Book Review: Whomever He Wills — Chapter 3: Unconditional Election

, posted by Godismyjudge

Dr. Andrew Davis wrote chapter three of Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy,1 which counters Dr. Richard Land’s chapter in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, called “Congruent Election.” Two high-level observations before digging into the details.

First, Dr. Davis does not get into corporate election. It’s not Davis’ fault — he is responding to Land and Land doesn’t get into corporate election. But, given the popularity of corporate election among Traditionalists and other non-Calvinists, the chapter feels incomplete. Second, Land constantly calls for a balanced view, one that accounts for passages on election as well as passages such as John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4-6 and 2 Peter 3:9, which express God’s love for all and will for all to be saved. Davis only addresses election passages — he doesn’t touch texts expressing God’s love and desire for all to be saved. Maybe Davis’ view is as balanced as Land would like, but his treatment in this chapter is not.

The first thing about this chapter that really caught my eye was Davis’ comments on 1 Corinthians 1:26-31. Davis says:

God specifically chose certain kinds of people (the “foolish,” the weak, the lowly, the despised) far more than others (the wise, the influential, those of noble birth, the strong). This choosing on God’s part was to humble the arrogance of man, so that people would realize that it is only because of God that any of us are Christians. (p.39)

This is conditional election, not unconditional. Granted, God isn’t choosing those who work, or believers, but rather people who are broke as a joke. But a condition is a condition. I doubt this understanding can be squared with Westminster Confession of Faith’s denial of any conditions or anything in the creature behind election.  

Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto. (link) (emphasis added)  

See the same statement in chapter three, section five, of the 1689 London Baptist Confession. (link) In short, Calvinism denies the reasons for election as something outside of God; and wealth, or the lack thereof, is something outside of God. 

When defining unconditional election, Davis again appeals to the conditions of foolishness, weakness and poverty, to avoid the implication that an unconditional election is random and that “God Himself doesn’t know why He elects this person and not that person.” To argue against this idea of randomness, Davis says God elects “mostly people who are foolish, weak, and despised in the eyes of the world so that He can shame the powerful, rich and arrogant.” So Davis prefers “sovereign election” to the term “unconditional election.” (p.41) Davis seems to see the problem.  

Choices are based on conditions in the things chosen or they are random. The very phrase, “for so it seemed good in thy sight,” implies a condition in God’s choice. But Calvinism denies election as conditional while also denying election as random. But there is no third option. Davis’ solution is to find some harmless conditions to base election on. I will leave it to Calvinists to determine if he should be voted out of the tribe or not. My main concern is that Davis misunderstands 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, which removes financial status as a condition for election rather than setting it up as one. Also, his view is inconsistent with many of his later arguments, such as his argument that since election is before time, it must be unconditional. (p. 60-64)

A second point where I think Davis gets off track is when he says, “Nicholas Grevinchoven (1593-1632), in a tract written against Puritan William Ames, says that faith is not merely a necessary condition in him that is to be elect, but a cause moving the will of God to elect the one who has it.” (p44) Grevinchoven never said this. John Owen, in A Display of Arminianism, summarizes Grevinchoven’s view in this way, but these are not Grevinchoven’s words — Owen clearly distinguishes between his summary and Grevinchoven’s actual statement, which says nothing of faith causing election. (link)

This wrong turn down a bad road leads Davis to spend pages on how causes precede effects, and worse, thinking that Traditionalists make faith a work that merits salvation and gives man God’s glory in salvation.2 Faith does not save, nor does it cause God to save. If one man believed and another did not, both would be cast into hell if God does not choose to have mercy on the believer. Most of Davis’ pages 58 to 64, and pages 70 to 73, labor under this misconception.

Davis tackles the question of how God knows the future. He appeals to Isaiah 46:9-10 as evidence that God knows the future because He plans and determines it (45), and rejects the idea that God looks down the corridors of time, because that is like God learning and discovering. (58) While Isaiah 46:9-11 does indicate that God not only predicted Cyrus’ conquest, He also planned it, what it does not say is that God’s plan is how He knows the future.

