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Why Every Christian (Ultimately) Believes in Election

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series

"The Misunderstood Doctrine of Election"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

The idea that God chooses or “elects” people is taught in many Scriptures (Rom 8:29-30; Eph 1:4; 2 Thes 2:13; 1 Pet 1:2). People struggle with this concept. Doesn’t that make the whole thing unfair? Isn’t it unjust to choose people for salvation? Surely salvation is then all a stacked-deck, with people nothing more than robots, with no freedom of choice. With these doubts, some people throw out the idea of election altogether, saying it is unbiblical. “God could not love everyone and only choose some”, they say. Some even claim that election is a doctrine invented by faulty humanistic reason, attempting to apply logic to what cannot be understood by reason, resulting in absurd claims. One such claim suggests it was Renaissance humanism that created the doctrine of election. (I don’t know what such people would say about the strongly predestinarian Essenes, who pre-dated the Renaissance by at least 1500 years.) But election is not an abstruse conclusion derived from convoluted rabbinic reasoning. Election is stated in Scripture in unambiguous, straightforward language. God chose people for salvation.

As much as that statement elicits vehement denials, election is actually implicitly believed by all Christians, and explicitly believed by some. Often people who reject the idea of God’s choosing simply haven’t thought about what they presently believe. In almost every case, they already believe in election, without realising it. For example, try answering these three yes/no questions.

1) Does everyone get saved?
2) Do you believe God is in control of His universe?
3) Could God have created a universe which everyone was saved?

If you answered no to the first, and yes to the last two questions, then you already believe in election, though you may think you do not.

Here’s why. We all know the answer to the first question is no: not everyone gets saved. If you answered yes to the second, then you believe God is in control of the universe and has both the right and might to rule everything in the universe. If you consequently answered yes to the third question — that you believe that God could have created a universe in which everyone is saved but nevertheless chose not to — then you agree that God chose to not save everyone. Something other than the salvation of every human being motivated God to create. If the thing God wanted most was the salvation of every human ever born, He could have made that world, and not the one we are in. But God did not. He made this world, in which not everyone is saved.

But, says the objector, “God couldn’t make that world and still create creatures with free will! As soon as God gave His creatures free will, they had the possibility to sin. God wanted willing, free creatures, not robots. So He couldn’t create a world where everyone is saved! If He wanted a world populated by humans made in His image, then some of them falling into sin and condemnation was part of the risk.”

Okay, for the sake of argument, let’s agree that God couldn’t simultaneously have a world of free beings and a world where everyone is saved. Let’s assume the only world God could make with free beings was the one we’re in. Here’s the problem: God still knew that fact before He created, didn’t He? He knew what His creatures would do with their free will. He knew they would fall, and condemn themselves. If God knew that in advance, why did He still create the world, knowing that so many of His creatures would send themselves to Hell? In order to then save them from Hell, He could have simply not created them, or not brought this world into being, right? He could have elected, or chosen to not create them, correct? He at least had one other choice: to not create at all.

There are only two possible answers to this dilemma of why God made a world in which people use their freedom to go to Hell. The first is, God didn’t know what would happen. God had no knowledge of the future, because it didn’t yet exist. Christians who believe the Bible will reject this answer. If you believe God is sovereign, you also believe He has infinite knowledge of the past, present and future. A god without foreknowledge is not the God of Scripture.

The second possible answer to the question of why God created this world is because God desired something other than (and more than) the salvation of every human being. If you accept the premise that God is sovereign and omniscient, and agree that not everyone is saved, then even if you believe in an extreme view of human free will, you have to agree that God wants something other than, or more than, universal salvation.

Once you agree with that, then you have, in principle, agreed with the idea of election: that God has chosen to bring into existence a world where some will be saved and some will perish. You might object strenuously that the saved and the lost are saved and lost by their own choice, but you still haven’t escaped the issue: God knew all choices in advance and allowed them to come into being, with their foreknown consequences. Even if you insist that we are saved or lost entirely by our own choice, you have to agree that even the existence of human choice is there by God’s prior choice. Creating you and giving you permission to use your free will is still a choice God makes. If God makes the choice to create you with full foreknowledge that you will use your free will to reject him, then He has, at least permissively, ordained that you should go to hell.

If I know without any doubt that when I place a gun into your hand that you will kill yourself, then by giving you that gun, there is a level of responsibility I share. I am not responsible for killing you in the way that you are, but neither am I totally passive or without involvement. I know what you will do with the weapon. God knew what each human would do with the weapon of free choice.

If God chose not to save you from your own damning choice by creating you and letting you reject Him, we are very close to, if not at the actual point of, saying that God did not elect you.

