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Is God’s Election of the Faithful Unconditional?

Tim Staples

John Calvin’s ideas of “election” and “double predestination” are virtually indistinguishable. Double predestination is the teaching that claims God to have determined from all eternity who will go to heaven and who will go to hell, giving man no real choice in the matter. The Catholic Church condemns this understanding, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance” [citing II Peter 3:9] (CCC 1037).

As with predestination, for Calvin, God both wills and brings about the damnation of souls by his positive decree of election. He must or else, in Calvin’s mind, he ceases to be truly almighty:

They deny that it is ever said in distinct terms, God decreed Adam should perish by his revolt. . . . They say that, in accordance with free will, he was to be the architect of his own fortune, that God had decreed nothing but to treat him according to his desert. If this frigid fiction is received, where will be the omnipotence of God. . . . It was not owing to nature that they all lost salvation by the fault of one parent . . . it is plain that it is owing to the wonderful counsel of God. . . . The decree, I admit, is dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknew what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew because he had so ordained by his decree (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, book III, ch. XXIII, para. 7).

Yes, this “decree is dreadful,” but it is not God’s. It’s Calvin’s.

Twisting the truth

There is some truth to Calvin’s notion of election. Scripture often refers to “the elect” as those who will finally persevere until the end and so be saved.

The Church, and through her the world, will not be perfected in glory without great trials. Only then will “all the just from the time of Adam, ‘from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect’ . . . be gathered together in the universal Church in the Father’s presence” (CCC 842).

Jesus speaks of the “elect” who will persevere and so be saved: “And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (Matt. 24:22).

St. Paul also speaks of “the elect”: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which in Christ Jesus goes with eternal glory” (II Tim. 2:10).

The Catholic Church has no problem with referring to “the elect” as those who will finally persevere until the end and attain final salvation. The problem with Calvin is his claim that man has no real say in whether or not he will be one of God’s elect.

A Catholic response

However one understands the theology of “election,” as a Catholic, as long as he does not deny certain essential truths, there is freedom. For example, a Catholic can believe that the number of the “elect” is “predetermined” inasmuch as God knows how many will cooperate with this grace and persevere until the end. That means there is a limited number of “elect,” and, of course, not everyone is “elect.”

A Catholic may not, however, teach “election” to mean that God does not give to every single person the real possibility of salvation. Gaudium et Spes makes this clear:

For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery (22, para. 5).

In other words, “election” does not mean God arbitrarily “elects” some for heaven and damns others to hell as Calvin taught. A true biblical understanding of “election” must involve man’s truly free response:

To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace (CCC 600).

God’s predestination and/or election presuppose God’s initiative. God’s “eternal plan of predestination” goes before us so that if we respond to God’s call, it is only because God’s grace, predestination, election, and calling went before us. Without God as first mover, we could not take one step toward God as one of his elect. However, without our freely willing it, we will not finally “be in that number, when the saints come marching in.”

But what about Jacob and Esau?

Invariably, Romans 9:11-12 will be employed by Calvinists to defend their position of unconditional election:

Though [Jacob and Esau] were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, [Rebecca] was told, “The elder will serve the younger.”

In order to understand this passage, we have to understand the context of Romans. And we have to make the necessary distinctions between God’s gift of grace and the plan of God, which are given to men independent of anything that man does or can do, and man’s call to respond to the gift of grace and the plan of God. When we see this, Romans 9 will come into focus.

St. Paul is writing to a people in Rome being assailed by “judaizers” who were coming up with their own plan of salvation and leading people astray. In essence, they were saying it’s great to believe in Christ and the New Covenant, but if you want to be saved, you have to go back to the Temple, to the Old Covenant priesthood, sacrifices, the Old Law—especially circumcision—etc.

True Christians who were rejecting these Old Covenant practices in favor of the New were being persecuted for their faith; and, no doubt, they were being tempted to succumb to returning to the Temple. If they would only do so, they would no longer be in danger of “being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction . . . [being imprisoned] . . . [experiencing the] plundering of . . . [their] property” (Heb. 10:32-34).

At the same time, as St. Paul says in Galatians 5, if they were to return to the Old Covenant and trust in it for salvation, they would also be in danger of losing their souls:

Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. . . . You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace (Gal. 5:2-4).

It was in this context that St. Paul was exhorting Christians in his letter to the Romans to understand God’s plan and gift of grace to have been decreed long before they were ever born. Paul encourages these often-persecuted faithful that nothing except their own willful turning away from God’s goodness can separate them from God’s grace and plan that will keep them through all that they may have to endure.

That would have been a comfort for those suffering. But St. Paul also gives them stern warnings that they can choose to walk away from Christ and be lost for all eternity (see Romans 2:4-11, 11:22).

Thus, for Paul, God’s plan and God’s power are sure. The decree of God was issued from all eternity. The question for St. Paul is this: will his readers—or will we—respond to God’s certain and irrevocable predestined plan for their salvation, or will they choose to reject it securing our own eternal demise?

Foreknown, predestined, justified, and glorified

Among the manifold problems with Calvin’s theology of election is a failure to distinguish between the categories St. Paul lists in Romans 8:28-30 when presenting his own theology of election: foreknowledge, predestination, justification, and glorification:

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. . . . Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? (Rom. 8:28-30, emphasis added).

