Rev. Gise J. Van Baren
Election as a doctrine of the church is often either little understood, or emphatically contradicted. There is either ignorance of this truth, or a deliberate misunderstanding of it.
What is the scriptural truth of election? We could define election as God's eternal, sovereign, gracious decree by which He chooses a church as the body of Christ, with all of its individual members, each in his own place, to eternal salvation and glory.
Let us examine the various parts of this definition more closely.
In the first place, election is that decree of God by which He chooses a definite number of individuals to salvation and glory. God is not uncertain of who will be saved and will spend eternity with Him in heaven. He knows each of His people by name, since He has chosen each of them; and those names He has recorded in the Book of Life. Scripture speaks of election this way in Acts 13:48: "As many as were ordained to eternal life, believed." Again, concerning Jeremiah we read (1:5), "And before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee; and before thou camest forth of the womb, I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations." Now I know that this applies to Jeremiah in particular, but it is very evident in this passage that God did sanctify him and did prepare him before he was ever born. God chose Jeremiah. Again, we read in Romans 9:13, "As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." That is not a n indefinite number, but God pointed out definite individuals. Before they were ever born, God said, "I have loved Jacob; I have hated Esau."
In the second place, the doctrine of election teaches that the members of the church are chosen as a body of Jesus Christ, with each member in his unique place. There are illustrations in Scripture which present the church as a body. The apostle Paul speaks of that church in I Corinthians 12:12: "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ." Now a body is a living organism. One cannot add members to that body or take any away. As soon as one tries that, he has an incomplete body or a monstrosity. A body normally has ten fingers, two hands, two arms, two eyes, one nose--that is all. Take away any of these members, or add to them, and one does not have a complete body anymore. God also chooses unto Himself a church as the body of Christ, that is, individual members each in his own particular place in that body. God has a place for each member, each elect of God, in that body. One's place may not always seem very important in man's eyes, but it is his unique place. Just as the little finger is an insignificant member, it is neverthele ss necessary in order to make the body complete; that finger has a place and function. So too, the truth of election emphasizes the fact that God chooses each individual member for a specific place in Christ's body -- and that place he must and will fill.
In the third place, election is centered in Jesus Christ. One can never speak of election apart from Him. We read in Ephesians 1:4, "According as He hath chosen us in him (Christ) before the foundation of the world...." That is the truth one finds throughout Scripture. God chooses His people as members of Christ.
In the fourth place, election teaches that God chooses a people unto eternal salvation and glory. God does not simply choose, but He has an end or goal in mind. That eternal goal was that He would bring His people to heaven. I quote, for instance, from Romans 8:29-30: "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified." So the final purpose of that eternal election whereby God chooses His people is that He may glorify them through Christ to the honor of His own Name.
Finally, election takes place in eternity. It is not an action taken only in time. It is an act of God that took place in His counsel or plan before time even began. Consider once again the passage of Ephesians 1:4: "According as He hath chosen us in (Christ) before the foundation of the world..." What does this mean? This phrase suggests that God chose before there was any creation, before there was time or space. Before the foundation of the earth, there is only God. He has chosen, then, a people in Christ from all eternity in His counsel. This is the testimony of Scripture.
In connection with the truth of election, the question is often asked, "Is election conditional or unconditional?" That is, did God choose His people on the basis of some action they must perform first -- or did He choose them freely and independently? Was election conditioned on something man must first do -- or did God choose certain people simply because it was His good pleasure to do so? Scripture itself teaches that election rests solely upon the decree of a sovereign God, and has nothing to do with any action man must first perform.
Sad to say, however, this is not the thinking of many today. The view that seems to have swept the church world of our day is that election is dependent on the will of man and not God. Election depends on the act of man in accepting Christ. God chooses those who first choose Him. This view has its roots in the Netherlands, and was first propounded in the year 1610. Its most influential proponent at that time was a man named James Arminius. Since his time this error concerning election has become synonymous with his name. It is called Arminianism.
Arminius himself wrote concerning this view of election, "But it (election) signifies the decree by which God determines to bestow salvation on someone, then Faith foreseen is prior to election. For as believers alone are saved, so only believers are predestined to salvation. But the Scriptures know no Elect, by which God precisely and absolutely has determined to save anyone without having first considered him as a believer. For such an election would be at variance with the decree by which he hath determined to save none but believers" (Writings of Arminius, Vol. I, page 380).
Obviously, Arminianism, when it speaks of election, speaks of it as conditional. Arminianism will not say that God elects, and therefore we believe; but it says that God elects those whom He foresees will believe. Arminianism maintains that election is dependent ultimately upon a positive response by man. When man accepts Christ, and perseveres in that, then God says, "I will elect you." Perhaps this idea of Arminianism can be illustrated. Suppose one were to place before you a weight of 1,000 pounds and were to command you to lift that 1,000 pound weight above your head. You would rightly say, "I can not." But were one to erect a system of pulleys with a rope, attach the rope firmly to that weight, then say again, "Lift that weight," now you would no longer be able to say, "I can not." Rather, you must now say either, "I will," or, "I won't." Obviously, it is now within your power to lift that weight. It is in this way that the Arminian also views the sinner. When man fell, he could do nothing. He could not accept Christ. He could not believe. But then God bestowed upon all men a certain grace (comparable to the system of pulleys in the illustration), so that all men have within them the power to believe if they will. But if they refuse, they are forever lost.
