The President’s Message: “Unconditional Election”

Dr. Cornelis Venema - President

“… even as He chose us in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved.” (Eph. 1:4-6, ESV)

In this and subsequent articles in The Messenger, I would like to consider the five main points of doctrine that the Synod of Dort adopted in their response to the Arminian view of election. In the First Main Point of Doctrine, the Synod set forth the Scriptural teaching of “unconditional election.”

Like all of the five points adopted by the Synod, the First Point was affirmed in order to refute the position of Arminius and his followers, the Remonstrants. According to the teaching of Arminius, God elects before the foundation of the world to save those whom He foresees will respond in faith to the gospel call to believe in Christ. What ultimately distinguishes those who are saved from those who are not saved is that some freely choose to believe and persevere to the end. Divine election is based upon, or in consequence of, the human work of evangelical faith. In the final analysis, God elects those who merit or deserve their election by virtue of their evangelical faith. Because some fallen sinners distinguish themselves from others by freely choosing to believe, God elects to save them. In the Arminian view, salvation is not granted to believers in Christ as a free gift of God, but as a reward for what He foresees they will do. Election is based upon the decision of some sinners to meet the “condition” of faith. Election is neither sovereign, gracious, nor unmerited in the proper sense of these terms.

In the opening articles of the First Main Point, the Canons summarize the most important aspects of the biblical gospel. These include the fact that “all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death” (Art. 1), that God has manifested his love in the sending of His only-begotten Son (Art. 2), and that God’s anger continues to rest upon those who do not believe the gospel of Jesus Christ (Art. 3). These truths raise the inescapable question to which the biblical doctrine of election is addressed: why do some believe and repent at the preaching of the gospel, but others remain in their sins and under the just condemnation of God?

The answer to this question at its deepest level is God’s unconditional election in Christ of some persons to salvation: “The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from [God’s] eternal decision. For all His works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decision He graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of His chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by His just judgment He leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen” (Art. 6). God’s election in Christ is unconditional, an entirely gracious and undeserved decision to save His people. God does not elect “on the basis of foreseen faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, or any other good quality and disposition as though it were based on a prerequisite cause or condition in the person to be chosen, but rather for the purpose of faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, and so on” (Art. 8).

The importance of the teaching of unconditional election cannot be overstated. As J. I. Packer once put it, the doctrine of election preserves the simple gospel truth that “God saves sinners.” Sinners do not save themselves. Only God saves, and He does so out of His undeserved love and free decision to grant His people salvation in Christ—and that “before the foundation of the world”! By affirming this, the Synod of Dort preserved the biblical teaching that salvation is by grace alone. And at the same time, the Synod of Dort provided a sure footing for confidence in God’s invincible grace in Christ.

The doctrine of unconditional election provides great encouragement to us in our work in preparing our students for the gospel ministry. We may do so with confidence that God will use the foolishness of preaching to save those whom He has chosen (1 Cor. 1:18-31).

This article has been adapted from The Messenger, October 2018 edition