Rom. 8:33, Col. 3:12, Titus 1:1),  and particular churches (2 Jn. 1:1, 13). Each of these is defined in relation to Christ, who is the goal of Israel’s election, the fulfillment of David’s dynasty, the greater prophet than Moses, the Rabbi to the apostles, and the one in whom believers find their own election (Eph. 1:4). No one could ever be elect except by relation to Christ.
  3. The election of God’s people in history is corporate-relational. Contra classical Calvinism and certain forms of Arminianism, election is not fundamentally an individual reality but one pertaining to groups. Yet this is not simply groups defined generically or abstractly, but the particular peoples are defined by relationships to particular individuals. Thus individuals share in the blessings of a specific election by virtue of their relation to its chosen covenantal head (Gen. 26:24, 1 Kgs. 11:12-13, Rom. 6:4). Israel was defined by a biological/covenantal relationship to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-2, 17:1-14). Noah’s family was chosen to by saved through the Flood by their marital and biological relationships to Noah (Gen. 6:9, 18, 7:1). David’s descendants became a chosen dynasty through their father (2 Sam. 7:12-16, Ps. 89:3-4). Finally, Christians make up a chosen people, the Church, because of their Spirit-grounded faith-relationship to Christ the elected Man (Eph. 1:4, cf. Rom. 8:1, 1 Cor. 1:30). This is essentially the opposite of the Calvinistic view: for Calvinists, we are incorporated into Christ because we have been elected, but I submit that we are elected because we have been incorporated into Christ.
  4. Election in its historical form is primarily vocational and not immediately soteriological. To be elect is not the same as being promised salvation, though the two are associated. The primary purpose of election in human history is for elect men to become witnesses of God and examples of His salvation to other men (Gen. 12:3, Matt. 28:19-20, John 15:16, Rom. 1:5, Gal. 1:15-16). Election is a calling, not a mere present. God’s salvation does not necessarily come to all people who are part of an elect community (Heb. 10:29, 2 Pet. 2:1, 1 Jn. 2:19). This is not a question about “losing salvation” but a statement that election is not automatically salvation. Members of the elect community who disobey their calling and, in doing so, deny their relationship with their covenantal head are removed and face judgment (Gen. 17:14, Exod. 31:14, 1 Kgs. 14:14, Ps. 37:9, John 15:2, 6, Rom. 11:22). Only those who participate in the obedience of their elected heads will finally be blessed, just as their heads obeyed God and were blessed (Gen. 26:2-6, Matt. 7:21-23, Heb. 5:7-8).
  5. The elect community is inherently self-expanding. The limit of the elect community is not a fixed number. Rather, election is meant to expand ever outwards as more people are blessed by the witness of the elect. Those who are not already elect find themselves blessed by the elect (Gen. 12:3, 30:27-30, 39:5, Josh. 6:25, Mic. 4:1-2, Zech. 2:11, Rom. 11:11-12). In this way those who are not a people become a people, and those who were unloved become loved (Rom. 9:25-26). Election therefore has an inherent outward pressure which works like leaven (Matt. 13:33) until through the witness of the elect the whole world is covered with the knowledge of God as water covers the seas (Isa. 11:9).
  6. There exists an outer ring of election which ultimately encompasses all people. If election begins and ends in Christ, then in some way it affects all of the human race. This is because, on the one hand, Jesus is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15) in whose image humanity was originally created (Gen. 1:26-27). This image defines humanity, and with it comes a calling which parallels the callings seen in other Biblical elections (Gen. 1:28-30), a calling which is finally bound up with Christ. So human nature and existence are not finally separable from the glory of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Jesus in His Incarnation identified Himself with and lived for all who share the same human flesh and blood (Heb. 2:5-17). The atonement implicates all humanity (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 1 Tim. 2:6, Heb. 2:9). This ultimately means that Christ has chosen all people for Himself, and the Father has chosen all humanity in Christ. This, per thesis 4, is not a guarantee that all people will be saved, but promise that no one lies outside the salvific will and choice of God.
6 Theses on Election

What’s So Calvinist about Evangelical Calvinism?

