A Biblical Critique of Calvinism: Election
by Dr. Michael A. Cox, Pastor of First Baptist Church in Pryor, Oklahoma, and author of
Not One Little Child: A Biblical Critique of Calvinism
This is the thirtieth of a series of articles by Dr. Cox, with a Biblical critique of Calvinism drawn in part from his book Not One Little Child. All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.
Views on the Fall of Man
A discussion of election might best be prefaced by explaining the primary schools of thought opining when election occurs. There are two principal views regarding the Fall of man: the supralapsarian and the infralapsarian.
The supralapsarian view argues that election preceded the Fall. Supralapsarian proponents posit the following chronology, saying that (1) God proposed to elect some individuals to salvation and condemn others to destruction, (2) God then proposed to create, (3) God proposed to permit the Fall, (4) God proposed to send Christ to redeem only the elect, and, (5) God proposed to send the Holy Spirit to apply redemption only to the elect.1
On the other hand, the infralapsarian view contends that election followed the Fall. Infralapsarian proponents posit the following chronology, saying that (1) God proposed to create, (2) God proposed to permit the Fall, (3) God proposed to elect some out of this fallen mass to be saved and leave others as they were, (4) God proposed to provide a Redeemer only for the elect, and, (5) God proposed to send the Holy Spirit to apply redemption only to the elect.2
Definitions of election offered by theologians abound. Boettner says that the word election is found approximately forty-eight times in the New Testament. He writes, “It sets forth an eternal, divine decree which, antecedently to any difference or desert in men themselves, separates the human race into two portions, one of which is chosen to everlasting life, while the other is left to everlasting death.”3 Boettner further states, “A portion of the race, the elect members, are rescued from the state of guilt and sin, and are brought into a state of blessedness and holiness. The non-elect are simply left in their previous state of ruin.”4
Kurt Richardson says election is “an action of God prior to and independent of any human action or condition.”5 The same writer further declares that election is “that will and action of God to call undeserving persons to share in his glory.”6 The Greek adjective eklektos means picked out, chosen, or elected.7 The Bible teaches that Christ Himself was the chosen one of God to be the Messiah (Luke 23:35). Angels are said to be chosen to be of high ranking administrative association with God (1 Tim. 5:21). Believers were chosen (Matt. 24:22, 24, 31; Mark 13:20, 22, 27; Luke 18:7; Rom. 8:33; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10) in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), chosen to adoption (Eph. 1:5), chosen to good works (Eph. 2:10), and chosen to conformity to Christ (Rom. 8:29). Also, the human will has nothing to do with God’s election (Eph. 1:4, 5; Rom. 9:11; 11:5). Further, believers are given by God the Father to Christ as the fruit of His death, and are all foreknown and foreseen by God (John 17:6; Rom. 8:29). Vine contends that, “while Christ’s death was sufficient for all men, and is effective in the case of the elect, yet men are treated as responsible, being capable of the will and power to choose.”8 Notice here that Vine defends the concept of the freewill of man. Arndt and Gingrich simply define the elect as those whom God has chosen from the generality of mankind and drawn to Himself.9
The noun ekloge means selection, or that which is chosen.10 Its usages include God’s choice of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:15), of Jacob (Rom. 9:11), and of the remnant, i.e., believing Jews (Rom. 11:5). It may mean the act of choosing or it may designate the ones chosen, and frequently implies the chosen instrument used, and is especially indicative of God’s selection of Christians (2 Pet. 1:10).11
Election in the Old Testament
Ron Glass says that election has particular reference to God’s decision “prior to creation” (notice that Glass adopts the supralapsarian, i.e., prior to creation, view). Glass states that the Old Testament uses the term elect in relation to three subjects: (1) the nation of Israel, (2) a select group of prominent leaders in Israel to preserve her as the covenant community, and (3) the elect servant.12
