Reforming Calvinism, pt. 9.1: Unconditional Election

This is the ninth entry in my series on reforming the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) in a more evangelical way (hence Evangelical Calvinism). If you have not already done so, I would recommend that before proceeding you catch up on the previous parts in this series
by clicking here: Reforming Calvinism. In this post (which I will actually split into two parts due to length), I will conclude my treatment of ‘unconditional election’. While I have spent a bit Unconditional-Election-AVATARmore time on this doctrine that I had intended, I think that it has been necessary in order to provide a reasonably comprehensive (though not exhaustive) sketch of what I think an Evangelical Calvinist revision entails. There is no doubt much more that could be, and perhaps should be said, but it is about time to move on to the atonement! To finish ‘unconditional election’, however, I would like to consider one more critical passage of Scripture and draw out some final implications. The passage is Romans 8:28-30:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

In this passage, Paul draws together the threads of his argument thus far in Romans and exuberantly explicates the present and future life and hope of God’s new humanity recreated through union with Christ, the last Adam, by the Spirit. A few verses after this, he will reach a stunning climax in his description of the rock-solid assurance that we have in Christ, and then he will undertake a notoriously difficult and complex exposition of God’s elective purposes in history that extends from chapter 9 until chapter 11. This latter passage is far too complicated to fully deal with here (though I will address it briefly in the second half), so I will limit myself to what Paul has to say concerning election (once again used as a rough equivalent for predestination) in these verses. As in previous entries, I will not present an exhaustive interpretation but rather a set of observations about what Paul affirms in this passage, especially with what pertains to what T.F. Torrance would call its ‘dimension of depth’.

To begin, I would like to focus on a particular detail that is sometimes overlooked and yet, in my view, constitutes the hinge on which everything that Paul says here turns. We notice that as Paul constructs the so-called ‘golden chain’ of salvation, he pauses briefly between ‘predestination’ and ‘calling’ to comment on the precise nature of what predestination entails. He states that those whom God foreknew he “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” It is imperative that we simply not skip over this detail without likewise pausing ourselves for serious reflection. The key question that we must ask here is this: what does this clarification about predestination presuppose? Asked differently: what must Paul believe in order to be able to make this assertion?

To answer this question, we must observe that Paul does not say God foreknew and predestined human beings ultimately with a view to themselves; rather he says that God foreknew and predestined them with a view to conforming them to his Son,  Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul’s statement about predestination presupposes the fact that, as I argued in my previous post on Ephesians 1, Jesus Christ is himself the election of God, the beginning of all the ways and works of God in history. He is the primordial decree of God apart from and before which there is no other. How do we know this? The answer seems somewhat obvious: if the election of Jesus Christ himself, both as electing God and elected man, did not logically precede the predestination of human beings of which Paul speaks in these verses, then it would be nonsensical for him to say that God predestined us to be conformed to Christ. If God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son, this means that his determination for the Son be the image to which we would be conformed must logically precede the act of predestination. Upon reflection, therefore, it seem evident that the election of Christ serves as the implicit ground upon which Paul’s explicit affirmation of human predestination depends.

But how do we know that Paul presupposes here a logically prior election of Christ, understood as the incarnate Son, Jesus of Nazareth? Does he not say that God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son? In other words, is not Paul’s reference to the Logos asarkos, the Word before he became flesh? In order to clarify this point, we need to remember what Paul says in the opening verses of Romans (1:1-4):

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,  concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Right from the beginning of Romans, it is clear that when Paul refers to the ‘Son’ he does not have in mind the Logos asarkos, the Son of God considered prior to and apart from his incarnation in the flesh as Jesus Christ. Rather, we see that for Paul, the Son of God is he who “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power…by his resurrection from the dead.” Paul does not draw dogmatic distinctions, as many theologians would later do, between the Son of God considered a se (unto himself apart from his incarnation in history) and Jesus Christ, the royal Son of David and resurrected from the dead. It would be anachronistic to impose these categories on Paul’s thought.

Thus, when we read in Romans 8:29 that God predestined us to be conformed to his Son, it is Jesus Christ to whom he is referring. This is massively important, because it reveals that the primordial decree of God – the act of the Triune God that constitutes Jesus Christ as the beginning of all the divine ways and works in history – is not to be conceived as taking place merely in terms of the Logos asarkos. According to Paul, it is Jesus Christ, the incarnate mediator, who stands before the foundation of the world as both electing God and elected man (cf. 1 Pet. 1:20). This is not to say that Jesus Christ actually existed in the flesh prior to creation or to deny that the incarnation represents a new event in the life of God in history. Rather, it is to affirm that the eternal decision logically prior to which there existed no other was simply God’s self-determination to be this kind of God, to be ‘Emmanuel’, the God who turns toward and commits to being with and for his people in love and grace for all eternity in Jesus Christ. It is to affirm that prior any other decision of the eternal will, the Triune God determined in the Son to be the human Jesus Christ in whose image humanity is foreknown, predestined, created, and restored.

