What “Unconditional Election” does not mean

election

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.

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The Warning Passages and Perseverance of the Saints

schreiner

I have been in dialogue with a friend on the topic of perseverance of the saints. It was what prompted this post HERE. My basic thesis is that all true believers are kept by God’s power, and continue in faith until the end. There is nothing that can separate God’s people from his love, because God, by his power, keeps his people faithful and believing. I affirmed that apostasy is in fact a leaving-of-the-faith; however, this does not demand that those who leave the faith are truly regenerate believers (for texts which affirm this fact, see the link above).

However, my friend objected to my position. His largest beef was that my position doesn’t take the “warning passages” seriously. He argued that the warning passages warn true believers of the dangers of leaving apostasy. After considering these texts a bit further, I do agree that the warning texts are addressing believers.

The question then becomes, how should one view and interpret these texts? To put another way, does that fact that the warning passages address believers demand that they can forfeit their salvation?

Thomas Schreiner, in his book Run to Win the Prize, attempts to wade this issue. As a Calvinist, Schreiner adheres to perseverance of saints. However, at the same time, Schreiner agrees that the warning texts address regenerate believers. He admits that the Arminian reading (that the warnings are addressed to believers) of the warning passages is not at all “far-fetched”, and actually takes “the warnings… seriously”.

However, Schreiner disagrees with the Arminian conclusion that believers can lose their salvation. The reason is because while Schreiner wishes to deal with the warning texts fairly, he also wants to deal with the assurnance texts fairly. In essence, he concludes that Arminians are too one-sided when it comes to the passages on the believer’s security in Christ. He says,

The problem with the Arminian reading is that those adhering to [conditional security] do not have a persuasive reading of the assurance texts in Scripture… For instance, Paul assures the Philippians that ‘he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 1:6). Arminians read this text to say that the good work will be completed, provided that one continues to believe and if one does not fall away. Such a reading, however, drains the verse of virtually all comfort…

…The same line of argument applies to Romans 8:35-39, where Paul promises that nothing will separate believers from the love of Christ. Again the Arminian argues that nothing external can separate believers from Christ’s love, but believers may be detached from Christ by their own choices. Such a reading of the text is unconvincing… The very point Paul makes here is that even the most terrifying experiences will not move one to forsake Christ. The reason for believers’ faithfulness does not lie in the strength of their will but in the love of Christ, which keeps them even through agonizing sufferings.

I totally agree. The security passages are incredibly clear. The question then becomes, how can the warnings texts address believers concerning the dangers of apostasy, if believers cannot/will not apostatize?

Schreiner answer this question by look at the the purpose of the warning texts. He explains, saying:

[The warning texts do in fact warn believers] against falling away, for those who do so will be damned forever. It is precisely at this point that we must [explain]…the function of the warnings in the NT. The writers in the texts we have examined do not accuse their readers as if the latter have fallen away. They admonish them so that they will not fall away. The warnings are prospective, not retrospective. They are like road signs that caution drivers of dangers ahead on the highway. They are written so that readers will heed the warnings and escape the threatened consequence… The purpose of warnings in the NT is redemptive and salvific. The Lord uses them as means so that believers will escape death…

This is an interesting way to observe the warnings. What Schreiner means to explain is that the NT warnings are a means by which God keeps his elect in the faith. Those in the Reformed camp would all agree that God uses means to infallibly save and keep his people. Schreiner argues that the warning texts are one of God’s main ways of doing so. Another important observation is that the warnings are prospective, not retrospective — in other words, the warnings do not address those who have already left the faith — they warn believers of what would happen if they did apostatize.

Schreiner continues:

I would contend that all true believers (all the elect, all those who have the Holy Spirit and enjoy the forgiveness of sins and are members of the new covenant) heed the warnings and are thereby saved. In other words, the warnings are one of the means God uses to keep his own trusting him and persevering in the faith until the end… The warnings in the NT, then, do not rebuke believers for falling away. They urge them most earnestly not to do so…

The main objection that is raised against this reading of the warnings is that the warning is drained of all significance if it cannot be fulfilled. If the elect always and inevitably fulfill the warning, then what is the point of giving the admonition? [To answer by way of illustration], the other day I was driving my car in reverse and almost hit a parked car behind me, but my son cried out, “Dad, stop!” His warning caused me to put on the brakes and prevented me from hitting the car. In the same way, because, when my children were small, I threatened punishments if they ran into the street, they never ran into the street. Warnings are not abstractions. They are the means God uses to keep believers from falling away.

Schreiner ends his argument by making this helpful clarification:

God has promised that his elect will persevere, just as he promised to grant faith to his chosen ones. Such a promise does not eliminate [responsibility]. Both the summons to persevere and [the call to believe] in the gospel are conditions that must be fulfilled to be saved, but in both instances God grants the grace so that the conditions will certainly be fulfilled in those who belong to him.

While I believe that my last post is still in harmony with this position, I think Schreiner has a helpful discussion, especially considering the nature of the warning passages in the NT.