Let me answer the questions in the above title like this: If you are not yet one of God’s elect, you can be, if you are so inclined. All you need to do is render obedience to Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life by believing, repenting, confessing, and being baptized to have your sins remitted. In doing so, you are washed with the precious blood of Jesus and raised up to walk in newness of life—a new creature, if you will—truly born again and a member of “God’s elect” (cf. Romans 8:33 and Titus 1:1 for the use of this term).
Calvinists scoff at such statements. Why? Because such would make God amenable to man’s will, they claim, and a God subject to man’s will could not be the Sovereign of the universe. Consequently, it behooves one to know who’s right here and the only way one can hope to know this is by focusing on what the Bible actually says about it.
Although the Bible uses the term “elect” in a variety of ways, it never uses it to indicate a select group who alone have been predestinated (according to the Calvinist definition of this term) to salvation. This statement is, no doubt, shocking to those who adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith, for it says, “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His own glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death” (chapter III, paragraph 3). In other words, although Calvinists define the “elect” as a select group whom God has, from “eternity past,” appointed to salvation and, conversely, all others are predestined to inescapable damnation, the Bible teaches no such doctrine. In fact, even Calvin seemed to have difficulty with the concept, for he wrote, “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.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1998 edition, book III, chapter xxiii, section 7).
According to Calvin, God, because He is Sovereign, decreed everything that would ever happen, from the fall of Adam to the ultimate consigning of billions to a Devil’s hell. Nevertheless, and in direct contradiction to what Calvin believed and taught, the Scriptures make it clear that God is not willing that any—not one—should perish (cf. 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:3-4). Jesus shed His blood for “all” men (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15), not just a few selected ones (“the Elect”), as Calvin argued. That this is the essence of what Jesus taught is made clear by His words recorded in John 3:16, which say:
God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
That this is one of the most loved and quoted passages in the Bible cannot be denied. At the same time, John 3:16 remains one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented verses in the Bible. Many who cherish the passage have little understanding of what it actually teaches. It is not my intention to examine every word in this verse, although that would be an excellent study in itself. For a good exegetical study of each word, see Wayne Jackson’s “The Golden Text: A Study of John 3:16” in the Christian Courier by clicking here. What I want to do at this point is concentrate on two expressions: “the world” and “whosoever believes in Him.”
The Greek word translated world is kosmos. Although this word, in its literal sense, means the universe or the earth, it sometimes is used to refer to the people in all the world. As Wayne Jackson points out in the article referenced above, “this is a figure of speech known as metonymy; in this case, the container is put for the contents, i.e., the world stands for its inhabitants.” Consequently, this expression reflects God’s love for all mankind, not just an elect few, as the Calvinists want us to believe. As we have already learned in this study, such a claim is completely untrue, and this is exactly what this verse teaches. As John the baptizer said, Jesus of Nazareth is the Lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2).
Yes, it is perfectly Scriptural to believe that, in the end, it is only the elect who will be saved. But one must keep in mind that the elect mentioned in the Scriptures are not the ones described by Calvinists, who they assert are chosen by God apart from anything He foreknew about them (viz., that they would, if given the opportunity, obey the gospel). Instead, the elect are those who, of there own free wills, decide to accept the offer of God’s salvation in connection with His only begotten Son by rendering obedience to the gospel. This is why certain passages focus only on the elect in this regard, like Ephesians 5:25-27, which says:
…just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish.
Even so, such concentration on God’s elect does not negate, in any way, the fact that salvation is offered to anyone who is willing to “obey Him” (Hebrews 5:8, 9)—i.e., “whosoever will” or “whosoever desires” (Mark 8:24 and Revelation 22:17).
So, although the Scriptures make it clear that God loves the whole of mankind and does not wish to see any perish (cf. 2 Peter 3:9), He will not, despite Calvinist assertions to the contrary, stomp all over the free moral agency He chose to give to man by turning around and forcing him to irresistibly yield to His plan of salvation. Such is the Calvinist god, not the One who has revealed Himself in the Bible.
