Reforming Calvinism, pt. 8: Unconditional Election

This is the eighth entry in my series on revising the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) in the Evangelical Calvinist mood. If you have not already done so, I would suggest that before proceeding you read previous entries here: Reforming Calvinism.

In my last post, I looked at Galatians 3 and explored the ways in which Paul understood Christ as not just one of the elect but as the Elect One who, as the true offspring of Abraham and heir of the promise, came to suffer the curse and rejection of the law in order that the cursed and rejected might become, in him, the elect and the blessed. In one sense,  Unconditional-Election-AVATARwe could say that this is a redemptive-historical reading of election, one that considers election from the standpoint of God’s working throughout history in choosing Abraham and through him the nation of Israel in order to fulfill his covenant promises through the coming of the Messiah Jesus, the only true Elect and Chosen of God.[1]

Turning to one of the most significant and commonly cited texts on election – Ephesians 1 – there are certainly echoes of this reading, but we see that Paul speaks of election and predestination in somewhat different though complementary terms, for he locates the subject before history, before the foundation of the world in the life of the Triune God. Like Galatians 3, this is a majestic yet complex passage, and thus I have no intentions of providing a comprehensive interpretation. I merely want to highlight a few elements of this passage that are particularly relevant for our understanding of election.

First, after writing his initial greetings, Paul opens with a stunning declaration: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (vs. 3). This affirmation stands as the head of an extremely long and dense sentence in which Paul revels with irrepresible awe and wonder in the indescribable blessings with which God has blessed us in Christ. It functions essentially as a summary phrase which anticipates everything that will follow in the subsequent verses. In other words, after making a general statement about the blessings with which God has blessed us in Christ, Paul goes on to explain what these blessings specifically entail: our adoption as sons (vs. 5), redemption and forgiveness of sins (vs. 7), the knowledge of God’s will (vs.9-10), a heavenly inheritance (vs. 11) and so on. 

At this point, it is of vital importance to note where Paul places election in the flow of his thought. The classic Reformed view would say, along with Calvin, that “all benefits that God bestows for the spiritual life, as Paul teaches, flow from this one source: namely, that God has chosen whom he has willed, and before their birth has laid up for them individually the grace that he willed to grant them” [2]. That is, the blessings of adoption, redemption, forgiveness, etc. are the result of election. In this view, election stands apart from the blessings that Paul lists in Ephesians 1 as their source. But notice what follows from this. It means that election is not the result of grace but is instead the ground and cause of grace. This is what Calvin seems to imply when he states that God’s choosing is that which “has laid up for them individually the grace that he willed to grant them.” Hence, election precedes grace.

The problem with this is twofold. First, it divorces election from grace. How could it not? If election precedes all grace given to us, then election is not in and of itself an act of grace; rather it is a sheer act of God’s will. But this seems to contradict the very nature of election which Paul elsewhere defines explicitly in terms of grace (Rom. 11:5-6)! Furthermore and by implication, how can election be (as Paul clearly states in Ephesians 1:4-5) an act of love if election is the ground for which God loves us? God cannot both choose us only because he has loved us and, at the same time, love us only because he has chosen us. Either one or the other is true. The traditional Reformed interpretation of these verses seems contradictory, for on the one hand it wants to maintain that election is God’s grace and love toward us, yet at the same time it requires that election precede God’s grace and love toward us and rest solely and inexplicably on a sheer act of his will.

The second problem is that election must be redefined as something other than a blessing which is in Christ. For according to the traditional view in which election is interpreted as the source of all of our blessings in Christ (i.e. the conjunction at the beginning of verse 5 is construed causally rather than comparatively), this means that election stands in distinction over against all of the blessings that we have in Christ. Election cannot be both a blessing in Christ and the source of blessing in Christ, for this would mean that it is the source of itself, which is absurd. If then election is not a blessing that we have in Christ, then it must either be defined as something other than a blessing or as something which is granted to us outside of Christ inasmuch as it is the reason for which we are in Christ. This interpretation, however, does not seem to comport with what Paul actually says in Ephesians 1:3-5. Interestingly, he does not speak of election and predestination as being the source of our blessings, rather, following the comprehensive statement in verse 3, he lists them among the specific blessings with which God has blessed us in Christ (vs.4-5). In other words, Paul does not say that God has blessed us because he had previously elected us to be in Christ; rather he says that in Christ we have been blessed with election. In terms of a logical ordering, this suggests that our being in Christ in some sense precedes our election.

