The Doctrine of Election


The doctrine of election forms one of the bases of salvation, though it is not the only one. Other doctrines such as the death of Christ, faith, efficacious grace, and regeneration may also properly be termed bases as well. All are necessary in bringing to fruition the plan of God for the salvation of people.




A. Foresight Election


This view holds that God elects on the basis of foreseen faith. "By election we mean that sovereign act of God in grace whereby He chose in Christ Jesus for salvation all those whom He foreknew would accept Him." It is probably true to say that a great majority of evangelicals consciously or unconsciously hold this concept of election. God looked down the corridor of time and in His foreknowledge saw who would accept Christ and then elected them to salvation. This makes foreknowledge foresight without any pretemporal elective action on God’s part.


B. Corporate Election


A form of this view was held by Karl Barth. He taught that election is primarily election of Christ, then the election of the community, and finally the election of individuals. Actually all are elect in Christ, though unbelievers do not yet know that. This is why Barth’s doctrine of election caused him to be accused of universalism.


An evangelical form of this same concept (perhaps in some cases influenced by Barth and in some cases not) views election as the choosing of the group, the church, in Christ, but not of individuals until after they become members of the group by faith. In the evangelical form there is no suggestion of universalism, though the idea of corporate election is common to both. We cannot speak of individuals being elected before the foundation of the world but only of the church being so elected in Christ (Ephesians 1:4). When an individual believes in Christ, he is placed in that elect group, and then he can be said to be elect. "What did God choose before the foundation of the world? The church. Not individuals, but the body of Christ."


C. Individual, Pretemporal Election


In this viewpoint election is "that eternal act of God whereby He, in His sovereign good pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them, chooses a certain number of men to be the recipients of special grace and of eternal salvation." Thus election is unconditional (i.e., there is nothing in the creature that conditions God’s choice), pretemporal (before the foundation of the world), unmerited (i.e., of grace), and the basis of salvation. Those who hold this view also acknowledge that election is in Christ, but they mean that He is the ground and cause and guarantee of the election of individuals. They reject the corporate election concept, insisting rather that God elected individuals (and not on the basis of foresight), and those elect individuals form the group, the church.




A proper understanding of a number of terms that are directly and indirectly related to election will help to formulate the concept more biblically. Often the chief problem in understanding this doctrine is not including enough facets of it. No human mind will ever harmonize sovereignty and free will, but ignoring or downplaying one or the other in the interests of a supposed harmony will solve nothing.


A. Background Terminology


Certain terms and concepts form the backdrop against which election must be viewed.


1. Omniscience. This means that God has innate knowledge of all things actual and possible. Thus God’s choices were made with the greatest knowledge possible.


2. Decree, design, drawing. The decree of God is His plan for everything. The decree contains many decrees. Decreeing and foreordaining are synonymous theological concepts, but they obviously emphasize the sovereignty facet rather than the free will aspect. The word "design" is less weighted toward sovereignty, while the word "drawing" seems almost neutral.


Scripture teaches clearly that God’s plan includes all things (Ephesians 1:11), but it also reveals that the degree and directness of God’s relationship to specific events is varied. Sometimes He directly ordains something (Deuteronomy 32:39; Acts 5:1-11). Almost always He works through the natural laws He has ordained and does not lift them to make exceptions even for believers (Philippians 2:30). Sometimes He decides to allow people to give full expression to their sinful natures almost without restraint (Romans 1:24,26,28). Sometimes He expects us simply to make choices on the basis of what seems right or what we desire to do (1 Corinthians 10:27).


In the light of this variety, I personally think a word other than decree could better express all these aspects. Design may be satisfactory. Drawing may be too neutral, as if God did the initial work and then gave up control. And yet design brings the word "architect" into view, which does serve as a helpful concept in this doctrine. God is the Architect of a plan, which does include all things but includes them in a variety of relationships. Architects’ plans are detailed. So is God’s plan. In the process of constructing a building, experts can predict that so many workers will be injured and in some cases that some will lose their lives. Such grim statistics are included in the planning of the building, and yet we would not hold the architect responsible for the injuries and deaths (assuming proper safety measures). Carelessness, indifference to rules, even violation of safety restrictions are usually the causes of accidents. But whose fault are they? The individuals who are careless or indifferent. So God’s plan has been designed so that the responsibility for sin lies with the individual, even though God knowingly included sin in His plan.


3. Sovereign, free. These synonymous words can only refer to God in the absolute sense. He alone is sovereign and free. Exactly how He exercises that sovereignty and freedom we know only through the revelation of His plan as discussed in the preceding paragraph. Of course when He chooses to restrict Himself, that in no way makes Him less sovereign or free. Sovereign means supreme, and God always was, is, and will be the Sovereign who freely chose the plan He did.


