There may not be a more intimidating doctrine than the doctrine of election.
Spurgeon says of it,
“There seems to be an inveterate prejudice in the human mind against this doctrine, and although most other doctrines will be received by professing Christians, some with caution, others with pleasure, yet this one seems to be most frequently disregarded and discarded.”
Of course, he was speaking on one particular understanding of election, but his point remains.
Election is often avoided.
But not today. Get ready to dig in.
By the way,
The terms “election” & “predestination” are often used synonymously.
While “predestination” has a slightly broader definition, people usually are actually talking about “election” specifically.
There are three historic understandings of what election is and they are:
· Unconditional Election (Reformed/Calvinist)
· Conditional Election (Arminian/Wesleyan)
· Corporate Election (Second Temple Jewish/New Perspective on Paul)
While each version has many nuances, the following definitions are good, big-picture summaries.
Strongly affiliated with Calvinism, this view sees election as almost always in reference to the salvation of an individual and tied to predestination.
God, and for no other purpose than his good pleasure, predetermined (chose, elected, etc.) that some would be regenerated (born again) and place their faith in Christ.
These people are known as the elect and make up the true body of Christ.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) describes election as,
“Those of mankind that are predestined unto life, God, before the foundations of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, 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.”
This understanding of election is first found in the later part of Augustine’s life (early fifth century).
Though Augustine held to conditional election at first, his debates with Pelagius caused him to rethink his position and come down strongly on this new understanding.
This view heavily influenced John Calvin and the Reformers.
It is the interpretation held by many Protestants, especially those of the Reformed tradition.
Christians that hold the unconditional election view typically have a tight “order of salvation” in which election is the beginning.
Some versions of the ordo salutis are more detailed, but typically it looks like this:
I want to point out that for all three views scripture is used to justify their position, sometimes even the same passages.
It becomes a matter of hermeneutics and interpretation to decide which view has the strongest and most consistent case.
Resources on Unconditional Election:
-Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul [Book]
-The Potter’s Freedom by James White [Book]
-The Doctrine of Election by A.W. Pink [Book, Free PDF]
-R.C. Sproul teaching Unconditional Election [YouTube]
This view is broad and while it represents the Arminian and Wesleyan view, it is also characteristic of the first four centuries of the church.
Due to the persecution of the early church, laying out the details of this doctrine was not always a priority.
Of what little is said on the doctrine, the perspective was always that becoming a Christian was conditioned on a person freely choosing to place their faith in Christ.
This view was later nuanced to include the idea that God looked into the future to see who would freely choose Christ if given the chance and those people were deemed by God as the elect.
Simply put, Conditional Election means that a person’s election to salvation is conditioned on their faith in Christ.
Brian Abasciano, President of the Society of Evangelical Arminians writes,
“Concerning election unto salvation, the Bible teaches that God chooses for salvation those who believe in Jesus Christ and therefore become united to him, making election conditional on faith in Christ.”
It is at this point that I need to mention human depravity.
Apart from the grace of God, no human being is capable of seeking after or desiring God (Arminians & Calvinists agree on this).
In our natural state we are rebels.
With unconditional election, God changes a person so that they are then able to have faith.
But how does this work within the conditional model of election?
The answer is Prevenient Grace.
This is an enabling grace that comes prior to a person having faith.
In his book Prevenient Grace: God’s Provision for Fallen Humanity, Brian Shelton defines prevenient grace as,
“Grace that does not save by itself, it does not cause repentance, and it does not replace any need to understand the gospel. Instead, it is employed divinely to assist and lead to salvation. Prevenient grace, simply put, makes possible the freedom component that is necessary for belief.”
Resources on Conditional Election:
-Grace, Faith, and Free Will by Robert Picirilli [Book]
-Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities by Roger Olson [Book]
This view is probably the least known by most people, so I will be taking a little more time to explain it.
While corporate election is also a type of conditional election, it has enough distinctive elements to warrant a separate explanation.