If you’ve followed some of my posts about Evangelical Calvinism, you might have to wonder what exactly makes it deserve the label “Calvinism.” After all, we reject the defining U, L, and I of TULIP. Without the meaty bulk of the Calvinist system, what substance is left for the title “Calvinist?”

Without getting into too much detail either theologically or historically, here are a few basic ways that EC identifies itself with wider Calvinist tradition.

  • EC was born of Calvinist descent. The major influences which led to EC’s development were Calvinists or their students. EC draws from Calvin himself, John Knox, and the Scottish Reformation, for example. Karl Barth, a very important EC forerunner, studied extensively from the Reformed tradition, including especially Calvin. T. F. Torrance was a student of Barth and a Scottish Presbyterian. It likewise appeals to the Scots Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism not dogmatically but as helpful touchstones. This is in contrast with Arminianism, which may have begun within a Reformed context with Arminius but quickly morphed into a radically non-Reformed system, hardly similar or sympathetic to any of the Reformers, under the influence of people like Wesley.
  • EC stresses the absolute priority of God’s action in salvation. Both classical and Evangelical Calvinists agree that God’s active decision to reveal Christ to someone through the Spirit is the necessary condition for the event of salvation, not merely a generic “prevenient grace” enabling a “free will.” The Spirit who moves as He wills must choose to personally appear and present Jesus as Lord and Savior to us before we can respond to Him. It is only in this encounter that we become freed for faith in Christ. We simply differ as to whether our response is inevitable when this revelation takes place. EC actually takes the divine initiative a step further by holding that even our response when it does take place was originally created in the human faith of Jesus Christ, and only imparted to us by the Spirit, rather than awakened simply in ourselves.
  • EC emphasizes God’s free choice of election before anything else in salvation. While we do not agree about who the elect are or what exactly election entails, both of us agree that God’s decision to elect, to choose a people for Himself, plays a vital role in the history and cause of our salvation. While most Arminians tend to make election into a pretty pointless formality (“I know that Bob will believe, thus I will save him.”), Calvinists both classical and Evangelical agree that God’s decision of election plays an active and causative role in our salvation. We also agree that God’s election is unconditional, again in contrast to the conditional element of common Arminianism.  Even the corporate election of more modern Arminians is conditioned on the Fall, whereas some classical Calvinists and all EC agree on a supralapsarian election, a kind of election which comes before and apart from even God’s decision to allow the Fall.
  • EC makes good use of John Calvin. All Calvinists like Calvin, right? While EC doesn’t take up Calvin’s actual doctrine of predestination, EC does implement Calvin’s concept of the duplex gratia, double grace, of justification and sanctification flowing from union with Christ. This is key to the EC understanding of how salvation works and begins, using a framing that is more personal than legal. EC also makes use of Calvin’s work involving assurance and many similar themes.

I could perhaps address some other deep theological and historical connections between Evangelical Calvinism and classical Calvinism, but this should be a pretty good start. I also realize that most, if not all, of these points probably raise a handful of questions, so if you have them feel free to comment and ask.

What’s So Calvinist about Evangelical Calvinism?

In Other Words: An Alternative Dictionary of Election

I’ve written in the last several months on occasion about my move away from classical Calvinism into something which, when I feel the need to name it (and I often don’t), I’d call Evangelical Calvinism. And while I have provided a couple of posts giving some details about this transition, I’ve heard people say to me since then that as they read Scripture it seems harder and harder to get around election, predestination, God’s choosing, and the like. So doesn’t that support the classical Calvinist view of things?

Alas, I suspect this is mostly the result of a vicious cycle of reinforcement by assumption, an implicit question-begging. I tend to think that the prominence of Calvinistic thinking in the Protestant tradition has created widespread assumption about words like “election,” “predestination,” and “chosen” actually mean. So when people see them in Scripture, it registers in a Calvinistic way, regardless of whether the author would have been using them in a way that matches up with or even basically agrees with modern Reformed systematic theology textbooks.

