Unconditional Election

Unconditional Election

There is general agreement that divine election is a biblical teaching, and that election is something God does. However, there is disagreement as to the basis or grounds on which God chooses. The rub stems primarily from the adjective “unconditional.”  Yet, whatever else it may be, a “conditional” election is foreign to the Bible. Here is a working definition of unconditional election: Unconditional election is God’s choice of certain individuals unto salvation before the foundation of the world while others are passed by. This choice is based on God’s sovereign will alone and not on anything in or about the one chosen. A fuller definition might be:

Divine election may be defined as that loving and merciful decision by God the Father to bestow eternal life upon some, but not all, hell-deserving sinners. This decision was made before the foundation of the world and was based not upon any act of will or works of men and women, but solely upon God’s sovereign good pleasure. One does not enter the ranks of the elect by meeting a condition, be it faith or repentance. One enters the ranks of the elect by virtue of God’s free and altogether gracious choice, as a result of which he enable us to repent and believe. Thus, election is both sovereign and unconditional.1

Thus God’s choice of certain men was not based on advance knowledge of them such as their good works, obedience, or faith. Instead, God’s choice of certain men was based solely in His sovereign will without any human condition.

An accurate understanding of the biblical concept of total depravity really settles the issue of whether divine election is conditioned on anything, such as foreseen faith, or whether it is not conditioned at all.  If it is true that men are dead in their sins and thus completely unable to spiritually act, then the only way they can be saved is if God does something. He must act. Or to put it differently, if election were based upon something that men had to do, be, or believe, then no one would ever have been chosen because no one can do, be, or believe what God requires.

Basics of Unconditional Election

The Bible presents a picture of the selection of men to salvation in decidedly God-centered language. Man is always understood to be the object, never the subject, of election. He is the receiver, not the initiator. This flavor is captured by several summary observations.

God makes the choice, not man. We often employ language in our evangelistic efforts that can easily lead to confusion. We tell people to decide for Christ, or to accept Jesus. Since 1950, Billy Graham’s “Hour of Decision” radio program has been a staple. Even though we may understand that people cannot decide for Christ of their own free will; nonetheless, the language we use can easily become a theological grid through which others may wrongly interpret our words. Jesus declares to his disciples that not only has he loved them, but he has chosen them:  "You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you” (John 15:16).2  Psalm 65:4 is sobering: “How blessed is the one whom Thou dost choose, and bring near to Thee, To dwell in Thy courts...”

God’s choice precedes man’s belief. Those new to this great doctrine are often shocked at this thought. It doesn’t match their standard notions about the character of man; nor does it seem fair. However, if we embrace the biblical truth of total depravity, this is no surprise. Luke did get it right in his history of the church when he recorded, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).

God’s choice is based solely upon his purposes. Paul especially makes this clear. His instructions to young Timothy contain this precise statement designed to encourage, not confuse:  “...who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace (πρόθεσιν καὶ χάριν) which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Timothy 1:9, Greek added).  This truth is also made clear as a part of the great soteriologic treatise in Ephesians 1:11:  “...also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose (πρόθεσις) who works all things after the counsel of His will...” (Greek added).

God chooses individual men. The New Testament teaching that individuals are objects of divine election is contrary to the assertion of those who argue that divine election extends only to Christ or to Christians corporately.  Ephesians 1:4-5 states that “...just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.”  Romans 9 even names individuals (see below).

God chooses men prior to their existence. This reinforces the fundamental order of salvation being the action of God preceding any actions of men. As noted above, Ephesians locates the divine choice as occurring “before the foundation of the world,” while 2 Timothy employs the phrase, “from all eternity.”  The second letter to the church at Thessalonica says it this way:  “...but we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13, emphasis added).

God’s choice of some and not others is His business. Even a casual reading of Romans 9:8-24 establishes the fact that God does whatever He wants when it comes to issues of salvation. Some observations may be helpful in framing a proper perspective.

  1. 1. God chose Jacob rather than Esau on the basis of His own purpose (πρόθεσις) rather than anything they had done (v 11). 
  2. God’s choice was prior to the existence of the twins (v 11).
  3. Shockingly, God’s choice reflected his love or hate for individuals (v 13). Compare Psalm 5:5:  “The boastful shall not stand before Thine eyes; Thou dost hate all who do iniquity.”
  4. Paul assumed that people would object to this strong teaching of God’s sovereign choice of men by charging that such teaching means that God is not fair (v 14). If Paul were teaching a conditional election, there would be no objection to it because it would not appear to be unfair:  people get what they deserve and all have an equal chance. It is safe to assume that the doctrine of unconditional election will not be overwhelmingly popular.
  5. When a person objects to God’s sovereign choice of men as unfair, several issues or questions may humbly be raised. 
  6. By what authority do you think that whom God does or does not choose is yours to question (v15-24)?
  7. God can and does use whomever He wishes to accomplish his will (v16-17). 
  8. Extending saving mercy to people is God’s business, not yours. (v18). The reality is that God didn’t have to choose anybody. If the matter were decided on the basis of fairness, no one would be chosen; not one single human being merits God’s choice to salvation. 
  9. God has final control over all things, including salvation (v 20-21).
A Defective Explanation of Election
  1. 1. Acts 2:23: “... this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge (πρόγνωσις) of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”
  2. 1 Peter 1:2:  “...according to the foreknowledge (πρόγνωσις) of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure.”
  3. Acts 26:5:  “...since they have known about me for a long time previously (προγινώσκω), if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion...”
  4. Romans 8:29:  “For whom He foreknew (προγινώσκω), He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren...”
  5. Romans 11:2:  “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew (προγινώσκω). Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel?”
  6. 1 Peter 1:20:  “For He was foreknown (προγινώσκω) before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you...”
  7. 2 Peter 3:17:  “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand (προγινώσκω), be on your guard lest, being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you fall from your own steadfastness...”

