Answering Objections to the Doctrine of Unconditional Election
Last week, we considered Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:4-6. There, we noted that Paul not only begins to unpack the spiritual blessings given to the saints and faithful in Christ Jesus, but gives the very basis of these blessings: the divine initiative and purpose of God in choosing to save sinful men and women through Christ. This is the doctrine of election. Before the foundation of the world, God the Father gave God the Son a people to save. Paul wants us to see that ultimately salvation is the work of God. Or, as the Scripture repeatedly puts it, “Salvation is of the Lord.” God saved us, and he did it on purpose not on accident, and this purpose was formed in the covenant of redemption even before the world began. And because salvation ultimately must be ascribed to the work and grace of God, he gets the glory, not us (cf. ver. 6).
We also tried to show that the purpose of election was not based on foreseen faith or good works of any kind. We are not saved because we are holy, we are saved “that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” We also tried to demonstrate that this is the uniform testimony of Scripture, and we looked at our Lord’s words in John 6, Luke’s testimony of the effects of Paul’s preaching in Acts 13:48, as well as some of Paul’s other writings in 2 Thessalonians 2 and 2 Timothy 1. These texts join the apostle in affirming that the election which is spoken of in Ephesians 1:4-5 is unconditional.
Now last time, we didn’t have time to consider objections to the doctrine of unconditional election, so I want to do this now. However, again I want to remind all of us that there is a right way and a wrong way to approach even objections to this doctrine. First, this is not a primary truth and we need to remember that. Primary truths are truths you must believe to be saved. The doctrine of election is not one of these truths. Therefore, just because someone doesn’t see eye to eye with you on the doctrine of election does not mean that they are not walking with the Lord in faith. It doesn’t mean that we cannot have fellowship with them or learn from them. Second, we need to remember that we should always speak of these things with great humility. To argue about the doctrine of unconditional election with a prideful and antagonistic spirit is fundamentally incongruous to the doctrine itself. To speak and act as if the knowledge of this truth somehow makes you “better” than those who don’t is to contradict what the doctrine of election says: that God in pure grace and without consideration of merit chose to rescue you from the pit of hell. You and I have therefore absolutely no right to look down on anyone. We are what we are by the grace of God and by the grace of God alone. Third, meditating on the doctrine ought to lead us to worship. This is what Paul is doing here in Ephesians 1: he is worshipping the God who chose to save him from before the foundation of the world. Did you notice that this is what he is doing also in 2 Thess. 2:13-14 and 2 Tim. 1:9? If doctrines are no more to us than fodder for debating those who disagree with us, then something is wrong with our hearts. Doctrines that do not lead our hearts to worship will eventually harden them.
Now some might say that doctrines are divisive and therefore we should avoid them. However, that is impossible. You cannot learn about God without learning doctrine and theology. And just because some doctrines are more divisive than others does not give us a warrant to ignore them. If they are revealed in Holy Writ, then we ought to try to understand them and believe them, no matter what the consequences are. Certainly, the doctrine of unconditional election is not only in the Bible, it is all over the Bible and we must therefore pay attention to it and to the objections which are leveled against it.
What then, are the objections? There are, in my opinion, four main objections which are the reasons why some do not believe that election is unconditional. They have to do with the meaning of foreknowledge in the Bible, with the justice of God, with the role of the human will in salvation, and with the urgency of evangelism. All of these objections are important because they have their roots in Biblical concerns. Understanding God’s foreknowledge in Scripture is an obvious concern. Certainly, evangelism is a Biblical concern. Moreover, the Bible does not allow us to think of ourselves as if we were robots. We are accountable for our actions and choices. God is just. Thus, any teaching which seems to contradict these concerns deserves scrutiny.
Now, I want to work through these objections by looking at the way Scripture deals with them. And all four objections find their answer in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in the eighth and ninth chapters.
REASON 1: “There are Scriptures which tie predestination and election to God’s foreknowledge. These verses therefore indicate that election is based on foreseen faith.” There are five places in the NT that refer to God’s foreknowledge (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:29; 11:2; 1 Pet. 1:2, 20). Of these, Rom. 8:29 and 1 Pet. 1:2 put God’s foreknowledge as the basis of his choosing a people to save. However, there are very good reasons why we should not think that these verses teach that faith is the ground of election.