My goal here is to offer a basic alternative dictionary, or glossary, for the terms associated with election that show up in Scripture. These are not entirely original; they will follow on thoughts which have been thought and presented many times by many people before me. Nor will I flesh out a defense of this alternative dictionary here, but hopefully it will become clear in reading Scripture with this list in mind how these definitions can plausibly work. Basically, these are for “test driving”: you take the definitions, read the Bible, and see if the interpretive results are a smooth ride or end in a crash. Without further ado, here they are:

  • Predestine — The Greek word, proorizo, literally means to “arrange/limit/set/order/appoint beforehand.” At simplest this only requires setting something up or making an arrangement in advance, not anything in particular about God assigning an overriding destiny1. As an alternative, I would suggest the more broad meaning of simply making a decision or plan beforehand. In the particular theological usage in reference to believers, the specific pre-arrangement would be God’s intention from the start to redeem the human race and conform us to the image of Christ. This is what God has prepared for us in Christ through His Cross, which He also arranged beforehand. Predestination is thus not God choosing individuals X or Y to end up saved, but God’s gracious choice before and apart from all human response to provide salvation from sin and glorified existence in Christ. It is not something fundamentally about you or me as individuals, but fundamentally about Christ and all who are found in Him.
    Verse references with “predestine/predestined”: Acts 4:28, Romans 8:29-30, 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 1:5, 11.
  • Elect — The Greek word translated “elect” is eklektos, which literally means “select” or “choose.” Many times that it shows up, it should really not be taken as any more than that. Just like in the real world, there are many kinds of choosing. It can not be assumed that this refers specifically to choosing an individual to end up saved, or to get saved. Christ Himself is called the Elect One/Chosen One on multiple occasions2. This word is applied also to King Cyrus of Persia3, the nation of Israel, and Christians. Obviously, there is a possible range in meaning. I suggest with many others that when used of believers, the meaning is essentially corporate, that is, it is about the body of Christ as a whole, in Christ the Chosen One, instead of about specific people picked out to be saved over other people. (Basically, I think it’s all about Jesus instead of all about man!) In fact, I would add several layers: God freely chose the world He created, He chose humanity as the ones to bear His image and represent His authority over creation, He chose Israel within humanity as the people in whom He would reveal Himself, He chose Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel, and we are chosen because we are a part of all of those layers, being created human beings united to Jesus Christ.
    Verses which speak of believers as “elect”: Matthew 24:22, Mark 13:27, Luke 13:7, Romans 8:33, Colossians 3:12
  • Call — A word frequently used by Calvinists in support of irresistible grace is “call,” which they relate to the doctrine of the “effectual call,” the way that God’s inner invitation through the Spirit infallibly brings the elect to faith and salvation. Paul uses it apparently exclusively of believers, implying that believers were somehow “called” by God in a way that unbelievers have not been, and more significantly this call seems strongly associated with conversion4. So is salvation the result of some kind of call God only gives to a certain group of people?
    I don’t think this is necessarily the case. I rather think this call is indeed a supernatural invitation given through the Spirit to participate in the life of Christ by faith, but that Scripture does not clearly teach this call to be something only given to those who become believers. Rather, I suggest that the Spirit can and does give out this call frequently along with the Gospel to whomever He pleases, and that it can and often is rejected and denied (for an inexplicable reason). The reason Paul only ever mentions believers as having this call is simply because they are his audience, they have experienced and obeyed this call, and now are bound to live up to it. As a side note, I add that this call is not merely to get saved, but to participate in Jesus’ own life of self-sacrificing, martyr-oriented love, which accords with a number of Paul’s uses of the word.
    Verses which refer to the “call”: Romans 1:6, 8:28-30, 9:11, 1 Corinthians 1:9, 7:17-24, Galatians 5:13, Ephesians 1:18, 4:4, Philippians 3:14, 1 Thessalonians 2:12, 2 Thessalonians 1:11, 2 Timothy 1:8-9

There are probably some other words that I could address, but these three seem the most important. Obviously, this short post isn’t enough to make my case in full detail, or answer any objections that might be brought against my suggestions. But I do think test driving these definitions in Scripture will yield a mostly smooth ride, and that they will be found to work at least as well as the Calvinistic versions. More detail on these may come later, but for now I hope this is useful.