What must one say of this teaching of Arminianism? It ought to be clear that Arminianism essentially denies the sovereignty of God. That God is Sovereign means simply that God is God: He rules over heaven and earth. He will never relinquish His power to any creature. He will direct all things according to His sovereign purpose. God rules. The view of Arminianism denies this. An Arminian will insist that he too believes that the sinner is saved only by grace. But do not overlook the fact that, according to Arminianism, every sinner has this grace of God. What then makes one man to differ from another? Not God's grace, but the will of man which either uses or refuses God's grace. One exercises his will for Christ, another against Christ. The final determination as to who is elect rests then upon man's act. Such a teaching denies the sovereignty of God, for then the Sovereign, infinite, eternal God must sit in His heavens and await the decision of m an in order to find out who will and who will not inherit His Kingdom. That is a terrible error.
Calvinism insists upon the Scriptural truth that God unconditionally elects a people unto Himself from all eternity. Not only John Calvin, but also the earlier church fathers, insisted upon the same thing. St. Augustine, 354-420, maintained that: "Faith, therefore, from its beginning to its perfection is the gift of God. And that this gift is bestowed on some and not on others, who will deny but he who would fight against the most manifest testimonies of the Scripture? But why faith is not given to all ought not to concern the believer, who knows that all men by the sin of one came into must just condemnation. But why God delivers one from condemnation and not another belongs to His inscrutable judgments. And 'His ways are past finding out.' And if it be investigated and inquired how it is that each receiver of faith is deemed of God worthy to receive such a gift, there are not wanting those who will say, 'It is by their human will.' But we say that it is by grace, or Divine predestination."
Augustine's view was firmly founded on Scripture. Throughout, Scripture teaches that election is not conditioned upon any work or act of man. Acts 13:48 states, "For as many as were ordained to eternal life, believed." Now, which is first: belief or ordination? Plainly the latter. Or we read in John 15:16: "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained you, that you should go forth and bring forth fruit...." And in I John 4:10: "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." Election is surely unconditional according to all the teachings of Scripture.
Do you find comfort in such a truth? Some have insisted that this doctrine provides no comfort. For, say some, if one believes election, then the result will be that he becomes very careless and profane on this earth. If God eternally determined that a person is going to heaven, then what difference does it make what he does? If he wants to sin, he will be saved regardless. Though he do no good works, he will be saved anyway. Thus have many falsely presented this truth of election!
But such is a distortion of this doctrine. It is true: God has freely, eternally, sovereignly determined that His people will enter into glory. Among that people is numbered the thief on the cross -- a most horrible sinner. Among them is numbered Peter who denied Christ three times. Among them is numbered ourselves -- also terrible sinners. But does the doctrine of election allow one to sin if he pleases? Scripture teaches that God has chosen us in order that we should be holy and without blame (Eph. 1:4). See also Ephesians 2:10. Election produces fruit: where there is no fruit of righteousness, there is no evidence of election. Woe to the person who dares to say, "I sin because it does not make any difference -- I am already either elect or reprobate." To paraphrase words of Christ, it will be more tolerable in the day of judgment for one who never knew the truth of election, than for one who knew it and used it as an excuse to sin!
The sad situation today is that many Reformed men what to hide this doctrine. These insist that it is too difficult for the common people -- and one surely must never speak of it on the mission field. But Scripture never hides the truth of election -- it is plainly taught. In fact, Paul writes of it in detail to the churches of Rome and Ephesus especially. These churches were composed largely of Gentiles who had never had contact with the Word of God before. They were taught of election. If it was not too difficult then, ought it to be too difficult today for the people of our educated society?
How about yourself? Are you one of God's elect? That question has troubled many people. Are you concerned about your election -- truly concerned? The reprobate wicked never care whether or not they are elect. These only deny all of God's Word. But if you are concerned about your election, then you give evidence already in your life and heart of the fruit of election.
Just a few more questions. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you love His church and His truth? Do you hate all of your own sin? Then there is really no question, is there? You see within you the fruit and proof of election. You are still a sinner as are all God's people. Sometimes we wonder, "How could God choose one such as I?" Yet the fruits of election are evident. If you believe, you have the evidence that God has eternally chosen you in Christ. He did not choose you because you believe, but your belief is the evidence and proof that He has chosen you. Do you believe? Then blessed are you, for yours too is the kingdom of heaven.
For further study
The five points of Calvinism ought to be a matter of serious study for everyone as one's own spiritual welfare is at issue and the truth of the gospel of grace in Christ.
The original statement of the five points of Calvinism are found in the Canons of Dordt. In studying the Canons it is important to keep in mind that the Canons of Dordt assume one holds the Heidelberg Catechism and the Confession of Faith which also teach the same doctrine. What these Reformed creeds state concerning grace, election, the atonement, faith and conversion, the church, as well as infant baptism (including what this same Synod said in the Baptism Form) should be kept in mind
The following material treats the five points or aspects of them.
Jesus himself had much to say on these issues and this is discussed in the section:
The link, Particular Grace, continues this subject by addressing issues and doctrinal corruptions of the doctrines of grace.
How the doctrine of the covenant is viewed has a direct relationship to this discussion, particularly how it is that God establishes His covenant in the line of the generations of believers with believers and their seed.
The doctrines of grace and the doctrine of the church are also intimately connected. The church is the organic realization of the gathering of God's elect into the household of faith.
For a systematic study of the doctrines of grace in the context of the whole of Reformed doctrine see also the online course on the Essentials of Reformed Doctrine