Tiptoe Through the TULIP: Unconditional Election

We are continuing through a series requested by a sister in Christ regarding the five points of Calvinism, also known as TULIP. This post will deal with the second letter in the acronym, which is a “U” and stands for Unconditional Election. To any newcomers to this little miniseries, I’d suggest starting with this post to understand how I’m doing this and where I’m coming from.

Unconditional Election, in its simplest, crudest definition, states that, before the foundation of the world, God chose the elect to inherit salvation, and it was not based on anything we did. In other words, God does not look at Man A and Man B and say, “Ah, Man A does way more good deeds than Man B,” or “Oh, Man A is way more receptive of the gospel than Man B,” and choose His electing that way. Most importantly, this electing is not based upon anything we do, hence the unconditional nature of it. We are not saved because we walked the aisle, did good works, or responded to the gospel – we believe because we were elected and called by God.

As many might have already guessed, this, along with Limited Atonement, is one of the most attacked of the TULIP phrases. That God would elect someone for reasons outside of their own person has become one of the chief reasons many attack Calvinism and label it a hateful theology. Some charge that Calvinism makes God maleficent and evil. Others say that Calvinists believe God’s decision is arbitrary, as if God places up pictures of everyone who will ever live, throws a few darts, and saves whomever the darts landed on.

Therefore, let’s dispel some common straw men right off the bat:

1) God does not do this out of malevolence. God is not doing this out of wickedness. Remember that in our last discussion, regarding Total Depravity, we established that mankind in toto were objects of wrath who were deserving of God’s judgment for their sins and whose natural inclination was to reject God. Those who would say that God electing unconditionally is not fair forget that, if God were truly “fair” and “just,” we would all be in hell. God could have done with mankind what he did with the angels who rebelled against Him, which was to leave them destined to perish in hell. Therefore, we should not be surprised that God elects some, but that He elects any.

2) God is not doing this for arbitrary reasons. The word “arbitrary” suggests that it was by near random personal whim without reason or understanding. Therefore many people have the idea God’s electing individuals is similar to someone choosing a lobster from the tank at Red Lobster. However, everything God does has a purpose. Remember that when Christ heard that Lazarus was sick, he intentionally stayed where he was for two days (John 11:6), during which Lazarus died. One could therefore argue that Christ intentionally let Lazarus die. However, Christ did not permit Lazarus to die for any mere “arbitrary” reason, but, as Christ himself said: “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). In a similar manner, God’s purpose in election is not a matter of “eenie meenie miney moe,” but a matter of fulfilling His purpose and will.

3) God does not predestine damnation. Many people assume that, if God elects some for salvation, then He must elect everyone else for damnation. This, however, is not the case, and those who argue in such a fashion do so in a false dichotomy. The natural state of man, without the electing intervention of God, is one poised for damnation, and it is God’s election through grace which saves us from that. Remember that in our past discussion, regarding Total Depravity, that we established that the natural state of man is one in rebellion against God and is headed for damnation. God doesn’t need to predestine a man for hell – he does a fine job of that on his own.

4) The election itself is not salvation. Many people think that, because God brings about salvation through election, that election and salvation are equatable to one another. On the contrary, election is not itself salvation, but is merely the act by which God chooses those who will receive the benefits of salvation. A governor may choose to pardon an inmate on death row, but it is not that actual act of choosing that is the freedom from death for the prisoner.

Yet as I said in my last post, there’s only so much I can discuss on the subject. As per the series, we are now going to see what scripture says on the matter. To discuss this scripturally, I’m going to take a leap and jump into a controversial passage. I’m going to be discussing this topic from…you guessed it…Romans 9!! (Cue shocker music.) Let’s start:

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. [Romans 9:1-5]

First, let’s understand the context. Paul has just finished giving his great exposition on salvation in Romans 8, and now turns to a difficult question: if God’s plan of salvation is so assured, why then are there disbelieving Jews? In other words, why does a Jew like Paul believe the Gospel, but a Jew like Caiaphas rejects it? Paul begins to answer this question by going to Old Testament examples:

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” [Romans 9:6-9]

Paul writes that not all who are descended from Israel are Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are descended from him naturally – in other words, not all ethnic Jews are God’s people automatically. You are not born a believer, and hence you are not born a true child of Abraham. What does make you descendant? Not being a child of flesh – in other words, a natural descendant of Abraham – but rather a child of the promise, or being those who have inherited the promise of salvation from God. As an example, Paul brings up Isaac, who was selected over Ishmael by God. Ishmael was a child by human action – God did not deem Ishmael to be born, but Sarah asked Hagar to produce him with Abraham. Isaac, on the other hand, was a choice by God, and based on God’s will. Although God looked out for Ishmael and made certain him and his mother didn’t die in the desert, He said that Isaac was the son whom He would bless and with whom He would stay.