B. Direct Terminology


1. Election. Election emphasizes God’s free choice of individuals to salvation (the election of Christ, Israel, or angels are not under consideration here). When Paul uses the verb, he uses it in the middle voice, indicating that God’s choice was made freely and for His own purposes (1 Corinthians 1:27-28; Ephesians 1:4). Individual Thessalonians were chosen (2 Thessalonians 2:13); as many as were set (previous to their believing) in the group of those who would have eternal life did believe (Acts 13:48); Paul was a chosen instrument (for salvation and service, Acts 9:15; Galatians 1:15); and some individuals’ names were not written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8; 17:8), which must mean some were. Election is unconditional and individual.


God’s elect in this age have not been chosen from the spectacular people of this world (1 Corinthians 1:27-28; James 2:5). They were chosen before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), and because they are elect they are to live godly lives (Colossians 3:12; 2 Peter 1:10).


2. Predestination. To predestine is to preplan a destiny. The word proorizo means to mark off beforehand. The death of Christ and its meaning were predestined by God (Acts 4:28; 1 Corinthians 2:7). God’s elect are predestined to adoption (Ephesians 1:5), to an inheritance (v. 11), and to ultimate conformity to Christ (Romans 8:28-29).


Biblically, predestination is limited to the elect people and assures their present position and future destiny. Theologically, the term has been used to include all things, that is, as a synonym for the total plan of God. From this theological definition it is an easy step for some forms of Calvinism to use predestination in relation to the destiny of the nonelect. Thus there arises a doctrine of double predestination. However, this is a logical assumption, not based on biblical texts. The Bible is clear that the elect are predestined, but it never suggests that there is a similar decree to elect some to damnation. The Scriptures seem content to leave that matter as a mystery, and so should we.


3. Foreknowledge. The word proginosko is used (a) of prior, temporal knowledge (Acts 26:5; 2 Peter 3:17); (b) of God’s relation to Israel (Romans 11:2); (c) of Christ’s sacrifice (Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:20); and (d) of God’s people today (Romans 8:29; 1 Peter 1:2).


The debate centers around the question of how much relationship exists in the word "foreknowledge." Does it mean merely that God foreknows in the sense of foreseeing without any relationship? Or, a variation of this, does it mean He foresaw faith and not people? Or, as Calvinism holds, does it mean that He related Himself to people before time in some way so that there is a causative connection that makes foreknow practically equivalent to predestine or foreordain? Clearly people are foreknown, not their faith (Romans 8:28-29). Clearly too foreknowledge as mere perception is not the basis of election, for 1 Peter 1:2 includes a decision on God’s part. Election is in harmony (kata) with foreknowledge, and that foreknowledge included the procedure used in working out the choice. Therefore, there is some relationship and/or decision inherent in the meaning of foreknow. Certainly verse 20 includes those ideas or it would assure nothing about the sacrifice of Christ. Likewise there is decisiveness and certainty in Acts 2:23 and Romans 11:2. An apocryphal use of the word also includes certainty: "And Thy judgments are in Thy foreknowledge" (Judith 9:6). To be sure, the word does not say "elect," but neither can it be reduced to a neutral concept of perception only. It does include decision that in turn has to involve an assurance that comes from certainty.


C. Opposite Terminology


By this I mean the ideas involved in retribution and preterition. Retribution means deserved punishment, while preterition is the passing over of those not elected to salvation. Both terms avoid the concept involved in double predestination or reprobation, which means foreordination to damnation. None of these terms appear in the Scripture, though the idea is clearly taught in Romans 9:18,21; 1 Peter 2:8; and Revelation 17:8. Therefore, the Scriptures do contain a doctrine of preterition, though there is not a decree to condemn in the same sense that there is a decree to elect. Obviously the very idea of election has to include the idea of the greater number out of which they were chosen, and those who were not chosen were certainly passed by.


This in no sense implies that God delights in the destiny of the wicked, or that they are driven against their wills, or that the doctrine of election nullifies a "whosoever" Gospel, or that any individual can know he is not elect and thereby try to excuse himself for rejecting Christ. All are accountable to God for their attitude toward Christ.




A. God’s Election Is Grounded in His Own Being


Therefore, the act of electing a people has to be compatible with all of His attributes. It is based on His omniscience, so that we may be assured that when He elected He did so knowing full well all of the alternative possibilities. It is related to the exercise of His sovereign will, so that He was in no way forced to do what He did. It was done by the God who is love, so that predestination was done in love (Ephesians 1:4-5). It expressed His mercy; otherwise how could God have loved Jacob? (Romans 9:15). It demonstrates His matchless grace (Ephesians 2:7-8). And the ultimate purpose of election is to display His glory (1:6,12,14). Usually we put the emphasis on the fact that God elects. We need to remember that it is God who elects, and He can do nothing unloving or unjust.


B. God’s Election Was of Individuals


This has already been discussed. He chose individuals, who then together make up the people of God.


