Many of my non-Calvinist friends fear election. I’m not talking about that thing that happens every four years in America. I fear those too. I’m talking about the doctrine of God choosing the saved. There is no need to fear this term. Paul and Peter didn’t. Paul used it in Romans 9:11 and Romans 11:28. Peter used it in II Peter 1:10. We can use it too. The problem is with how Calvinism defines this term and explains it. I believe in God’s election of the saved, but I still don’t want to be a Calvinist. Read on to find out why.
You have stumbled across a series of posts in which I hope to explain a third alternative in a major religious debate today. Some seem to believe there are only two choices: 1) Believe we are not saved by grace or 2) Be a Calvinist. This series of articles proposes a third alternative: 3) Rely completely on God’s grace without becoming a Calvinist. For more insight to this series, click here to read the introduction. Click here to read the first true installment of this series on God’s sovereignty and glory. Or click here to read the previous installment on depravity.
As we move in between the tips of Calvinism’s TULIP, we come to Unconditional Election. Before we comment on it, let’s see how Calvinists describe this particular tenet of theology.
Article 7: Election. Election [or choosing] is God’s unchangeable purpose by which he did the following: Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, he chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery. He did this in Christ, whom he also appointed from eternity to be the mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation” (The Canons of Dort, 1610, “First Head of Doctrine,” Article 7).
Though not everyone who claims to believe in Total Inherited Depravity accepts this tenet, it is the logical conclusion of that previous tenet. If all mankind is born so depraved as to be unable to even respond to God in any way, if any will be saved, it will be because God has chosen them. That choice, however, will not be predicated on or connected to any choice or response of theirs, nor can it be impacted by any choice or response of theirs. Therefore, this election must be unconditional.
What Calvin Got Right
Again, I believe we need to be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some, in their Calvinophobia and haste to be rid of anything that even remotely smacks of Calvinism, may carelessly ignore some things the Bible really does say. Let’s notice a few.
- God has elected some to salvation (Luke 18:7).
- God chose the elect before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).
- The elect are chosen by God’s good grace (Romans 11:5).
- The elect are not chosen by their own good works (Romans 11:6).
- All of this was done according to the purpose or good pleasure of God’s will (Ephesians 1:5, 9).
- The chosen are neither better nor more deserving of salvation (Titus 3:3-7).
These principles are important for our confidence and perseverance. I don’t want to give up on these principles. If I didn’t know the Bible taught these things, I would give up on serving the Lord. If I had to believe my salvation relied on my strength and ability or on me being good enough, I’d give up today. I’ve blown that so many times it is heartbreaking. I am relying on God’s grace, not my ability and strength. I am banking on the belief that God’s election is based on His righteousness and not mine, on His goodness and not mine.
But I still don’t want to be a Calvinist. Let me explain why.
Why I Don’t Want to Be a Calvinist
Words mean things. “Unconditional” means something. “Unearned” means something. The thing we need to understand is that “Unconditional” and “Unearned” do not mean the same thing. That is the mistake Calvinism makes that I simply cannot go along with. This tenet is the heart of the false dilemma we’ve really been addressing in the whole series.
To the full-fledged Calvinist, if you do anything at all in connection with receiving salvation, you haven’t simply met a condition, you have earned it. They only see two options. Either 1) It is completely unconditional or 2) You’ve earned it. There is not another walk of life where we think these are the only two choices. Why would we think it is the only choice here? Meeting a condition doesn’t earn something.
Allow me to illustrate. My children are getting to college age and are hoping to receive scholarships. There are all kinds of scholarships out there. Did you know there are scholarships for red heads? If my daughter applies for that scholarship and gets it, did she earn the money they will give her? Did having red hair earn that money? Or was it simply a condition?
