Foundations of Grace: Unconditional Election

All of us have definitive moments that in many ways can redefine the trajectory of our lives. What are some of those destiny-altering decisions which you’ve made in your own life? Was it a job? You left everything you knew behind. Was it a relationship? You decided to take the great risk and go for it. All of us have these moments that are so crucial to us that we can forever look back and say, ‘This was a decision that changed the direction my life was going.”

Years ago, I was a student at a Pentecostal university. I was a happy Baptist who was beginning study on a topic I had never encountered before: God’s Unconditional election. I knew very little about Reformed theology. I knew it involved men like Martin Luther, and John Calvin, but not much else. This study transformed my life and is the reason I am a Presbyterian and Reformed pastor today. I want to invite you see what the Bible has to say about this important, though often misunderstood topic.

How should we approach what is often called unconditional election or God’s act of predestination. We begin with simple idea that this is a biblical topic explicitly traced out for us by the Bible as a whole, but most vividly in the writings of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 1:4-5 and Romans 9:6-24.

We can sum up the idea of God’s unconditional election in this way: God, for no reason rooted in any of us, chooses some people to everlasting life and leaves others in their sin. Both categories of people are found in the broad category of sinners. However, only one category of people receives God’s mercy, and the others receive God’s justice. We say that this choice or election by God is unconditional because in love, God picks, or chooses, or predestines some to be saved for no reason found in them, and others He leaves in their own sin. God does not look out and wonder if these people might pick Him given the right conditions, because as spiritually dead sinners they have no desire for the triune God of Scripture (Romans 3:9-20; Romans 8:7; Ephesians 2:1-3). Likewise, God does not peer out and see who might choose Him given the right conditions for He decrees whatsoever comes to pass and yet is not the author of sin (Habakkuk 1:12-13; Ephesians 1:11; Hebrews 6:17).

This is often very troubling for people. However, the troubling component is that such an idea appears to violate what people call “free will”. The question I pose as a kind rebuttal is, “Is your understanding of free will faithful to Scripture or some man-made tradition or philosophy?”

How does Paul deal with the objections he experienced in his own day from those who wanted to point to some philosophical objection around the idea of free will? In Romans 9:15, Paul pointed to God’s words in Exodus, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (ESV) Paul elaborated his own understanding of this Old Testament text in the very next verse, “So then it [that is, our salvation] depends NOT ON HUMAN WILL or exertion, but, on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16 ESV; emphasis added.)

I remember the first time I heard this understanding of Scripture known as unconditional election. I despised it with every fiber of my being. I thought it made God sound as if He was a monster. The very idea ran against everything I had been taught in my Pentecostal and baptistic upbringing. There was only problem though: What I was presented in Reformed theology, and what I present to you today is the simple plain teaching of the Bible.

We must return to what has already been said. If it’s true that every person is corrupted by sin so that sin affects every part of the person, then without God’s outside action upon them they will only ever die in sin. If God respects our natural liberty or our choices apart from His miracle of regeneration, we will only ever run from Him. God must act upon us if we will ever be saved. He must make the choice we never would or could. His will must revive and free our deadened, enslaved wills. Thanks be to God that He does this in the gospel mystery of predestination, or unconditional election.

This answers for us the question very practically of why people become Christians. How would you answer that? The sort of questions we have to ask initially appear rude; but they aren’t. They merely get at the heart of the issue. There are many other religions and people who don’t care about Christ. Why do you? Was it due to your family or heritage or personality? Christian and other religious families don’t always produce consistent disciples. Were you smarter than others? There are intelligent non-Christians as well as Christians. Are you a better person with better morals than those who reject it? I’ve known some wonderfully moral non-Christians, and some horrifying immoral people who claim to be Christians.

Perhaps all of this sounds absurd. But I want to propose Scripture’s simple answer behind the question, “Why are you a Christian?” The Lord Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16 ESV) Why are you a Christian? Because God chose you. That’s it. God chose you to be the recipient of His grace when you earned His justice and wrath. God did this not because of your foreseen faith. Instead, God gifted you faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) and repentance (Acts 11:18). We are Christians because of God’s unconditional election. Therefore, may we worship God with joy and not rob Him of His glory.