It is also important to note that Paul’s use of the word ‘image’ is not accidential. As I explored in part 3, Jesus Christ is the true imago Dei in whose image Adam and all subsequent humanity was created (cf. Rom. 5:14: Adam was “a type of the one who was to come”). The significance of this consists in the fact that the concept of imago Dei ties together what Paul says concerning predestination with what Genesis 1 affirms regarding creation. If Christ was the subject, object, and goal of both predestination and creation, then it would seem erroneous to separate the scope of God’s salvific act in Christ from the scope of his creative act in Christ. Given that Paul appropriates the imago language of creation (relative to all humanity) and applies it to predestination, it would seem illegitimate to limit the extent of the latter while universalizing the extent of the former, since both occur in and with a view to Christ.

What would this be problematic? To separate creation from predestination (and by extension redemption) in this way would mean, by implication, separating ontology (being) from soteriology (salvation). How so? This would occur because it would posit a large number of human beings who are created in the image of God (ontology) but who are a priori excluded from being saved (soteriology). While on the surface this may seem like a coherent view, it ultimately falls apart when we remember, as Paul indicates in Romans 5:14 and 8:29, that Christ is the imago Dei who stands as the head of both human ontology and soteriology. It is in Christ’s image that humanity was created, and it is in his image that humanity is restored. For this reason, we cannot legitimately separate human ontology from soteriology without implicitly separating who Christ is (as the image of God) from what he does (create and restore humanity in his image). If, however, we separate who Christ is from what he does, then we end up driving a wedge between God’s being and his act, because according to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, Christ is homoousion, of one being/substance with the Father. Whatever we say or do in relation to Christ, we also say or do in relation to God himself. Ultimately then, to separate creation from predestination/salvation by limiting the scope of the latter while universalizing the scope of the former involves introducing a rupture into the very being of God himself, between who he is in himself from all eternity and what he does for us in Christ in time.

No such rupture is introduced, however, if we understand predestination primarily as God’s election of the humanity of Christ which, in turn, vicariously includes the election of all humanity in him. This, I think, is suggested by the way in which Paul speaks of Adam in Romans 5:14 as a “type of the one who was to come”, namely Christ himself, whose “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” just as Adam’s “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (5:18). As Adam was the representative of all humanity (unto sin and death), so also Christ is the representative of all humanity (unto grace and life). Correctly understood, however, Christ did not simply follow Adam in history but, since Adam was merely a ‘type’ of Christ, Christ actually preceded Adam as the true imago Dei and thus as the archetypal human. This means that as God elected the humanity of Christ before the foundation of the world as the beginning of all his ways and works, so also he elected all humanity insofar as Christ was the representative of all. As Karl Barth writes:

Jesus Christ, then, is not merely one of the elect but the elect of God. From the very beginning (from eternity itself), as elected man He does not stand alongside the rest of the elect, but before and above them as the One who is originally and properly the Elect. From the very beginning (from eternity itself), there are no other elect together with or apart from Him, but, as Eph. 1:4 tells us, only “in” Him. “In Him” does not simply mean with Him, together with Him, in His company. Nor does it mean only through Him, by means of that which He as elected man can be and do for them. “In Him” means in His person, in His will, in His own divine choice, in the basic decision of God which He fulfils over against every man. What singles Him out from the rest of the elect, and yet also, and for the first time, unites Him with them, is the fact that as elected man He is also the electing God, electing them in His own humanity. In that He (as God) wills Himself (as man), He also wills them. And so they are elect “in Him,” in and with His own election. And so, too, His election must be distinguished from theirs. It must not be distinguished from theirs merely as the example and type, the revelation and reflection of their election. All this can, of course, be said quite truly of the election of Jesus Christ. But it must be said further that His election is the original and all-inclusive election; the election which is absolutely unique, but which in this very uniqueness is universally meaningful and efficacious, because it is the election of Him who Himself elects. Of none other of the elect can it be said that his election carries in it and with it the election of the rest. But that is what we must say of Jesus Christ when we think of Him in relation to the rest. And for this reason, as elected man. He is the Lord and Head of all the elect, the revelation and reflection of their election, and the organ and instrument of all divine electing. For this reason His election is indeed the type of all election. For this reason we must now learn really to recognise in Him not only the electing God but also elected man. [2]

No doubt what I have written so far will raise questions in the minds of discerning readers. Does this inevitably lead to universalism? If not, does this then break the ‘golden chain’ that Paul constructs between predestination and glorification? Furthermore, does this stand in tension with what seems to be a more narrow focus in this passage on those whom God “called according to his purpose”? These are all important questions, and I promise that I will address them in the second half of this post.


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

[1] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.116-117.

This entry was posted in Apostle Paul, Biblical interpretation, Christology, Classic Calvinism, Election, Evangelical Calvinism, Five points of Calvinism, Homoousion, Image of God, Karl Barth, N.T. Wright, Predestination, Protestant theology, Reformed theology, Reforming Calvinism, Soteriology. Bookmark the permalink.

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