Does the Gospel of John Teach Unconditional Election? | Part One

February 3, 2015

Dr. Bill Helton | Leroy A. Peterson Professor of Homiletics
Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, Pineville, KY

*For more information about Dr. Helton or Clear Creek Baptist Bible College click HERE.

Are the doctrines of the Calvinist theological system the true doctrines of the Bible and all other beliefs false? Is belief in Calvinism the test for one’s love of God? Would the Apostle John consider his, and the other Apostles’, teachings to be the clear foundation for the five points of Calvinism? The answer to these questions, in this writer’s opinion, is a resounding no! But yet some would answer with a resounding yes. In the words of D. James Kennedy:

I am a Calvinist precisely because I love the Bible and the God of the Bible. The doctrines of the Calvinist theological system are the doctrines of the Bible. When you get to know what we actually believe you may find you too are a Calvinist, especially if you love the Lord Jesus Christ and desire with all your heart to serve Him.[1]

The intention of this article is to examine how Calvinists and Reformed Baptists define unconditional election and then take a close look at the teachings in the Gospel of John that have been cited by some as teaching unconditional election. Examination will also be done of other passages in the Gospel of John that appear to teach just the opposite.

Faith, belief, and regeneration are not chronological events that are steps on the way to salvation, but are rather a single momentary event. But, from a logical perspective the question of which comes first must be answered. If election was unconditional, then it would seem logical that regeneration would come first followed naturally by faith and belief. But, if election is conditioned upon faith and belief, then regeneration would logically follow after faith and belief have been exercised.   It seems clear that sovereignty and responsibility exist side by side in the Gospel of John. The position in this article is that election to personal salvation is not unconditional, and therefore, faith and belief must logically precede election and regeneration. The application of sound and consistent hermeneutical principles to the interpretation of the Gospel of John will demonstrate that the Gospel of John does not teach unconditional election.

In order to discuss an issue, it is necessary to first define the words at the center of the discussion. While the basic dictionary meaning of these words can be helpful, it is essential to understand that words can be given new meanings by the person using them.

Elect: according to Webster’s dictionary, means “one chosen or se apart (as by divine favor).”
Elect from the Hebrew [bachiyr] means “chosen, choice one, chosen one, elect (of God).”[2] Elect from the Greek [eklektos] means “picked out, chosen, chosen by God.”[3] Election: according to Webster’s dictionary, means “an act or process of electing.”
Election from the Greek [ekloge] means “the act of picking out, choosing.”[4]

It seems clear that there is nothing special or mysterious about the meaning of these words in any of the languages observed, but these words do raise some questions. Questions such as who is elected? Why were they elected? What are they elected to or for? As we ponder these questions let us be reminded of the words of Samuel Storms, “Clearly the terms used in the New Testament do not of themselves tell us anything definitive about the basis of divine election.”[5] Therefore any implied meaning concerning the basis of divine election must come from the grammatical, historical, cultural, and literary context within which these words are used. While there are several references throughout the Bible to divine election, nowhere is the term election ever preceded by the adjective unconditional. Let me point out at this time the nouns elect and election do not appear in the Gospel of John. The Greek eklego does appear in John’s Gospel and means “(1) choose out, select (for oneself), (2) choose from among (a number), (3) choose for (some purpose),”[6] This word appears in the following four verses in John’s Gospel:

“Jesus answered them, ‘Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?‘” (John 6:70, NASB)

“I do not speak of all of you, I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats My bread has lifted up his heel against Me.’” (John 13:18, NASB)

“You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you. (John 15:16, NASB)

“If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. (John 15:19, NASB)

These verses will be looked at in detail later in their context and shown not to be related to divine election to personal salvation but rather to discipleship and fruit bearing.