Davis seems to confuse the question of why an event is future with how God knows the future. Sure God’s plan is part of the reason for Cyrus’ conquest. Maybe that involved knowledge of how Cyrus would freely choose, maybe it doesn’t. But that explains why Cyrus’ conquest and not some other event is future. It does not tell us how God knows the future. Davis probably has some philosophical beliefs that drive his interpretation of this text (something like: unless an event has been determined at a given time it cannot be known at that time). But he doesn’t get into such presuppositions, and it’s not obvious that any argument for such a principle could be inferred from this text.

The heart of Davis’ chapter is his explanation of Romans 9-11. He uses Romans 9:1-3 to argue that Paul is concerned with the salvation of Jewish people. However, when he gets to Romans 9:6-9, Davis makes a leap to say the passage is about individual election to salvation:

God’s word has not failed! Why? “Because not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Romans 9:6). There is a subset of the physical descendants of Abraham who are also spiritual children of Abraham as well. The true “Israel” are the elect, chosen from before the foundation of the world. The doctrine of election shows that God never fails to achieve His saving purposes in any single individual case. God will most certainly save all the elect, and not a single one will be lost. (p. 50)

While Paul reveals a spiritual aspect to the OT texts, he does not say that spiritual aspect is individual election. Rather it is salvation. Most of the time, Paul quotes or paraphrases the Old Testament, but he does step away from the Old Testament one time so that we can clearly see how he is applying the OT to his current audience.

Paul’s clarifying statement is: “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named”. This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. While the difference between election and salvation is subtle, it is important. To be counted as God’s offspring is to be in God’s family, which is to be saved, not just elected. Paul is using God’s promise of Isaac to show that God’s promise and act of adopting us into His family is what saves, not birthright.

Was Israel as a nation elected? Let’s assume that Davis is right, that Paul is teaching individual election in Romans 9:6-9. This means Paul finds individual election in the primary Genesis narratives on God’s election of the patriarchs — the very passages the Jews look to explain their National Election. The Jews say, “We are God’s chosen people,” and Paul responds, “No, you are not, you never were God’s chosen people.” If Davis is right about Romans 9:6-9, then Israel’s national election is gone. But this contradicts Davis’ own interpretation of Malachi 1 and Romans 11, which he says speaks of Israel’s national election. (p.51)

Davis is on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, the Old Testament texts Paul cites are about National election to certain non-saving blessings — they are not about individual election to salvation. On the other hand, Paul does not discuss two elections in Romans 9 — one, the national election of the Hebrews, the other, individual election to salvation. Romans 9 doesn’t speak of two elections.

Regarding Romans 9:11-13, Davis acknowledges that Malachi 1 is speaking of nations and not individuals, but then argues Paul in Romans 9 is speaking of individuals, not nations. He cites two reasons: 1) Esau is the quintessential example of an unbeliever, and 2) Paul is concerned with the salvation of individual Jews. (p.51)  But why would Esau’s behavior matter — he was rejected before he did anything evil?  As for Paul’s concern for individual salvation, that’s true; but again, Davis trades merciful salvation for unconditional election. 

Paul is applying the OT texts to show that salvation is based on God’s mercy rather than works or nationality. God did everything possible to show that the establishment of Israel was His doing, and was not based on nationality, or works. He chose between twins. He chose before they had done anything good. He reversed the order of birthright by choosing the younger. In the same way, salvation is God’s doing; it’s not based on nationality or works.   