The first of these three references to election in the Old Testament asserts that the choice of the nation of Israel was an election to be God’s covenant community (Isa. 45:4), to reveal His sovereignty and holiness to the nations, to be the vehicle for bringing forth the Messiah, and to be His inheritance (Deut. 7:6; 10:5).13 But, as J. I. Packer rightly asserts, religious and ethical obligations are created by election.14 Packer also correctly, in my estimation, points out that the promised blessings of election for Israel were forfeited through unbelief and disobedience.15 One can only surmise, then, that the elect had a choice, which is precisely where Packer and I are likely to part company. Refusal to accept God’s invitation, elect or non-elect, means one is not the Lord’s, and these will be dealt with accordingly (Jer. 5:10). Moreover, Old Testament election was to service; hence, salvation was not automatic, regardless of one’s status as “elect”: the lostness of the Pharisees is an ample case in point (John 8:44). Packer helps us see that the national election of Israel implies the presence of a stricter judgment upon national sin (Amos 3:2).16 But, Packer believes that there is an election to privilege and an election to life.17 He says that the entire nation of Israel was elected to the privilege of living under the covenant, and that those made faithful by regeneration are the ones whom God had chosen out of the nation of Israel for election to life.18 Notice carefully that Packer, like other Calvinists, argues for regeneration as that which is done prior to the faith event. This is known as the doctrine of monergistic regeneration, which states that the faith which receives Christ Jesus for justification is a free gift of the sovereign God and is, itself, bestowed by regeneration in the act of effectual calling.19 So Packer, like Luther before him, clearly supposes that regeneration precedes faith and, in fact, makes faith possible. Calvinist Thomas Nettles echoes the same doctrine when he writes an exposition of Article 5a of The Baptist Faith and Message saying, “Regeneration by the Spirit of God shatters the shackles of sin and its tyrannical power by creating such distaste for sin that the sinner repents.”20 So, for Nettles, regeneration precedes repentance, a position which flies directly into the face of the ministry of John the Baptist, who baptized the repentant in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah, in whom the penitent would believe upon His unveiling (Matt. 3:1-12). As for Packer’s references to election to privilege and to life, is this a “double-election,” whereby the entire nation of Israel was elected to service, then certain ones of the nation were elected to salvation? Packer seems to think so, and believes that the rest forfeited their opportunity to inherit the riches of the relationship to God which the covenant held out because of their unbelief.21 Obviously, Packer recognizes the problem of some of the “elect” of Israel disobeying and resisting God. John the Baptist clearly explained that being related to Abraham was insufficient for being exempted from God’s eternal wrath of fire (Matt. 3:9-10). Packer attempts to address the problem of the renegade “elect” by essentially admitting that not all of the chosen of Israel inherited eternal life. He does this by conveniently creating another category for election, that of privilege. However, this arbitrary innovation begs the question as to whether or not all those elected to privilege inherited the favors and blessings. Even a cursory reading of the Old Testament would produce a resounding “no!” to this question. Thus, when Packer argues that many of those elected to privilege forfeited their opportunity to inherit the riches of the relationship to God because of their unbelief, the same must be said of those elected to life (salvation). He recognizes that not all those elected to privilege inherited the blessings. In other words, election to privilege could be forfeited according to Packer. Since election to privilege could be forfeited, election in itself does not automatically produce positive results. Therefore, since election to privilege does not produce automatic results, what about election to eternal life? Would Packer agree that it, too, can be forfeited? Hardly. Nevertheless, his attempted resolution implodes upon itself because he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the factor of the human will, which I will discuss in a later section.
The second of these three references to election in the Old Testament teaches that a select group of prominent leaders in Israel was chosen to preserve Israel as the covenant community. This can be seen in God’s choice of Moses as Israel’s prototypical intercessor (Ps. 106:23), and God’s selection of David as the recipient of the kingly (Davidic) covenant (Ps. 89:3).
The third, and last, of these three references to election in the Old Testament is that of the appointment of the elect servant (Isa. 42:1-4), Israel’s Messiah, whom Christians know to be the Lord Jesus Christ. Scripture asserts that His reign and His work of redemption were indisputably preordained from eternity (Acts 2:23; 1 Pet. 1:20).
