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.

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.

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.

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