This, I would argue, is a tension in Calvin’s own thought, for elsewhere he states that all salvific benefits are in Christ and that these benefits are of no value to us if we remain separated from him.[3] In other words, Calvin believes that Christ is the exclusive source of the ‘sum total’ of our salvation and that we have access to this salvation only inasmuch as we are united with him. Therefore, the critical question that we must pose to Calvin (and to the classic Reformed position) is this: is election one of the salvific benefits that flow from Christ? If it is, then it what sense can we meaningfully affirm that election precedes our being in Christ since the latter is the ground of the former? If it is not, then in what sense can we meaningfully affirm that Christ is the source of any salvific benefit, given that our being in Christ (in the sense of Eph. 1:4-5) is contingent upon a prior decree of election? We may want to say with Calvin (and with Scripture!) that Christ is the source of every salvific benefit, but by subordinating our being in Christ to the decree of election, this has the consequence of actually making the decree rather than Christ the ultimate source of every salvific benefit. If we are blessed in Christ only insofar as the decree of election allows, then Christ is displaced as the ultimate source of any salvific benefit, and his person and work become ‘conditioned’ on a prior decree the content of which remains inscrutably hidden the eternal recesses of the divine will.

If, however, we want to press hard into Calvin’s insight that Christ himself is the ultimate source of all salvific benefits, them we must view election in Ephesians 1:4-5 as among the salvific benefits which flow from Christ. We must say that election cannot be the source of our being in Christ but rather that our being in Christ, or better Christ himself, is the source of our election. Thus, we see that in a way similar to Galatians 3, Paul locates election explicitly and exclusively “in Christ”. Election does not take place outside of Christ, merely in the will of the Father, nor does it take place merely through Christ, as though he were only the means or instrument of election. Rather, election takes place in a Christ-comprehensive sense, that is, in the person of Christ himself. This is the sense in which our being in Christ precedes election. It does not mean that we are in Christ in terms of our being united to him through faith by the Spirit in time. Rather, it is to locate election exclusively in Christ. It means that, as Karl Barth would say, Jesus Christ simply is the election of God, and in virtue of first electing the humanity of Christ as his own act of self-determination (i.e. to be the kind of God who graciously turns toward humanity in Christ), God has elected us all in him.

If this is true, then instead of replacing Christ as the ultimate source of our salvation with an inscrutable eternal decree, we can say that Christ fully reveals to us the eternal will of God in a way that we can know it without distortion or remainder. This is, in fact, what we find in verses 9-10: in Christ God has made “known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” How different this is from the Reformed tradition that often would speak of God’s secret will as something distinct from his revealed will! How different this is from a notion of God’s absolute decree (decretum absolutum) that is completely inaccessible to us in that it remains hidden in pre-temporal obscurity! In Christ, the mystery of the will of God has been made fully and completely manifest. This follows if, and only if, Christ himself is the decree of election rather than being subordinate to the decree of election.

The practical problem that results from displacing Christ with a decree of election and then hiding the content of that decree in the inscrutable recesses of the divine will is that while we may affirm that God has elected some (or passed over the rest) according to his eternal counsel, there is no way for us to know what that counsel is in relation to us personally. We may insist that Scripture reveals that God has elected some unto salvation, but how do we know that we ourselves are among the ‘some’ whom God has elected? How do we know that we have not instead been passed over unto damnation? As historically occurred in some Reformed circles (especially among the Puritans), this ambiguity can lead to the so-called ‘practical syllogism’ which becomes a litmus test by which we can know if we are elect or not. It tells us that we can know that we are elect if we manifest in our lives the signs that we are elect such as repentance, faith, and good works. However, this has the effect of throwing us back on ourselves to look for our assurance: Have we believed enough? Have we repented enough? Have we done enough good works? Complicating this is the fact that even if we think we pass this test, how can we know that our repentance, faith, and good works are true? Did not Jesus teach that many who initially receive the seed of the Word with joy and gladness eventually fall away and thereby demonstrate they were never ‘good soil’ to begin with? Taken to its logical end, we could never truly know we were elect until after death, because there would always be the possibility that we would fall away.

Thus, rather than encouraging us to fix our eyes solely on Christ who alone is the author and perfector of our faith, this understanding of election drives us back to ourselves, for it requires us to find signs and evidences in our lives that prove that we are among the elect. Ironically therefore, the traditional understanding of ‘unconditional election’ actually has the result of reintroducing the very element of conditionality that it claims to avoid. Although it recognizes that God elects unconditionally, it hides the act of election in the inscrutable pre-temporal recesses of God’s eternal counsel such that we can come to know of our election only insofar as we fulfill the ‘conditions’ necessary to demonstrate that we are indeed among the elect. It seems ironic to me that the tradition which sets forth solus Christus as one of its constitutive principles would fail to consistently apply that principle to a doctrine so crucial as election.