C. God’s Election Was Not Based on Foreknowledge (Meaning Foresight)


To foreknow is not a neutral concept but involves some sort of relationship.


D. God’s Election Was Before the Foundation of the World


He did not choose us only after we chose Him (Ephesians 1:4).


E. Election Alone Does Not Result in the Salvation of People


To be sure, election assures that those chosen will be saved, but it alone does not save them. People are saved through faith in the substitutionary death of Christ. And, of course, they must learn about the death of Christ somehow in order to have content to their faith. Thus election, the death of Christ, testimony of His death, and personal faith are all necessary in the salvation of an individual. Election alone does not save.


F. Election Is Purposeful, Not Capricious


Its purpose for us is service and good works (John 15:16; Galatians 1:15-16; Ephesians 2:10; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-10).

Its purpose for God is to manifest His glory (Ephesians 1:6,12,14).


Therefore, the doctrine of election is highly motivating and should never be deadening to one’s spiritual life (Colossians 3:12).




Of course election is only a part of the broader consideration of the entire decree or plan or sovereignty of God. These objections are the ones usually raised against that doctrine.


A. It Equals Fatalism


Popularly, this objection is expressed like this: "What’s going to be is going to be anyway, and I cannot do anything about it." There are two very important differences between the biblical doctrine of the decree of God and the false teaching of fatalism. (1) Behind the decree is an intelligent, loving Being. Behind fatalism lies only impersonal blind chance. (2) Fatalism has no place for the importance of means. It only emphasizes ends. The decree of God includes all the means essential to arriving at the ends. And those means are as essential as the ends. Thus, the biblical doctrine gives proper place to human responsibility. What’s going to be is going to be through certain means and procedures and responsible human actions. Ephesians 1:11 spotlights all things, not solely ends.


B. It Is Inconsistent with Human Freedom


This is the same objection raised in Romans 9:19: Why can God fault anyone, since no one really resists His will if everything is part of His plan? Though it is true that God has the right to do anything consistent with His nature, it is equally true that He has chosen to exercise His rights by including the responsible and relatively free actions of people (Philemon 14; Revelation 17:13 linked with v. 17). I say relatively free simply because no one has absolute freedom, if for no other reason than the limitations of being fallen human creatures. He has made us responsible, and when we fail to act responsibly we are justly blamed.


An illustration: Does God know the day you are going to die? The answer is yes, He does. Question: Could you die a day sooner? The answer is no. Question: Then why do you eat? Answer: to live. The means of eating is essential to the end of living to the preordained day of death. From this point on the illustration can easily and uselessly get into the realm of the hypothetical. Suppose I do not eat? Then I will die. Would that be the day God planned that I should die? These are questions that do not need to be asked or answered. Just eat.


Or to change the illustration: Has God planned the answers to my prayers? Yes. Then why pray? Because those answers come when I pray.


Or again: Does God know who are elect? Of course, He elected them. Can any of them be lost? No. Then why pray and witness? Because that is how they will be saved. Will any of them fail to believe? No. Then why do they have to believe? Because that is the only way they can be saved, and unless they do believe they will not be saved. Do not let your mind ask the theoretical and useless questions. Let your mind and your life concentrate on doing what is God’s will and making sure you act responsibly.


C. It Makes God the Author of Sin


I think we must acknowledge that God did construct a plan that included sin, and its inclusion did not come as a surprise. Yet we must guard the clear teaching of Scripture that God hates sin (Psalms 5:5), that He is never responsible for our committing sin (James 1:13), and that including sin in His plan does not make it somehow less sinful and us less culpable.


All that the Bible says about the concrete appearance of sin in creatures is that it was found in Satan (Ezekiel 28:15). Isaiah 45:7 may refer to God’s including evil in His plan; some understand the verse to refer to the results of sin, such as calamity. Proverbs 16:4 teaches also that all things are included in God’s plan. We must seek a balance in this truth and live with the unresolved tensions.


Finally, face the ramification of all things not being included in one way or another in God’s plan. This would mean that there were things outside of His control, and that is a frightening idea.


Listen to these words of Calvin:


 Herein appears the immeasurable felicity of the godly mind. Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable too the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases – in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases – a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes nor sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark on a ship; you are one step away from death. Mount a horse; if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets; you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine. I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck? You will say: these events rarely happen, or at least not all the time, nor to all men, and never all at once. I agree; but since we are warned by the examples of others that these can also happen to ourselves, and that our life ought not to be excepted any more than theirs, we cannot but be frightened and terrified as if such events were about to happen to us. What, therefore, more calamitous can you imagine than such trepidation? Besides, it is an insult to God to say that He has exposed man, the noblest of His creatures, to the blindness and temerity of fortune.


Then join with Paul in his magnificent doxology that comes at the conclusion of his lengthy and detailed section on election when he wrote: "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:33-36).


Basic Theology, Charles C. Ryrie


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