Theological Positions I Don’t Understand, Part 2

Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace

This is the second in a series about Christian doctrines that make no sense to me.

There are several theological doctrines that are widely held by Christians that I just plain do not understand.  I have dug into the Scriptures and read commentaries both pro and con, and cannot find cogent explanations for these doctrines.  If these doctrines are correct, I would like to understand why, so that I can correct my thinking in these areas.

The doctrines I’d like to consider in this blog entry are Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace.

I know that several of my readers hold to these doctrines.  The reason I am posting this is because I do not understand these beliefs.  My intent in this series is not to offend anyone, but rather, I’m hoping someone can give me a well-reasoned, cogent explanation.  I’m seeking to understand the truth, not to attack anyone’s theology.

John Calvin

John Calvin

Unconditional election is the Calvinist doctrine that before God created the world, he elected to save some people according to his own purposes, apart from any conditions related to those persons.  This basically means that God’s act of saving is not based on what man chooses or wills, but man is chosen by God solely by God’s grace, thus unconditional election.

Irresistible Grace is the doctrine which teaches that the saving grace of God is efficaciously applied to those whom he has determined to save (the elect) and, in God’s timing, overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to faith in Christ.  Since man is so corrupt that he cannot decide and cannot be persuaded to follow after God, God must powerfully intervene.

These two doctrines together are commonly referred to a predestination, which is basically the belief that God predestines or predetermines who will be saved, and there is nothing we as fallen depraved human beings can do about it.  If God has elected a person, they will be saved; if He has not elected a person, they will not be saved.  Human beings have no choice in the matter.

There are literally thousands of Bible passages dealing with the topic.  Some verses emphasize the sovereignty of God; others emphasize mankind’s choice.  It seems that most arguments against unconditional election and irresistible grace ignore the passages that discuss God’s sovereignty and predestining, while most arguments for unconditional election and irresistible grace ignore passages that discuss man’s choice to respond or not respond to God’s calling.

The biggest problem I have regarding unconditional election and irresistible grace is the flip-side of the doctrines:  what happens to the unelected?  If God has predetermined who will be saved, then He has also predetermined who will be unsaved.  If human beings have no choice in the matter whatsoever, then God has created billions of people for the sole purpose of sending them to Hell for all eternity.  God has not and will not reach out to them to save them; they cannot respond to the Cross of Christ; they were damned before the creation of the world.  The Westminster Confession, after stating the doctrine of election, adds:

“The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the inscrutable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.”

This doctrine, called unconditional reprobation, is problematic if God is omnibenevolent or completely loving.  How could a loving God create people to whom He will never offer a chance at redemption?  How could God, before the creation of the world, select vast numbers of human beings, and allow them to come into existence specifically for the purpose of sending them to Hell?  Since God is love, why would He not want to offer salvation to everyone?  How can it “pleaseth” a loving God to “witholdeth mercy?”  This makes no sense to me!

It seems to me that unconditional reprobation is logically necessary if unconditional election and irresistible grace are true; yet, unconditional reprobation is inconsistent with the loving character and nature of the God of the Bible.  I’ve read numerous detailed attempts to explain how unconditional reprobation does not mean God is arbitrary and how God is still loving, but I have yet to find one that makes sense to me.  Most of the arguments I’ve read simply involve trying to redefine terms so that they mean something other than what they mean, which does nothing but make my head spin.  The problem is still the same, even if the terms are redefined.  How can a loving God pick and choose some that He wills to go to Heaven, and others He wills to send to Hell?

If unconditional reprobation, unconditional election, and irresistible grace are true, then John 3:16 should read, “For God so loved the elect that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever He elected shall believe in Him and not perish but have everlasting life.”  The fact that God so loved the world implies that God’s salvation through grace is available to everyone; the fact that whoever believes in Him should not perish implies a choice of the will.

BibleThe Bible clearly teaches that God is sovereign; it also clearly teaches that man has a will, and is responsible for his choices.  It’s not an issue of God’s sovereignty or man’s will – it’s a matter of understanding how both exist at the same time.  It appears to me that the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace focus too much on God’s sovereignty, at the expense of God’s love; Armenians focus too much on the opposite.  There must be a reality that fully includes both God’s sovereignty and His love.

If someone can explain to me how irresistible grace, unconditional election, and unconditional reprobation do not contradict God’s absolute love, I’d appreciate a comment clearing up my understanding.  Otherwise, this doctrine will have to stay filed under “Christian Doctrines I Don’t Understand.”


