Reforming Calvinism, pt. 6: Unconditional Election

This is my sixth post in a series on recasting the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) in an Evangelical Calvinist light. If you have not done so already, I would recommend that before proceeding you catch up on previous entries here: Reforming Calvinism. In this post, I would like to begin exploring the second point of TULIP, typically designated ‘unconditional election’. As with my treatment of ‘total depravity’, I will once again quote R.C. Sproul (whose original article can be accessed here) who provides a helpful summary of the classic Calvinist position. In this first part, I will limit myself to offering a critique of this position, and in a subsequent post I will provide an Evangelical Calvinist corrective. Without further delay, here is Sproul:

The Reformed view of election, known as unconditional election, means that God does not foresee an action or condition on our part that induces Him to save us. Rather, election rests on God’s sovereign decision to save whomever He is pleased to save…This doesn’t mean that God will save people whether they come to faith or not. There Unconditional-Election-AVATARare conditions that God decrees for salvation, not the least of which is putting one’s personal trust in Christ. However, that is a condition for justification, and the doctrine of election is something else…

So, then, on what basis does God elect to save certain people? Is it on the basis of some foreseen reaction, response, or activity of the elect? Many people who have a doctrine of election or predestination look at it this way. They believe that in eternity past God looked down through the corridors of time and He knew in advance who would say yes to the offer of the gospel and who would say no. On the basis of this prior knowledge of those who will meet the condition for salvation—that is, expressing faith or belief in Christ—He elects to save them. This is conditional election, which means that God distributes His electing grace on the basis of some foreseen condition that human beings meet themselves.

Unconditional election is another term that I think can be a bit misleading, so I prefer to use the term sovereign election. If God chooses sovereignly to bestow His grace on some sinners and withhold His grace from other sinners, is there any violation of justice in this? Do those who do not receive this gift receive something they do not deserve? Of course not. If God allows these sinners to perish, is He treating them unjustly? Of course not. One group receives grace; the other receives justice. No one receives injustice.

As Sproul makes clear, the classic form of the doctrine of ‘unconditional election’ opposes the view, usually associated with Arminianism, that defines election in terms of God’s choice of those whom he foreknew would believe in Christ. Historically, Reformed theologians have (rightly in my opinion) protested against this definition of election because while it acknowledges the necessity of grace in human salvation, it arguably locates the decisive power in the human will’s ability to, with the assistance of prevenient grace, freely choose to put faith in Christ. As the Reformed perceived, this undermines the gratuity of grace and introduces a subtle element of Pelagianism (or more accurately semi-Pelagianism). Thus, the Reformed insisted that God’s election of human beings unto salvation must be unconditional (i.e. not based on God’s foreknowledge of those who would meet the condition of faith but solely on the basis of the good pleasure of his will), because totally depraved human beings would never be able to freely believe even under the influence of prevenient grace. However, despite its laudable attempts to safeguard the primacy of grace, the classic Calvinist position, at least as Sproul articulates it here, has several fatal flaws. In what follows, I will highlight two in particular.

1) Classic Calvinism tends to absolutize God’s law and justice at the expense of his love and grace. As indicated in his third paragraph, it is clear that Sproul’s concern in defending the classic construal of unconditional election is to vindicate the universality of God’s justice. According to Sproul, God elects some people unto salvation and passes over the rest unto damnation, but in neither case does he do injustice. This is a revealing statement, and it begs the following question: why is Sproul most concerned to show that unconditional election does not violate God’s justice instead of his love and grace? In other words, why does God’s justice extend to all humanity whereas his love and grace do not (at least not in the same measure)? Sproul might respond: “Well, grace does not need to be extended to all because then it would be an obligation and would therefore cease to be grace.” But this does not follow, for would not grace still be grace and God still be free if he willed, under no compulsion and according to his good pleasure alone, to save all humanity? While I personally do not advocate universalism, I use this as a thought experiment to suggest that there is no necessary reason why grace must be limited in its saving scope. In my view, to argue in this way would actually constitute a denial of grace for it would reintroduce compulsion back into the picture. So why does Sproul universalize God’s justice while limiting his salvific grace? I would like to reference the analysis of W. Travis McMaken who begins by quoting a section from Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology (IET):

