I recently debated Richard Bushey regarding the doctrine of unconditional election (Part 1) (Part 2). The debate was nearly two hours and while I hope you enjoy watching the full debate, I will attempt to provide a recap and my closing thoughts in this post.
Some say the topic of Christ’s death for all is Arminian turf and the topic of unconditional election is Calvinist turf. That could account for the large number of 4-point Calvinists, who hold that Christ did die for everyone, but who do not follow this line of reasoning through to rejecting unconditional election, which remains the foundation of the Calvinist system. According to Robert Haldane “It [unconditional election] is a truth essential to the plan of salvation, and a truth most explicitly revealed. No truth in Scripture is more easily defended.” (Romans p. 493) So debating a Calvinist on the question of “is unconditional election biblical?” is no small challenge, and I don’t recall having seen a great number of Calvinist vs. Arminian debates on this point. Indeed, too often I have seen Arminians argue that unconditional election is morally reprehensible rather than biblically unsupportable. My hope is this debate contributes to adjusting our focus back to the Scriptures.
Unconditional Election is Nonsense
Calvinists claim that election is unconditional, but they also deny that God’s election is arbitrary or random. My first counter-argument to unconditional election is that random and conditional are mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories – there’s no in-between- it’s one or the other. Random is defined as chosen without regard to any characteristics of the individual members of the population so that each has an equal chance of being selected: random sampling. Conditional is defined as a particular mode of being of a person or thing; existing state. So, if election is not conditional and not random, then it doesn’t have a definition and therefore is not a concept and therefore does not make any sense and is not from scripture.
Take for example Ephesians 1’s statement that we are chosen in Christ. What does the word chosen mean? If it’s not a conditional election or a random election, then we don’t have a concept backing it up and the apostle is making a nonsensical sound when he says the word election.
In the debate, I made this argument and I asked Richard if he could come up with any example of one of his choices that is neither conditional or random. He admitted he could not and instead offered that unconditional simply means election is not based on foresight of faith (part 2 23:30). Debates hinge on definitions – do they not?
The Westminster Confession denies that God decreed anything because He saw it as future or that which would come to pass upon conditions. It also states predestination to life is “without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature” (Chapter III, Parts I & V). I pointed this out to Richard, in essence saying he agrees with Westminster on the denial of foresight of faith or good works, but does not go on to agree with them on the “or any other thing in the creature” part of the definition.
Surely Richard is affirming the most important part of the Westminster definition of unconditional election, but I think he is omitting the foundational aspect. Calvinist theologians argue for unconditional election and against other systems based on the very nature of God, claiming conditionality would violate God’s immutability, eternality, impassability, simplicity and aseity. In other words, they argue that God’s decrees cannot be conditional because man cannot have the type of freedom that is independent of God’s determinations. And Richard is still working through his views on man’s freedom and God’s providential control (Part 2, 9:30-12). So I suspect Richard didn’t defend the whole definition of unconditional election, because he hasn’t fully embraced it.
I commend Richard on his approach to Romans 9. So much time is spent on if the election of Jacob and Esau was national or not, that at times the apostle’s meaning gets lost, but Richard admitted from the get go that the election was national. I also admit that national election cannot be the whole of Paul’s point, and would not explain why his country men are lost without compromising God’s promise. Romans 9:7-13 is a string of OT quotations regarding national election. The three primary times he steps outside of the OT quotations are verses 7a, 8b and 11 to 12b. Richard and I agreed that 7a’s statement “Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children” means that being in National Isreal does not mean you will be saved. We likewise agreed that 8b’s statement “In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children” means that those who receive God’s promises by faith are God’s children. But we disagreed on 11 to 12b:
“Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls”
My contention was that Paul is using the election of Jacob as head of the nation of Israel to teach that God saves via grace, not nationality or works.
