Questioning Calvinism: Unconditional Election

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When I was a Calvinist in the late 1990s, having been defending Calvinism as the lone orthodox theology of the Church for quite some time, I remember asking our assistant pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church (PCA) about those whom God did not unconditionally elect unto faith and salvation. He replied: “I think you are asking me how we are supposed to feel about God unconditionally electing some people and not others.” I agreed.

He then explained how everyone is running headlong toward a cliff, to certain doom, and instead of letting them all fall to their eternal doom God takes His saving hand and rescues some of them. Another Calvinist framed the matter thusly: My question about how we are supposed to feel about unconditional election is like asking the survivors of a plane crash, which caused the death of most on board, how they are supposed to feel about their salvation from the crash. Sure, they are very grateful to be alive, but what of all the others?

I began to find both analogies a bit disturbing, on both biblical and logical grounds, and began to wonder if the theology I had been taught as the only biblical position was true. Yes, we are all running headlong toward a proverbial eternal cliff toward our doom, but we must ask ourselves why this is so. Calvinism teaches that every minutiae of life is decreed to come to fruition as God saw fit for our history. Our running headlong toward an eternal cliff is a reality because God decreed this reality — He decreed that we all run headlong toward our eternal doom in and through the fall.

Calvinists are quick to remind us that we are each responsible for our own actions, that our decisions really matter in the real world, and that God will hold us each responsible for our decisions. But there’s the rub: when Calvinists teach us that God sovereignly influences our desires and decisions,1 and yet He will hold us accountable for our desires and decisions, what are we to think of God? What kind of being influences a person toward a given desire or decision and then judges the person for enacting what he or she was influenced to enact? Is this what they call a God of justice? This is like blaming a compass for pointing north.

The suggestion that God takes His saving hand and rescues some people begs the question: Why not save them all, then? He is, clearly, capable of saving them all. Christ’s atonement is quite capable of redeeming all. Why, then, did He not unconditionally elect all? The answer given refers us to one lone verse in St Paul’s writing: “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction.” (Rom. 9:22) God, in essence, could not have unconditionally elected all unto faith and salvation because He wanted to make known His wrath against sinners.

But did God not accomplish that through the cruel Cross of Christ? According to Calvinistic and classical Arminian theology, yes, God poured out His full wrath on Christ during the Cross event. Why did He do so? The apostle answers: “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Rom. 3:23, 24, 25 NRSV, emphases added) Perhaps the interpretation of the apostle at Romans 9:22 from a Calvinistic perspective is faulty.

Perhaps, too, the plane crash analogy above is without warrant. The plane, after all, did not unconditionally decree to self-destruct, kill hundreds of people, and unconditionally rescue a few. I realize the analogy is intended to address the notion of how one should feel about being a survivor, while others perish, but the analogy is a very poor one at best.

I am not alone in asking the question of how I am supposed to feel about unconditional election (link/link/link); and, quite honestly, when certain Calvinists begin to laud differences between primary and secondary causes by way of explanation, the attempts seem not only trite but also as intentionally distracting — i.e., a red herring — and rather dismissive. One can claim that our volition toward evil maintains a context within secondary causes, but we are bound to admit that God must even have decreed secondary causes, since God decrees every minutiae of our existence in order to be considered “sovereign” by Calvinists.

John Piper, in his brief article, “Five Reasons to Embrace Unconditional Election,” begins by defining or properly framing unconditional election, stating: “Unconditional election is God’s free choice before creation, not based on foreseen faith, to which traitors he will grant faith and repentance, pardoning them, and adopting them into his everlasting family of joy.” (link) (emphasis added) Did you catch his qualifier? He frames the matter: “to which traitors.” Tell us: How did we become traitors? If God decrees every minutiae of our very existence, which existence includes the fall — an existence which incorporates God influencing our desires and decisions, according to Calvinists — then our being traitors is by God’s decree and will. Piper frames the matter as if we are traitors of our own volition. But this cannot be true if God sovereignly influences our desires and decisions.

So, Piper begins with a faulty premise, and infers five reasons why we should embrace the theory of unconditional election. He further states that we should embrace the doctrine because it is true: “All my objections to unconditional election collapsed when I could no longer explain away Romans 9.” (link) This statement is pure subjective rhetoric. Countless saints throughout the last nearly two thousand years have read Romans 9 without concluding that unconditional election is a viable doctrine for the Church.

Piper’s second reason to embrace the novel theory is, curiously, as follows: “We embrace unconditional election because God designed it to make us fearless in our proclamation of his grace in a hostile world.” (link) He merely proof-texts this statement by quoting Romans 8:31, 33, assuming the verse defends his concept. There is one overarching reason why this statement is, again, subjective and irrelevant: countless saints throughout the last nearly two thousand years have boldly professed the faith of Christ apart from any context whatsoever relating to unconditional election. If Piper’s statement were true, then Christianity could not have survived, because no one even embraced unconditional election until St Augustine fabricated the novel doctrine in the early fifth century.

The theory of unconditional election is supposed to make us humble, grant us “a powerful moral impetus for compassion, kindness, and forgiveness,” and excite within us a zeal for evangelism. (link) Again, the theory of unconditional election actually accomplishes none of these potential achievements ipso facto, any more than does the doctrine of conditional election. In other words, there are arrogant, unforgiving and unevangelical Calvinists just as there are the same among non-Calvinists. Embracing the novelty of unconditional election will not automatically induce what Piper claims.

What he fails to address, however, is how one should feel about one’s child or parent or friend or spouse not being, allegedly, unconditionally elected by God. Let us not forget that he once perceived his son, Abraham, as not being unconditionally elected by God — whom Piper and his church excommunicated. (link) How should we feel about the innovative theory of unconditional election? Some words come to mind: hopeless, paranoid, terrified, rejected, suspicious, distrustful of God, betrayed, abandoned. Even Calvin himself held that God would grant some people faith only to betray them of that gift, rendering them as “monuments of instability,” and found to be doubly lost.This is such a deplorable theology. To paint the character of God in such heinous hues is unacceptable; and for Calvinists to tout this theology as though it alone is orthodox is entirely unsupportable.


1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 1.18.1; see also Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.

2 Calvin pontificates: “Experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them. Hence, it is not strange, that by the Apostle a taste of heavenly gifts, and by Christ himself a temporary faith is ascribed to them. Not that they truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith; but the Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instills into their minds such a sense of goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption.


[T]here is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith … Still it is correctly said, that the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because, under a covering of hypocrisy they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their mindto this extent … there is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent.” See Institutes, 3.2.11. (emphases added)