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The promise of Romans 8:28—that God will work all things together for the good of His people—stands as a remarkable verse in a remarkable chapter of a remarkable book. Everything in the believer’s past and present has a place in God’s great scheme. What good news for those who love Him!

But what exactly does Paul mean when, in the next verse, he places foreknowledge behind predestination? Does he mean that God’s election of sinners in Christ was on the basis of something He foresaw them doing? Did He choose His people because He saw that they first would choose Him? This view virtually equates foreknowledge and predestination by making God’s eternal decree of election contingent upon what God foreknew about us and His electing love conditional on our having chosen Christ.

This idea falls on five counts.
First: It fails to appreciate the primacy of election in God’s purposes of salvation.

If election is conditional, it means that it is on the basis of and flows from our choice of Jesus. God foresaw us believing in Christ and placing our trust in Him, the argument goes, so He sealed our redemption by electing us in Christ.

But in the New Testament, election is always to something in us, not on the basis of something in us. In Ephesians 1:4, Paul says that God chose us “that indicating purpose, design, and consequence we should be holy.…” In Ephesians 2:10, we discover that all that God did beforehand, in a plan of salvation stretching into the depths of eternity, was “for again indicating purpose and end good works.” Election is primary and foundational in salvation; it cannot be secondary and conditional. God did not choose us because He foreknew that we would do good things; we do good things because God elected us for that very purpose.

Second: It fails to appreciate the relationship between election and foreknowledge.

What does foreknowledge mean? It does not mean that God gazes into some crystal ball that enables Him to read the future. God can see the end from the beginning, because to Him one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (Isa. 46:10; Ps. 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8). John Calvin defines God’s foreknowledge as the fact that all things are under God’s “immediate inspection” (Institutes, III.21.5).

When Paul talks of God “foreknowing,” he means that those whom God predestinates and chooses in Christ are known to Him. Their whole lives are known to Him. Their sins, shortcomings, and failings are known to Him. And in grace, mercy, and love, He makes them the object of His electing, predestinating decree. Romans 8:29 does not mean “those whose acts He foreknew, He predestined” but “those whose persons He foreknew, He predestined.”

Far from teaching that God elects because He sees people choosing Him, Paul’s teaching is that God elects sinners whom He sees rejecting Him!

Third: It fails to reckon with the power of sin in human life.

Jesus made it clear in His preaching of the Gospel that all men are invited to come to Him, and if they do come to Him, He will satisfy them with His salvation. But He also said, “ ‘No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him’ ” (John 6:44). Thus, while a Gospel opportunity affords men the possibility of coming to Him, a moral incapability prevents them from doing so.

God did not choose us because He foreknew that we would do good things; we do good things because God elected us for that very purpose.

This is exactly what Paul registers when he says that “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God … nor can he know them” (1 Cor. 2:14). Without the power of God in human life, man not only does not come to Christ, he cannot come to Christ.

Precisely for these reasons, the whole notion of conditional election is an absurdity. It requires us to believe that men who are spiritually dead can make spiritual decisions, that they can choose Christ by their own volition, and that they can have faith in Jesus. The glory of election lies precisely in the fact that those whom God ordained to eternal life are made willing by His power (Ps. 110:3a, KJV) to come to Christ, their faith in Him the result, not the cause or condition, of God’s divine decree. It is those whom the Father gives to the Son who come to Him (John 6:37).

Perhaps these three points are not enough to convince you. Let me give two final points that demonstrate the failure of this doctrine to conform to Scripture.

Fourth: It fails to appreciate the close relationship between election and grace.

When men reject Jesus, they do so willingly and freely, because of the power of sin in their lives. When men accept Jesus, they do so willingly and freely, because of the power of grace in their lives. And that grace is of the essence of election. In Romans 11:5, it is because of “the election of grace” that a “remnant” serves Christ. Grace lies behind election, is at the heart of election, and is praised in election (Eph. 1:5–6). God’s sovereign, electing decree flows out of His unmerited love and undeserved favor.

The moment we make such a decree conditional, we rob salvation of grace. We make it dependent on our works, and “if it is of works, it is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6). The faith that saves is itself the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). God commands us to believe and gives us the grace to believe! Election humbles us and causes us to marvel, because it shows us with abundant clarity that our salvation has God, and not ourselves, as its cause. Grace, not foreknowledge, is the spring out of which election flows.

Finally: Conditional election robs God of His sovereignty.

God created the world so that He might rule over it in love and grace. Man was designed to honor, fear, and serve the Creator. Instead, man rebelled against God and set himself up as master of his own life and creator of his own destiny. But in sovereign, electing love, God provided a salvation and a Savior. He remains sovereign at every point of the salvation process and throughout redemptive history, preparing the world for Christ, offering Christ up as a sacrifice, drawing men by the Spirit to follow and serve the Lord, and working in us the willing and the doing of His pleasure (Phil. 2:13).

On the other hand, conditional election means that God’s sovereignty is not absolute; it is compromised from the beginning, because it is dependent on the will and choice of man. But if God is not absolutely sovereign in salvation, He is not sovereign anywhere. All things work together for our good, under God’s almighty hand, because He is the electing, purpose-driven God of salvation. Creation and providence are His servants in the execution of that purpose. Take away God’s absolute supremacy in election and you have removed the moral foundation of the whole universe. All of grace!

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Keep Reading Marked for Life: Unconditional Election

From the March 2001 Issue
Mar 2001 Issue