Election Woes

By now I think we have all been troubled by recent elections but these earthly quandaries are all trumped by the issue of divine election. For as long as it has been in existence the church has struggled under the shadow of a vicious debate. This debate has to do with the core issue of the Christian faith… salvation. Despite the common cries from the pulpit that the issue of salvation is settled and that “your salvation is assured,” nothing could be further from the truth. Theologians understand that the debate rages on, and objectively it will never be resolved. While these dilemmas over salvation are many, I will focus on just one in this article.

Election is a doctrine based upon numerous scriptural references to the idea that God elects certain persons to salvation. According to Elwell there are six main features of election:[1]

  1. Election is a sovereign eternal decree of God. “also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” Eph 1:11
  2. The eternal decree of election is based on the presupposition that the human race has fallen. Election is not based upon human works or God’s foreknowledge of works. The elect are chosen “before the creation of the world.” Ephesians 1:4.
  3. God’s election is “in Christ.” It involves rescue from sin and guilt and receiving the gracious gifts of salvation.
  4. Election involves both salvation and the means to that end. The elect are those that God foreknew, predestined, called, justified and glorified.[2]
  5. Election is individual, personal, specific and particular. This is not the election of a chosen people, but of specific individuals who will be saved.[3]
  6. The ultimate goal of election is the glory and praise of God.

If you can’t immediately spot all of the problems with this don’t feel bad. This is a complicated topic and the implications are only revealed once we fully walk through the issue. The biggest problem is really revealed once we explore another key doctrine of the Christian faith. Free will is a central doctrine in Christian theology. It is important for a number of reasons, but from my perspective the most important one is its relationship to the existence of evil. The main Christian argument used to defend the undeniable existence of evil in the world is as follows: God had to allow evil to exist so that people could have free will. Humans must have the ability to choose both good and evil in order to make meaningful choices. And people must also have free will so that they can freely choose to accept or reject Christ. Without free will God has no excuse for the universe that he has created.[4]

I’m going to address this issue by walking through six problems cited by Wayne Grudem in his systematic theology and then addressing his responses. Here is the first problem with the doctrine of election: if God divinely elects people to be saved, or not saved, before the creation of the world, free will doesn’t mean anything. In fact it would mean that human beings do not actually have free will, at least in relation to this decision. A person cannot freely choose to love and follow God, or to reject God and go their own way because God has made that decision on their behalf, before they were even born. Some Christians attempt to weasel their way around this problem. For example: Wayne Grudem, a well-known theologian suggests that “God can work sovereignly through our desires so that he guarantees that our choices come about as he has ordained, but this can still be understood as a real choice because God has created us and he ordains that such a choice is real.”[5]

Grudem’s statement is a masterful act of sophistry. He is trying to claim that we can have free will when we don’t have free will. He is doing the typical Christian theological trick of trying to have his cake and eat it too. “God causes us to choose Christ voluntarily.” Have you ever heard such ridiculous poppycock? You can’t be caused to do something freely, it doesn’t work like that! Certainly not all choices have to be free, but free choices have to be free! You cannot be said to have free will when you are not able to make free choices. And certainly if you are not allowed to make the most important choice of all (whether or not to follow God), then you do not have free will. Also his suggestion that “God can work sovereignly through our desires” is chronologically challenged. In this instance God is working sovereignly through something that doesn’t exist yet. We can’t have desires until we are made, but God made the decision of whether or not to elect us before we were born. God would have to specifically make us with that desire; this means that we don’t have free choice. God is simply turning us into robots that will follow a specific pattern of programming. His closing sentence employs the same jumbled thinking that is used in Divine Command Theory.[6] He is effectively saying that the choice that we have is real because God says it is real. You have free will because God says so. It sounds like something I might hear on the schoolyard.

The second problem with the doctrine of election is that our choices are not real. If the doctrine of election were true we would only have the illusion of free will. Our choices might appear to be free, but in actuality they are predetermined. Continuing to pick on Grudem he responds that “if God makes us in a certain way and then tells us that our voluntary choices are real and genuine choices, then we must agree that they are.”[7] Grudem is using his own interpretation of theology to prove his own interpretation of theology. He is effectively saying “don’t worry that none of this appears logical, just trust that God says that it is!” According to his reasoning, the obvious fact that imposed decisions are not free choices is irrelevant, we “must agree” that they are. Grudem continues: “we might ask where Scripture ever says that our choices have to be free from God’s influence or control in order to be real or genuine choices. It does not seem that Scripture ever speaks in this way.”[8] Grudem appeals to Scripture in order to justify his argument, but sets up a straw man to do so. He is arguing from an apparent absence of reference, effectively attempting to redefine what “free” means.

