The Doctrine of Election

What Is It?

There are four main sets of words that we need to become familiar with as we study the doctrine of election: predestinate and predestination (proorizo), foreordain and foreordination (proginosko), elect and election (eklektos), and foreknow and foreknowledge (also proginosko). These words are used interchangeably, and all express in English the same eternal truth. Sometimes this doctrine of Scripture is referred to as the doctrine of predestination, but in Lutheran circles it is more commonly referred to as the election of grace.

So what truth do these words describe? It is the eternal act of God with respect to all who are saved, by which, out of pure grace and for Christ’s sake, He purposed to endow them in time with the spiritual blessings of conversion, justification, sanctification, and preservation unto eternal life. Paul says "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.(Romans 8:28-30).

This act of God’s will occurred before the world was created: “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). What God determined to do in eternity, He carries out in time through the means of Grace “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Ephesians 1:13). As we look at this doctrine of election, we must keep in mind that it is emphasizing God’s grace - these are words of Gospel showing what our triune God has done for us: God the Father chose us; God the Son made that election effective by redeeming us; and God the Holy Spirit conveyed that election to us by working faith in our hearts.

The Foundation

As we consider the doctrine of election we need to consider its intended role with the rest of the doctrines of Scripture; we have keep our human reason from drawing its own conclusions, and we need to be careful that we do not go beyond what the Scriptures clearly say.

First, we need to consider the intended role of the doctrine of election in connection with two other Scriptural doctrines: the doctrine of universal grace, and the doctrine of grace alone.

Universal grace is the doctrine that teaches us that God sincerely and earnestly wants everyone to be saved. "And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (1 John 2:2). The doctrine of election teaches that God elected a certain number from the mass of fallen man to eternal salvation. While there are some similarities between these two doctrines, there are some key differences: One extends over all people, the other over a certain number of fallen mankind. While the Lord is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 2:9), we are also reminded that “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 20:16). These two doctrines do not contradict each other, but both emphasize God’s grace.

The doctrine of grace alone is the foundation for correctly understanding the doctrine of election - the doctrine of election confirms the doctrine of grace alone. The Bible teaches that our salvation has nothing to do with us at all, but is fully and completely a gift from God: “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work” (Romans 11:5-6). We must have a correct understanding of these two doctrines of Scripture in order to correctly understand the doctrine of election. To not understand this brings about disastrous results!

The Problem

The doctrine of election has caused many divisions between Christians and has been misunderstood and confused for centuries. In fact, each of us have probably struggled with the meaning of this doctrine at some time in our lives. Luther himself struggled with this doctrine, which he admits terrified him early in his life. It wasn’t until Luther was brought to understand the Gospel of God’s free grace in Christ that the doctrine of election brought him abiding comfort.

On one hand Scripture teaches that all people are equally and utterly lost in sin. Paul states, “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one” (Romans 3:10-12). On the other hand it clearly teaches that God, “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). It would seem as though all would be lost since all are sinners, or all would be saved since that is God’s desire. But what we see is that some are lost while others are saved. How can this be explained? We have to realize that the Scriptures do not answer this question for us. Whenever and however a person tries to answer this question, they will violate the Scriptures, either by denying universal grace or by denying grace alone.

Some Examples

John Calvin (1509-1564) was a theologian who was very influential in the Protestant Reformation a little after the time of Luther. Calvin solved the problem of “Why some, not others?” with his doctrine of double predestination. Calvin sought to rationalize the teachings of the Bible so that all questions would be answered satisfactorily. For Calvin, what governed his teaching on predestination was the sovereignty of God: Since God is almighty and since man cannot oppose the will of God, it follows that God determines the destiny of every person. So, some God wills to save, others He wills to damn. But Scripture teaches only an election to salvation, and not to damnation.

