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Home: Articles / Bible Studies: Doctrines of Grace

"Unconditional Election"
By Fred Butler

Unconditional election is not only the heart of the system of Calvinism, but it is the heart of the whole of salvation.  Election is a divine act of the sovereign will of an eternal, immutable, omnipotent creator effectively determining the objects of His saving operations.   What we believe about God’s sovereignty will effect our view of election, and ultimately how we view salvation.

It is important to grasp what the Bible states about this doctrine.


Definitions of unconditional election:


·         The doctrine of election declares that God, before the foundation of the world, chose certain individuals from among the fallen members of Adam’s race to be the objects of His un-deserved favor.  These, and these only, He purposed to save.  Steele and Thomas: The 5 Points of Calvinism.


·         That eternal act of God whereby He, in His sovereign good pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them, chooses a certain number of men to be the recipients of special grace and of eternal salvation. Louis Berkhof: Systematic Theology.


These two definitions express the characteristics of election:


(1)     Election is the sovereign will of God.

(2)     Election is eternal, from eternity past, before the world began.

(3)     Election is specific to certain chosen individuals.

(4)     Election is unmerited by the recipients.


We can build upon these characteristics by examining the biblical words surrounding election.



proorizo – “pro” – before. “orizo” – to bound, to set a boundary.  The English word, horizon is taken from “orizo”.  Proorizo has the idea of marking out a boundary before hand.  Our English translation, predestination, is similar in meaning. It means to set a destination before it is taken.  In essence, mapping out a course before it is walked. Proorizo is also translated as “ordained” or “foreordained.”


Elect/Election, Choose/Chosen

eklektos – signifies a picking out, or choosing.

eklegoto pick out, or selection.

The two words are simple in meaning.  Elect and chosen have the idea of being picked out, or selected from among a common group.


With these definitions in mind, we can examine some biblical passages that contain these words and come to a fuller understanding of biblical election.


n       The Timing of Election:


When exactly did this election take place?


Ephesians 1:4;  2 Timothy 1:9;  Revelation 13:8, 17:8


With each one of these passages, you will note the timing of election -- before the world began, or before the foundation of the world.  In eternity past, before God created, He had marked out individuals to be saved.



n       Who are the Elect?


There are some differing opinions as to who it is exactly that God elected.  Determining who the elect are will effect how we understand the promise of salvation.


The controversy hinges upon Romans 9:6-13, and whether the salvation promised here relates to groups or individuals.


Ø       God elects a corporate group:


When we come to Romans 9, what Paul addresses here is the election of Israel as God’s promised people.  It is a corporate election that places a person into a position of privilege.

Thus, a person born a Jew is placed in a position of receiving God’s blessings, of hearing the truth regarding faith and belief in God, so as to act upon those truths and believe savingly upon God’s promises.


The proponents of this position then state that what Paul is teaching in the passages of Romans 9-11 is that God has moved from Israel as the privileged people of God, to the Church now being that people of God.

So, you have in God’s plan of election “the Church”.  Becoming apart of that group depends upon individuals believing the gospel and embracing Christ.


Arminians like this view because it helps to stay true to their system of men making the choice of being saved or not.  God elected a people, the church.  Jesus died so as to provide membership to the church.  The key is to believe Jesus and you are then declared a member.


Ø       God elects individuals to be a part of a group:


When we look at the passages in Romans 9-11, it is true that Paul addresses God’s election of groups, in this case, national groups, Israel over all the others.  However, Paul is not addressing the election of groups separate from the election of individuals.


- Groups are always composed of individuals.

- Paul addresses Jacob and Esau as individuals in vv. 10-11.

- Several of Paul’s key words on election here in chap. 9 are used else where in Romans, as well 

  as his other epistles, to speak of a person’s salvation.  (“call” 9:11 w/ 8:28; “works” 9:11 w/

  Eph. 2:8,9).

- The unity of Romans 9-11 indicates that we cannot eliminate individual election, because in

  chapter 10 believing in Jesus is an individual decision.


Elected individuals compose an elected group – The People of God.  It is those people God has elected to salvation.


n       The Condition of Election:


Using Romans as a starting point, what exactly is the condition for election? 

Does an individual have to merit election in some way?


Calvinism believes the Bible teaches an Unconditional Election. 


v      A conditional election is an election that is conditioned on something in the person being elected.  For instance, voters elect a politician to an office.  The voter’s choice is conditioned upon something that the candidate is or has promised.  In the case of Divine election, God would then choose an individual to salvation on the basis of some quality inherent to that person.


v      The scriptures teach, however, that Divine election is unconditional.  God never bases His choice on what man thinks, says, does or is. 