Next Davis engages Wesley’s comment that scripture cannot prove that God is worse than the Devil and challenges anyone to go verse-by-verse through Romans 9. Wesley did so in his commentaries, and again in his treatise “Predestination Calmly Considered.” Here is a link to a plethora of non-Calvinists “going through Romans 9 verse-by-verse.”  (link)  

I can agree with much of what Davis says on Romans 9:14-16: 

Human salvation is not for us a matter of justice but a matter of mercy. If God gave us justice, we would all be eternally lost. God does not owe mercy to any sinner. So, by shifting his language significantly (is God unjust?, no God is merciful as He wills), Paul shows how salvation is not a matter of justice but of mercy, and that mercy is given as a measure of God’s sovereign freedom. (p.55)  

Eternal life is not our due, no matter how hard we work. Davis argues that the justice complaint only makes sense if the passage is about unconditional election; but the Jews would have complained that God was unfair, given that they worked very hard for eternal life, only to be told they were rejected.

Davis’s comment on Romans 9:17-18 is that “the true Arminian viewpoint has no room whatsoever for any action on God’s part of hardening a human heart.” If by “true” he means “straw man,” then okay! Otherwise, I refer you to Arminius’ two public disputations on the providence of God concerning evil. (Disputations 9 and 10) Hardening is an in-depth subject, and there is good reason to question if Pharaoh could have let the Hebrews go even while being hardened. But, assuming he could not, his hardening was still a punishment for killing the Hebrew children and arrogantly refusing to let God’s people go — sins committed before he was hardened.

I’ll very briefly touch on some other passages Davis mentions. Generally, Davis presents the Calvinist view of these texts and doesn’t engage non-Calvinist interpretations, so I will just briefly explain how I understand the texts. The election in Romans 11 seems corporate to me: the olive tree with branches being cut off and grafted in sound like individuals joining the corporate body. Davis lists several texts he says teach either the notion that election causes faith or reprobation is the reason for unbelief.

In Acts 13:48, tasso might be middle rather than passive, the sense being “they disposed themselves.” But even if it’s passive, and God arranged them to eternal life, it’s more likely to point to some event in the context, like their being glad and glorifying the word of the Lord, rather than God’s election from eternity past. James 2:5 could be suggesting that being rich in faith is the condition of the people being elected rather than the false dichotomy Davis presents us with: either the condition for election or something election causes.

1 Thessalonians 2:13 is grammatically ambiguous as to if we are chosen in belief in the truth or unto belief in the truth. In John 10:24-27, the Jews are trying to trap Jesus, but He points out that the Father has repeatedly backed-up Christ’s words with miracles as proof, yet the Jews did not believe and become Christ’s sheep. The Pharisees do not believe now, because they did not believe (and become sheep) then. If they had become sheep, they would have recognized Christ as their Shepherd and would have had a sheepish attitude, which is disposed to follow. In John 6, Davis equates “the Father’s giving” to election, but there’s no contextual reason to think that. Rather, the Father gives those who have heard and learned from Him to Christ. (John 6:45) Learning takes both a Teacher and student — it’s not a unilateral process. The election in John 6:70 is clearly to apostleship rather than salvation; otherwise it would not have included Judas.

Davis says that, per Traditionalism, the heart is a holy of holies into which God is not permitted to venture lest He defile human freedom. (p.74) God works in our hearts — no Traditionalist denies this. The question is not if but how God works in our hearts. But it is no limitation of power to say that God cannot do the illogical, like make a round square. Likewise, a causally-determined free event is a contradiction, and so denying God could do such is no limit to omnipotence.


1  Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy,  eds. Matthew Barrett and Thomas Nettles (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2012).

2  Grevinchoven’s comment, as translated by Owen, does sound bad. But Corvinius argues at length that Grevinchoven was misunderstood in chapter 17, page 266 of his work against Peter Molin. (link) But, more to the point, why is Grevinchoven quoted as representative of Traditionalists? Grevinchoven’s works have basically not passed the test of time — his writings are not influential today. Davis most likely quotes him because he was extreme, not because he was influential. But that would be like a Traditionalist quoting Piscator’s statements that predestination is fatalism, and suggesting that they rightly represent Calvinism.