According to St. Paul, the elect were already “fore[known] . . . predestined . . . called . . . justified . . . [and] glorified.” But Calvin thought from this that I could then determine that I am already “glorified” by God’s eternal decree so that there is nothing more I need do.

This is incorrect. St. Paul is continuing his thought that God’s predestined plan is secure. God has secured everything for his people—indeed, for every soul ever born—on the objective level. But that does not mean every one of these same souls does not have to cooperate with his plan on the subjective level in order for it to be fruitful in life unto salvation.

Let’s take justification for example. Christ “justified” all men on the cross. He paid the price for all. However, a man still must “believe in his heart unto justification” (Rom. 10:10) in order actually to be justified. And he must continue to practice what St. Paul calls “obedience unto righteousness” (Gr. dikaiosunein, justification”) in order to finally be justified (see Romans 2:13, 6:16; I Corinthians 4:3-5; Matthew 12:36-37; Galatians 2:17; James 2:21-25).

Now let’s consider glorification. Catholics believe that Jesus “glorified” all on the cross just as he “justified” them. However, we must “suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him,” on the subjective level (see Romans 8:17; 2:6-10; II Thessalonians 2:14; I Corinthians 15:42-43). Christ’s glorifying us will have no effect in our lives unless we choose to allow what he did on the cross actually to be applied to our lives.

Thus, if we are finally justified, it is only because Christ already “justified” us on the cross. If we are “glorified,” it is only because Christ already “glorified” us on the cross. However, if we choose to walk away from Christ, we will not finally be justified or glorified. We will have rejected God’s predestined plan for our salvation.

St. Augustine weighs in

St. Augustine, who is often errantly used by some Calvinists to “prove” their position—a position that he never held—wrote:

[P]redestination, which cannot exist without foreknowledge, although foreknowledge may exist without predestination; because God foreknew by predestination those things which he was about to do, whence it was said, “He made those things that shall be.” Moreover, he is able to foreknow even those things which he does not himself do—as all sins whatever. . . . Therefore God’s predestination of good is, as I have said, the preparation of grace; which grace is the effect of that predestination (On the Predestination of the Saints (book I)—In What Respects Predestination and Grace Differ, chap. 19 [10]).

Though Augustine is not always consistent nor correct on all matters relating to predestination, the Doctor of Grace presents well the Catholic and biblical position here when he explains that predestination refers only to God’s plan for redemption not reprobation. For that (reprobation), man must reject God’s call to all for salvation.

St. Augustine distinguishes between what he calls “operating grace” and “cooperating grace” in the lives of Christians. The first grace is given by God apart from man’s cooperation and prepares his will so that he may choose God. This grace is integrally related to God’s providential plan that existed from all eternity in the mind of God.

This is the grace that the persecuted Christians in Rome to whom St. Paul was writing can know is there for them, and no power on Earth can ever change that. The latter grace is given by God as well but requires man’s cooperation for it to be effectual in his life (see sidebar p. xx).

Michael Jordan knows

For many Calvinists, John 15:16 is as plain as it gets when it comes to unconditional election. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.”

“See?” they’ll say. “The idea of God offering salvation to all is bogus. Jesus elects only a few, and it is his choice, not ours, as to who they will be. This is the definition of ‘unconditional election.’”

The 1984 NBA draft is a great way, I find, to explain the biblical concept of God “choosing” the apostles and all of the elect. This draft is famous for having four future Hall of Famers selected in the first round: Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and John Stockton. What a draft, eh?

Olajuwon was chosen first overall by the Houston Rockets. That was certainly a good pick, because he would become one of the greatest centers to ever play the game. But the second pick was where it became interesting. The Portland Trailblazers had the Michael Jordan available, but they chose Sam Bowie instead. At the time it seemed like the right choice, because Bowie was an extraordinarily talented college player. But it would eventually prove the biggest mistake in NBA history. Bowie would unexpectedly flop in the NBA, while Michael Jordan would go on to be—well, Michael Jordan.

How does this relate to our topic? The third team to pick was the Chicago Bulls, and they chose Michael Jordan. At the time, if you had asked Michael Jordan what team he would like to play for, there is no way he would have picked the Bulls. They were perennial losers. But the truth is, he did not choose the Bulls, the Bulls chose him. And to this day, you will hear the refrain, “The Bulls made the best choice in NBA history. They chose Michael Jordan.”

So it is with Christ. He chooses us. Of that there can be no doubt. But according to his own words, he then asks us to choose him:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne.

Conclusion

The Scriptures as well as the Catholic Church teach that God elects only some for salvation, and God knew of their election from all eternity. All of you reading this now who persevere until the end and are saved will be so saved only because God “elected” or “chose” you from all eternity.

But in saying that, Scripture (John 15:16) and the Catholic Church (CCC 842) do not mean to say that God does not offer to all the real possibility of salvation. He does. Whether or not we will finally be counted among the elect depends first of all upon the call and “election” of God; but, secondarily, it relies upon our free response to his call and our persevering in the grace of his call until the end.

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