The Jews thought they could get to heaven based on their nationality and obedience to the law, but they cannot. God sometimes acts to show His purposes depends on Him, as He did in the case of Jacob. Likewise, salvation depends on God’s grace, not man’s works or nationality. Esau had the birthright, being the oldest, but God chose Jacob to show that all depends on Him. Notice the election of Jacob was not unconditional, the condition was “youngest”. Likewise, in the dictum, by grace through faith, grace is everything, since even a believer would go to hell without God’s grace.
Richard contended that Paul makes his point regarding national election via individual election and God elects individuals out of many nations. We could have a whole debate on Romans 9, I’m sure, and I wish we could have explored this more. But as it stood in the debate, there were two competing alternative interpretations of Romans 9.
Regarding Pharaoh and hardening and God’s finding fault, Richard and I ultimately agreed that God judicially hardened Pharaoh due to Pharaoh’s sins committed before, while God was keeping Pharaoh’s heart soft. In hardening Pharaoh, God removed His softening grace. Pharaoh illustrates the fact that the Jews were now being hardened. We likewise agreed that this hardening was not a decree of unconditional reprobation and Richard even said Pharaoh’s hardening was not soteriological. I’m more inclined to the idea that the hardening of Pharaoh and others is soteriological, in that it closes off, at least for a time, the opportunity for salvation, as in the Romans 9 expression “fitted for destruction”. We likewise agreed that God still punishes those He judicially hardens and we don’t have the right to talk back to God. More on the hardening of the Jews when we get to Romans 11.
On the illustration of the potter, if there’s a text that teaches unconditional election, this is it, since we are typically arbitrary or random in selecting one aspect of a lump of clay over another. But I pointed out that Jeremiah 18, which Paul is paraphrasing, moves us away from understanding the point of the illustration as being the passive nature of clay and the unconditional choices the potter makes regarding parts of a lump of clay, since God is reacting to the actions of the clay. Indeed, as I also pointed out, the “fitting for destruction” in Romans 9, is passive rather than active, allowing for man’s role in fitting himself for destruction, just as Pharaoh had a role in his hardening. So rather than the arbitrary way in which we choose clay, Paul’s point is God’s authority over us is like the potter’s authority over the clay. And just as God’s hardening Pharaoh showed His power and glory and led to the salvation of Israel, so too His hardening the Jews, who were making themselves vessels of destruction, was a means of showing His power and glory to the Gentiles and was leading to their salvation.
On Romans 11:3-7, I argued that the election of the 7,000 was conditional on faith, since Jezebel was killing those faithful to God, but Obadiah hid many of the faithful from her. God lets Elijah know he’s not alone. God keeps a remnant of those faithful to Him. The 7,000 first stayed faithful to God, then God chooses to reserve them. God is not choosing the Baal worshipers but the faithful. I also argued that election is conditional on faith and Paul still insists that it’s gracious (undeserved) and not by works (unmerited). Calvinism teaches if election were conditional, it would be merited and a work. So Paul can reconcile God’s graciousness with the conditional election of the 7,000, but Calvinism cannot. Richard didn’t directly engage this argument.
On Romans 11:7-14, I argued that the “some of them” that Paul hopes might be saved is from among the non-elect “others” in verse 7. Likewise, Paul says the non-elect who were hardened did not fall beyond recovery. This is at variance with Calvinism’s stance that the non-elect cannot be saved and have fallen beyond recovery. The question is: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Calvinism says, “yes, they are reprobate” But Paul says, not at all! I hope they will be saved. It shows non-elect individuals can join the ranks of the corporately elect. Richard responded that the “some of them” were natural Israelites. I granted this, but pointed out they were non-elect Israelites per verse 7 and Paul still hopes for their salvation.
On Romans 11:17-24, based on inclusion/exclusion from the olive tree, I argued that election is corporate. You as an individual have to be grafted into the tree! This election comprehends no man unconditionally. Believers are in the tree; unbelievers are out.
Richard responded to this and to 1 Peter 2 that this would make God’s election mutable. But this assumes the election could not be corporate, which is exactly what I am arguing for. It also leads into the discussion of election based on foreknowledge.