[Note: One passage that is often used by double predestinationists is found in Paul's letter to the Romans: "What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory" (Romans 9:22-23). They will say that Paul shows in this passage that God chose some for damnation (destruction). But closer look at the passage will reveal that this is not speaking of God's choosing them to spend eternity in hell. First there are two different Greek words used to describe the unbelievers in verse 22 and the believers in verse 23. In verse 22 the word "prepared" (katartizo) simply means fitted or readied. God has readied these individuals for destruction as a result of their rejection and unbelief. Here, God's preparing them for destruction is a result of their actions. Compare how Pharoah hardend his heart against God first (Exodus 8:15,32) and then the LORD hardened his heart (Exodus 9:12; 10:20). This is in contrast to the word used in verse 23 "prepared beforehand" (proetoimazo) which shows that believers were chosen beforehand, and that their fatih and salvation is a result of their election.]

Calvin continued: Since God is almighty, and man cannot oppose His will, it also follows that all those whom Christ redeemed must be saved. So Calvin taught that Jesus died only for the elect. But Scripture teaches that Jesus redeemed all mankind, as Peter says: "But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction" (2 Peter 2:1).

Finally, Calvin taught that since man cannot oppose God’s will, God’s grace must be irresistible. He taught that the Holy Spirit extends a special inward call to the elect which inevitably brings them to salvation. Again, this conflicts with the Scriptural teaching that God wants to save all people ("'As I live,' says the Lord GOD, 'I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?'" - Ezekiel 33:11), and that man can and does resist God’s grace ("You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you." - Acts 7:51).

These rationalizations also led to the “once saved, always saved” teaching which is still taught in many churches today: Since God’s will cannot be resisted by man, then it follows that once a person is saved, he cannot fall from grace. But again this is in conflict with the Biblical warnings against falling from grace such as "For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame" (Hebrews 6:4-6).

In these ways the teaching of John Calvin on the doctrine of election violates the doctrine of universal grace.

Some theologians saw these problems with Calvin’s reasoning, but they still sought to answer the question of “Why some, not others?” in other ways.

Some tried to solve this question through synergism - the teaching that man cooperates with God in order to bring about salvation. While Calvin blamed God for the damnation of unbelievers, synergists gave credit to human beings for their salvation. One of the most familiar synergists was Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) who taught that while God begins our salvation, we as human beings must complete our salvation with our own spiritual powers remaining in us after the fall.

Within the Lutheran church, Philip Melanchton was the father of synergism. After Luther’s death, Melanchton began to teach that man had within himself, by nature, an ability to apply himself or respond to God’s grace. Other synergists have spoken of “right conduct,” “self-determination,” “abstaining from willful resistance” and other such things, all which put something within certain human beings thus making them different from those who are lost, and accounting for their being saved. But this teaching violates the teaching that all people are utterly and equally lost in sin as Paul writes: "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness" (Romans 4:5). If we are saved because we are even a little bit better than someone who is lost, then we become our own saviors. Then salvation is no longer by grace alone. While Calvinism denies universal grace, synergism denies grace alone.

In contrast to the above, Scripture attributes salvation and everything that goes along with it to God’s gracious operation alone: "that you may know ... what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power" (Ephesians 1:18-19). Scripture also explicitly ascribes the reason for unbelief and nonconversion to the individual’s resistence and rejection to God’s grace: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" (Matthew 23:37). So, “Why some, not others?” We must confess that we are confronted with a mystery which defies the human mind, and as simple children of God hold to the doctrines of universal grace and grace alone to understand the doctrine of election. See a comparison chart demonstrating the differences between Calvinism, Arminianism and Scripture.

The Purpose

The purpose of the doctrine of election is to confirm and impress on us that our salvation is by grace and not by any worthiness in us. Its purpose is to give the child of God the comforting assurance of surviving though our faith is attacked, because it rests in God’s power alone. And finally the doctrine of election urges us to use the means of grace so that through growth in our faith we become more certain of our salvation: "Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble" (2 Peter 1:10). With true God given faith believers should confess, “This is most certainly true!” and rejoice in their election and salvation!

Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, GA by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew and was based in large part on a more depth study entitled "Predestination" which was written by Pastor P.F. Nolting.

If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew