What Role Does Election Have in Salvation?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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If salvation depends exclusively on God, why isn’t everyone saved? After all, God wants everyone to be saved, doesn’t He (1 Tim. 2:4)? Perhaps God simply makes salvation available to everyone, and then each person chooses whether to cooperate with His saving grace (and be saved) or resist it (and be lost). Or perhaps the decision about whom to save is God’s alone, not dependent in any way on human choice. This is where the doctrine of predestination comes in. Predestination is God’s decision from eternity past about who will be saved and who will not. As the definition implies, there are two sides of predestination. On the positive side is election, God’s choice of who will be saved. On the negative side is reprobation, God’s choice of those who will not be saved. Because election is central to the debate, we will focus there.

Among evangelicals, there are three primary views on the doctrine of election. The first view is unconditional election. This view maintains that in eternity past God chose to save some human beings based solely on His sovereign will. It is unconditional because His choice is not based on any condition people meet, whether what they do or who they are. Advocates point to passages like Ephesians 1:3–14, which declares that God, “who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (v. 11 esv), chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (v. 4) and “according to the purpose of his will” (v. 5 esv). Similarly, 2 Timothy 1:9 declares that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (esv). And Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:29–30, expanded in 9:6–29, testifies powerfully to God’s unconditional choice of the redeemed (see also John 6:36–37, 44; 15:6; 2 Thess. 2:13).

Unconditional election is Calvinistic; the remaining two views are decidedly not. Conditional election affirms that God chooses individuals in eternity past because He foresees that they will freely believe in Christ. Advocates of this view maintain that it preserves a robust human freedom and puts responsibility for accepting or rejecting the gospel squarely on the shoulders of each person. They also appeal to 1 Peter 1:1–2, which says that God’s elect are chosen “according to the foreknowledge of God,” and Romans 8:29–30, which declares that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”

These two texts raise a related debate about the nature of foreknowledge. Scholars agree that foreknowledge in the New Testament can refer to advanced knowledge either of facts (factual knowledge) or of people (relational knowledge). The question is, which sense of foreknowledge is in view in 1 Peter 1 and Romans 8? Advocates of conditional election insist that these texts speak of advanced knowledge of facts. God knows in eternity past who will freely choose Him and, based on that knowledge, He chooses them. Calvinists, on the other hand, argue that these texts speak of advanced knowledge of people (relational knowledge). God determines to enter into relationship with some people in eternity past (the elect), and then at the proper time grants His saving grace to them so that they can and will believe. Put differently, if conditional election says that God chose us because we will choose Him, unconditional election says that we will choose to believe in Him because God first chose us.

The third view, corporate election, bypasses the focus of the first two views because it insists that God does not choose particular persons at all. Instead, it maintains that God chose to save the body of believers—the church—as a group. But He does not choose the particular persons who decide to become part of that body by faith; that is their choice. Like conditional election, then, this view also is not Calvinistic. To be sure, all three views would agree that there is a corporate element to election, but the unconditional and conditional views insist that the group and the individuals making up that group cannot be so easily separated. After all, God does save each believer individually (see Rom. 8:28–30), and so each believer’s name is written in the book of life (Rev. 3:5; 21:27; cf. 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15).

What about the other side of predestination, the doctrine of reprobation? To be sure, the Bible does speak of this doctrine (Rom. 9:14–22; 11:7–10; 1 Peter 2:7–8; Jude 4). Advocates of conditional and corporate election, however, do not stress reprobation since they maintain that the choice and responsibility for unbelievers’ condemnation rests solely with them. Advocates of unconditional election (Calvinists), in contrast, teach both election and reprobation, but they typically insist the two are not symmetrical. That is, God chooses to save His elect and to pass over the non-elect. Because all human beings are sinful and do not want God, the non-elect will inevitably reject the Lord and face His just condemnation.

Besides creating controversy, what are the practical effects of the doctrine of election? In Scripture, this doctrine is clearly meant to encourage believers that they belong to Christ and that He will finish His good work in them (e.g., Rom. 8:28–39). Further, it actually functions as a spur to evangelism, for the evangelist can be confident that God has elect who have yet to come to Him through the preaching of the gospel (2 Tim. 2:10). Above all else, election is a cause of praise to the Lord who has chosen to save us even when we would never have chosen Him if left to ourselves (Eph. 1:3–14); solely because of God’s saving grace, the elect will inevitably turn to the Lord in conversion.

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