“…that whoever believes on Him…”
The “whoever believes” of this passage demonstrates, once again, the universality of God’s great scheme of redemption. In other words, Christ “died for all” because “all [had] died” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). This is why the Great Commission was addressed to the whole world and every creature in it (See Mark 16:15-16). But it is interesting to note the meaning of the Greek word translated “believes” here, for it carries with it much more than the idea of mere mental assent. The word is pisteuon, a present tense participle, that means, literally, “the keeping on believing ones” and in the context of pas o pisteuon eis auton or “whoever believes on Him,” as it appears in the NKJV, describes not just those who accept the historical facts about Christ, along with a willingness to trust Him as Savior, but those who keep on trusting Him by complying with those things He has commanded in His word.
In other words, those who are doing the believing in this passage and, as a result, obtain eternal life are those who exercise faith in (i.e., they trust and obey) Jesus not just for a moment in time, but every moment in time—that is, not only do they believe in Jesus, but they keep on believing in Him. As the lexicographer J. H. Thayer observed, the word translated “believes” in this passage is “used especially of the faith by which a man embraces Jesus, i.e., a conviction, full of joyful trust, that Jesus is the Messiah—the divinely appointed author of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God, conjoined with obedience to Christ” (Greek-English Lexicon, 1974, p. 511, emp. mine).
In fact, faith (or belief) in the Bible is frequently contrasted with disobedience. For example, in John 3:36, the ASV and ESV translates apeiteo as “obeyeth not” or “does not obey” respectively, instead of “believeth not” or “does not believe” as does the KJV and NKJV. Consequently, the verse reads this way in the ESV, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Again, although John 3:16 attributes eternal life to those who believe in Jesus Christ, Hebrews 5:9 makes it clear that the Lord is the Author of eternal salvation to all those who obey Him. This demonstrates that faith and obedience are not mutually exclusive as so many think, particularly the Calvinists. Instead, the faith that saves includes obedience.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at a passage Calvinists are convinced is a proof-text for “faith only.” In Romans 5:1, Paul wrote, “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” When this passages is combined with what Paul wrote about faith in Romans 3:28 and 4:3, determinists are convinced that the faith under discussion is “faith alone.” In fact, Luther was so convinced that this was the case, he actually added allein (alone) to his German translation of the Bible. In answering to why he did so, he said he believed it “conveys the sense of the text” (Luther’s Open Letter On Translating, 1530). He even went so far as to call it, “The article upon which the church stands or falls.” Calvin, of course, agreed with such thinking, and Faith Alone has become the clarion call of Protestantism, particularly those with a Calvinist bent.
However, the apostle Paul cannot be writing of the “faith alone” doctrine espoused by the Reformers, as such would contradict what James wrote in his epistle—namely, that one is not saved by faith only (cf. James 2:24). Yes, John 3:16 promises eternal life to him who believes, but Hebrews 5:9 just as clearly teaches that eternal salvation is given to those who obey the Lord. Combining these passages, it is not so hard to understand that the faith that saves, far from being just mental assent, is a faith that obeys; that is, a faith that works.
As a matter of fact, the New Testament frequently uses “faith” as a synecdoche, which is a figure of speech where a part is made to stand for the whole. For example, in Acts 11:18, repentance is said to result in life, but most would understand that this is not saying repentance alone produces life. The same is true of baptism. In 1 Peter 3:21, the Scriptures teach that baptism saves us, but most people understand that this is not teaching one is saved by baptism alone.
Consequently, when one compares what Paul wrote in the book of Romans with his own conversion, one can know that He was not teaching that man is saved by faith alone. Acts 22:10 makes it clear that Paul believed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ while still on the Damascus road, but it was not until three days later that he enjoyed peace with God; that is, not until he got up and washed away his sins by being baptized into Christ (cf. Acts 22:16; 9:18, 19; also Galatians 3:27 and Romans 6:3).
Biblical faith (i.e., saving faith) is the faith that lovingly works (cf. Galatians 5:6) to obey the Lord’s requirements (or conditions, if you will) for experiencing the new birth of John 3:3-5, and it is the faith that continues to meet the requirements of God’s magnificent grace (cf. 1 John 1:9) even until death (cf. Revelation 2:10).
