Author: Ron Graham
—The U in TULIP
Unconditional election is the U in TULIP. The term refers to the belief that God, for no apparent reason, has chosen (or “elected”) some people for eternal life, whilst passing others by.
God’s choice (or “election”) is said to be “unconditional”. That means that nothing is required of the people whom God elects —they don't have to fit or fulfill any conditions. They don't have to be any different to the people whom God rejects.
One of the creeds has this to say...
"Those of mankind who are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving him thereunto".
You will notice that being chosen for eternal life is thought to have nothing to do with you; it is only of God and "the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will". So that's what we must think about in this first part of our lesson.
1 God’s Counsel and God’s Sovereignty
Calvinists hold that God, in choosing some people and rejecting others, was not bound in any way. Calvinism argues that, since God is "Sovereign"...
- He is accountable to nobody, and we must accept without question whatever he determined.
- His purpose is "immutable" so there is nothing we can do to change God's mind about how he regards us.
- His grace and love are "free", not bound by any law, so God does what he likes, bestowing his grace on whom he pleases regardless of what they think or say or do.
- He loves some, and doesn't love others, and nobody has any business asking why.
That might sound all very reasonable, if you overlook that God must be just to all if he truly is Sovereign over all. God is both "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Romans 3:26). God would not be just if he justified one person, and didn't justify another, when there was nothing in the one or the other that moved God to so act.
2 Divine Counsel and Human Depravity
Perhaps we can put the Calvinistic reasoning another way, by connecting it with the first point of Calvinism which we have already studied —the T in the TULIP: "total depravity".
If human beings are by nature totally depraved, in other words completely incapable of loving God, then God has no reason to love them, does he? So if God does not love somebody, who can object? On the other hand, God is free to love somebody without reason (or “unconditionally”) if he wants to, isn't he? So if God does happen to love somebody, who can object?
That might sound all very reasonable, if you overlook that God "loved the world" not just a part of it (John 3:16). John is even more emphatic about that when he says, "the whole world" (1John 2:1-2).
If everyone in the world is totally and equally depraved, then a just God would either reject all of them, or love and extend grace to all of them, because he sees no difference in any of them.
3 Knowledge of God’s Counsel
In Calvinistic thought, the reason that God chose some and rejected others is hidden in "the secret counsel" of God.
Yet Calvinists must be privy to part of this secret, because they are certain that no quality or condition in a person moved God to elect or reject that person. How can they know this if election is "according to... secret counsel"?
This notion of “secret counsel” is not Paul’s doctrine; he believes God’s counsel is "manifest".
The only time the Paul mentions "secret" counsel, he says that this secret counsel has "now been manifested and made known" (Romans 16:25).
Paul says, "We have been predestined according to his purpose who works all things after the counsel of his will" (Ephesians 1:11).
And just before that, he says, "In all wisdom and insight [God] made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his kind intention which he purposed in [Christ]" (Ephesians 1:9). So the counsel of God, by which we are predestinated, is no secret; it has been made clear in the preaching of the gospel (Ephesians 1:13).
Clearly it is known who has been predestinated to life. Paul writes to the Ephesian Christians, "God chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ."
"This adoption was to himself, through Jesus Christ, according to the kind intention of his will, to the praise and glory of his grace which he bestowed on us freely in the beloved" (Ephesians 1:5-6).
So Paul was sure those Ephesian disciples were among the elect. How could he be so certain if he did not know why God chooses some and not others? But of course he did know why; it had been revealed.
So Paul had no concept of a "secret counsel" of God which decides who is the elect. The counsel of God is clear.
4 What Peter Says
In 2Peter 1:2-9, Peter exhorts us to work hard for certain qualities. Then he says something that makes no sense if the doctrine of “unconditional election” is true...
Peter says, "Make your calling and election sure; for if you do these things you will never stumble; for in this way entrance into the eternal kingdom will be given you abundantly." (2Peter 1:10-11). If election were unconditional, you could do nothing to make it more sure than it is.
Why would Peter say "make it sure" if God had already done everything required to make it absolutely and unconditionally sure? Peter’s exhortation to "make it sure" implies that your calling and election is sure only "so long as you do these things" that God requires to make and keep it sure (1Peter 1:10). If we don't, then it isn't sure at all.
Also note Peter’s warning that "the person who lacks these things is so shortsighted as to be blind; that person has forgotten about having been purged from old sins". (2Peter 1:9).
Peter later shows that such persons are no longer saved: "For if, after they have escaped the pollution of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first." (2Peter 2:20-22).
If election were unconditional, nothing you lack or fail to do could make it less sure than it is.
The letter to the Hebrews gives the same warning. What if someone does not continue in the faith? He has "counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified an unholy thing" and he needs to know that "if we go on sinning willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remains no longer a sacrifice for sins" (Hebrews 10:26,29).
So after you have been sanctified by Christ’s blood, it is a condition of remaining sanctified that you don't willfully keep on sinning.
Peter agrees with Paul. Paul says that we remain reconciled to God and sanctified by the blood of Jesus "if we continue in the faith... not moved away from the hope of the gospel" (Colossians 1:19-23). That is a condition placed upon a person remaining sanctified.
The Problem with Unconditional Election
If election is "according to His eternal and immutable purpose"... if election is "of His mere free grace and love"... if election is God's decision alone "without any other thing in the creature as a condition or cause moving him thereunto"... then nothing “the creature” does can make that election any more certain than it is, can it?
5 The Important Word "IF"
The word "if" in Peter's exhortation (2Peter 1:10) is incomprehensible if Calvinism is true. How can there be a condition in the unconditional? Peter says, "if you do these things" you will enter everlasting life. That implies that if you lack these things you will not enter everlasting life.
In the previous verse (2Peter 1:9), Peter claims that "he who lacks these things is so shortsighted as to be blind, and has forgotten that he was purged from his old sins" —which means that God had given him sanctification and atonement, but apparently he has new sins which have put his election in doubt. His election is conditional, and he is failing to fulfill those conditions.
6 The Narrow Gate and the Road to Life
In Matthew 7:13-14 we have a picture of conditional election...
- There is a wide gate opening on to a broad and easy way which leads to destruction.
- There is a narrow gate opening on to a difficult way that leads to life.
It appears that one may choose which gate to enter. Jesus counsels us to enter by the narrow gate and to walk the difficult road because of where it leads. The message is clear. The way to eternal life is open to everybody, and you are predestined to eternal life on the condition that you walk the road that leads there and walk it to the end. The Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional predestination does not fit this picture.
Conditional Yet Wholly of Grace
Calvinists reject any conditions on sanctification, because they take any condition to mean that our election and sanctification would rely partly upon ourselves rather than wholly upon God. However it is God who decreed these conditions. We never negotiated them with him.
Since therefore the conditions of election are part of God's decrees, and come from his own counsel —since he himself has put the "if" in election, and he himself enables us to keep his conditions, can we not still say that election is all of God's grace? There is no foundation to the assertion that election has to be "unconditional" in order to be wholly of grace.
[Creed quoted: THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH - 1646]