Roman 9:11-13: Jacob and Esau


Paul uses the story of Jacob and Esau as an illustration of God’s sovereign choice in election.

God chooses to bless Jacob over Esau, even though Esau was the eldest and the one who should legally receive the family birthright.  Regardless of that, God elects Jacob.


Notice when God’s election of Jacob over Esau took place:

1)       Before they were born. (9:11)

2)       Before they could act morally. (9:11)



What does it mean, “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated”?


This has always been a perplexing statement.  Why would a God of love choose to hate someone? Is hate a characteristic of a moral God?


Some have understood that what Paul means here is that God loved Esau less than Jacob. He blessed both men, but Jacob was used in the furtherance of God’s ultimate plan.


I think it is better to define hate by its opposite, love.  God loved Jacob in that He bestowed upon him the inheritance given to Abraham.  God’s hatred of Esau, then, is His decision not to bestow this privilege upon Esau and his descendents.


Love and hate are not emotions God feels, but actions that He carries out.


Jacob’s election over Esau wasn’t due to anything in Jacob, but was based upon God’s own good pleasure.  God has mercy and compassion on those whom he chooses to have mercy and compassion. (9:14-16)

With that in mind, it is better to think of unconditional election as sovereign election.


This is God’s grace.  Biblical grace is the granting of undeserved or unmerited favor, and this granting is out of God’s sovereign choice.


NOTE: It should be pointed out that election itself saves no one; what it does is to mark out certain individuals for salvation.  It is Christ making atonement on the cross that secures salvation for the elect. (That will be discussed under limited atonement)


Other passages that teach of God’s sovereign election:


Acts 13:48.  Observe how the text reads. The gentiles believed because they were ordained to eternal life. Their ordaining by God occurred before belief.

Acts 13:48 is a significant passage, and historically it has been tampered with by those of Arminian persuasions.  For instance, the 16th century unitarian, Socinus, translated the verse to read, “as many as believed were ordained to eternal life,” so as to make personal belief the initiator of being ordained.


John 15:16;  2 Timothy 1:9;  Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 2:8,9


What about foreknowledge? Doesn’t God’s foreknowledge prove He choose based upon foreseen faith?


In Romans 8:29 Paul discusses foreknowledge.


Classic Arminian commentators maintain that salvation is dependent upon God’s foreknowledge.  It is believed that in eternity past, God saw who would come to Christ, and chose them to salvation based upon their future decision for Christ.


In what respect did God thus foreknow them? They were foreknown as sure to fulfill the conditions of salvation, that is, faith. (Fredrick Godet, Romans, pg. 325)


Is this what the Bible teaches regarding foreknowledge?


Foreknowledgeproginosko – “pro,” before; “ginosko,” to know.

The idea of foreknowledge is that you know something beforehand. The word is transliterated into English as prognosticate.  The word is used through out the scripture to speak of God’s divine omniscience.


With that definition, it seems that the Arminian position would be correct, but we need to consider the following objections:


- The Arminian position would violate what we have just learned regarding God’s election. God’s choosing is based upon God’s sovereign good pleasure, not something in men.  If fore-knowledge was based upon a future decision God sees made by men, then salvation would be man’s gift to God, not God’s gift to men.


- Romans 8:29 is about people, not the acting of people. The word is “whom,” not “what.” The verse says nothing about God knowing something about what some particular individuals would do. Rather, it speaks of God knowing the individuals themselves.


- The word is foreknow, not foresaw.  When the Bible speaks of God knowing someone, the word has reference to love, favor, or an intimate relationship.  It is an Hebrew idiom, taken from the OT and carried over into the NT.


Genesis 4:1 says, “Adam knew his wife Eve.” He was acquainted with her intimately.

Psalm 1:6 states God knows the way of the righteous. He is intimately involved with them.

In Amos 3:2 God says to Israel, “You only have I known from all the families of the earth.” God knew of all the other people on earth, but He had a special relationship with Israel.


This is what we have in Romans 8:29. God was intimately acquainted with the elect in eternity past. 



§         Election and Rebrobation:


A discussion of divine election cannot be complete with out mentioning reprobation.


Reprobation is God’s sovereign, holy, wise, and mysterious decree whereby, in electing some to eternal life, He passes others by, justly leaving them to be condemned by their own sin.


This is a dreaded doctrine by both Arminians, as well as those who would be Calvinistic.


The key to placing reprobation in its proper biblical setting is to understand that if God chooses some to salvation, then by implication, God will pass by others.  That is only logical.


The opposite of wet is dry, up implies down, and a front implies a back.

The idea of choosing some logically implies some will be left behind. Choosing 5 peaches out of a bucket of 20 means 15 were passed by.


