The doctrine of election states that God chose whom he would save, that God’s choice precedes any consideration of our faith.
Here the doctrine of election is first briefly explained in its theological context and then examined more specifically in connection with key biblical passages. Special attention is given to the Gospel of John and 1 Corinthians 1. The ground of election is then explored followed by an application of the doctrine to Christian worship.
Definitions & Theological Context
That God chose whom he would save is a common theme in Scripture. God’s eternal decree is all-encompassing, and salvation likewise is according to his own gracious purpose (Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28-30; Eph. 1:11; 2Tim. 1:9). Those whom God saves are those whom he chose to save (Eph. 1:4; 1Thes. 1:4-5; 2Thes. 2:13-14, etc.). This, in brief, is the doctrine of election.
The doctrine of election traces the “decision” to save back to God himself in eternity past and affirms that he, not man, determined who will be saved (Eph. 1:3-6). Scripture affirms often that God’s sovereign rule is universal and that his predestinating decree is all-inclusive. Election to salvation is one aspect or dimension of that all-inclusive decree: God has predestined us “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Being a narrower aspect of God’s eternal, all-inclusive decree (predestination), election may be considered a subset of Theology Proper (the doctrine of God) (Eph. 1:11). However, in terms of its actual biblical exposition it may be considered a subset of soteriology: it is, after all, election to salvation (2Thes. 2:13). Theologians often helpfully categorize the various aspects of salvation as salvation planned, accomplished, and applied; election is salvation planned. In this plan God the Father chose whom he would save and sent his Son to save them (John 6:37-40). These who were “chosen” (Eph. 1:4, etc.) are also described as “given” to the Son (John 6:37, 39; 10:29; 17:2, 6-12, 24) and as his “sheep” whom he came to save (John 10:11, 15, 16). Indeed, it is because they electively belong to Christ that they hear his voice and inevitably come to him when he calls (John 6:37; 10:26-27; cf. Acts 13:48; Rom. 11:7; 1Thes. 1:4-5). That is to say, our coming to faith in Christ for salvation was not an accident, and it did not stem merely from our own “decision.” It was the outworking of God’s own purpose from eternity (cf. Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28-30; Eph. 1:9, 11; 2Tim. 1:9). It was God’s to “choose” or “elect” whom he would save (Eph. 1:4; 1Thess. 1:4-5; 2Thes. 2:13-14).
The Gospel of John
Jesus in the Gospel of John is particularly instructive in this regard: it presents the doctrine of election in terms of a people (God’s “sheep”) “given” by the Father to the Son and the Son as coming to save them.
… you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day (John 6:36–39).
Notice that Jesus defines his saving mission in terms of the rescue of those chosen by the Father and given to him (the Son) for that purpose.
In John 10 Jesus affirms not that we become sheep when he saves us but that we are saved precisely because we are his sheep, given to him by his Father for this very purpose.
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice (John 10:16).
That is, these sheep are already his, and because they are his sheep he must go after them and bring them into his fold (i.e., save them). For their part, he assures us, they will come to him when he calls (vv. 26-27). It is his sheep who will believe and receive eternal life.
A few verses later Jesus reaffirms the same but in more pointed, exclusive terms:
And you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life (John 10:26–28).
1 Corinthians 1: Human Depravity and Divine Initiative
Many passages of Scripture affirm that election to salvation pertains not only to the church corporately but to each individual believer (Acts 13:48; Eph.1:4; 1Thes. 1:4–5; 2Thes. 2:13–14; 2Tim. 1:9; 1Pet. 1:1–2). In 1 Corinthians 1, for example, the apostle Paul traces the believer’s salvation back to its ultimate source in God: those who are saved (v.18) are those who believe (v.21); those who believe are those who are called (vv. 24, 26); and those who are called are those who were chosen (vv. 27-28); and this so that all will know that it is God alone who saves (vv. 29-31).