To begin with, I just want to make the simple observation that faith is never explicitly said to be the object of God’s foreknowledge in any of these texts. Note that neither Paul nor Peter say that what is foreseen are events such as, “Jeremiah placed his faith in Jesus on such and such a day.” Rather, in both places it is not what is foreknown, but who is foreknown. People are foreknown. And this is very important for the following reason.
In the OT, the word “know” has connotations which include not only knowing about someone or something, but also knowing in the sense of being in a relationship which is based on covenantal commitments. For example, in Amos 3:2, God says through the prophet to the nation of Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” Clearly, God didn’t only know of Israel in the sense of knowing about them – God is omniscient. He knows all the nations in that sense. Rather, he is saying that because of the unique covenantal relationship that existed between him and Israel, he was going to punish them for their breaking of the covenant. Knowing here refers to a close relationship, not to mere knowing facts about them.
When we come to the NT, we find this sense of the word “know” in the mouth of our Lord and his apostles. For example, when Jesus says on the Day of Judgment, “And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Mt. 7:23). Jesus is not saying that he didn’t know about the wicked. In fact, it is his knowledge about them (their refusal to do God’s will) that is the basis for his rejection of them. Rather, he is saying that he is not committed by covenant to their eternal good. He is not related to them in a saving way.
In fact, this is the very way Paul uses the word “foreknow” in Rom. 11:2. There, the apostle writes, “God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew.” Paul is arguing in this chapter that God is not finished with Israel. And the basis of his argument is that Israel is the “people which he [God] foreknew.” Again, this is clearly not a reference to mere prescience. Knowing about Israel in that sense is not a distinguishing mark. Rather, what distinguishes Israel from other nations is the fact that God entered into a covenant with that nation through promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And this relationship is based upon a covenant that God purposed to make from eternity. It is in this sense that Israel is foreknown. Again, what comes to the forefront is this close relationship between God and Israel which is based upon covenantal commitments. (Also, this is not “foreknowing” in the sense of knowing things about Israel which would make them worthy of a special relationship with God. See Deut. 7:6-8).
Therefore, when we come to passages like Rom. 8:29, we ought to read this in light of the OT meaning of the word. When Paul writes, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren,” he is saying that God has foreknown them in the sense that from eternity he has purposed to enter into a covenant relationship with them. There is absolutely nothing in this verse about foreseen faith. This is not about what we have done that is the basis of God’s predestination; it is about God’s purpose from eternity to enter into a saving relationship with us that is the basis for them being predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.
This is confirmed by the usage of the word in 1 Peter. When we look at 1 Pet. 1:20 we are told that our Lord “was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times or you.” The Greek verb “foreordained” is the same word found in Romans 8:29 and 11:2, there translated “foreknow.” This is not a bad translation; it can carry the sense of foreordain. In any case, there is nothing significant in saying that God foreknew Jesus in the sense of knowing things about him. Of course he does. Rather, Peter is saying that our Lord was foreordained in the covenant of redemption to accomplish redemption for the sake of his people. The Father and Son entered into a covenant commitment to save the elect. Again, we see how this is completely fitting with our interpretation of the usage of the word in Romans.
The noun in used in 1 Pet. 1:2. There Peter says that the believers are elect exiles “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” Again, nothing is said about faith; rather, they are foreknown and elect “unto obedience and sprinkling of blood of Jesus Christ.” This is the purpose for which they are elect and foreknown; not the reason why they are elect and foreknown.
Thus, we see that the way the apostles use the word “foreknow” and “foreknowledge” is consistent with the doctrine of unconditional election. God foreknew us in the sense that he entered into a special relationship with the elect in the covenant of redemption from the beginning of time. This covenant relationship is not based on foreseen works or faith; it is completely gracious and unconditioned on merit in us.