Theologians speak of two parts to reprobation: preterition and condemnation.


Preterition:  From the Latin – praeter [ by ] and ire [ to go ].  Together they mean to pass by.

Essentially, in decreeing that some should be elected and saved, God chose to pass by others.


Condemnation: Those who are passed by are condemned for their sins.


Ø       It should be pointed out that preterition is like election in that it too is unconditional.  God’s passing by some was not conditioned upon their unbelief.  Just as God did not “foresee” who would choose Christ, and thus elected them to salvation, He did not “foresee” who would reject Christ, and thus pass by them. 


Ø       Condemnation, however, is conditional.  God’s condemns the sinner based upon his sin.


Romans 9:17-23: The hardening of Pharaoh


In Romans 9 we have described for us the story of Pharaoh and his hardened heart. 


Harden comes from the Greek word skleruno which literally means, “to make hard or stiffen.”  Metaphorically, it means to render stubborn, obstinate, or insensitive to spiritual things.  Such is the case of Pharaoh, who stubbornly refused to free Israel at Moses’s request.


Who does the hardening?


Notice who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, God (9:18).  It is God who has mercy upon whom He has mercy, and it is God who hardens whom He hardens.  God is the potter, and He can choose to make a vessel of honor, a fancy soup dish; or God can make a vessel of dishonor, an ash tray.

God hardened Pharaoh’s heart for the purpose of showing His wrath and to make His power known.


What does it mean to harden?


No doctrine stimulates more negative reaction than the idea that God hardens sinners. But, the Bible teaches this clearly.   How are we to understand this hardening?  Is God intentionally causing unbelief and rebellion in the heart of Pharaoh?


In order to save God’s reputation from being stained with such an act, the opponents to reprobation state that it was Pharaoh who hardened his heart first.  They point to Exodus 9:12, where the first reference to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart comes after Pharaoh hardening his own heart, (Ex. 8:11,28).


Does the scriptures yield the conclusion that God responded to Pharaoh?


-          First, the book of Exodus does not clearly indicate that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in response to his hardening.  In fact, Exodus 4:21 records God telling Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. Furthermore, there are 5 more references in the passive voice, (7:13,14,22; 8:11,15), indicating that it was God who hardened his heart first.


-          Secondly, Paul is clear that it is God’s choice alone to harden whom He wishes, and God is not constrained to make that decision based upon a person’s actions.


-          Third, if God hardens in response to self-hardening, then this action would be the response to the objection that God is unfair, (Romans 9:19).  In other words, Paul could have responded to the objector in his argument by stating, “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart because he hardened his heart first.” However, Paul does not even give that scenario as an answer.


The biblical evidence suggests that it is God who hardens, but does that make God the one who causes disobedience and sin in a person?


We must remember that God’s hardening is with human beings, as we have learned, who are in open rebellion against God.  God’s hardening then, does not causes sinfulness, or spiritual insensitivity in people; it maintains people in the state of sin that already characterizes them.

The hardening properties are not in God, but in the sinner.

It is similar to clay hardening.  The properties to harden clay are not found in the sun, or heat, but in the clay itself.



n       Objections to Unconditional Election:


Isn’t unconditional election unfair?


This is the prime objection to unconditional election.  Usually the objector states that such a view of election makes God to be cruel, and a respecter of persons.

Furthermore, the objector asks, “what if someone wants in but he or she is not elected?” The question is asked as if Calvinism teaches that God prevents people from coming to Him who want to come to Him, but are not elected.


Let us examine the objector’s claims.


- Unconditional election is unfair and makes God cruel.


(1). To say election is unfair demonstrates how an unbiblical view of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness has adversely effected the thinking of Christians.


Christians have the wrong idea that a holy and just God is obligated to offer salvation to sinful and rebellious men.  It must be made clear that God does not owe any man anything.  If God were to be fair, all men would be sent to hell, for all men deserve hell.


(2). Further more, salvation is God’s to offer.  He can do what He wishes with His salvation.  He can withhold it from all, or give it to all, or give it to some.  It is not man’s place to argue with what God should do with His salvation (Romans 9:20). 


Billionaire Illustration:


A billionaire goes to prison that holds 250 criminals.  These criminals have murdered, raped and done many acts of cruel wickedness; none of them are the least bit repentant of their attitudes and actions.  All 250 criminals are dying of a disease.  The billionaire selects 4 on whom he bestows his favor.  These four criminals are cleaned up, medically treated, and are given their own rooms in the billionaire’s mansion. 