[God] entered into a twofold covenant with men: first, a legal covenant (or one of works) with innocent man; another of faith and evangelical with fallen and sinful man. by the former, God promised eternal life to the man perfectly fulfilling the law and threatened the sinner with death. . . . By the latter, he promises to the believer safety in Christ and on account of Christ. The former was made with Adam before the fall and in him with all men. . . . The latter was entered into with the elect in Christ after the fall. (IET, 2:12.2.3)

This “safety in Christ and on account of Christ” refers to Christ’s fulfilment of the requirements of the covenant of works, which applies to believers in the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace never overturns the covenant of works; rather, it provides a new way of fulfilling that original covenant, namely, by Christ in our place. In this way, Turretin sees God’s dealings with humanity as being thoroughly consistent, and the covenant of works is the bedrock layer of that interaction.[1]

McMaken uncovers a critical element of Turretin’s theology that also undergirds that of Sproul as well as the standard definition of unconditional election. According to the federal scheme of classic Reformed theology as articulated by Turretin, the “bedrock layer” of God’s relation to humanity is that of law and justice, here designated as the “covenant of works.” In this view, God does not relate primarily to humanity in terms of unconditional love and grace but on the basis of a legal contract that human beings must fulfill in order to have right standing in the divine court. God, in other words, meets humanity first and foremost as a Law-giver and a Judge rather than as a loving and gracious Father. Some classic Calvinists may complain that this is an unfair caricature. I admit that this description is not sufficiently nuanced (this is a blog post after all!). However, as can be seen in the Turretin quote above, classic Calvinism clearly gives precedence to the covenant of works in a way that privileges the responsibility of human beings to perfectly obey God in order to gain and/or maintain his favor. In this scheme, the covenant of grace and its fulfilment in the work of Christ does not do away with the covenant of works but merely provides a way for it to bestow its blessings rather than its curses on those who are unable to perfectly obey it. However, this gracious provision ultimately does nothing to mitigate the fact that God fundamentally relates to humanity on the basis of law and justice rather than love and grace. This is not to create a false dichotomy, for according to Turretin’s logic, Christ essentially becomes the means by which the legal stipulations of the covenant of works can be fully met and God’s wrath can be averted. Thus, a legal contract rather than paternal love does indeed serve as the “bedrock” for God’s relation to humanity. For many reasons, I do not believe that this picture comports with who God reveals himself to be in Scripture.

2) The second flaw in the classic construal of unconditional election is connected to the first. Simply stated, the problem is that it nullifies the very unconditionality of election that it purports to protect. To see why this is so, I would like to return to McMaken’s discussion of Turretin by picking up where I left off:

This account of the relation between the covenants of works and grace, with its undercurrents of a law-gospel pattern, correlates directly with Turretin’s treatment of the divine decrees in his doctrine of predestination. . .  . According to Turretin’s exposition, the infralapsarian position puts the divine decrees into the following order: (1) creation, (2) permission of fall, (3) election and passing over the reprobate, (4) sending Christ as mediator for the election, and (5) effectual calling of the elect with all that presupposes and entails (see IET, 1:4.18.22). It is clear, and a testament to the consistency and cohesion of Turretin’s theology, that this ordering of the decrees correlates with the twofold covenant sequence. The first decree (creation) is the eternal antecedent of the covenant of works while the third decree (election) is the eternal antecedent of the covenant of grace. Occupying the pivotal place between the two covenants is the second decree (permission of fall), and the fourth and fifth decrees are simply the further outworking of the covenant of grace. [2]

McMaken pinpoints another critical aspect of Turretin’s (and likewise Sproul’s and classic Calvinism’s) construal of election. The ordering of the covenants correlates with the logical ordering of the pre-temporal decrees in which God wills the whole of human history from creation through consummation. Although McMaken specifically address the infralapsarian ordering of the decrees (in contrast with the supralapsarian view that places the decree of election logically prior to that of creation), his fundamental point is valid for all forms of Calvinism in which the decree that designates God the Son as the incarnate mediator logically follows that of creation and the fall. The consequence of this move is that revelatory and reconciling work of Jesus Christ becomes accidental in the eternal counsel. That is to say, it becomes contingent on and subordinate to creation and the fall. While some like Richard Muller would argue that in Reformed theology the Son is just as much the electing God as the Father, even Muller admits that the classic view “implies some subordination of Christ to the eternal counsel of God.”[3] Why is this so problematic? Bruce McCormack explains:

