Divine Election and Predestination: More Preliminary Comments

“Divine election” (hereafter “election”) is God, before the foundation of the world, choosing some to be Christians. See, e.g, Ephesians 1:3—6. “Predestination” is God’s general specification of the future, and it includes election.

In a comment thread here at the Orthosphere, a commenter voices a version of what might be called the standard objection to the notion that God elects some to eternal life and leaves the others to their fate. This “standard objection” runs something like this:

Election means that God has a list of those He has predetermined to be saved. So if you repent and have faith in Christ, but are not on the list, then you’ll be cast into outer darkness. And conversely, if you don’t repent and have faith, but you’re on God’s list, then you’ll be dragged up to Heaven even though you don’t want it.

There are, of course, nuances, and I don’t claim that the commenter would phrase his objection exactly as I have phrased it above. But I think the above expresses the essence of why many people reject the doctrine of election.


But the “standard objection” is totally wrongheaded. The biblical truth is very simple: If you repent and have true faith in Jesus Christ, then you are of the elect. And if you don’t, you aren’t. Period.


The Bible says this clearly. See, e.g., John 3:16:

 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Nowhere does the Bible say “Whosoever believeth in him and be of the elect should not perish, but have everlasting life.” If you repent and believe, you are of the elect. And if you don’t, you aren’t.

Calvinism (that is, the controversial part of Calvinism) describes what the Bible teaches about what’s happening “behind the scenes.” Behind the scenes, in a way that is unknowable by man even in principle, God elects some. But all we see is those who repent and have faith in Christ. And all these are saved.

Of course, election, and God’s more general predestination, appear to contradict our primary experience of ourselves as being free, not being manipulated by a force outside ourselves. This is a difficult philosophical issue, so I will have to content myself with three basic observations.


One, if we are Christians, we have to believe what the Bible says. If the Bible says that God predestines, then we have to believe it. And the Bible also says that man has freedom, although there is no biblical text reading “man has freedom.” Instead, the Bible teaches that our choices have consequences, and we are judged by them. It teaches that all those who choose to come to Christ are saved, and those who choose not to are not. To object to either predestination or to free will is to be impious.

But it must be reiterated that man is not free to choose that which he does not want. In that sense man, until he is regenerated by a sovereign work of God, is not free.


Two, the way God predestines some to salvation is not by “forcing” us. Think of it this way: Most Christians can recall a time when they were not Christians. They did not want to repent and have faith in Christ. So they didn’t.

But them something happened. Christ started to look better to them. Christian teaching began making sense to them. And then they decided to repent and believe in Christ.

Question: What caused this change? At one time they were actively opposed, or actively indifferent, to Christ. Even if they heard the good news of the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name, or heard good arguments why they should believe it, they weren’t impressed. They didn’t want to come to Christ. But them something inside them changed, and they began to want Christ.

This change could not have been caused by a conscious act of theirs. If you don’t want something, then you don’t want to change that lack of desire. Therefore the cause of that change is mysterious.

Secular psychology would ascribe the cause to the mysterious workings of the unconscious. But in the Bible, God identifies the cause as Himself. For example, Exekiel 36:26 reads

A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.

That’s election. Or rather, that’s God putting into effect what He predestined. And notice that when this change occurs within us, it doesn’t feel like an alien force operating on us. It feels like a natural development from within.


And three, the doctrine of election is intended as a comfort for the Christian, not as a stumbling block. Election means that God is powerful enough to save, and that He does not have to wait helplessly, hoping that people will spontaneously make the right choice.

20 thoughts on “Divine Election and Predestination: More Preliminary Comments

  1. Really, if God elected some for salvation, it means he elected the rest for damnation. If you’re going to hell, sucks to be you, but take comfort, God is glorified and pleased by your damnation. If you’re going to heaven, good for you, you won the lottery.

    • No. This is not correct. God is never the author of sin, but He would be if your formulation were correct. Therefore, the formulation is wrong.

      What you have stated is called “double predestination,” but it is not what the confessions (such as the Westminster Confession of Faith) teach. Since the confessions are based on the Bible, double predestination is not what the Bible teaches. In short, while God has foreordained* some for salvation, there is no symmetry with the unchosen, because God has not done anything to them or for them.

      Because of Adam’s choice to sin, all men are born into sin. This is not God’s doing; it is man’s. As we know from Romans 6:23, the wages of sin is death, i.e., damnation. This is justice: God, the creator of the universe, has set the laws we must follow; if we chose not to follow His laws, then it is only just that we receive the punishment the lawgiver has decreed. It is our choice, not God’s, so God plays no role in the sinner’s sinning. However, He does judge us, and if we have not accepted Jesus—the One who took our punishment for us—as our savior, then we receive the just punishment we deserve: damnation.

      In contrast, some of us are foreordained to chose to turn from sin and towards God. This work of the Holy Spirit is called regeneration, which allows sinners to repent and believe. This is the sovereign work of God, so all the glory and credit goes to God and God alone.

      And that is predestination in a nutshell.

      *The term used in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

    • You don’t go to heaven because you win a lottery. You go to heaven because your sins are covered by the blood (that is, the sacrifice that atones for sin) of Christ. And you are covered by the blood of Christ because you had faith in Him. And you had faith in him, not because you were smarter than the other guy who didn’t, but because God gave you the gift of faith. God enabled you to have the saving faith that voluntarily chooses to repent of your sins and put your trust in Christ. And God gave you the gift of faith, not because he foresaw what a swell guy you would turn out to be, but because he chose you in eternity past.

      So, Continental Op, if you choose to repent of your sins and trust in Christ, then you get saved. The offer still stands. You can accept it if you want.

    • Yes, but “literal” doesn’t mean “wooden.” The meaning of some biblical texts is not obvious. The text has to be interpreted in light of the purpose of the author and the type of writing employed, and unclear passages are to be interpreted in light of the clear ones.