Election in the New Testament
Kurt Richardson explains, rightly I surmise, that election in the New Testament means that believers have become the elect through their personal faith in Christ.22 Richardson does not appear to place regeneration chronologically ahead of personal faith. On the other hand, John Murray, like most Calvinists, argues, perhaps circularly, that salvation in possession is proof of election.23 I have always found it amusing that those writing and speaking of election, are, of course, the elect, are they not? But how can they know? This is one of the contentions of Christian author and apologist Dave Hunt throughout his book, What Love Is This?: Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God. Hunt points out repeatedly the ambiguity of the statement that “salvation in possession is proof of election,” stressing all the while the fact that Calvinism offers no firm way of knowing that one is saved. One wonders, mystifyingly, how the clarity of John 3:16 and Rom. 10:9-10 can be missed.
I contend that Apostles, like Peter, Paul, and James, had difficulty believing that God would choose to include Gentiles in His redemptive activity and that some prophets, like Jonah, angrily resented such a soteriology (doctrine of salvation) and disobediently resisted participation in bringing it to fruition. Their elective exclusivity had to be overcome, their theological misunderstandings had to be corrected, and their racial prejudices had to be obliterated. As I will discuss in more detail later, it took a vision from God for Peter to have his exclusively Jewish frame of elective reference thoroughly shattered for him to recognize that all humans are created in God’s image and are, therefore, targets of His redemptive activity (Acts 10:9-16). Jonah’s lesson concerning God’s compassion for all people was not as pleasant.
The late Herschel Hobbs, longtime Southern Baptist pastor, writer, and denominational activist, in his commentary on The Baptist Faith and Message reminds that the freewill of man and his power of choice must not be overlooked when exploring election.24 He argues that election should not be regarded as God’s purpose to save as few as possible, but that the tenor of the Bible echoes the fact that God loves all and wishes to save as many as possible.25 Hobbs maintains that election should never be viewed as the saving of some and the neglect of others, arguing that if some are saved and others are lost regardless of what they do or do not do, what incentive is there to seek the Lord and preach the gospel?26 Like the vast majority of evangelicals, Hobbs asserts that man is not a puppet on a string and argues that election never appears in the Bible as mechanical or as blind destiny, eloquently stating that to “draw” is God’s initiative and to “come” is man’s response.27 I believe that the word “call” necessarily implies “answer.” Like the divine and human natures of Christ being paradoxically combined without confusion, God’s sovereignty and man’s freewill must both be recognized in salvation and in life. In other words, the incarnation of Jesus Christ provides a sound hermeneutical paradigm for accurately handling and correctly understanding a number of theological mysteries, namely Christology (the doctrine of the nature of Christ) and soteriology.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the criterion by which all Scripture should be interpreted. Orthodox theology recognizes the presence of both the human and the divine natures in Him. To deny the obvious presence of both is heresy. Likewise, the Bible itself is manifestly a product of both the human and the divine elements, being 100 percent inspired by God and 100 percent penned by men who used their own vocabularies. The writing of the Bible, then, was unmistakably both a human and a divine enterprise. Further, I am aggressively affirming that salvation involves both the grace and sovereignty of God and the faith, repentance, and freewill of man; and when I say freewill, I mean unlimited freewill, opposite Calvinists, who use the word freewill, but do not mean the same thing. After listening to R. C. Sproul at one of his conferences in Houston, Texas, in 1998, I know that, for him, freewill means that one can make any decision or choice — provided that it falls within the parameters of what God has predestined!
The next article in this series will explore the concept of foreknowledge, including definitions and its most difficult problem.
1Loraine Boettner, “Predestination,” in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, ed. Everett F. Harrison, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1960), 417.
5Kurt A. Richardson, “Election in the New Testament,” in The Holman Bible Handbook, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 712.
7W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d.), 361-2.
9William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2d ed. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 242.
12Ron Glass, “Election in the Old Testament,” in The Holman Bible Handbook, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 402.
13Kurt A. Richardson, “Election in the New Testament,” in The Holman Bible Handbook, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 712.
14J. I. Packer, “Election,” in The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), 358.
19Packer and Johnston in their “Historical and Theological Introduction” to Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, 58.
20Thomas J. Nettles, “Article 5a: God’s Purpose of Grace and Election,” The Baptist Banner, May 2004, 4.
21Packer, “Election,” 359.
23John Murray, “Elect, Election,” in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, ed. Everett F. Harrison, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1960), 180.
24Herschel H. Hobbs, The Baptist Faith and Message (Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1981), 65.