In Other Words: An Alternative Dictionary of Election

TULIP Status Update

As many of you know by now, I am no longer a classical Calvinist. But alas, as almost as many of you probably wonder, what I believe on such matters is no longer obvious, either. So for anyone who never read all of my posts on Evangelical Calvinism (located here if you are interested), or for anyone who read them and simply went away confused, I thought I would offer this post as a simple overview of my stance on the five points of Calvinism, aka TULIP. Hopefully, this will be of some clarity. So without further ado, here are my stances on the five points:

Total Depravity: On the point that the human fall has made us all completely incapable on our own of seeking God, to bring Him any faith or good works, I still completely agree. We are altogether lost and dead in our sins from the beginning, and cannot possibly make any free will choice for God. Whatever the state of our human will, we are so corrupt that we only choose against God.

Unconditional Election: On the doctrine that God has, in eternity past, freely and unconditionally chosen a certain mass of humanity for salvation and, either by that choice or as its own choice, a certain mass for damnation, I do not agree at all. The Scriptures are clear in their insistence that God has loved the entire world, and God elects those He loves. I would instead argue that God has chosen all people for Himself, and within all people chose Israel as a special people through whom He would bless all people, and within Israel chose Jesus as the Mediator by whom He would redeem all people, the Jew first and also the Gentile.

Limited Atonement: On the doctrine that Jesus’ death was only intended to apply to the sins of the elect, I also vehemently disagree. A quick glance at the New Testament proves that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was offered on behalf of the entire human race. To say otherwise would be to deny that Jesus’ human nature was real enough to make Him one of us, or that through Jesus’ nature as the divine Word we all exist and were created.

Irresistible Grace: On the belief that the Holy Spirit’s inner call to salvation is offered only to the elect, and to them cannot fail to bring them to faith, I cannot agree. There is a definite current in the New Testament of people being condemned because they resist the Spirit’s work toward salvation. Moreover, if this were the case, then ultimately the reason people do not believe is because God refused to give them the infallible cure to unbelief, yet the Scriptures do not seem to attribute unbelief to God, except in the case of hardening the heart after someone initially displays stubborn unbelief.

Perseverance of the Saints: On the final point that all genuine believers are given by God the gift of enduring to the end and keeping the faith, I more or less agree. The New Testament seems to see two kinds of “believers,” those who have a temporary and shallow faith and eventually fall away, and those who have an unassailable faith wrought by the unfailing work of the Holy Spirit in the irreversible new birth. Despite all struggles, backslides, and lapses, God seems willing and able to keep His saints until the Day of Christ Jesus.

With all this said, I’m sure there are still unanswered questions. So what I’d like to do now is construct my own TULIP, one which represents from a positive perspective what I actually do believe. So here is my TULIP, for the quasi-Evangelical Calvinist.

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Total Inability: In substance the same as total depravity, it simply means that we are too sinful from birth onward, because of our race’s fall, to possibly approach God with any faith or good works on our own. If we are to believe and repent, we will have to be transformed from this very sinful state.
See: Isa. 44:18, Jer. 9:6, 13:23, John 6:44, 65, Rom. 3:9-19, 8:7-8, 11:32, 1 Cor. 2:14

