The Doctrines of Grace: Unconditional Election, Part 1
Welcome to Part 1 of Unconditional Election!
Let’s get right down to business. Today I will seek to give you a brief history of the doctrine and a definition, similar to what I did with Part 1 of Total Depravity.
Okay, let’s start with a definition.
Dictionary.com defines election as the right, power, or privilege of making a choice. Yes, it gives other definitions, but this seems to be the heart of the definitions listed. So election in this case refers to “the right, power, or privilege of divine choice.”
Further, unconditional is defined as 1) Without conditions or limitations; absolute; 2) not contingent; not determined or influenced by someone or something else. In other words, unconditional means “totally free.”
So, to give a basic definition, what we are looking at here in this doctrine is the right, power, or privilege of God to make a choice that is totally free; that is, a completely objective, uninfluenced decision.
Now, let’s look at the history of the doctrine. Thanks to Prof. Chad Brand covering this doctrine in his Systematic Theology III class.
The Apostolic Fathers do not really discuss grace in the formative years after Christ and the apostles. This is because the biggest challenge the church faced at this time was Gnosticism. Any discussion of election and predestination would have encountered this heresy. Gnosticism taught that only by learning the secret knowledge of God could a person attain redemption. It would have been very easy for Gnostics to seize upon the doctrine of election to support their cause (For example, they could have said, “God has chosen certain individuals for salvation. Let us strive to learn this secret knowledge and as such be redeemed.”) So as such election is not given much attention by the early Fathers.
It fell to Augustine in his Anti-Pelagian Writings to begin systematizing election. His work was again in response to the heretic monk Pelagius.
Pelagius, along with Julian of Eclanum apparently believed salvation is by “human monergism.” Monergism means “one energy/action;” thus Pelagius declared salvation is by human ability. Augustine, on the other hand, believed Scripture taught that salvation is indeed through monergism or ability, but that ability is of divine origin, not human. People are saved by God’s action alone from beginning to end. And as such salvation begins with God’s election of those who will be saved.
Augustine believed that the default position for humanity is hell (massa perdita, or the mass of those damned), and God chooses certain ones from this group to be saved. This is why God does not choose to save all–the Bible says clearly that some are going to hell. Further, he also posits the concept of gemina praedestinatio, or “double predestination,” which holds that out of the mass of humanity, God chooses one group for salvation and the rest for hell. But Augustine for whatever reason did not go completely into a double predestination view.
Unfortunately, as noted in Part 1 of Total Depravity, after Augustine the Church fell into semi-Pelagianism. Election became dependent (contingent) on human ability. To summarize, semi-Pelagianism holds the principle of facere quod in se est, or doing your best. If you always do your best despite your sins, God will accept you. This is the source of the popular belief that if we do our best and live good lives, striving to be good people, then God will allow us into Heaven when we die.
When the Reformation dawned, Martin Luther made himself the bane of semi-Pelagianism. This heresy is described as the issue over which the Reformation was fought. Luther wrote a book against Desiderius Erasmus (which unfortunately I do not have the name of) in which he asserted that humans in their natural state do not have free will. Recognize that? That’s total depravity. As such, humans are nothing more than donkeys (though Luther used a less endearing word–think of your gluteus maximus) that are being ridden. Either God is riding the donkey or Satan is. And of course, either God is in control of the donkey’s fate or we’re all heretics. So Luther did hold that God completely controls who will be saved and who will be damned. But election was not Luther’s chief concern.
John Calvin is the one who brings election and predestination to the foreground. In his work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, he taught that election is unconditional, individual, and unto salvation. That means that God objectively chooses individuals for salvation. He also held that God also objectively chooses individuals for damnation–Augustine’s gemina praedestinatio. As such, because God objectively elects, divine election is dependent solely on God’s sovereign good pleasure, not on anything in the individual, including the individual’s sin. God is riding the donkey, and He alone chooses whether the donkey rides into Jerusalem or is cast into the valley of Gehenna to be burned.
The Arminians (especially John Wesley), however, held that election is based on foreseen faith. God in His foreknowledge of things to come saw who would believe in Christ and as such chose those individuals. God is not the arbiter (the one who decides) of salvation, rather the individual is. As such election is not a call to salvaton, but a call to a work, a call to a decision. In a statement, in Arminian election God chooses some people to make a decision to accept Christ or not, based on His foreseeing who would respond affirmatively to the Gospel call. God is completely dependent on individual sinners in election.
The Synod of Dort summarized Calvin’s teaching on election in response to the Remonstrants (Arminians). I have summarized it as such in the Prologue:
God chooses people for salvation solely by His own good pleasure, not because of any condition foreseen in the individual. One could rightly say that this is “Arbitrary Election.” This is not to impugn the doctrine but to underscore that there is nothing that influences God to choose some and damn others but His own purposes and plans. Faith in Christ is not the cause of election but rather the result. As so, those chosen (elected) by God are called the elect.
This is what the Calvinist and Reformed view of election has been ever since. Much thought and writing has been given to the workings of this doctrine since, but Reformed thinkers generally hold to this definition of election.
So, then, unconditional election refers to the right, power, or privilege of God to make a choice that is totally free–that is, a completely objective, uninfluenced decision–of some individuals to salvation and others to damnation, and that choice dependent only on the good pleasure of His will and not on anything seen in the individual.
Whew, this was long. Join us this weekend when we get into the biblical support and implications!