Have you ever wondered whether your salvation depended on God’s choice or yours? If you chose God, are you then the author of your salvation and eternal destiny? Or did God choose you and you respond to him?
The above questions are involved in any discussion of election and predestination—topics that have been seedbeds of debate among believers from the earliest Christian history and one that still continues today. The debate forms a dividing line between Christians, denominations, and even within denominations.
On one end of the spectrum, some maintain election is the choice of certain individuals for salvation. Election can also refer to God’s choice of nations, such as Israel, or to his choice of individuals to carry out certain assignments. Jonah’s duty to preach to the Ninevites is an example.
For free-will advocates—those on the other end of the spectrum—election refers to the plan of God that all who believe in Christ will be saved. While it applies to individuals, the choice is a reference to the plan more than the individual.
The doctrine of predestination originated in history with the early church father Augustine and was challenged by Pelagius, a British monk. New impetus was given to the discussion with the advent of the Protestant Reformation, materializing itself particularly in the persons of John Calvin and Jacob Arminius.
The debate involves such questions as “Does God pursue individuals based on the good he sees in them?” Perhaps his foreknowledge allows him to see they will one day believe in him. Or is his pursuit based solely on his grace and the fact that they are his elect? Where we settle on this issue will not affect our salvation, but it will determine what part we view God as having in the process itself.
The words elect, election, and choose are found 47 to 48 times in the New Testament. Predestinarians have a complicated, but logical view. In their mind, to believe God is totally responsible for salvation by his grace, yet at the same time to deny the doctrine of election is to be guilty of gross inconsistency. If it takes God’s grace to procure our salvation, then how is one to receive it unless God elects us to it? To answer, “By faith and good works,” is to take salvation from God and give it to individuals. If God elected based on his knowledge that we would exercise faith and good works, it would be post destination rather than predestination.
Further, God’s foreordination or predestination to salvation cannot rest on his foreknowledge alone. Logically speaking, for something to be foreknown, it must be certain unless God simply knows possibilities. We cannot know what does not or will not exist. Seemingly, the reason God foreknows is that he has foreordained. The salvation of the elect is certain because God has decreed it to be so.
Believing God saves by grace alone and not because of something he sees in us or knows about our future is known as “unconditional election.” It is similar to unconditional love. Love is given based on no condition, just as God’s choice is made on no condition. On the scale of different theories concerning what this might mean, predestination is the most extreme. Within this philosophy are several breakdowns, each diminishing the harshness of the doctrine.
The divisions within the various philosophies concern the beginning decrees of God and in what order they were made. To a degree, this is speculation for no one was around with God in the beginning. On the other hand, they are formulated based on the individual’s interpretation of various biblical passages. In the Divine Mind, the decree was one, but to accommodate the human mind they are listed in logical steps. Our minds function within time periods while God has the ability to operate inside or outside of time.
These verses are most commonly appealed to in such a discussion as this. Paul says who God foreknew he predestined to be like his Son. Those who were predestined were in turn called and then justified. All that awaits is their glorification.
The divisions within predestination thought have been labeled supralapsarian, infralapsarian, and sublapsarian. The first is the most extreme and the latter the most moderate.
No such divisional names are assigned when discussing the doctrine of free will. Jacob Arminius believed that God first designated Jesus to save humanity. The second decree was that all who believed in him would be saved. God gave enough grace to enable all humans to believe (known in theological circles as prevenient grace), so the choice belongs to them, not God. From this standpoint, the predestination of individuals is based on God’s foreknowledge that they will believe.
In the predestination circle, supralapsarians are double predestinarians. For them, God decided to create some for heaven and others for hell. God then gave them a choice to obey or disobey. Christ was sent to die for those created for heaven—the elect. All that remains is for God to bring them to salvation which is accomplished through the “effectual calling” of his Holy Spirit.
The above position is quite harsh and seems to conflict with the biblical picture of God. While God is sovereign in the matter of creation, providence, and redemption, his sovereignty will only act in accordance with his character.