Universal Atonement: The most important difference from classical TULIP, I strongly affirm that Jesus’ work was on behalf of absolutely all people. He lived, died, and rose as the representative of all and the substitute for each. Atonement has no limits except for Christ Himself: it is found in His person and life alone. Moreover, Jesus’ work was objectively efficacious for all, actually accomplishing justification, sanctification, forgiveness, and redemption for each and every person. All that remains is for the Holy Spirit to actually impart this subjectively into the life of lost individuals.
See: Isa. 53:6, Lk. 23:34, John 1:29, 2 Cor. 5:14-15, 1 Tim. 2:3-6, Heb. 2:9, 1 Jn. 2:2

Layered Election: Contra classical Calvinism, I believe that God has chosen the entire human race for Himself, to be His own people and He be their God. This election is the guarantee that God will give Himself for all people. It entered history with the election of Israel as the people though whom God would reveal Himself and bless all nations. Finally, Jesus Himself came from Israel as the Chosen One of God, and by His faithful obedience in His life, death, and resurrection He accomplished the end goal of election, free salvation, for all. By His work He brought redemption to all people, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile. While this layered election at the universal level is designed for salvation, the historical instance of this election is not who God chooses to save but who God chooses as His instruments, servants, and ambassadors to share salvation with all the rest of the world.
See: Gen. 12:3, 18:18, 30:27-30, 39:5, Deut. 4:37, Ps. 72:17, 76:68, Matt. 12:18, Lk. 9:35, John 3:16, Acts 3:25-26, 9:15, Gal. 3:16, Eph. 1:4,  1 Tim. 2:4, Heb. 1:8-9, 1 Pt. 2:3-4, 2 Pt. 3:9

Impossible Grace: I do agree with the classical Calvinists that God’s grace altogether precedes our response, and indeed that God must be working in us through the Holy Spirit for us to be able to believe. When people come to Christ, they do so because of the sovereign and unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit. However, I do not think of this grace as some impersonal force the Spirit pours on us to create faith like some chemical reaction. Instead, we believe because the Spirit imparts to us the very life of Jesus, who is Himself God’s grace. So when we do believe, it is us, yet not us, but Christ believing in us. The faith we exercise in our lives we hold by the faith Jesus Himself held on to throughout His human life. But this is not an exclusive and irresistible call. It is given to very many, if not even all! While it is overwhelming and should be irresistible, by some mysterious and seemingly impossible evil of sin people do indeed refuse this new life of Christ from the Spirit. It doesn’t make sense, but many people do close their eyes, stick their fingers in their ears, and sing loudly to resist the sweet call of Jesus. In this way they smash themselves against the speeding train of God’s love and find themselves condemned.
See: Ezek. 36:26, Matt. 11:27, 16:17, 23:37, John 3:3, 8, 6:44-46, 12:32, Acts 7:51, Gal. 2:20 KJV/NET, Eph. 2:4-10, Phil. 1:29

Preservation by the Spirit: Finally, I am in fairly substantial agreement with the old P in TULIP. The New Testament seems to indicate that there are ultimately two kinds of people who believe in Jesus: there are those with what I call the “faith of the flesh,” which people can muster on their own without the Spirit and usually for wrong motives, and which is always temporary or too shallow to produce any fruit. There are also those with the “faith of the Spirit,” a true and living faith created in Jesus’ life and given to us when the Spirit calls us to new birth, which does produce good fruit and will endure to the end. God remains faithful to these true believers by protecting them from apostasy through His Holy Spirit using Jesus’ perfect faith.
See: Job 17:9, Ps. 37:28, Jer. 32:38-40, Matt. 10:22, 24:24, Lk. 8:4-15, John 4:14, 6:37-39, 10:28-30, Gal. 6:9, Phil. 2:12-13, Heb. 3:14, 10:39, 1 Pt. 1:3-5, 1 Jn. 2:19, Jd. 1:20-21

TULIP Status Update

Augustine on Open Theism

Ever heard of open theism? If you haven’t, open theism is an umbrella term for a variety of doctrines of God which hold this in common: God does not have total foreknowledge of all future events. For most of my readers, I’m sure this an unfamiliar and very bizarre sounding position, but unfortunately open theism does have growing supports in groups which otherwise appear to be Evangelical. Major supporters include Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd, and John Sanders.