Is the billionaire unfair, or cruel, because he only chooses 4 criminals out of that group of 250 on whom to bestow his blessings?  Of course not!  None of the criminals deserve any favor from the billionaire.  If a billionaire can offer to show mercy on who he wishes, why can’t God?  It is God’s salvation to offer, and men cannot demand of God to extend His mercy to whom they think should receive it. 



-          Calvinistic view of election prevents people who want to come to salvation, but can’t because they are not elected.


Those who oppose the Calvinistic view of election do so on the grounds that it would teach that men, who sincerely desire salvation, cannot receive salvation because they are not elect.  In other words, a man may want to be saved, but he is turned away because he is not on God’s “elect list.”


There are a couple of problems with this idea.


(1). First, it is assumed that there are men who sincerely want salvation with out any intervention by God.  As we have seen with total depravity, men do not desire to have any thing to do with God.  He wants to run his own life.  The notion that there would be individuals who want to be saved, but are not on God’s “election list” is pure, unbiblical fantasy.


(2). Secondly, this thinking separates man’s response to salvation from the Holy Spirit’s divinely effective work in the heart of men. No man is going to wake up one morning and think, “I believe I want to go to heaven.”  As we will see under irresistible grace, any person who comes to Christ demonstrates that they are elect, because God calls all His elect out of the world.



What about 2 Peter 3:9? Doesn’t God want “all” men to be saved?


Arminians often appeal to this passage in 2 Peter as a proof text that proves God desires all men on earth to be saved.  Peter is stating, says the Arminian, that God delays His judgment because He does not desire anyone to perish, but rather desires the repentance and salvation of all people.  Thus, God wants every one to have the opportunity to hear the gospel and decide for Christ.


On the surface, it does appear as though Peter is advocating that God desires all men to be saved, but we need to do a study on the passage to see if this idea plays out.




Second Peter is written primarily to give a defense against the intrusion into the church by false teachers.  The second chapter beings a description of their character.  Peter points out what a false teacher is marked by. Beginning in chapter three, Peter says he wants to, “stir up to remembrance” (3:1), those things spoken by the prophets of old and by Christ concerning what false teachers will say about Christ’s coming.  These false teachers will say that God has forgotten about judgment, and Christ has failed to return, (3:5). Peter then, is encouraging his readers by telling them why God has delayed his coming.

It is important to note that 2 Peter, as with all epistles, is written to the church, to the brethren.  This is significant, because 3:9 says that God is longsuffering to us-ward. Who is the us? It would be the church.

Peter’s words are written to encourage the Christians who have been influenced to think Christ has forgotten his promise of returning.


Specific words:


Willing -  What exactly does “willing” mean here? 


Those on the Arminian side hold that willing makes reference to God’s strong desire or wish.  It is a desire or wish that may or may not take place.  Basically, it is understood as God expressing what He wishes will happen, i.e., that all men repent.


Willing is translated from the Greek word, boulomai.  Instead of having the thought of merely expressing a wish or desire that may or may not come to pass, boulomai, means, “a deliberate design, that which has purpose.” 

Of all the uses of boulomai in the NT, the word in its various contexts means “a desire that will be accomplished.”

Understood here in 2 Peter 3:9, God has purposed that none should perish, but all come to repentance. 


All – Who are the “all?”

Those who are of the Arminian persuasion take all, when it is used in the Bible, to mean “every person with out exception.”  However, upon examination of the scriptures, all rarely means “every person with out exception.” The context of the passages where it is employed determines how the word is to be understood, and more often, the context of specific passages limits all to mean “certain individuals of a group.”   See for example, Mark 1:5; Acts 4:21; 21:28.


Further, the indefinite pronoun tinas, translated any is plural.  What does that mean?

Though tinas is rightly translated any, its specific definition is properly understood as “some” or “certain ones”, or “certain men.”  If Peter had intended to include as the all, “every single person with out exception,” he would had been better to use a singular pronoun form which would be translated “anyone.”


Proper interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9:


Is Peter advocating that God extends His judgment because He strongly wishes every person on earth to have the opportunity to hear the Gospel and decide for Christ?  Emphatically NO!


God prolongs judgment because He has purposed that none of His elect will perish, but they will come to repentance.  God long suffers on account of our salvation, (3:15); the salvation of his elect people.  Thus, God withholds final, eschatological judgment in the return of Christ, until all his people are brought to salvation. 


Scriptural illustrations: 1 Peter 3:20; Matthew 13:24-30.


1 Peter 3:20: God prolonged judgment as Noah prepared the ark. Not for the sake of the world to repent, but for Noah’s sake; so that he could prepare the ark.


Matthew 13:24-30: The tares grow along side the wheat.  God with holds judgment for the wheat to grow, not on account of the tares.

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