There are many misunderstandings of the doctrine commonly called “unconditional election”. This doctrine, as defined by the Westminster Confession, says that God, out of the “good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace”. In other words, before we “had done nothing either good or bad” (Rom 9:11) to deserve salvation, before the foundation of the world, God set out to save some. And he did this to the “praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:4), so that salvation would “depend not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16).
What this means, is that the why of our salvation is not ultimately rooted in our great faith or intellect or good works, but rather in God’s gracious choice to save. We are all lost in sin, unable and unwilling to love God, and God, out of his mercy, chose to call some to himself in Christ. The point of election is that grace would be undiluted grace, from beginning to end.
However, there are many who would object to this doctrine, because they would say that if God has elected some to salvation, and they will be saved no matter what, then there is no point to evangelism or prayer. Why share the gospel is the elect will be saved in any case? Why pray if God has already decided? Why do anything, if it’s all been determined? Why not just wait for the elect to be saved?
But this is a misunderstanding of this doctrine. It’s important to understand that unconditional election does not mean that personal responsibility is pointless. It may perhaps seem that way, but biblically, this is not how election is portrayed. God’s sovereignty in salvation, and man’s responsibility in believing, go together in the scriptures.
What is missing in these objections is the logical connection between God’s election to save, and his outworking of that election. In other words, just because God elects some to salvation before the foundation of the world, they aren’t actually saved before the foundation of the world. That is just when God decided to save sinners. What this means, is that God’s election must be accomplished within time, and by certain means. Prayer and evangelism are two of those means. God foreknows our prayers for someone’s salvation, and decides beforehand to answer them. God also decides to use our evangelism as the means to get the gospel to lost sinners.
In other words, while God’s election determines that someone will be saved, the outworking of that salvation happens through a myriad of means. What this means, is that we are called to preach the gospel, and pray, and labor for sinners, and trust that God is using our labor to accomplish the salvation of his elect. We don’t know who will be saved, or who will positively respond to the gospel, but we do know that if someone does respond with faith, that the faith they have is a gift of God (Eph 2:8-9), and is a result of God’s election (and of course, it is all at the same their faith as well).
Paul himself says this in 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. Paul does not say, “God has chosen you, and so we didn’t preach the gospel, because what’s the point?” He says “we know God has chosen you, because of the fact that you responded to the gospel we labored to preach“. In other words, God accomplishes his election through our preaching of the gospel.
Thomas Schreiner expounds on this principle, saying
What must be noted here… is that God’s election of some does not invalidate the call the believe. When the gospel is proclaimed, those who preach do not summon the hearers to consider whether they are elect or chosen by God. Rather, they consistently call upon their hearers to repent and believe. One could object that the summons to believe is completely unnecessary, for God has promised to save only the elect… But the Calvinist responds that the preaching of the gospel is the means God uses to bring his own to faith. On a Calvinist scheme, the need to believe in order to be saved is no minimized in the least even though God has chosen who will believe from the foundation of the world. Belief is a condition to be saved, but God through his grace has promised to fulfill that condition in the lives of the elect. Still, such a promise does not eliminate the urgency of believing when the gospel is proclaimed. Those who hear must believe and repent to be saved, and they are summoned to respond with the utmost urgency.
So, election does not mean that personal responsibility is irrelevant, or that evangelism is pointless. Rather, God uses those things to accomplish what he set out to do before the foundations of the world. To be sure, there is mystery is this. And while we may not completely understand this doctrine, it is a doctrine rooted in God’s sovereign love, for our good and his glory.