Here, I have no interest in providing my own arguments against open theism. There are plenty of those to go around already. Nor will I spend time explaining why open theism’s error is actually less Biblically obvious than many people assume. That can also be saved for later.

What I actually am interested in doing here is quoting Saint Augustine on this matter. I’ve recently begun reading (well, listening to) The City of God, and in the course of this work Augustine comes to refute the error of Cicero, a pagan philosopher who denied God’s foreknowledge to preserve human free will. Since this is almost exactly the project of modern open theists, I thought it would be worth sharing Augustine’s response. So without further ado, here’s the argument:

And this [refuting the Stoic concepts of prophecy, fate, and divination] he attempts to accomplish by denying that there is any knowledge of future things, and maintains with all his might that there is no such knowledge either in God or man, and that there is no prediction of events. Thus he both denies the foreknowledge of God, and attempts by vain arguments, and by opposing to himself certain oracles very easy to be refuted, to overthrow all prophecy, even such as is clearer than the light (though even these oracles are not refuted by him).

I should break for a moment to mention that, unlike Cicero, open theists do not rule out all prophecy. Some believe God can predict events with great precision like intelligent people but better, and others simply argue that, when God wishes, He can ensure that His will for the future is carried out, though at the expense of human accountability.

But, in refuting these conjectures of the mathematicians, his argument is triumphant, because truly these are such as destroy and refute themselves. Nevertheless, they are far more tolerable who assert the fatal influence of the stars than they who deny the foreknowledge of future events. For, to confess that God exists, and at the same time to deny that He has foreknowledge of future things, is the most manifest folly. This Cicero himself saw, and therefore to assert the doctrine embodied in the words of Scripture, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” That, however, he did not do in his own person, for he saw how odious and offensive such an opinion would be; and therefore, in his book on the nature of the gods, he makes Cotta dispute concerning this against the Stoics, and preferred to give his own opinion in favor of Lucilius Balbus, to whom he assigned the defence of the Stoical position, rather than in favor of Cotta, who maintained that no divinity exists. However, in his book on divination, he in his own person most openly opposes the doctrine of the prescience of future things. But all this he seems to do in order that he may not grant the doctrine of fate, and by so doing destroy free will. For he thinks that, the knowledge of future things being once conceded, fate follows as so necessary a consequence that it cannot be denied.

But, let these perplexing debatings and disputations of the philosophers go on as they may, we, in order that we may confess the most high and true God Himself, do confess His will, supreme power, and prescience. Neither let us be afraid lest, after all, we do not do by will that which we do by will, because He, whose foreknowledge is infallible, foreknew that we would do it. It was this which Cicero was afraid of, and therefore opposed foreknowledge. The Stoics also maintained that all things do not come to pass by necessity, although they contended that all things happen according to destiny. What is it, then, that Cicero feared in the prescience of future things? Doubtless it was this,—that if all future things have been foreknown, they will happen in the order in which they have been foreknown; and if they come to pass in this order, there is a certain order of things foreknown by God; and if a certain order of things, then a certain order of causes, for nothing can happen which is not preceded by some efficient cause. But if there is a certain order of causes according to which everything happens which does happen, then by fate, says he, all things happen which do happen. But if this be so, then is there nothing in our own power, and there is no such thing as freedom of will; and if we grant that, says he, the whole economy of human life is subverted. In vain are laws enacted. In vain are reproaches, praises, chidings, exhortations had recourse to; and there is no justice whatever in the appointment of rewards for the good, and punishments for the wicked. And that consequences so disgraceful, and absurd, and pernicious to humanity may not follow, Cicero chooses to reject the foreknowledge of future things, and shuts up the religious mind to this alternative, to make choice between two things, either that something is in our own power, or that there is foreknowledge,—both of which cannot be true; but if the one is affirmed, the other is thereby denied. He therefore, like a truly great and wise man, and one who consulted very much and very skillfully for the good of humanity, of those two chose the freedom of the will, to confirm which he denied the foreknowledge of future things; and thus, wishing to make men free he makes them sacrilegious.