Those who reject the teaching of unconditional election argue that election is conditioned upon man’s work of faith. The thought is that God foreknew who would respond to the offer of the gospel and made His choices based on this prior knowledge. In other words, God looked down the corridors of history and saw who, of their own free will, would believe; therefore, He decided to choose them. Thus election is based on God’s foreknowledge.

This explanation of election as based on God’s foreknowing who would believe doesn’t solve anything, however. In fact, it creates a greater dilemma in that the faith upon which election supposedly depends is itself a gift from God. Consider Philippians 1:29:  “For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” or Ephesians 2:8:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (emphasis added). And, in light of the statement that “…not all men have faith” (2 Thessalonians 3:2), the view that God has given all persons a measure of prevenient grace, or ability to believe, is also wrong.  Thiessen gives a classic statement of this scheme:

Since mankind is hopelessly dead in trespasses and sins and can do nothing to obtain salvation, God graciously restores to all men sufficient ability to make a choice in the matter of submission to Him…In His foreknowledge He perceives what each one will do with this restored ability, and elects men to salvation in harmony with His knowledge of their choice of Him.3

Further, this concept of a conditional election based on foreseen faith is not of one piece with Acts 13:48 above, where the clear implication is that our election is not because we believe; rather we believe because of our election.

Biblical Foreknowledge

The noun foreknowledge (πρόγνωσις) occurs twice in the New Testament; the verbal (προγινώσκω) appears five times.  An understanding of these uses is essential in constructing a biblical concept of God’s foreknowledge.

The first mention of the term in the New Testament sets the stage for its meaning. The phrase in Acts 2:23 is “…by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge (τῇ ὡρισμένῃ βουλῇ καὶ προγνώσει) …”  Note that the grammatical structure is one article (“the”) for both nouns that are coupled with the connective “and.”  Hence, a basic rule of grammar clarifies the meaning. Sharpe’s Rule says that when two nouns in the same case are connected by καὶ (“and”) and the first noun is articular (“the”) and the second is anarthrous (without “the”), the second noun refers to the first noun and is a further description of it.4  Thus, foreknowledge, though a concept distinguishable from and not identical to predestination, is governed by predestination. As such, it is unlikely that God’s foreknowledge is independent from His predestination.

An objection to unconditional election is that it predetermines the end. However, an election based on foreknowledge also involves certainty. The reason God foreknows is that he foreordained; He predetermined. In other words, a future contingency cannot be foreknown if it is not certain. Or, conversely, if it is not certain to happen, then it cannot be foreknown. And, if it is certain, it is so by fate, blind chance, unfettered freedom, or because of the predetermined plan of God. The first three are atheism; the last is theism. So biblical foreknowledge assumes foreordination.

The objects of God’s foreknowledge (all but 2 Peter 3:17 above) are normally persons rather than actions or events. This fact notwithstanding, Acts 2:23 may refer to foreknowledge both of the Son and of his death. This New Testament use should not be surprising, given the background of the Old Testament term “know” (יָדַע).  Clearly this term implies not mere familiarity, but choice, as is seen in passages such as Amos 3:2:  "You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth; Therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities." So the biblical concept of foreknowledge is much more than simple knowledge in advance. It is based on a loving relationship which God sustains to certain individuals by choosing them. Perhaps we could speak of being “fore-loved.”

A Final Perspective

An election that is conditioned on nothing except the good pleasure of God not only is the correct teaching of the Bible, it also is a grand tribute to the glory of God. An election based on foreseen faith is neither. A.W. Pink concludes:

It thus appears that it is highly important for us to have clear and spiritual views of the “foreknowledge” of God. Erroneous conceptions about it lead inevitably to thoughts most dishonoring to Him…God not only knew from the beginning, but He planned, fixed, presdestinated everything from the beginning. And, as cause stands to effect, so God’s purpose is the ground of His prescience…This being so, all the glory and praise belongs alone to Him You have no ground for taking any credit to yourself.5


1  Sam Storms, Chosen for Life (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007) p. 45.

2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Bible (Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 1998).

3 Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1949) p. 346.

4 Daniel Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000) p 120.

5 Arthur Pink, “The Foreknowledge of God” (Swengel, Pennsylvania: Reiner Publications, n.d.) p 6

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.