Few doctrines divide God’s people like the doctrine of election. Since both the word, “election” in its various forms, plus the concept using different words is found repeatedly in the Bible, some explanation must be offered. It cannot simply be ignored.
Although there are various shades of interpretation, in the end, it boils down to two possibilities. Either election means God chose His people without reference to anything He saw in man (unconditional election), or God chose people based upon something He saw or foresaw within them (conditional election).
Since the days of the Protestant Reformation, these two concepts have resulted in two different theologies, Calvinism, which holds to unconditional election, and Arminianism which teaches conditional election. In truth, there are variations within these two camps, and some prefer to avoid either label, but there are really only two positions on election. For brevity’s sake, I will use the commonly accepted historic labels.
In this article, I will examine a text that is often claimed by both sides of the debate.
Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love (Eph. 1:4)
Calvinists see this as a clear statement of unconditional election. God chose His people before the foundation of the world. Paul indicates that election begins with God, not man, and was settled before the world was created. This means election is unconditional, without reference to anything within the elect individual, seen or foreseen. Arminians do not understand this text to refer to salvation at all. They view it as God’s determination that those whom He knew would choose Christ of their own free will, shall be made holy and blameless as the result of God’s work in their lives. Calvinists see unconditional election, whereas Arminians see a promise of sanctification.
How should we understand this text? We begin by noticing that election is of individuals, not of operations or results. It says that God chose “us,” that is individual people. It does not say God chose to do something in the lives of those who choose Him. True, it goes on to say that God determined to do something in the lives of those He has chosen, namely to make them holy and blameless, but that is an extension of the first declaration that God chose individual persons to be His people.
Arminians rush over the first part to focus upon the second, and then use their truncated understanding of the second part to cancel out the first. This is poor exegesis. Calvinists see both parts of the text as referring to salvation. First, God determined to choose individuals for salvation. Second, He determined to make them holy and blameless, which is a central element of salvation.
What is salvation? It is more than justification before the judgment bar of God. It is more than the promise of eternal life. It is God’s determination to rescue sinners from condemnation and transform them into the image of His dear Son (Rom. 8:29). This text refers to the whole process, not simply a part.
Could it be otherwise? Could God choose individuals for Himself, and then allow them to remain unholy and blameworthy? Of course not. Salvation, properly considered, is a big word that describes everything God does from beginning to end to rescue fallen sinners. Salvation began in eternity past when God determined to rescue a large number out of Adam’s fallen race, and concludes in eternity future when every one of God’s elect children are presented faultless before the throne. Salvation includes many parts. Justification is one part, sanctification is another. This text refers to the electing grace of God that marked us out for justification and also guarantees our sanctification.
The two parts of this text are similar to the two aspects of Ephesians 2:8-10.
- Part one: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; It is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
- Part two: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
Salvation is God’s gift of grace, the outworking of His unmerited favor. He chose us and He freely gave salvation to us. Part of that gracious gift of salvation is to direct us into good works, to walk holy and blameless before Him, imperfectly upon Earth, and perfectly when we arrive in Heaven. Exactly as the text says in Ephesians 1:4.
One of the pivotal issues in election is who goes first, God or man. If God chooses individuals based upon nothing within them, it is God who determines salvation. God is thus sovereign in salvation, just as He is in everything else. However, if God “chooses” based upon what He foresees man will choose, it is man, not God, who makes the determinative choice. Man is therefore sovereign in salvation. God may be sovereign in everything else, but not in salvation.
Clearly election understood in this way is really not divine election at all. If man makes the first and determinative choice, then God does not really choose His people. He graciously accepts those who choose Him. Man chooses God, but God does not choose man. We may call it God’s choice, but it is really ratification of man’s choice. The Arminian doctrine of election is a word game. Some may call it the doctrine of election, but it should rightfully be called the doctrine of ratification. According to this doctrine, God didn’t choose anyone. Man’s choice is first and determinative. God simply ratifies man’s choice.
The Arminian tries to preserve man’s choice at the expense of God’s choice. It is obvious that both God and man cannot make the determinative choice. Someone must choose first, and someone must choose second. The question cannot be resolved by appealing to human logic, sentiment, or tradition. The correct answer must come from the Bible.
It is true that the Bible speaks of men choosing Christ, and indicates that such choices determine eternal destiny. But the real issue is not who chose, but who chose first? The Bible teaches us that no man, left to himself, will ever choose Christ. He will not and he cannot. In truth, he will not because he cannot (John 6:37, 44, 65, etc.).
When we choose Christ, it is because God has already chosen us, and has done a work of grace within us to enable us to see our sinful condition and believe on Christ for salvation. Natural men, as they are born into this world, have no capacity to understand or choose spiritual truth (1 Corinthians 2:14). We did not choose Christ in a vacuum. We did not choose Christ out of natural insight or desire. We chose Christ because He first chose us, and is now doing everything necessary to bring us, holy and blameless before Him in love.
Chosen for what? Chosen for salvation.
But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. (2 Thess. 2:13)
Chosen for what? Chosen for sanctification.
Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love (Eph. 1:4)
These are two aspects of the same salvation, and they are two operations upon the same individuals, the elect of God. Truly salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). If you have biblical warrant to believe yourself saved, give all the glory to God, and to Him alone, for He has graciously chosen to reveal Himself to you, and work His salvation within you.
G. N. Barkman received his BA and MA from BJU and later founded Beacon Baptist Church in Burlington, NC where has pastored since 1973. In addition, Pastor Barkman airs the Beacon Broadcast on twenty radio stations. He and his wife, Marti, have been blessed with four daughters and are expecting their ninth grandchild.