Before we look at the next three reasons, we need to stop and consider the context and meaning of the first 23 verses of Romans 9, for we will be looking for the answers to the remaining three objections there. To understand Romans 9, we have to understand what the problem was that Paul is seeking to solve. The problem is that somehow, it appeared as if God was not keeping his word. The apostle defines the problem in verse 6a: “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect.” In other words, something in what the apostle taught had elicited the objection that if what Paul said was true then God had failed to keep his word; it had taken “none effect.” Paul of course rejects that.
Now what had brought this on? The answer lies in the first five verses, in which Paul describes the sadness of his heart, a sadness that was brought on by the lostness of his fellow Jews. What made his heart ache with unceasing pain was amplified by the fact that they had so many privileges. When you look at these privileges which Paul lists in verses 4-5, the unifying element to all of them is that they were all meant to point to Christ. Of all the people in the world who should have welcomed the Messiah, it should have been his “kinsmen according to the flesh.” Nevertheless, many of them persisted in rejected the Lord.
Hopefully it is clear to all that Paul is not here agonizing over the historical destiny of Israel. He says that “I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (3). The problem is that Paul’s relations were accursed, lost, unsaved.
Now what does this have to do with the objection of verse 6? It is this: Paul’s kinsmen assumed that they inherited the blessings of the promises made to the fathers just by being related to Abraham by blood (cf. Mt. 3:9). But Paul was telling them that if they rejected Jesus they were lost. To them, this meant that God was not keeping his word. To them the lostness of the Jews meant that the promises had fallen to the ground. Thus verse 6.
What is Paul’s answer? It comes in 6b: “For they are not all Israel which are of Israel.” What does this mean? Paul explains in verses 7-13, the gist of which is that just because you are physically related to Abraham does not mean that you inherit the blessings of the promises of God. He illustrates with Isaac and Ishmael (7-9), both of whom had Abraham as their father, and yet Isaac was the one who inherited the promise. There is an even stronger point to be made with Jacob and Esau, both of whom were born of the same mother and had Isaac as their father and Abraham as their grandfather (10-13). And yet Esau was rejected and Isaac accepted.
Now some object that the point of the OT verses quoted here have to do with historical destinies and not salvation. However, this doesn’t hold up. For one thing, the context is not historical destiny of nations, but the lostness of individual Israelites. Second, Paul elsewhere uses the example of Isaac and Ishmael to illustrate the difference between those who are saved and those who are not (Gal. 4:21-31). This passage is important for another reason. Here when Paul uses the phrase “children of promise,” he uses it to denote those who are saved (Gal. 4:28) in contrast to those who are lost. Even so here, Paul is saying that just because you are physically related to Abraham does not mean that you are saved; it does not automatically make you a child of promise.
When then does make one a child of promise? What distinguishes between Jews that are saved and Jews that are not saved? The answer is in verse 11: “For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of him that calleth.” If there is any verse in the Bible that teaches unconditional election, this is it. Jacob was chosen, not Esau, not on the basis of foreseen works, but solely on the basis of the gracious purpose of God. Even so, Paul is saying, what makes the difference between saved Israel and lost Israel is election. At the bottom of one’s salvation is God, not man, his work and not ours. Of course, what is true of Jews is also true of Gentiles. The ultimate reason why you are saved does not lie in your will or cleverness or privileges or whatever. The ultimate reason lies in the unconditional grace of God. He is the one who deserves all the praise for our salvation.
In other words, the context of Romans 9 is unconditional election as the reason behind “they are not all Israel which are of Israel.” This then sets up the following objections which Paul answers in verses 14-23. These two objections are also the next two objections which we will look at.
REASON 2: “If unconditional election is true, then God is not just. How could God not give everyone the same chance? This seems so unfair.”
This is the objection that Paul deals with in verse 14: “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God?” Paul’s answer is of course, “God forbid.” He denies that election makes God unfair. It is interesting to note how he deals with this objection. The answer comes in verse 15: “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Paul does not give a philosophical answer to the objection. Rather, he argues that the same Scriptures which reveal to us the righteousness and justice of God also reveal his sovereignty in dispensing grace and mercy. If we believe that God is just on the basis of Scripture, then we also have to believe that he is sovereign on the basis of Scripture.
We need to hear this, because we need to be willing to accept whatever Scripture says, even if at the time we cannot understand it. We also need to be careful that we do not pit Scripture against Scripture, or try to undermine the Bible with the Bible. If we believe that the Bible is God’s word, then we need to believe all that it says about God, even if we cannot see how it all fits together.
Note Paul’s conclusion: “So then [since Scripture settles the matter] it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy” (16). “It” refers to salvation of which election is the fountain. Salvation is not ultimately a product of human will or human work, but “of God that showeth mercy.”
But here there is another point to be made. Inherent in the apostle’s reasoning here is the fact that salvation is a matter of compassion and mercy. In other words, in the background of Paul’s argument is human suffering and misery. And yet what is the cause of this suffering and misery? Is not sin? Paul’s argument throughout assumes the sinfulness of man. Therefore, when it is argued that election makes God unfair, this fails to consider the fact that God is under no obligation to save anyone. We are all by nature “vessels of wrath” (22). The doctrine of election does not mean that God refuses people who want to be saved. Rather, the picture here is of rebellious humanity that would have rejected God to the bitter end had not God stepped in to save some. If God had not chosen to save some sinful men and women, no one would have been saved. Hell would have been full and heaven empty if not for the sovereign grace and mercy of God.
Therefore, God is not unjust in electing some of sinful humanity to save, while leaving others to perish in the sin that they freely choose. The testimony of Scripture and the sinfulness of mankind together tell us that the unconditional election of individuals unto salvation is not only necessary but just.
REASON 3: “The doctrine of unconditional election undermines human freedom. In particular, if the number of the elect is fixed from eternity, then no one can freely choose Christ in time. But the Scriptures teach that we must freely choose Christ to be saved.”
To answer this objection, we return to the text of Romans 9, and pick up at verse 17. Here, the apostle cites another Scripture to back up his case (Exo. 9:16). It is found in God’s word to Pharaoh: “Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth” (17). The reason why the apostle brings up this text is found in verse 18: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy and whom he will he hardeneth.” Recall that in Exodus, Pharaoh is said to harden his heart and God is said to harden his heart. Of course, Pharaoh was responsible for his rebellion, and yet Paul reminds us that God hardened his heart in order that his name might be declared in all the earth. In other words, in the same act of rebellion, God was at work and Pharaoh was at work.
Now we know that God is not the author of sin (cf. Jam. 1:13-16). So when Paul reminds us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, he does not intend us to take from this that God forced Pharaoh to sin. Otherwise, Pharaoh wouldn’t have been responsible for his sin and the justice and power of God would have been undermined in his overthrow. And yet, Paul does not flinch from saying that God hardened his heart. What then does this mean? I think the key lies in verse 18. Here Paul contrasts hardening with showing mercy. I think to say that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart is the same as to say that he withheld his mercy from Pharaoh, thus allowing him to continue on in his sin and rebellion and to become hardened. Pharaoh hardened his heart freely. God didn’t force him to do it. In fact, he gave him all the rope he needed to hang himself. And so we see that Pharaoh acted freely in refusing the mercy of God, and God acted freely in allowing him to go on in his sin. Despite all of Pharaoh’s power and privilege, he could not save his soul.
But this indicates that the flip side is true as well. If, unlike Pharaoh, I freely choose the offer of God’s mercy in Christ, the reason must ultimately be because God has acted freely to intervene and keep me from going on in my sin. He does not harden my heart. Rather, he does heart surgery upon me so that my heart which was once set against God and rejected his word now loves God and keeps his word. This is what the prophet promised would happen: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them” (Ezek. 36:26-27). My heart would never freely choose Christ if left to itself. It would rebel against God for eternity. In order to make it possible for me to freely choose Christ, my heart must be changed. But this is not something which I can do of myself. It is something that God must do. Suppose a world-renowned heart surgeon has a heart condition that requires open heart surgery. No one would think that he could do heart surgery on himself to fix his condition. He needs someone outside of himself to do it. Even so, if our wicked and evil hearts are to be fixed, we need the ultimate heart surgeon to perform the operation. We need God. In other words, my freedom to choose Christ would never be possible if God was not willing to come in and give me a heart that loves him and his law. And if God had done this to me it is because he has purposed to do so from all eternity. That is to say, the doctrine of election, far from undermining my freedom to choose Christ, actually makes it possible.
Nevertheless, Paul expects still another objection: “Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” (19). In other words, the fact that God’s will and not human will is ultimately determinative means that men are not to blame for their sins. Here we have the problem of the mystery of human responsibility and divine sovereignty set squarely before us. How can God be sovereign and men responsible?
Paul’s answer: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor? What if God, willing to shew his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory?” (20-23).
The apostle makes at least three points here. The first point is that if Scripture says so, then that ought to be the end of discussion. Otherwise, we are arguing with God, and it is not befitting for a creature to do so. Job found this out the hard way. Let God be true and every man a liar (20). The second point is that God has the right to do with his own what he will. If God chooses to allow some to perish, then he has that right. If he chooses to save some and leave others in their sin, then he is just to do so. He has no less power over us than a potter has over his clay (20-21). The third point is that God’s sovereign action is one of both justice (22) and mercy (23). If God chooses to “make his power known” in the destruction of the wicked, then he is just to do so. If God chooses to show mercy on those whom he “afore prepared unto glory,” this is not something we can demand of God for it is a matter of mercy and grace.
Of course Paul does not really answer the thorny question completely. But he does remind us that we ought to humble ourselves when we begin to question the ways of God. We ought to be careful lest we become like Job and darken counsel by words without knowledge (Job 38:2). We come then to the last objection.
REASON 4: “The doctrine of unconditional election undermines the urgency of evangelism. For if the number of the elect is fixed and they are certain to be saved, then why put forth the effort to do the work of missions?”
Like the other reasons put forward to reject the doctrine of unconditional election, the answer is found here in Romans. For here was have the doctrine of unconditional election taught very clearly by the apostle. And yet note that Romans 9 is bookended by 9:1-3 and 10:1, and followed by 10:13-17. Paul evidently saw no reason not to weep over the lost, nor did it keep him from arguing for the necessity of evangelism.
However, perhaps more pressing is the question as to how this doctrine can help us in the area of missions and evangelism. I believe that it can. History has proven it, as some of the greatest missionaries like William Carey and Adonirum Judson were Calvinists. But let me give a couple of Biblical illustrations to show how this doctrine is not only compatible but helpful when it comes to missions.
The first is found in Acts 18. Paul was in Corinth, and evidently there were reasons to be afraid, for the Lord came to him in a vision to strengthen and encourage him to stay. Note the reason that is given: “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city” (9-10). The reason Paul was encouraged to stay was that God had many people in the city of Corinth. I think that God was encouraging him to persevere and not quit because he could have confidence that the elect in that city would hear the gospel and be saved.
You see the same attitude in Paul’s last letter to Timothy: “Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel, wherein I suffer trouble, as an evildoer, even unto bonds, but the word of God is not bound. Therefore I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus unto eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:9-10). Election didn’t keep Paul from persevering, it put iron in his blood to keep on even in the face of persecution. He knew that his labor was not in vain, for God’s purpose cannot be overturned.
God does not only ordain the end, he also ordains the means. The end will not happen without the means. And the means that God has ordained for the salvation of the elect is hearing the gospel and receiving it by faith. People must believe if they would be saved. The doctrine of election means that we can have confidence that our labors are not ultimately dependent upon ourselves. We go in the confidence that God’s purpose and promise will take effect. God will not let his word fall to the ground.
I believe that we have every reason to rejoice in the doctrine of unconditional election. It means that underneath my feeble purpose is the unchanging will and gracious purpose of God. I have every reason to believe that God will not let go of me and that my salvation is secure. It also means that our labors are not in vain in the Lord, and that the success of the gospel is not dependent upon my weak efforts but upon God’s powerful grace that can take a few loaves and fishes and multiply them for others. Praise God for his amazing grace.