I can’t go along with unconditional election because the Bible simply presents too many conditional responses. First, the mere fact that the Bible exists implies conditional election. If Unconditional Election is completely true, then the Bible is symbolism over substance. It is completely unnecessary. If the elect are those God chose to be saved without reference to how they read the Bible or even if they read the Bible, what use is the Bible? Why reveal such a document if man’s obedience to God’s will cannot come from their reading His will in a book but only from the direct operation of the Holy Spirit? If Calvinism is true, the non-elect can read the Bible all day long and won’t understand it. At the same time, the elect can understand God’s will without reading the Bible. And, in fact, the elect do not understand God’s will because of the Bible. Of course, I believe another smokescreen will arise here. Most Calvinists will claim that the Bible is the means by which God has chosen to teach the elect His will and give them understanding. So, any Calvinists reading this right now are up in arms and perhaps have their comment fingers ready to explain that all Calvinists believe we should read our Bibles. And I believe that is true. I think they all believe that. But that rings hollow, because the Bible really isn’t the tool God uses. If the Bible were effective as that tool, then you wouldn’t have to be elect to understand it, would you? In Calvinism, the Bible cannot be the tool that gives understanding of God’s will no matter the smokescreen or objections otherwise. Only the Holy Spirit does that through direct operation in the elect. Why muddy things up by printing this book? Let me be clear. I’m not accusing Calvinists of claiming we don’t have to read our Bibles. I think they all claim we do. I am saying the Bible’s existence shows a flaw in the logical conclusions that need to be drawn if Calvinism is true.
But if the Bible’s mere existence is not enough to convince us of conditional nature of election, consider what the Bible says. Hebrews 11:6 says we must have faith to please God and we cannot please Him without it. Colossians 1:22-23 says we must continue in that faith, not shifting from the hope of the gospel in order to be presented holy, blameless, and above reproach before God. Mark 16:15-16 explains that those who believe and are baptized will be saved, and those who do not believe will be condemned. We could multiply passage on top of passage to this list of passages that sure seem like there is a conditional nature to election and salvation. I refer back to my previous paragraph and say that the Bible is merely symbolism over substance if Calvinism is fully true. Why would God give us a book that sure looks like it demands conditions if it really didn’t? Why provide a book full of commands to respond to if no one actually responds to them except God?
Of course, when it comes to practical preaching, most Calvinists will teach as if the people they are teaching actually have to make some kind of response. It sometimes sounds conditional when you hear Calvinists teach. They will even claim that while God is predestining it, the person must do it. But the logical conclusion is that it isn’t the person doing it at all. It is God doing it. For all the smokescreen, it must be God because if the person is actually doing it, if the person is actually making a choice that leads to salvation, God isn’t getting the glory and the Calvinist cannot have that. For more on this issue, refer back to the first installment of this series by clicking here. Further, if God didn’t quicken the elect, they wouldn’t respond in any way. And we’ll learn in a later tenet that if God has quickened them to respond, they can’t help but do so. In what other realm of thought would we claim this is the person doing something?
In Romans 11:5-6, when Paul says election is by grace and not our works, he is not saying it is based on grace so God makes us perform good works. Neither is he saying that we are saved by grace as we ignore the good works God has created beforehand for us to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). He is saying that it is not based on our good works outweighing our bad. It is not based on our being good enough or our earning salvation. Election is not a wage we have earned as if God owes us salvation because of all the good works we have done. Not a single person who receives salvation deserves it. But neither does it mean that God saves us apart from our choice of Him and our delight to do His will. Believing in Jesus doesn’t earn salvation or make us more worthy of it than the unbeliever. Repenting of our sins doesn’t earn our salvation or make us more worthy than the impenitent. Being baptized for the remission of our sins does not earn forgiveness or make us more worthy than the unbaptized. Any more than the 10th caller to the radio station is more worthy or deserves the month of free gas more than the 9th caller or the 11th or than the person who didn’t call at all.
Choosing God does not obligate God to us. Nor does it earn salvation. But God does not save us against our will, and God does not make us want to submit to Him apart from our will. He wants us to volunteer freely (Psalm 110:3).
The Monster God of Calvinism
To be completely blunt, I cannot go along with Calvinism because to me it makes God out to be a monster.
Imagine giving birth to four children. You know that each of them is destined for eternal torment. The only thing that will save them is your choice. They can’t save themselves. Oh sure, they all deserve it, but you unconditionally love them all. None of them deserve any kind of salvation any more than the others do. You love them all equally. But you only choose 1 of them to be saved. You could save all 4, but you only choose 1. And top that off with the fact that the only reason you did that was to prove beyond doubt that the choice was yours and not theirs. If we weren’t talking about God in a theological system that has dominated the religious world for hundreds of years, we would call that father a monster. But call it Calvinism and attribute it to God, and you have theology. That just doesn’t make sense to me.