For classical Reformed theology, the decree to elect some human beings and to reject others (i.e. election and reprobation) precedes the decree to effect election through the provision of a Mediator (viz. Jesus Christ). But if this logic holds, then what it means is that who or what the Logos is in and for himself (as the Subject of election) is not controlled by the decision to become Mediator in time; that the identity of this Logos is, in fact, already established prior to that eternal act of Self-determination by means of which the Logos became the Logos incarnandus. And if all that were true, then the decision to assume flesh in time could only result in something being added to that already completed identity; an addition which has no effect upon what he is essentially. Being the Redeemer, in this view, tells us nothing about who or what the Logos is in and for himself. It is merely a role he plays, something he does; but what he does in time has no significance for his eternal being. The question which such a view raises in dramatic form is: how coherent can one’s affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ be if his being as Mediator is only accidentally related to what he is as Logos in and for himself? Is Jesus Christ ‘fully God’ or not?

McCormack’s contention is simply this: the classic construal of unconditional election compromises an orthodox view of Jesus Christ as fully God. How so? If Christ’s incarnation is contingent upon creation and the fall (that is, if the Father sends him only because the world is in need of salvation), then his incarnation does not reflect a truly free and absolutely unconditional decision of God to be this kind of God, namely, the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ. In other words, if Jesus Christ came in the flesh only because human beings fell into sin, then all that he said and did does not really show us God for who he truly is in and of himself, for it only shows us what God decided to do given this particular set of circumstances. Yet the whole purpose of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed’s assertion that Jesus Christ is equal with God and homoousion (of one substance) with the Father was precisely this: to preserve the truth that the God who we see and know in Jesus Christ is God as he is eternally and antecedently in himself. As T.F. Torrance explains:

Epistemologically the homoousion stands for the basic insight that we derive under the creative impact of God’s self-communication upon us—that what God is toward us in his saving economic activity in space and time through Christ and in the Holy Spirit, he is antecedently and eternally in himself. The focal point is Jesus Christ himself. In the cross-level reference from the basic level to the theological level, the insight takes the form that what Jesus Christ is toward us in love and grace, in redemption and sanctification, in the mediation of divine life, he is inherently in himself in his own Being—he is not different in himself from what he manifests of himself toward us in his life and work. But in the cross-level reference from the second to the third level, the insight takes the form that what God is toward us in Christ Jesus, he is inherently and eternally in himself in his own Being—he is not different in himself from what he manifests of himself toward us in Jesus Christ. This means that our experience of God in Christ is not somehow truncated so that it finally falls short of God, but is grounded in the Being of God himself; it means that our knowing of God is not somehow refracted in its ultimate reference, but actually terminates on the Reality of God. In fact, of course, this movement of reference on our part is grounded in the movement of God himself condescending in the free outpouring of his love to be one with us in the incarnation of his Son, and in and through him to raise us up to share in his own divine life and love which he eternally is in himself. That is what the homoousion expresses so succinctly and decisively. [5]

What Torrance explicates here as the inner meaning of the church’s belief in the full deity of the Christ is precisely that which is undermined by the classic Calvinist view of unconditional election. In subordinating Christ to the contingencies of history (contingent in the sense that the decrees of creation and the fall were unnecessary, that is, God was under no compulsion to decree these events), the reconciling work that Christ accomplished ultimately proves to be conditioned by those contingencies. Jesus Christ is thereby reduced to being an accident of history, a particular instance of God’s work ad extra rather than being a revelation of God’s eternal being ad intra. Therefore, even though most classic Calvinists would not acknowledge this, their view ultimately invalidates the truth that by seeing and knowing Jesus we are able to see and know the Father (John 14:9). The Father remains, as it were, dark and hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ, leaving us with the constant, nagging suspicion that the love and grace revealed in Christ do not truly reflect the will of the Father toward us. God relates to us primarily as our Law-giver and Judge, and we will never rest securely that we have done enough, repented enough, or believed enough to be reconciled to him.

In short, the classic Calvinist version of unconditional election is not unconditional enough.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for ideas in this post and for the McCormack quote.

[1] W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism After Karl Barth, Fortress Press, 2013, pp.107-108

[2] Ibid., pp.108-109

[3]  Richard Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins, Baker Academic, 2008, p.87

[4] Bruce McCormack, “Grace and Being” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.97

[5]  T.F. Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology, University Press of Virginia, p.161