Infralapsarians water down to a degree the harsh nature of the previous view. God creates, then permits humanity to fall into sin. Seeing all humanity as lost, God decides to elect some to salvation and sends Christ to die for them. The Holy Spirit is then released to procure their regeneration. This position makes God more palatable.
The sublapsarian view is not recognized by some predestinarians because it diminishes the philosophy significantly. As in the previous two views, God decreed to create humans and then permit them to fall into sin. Christ is sent to pay their redemption price, but the price is sufficient for all, not just the elect. God then decides to elect some for salvation out of all that Christ has died for. Finally, the Spirit effects their regeneration.
The choice we are left with is between free will, predestination, or some mixture of the two. Verses are available for each position. After telling the parable of the wedding feast, Jesus says many are called but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14). He also speaks of a broad and narrow path. The broad path leads to eternal misery while the narrow path leads to eternal life. He concludes by saying many will find the broad path but only a few the narrow (Matthew 7:13-14). Paul maintains God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4-5). In Acts, Luke says when the Gentiles in Antioch heard the gospel message preached by Paul they were glad and all who had been “appointed” for eternal life believed (13:48).
The Bible is replete with examples of individual election. Abram lived in a pagan land, but God chose him, saved him, and led him to a land he had never observed before. Noah was a man of faith and chosen to warn his world of an ensuing flood. Moses was chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. Individual judges were selected to deliver Israelite tribes from their enemies. Jesus handpicked his disciples, and Paul was blinded by God on the Damascus Road and chosen as an apostle to the Gentiles. Isaiah and John the Baptist are other examples.
From the predestinarian viewpoint, God’s plan is always prior to human plans while those who believe in free will see God responding to the individual’s actions. In the first view, our actions and decisions become a consequence of what God has already decided. This is not only true in the matter of salvation but in all our other actions and decisions. God determines what we will do, and he is not dependent on what we decide. At the same time, this does not rule out some form of free will since proponents of predestination do not view humans as mere robots carrying out the will of a dominant deity.
In our present passage, Paul asks what right humans have to talk back to God. How can we question the one who formed us about our form or about decisions he makes that affect our lives and even our eternity? The potter has control over the clay to make whatever he wants from it.
Paul mentions Pharaoh (ruler of Egypt) and Esau (Jacob’s brother) as being raised up by God for the specific purpose in which he used them. God used Pharaoh for his glory by demonstrating his ability to defeat him and deliver Israel from Egyptian bondage.
God chose Jacob over Esau before they were born or had the opportunity to choose right from wrong. The choice concerned God’s purpose in election which was that the older should serve the younger. Jacob was loved by God while Esau was hated. Paul concludes that the election does not depend on man’s desire or effort but on God’s mercy.
Proponents of free will interpret passages differently than do predestinarians. God, to be fair, must let the Gospel be offered to everyone and they must have a choice to respond and the ability to do so. But this position does not eliminate all problems. If election is based solely on foreknowledge that someone will believe, why does God create people whom he knows will not believe? Why not create only those he knows will accept his Son’s sacrifice?
Believing in God’s unconditional election does not necessarily negate the possibility of believing in free will also. Sin has removed our ability to exercise our freedom properly. Our fallen nature can be compared to a bird with a broken wing. The bird is free to fly but cannot because of its impending situation. In like manner, humanity is free to come to God but cannot because of our sinful condition … our broken wings. It is only by God’s grace operating in our life that we are able to see the folly of loving sin. Only as we understand this folly can we come to Christ.
Our election, in whatever way we define it, is something we look back on. Nor is salvation something we boast about. We should never play the “I’m in, you’re out” game. Pride is something the Bible repeatedly warns against. Our perspective should be expressed in the words of John Newton’s hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
We love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:19), and, as such, we should always be overcome with humility. Seeing our unworthiness, yet witnessing God’s love in election, should stir in us a most humbling attitude. Paul reminds us that God demonstrated his love toward us by letting Christ die for us while we were still sinners. If we were already good, there would have been no reason for the cross (Romans 5:7-8). At the same time, God’s love does not mandate that he save us from our sinful rebellion. That he does is an astounding act of grace.