Now Paul has to presuppose arguments against his position, and he recognizes that some Jewish Romans might point out that the situation with Isaac is a special one. After all, Ishmael was the product of a slave woman, not Abraham’s actual wife, and was conceived by the will of man rather than the will of God as Isaac was. You can’t possibly compare that to two people – one a believer, one not a believer – who are not in such a condition. Therefore, Paul presents another example which levels the playing field, and makes it so that no one can make such a contention.

And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” [Romans 9:10-13]

Now I know, I know…it’s common for people to say that these are nations, not people. They do this by going to the verse from Malachi (which Paul quotes) and pointing out that Malachi is speaking of the nations of Israel and Edom. The problem is that Paul, in this specific section of scripture, doesn’t talk about nations, but rather individuals. You can see that in the details he outlines: they are all personal; they deal with personal traits; they deal with traits that an individual would have, not ones that nations would have. We have to also remember Paul’s train of thought: he’s talking about why Jew A would believe the Gospel while Jew B would not – why would he suddenly change his train of thought in the middle of his discussion? No rational person thinks that way.

I’m also aware that some people argue the word “hated” here doesn’t mean a passionate, sinful kind of hate, and in fact just means “loved less.” While it’s true that the word refers to a kind of moral antipathy, this argument fails on two points:

1) The grammatical use of these words for “love” and “hate” are always used in opposition to one another. For example, this exact same grammatical use is found in Matthew 6:24, when our Lord says: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other.” Clearly, even if this doesn’t mean the servant will violently hate the one master, it’s still plain from the context that he’s not going to love both of them.

2) Even if we argue that the use of “hate” here refers to moral antipathy rather than passionate hatred, it’s still a fact that Esau was passed over for Jacob. Jacob received the blessing, Esau did not. In other words, some form of electing took place. Therefore, to argue that “hate” just means “loved less” is a complete non sequitor.

I likewise know that it’s common for people to say that God merely used foreknowledge of what Jacob and Esau would do and based his decision on that. However, let’s review what these verses say, and answer some basic questions:

Question: What is the condition of the two boys when the election took place?
Answer: a) Neither had been born; b) Neither had done good nor bad.

Question: What drove God’s decision-making?
Answer: a) His purpose of election; b) Not because of works!

It is impossible to argue that Paul is referring to any kind of foreknowledge on God’s part regarding the actions of Jacob and Esau, and this is because of the clear language scripture gives us. For one, nowhere is such foreknowledge made mention. For another, Paul literally says that God’s choice had nothing to do with what Jacob or Esau did do, were doing, or would do. The deciding factor in God’s choosing Jacob over Esau was His purpose of election and His will. Anyone who argues God looked into the future to see what Jacob and Esau would do is reading into the text.

What we see unfolding in the epistle to the Romans is Grade-A Unconditional Election. We see this more when Paul quotes God from the Old Testament in verse 15 with, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” The apostle develops this further in verse 16 with: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” Again, it is neither our will nor our works that make us “electable” before God, but God’s own mercy, serving His purpose and will. I have listened to and read many attempts to insert human will into these verses, but all have failed due either to jumping from the context of the verses or cutting them up and reading each in an isolated context. When you start from verse one and move on in chronological order, the point Paul is making is clear.

So when we look down upon a Christian in the church, that Christian is not a saint because of anything he has done or would do, but by the kind mercies of God, who, though that man was dead in trespasses and sins, made him alive together with Christ. As I said at the beginning of this post, we shouldn’t ask ourselves why God elected that man, but rather we should ask ourselves, knowing the state of man, why God elects anyone. That is why God’s election towards salvation is in and of itself called “mercy” in this chapter of Romans – because it is completely undeserved.

We will, God willing, continue on with this series in some of the posts to come.

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