Contrary to this, the God of whom Paul speaks in Ephesians 1 is he who has fully made “known to us the mystery of his will.” Far from being a dark and mysterious decree, in Christ God has revealed his eternal purpose simply as this: “to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” That is to say, in Christ the mystery of the will of God is no longer a mystery. The inscrutable becomes scrutable. By looking to Christ, we can see without distortion or remainder what is the eternal will of God toward us, namely, that we be united together in and with Christ. This, I think, is what Barth had in mind when he wrote the following:

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ…Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two. In Him God reveals Himself to man. In Him man sees and knows God. In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will. In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fulness, God’s claim and promise to man declared.

In Him God has joined Himself to man. And so man exists for His sake. It is by Him, Jesus Christ, and for Him and to Him, that the universe is created as a theatre for God’s dealings with man and man’s dealings with God. The being of God is His being, and similarly the being of man is originally His being. And there is nothing that is not from Him and by Him and to Him. He is the Word of God in whose truth everything is disclosed and whose truth cannot be over-reached or conditioned by any other word. He is the decree of God behind and above which there can be no earlier or higher decree and beside which there can be no other, since all others serve only the fulfilment of this decree. He is the beginning of God before which there is no other beginning apart from that of God within Himself. Except, then, for God Himself, nothing can derive from any other source or look back to any other starting-point.

He is the election of God before which and without which and beside which God cannot make any other choices. Before Him and without Him and beside Him God does not, then, elect or will anything. And He is the election (and on that account the beginning and the decree and the Word) of the free grace of God. For it is God’s free grace that in Him He elects to be man and to have dealings with man and to join Himself to man. He, Jesus Christ, is the free grace of God as not content simply to remain identical with the inward and eternal being of God, but operating ad extra in the ways and works of God. And for this reason, before Him and above Him and beside Him and apart from Him there is no election, no beginning, no decree, no Word of God.

Free grace is the only basis and meaning of all God’s ways and works ad extra. For what extra is there that the ways and works could serve, or necessitate, or evoke? There is no extra except that which is first willed and posited by God in the presupposing of all His ways and works. There is no extra except that which has its basis and meaning as such in the divine election of grace. But Jesus Christ is Himself the divine election of grace. For this reason He is God’s Word, God’s decree and God’s beginning. He is so all-inclusively, comprehending absolutely within Himself all things and everything, enclosing within Himself the autonomy of all other words, decrees and beginnings. [4]

This, I contend, is how we can understand ‘unconditional election’ in a way that is truly ‘unconditional’. There are three reasons for this:

First, since Jesus Christ is himself the election of God, the beginning of all the ways and works of God in relation to humanity, the eternal counsel made manifest in history and demonstrated ultimately in the cross and the resurrection, then we can be assured that there is no God hidden behind the back of Jesus and that we need not fear the God with whom we have to do in him, because he reveals that God does not relate to us primarily as Law-giver and Judge, but as loving and gracious Father, as a sacrificial Son, and as a life-giving Spirit. We can know that from all eternity, he truly loves us unconditionally, for he has not ultimately grounded his relationship to us in a ‘covenant of works’ which requires us to fulfill certain conditions to remain in his favor.

Second, this understanding of election means that Jesus Christ is not an accident of history. His being and actions toward us are not ‘conditioned’ by the contingencies of creation and human sin. Rather, Christ himself is, simply and unconditionally, the election of God, and therefore we can see and know in him what is the eternal will of God in relation to each one of us. There is no distinction in being and act between Christ and his Father, and therefore when we look at Christ, we truly see the Father and come to know the good pleasure of his will that from before the foundation of the world he has purposed for us all.

Third, a Christ-conditioned and Christ-comprehensive view of election substantiates Calvin’s claim that Christ alone is the “mirror” in which we contemplate our own election, and it does so in a way that Calvin himself could not do given his commitment to double individual predestination. We do not know that we are elect by looking to ourselves in order to find signs, evidences, or proofs of our election. This, as noted above, reintroduces an element of ‘conditionality’ into our understanding of election. Rather, we know that we are elect simply by looking to Christ who, as the beginning of all the ways and works of God, elected us in his own humanity before the foundation of the world.

This is truly ‘unconditional election’. It is also truly evangelical, for it is truly good news! We need not look to ourselves to know whether or not we are elect. We need not fear that the will of God revealed in Christ is somehow different or disconnected from the eternal will of God before time. Rather, by looking to Christ, we truly find everything that we need. We see in him the sum total of our salvation, from beginning to end. No wonder that Barth summed up his understanding of election in this way:

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. [5]

Amen and amen!


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring in part this post.

[1] Since I will not be able to work through Romans 9-11 in this series due to space issues, I would argue that this passage should be understood in a similar way.

[2] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. III.xxii.2.

[3] Ibid., III.i.1

[4] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics II/2: The doctrine of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.94-59.

[5] Ibid., p.3


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