Though this view does not belong to any particular denomination or tradition, it is held by many modern Arminians, those who embrace the New Perspective on Paul, and is regarded as the form of election understood in Second Temple Jewish literature.
Scholars embracing this view would be people such as Brian Abasciano, N.T. Wright, and to a degree twentieth century theologian Karl Barth.
The corporate view of election has two main emphases
1. Election is more often in reference to a service or task.
The language of being called, chosen, or elected in scripture is most often used when God calls people (or groups) to a specific task.
This is entirely distinct from a person’s salvation.
An example would be Abram’s calling in Genesis 12 to be the covenant head of God’s chosen people.
This is a task Abram was called to and is completely separate from his justification (salvation) we see in Genesis 15.
2. The Messiah, Jesus the Christ is the Elect One, and when we are “in him” we take on his elect-ness similar to how we take on Christ’s righteousness.
God has predetermined that anyone who is in Christ will become holy and blameless, like Jesus. A person becomes elect when they place their faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
At that point they become a part of the church, the elect body, God’s chosen people with Christ as their head.
In his book The New Chosen People: A Corporate View of Election, William Klein writes:
Rooted in their Hebrew heritage, the earliest Christians believed that they comprised a new chosen people. Whereas God had formerly chosen Israel, in the messianic era he has chosen the church – in Christ. Election concerns the church – the corporate body of Christians. The church finds her election in her union with Christ. On this point both the Arminian and the Calvinist deviate from the biblical perspective when they try to explain salvific election as God’s choice of individuals. The biblical perspective is corporate. God has chosen a people to save.
As mentioned before, this view is highly influenced by the understanding of election within Second Temple Jewish literature.
This is the literature written between the 6th century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.
While not considered inspired, these works are held in high regard by the Jewish people and give great insight to their understanding of issues like the messiah, the law, and include historical accounts.
So why should non-inspired writings have any influence on how we understand the doctrine of election?
These writings give us insight into how Jewish people understood election, and this is the setting which Paul comes out of.
Paul was a very learned Jew (Acts 22:5) and his understanding of election would come out of this second temple period.
Since Paul never offers a contrary understanding of how election ought to be understood, those holding the corporate view feel it is fair to say that this is the understanding Paul is writing with.
Chadwick Thornhill, in his analysis of 1 Enoch writes,
“Here, as throughout the book a close relationship is maintained between the community of the righteous/elect and the Righteous/Elect One who serves as their vindicator and the judge of the sinners (1 En. 38:3-6). The Righteous/Elect One ensures the salvation and blessing of the righteous/elect ones (1 En. 39:6). The righteous ones will dwell among the holy angels in the days of the Elect One ‘underneath the wings of the Lord of the Spirits’ (1 En. 39:7).”
New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III in his commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians writes,
“Election for Paul is corporate. It was in ethnic Israel and is now ‘in Christ.’ Paul carries over concepts of corporate election from early Judaism into his theologizing about the Christian assembly.”
Resources on Corporate Election:
-The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism by A. Chadwick Thornhill [Book]
-The New Chosen People: A Corporate View of Election by William Klein [Book]
-Elect in the Son by Robert Shank [Book]
As you have seen, the doctrine of election has a long history of interpretations.
Though it can seem difficult at times, you cannot read scripture without coming across this issue.
It’s important that we take the time to study faithfully, ask questions of all the perspectives, and find joy in the fact that regardless which view you take if you have placed your faith and trust in the work of Christ you are one of the elect, chosen and loved by God.
Ryan is always on the lookout for a chance to read a good book or see a new movie. He has a Bachelors in Biblical Studies through Moody Bible Institute and is working on his Masters of Theology through Dallas Theological Seminary. Ryan is 32 and has given presentations on Pro-Life apologetics, homosexuality and the Bible, and teaches Bible and Historical Theology at Allendale Baptist Church. Ryan has been married to his wife Stephanie for 12 years and they have five children: James, Lael, Lydia, Isaiah, and Titus.