You might be uncomfortable with that, but that is the inevitable conclusion with even the most libertarian reading of free will that still retains a view that God knows the future and is in control.

In other words, the only way to escape the dilemma of saying that God has ordained the destinies of His creatures is to make God into a lesser god, by removing foreknowledge and omniscience from Him. That “excuses” and “absolves” God from being complicit in the eventual destruction of so many of His creatures. Unfortunately, this effort to uphold God as loving and fair only demotes Him into a finite being who is learning and growing as much as we are.

The biblical alternative is to admit that something other than universal salvation was in God’s mind when creating. Something bigger and greater than no universe at all, or a universe without free beings, was worth the loss and condemnation of millions of beings, in God’s estimation. Both Calvinists and Arminians have to admit that this is what Scripture and reality teach us. Most agree that this bigger plan has to do with His own glory.

Yes, we can all agree that there is difficulty in these truths. We can agree that no one can resolve perfectly the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. What we cannot do is insert the word “mystery” whenever we encounter a truth we are uncomfortable with. When Scripture and reason lead us to a difficult conclusion, we had rather say, “I find it difficult to accept”, rather than “It’s a mystery”. The one is an honest admission of our finitude before God, the other is pretending that the whole thing is shrouded in an impenetrable fog that prevents anyone from drawing conclusions. The doctrine of election is difficult and we certainly don’t know all we would like to know. But it is not some untouchable area of knowledge with the sign “Keep Out” posted above it. God would not have put it in the Bible had He not wanted us to believe and accept what He says about election.

So what does He reveal about this doctrine? This will be the subject of the next posts.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary and Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

10 Responses to Why Every Christian (Ultimately) Believes in Election

  1. Interesting thoughts. JI Packer argues the same thing. All believers believe in election; some just don’t know that they believe it. His proof: don’t we all pray to God to save a lost person as if his salvation is ultimately up to God? Don’t we all thank God for our salvation as if it was God who did it all and not because of our own choice. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s from “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.”

  2. Jared,

    Yes, that’s a similar idea. Every Christian holds that God is finally responsible for the world that is, even if He is not the direct author of sin. Prayer and gratitude recognise this reality.

    Even if you hold to conditional election (making God’s choice of us contingent on our choice of Him), you still believe God knew the outcome ahead of time and permitted it. You can argue that God is a secondary cause when it comes to salvation, but you cannot argue He is a secondary cause when it comes to the reality that comes into being.
    The only way out of this dilemma, as some Arminians have rightly inferred, is to remove foreknowledge from God altogether.

  3. Scripture, with respect to divine sovereignty, human choices and God’s decree(s) never once reveals God assigning himself any culpability with regard to human volition and its exercise, not even in a secondary manner. Such conclusions are the exercise of rationalism upon theology and commonly stem from an overreach in trying to comprehend facets of divine sovereignty not revealed in Scripture, hence, ending up reduced as they are in this essay.

  4. Alex,

    I sense there might be some equivocation on the meaning of culpability. Do you mean “involved”? “Directly responsible”? “Ultimately responsible”?
    Scripture is very clear that God is involved in His creatures’ decisions, in some cases shaping desires for good (Phil 2:13), while in others hardening their resolve. In fact, the concept of God ‘giving people up’ or handing them over becomes meaningless if God is uninvolved in the human will in any sense. At any rate, the post is a discussion about foreknowledge’s relationship to being (actively or passively), not the matter of the human will.

    Calling the use of reason to understand election an act of overreach may be justified in some cases, particularly when one reaches absurd conclusions, such as God authoring sin, or the existence of fate alongside God. Here, though, I believe I am well within the bounds of what moderate Calvinists and Arminians have discussed regarding foreknowledge. Nothing is here wildly speculative, but is found in nearly every discussion of foreknowledge. You may not like the conclusion, but it would be more constructive to grapple with the logic (such as my three questions) rather than labelling the whole thing an act of overreach or circular reasoning. If I have indeed included my conclusion in my premises, then show that to be the case.
    On the other hand, if you regard the attempt to understand election as intrinsically arrogant, simply say as much.

  5. An excellent explanation of an inescapable reality of scripture – one I am curious to see objectors trying to reason their way out of.

  6. You’ve misread me. You stated, “if you regard the attempt to understand election as intrinsically arrogant, simply say as much”, but clearly my argument is not with your grapple with election, categorically, rather, it is with your attempt to rationalize Divine sovereignty, (as I stated):

    “Such conclusions are the exercise of rationalism upon theology and commonly stem from an overreach in trying to comprehend facets of divine sovereignty not revealed in Scripture.”.

    The issue is not your misstep on election but your overreach on the far greater and underlying issue of divine sovereignty.

  7. You use too many words to explain the concept of salvation. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved Period!

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