Election According to Foreknowledge
I pointed out that 1 Peter 1:2 says we are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father and that Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” I argued whatever might be said about foreknowledge including love we must not deny “fore-love” includes knowledge, as if God loves without knowing. Likewise we must not make Peter stutter as if to say God elects who He elects or Paul stutter and say those whom He predestined, He also predestined. Predestination and foreknowledge are separate concepts.
I then argued that without these mistakes, we have foreknowledge as the foundation of election and predestination, and this inverts the Calvinist view that foreknowledge results from God’s decree. No, the decree is based on foreknowledge. Likewise I argued, election is conditional on God’s foreknowledge of us – we are the object of God’s knowledge while He is electing us.
I asked the audience to think about yourself as you are right now. You have a history and a character. You are an individual. You are a person. God knew everything about you from before the foundation of the world and His choosing and predestinating you was at least in part, influenced by that knowledge. That’s conditional election.
Richard responded that predestination is useless if God already has foreknowledge of a future event. I point out that predestination could still impact events after the foreknown event, but instead of foreknowledge, we could understand the passage as middle knowledge rather than free knowledge. Richard responded that Paul doesn’t say middle knowledge and that idea must be read into the text. I pointed out that Richard himself was arguing that Paul doesn’t mean free knowledge. I will add that it’s clearly not natural knowledge, since God might not have created us. So if it’s not natural or free knowledge, we should consider the possibility that Paul is talking about middle knowledge. I also pointed out that I didn’t get the idea of middle knowledge from Molina or Craig, but rather from discussing Romans 8:29 with Calvinists, answering the very argument he just made against free knowledge.
One of Richards’ main arguments was based on Christ’s statement in John 10 that “you do not believe because you are not my sheep”. Richard claimed the sheep were the unconditionally elect, since there’s a causal relationship between being sheep and believing. I countered that sheep follow and are given eternal life, but the elect, before regeneration, do not follow and are not given eternal life. Richard responded, yes, but these non-elect were not believing because they were not sheep. But that misses the point that sheep are not the elect, but rather those who follow Christ. So I offered an alternative explanation. The whole sentence is “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.”. This refers back to chapter 9, where Christ healed a blind man. The Pharisees first claimed it was a different man than the one born blind, but when his parents showed up, the leaders didn’t have an explanation and got angry and embarrassed and threw the man out of the synagogue. The miracle was a topic of discussion up into the present context in John 10:20-21 and Christ comments on their unbelief here, saying they don’t believe the miracle because they are not Christ’s sheep (i.e. they are not following Christ). Their refusal to follow Christ is causing them to refuse to admit Christ gave sight to the blind man. Christ amplifies this point in verses 37-38: “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” Notice again that Christ distinguishes between believing in Him and believing the miracles and makes believing the miracles a preparatory step to believing in Him. This makes sense if sheep are Christ followers, but makes no sense if the sheep are the unconditionally elected and the rest were passed by or reprobated and cannot have eternal life.
Another of Richard’s arguments was that unconditional election best explains total depravity. He argued that faith is a virtue and based on Romans 8:5-8, virtues can’t come from the flesh. He also argued that a man is either in the flesh or in the Spirit. I pointed out that in the inbound context or Romans 7, Paul struggles against his flesh and most Calvinists take this as post regeneration and post indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Likewise in Romans 8:15, Paul describes two works of the Holy Spirit, the first that leads to fear, which is God’s using the law to lead us to realize we are sinners and need a savior, and in this sense, the law is the handmaiden to lead us to Christ, and the second work of the Holy Spirit, whereby we are adopted into God’s family and cry “Abba, Father.” I also pointed out the struggle inside us between the flesh and the Spirit that Paul talks about in Galatians 5. So while it may be true that in a single act, we are led by either the flesh or the Spirit, it’s wrong to say that we are influenced to act only by the flesh or the Spirit, or that, this side of glory, Christians are wholly Spirit and uninfluenced by the flesh, or this side of hell, unbelievers are wholly flesh and uninfluenced by the Spirit.