11 Responses

  1. Trinity is one of the things i don’t simply find a verse in the bible.

  2. I have looked into this false teaching of Calvinism myself. To begin with I read how they all got to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. I read page after page of scripture where they said God was sovereign in this act and that act. I asked myself where is the rub, why do I disagree with them. The answer came when the paper said “this implies”. Then they started making all kinds of teachings about God’s sovereignty that they could no longer quote scripture for. Instead they implied this scripture and that scripture.

    They also have now made hell for not only the devil and his angels, they make hell for all those whom God did not predestined to be saved.

    They rewrite the word of God by saying Christ did not die for everyone. Someone needs to tell Paul that God did not reconcile all things to God. Someone needs to tell Hebrews that Jesus did not taste death for every man.

    The list could go on.


  3. Hmmm – good thinking! After years of grappling with the same questions, I’ve simply concluded that those with these beliefs, like to have such a hold on their theology, that they are willing to do whatever it takes to “place God in a box.” One other simple but true observation – those groups (denominations) who have held most tightly to this theology over the past 100 years are dead or dying as a group(s).

    Could say much more, but frankly I’m tired of debating with newly enlightened evangelicals who are embracing Reformed theology and their centuries old arguments. Leaving it to you Rich.

  4. Here is a great resource, it has been the clearest for me when learning Bible centered foundational beliefs (I do not consider Calvinism Bible centered). First, turn to page 69 and read Glenn Shellrude’s article. If you like it, I’ll throw others your way!

    My (and Glenn’s) short answer: God is sovereign and loving at the same time, evidenced by Him sovereignly choosing to create man with libertarian freedom. This libertarian freedom is one of the things that makes us “in his image”. He has also sovereignly chosen the one condition for man’s salvation – repentance, faith, and trust in Jesus Christ and what he did on the cross. When man, in his libertarian freedom, chooses to repent and turn to Jesus, God in turn gets the glory. He gets chief glory. More glory than he would get if we were robots that he choreographed to love him without choice.

  5. Hi, Rich

    I would submit to you that the primary barrier to understanding these positions is found in this phrase: “Human beings have no choice in the matter.” No Calvinist that I’m aware of believes that this is true. No one gets dragged into Heaven against their will. No one who submits their life to Christ gets turned away. Everyone makes their own choice, free of coercion. However, you’re not going to choose something that you don’t want. It’s not an easy read, but I’d recommend checking out Jonathan’s Edwards “Freedom of the Will”:

    Something else to think about: If God is omniscient and knows what the future holds, then how does it make God more loving to give humans libertarian free will? Let’s say God gives both John and Joe complete freedom to either choose Him or reject Him, with the capability to make either choice. God shows grace to both John and Joe, hoping that both John and Joe will accept that grace. However, being all-knowing, God knows that Joe will not accept His grace. Yet, God creates Joe anyway, and places him on the earth. How is Joe any better off? He is still doomed, because he can’t “surprise” God. The only way I know to resolve this dilemma is to accept either open theism and/or universalism, neither of which are biblical tenable positions.

    • My understanding of the doctrine of irresistible grace is that it is the belief that man cannot refuse God’s grace.

      If man cannot refuse it, then he effectually has no choice.

      If everyone makes their own choice, free of coercion, then how is grace irresistible? I would agree that no one who submits their life to Christ gets turned away. My understanding of the doctrine of irresistible grace is that if a person is elected by God, they will eventually submit their life to Christ. They CANNOT do otherwise. They have no choice, no free will, in the matter.

      What makes more sense to me is “foreknowledge election” – the idea that God elects those that, through His foreknowledge, He knows will choose to submit their lives to Him. God’s grace is available to all, but most resist His invitation. God’s love demands a universal invitation (John 3:16a), but also demands that we have free will choice to either accept or reject that invitation (John 3:16b).

      The idea that God chooses some for salvation, but chooses others for Hell, is inconsistent with a loving God. God, in His sovereignty, chose to create mankind in His image, with a free will. If this were not true, then God would be solely responsible for sending people to Hell; such a god would not be the God of Love. God’s love demands that human beings have a choice in their salvation. This flies in the face of the doctrine of irresistible grace, and to a lesser degree, the doctrine of unconditional election.

      These two doctrines just do not make sense to me, given God’s perfect love. It seems to me that 5-point Calvinism places far too much emphasis on God’s sovereignty, at the expense of His perfect love. In other words, if Calvinism’s understanding of God’s sovereignty is true, then God is not also a God of perfect love.

