This is the second part of a series I am writing dealing with the doctrines of grace (otherwise known as the five points of Calvinism). I am writing these articles not primarily to rehash the theology of each of the points or to provide an exhaustive apologetic of Calvinism, but to draw some fresh application and to show what these doctrines mean to me as I ponder them and attempt to live in light of them. I hope to show that these doctrines of grace are more than “mere theology,” but can be integral in living out the Christian faith. I am assuming that my readers are, by and large, familiar with the Points of Calvinism. Still, I will provide a brief explanation of the doctrine before drawing application.
Today we will look at the “U” in TULIP. This doctrine is known as unconditional election, though some theologians have begun using other terms that are a little bit more precise. For example, R.C. Sproul and Steve Lawson speak of sovereign election while Michael Horton chooses to speak of grace before time. But of greater importance than the phrase are the definition and the application. We will turn to those now.
Unconditional election is one of the more contentious doctrines and the one that causes the most difficulty, for it deals with the touchy subjects of election and predestination. It is premised on several of the doctrines of God. Most notably, it is premised on God’s omnipotence and omniscience (which is to say that God is all powerful and knows everything). This doctrine teaches that God’s election of some to salvation and some to reprobation is entirely unconditional. God, in His sovereignty, makes the ultimate choice of who will be saved and who will not.
When we say that God’s choice is without conditions, it does not mean that His choice is random or haphazard but rather, to borrow the words of R.C. Sproul, that there are “no conditions attached, either foreseen or otherwise.” It is this word, unconditional, that distinguishes the Calvinistic understanding of election from other theologies. Because election is made clear in Scripture, every system of theology founded on the Bible must have some concept of it. Most teach that there are conditions to election, and most often, that the condition is God’s ability to foresee a person’s faith. In other words, on the basis of God’s knowledge that a particular person will exercise faith, He then sovereignty elects that person as His own. He knows this person will meet the conditions for election and elects him on that basis.
There are two objections to conditional election. The first is simply that by basing election on foresight we are destroying the very meaning of the word “elect.” As James Boice says, “It actually means that men and women elect themselves, and God is reduced to a bystander who responds to their free choice. Logically and causally, even if not chronologically, God’s choice follows man’s choice.” The second objection is that it would be impossible for God to foresee faith in the heart of a person who is spiritually dead. If people are radically depraved (as we discussed under the “T” in TULIP) it is impossible for them to display any kind of faith without the prior work of God. All God would see in the hearts of humans would be deadness and enmity towards Him.
And so Calvinism teaches that election is unconditional. God foreknows who will be His elect and his choice is based on His decree, plan and purpose. He chooses people for His good pleasure and does not make known to us why He has chosen some and not others. We do not know why He has set His love on only some. But we do know that God’s act of election brings His chosen people, through the Spirit, to a willing acceptance of Christ. They are not forced to love God against their wills, but have their hearts changed and renewed so that they desire God and willingly embrace Him. Those who are not elect never undergo this change of heart and so never truly desire God (and we will have more to say about this under the “I” in TULIP).
There are many facets to this doctrine that merit discussion. Is God just to elect only some? Is God active in reprobation or does God only choose the elect while those who are not elect choose their own fate? Why would God choose some and not others? But because my purpose in these articles is not to provide a thorough defense of the doctrines of grace, I will stop here and turn now to application.
Unconditional Election: The Great Humbler
When discussing the “T” in TULIP I said that it is the “great equalizer” — the doctrine that makes us all equal before God in our depravity. If total depravity is the great equalizer, unconditional election is the great humbler. Ephesians 2:8-9 cautions Christians against using their privilege of being among God’s elect as a point of pride. In fact, it suggests that if salvation were not all of God, we would be filled with pride. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” When we acknowledge that salvation is all of God — He is the one who chose us, who provided the means of salvation through Christ, and who now gives us faith as a gift — we have no possible reason or cause to boast. We are humbled and brought low. We are undone.
And, like the two sides of a balance, as we are brought low, God is brought high. As we understand that salvation is all of God, as we understand that we could not possibly meet any conditions for election, we come to see God in His mercy and sovereignty. We see that God is gracious to those whom He loves and we see how and why we are in need of this grace. We see in unconditional election that the doctrines of grace are systematic theology, each depending on the others. When we look back to our radical depravity, depravity that extends to every aspect of our being, we understand why we are incapable of electing ourselves. When we understand how sinful we are and see that our natural hearts are wholly opposed to God, we realize that for anyone to be saved, He must be chosen and regenerated by God.
And so the doctrine of unconditional election is the great humbler. We are humbled when we see that we must rest not in the person who wills to be saved, but in God who elects and who has the power to save. We remove all trace of pride, all trace of self-confidence, and rest in the sovereignty of God. We allow this humility to filter to all areas of our lives, for only by God and through God are we saved. We lower ourselves and lift God high. We are humbled, so God may be magnified and glorified. And we live in service to God out of gratitude that His amazing grace extends even to sinners like us — sinners who would never and could never have chosen Him, but for His gracious and unfathomable choice.
We will continue this series in the future with a discussion of limited atonement, the “L” in TULIP.