We also briefly discussed the doctrine of prevenient grace, whereby God is enabling lost sinners to repent and believe. To this end, I cited the pre-hardening work of God in Pharaoh, God’s work through the law in Romans 8:15, the sufficient grace described in Isaiah 5:3-4 and the tasting of the Holy Spirit in Hebrews 6:4. Richard called these works “common grace”, but that leads into God’s intent behind these works, which leads into the subject of the sincere offer of the gospel.
I argued that the Gospel would be insincere if unconditional election were true. I used the illustration of offering a bad check to the corpse. There’s two problems: you don’t have the funds in the bank (i.e. Christ didn’t die for the non-elect) and second, the corpse can’t respond and you know it (i.e.total depravity and God treating a disabled man as if he were able ). These are separate problems – the corpse’s inability to respond doesn’t change a bad check into a good check. So for both reasons you don’t want the corpse to have the money.
So God’s statement in Psalm 81:13 “Oh, that My people would listen to Me, That Israel would walk in my ways,” would be insincere.
The Gospel promise, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved, is false on Calvinism. The only way the promise is true is if they believed they would be saved. But it’s not true that if the non-elect believed they would be saved, because Christ didn’t die for them. Either the gospel is false because it’s not backed up by Christ’s death or the gospel is false because there is salvation apart from Christ’s death – either way the Gospel is wrong and God (who is the Truth) punishes people for not believing a lie. Richard did not respond to this argument.
God’s Love of All
I argued that God’s love of everyone and His desire for all to be saved conflicts with unconditional election. I cited 1 Timothy 2:4-6:4, ”who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” I also cited Ezekiel 18:23 – “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” Richard responded, especially to the 1 Timothy 2:4-6 text, that sometimes “all” can be used to convey ethnic inclusivism. We agree that the context would have to determine that. So I pointed out that the context of the statement on Christ’s mediation was God on one side and man on the other, and the only way for man to get to God is the one mediator Christ Jesus. This verse is used to argue for Christian particularism, in that you cannot get to God through Mohammed or Buddha, or anyone else other than Christ. But if “all” means all the elect, then the verse isn’t teaching Christian particularism, because it’s not addressing if the non-elect can get to heaven some other way. I further argued that the method Richard uses to get around unlimited atonement could take out Christian partialism. All have sinned could mean all the elect have sinned, and the non-elect can live sinless lives and go to heaven. None righteous, no not one, could mean none of the elect are righteous, no not one of them. No man can come to the Father but through me can be transformed into no elect man can come to the Father but through Christ, leaving room for the view that the non-elect can come to the Father through Buddha.
I then pointed out that Christ parallels the judgement of the world with His mission to save the world in John 12:47. When Christ comes to judge, He will judge everyone. He will separate the sheep from the goats. So if the final judgement is for everyone, then that is the contextual definition for world in John 12:47, where Christ says He came to save the world.
Richard argued that unconditional election is like a landlord who chooses to evict some tenants, but not others, among a group that gambled away their rent money. Basically he asserted that infra-lapsarianism does not suffer from the problems of supra-lapsarianism. I responded that the analogy does not work because God causally determined the fall, so the landlord first bankrupts the tenants. Richard responded that he wasn’t assuming causal determinism, but I pointed out the reformed confessions teach determinism. I further responded that even beyond the fall, the analogy breaks down on God’s treatment of angels. God did not elect angels post-fall, so it’s not an infra-lapsarian election. Rather, His election caused the angels to stand and His non-election of other angels led to their inevitable fall. For humans, it’s a two-stage process, allowing for an infra-lapsarian model to take place, but for angels, it’s one and done, so there can be no infra-lapsarian model. I further responded that infra-lapsarianism does not pass the Good Samaritan test.
I hope you enjoy the debate and I really hope it drives you deeper into the scriptures to see whether these things are so. God be with you.