The third problem with the doctrine of election is that it effectively turns people into puppets or robots. We identify our personhood in inexorable relationship to our free will. Grudem’s response to this: “God has created us and we must allow him to define what genuine personhood is. The analogy of a “puppet” or a “robot” reduces us to a sub-human category of things that have been created by man. But genuine human beings are far greater than puppets or robots, because we do have a genuine will and we do make voluntary decisions based on our own preferences and wants. In fact, it is this ability to make willing choices that is one thing that distinguishes us from much of the lower creation.”[9]

Grudem’s argument here misses the mark. He says that we are far greater than puppets or robots, but how could he possibly know that? If in fact all, or even just some, of our choices are mandated by God then not only would we not have free will, we would also not even know if and when we were exercising it. It would be impossible for us to tell which choices that we were making were actually our own, and which choices were being made on our behalf by God. His argument appears to be that because he “feels” like he is more than a puppet, or because his interpretation of Scripture tells him that he is, then he must be more. But he could never actually know this. If his decisions were being made for him then even the appearance of intelligence on his behalf would be merely an illusion. He might look at decisions that he has made and be proud of them, but ultimately he is just a piece of code in between a keyboard and a screen, he is just the brush sitting in between the hand of an artist and the page. It may have the appearance that he has made choices, but none of it is actually real. God is making all of the choices, effectively writing a story and manipulating human beings as though they were actors simply “reading their lines” along the way. He states as though it were an absolute that human beings are far greater than puppets or robots, but if God is making all of the choices then in fact we are not. We are just living, breathing puppets or robots – “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players…” He also then makes a leap stating that our ability to make choices separates us from “lower creation.” I would bet that he has absolutely zero evidence to back up this claim. It certainly seems to me that animals and other forms of the so-called “lower creation” are capable of making choices. We can observe, in thousands of experiments, animals making choices. We can even identify animals performing what we might call evil deeds, exercising malevolence.[10] It is pretty clear that animals of all kinds can make willing choices.

The fourth objection to the doctrine of election is that it lacks fairness because unbelievers never had an opportunity to believe. Because God elects certain persons to salvation it also means that he elects other persons to damnation. Grudem responds on two levels to this claim, firstly he says that the Bible does not support the idea that unbelievers have no chance to believe. He uses a number of passages in which Jesus responds to people blaming their own wilful choice to reject him. His second response is based on Paul’s statement in Romans 9:20 “but who are you, a man, to answer back to God?”[11] On the first point I would safely say that all of this rhetoric around election provides substantial evidence that the Bible is conflicted within itself. The Bible represents a number of different writings by human beings which inevitably creates a cascade of conflicting ideas. Some of the ideas contrast so much that they appear to be completely disconnected. This is the reason why Augustine suggested that the book of James should be removed from the Bible. Sadly, rather than recognising this fact Christians often simply use the varying different arguments to defend their position at different times, perhaps knowingly, but probably ignorant of the fact that they are using conflicting ideas in order to defend different doctrines at different times.

On the second point I can do nothing but tear out my hair. This is exactly the kind of argument that has no grounding and no teeth but is the ultimate defensive position for any Christian who is backed into a corner. Effectively it is the “God is mysterious” argument. We can’t know the mind of God therefore if there is something that we can’t understand then we just have to have faith. This is equally as ridiculous as the Mormon defence of saying “I prayed to God to ask if the book of Mormon is true, and he told me that it was, so I just believe it.” Theologians are supposed to be the sharp end of Christian debate, so when they retire to this position of mystery and faith the only way to interpret it is that they have given up. If you’re an atheist and you engage with a Christian and drive them to the point where this is their defence then consider it a victory. They don’t have anything meaningful left to say so they use this clause which is meant to be an argument closer – “stop bugging me with your facts I don’t want to keep arguing about this now because I’m uncomfortable.”