Granted, the fact that I don’t like it doesn’t make it not so. But the fact that it doesn’t jibe with the Biblical picture of what a loving father is like does. Matthew 7:7-11 demonstrates that our heavenly Father is the epitome of good fatherhood. In fact, it makes the nature of good fatherhood a means of explaining the nature of God. Why would we take what would be the epitome of bad fatherhood in any other father we know (only choosing 1 out of 4 to be saved from eternal torment) and attribute it to God?
The God of Calvinism makes no sense to me. He is supposedly an impartial, unconditionally loving God but has chosen only a particular number of His fearfully and wonderfully made creation and offspring to be saved. They get no choice in the matter. Would we believe any other father in the world who told the majority of His children, “I love you unconditionally, you are just like your brothers and sisters but I’ve chosen them to be saved and I’m letting you burn in hell for eternity”? That is simply not impartial, unconditional love.
Like Job’s three friends who lied about God (cf. Job 42:7-9), Calvinists have developed a theology they think gives Him the glory. They are wrong. In the end, they will be rebuked by God.
An Illustration of the Third Alternative
Sadly, no matter how much we demonstrate the Biblical nature of this third alternative, Calvinists still proclaim, “But Ephesians 2:8-10 says we are saved by grace and not of works so that we can’t boast. If you do anything, you can boast about doing that thing.” The problem is that completely misses the point of this passage in the Biblical context of the boasting God is concerned about. Therefore, they miss the third alternative. Allow me to give you an illustration of the third alternative.
In Judges 7, Israel is oppressed by the Midianite nation. God calls Gideon to deliver them. The Israelite army numbers 32,000 soldiers. God says one of the seemingly craziest things in strategic military history. Something neither Alexander the Great, Cornwallis, Washington, nor Napoleon would ever say. He says Israel has too many soldiers to win the battle. How can they have too many soldiers to win the battle? Because God isn’t concerned about winning, he knows that is going to happen. He is concerned that the Israelite army will “boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me’” (Judges 7:2, ESV). They whittle the army down to 10,000, but God says it is still too many. They whittle it down to 300. This is the real story of 300 that a movie needs to be made about, though I’m surely Hollywood would get the story all wrong as they usually do.
Here’s the key. Did these 300 soldiers have to do anything? Of course they did. In Judges 7:15-23, they had to divide in three camps, light fires, blow trumpets, crash jugs, and shout “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!” What if they hadn’t done that? Would they have been delivered from Midian? No. But when they did these things and God delivered them, could they boast? Well, I guess they could tell you that they divided into three camps, lit fires, blew trumpets, crashed jugs, and shouted. But would anyone say, “Wow! You’re amazing. Look at all you did to deliver yourselves.” Absolutely not. When folks heard how the victory happened, they would know that the deliverance only happened by God. It wasn’t earned, but it was conditional. They weren’t delivered by their good works. They couldn’t boast over God. They were delivered by grace, but their faithful submission to God’s battle strategy gave them access to that grace (see Romans 5:2). This army relied on the grace of God. They didn’t rely on their numbers, strength, military strategy, ability or prowess. They sent away 31,700 soldiers. Can any of us say they were doing anything but relying on the grace of God to deliver them? But they weren’t Calvinists. They did something. They chose to do it by their faith. It was conditional.
Ephesians 2:8-10 is not concerned about whether you can say you did something. It is concerned about you boasting over God saying, “My own hand has saved me.” If you think your own hand has saved you because you were baptized and you went to church and you avoided so much sin, you won’t be saved. God doesn’t elect based on people earning it or trying to earn it. But God has established conditions for His elective choice. As Ephesians 4:4 claims, He chose us in Christ. Have you chosen to be in Christ?
I choose to rely completely on God’s grace (something which Calvinists can’t actually do, because that would be meeting a condition), but I choose not to be a Calvinist.