    • Hi Sloppyedwards, you state that no Calvinist you know believes that “human beings have no choice in the matter.” And that no one gets dragged into heaven against their will.

      In fact, every Calvinist believes that, by definition.

      Note the language at the Synod of Dort, stating that God can “powerfully and unfailingly bend man’s will to faith and conversion.” John Piper says that “The doctrine of irresistible grace means that God is sovereign and can overcome all resistance when he wills.” Loraine Boettner says that “A man is not saved because he believes in Christ, he believes in Christ because he is saved.” (I can find more quotes from notable Calvinists on this matter if you desire, but for brevity I will move on).

      But then you state that “Everyone makes their own choice, free of coercion.”

      When God bend’s your will, does He seek your permission? In what way did you decide or approve to have your will bent? This is shifting all of man’s responsibility over to God. Man is no longer responsible for the decisive factor determining heaven or hell, God is.
      So which way is it? If God compels persons with “irresistible superiority,” in what way is it inaccurate to say that God is forcing people to choose Christ? Under the Calvinist framework that God “bends man’s will”, he doesn’t seek their permission.

      The problem is that Calvinists cannot have their cake and eat it, too. They cannot insist that an omnipotent God overwhelms and bends human will powerfully and unfailingly, and then transform this doctrine into something other than it is by softening it with more palatable language such as “effectual calling” and “compatibilism.” Effectual calling just sounds nicer. At the end of the day, people have no choice but to do what God has programmed them to do.

      And strictly speaking, compatibilist “freedom” is really not freedom at all; it is voluntary but not free – that is, just being willing to do something does not mean that a person is free. If someone is pointing a gun at you, you might be willing to hand over your wallet to him, but that does not mean that you do so freely. You give him the wallet because you are under compulsion and have no real choice. To truly be free, there must be a choice between at least two alternatives (even if the only alternatives are “yes” and “no”).

      In libertarian freedom, we are morally accountable for our choices. In compatibilism, it is difficult to hold us morally accountable because we really had no choice. If God created someone reprobate, they were born with sin nature, and had no chance but to live a short life and burn in hell forever. If God were to say to them, “you did this to yourself” they could simply say back “we had choice, you did this to us”. Similarly, for the elect person this would give God limited glory because they just did what He programmed them to do. However, in order to obtain chief glory, God wants a people for himself that freely chose to be his people and follow him for who he is, what he did, and will worship him forever and ever. And for those who don’t choose him, the responsibility is on them, and God is still loving, just, holy, all powerful, and all knowing.

  6. I would agree that God does change the will of those He elects. I would also contend that you are conflating “choice” with “will.”

    • Sloppyedwards – If God always chooses to bend the will of the elect so they will be saved, and He always chooses not to bend the will of the non-elect, so they will not be saved… at what point to humans have a choice in the matter of justification?

      I’m not asking to attempt to catch you or anything like that, this is something that I truly don’t understand…

      • Brian,

        A choice is defined as “an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.”

        The will is defined as “the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.”

        Fallen man has a choice, but he will always make the wrong choice, because his moral fiber is corrupt, and his will is invariably set against God. (1 Cor. 2:14, Rom. 8:7). The only way for man to choose God is for God’s effectual calling (or “irresistible grace”) to work a change in his will. Note that man is not forced to choose against his will. Neither is one of the choices revoked. Man still chooses between two possibilities, but his will has been changed. We always choose the option that is in line with our will.

        I realize it can be difficult to grasp or accept the idea that someone can be given actual choices, but be “unable” to choose one of the choices. How is it still a choice, if they can’t choose it? I find it helpful to draw a comparison to God. For example, God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18). Does that mean God doesn’t have a choice? I would say God does have a choice, but He always chooses truth, because truth is part of who he is. It’s a choice, because he possesses the faculties that would make it possible to lie (ability to communicate, personal intelligence, etc.). Something ceases to be a choice if someone does not possess the faculties necessary to make the choice. For example, God cannot suck his thumb, because he is spirit and does not have a thumb. On the other hand (no pun intended), it is conceivable that God could speak falsehood, but his character prevents him from making that choice.

        Similarly, man possesses the faculties that are required to make a choice regarding submission to God or rejection of God. These are faculties that inanimate objects or creatures that were not made in the image of God do not possess. So, man makes a choice regarding God, and God holds man responsible because man possesses the faculties necessary to make the right choice. However, he can only make a choice that is consistent with his character, and sin has corrupted his character.

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