The fifth objection to the doctrine of election, as cited by Grudem, is that election is unfair. This is pretty obvious, if you are judged for making a decision, but you never actually had the free will to make that decision in the first place it is unfair. Grudem responds with two points. Firstly he says “it would be perfectly fair for God not to save anyone,” effectively people are so evil that we are lucky that God chooses to save anybody at all. Secondly he quotes Romans 9:20-24 and concludes “there is a point beyond which we cannot answer back to God or question his justice.”[12]

The first point dodges the issue. It attempts to use a common device “Christian guilt,” which works fantastically to distract Christians, but doesn’t work at all on sceptics I’m afraid. Saying that we are lucky that God saves anyone at all doesn’t address the fact that if God is good he must be fair and if God chooses to save some people but not others, on a seemingly arbitrary basis, then he is not fair. The only logical conclusion to be gleaned from this is that God is not good. Just because you make the rules doesn’t mean that the rules are fair. If the rules of a game of football say that the home team starts the game with three goals then the rules are not fair. Insisting that they are fair because they are the rules is ridiculous. On a theological level I can also make the argument that it is not fair, or more specifically just, for God to provide an opportunity for salvation to anyone. The outcome of this is that God would not be fair and therefore not good. On the flip side I could argue that God’s need for a sacrificial lamb in order to provide salvation demonstrates that God is not capable of forgiving and is therefore not good. No matter what angle you look at it from God is screwed. Grudem’s second point is the same old rehashed ‘God is mysterious’ argument that we hear over and over again. This argument is about as much use as a knife on the head of your toothbrush. Grudem again quotes Paul who says “but who are you, a man, to answer back to God?” This about sums it up, when the going gets too hard just say that you don’t have the right to ask this question because God is all-powerful. You just have to trust what God says in the Bible. No thanks! If God is not capable of a logical justification for his actions and for the world that he has created then he isn’t really God.

The sixth and final objection to the doctrine of election is that the Bible says that God wants everyone to be saved. Here we find yet another example of biblical scriptures standing in contradiction to one another. God wants all to be saved[13] but he predestines some and not others for salvation. These are contradictions worthy of any Eastern religion. Grudem weakly offers a defence in the form of the Reformed perspective saying that 1 Timothy 2:4 refers to God’s revealed will not his hidden will.[14] He then quotes Clark Pinnock who calls it “the exceedingly paradoxical notion of two divine wills regarding salvation.”[15] It certainly is that! He ultimately settles on the position that while God wants people to be saved there is something that he wants more which is either his own glory or man’s free will depending on your theological bent.

What a bedraggled set of arguments. The reformed position is so ludicrous that it is hardly even worth addressing. Effectively it says that God invites every person to repent but God is keeping it a secret as to who will actually be saved. In this case God would simply be playing games with people, pin the salvation on the donkey. Pinnock’s Arminian position is a repeat of the ‘God is mysterious’ argument – yawn! Grudem’s final position is one that raises all sorts of eyebrows. He is saying that God wants something but is not able to have it. This would mean that God is not particularly good at constructing his own universe then is he. It also means that the thing which he is prepared to sacrifice is human salvation. He is prepared to put human beings on the barbecue for eternity because their eternal suffering is not quite as important to him as his own glory, or their free will, which we have determined doesn’t exist under this model. The idea that God wants something but is not able to have it conflicts with a variety of other scriptures which talk about his sovereignty. All of his ways apparently work out – except for this one.

There are other arguments against election, but I’ll leave it here as we have already covered a large volume of territory. This is one of numerous areas in biblical theology that is deeply flawed. Theologians struggle to make it work, like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that don’t fit. But ultimately a logical investigation of the problem will expose its defects.  Grudem is one of the world’s leading theologians, so if these are the best arguments that he can come up with it demonstrates the weakness of the Christian position in this area.

 

[1] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Page 370-372.

[2] Romans 8:29-30.

[3] Romans 9:6, 8.

[4] For a complete exploration of this topic please read my series on God or Evil.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. Page 680.

[6] Succinctly: something is only evil if God says it is evil. God can say that actions which I might call evil are in fact good and they will become good because he said so. A more detailed exposition of this idea can be found in God or Evil-Part 5.

[7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. Page 681.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Please read my article God or Evil-Part 1 for more detail.

[11] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. Page 681.

[12] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. Page 682-3.

[13] 1 Timothy 2:4.

[14] In other words telling us what we should do as opposed to God’s eternal plans for what will ultimately happen.

[15] Clark Pinnock, Grace Unlimited. Page 13.

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