Who, then, are the elect? They are those who have met the conditions of God’s grace, rendering obedience to the gospel, and continuing to do so, until the very end of their earthly sojourn. Are they creatures who were born totally depraved, as the Calvinists teach? No, they are creatures who, although sin-sick, can, upon hearing the gospel, render obedience to it (See Acts 2:40). Have they been unconditionally elected by God to be saved apart from anything they would do, as the Calvinists teach? No, their election is conditional (cf. Mark 16:15, 16), and until and unless they meet these conditions, they will be lost (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17). The fact that the elect can have their names written in heaven (cf. Luke 10:20 and Hebrews 12:23), and this from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), speaks not to some eternal decree whereby God has foreordained that they will be saved in spite of their own willingness (or not) to obey the gospel when that opportunity presents itself in time and space, but with the foreknowledge of God, which permits Him to foreordain or predestinate individuals based on what He knows they will do when given the opportunity (cf. Acts 2:23; Romans 8:29; 1 Peter 1:2).
Further, is the salvation or atonement God offers through His Son, Jesus Christ, limited to only a select few (viz., the elect)? No, salvation is offered to all who will render obedience to Jesus Christ—namely, “whosoever will” (Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:34, 35; Revelation 22:17). In other words, Jesus did not die only for the elect, as Calvinism teaches. Instead, He died for “all men” (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Corinthians 5:14, 15; 2 Peter 3:9). Have the elect, then, been irresistibly drawn, as the Calvinist teach? Absolutely not! God’s grace, which has appeared to all men (Titus 2:11), can be resisted. If not, then all men will eventually be saved. However, the Bible teaches absolutely nothing about any kind of universal salvation. Yes, the gospel of Jesus Christ exerts a drawing power on all who hear it (John 12:32), but the Bible clearly says this power can be resisted (Acts 7:51). Does this mean, as the Calvinists teach, that the elect, once saved, cannot be lost? No, for the children of God (i.e., those who are collectively and individually referred to in God’s word as the elect) can have their names blotted out of the book of life, according to Revelation 3:5; 20:12, 15; 22:19. The truth is, the idea that once a person is saved he forever remains saved is not taught in the Bible. A Christian who sins and fails to meet the conditions of God’s grace by not repenting of and confessing his sin (Acts 8:22 and 1 John 1:9) can fall from grace, according to the necessary inference of Galatians 5:4. This doesn’t have to be the case and it ought not to be the case, but that it can and may happen is the clear teaching of God’s word.
A Closer Look At That Ol’ “God Predestines The Plan, Not The
With the contrast between what the Bible teaches and what Calvinists teach firmly fixed in our minds, I want to take just a little space here at the end of this chapter to examine Ephesians 1:3-5, which is a section of Scripture Calvinists believe teaches their doctrine. In conjunction with this, I also want to examine the attempt some Christians have made to dodge or eliminate what they think are the Calvinistic implications if it is believed that the subjects of these verses, namely the “us” and “we,” are actually particular individuals rather than the corporate body of believers. So, let’s look at these verses:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.
No matter how one interprets this passage, it is clear that the “us” and “we” of these verses are the “elect of God” (Romans 8:33; Titus 1:1). The fact that they were chosen by Him “before the foundation of the world” makes it clear that this was a decision God made in eternity before creating our time-space continuum (some have called this “eternity past,” for the lack of a better word). Thus, in order to counter what some believe to be the force of the Calvinists’ argument concerning this passage (viz., the predestination of individuals to salvation in “eternity past,” in conjunction with the companion idea that the future is, as a result, fixed and unalterable), many have seriously countered with the idea that the only predestination under discussion here is the predestination of a plan, not of the specific individuals in that plan. This is to say that the individuals who make up the elect are not known beforehand by God as individuals and that the only thing that was foreknown by God was the plan by which He would redeem man if he did actually fall into sin.
In other words, and I have heard this idea expressed on numerous occasions, many Christians believe God did not actually know if man would sin before He created him, but knowing it was a possibility, He developed a contingency plan just in case (viz., the scheme of redemption). Many of those who hold to this position are not denying the foreknowledge of God, only that He can choose not to know some things. This is motivated primarily by the idea that God’s absolute foreknowledge of the future, contingent, free will choices of men and women would cause the future to be determined in such a way that man’s free will would be forfeited. This is not, however, what these verses teach, nor is it what 1 Peter 1:2 teaches, nor Romans 8:29, nor any other passage in God’s word.
Yes, it is true that the church, as a group, is God’s “chosen generation”—i.e., they are “the elect” (1 Peter 2:9 and Colossians 3:12). Consequently, when one is added to the “My church” of Matthew 18:18 by rendering obedience to the gospel, there is no doubt that he or she becomes, at that very moment, one of God’s elect. But this does not mean that predestination to salvation does not include God’s actual foreknowledge of the specific individuals who make up this group, and it is most unfortunate that many Christians have thought so (cf. Robert Shank’s Elect In The Son, 1970, p. 122 and Clinton D. Hamilton’s Truth Commentaries, 1 Peter, 1995, p. 352).