The significance of this passage goes further, however. Here the Apostle Paul presents this doctrine against the backdrop both of divine sovereignty and of human depravity and enslavement to sin. He belabors the point that the gospel that saves is a message that the world thinks foolish (vv. 18-25). The very message that could save them they despise. The problem is not that the gospel is difficult to understand – if that were the case then the world’s “greats” would believe and the rest of us would never be able to grasp it. But the general makeup of the church, with its overwhelming majority of comparative nobodies, demonstrates that salvation is not due to any kind of human ingenuity or insight but to divine initiative and intervention (vv. 26-29). God alone has determined who will be saved, and as a result all glory goes to him for it (vv. 29-31). Still it remains that to the natural mind the gospel is foolishness, unworthy of acceptance. That is how the natural mind sees it. The natural mind fails to perceive the gospel – enslaved to sin it cannot understand (1Cor. 2:14; see 2:1-16). Sin so clouds the human mind that it fails to see the glory of Christ or its own need of him. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1Cor. 2:14; cf. 2Cor. 4:3–6). This is why Jesus could exclaim to the Jews of his days who refused him, “How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44). Indeed, he can say that the human mind is so darkened by sin that it cannot rightly assess the gospel: “because I tell you the truth you do not believe me” (John 8:45). The apostle Paul insists on the same: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7; cf. John 6:44; 8:43). This blinding enslavement to sin renders any notion of human initiative in salvation impossible. The choice of salvation necessarily resides with God, for in our natural, unenlightened state we cannot see in order to believe. Salvation must trace back to God’s choice of us, for otherwise we would never have chosen him (Psa. 14:1-3; cf. John 15:16).
This consideration of the blinding effects of human depravity is a necessary corrective to a common mischaracterization of election. Scripture nowhere allows the notion that some who may have wanted to be saved were refused. Humanity’s unbelief and rejection of God is unanimous (Psa. 14:1-3; Isa. 53:6; Matt. 23:37; John 5:40; Rom. 3:12). Indeed, it is this that renders God’s sovereign choice necessary. Had he not chosen, all would be lost.
The Ground of Election
All this serves to answer the question of the ground of divine election. On the negative side, God did not choose, as some attempt to argue, on the basis of foreseen faith. That would be impossible because of human depravity and the world’s otherwise unanimous rejection of him. It would also be entirely out of keeping for “the one who works all things according to his will” (Eph. 1:11); salvation here is said to be no exception. God is not contingent, and in all his redemptive activity he takes the initiative. God favors some with salvation and withholds it from others according as it so pleased him (Matt. 11:25-26). He chose in love (Eph. 1:4-5) and according to his wise purpose (1Cor 1:18–31; cf. Matt. 11:25-27; Rom. 8:28-29; Eph. 1:9, 11) and not because of any considerations in the elect themselves (Rom. 9:11, 16; 2Tim. 1:9). Moreover, election is according to grace (Rom. 11:5) and thus finds its reasons in God alone. God chose us “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:4-6). His goal was his own exclusive praise. Again, this is why God did not choose many of the world’s elite: it would in that case seem that salvation had something to do with personal attainment, and this was a notion God was concerned to exclude. Thus, in the main, God bypassed them and instead chose others (1Cor. 1:18-31; cf. Matt. 11:25-26). He was determined to save only in such a way that he receives all the credit for it.
On the positive side, just why God chose whom he chose and passed over others is left to mystery. Here the door of revelation is closed, and we are left only to worship him for it. We are told only that the basis of his choice was his own good pleasure and that he saves and withholds salvation accordingly (Matt. 11:25-26). Election is according to grace (Rom. 11:5), and its reasons are found in God alone.
Election Ground for Praise
Election, then, is massive ground for joyful, exulting praise, and this is how the biblical writers consistently treat the doctrine. It is an outstanding saving “blessing” of which we may sing:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing … even as he has chosen us … in love having predestined us … to the praise of his glorious grace! (Eph. 1:3-5).
In the face of our rebellion and against our senseless, sinful determinations he purposed better for us (Rom. 8:28). For reasons known only to him, he chose to save us as trophies of his kindness and grace (Eph. 2:7). Overlooking others he has favored us in the very greatest possible way, revealing himself to us in love and allowing us to know him (Matt. 11:25-27). Praise belongs only to him (Psa. 3:8; Jonah 2:9), and a right recognition of his gracious election makes us eager to render it to him. God saved us in such a way that when we exult we may exult only in him (Eph. 1:4-6; 1Cor. 1:30-31). “See what kind of love the Father has given to us,” we exclaim with the apostle John, “that we should be called children of God; and so we are!” (1Jn. 3:1).
Note: Portions of this essay were adapted from Fred Zaspel’s brief entries in Lexham Survey of Theology.
- Matthew Barrett and Thomas Nettles, Whomever He Wills
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol.2, p.337–405
- John Calvin, “The Doctrine of Election”
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p.669–91
- Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, p.532–34
- A. W. Pink, The Sovereignty of God
- John Piper, “Five Reasons to Embrace Unconditional Election”
- Thomas Schreiner, Romans, p.451–453
- Thomas Schreiner and Bruce Ware, eds., Still Sovereign
- Sam Storms, Chosen for Life
- Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol.1, p.77–154
- B. B. Warfield, “Election”
- B. B. Warfield, The Works of B.B. Warfield, vol.2, p.1–67