Unconditional, Divine, or Sovereign Election as defined by Calvinists and Reformed Baptists: The following are definitions as given by some who consider themselves to be Calvinists or Reformed Baptists:

“All who will finally be saved, were chosen to salvation by God the Father, before the foundation of the world, and given to Jesus Christ in the covenant of grace.”[7]

“Election is, therefore, that decree of God which He eternally makes, by which, with sovereign freedom, He chooses to Himself a people, upon whom He determines to set His love, whom He rescues from sin and death through Jesus Christ, unto Himself in everlasting glory.”[8]

“We mean, therefore, by this doctrine, that God, in eternity, chose or picked out of mankind whom He would save (by means of Christ’s death and the work of the Holy Spirit), for no other reason than His own wise, just, and gracious purpose.”[9]

The logical implication of these definitions is that “Unconditional Election is a sovereign, eternal decree where God chooses who is going to be saved and who is going to be lost.”[10] The argument that God only chooses to salvation and not to condemnation (double predestination) is completely illogical. It is argued by Calvinists that:

In the Calvinistic system, election precedes faith, and preterition precedes perseverance in unbelief. God elects a sinner to the bestowment of regenerating grace, and faith in Christ is the consequence. God passes by a sinner in the bestowment of grace (though he may bestow all the grades of grace below this), and endless unbelief is the consequence. God is this the efficient cause and author of faith, but not unbelief. The electing decree is efficacious and originates faith. The non electing decree is permissive and merely allows existing unbelief to continue.[11]

For all to be lost and God to unconditionally take action on the part of some to save them and to leave the rest hopelessly condemned is clearly a choice in both cases. If it is God’s choice that only certain ones will be saved, then it is also His choice that some be damned. It is argued that even if double predestination is true that God would still be just in His choices and His creatures have no right to question those choices. Indeed God is always just; it is not God that is being called into question in this article but the Calvinist view of election. In this article, the terms Unconditional Election, Divine Election, and Sovereign Election, as used by Calvinists and Reformed Baptists, will be considered as meaning basically the same thing. Calvinists maintain that, “If any one of the five points of Calvinism are denied, the reformed heritage is completely lost. But it is certain that the truth of unconditional election stands at the foundation of them all. This truth is the touchstone of the reformed faith. It is the very heart and core of the gospel.”[12]

If this last statement is true and it can be proven that the Gospel of John teaches unconditional election, then the other Calvinistic doctrines must be accepted as true. But if the doctrine of unconditional election can be disproved, as this article will do in connection with John’s Gospel, then the other points of Calvinism will fall as well.

 

Part Two coming soon!

 

[1] Talbot, Kenneth G. and W. Gary Crampton. Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism, Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, iv.
[2] Strong, J. (1996). The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (electronic ed.) Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, H972.
[3] Strong, G1588.
[4] Ibid., G1599.
[5] Storms, C. Samuel. Chosen for Life. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 18.
[6] Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 138. (Logos Research Systems)
[7] Dagg, John L. Manual of Theology and Church Order. Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 309.
[8] Hanko, Herman, Homer C. Hoeksema, and Gise J. Van Baren. The Five Points of Calvinism. Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 13.
[9] Beck, Frank C. The Five Points of Calvinism. Ashland: Calvary Baptist Church, n.d., 12.
[10] Vance, Laurence M. The Other Side of Calvinism. Pensacola: Vance Publications, 2.45.
[11] Shedd, William Greenough Thayer and Alan W. Gomes. Dogmatic Theology. 3rd ed. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., s.344.
[12] Hanko, 28.

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andy

Thanks Bill for a very well-written and clear article.

I would only point out that the dilemma face by so-called “soft” calvinists (infralapsarians, Amaraldians, or any others who would try to deny double predestination by simply saying All sinned, and it was after deciding to allow the fall that God Elected some of those individuals to salvation) is faced similarly by non-calvinists in their answer to the question of those who have never heard about Jesus. The end result would be similar…a person never having the chance to be saved. Did God “allow” them never to hear, while allowing other to hear the gospel many times? Is this illogical as well. All answers to this question are fraught with difficulties.

I look forward to part 2!
-Andy

phillip

Kennedy’s quote is so typical. I wonder what our reformed brothers and sisters would think if someone were to say….

