In my previous post I briefly sketched and engaged the Arminian interpretation of the biblical doctrine of election. In this post I turn to Calvinism and its presentation of the doctrine of election.
The Calvinistic understanding of election can be briefly described as follows: Before the foundation of the world, God, in his sovereign wisdom and according to the purpose of his perfect will, chose a people for himself, electing some fallen sinners to life while passing over others. There are those within Calvinism (including Calvin himself) who believe the Bible teaches double predestination, the doctrine that God elects some sinners to salvation and elects the rest to condemnation. The only difference between the two is that God’s activity in the damnation of sinners is more passive in the former. I lean toward single predestination, but I am considering double predestination, particularly its possible appearance in Romans 9.
Nevertheless, the point of the doctrine of election according to Calvinists is that those who are chosen are chosen out of the sovereign grace of God and not as a result of any good or bad that is in them (Eph. 1:3-6; Rom. 8:29-30; 9:1-23). In other words, election according to Calvinism is not elitism. No one is chosen because he or she is special. On the contrary, anyone who is chosen is chosen in spite of his or her dreadful defiance and depravity. Grace is highlighted, not human ability.
I will first discuss the Calvinistic understanding of individual election. Election is unconditional in this theological system as God elects not based on the positive response from individuals, but solely out of his good grace and pleasure. Election is not dependent on any good will or act in man, even that of faith. Calvinists understand God’s election to be a result of his foreknowledge of individuals and predestination of some of them to eternal life. Rather than foreknowing choices, God foreknew individuals unconditionally (Rom. 8:29).
As I briefly sketch the main tenants of Calvinism with regard to the doctrine of election, the major differences between Arminianism and Calvinism will be apparent. Firstly, Calvinism focuses on the depravity of man. Calvinists strongly affirm the plight of man as every individual is dead in sin (Eph. 2:5). There is no ability in man to positively choose Christ or have faith in him for salvation and due to this depravity, the basis for God’s election is not found in man, but is rather solely found in God’s good pleasure. Therefore, the salvation of man is ultimately left up to the sovereign and free will of God and not man. God has chosen out of the mass of sinful human beings those whom he would save and those whom he would pass over. For God to choose even one sinner to save is a testament to his relentless grace. The fact that he saves many sinners only compounds this glory.
The primary point of the doctrine of election according to Calvinism is that God chose unconditionally. Election then is all God’s doing and no man can boast of his salvation, not even in bringing faith to the table (1 Cor. 1:29). Grace according to Calvinism, in contrast to prevenient grace as taught by Arminianism, is therefore efficacious since it is only given to those whom God has elected. Election precedes faith in all individuals as it is only by God’s election that one receives effectual grace which allows them to respond with faith. God’s glory is on display as the salvation and election of individuals is all according to his good pleasure and has nothing to do with anything good or bad in man. So, even though God looked into the future and saw what horrible things you would do, if you have trusted Christ, that is evidence that he chose you before the world began, not based on your choice, but based on his grace and in spite of your sin (Rom. 5:8). What tremendous news!
Calvinists affirm corporate election and, like Arminians, hold that it is unconditional. The difference is that while Arminians teach that God elected a group without electing the individuals within that group, Calvinists teach that God has elected a group that is made up of those individuals he has elected to comprise it. Election is therefore personal and corporate.
In closing, Arminianism’s view of election is based on the condition of faith that humans bring to the table, albeit due to prevenient grace. Otherwise, election is corporate and unconditional, but this body has no elected members comprising it until the individuals respond in faith. Calvinism’s view of election is totally unconditional and finds its basis solely in the will of God as it is based on his sovereign grace and good pleasure. Nothing the individual does can move God to choose him or her. God’s elects and as a result showers effectual grace on those whom he has elected. This grace is effectual and will bring about salvation whereas prevenient grace cannot. Prevenient grace makes salvation possible. Effectual grace makes salvation happen.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies, Dec. ’14). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.