But the religious mind chooses both, confesses both, and maintains both by the faith of piety. But how so? says Cicero; for the knowledge of future things being granted, there follows a chain of consequences which ends in this, that there can be nothing depending on our own free wills. And further, if there is anything depending on our wills, we must go backwards by the same steps of reasoning till we arrive at the conclusion that there is no foreknowledge of future things. For we go backwards through all the steps in the following order:—If there is free will, all things do not happen according to fate; if all things do not happen according to fate, there is not a certain order of causes; and if there is not a certain order of causes, neither is there a certain order of things foreknown by God,—for things cannot come to pass except they are preceded by efficient causes,—but, if there is no fixed and certain order of causes foreknown by God, all things cannot be said to happen according as He foreknew that they would happen. And further, if it is not true that all things happen just as they have been foreknown by Him, there is not, says he, in God any foreknowledge of future events.

I’ll point out here that Cicero’s argument, as presented by Augustine, is almost identical to that of open theists on a popular level, but also of many atheists. And must of its core actually parallels the standard arguments in favor of free will over a Calvinist-style determinism.

Now, against the sacrilegious and impious darings of reason, we assert both that God knows all things before they come to pass, and that we do by our free will whatsoever we know and feel to be done by us only because we will it. But that all things come to pass by fate, we do not say; nay we affirm that nothing comes to pass by fate; for we demonstrate that the name of fate, as it is wont to be used by those who speak of fate, meaning thereby the position of the stars at the time of each one’s conception or birth, is an unmeaning word, for astrology itself is a delusion. But an order of causes in which the highest efficiency is attributed to the will of God, we neither deny nor do we designate it by the name of fate, unless, perhaps, we may understand fate to mean that which is spoken, deriving it from fari, to speak; for we cannot deny that it is written in the sacred Scriptures, “God hath spoken once; these two things have I heard, that power belongeth unto God. Also unto Thee, O God, belongeth mercy: for Thou wilt render unto every man according to his works.” Now the expression, “Once hath He spoken,” is to be understood as meaning “immovably,” that is, unchangeably hath He spoken, inasmuch as He knows unchangeably all things which shall be, and all things which He will do. We might, then, use the word fate in the sense it bears when derived from fari, to speak, had it not already come to be understood in another sense, into which I am unwilling that the hearts of men should unconsciously slide. But it does not follow that, though there is for God a certain order of all causes, there must therefore be nothing depending on the free exercise of our own wills, for our wills themselves are included in that order of causes which is certain to God, and is embraced by His foreknowledge, for human wills are also causes of human actions; and He who foreknew all the causes of things would certainly among those causes not have been ignorant of our wills. For even that very concession which Cicero himself makes is enough to refute him in this argument. For what does it help him to say that nothing takes place without a cause, but that every cause is not fatal, there being a fortuitous cause, a natural cause, and a voluntary cause? It is sufficient that he confesses that whatever happens must be preceded by a cause.

So how does Augustine respond? He simply includes the freedom of the will as part of a causal chain to be foreknown by God. This doesn’t collapse all human choice into “fatal” determinism, but simply means that God can by His omniscience see through the entire course of human intentions and decisions as part of the cause-and-effect relationship which Cicero has already acknowledged exists even in a world with free will. Continuing:

For we say that those causes which are called fortuitous are not a mere name for the absence of causes, but are only latent, and we attribute them either to the will of the true God, or to that of spirits of some kind or other. And as to natural causes, we by no means separate them from the will of Him who is the author and framer of all nature. But now as to voluntary causes. They are referable either to God, or to angels, or to men, or to animals of whatever description, if indeed those instinctive movements of animals devoid of reason, by which, in accordance with their own nature, they seek or shun various things, are to be called wills. And when I speak of the wills of angels, I mean either the wills of good angels, whom we call the angels of God, or of the wicked angels, whom we call the angels of the devil, or demons. Also by the wills of men I mean the wills either of the good or of the wicked. And from this we conclude that there are no efficient causes of all things which come to pass unless voluntary causes, that is, such as belong to that nature which is the spirit of life. For the air or wind is called spirit, but, inasmuch as it is a body, it is not the spirit of life. The spirit of life, therefore, which quickens all things, and is the creator of every body, and of every created spirit, is God Himself, the uncreated spirit. In His supreme will resides the power which acts on the wills of all created spirits, helping the good, judging the evil, controlling all, granting power to some, not granting it to others. For, as He is the creator of all natures, so also is He the bestower of all powers, not of all wills; for wicked wills are not from Him, being contrary to nature, which is from Him. As to bodies, they are more subject to wills: some to our wills, by which I mean the wills of all living mortal creatures, but more to the wills of men than of beasts. But all of them are most of all subject to the will of God, to whom all wills also are subject, since they have no power except what He has bestowed upon them. The cause of things, therefore, which makes but is not made, is God; but all other causes both make and are made. Such are all created spirits, and especially the rational. Material causes, therefore, which may rather be said to be made than to make, are not to be reckoned among efficient causes, because they can only do what the wills of spirits do by them. How, then, does an order of causes which is certain to the foreknowledge of God necessitate that there should be nothing which is dependent on our wills, when our wills themselves have a very important place in the order of causes? Cicero, then, contends with those who call this order of causes fatal, or rather designate this order itself by the name of fate; to which we have an abhorrence, especially on account of the word, which men have become accustomed to understand as meaning what is not true. But, whereas he denies that the order of all causes is most certain, and perfectly clear to the prescience of God, we detest his opinion more than the Stoics do. For he either denies that God exists,—which, indeed, in an assumed personage, he has labored to do, in his book De Natura Deorum,—or if he confesses that He exists, but denies that He is prescient of future things, what is that but just “the fool saying in his heart there is no God?” For one who is not prescient of all future things is not God. Wherefore our wills also have just so much power as God willed and foreknew that they should have; and therefore whatever power they have, they have it within most certain limits; and whatever they are to do, they are most assuredly to do, for He whose foreknowledge is infallible foreknew that they would have the power to do it, and would do it. Wherefore, if I should choose to apply the name of fate to anything at all, I should rather say that fate belongs to the weaker of two parties, will to the stronger, who has the other in his power, than that the freedom of our will is excluded by that order of causes, which, by an unusual application of the word peculiar to themselves, the Stoics call Fate.

You’ll notice here that Augustine affirms God as the original Cause, Creator, and Sustainer of all things, even the human will, and even the wicked human will. Yet His creative power which gives the will existence and ability does not determine the characteristic shape or choices that will takes on. Instead, he explicitly states that “wicked wills are not from Him.”

In the following chapter, Augustine also goes on to ask whether necessity affects the freedom of the will. There he makes some interesting points about God’s freedom, but to finish up this post I want to quote one more short bit very relevant to this post.

It is not the case, therefore, that because God foreknew what would be in the power of our wills, there is for that reason nothing in the power of our wills. For he who foreknew this did not foreknow nothing. Moreover, if He who foreknew what would be in the power of our wills did not foreknow nothing, but something, assuredly, even though He did foreknow, there is something in the power of our wills. Therefore we are by no means compelled, either, retaining the prescience of God, to take away the freedom of the will, or, retaining the freedom of the will, to deny that He is prescient of future things, which is impious. But we embrace both. We faithfully and sincerely confess both. The former, that we may believe well; the latter, that we may live well. For he lives ill who does not believe well concerning God. Wherefore, be it far from us, in order to maintain our freedom, to deny the prescience of Him by whose help we are or shall be free.

St. Augustine, The City of God, chapters 9-10

Augustine on Open Theism