In order to counter Calvinism’s use of this passage, brethren have believed it necessary to deny the clear teaching of God’s word, which is simply, or perhaps not so simply, this: God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will are not mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, I do want to make it as clear as I know how that one does not effectively counter Calvinism by denying the election of individuals in favor of corporate or group election. In my opinion, this just dodges the issue with a bunch of semantical gymnastics that, in the end, do not effectively counter Calvinism’s use of this and other passages.
More than once I have questioned a Bible class I was teaching about the words “predestination” and “foreordination” and discovered that some think the Bible says nothing about them and this because they are considered to constitute the foundation of Calvinist doctrine. But it is clear that the doctrine of predestination, foreordination, and election is totally Scriptural. Furthermore, when these terms are properly understood, such comprise one of the most significant and satisfying teachings to be found in God’s word. But note this as well: when this doctrine is not taught, the whole counsel of God is being neglected, and this, Paul told us, is totally unacceptable (cf. Acts 20:26-27).
The Predestination Of Individuals To Salvation
When the Bible speaks of predestination, foreordination, and election to salvation, it is, more often than not, referring to specific individuals rather than a corporate body or impersonal plan. For example, in Romans 8:29-30, the apostle Paul mentions those who have not only been elected, predestinated, or foreordained to salvation, but also called, justified, and glorified. This means it is impossible to read what God has had to say in places like Ephesians 1:17, 1 Corinthians 2:8, 1 Peter 4:14, Hebrews 2:10, and Romans 8:29-30 without realizing that the glorious scheme of redemption, which was a plan in the mind of God before the foundation of the world, is in point of fact a “done deal.” But don’t get the wrong idea here for I am not saying that it is a done deal the way the Calvinists teach—no way! It’s only a done deal in the sense that God decreed in eternity (i.e., He predestinated, foreordained, elected) that the individuals who were going to be saved would be conformed to the image of His Son, as Romans 8:29 teaches.
Furthermore, it needs to be understood that this conforming was not just limited to developing and being transformed by the mind of Christ (cf. Philippians 2:5-8), but it encompassed the whole process up to and by which Jesus was ultimately glorified and exalted in heaven for having accomplished His Father’s will while here on earth (cf. Philippians 2:9-11). Like Jesus, we, too, will one day be resurrected to a glorified state (1 John 3:2; 2 Corinthians 5:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:35-49) in the New heavens and new earth (2 Peter 3:13). This is why the Scriptures refer to Jesus as not being just “the head of the body, the church,” but “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He might have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:18). In other words, Jesus was the firstborn from the dead in relation to the “many brethren” (Romans 8:29) or “many sons” (Hebrews 2:10) who would render obedience to Him as their Lord and Savior and who would themselves, at His “second coming,” be resurrected in, with and to a glorified, heavenly body (cf. Philippians 2:5-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). But if God does not have absolute foreknowledge, then how could He have known that even one individual, of his own free will, would render obedience to the gospel? The Calvinists wrongly teach that He “knew before” only because He decreed, predestined and elected individuals to salvation unconditionally. But in stark contrast to this, the Bible teaches that God decreed, predestined and elected individuals to salvation conditionally. This means that in order to be saved one would have to meet the conditions of God’s grace. It further means that those who did so would be God’s elect, both individually and collectively.
Who, then, are God’s elect? Those who, when confronted with the gospel, are willing, of their own free wills, to obey it. Why are they the elect? Because God, in His great mercy, grace, and love, says so, that’s why. When did He know them? He knows them now and in the future, for such is the meaning of a verse like 2 Timothy 2:19. But even more significantly, He knew who they were “Before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). How could He know exactly who these individuals were before any of them were even created? Because He is an awesome God (Daniel 9:4) who “knows all things” (1 John 3:20), “declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done” (Isaiah 46:10a), and doing so simply because HE IS WHO HE IS (cf. Exodus 3:14; John 9:58).
Finally, does God have absolute foreknowledge? Yes. Does man have free will? Yes. Do these somehow cancel each other out? No. How do I know? The Bible tells me so.