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From the halls of high schools to the corridors of political power, our world is filled with those who fashion themselves persons of “influence.” In the last several years, the category of “social media influencer” has developed out of thin air. Our world values those who can influence others socially or economically. But what about religiously?

During the Middle Ages, an elaborate system developed in the Western church wherein saints in heaven, who were ostensibly closer to God than sinners on earth, were called on in prayer because of their positions of influence in relation to God. In their own way, medieval saints were believed to be people of influence. Thankfully, the theologians of the Reformation addressed this error through teaching Christ alone. Christ alone mediates our salvation, a salvation founded on God’s grace alone and received through faith alone. Salvation isn’t the result of a saint’s influencing a grudging God. Rather, salvation comes to the sinner because from all eternity God elected a people to be His own.

Election is unmistakably a biblical word (e.g., Matt. 24:22–31; Rom. 8:33; 9–11; 2 Tim. 2:10; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:10). Therefore, Christians of all stripes believe in election. But that doesn’t mean that all believe in the same theology of election. A theology of election is how one describes the doctrine and connects it to other doctrines, especially the doctrines of God, man, and salvation. Reformed theology has taught unconditional election, which is the U in the famous acronym TULIP, which summarizes the “five points of Calvinism” or “doctrines of grace.”

A foundational theological principle in Reformed theology is the sovereignty of God—sometimes called “big God theology.” Election is a subset of teaching on the sovereignty of God. If God sovereignly causes or permits all things that happen in the world, this includes the salvation of His people. Indeed, while Scripture teaches God’s sovereignty over all things, its authors are especially interested in communicating His sovereignty in the salvation of His people. One of the ways that Scripture does this is by highlighting God’s “election” of a people for salvation. If God is big enough to create all things that exist, if God is big enough to providentially care for all things that exist, He is big enough to redeem His people—a people that He has loved from all eternity.

The doctrine of election depends on the doctrine of God. Eternal in God are His unchanging attributes and His divine counsel containing His sovereign decrees. More general than election, predestination is a term referring to God’s decree by which He sovereignly ordains all things (Isa. 46:8–10). Election is more specific. According to Herman Bavinck, election is the “gracious purpose of God according to which He ordained those whom He had before known in love to be conformed to the image of Christ” (see Rom. 8:29). The doctrine of election focuses on God’s decree to elect or choose to save a people for Himself in Christ.

In election, God’s people receive what they do not deserve; in reprobation, the result is the just condemnation of those passed over.

In addition to a certain understanding of God, the doctrine of election depends on a prior understanding of humanity. The T in TULIP stands for total depravity. Ever since the fall in the garden of Eden, humanity is naturally lost and separated from the loving presence of God. Because of depravity, humanity possesses no resources within itself for personal salvation. Furthermore, given that depravity touches all aspects of what it means to be human and that we are dead in our “trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), there remains in human beings no ability to choose or believe in God apart from His prior regenerating work in them.

These truths begin to touch on some fundamental differences with other theologies of election. For example, Jacobus Arminius in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries argued that a Reformed understanding of election put into question God’s goodness and human responsibility. As a consequence, Arminians have taught that God’s election is based in God’s foreknowledge of the free choices of human beings. To put it differently, God’s election is conditioned on His seeing ahead of time that certain people will choose Him while others will not. While this understanding is rooted in certain understandings of God and man, the all-important question is whether it squares with the biblical witness.

Election in the Old Testament is focused, in particular, on the Israelites. That is not to say that in the Old Testament there weren’t gentiles who through election became a part of God’s covenant people, such as Ruth and Naaman. But by and large, the Hebrew Scriptures emphasize God’s gracious choice of Israel as a nation and as a people. This is especially seen in the book of Deuteronomy, where the Israelites are addressed directly:

“You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” (Deut. 7:6)

It then goes on to say why God chose them:

“It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery.” (Deut. 7:7–8; see also Deut. 14:2; Pss. 105:43; 135:4)

God did not choose Israel because of something He foresaw in them. Nor was His choice conditioned on a foreseen faithfulness. As the Old Testament record sadly makes clear, there was nothing about them to commend them to God. No, the basis of God’s election of Israel was His love.

The root of election in God’s particular and free love comes out all the more clearly in the New Testament. Ephesians 1 is a remarkable chapter that provides the contours of the doctrine of election. Verses 4–5 locate the source of every spiritual blessing known by the Christian in Christ and then communicate that our election—one of those spiritual blessings—was in Him “before the foundation of the world.” John Calvin, in his commentary on these verses, notes that the basis of our election in eternity reveals its gracious character:

The very time when the election took place proves it to be free; for what could we have deserved, or what merit did we possess, before the world was made? How childish is the attempt to meet this argument by the following sophism! “We were chosen because we were worthy, and because God foresaw that we would be worthy.” We were all lost in Adam; and therefore, had not God, through his own election, rescued us from perishing, there was nothing to be foreseen.

If the Father’s gracious election of His children is bound up in eternity, this does not make it arbitrary or abstract—it is intensely personal. It is personal insofar as our election is established in the person of Christ. The personal dimension is further seen in Paul’s focus on God’s love for His people as the basis for election, a love designed “according to the purpose of his will.”

The end goal of election, however, is not simply the manifestation of the Father’s gracious and loving will revealed in His Son for the salvation of His covenant people. To be sure, that is a most certain and secure result:

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it. (Eph. 1:13–14)

Paul ensures that the last word on election is not about humanity or even salvation—it is about God Himself. The refrain of Ephesians 1:1–14 is “to the praise of his glorious grace” (v. 6) and “to the praise of his glory” (vv. 12, 14).

While many reject the Reformed understanding of unconditional election out of a desire to preserve certain ideas concerning human freedom, many also reject it because of what is further entailed by its emphasis on God’s sovereignty. That is, if God is sovereign over those who are saved through election, He is also sovereign over those who are not. This is the doctrine of reprobation, wherein God sovereignly passes by those who are already lost in their sins. It is a doctrine taught in Scripture (Rom. 9:17–23; 1 Peter 2:8; Jude 4), but it does not dominate Scripture’s message as the message of God’s grace does. Indeed, its relationship to election is decidedly asymmetrical. Whereas election reveals God’s gracious love for His people in Christ, reprobation reveals His justice. In election, God’s people receive what they do not deserve; in reprobation, the result is the just condemnation of those passed over.

We live in a world that turns on influence. Thanks be to God, the decisive influence in His salvation economy is not a saint in heaven or faith on earth. The decisive influence is the Father’s electing sinners to receive His saving grace in His Son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. From the human side, it is entirely un-influenced, or unconditioned—it is an unconditional election.

Total Depravity

Limited Atonement

Keep Reading The Doctrines of Grace

From the December 2023 Issue
Dec 2023 Issue