      • Yes, I understand that the Biblical text is often obscure and must be interpreted by those who can be trusted to elucidate “the purpose of the author and the type of writing employed” etc. But this is tantamount to admitting that we have to believe what someone or other alleges the Bible means. And we have to make a judgment about the competence of that someone.

        This begins to erode the straightforward notion that we have to believe what the Bible says. It can and does “say” different things to different people.

      • This begins to erode the straightforward notion that we have to believe what the Bible says. It can and does “say” different things to different people.

        This is true about every text. So it does not count against any particular text or interpretation.

        If you have a specific objection here, what is it?

    • The Bible, being the word of God, is 100% true. That does not mean that everything in the Bible is literal. Someone who fails to read beyond the surface of Biblical meaning is someone who misses many of the points.

      Some parts are both literally true and figuratively true; others are parables. Some parts present significant challenges to understanding (I think Revelation counts as one such part).

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  3. I don’t know if my objection to the Calvinist take on election is the “standard” one or not. The objection I make is that, for the sake of logic I guess, the Calvinist has to reinterpret some Scriptural passages to make them fit its doctrine. For example, 1 John 2:2 says that Jesus Christ is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” “Whole world” here has to mean “the elect” if the doctrine of the limited atonement is correct. Weird, that the apostle would use “world” to mean “the elect” — ? But no. The Biblical doctrine is of a universal atonement. There will be souls in hell whose sins were atoned for at Calvary.

    I didn’t say that any of those who repent and believe could belong to the reprobate. Rather, if a person doubts he is among the elect, he may doubt whether he has *really* repented and *really* believed, despite whatever emotional convulsions he may have experienced. Isn’t this what was the case with poor Cowper? God may have predestined him for damnation even though he’s tried to convince himself that he has repented and believed.

    How can I be sure that I am an heir of salvation if I know that it is God’s will that some be lost? For if there are some whom He sovereignly wishes to condemn, I may be among the number, and only fooling myself if I try to convince myself that I have had a conversion experience.

    I think this kind of anguish occurs when election is taught apart from the Gospel. The Gospel is unconditional good news. Christ has atoned for the sins of all, including you, including me. If you were baptized as an infant, believe what the Bible says about Baptism and believe that that salvation was applied to you there. If you haven’t been baptized, hear the word of the Gospel — God’s word for you — repent and be baptized, washing away your sins there (Acts 22:16). Look outside yourself for the assurance of your salvation.

    Such doctrine was important for me as a person who grew up in Arminian circles. How many times did I pray the sinner’s prayer! That was a world in which you sang the song that asks you, “Is your all on the altar?” And of course you could never be sure that it all was. What a change when you realize that the real issue is that *His* all was on the altar — the altar of the Cross, for you.

    It seems that people from Calvinist backgrounds may be tempted, like the Victorian fantasist and novelist George MacDonald, by universalism — or by a narrow sectarianism. (My favorite Reformed folk are guys like Douglas Wilson, who get lambasted by other Reformed for being crypto-Romanists!)

    I’ve never convinced a Calvinist, nor ever been convinced by one, so this will be all from this Lutheran, aside from the tangent that one thing I find interesting about being a Lutheran is that Lutherans are so often criticized by Roman Catholics for being Protestant and by Protestants for being so Romish, and are criticized by Arminians for being like the Reformed and by the Reformed for not being thoroughly Reformed.

    • Hi Dale,

      I tried not to put words into your mouth, but instead use your comment as an occasion to correct a common misunderstanding about election. The main point I was trying to make is that election does not mean the nullification of free will.

      You wrote

      …if a person doubts he is among the elect, he may doubt whether he has *really* repented and *really* believed, despite whatever emotional convulsions he may have experienced.

      This individual would be misusing the biblical teaching. The doctrine of election was not given in order to frighten us into thinking that although we appear to fulfill all the conditions for salvation, secretly, known only to God, we’re really destined for Hell. I agree with you in general that the Christian ought to look outside himself, to the work of Christ and the promises of God, and not engage in morbid introspection to try to determine whether he has repented enough or has enough faith. Generally it is those who really are saved who are wracked with fear that they are not good enough. Those who understand the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man understand better than others how only God’s grace can save them.

      You also said

      I think this kind of anguish occurs when election is taught apart from the Gospel.

      Exactly. Election is good news. It teaches that God saves us and we don’t save ourselves. It teaches that God will not lose anyone whom He has saved. It is on account of man’s weakness that some turn this good news into an occasion for anguish and fear.

  4. I hear Catholics talk a lot about the distinction between God’s positive will and God’s permissive will. God, as the Creator, is the cause of everything but there are secondary causes (things God permissively wills). It seems to me that Calvinists strongly emphasize God’s positive will and maybe tend to deemphasize if not altogther eliminate God’s permissive will.

    Is it possible that the verses that refer to election, refer to God’s permissive will, i.e. God permissively wills some to election, some to damnation but in either case we are to see everything, ultimately, as God’s will?

  5. Does predestination also mean that everything that happens is according to God’s plan … that we are merely puppets … that Hitler was part of God’s plan for mankind? I have always believed that God gave us free will which we abused by not following His will and thus we live in a fallen world and that our choices are not God’s when they are against His will. Thanks, Dennis Smith

    • The Bible does say “ In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,…” (Ephesians 1:11.) At the same time, we are not puppets. We freely choose what we do, and suffer (or enjoy) the consequences.

      There is a distinction between God’s revealed will, which is his commandments for us, and his hidden will, which is what he has predestined. The latter is unknown to us, and cannot be violated. The former is known to us, and can be violated. We know nothing about God’s secret will, except that it exists, so for all practical purposes we do have free will.


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