“I am NOT a Calvinist precisely because I love the Bible and the God of the Bible. The doctrines of the Calvinist theological system are NOT the doctrines of the Bible. When you get to know what Calvinists actually believe you may find you too are NOT a Calvinist, especially if you love the Lord Jesus Christ and desire with all your heart to serve Him.”

Jimmy A. Garland

Looking forward to the follow up articles.

Mike

Dr. Helton,

Thank you for this easy to read an easy to understand paper. I’m looking forward to part II. One question: I am under the impression that there are # “Point” Calvanists and you state that “Calvanists” maintain that “If any one of the five points of Calvinism are denied, the reformed heritage is completely lost”. Did you mean this for the so called 5 Point “extreme” Calvanists?

Thanks,
Mike R.

    andy

    I believe there are basically 2 schools of thought: One that says the 5 points rise or fall together…the other says that while inter-related, some of the points can be shown true or false apart from the rest. Ie, some deny limited atonement only…some, like most traditionalists, who accept that true believers will continue in the faith, while denying the other 4.

      Bill Mac

      This is a point I tried to bring up in another thread. I’ve heard Calvinists and non-Calvinists assert (strongly) that if you don’t hold all 5 points, you’re not a Calvinist. Now we’re hearing from non-Calvinists that if you have any Calvinist leanings whatsoever, even 1 point (if you think in those terms), you must declare yourself a Calvinist.

Les Prouty

Dr. Helton,

Well written article. Looking forward to the rest. Two points to consider.

1. On double predestination, the quote by She’d is good. Another on DP, because it is often misunderstood by some, is “In the Reformed view God from all eternity decrees some to election and positively intervenes in their lives to work regeneration and faith by a monergistic work of grace. To the non-elect God withholds this monergistic work of grace, passing them by and leaving them to themselves. He does not monergistically work sin or unbelief in their lives. Even in the case of the “hardening” of the sinners’ already recalcitrant hearts, God does not, as Luther stated, “work evil in us (for hardening is working evil) by creating fresh evil in us.” RC Sproul

Now I would posit that non Reformed folks have the same dilemma we of the Reformed faith supposedly have. You wrote, “For all to be lost and God to unconditionally take action on the part of some to save them and to leave the rest hopelessly condemned is clearly a choice in both cases. If it is God’s choice that only certain ones will be saved, then it is also His choice that some be damned.” We would deny that God is actively choosing some for damnation and as I just quoted from one Reformed theologian, we deny that God does anything actively toward the damnation of sinners.

But if the first part of what you say is true for us Reformed (“For all to be lost and God to unconditionally take action on the part of some to save them and to leave the rest hopelessly condemned is clearly a choice in both cases”) then it would be true in the non Reformed world as well. At a minimum in the non Reformed view, you have to say that God is passing at least some (those who never possess true faith) by and allowing them to perish because at the end of the day, God does not intervene to save them. Rather he sends his grace, a preacher, many preachers but ultimately leaves them in their sin because they did not exercise their free will toward him but against him and all the offers they received in their lives. He makes a decision to not intervene to save at least some. That’s the same end result the Reformed folks have.

2. “But if the doctrine of unconditional election can be disproved, as this article will do in connection with John’s Gospel…” Well many thousands of people have tried to definitively prove UE wrong through the centuries. I’m sure you will argue a good case. I look forward to reading your posts. But I doubt the book will be closed on this subject.

God bless brother.

Terry L Neel

Excellent article. Thank you!

M Burke

Just an FYI, the “5 points” of Calvinism are a condensed expression of the findings of the Reformed Synod of Dort in response to the claims of the followers of Jacob Arminius. The “TULIP” acrostic is most likely a 20th century invention to express the various theological differences of Particular Baptists vs General Baptists. Unconditional election means exactly that, that God’s choosing and saving of someone is not based in any quality within them or work they perform. The basis for the need for unconditional election is multiple, first, all men are born in sin, slaves to sin, hostile toward God and unable to please him. (Romans 8:7-8). Next, no amount of human effort can atone for sin, nor appease God’s wrath against sin. Thus, all mankind is born equally under condemnation and in need of a Savior.

As to the eternal decree, one must wonder what the author makes of Isa 46:9-11, Acts 4:27-28, etc. It seems the options are that God decreed all that comes to pass, or is surprised by it. If God is surprised by it, then the author (or the claimant) must explain how the reconcile open theism with the Baptist Faith and Message.

One final note, when quoting from sources, make sure to note whether those sources are historically Baptist, Reformed (Continental) or Presbyterian. While we do agree on soteriology, we do not agree on all aspects of what would be properly called Reformed theology.

    Les Prouty

    Said well M Burke.

    andy

    “The basis for the need for unconditional election is multiple, first, all men are born in sin, slaves to sin, hostile toward God and unable to please him. (Romans 8:7-8). Next, no amount of human effort can atone for sin, nor appease God’s wrath against sin. Thus, all mankind is born equally under condemnation and in need of a Savior.”

    -This is not being debated…even calvinists must conceded that the righteousness purchased by Christ must be, “recieved by faith.” (rom. 3)…and even non-calvinists would agree with what you wrote above. What is debated is whether that faith is a free choice, or if those Unconditionally elected are given faith.

    “It seems the options are that God decreed all that comes to pass, or is surprised by it. If God is surprised by it, then the author (or the claimant) must explain how the reconcile open theism with the Baptist Faith and Message.”

    -You neglect the third option that most non-calvinists take: God knows all that will, would, or could happen, but does not actively decree ALL of those things. (as these verses say, anything he does decree WILL come to pass). Just because God has predestined SOME things does not mean he must have predestined ALL things.
    -Also, are you saying the God you believe in is incapable of creating creatures with true moral capacity? That he is not powerful enough to create creatures that have free choices, to reject or accept him? Or simply that he chose not to do so?
    -Also, accusing every person who rejects Calvinist Soteriology of Open Theism is an old and tired tactic, and completely unfair to the stated beliefs of Arminians and Traditionalists.

    -As to noting sources, it seems his quotes were primarily about soteriology, so what’s the problem?

Andrew Barker

M Burke: Your contribution is interesting in that you appear to believe it supports the concept of unconditional election. I find myself agreeing with most of what you say, except you draw vastly different conclusions.
1. God’s choosing and saving of someone is not based in any quality within them or work they perform: agreed. God has chosen to save all those who have faith in Jesus.
2. All men are born in sin: agreed
3. Slaves to sin: agreed
4. Hostile towards God: agreed
5. Unable to please him: agreed, but would prefer unwilling rather than unable.
6. No amount of human effort can atone for sin: agreed … absolutely!
7. We can’t appease God’s wrath against sin: agreed
8. All mankind is born equally under condemnation: agreed, we are all born with a sinful nature and we all sin.
9. All in need of a saviour: agreed …. absolutely!

Some of the points may need slight clarification, but as a whole there is pretty good agreement except that none of these statements either support, or indeed even require, the concept of unconditional election. Not only does the term unconditional election not appear in John, I can’t find it anywhere in the Bible.

As to eternal decree, you have taken a statement concerning election and brought it to bear on all things. But Isa 46:10 says that God is able to bring about his purposes and Acts 4: confirms that it was God’s plan for Jesus to die for the sins of the world. Neither passage lends any specific support to the idea of unconditional election. Calvinists often assume quite wrongly that everyone opposing them is an Arminian but I see you appear to be upping the anti. It’s either Calvinist/Reformed or Open Theism!

Dr. Bill Helton sites his sources but you give no indication which camp you fall into?
(So you know where I’m coming from: brethren, evangelical, non-calvinist/reformed, non-arminian, currently non-established church in wales anglican)

Perhaps it would be wise to reserve future comment until after Dr. Helton has posted part 2.

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