“Did God Die For You?” (St. Paul and Unconditional Election)

That’s the title of a tract I was handed on the street earlier this month. It’s in the form of a series of questions and answers. One of the questions is, “How do I know if God has chosen me to be saved?” The answer begins (my emphasis added):

A. You may be one of God’s chosen (elect) people or you may notonly God knows those He intends to save; therefore we have to leave the question of “election” completely to the sovereign will of God.

And since Calvinists claim that, “Jesus died only for the elect,” the answer to the tract’s title question seems to be, “We don’t know.”  Christ may have died for you, He may not have — there’s no way to know for sure, and nothing you can do about it, anyways. That’s the Good News?

But it gets worse. Arminians teach that God predestined those He knew would accept salvation. But Calvinists deny this. Instead, Article 9 of the first Chapter of the Canons of Dordt teaches:

This election was not founded upon foreseen faith, and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality of disposition in man, as the pre-requisite, cause or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc., therefore election is the fountain of every saving good; from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to that of the apostle: “He hath chosen us (not because we were) but that we should be holy, and without blame, before him in love,” Ephesians 1:4.

(Note that the only support Dordt supplies for this doctrine is by adding some words to Ephesians 1:4.)  This is what Calvinists mean by unconditional election.  If God chose the good over the bad, that would be a condition.  If He chose the faithful over the faithless, that would be a condition.  If He chose some and not others for coherent reasons known only to Himself, that would still be a condition (just one we don’t know).  Calvinists deny that He had any reason.  Instead, He looks across all of Creation, and arbitrarily chooses some to go to Heaven, and some to go to Hell.   He could just as easily have sent everyone to Heaven, but decided not to.

I’m not exaggerating.  GotQuestions?, in defending unconditional election, says as much:

God could have chosen to save all men (He certainly has the power and authority to do so), and He could have chosen to save no one (He is under no obligation to save anyone). He instead chose to save some and leave others to the consequences of their sin (Exodus 33:19; Deuteronomy 7:6-7; Romans 9:10-24; Acts 13:48; 1 Peter 2:8).

There are a lot of things wrong with this vision of salvation.  For starters, it renders both faith and works irrelevant. That is, they have no place to play in our salvation at all. We’re saved because of God’s election, not because of our faith. We then have faith because we’re already saved.

But what’s most ironic about it is that, in defending this scheme of salvation, Calvinists rely heavily upon the ninth chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. I say “ironic,” because in this letter, St. Paul is opposing those who believe that God arbitrarily divided the world into two groups: the Jews and the Gentiles (“Greeks”), only one of whom He’d save. Paul writes in response to this, in Romans 2:6-11,

For He will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.

There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

My reaction is simple: if St. Paul was a Calvinist, would he have written these words?  Could he have?  It would be more accurate, were he a Calvinist, to say that God does show partiality, and does divide the world into two arbitrary and unchanging groups for purposes of salvation, but that the two groups are elect/reprobate, rather than Jew/Greek.

What then, to make of Romans 9, where Paul does seem to say that God divides the world between the saved and damned before the dawn of time?  If he changing course?  Of course not.  Paul is quick to note that membership in these groups changes, as those who weren’t God’s children can become His children (see Romans 9:25-26).  And Paul summarizes his argument from Romans 9 this way (Romans 9:30-33):

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 
Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Note his rhetorical question: why?  He doesn’t say, “God arbitrarily decided it.”  He doesn’t say “They lost the cosmic lottery before the dawn of time.”  He says,  instead, that they rejected Christ (the “Stumbling Stone”), and rejected faith, treating salvation as something that they could merit or earn through works of the Law.

So even here, St. Paul is quick to bring the question of salvation back to this: what do we believe, and how do we respond to that belief?  But if Paul believed in unconditional election, that question is irrelevant.  So St. Paul certainly doesn’t appear to be a Calvinist.


  1. And it just so happens that the supposedly “sufficient” cause alone never results in conversion? That stretches credibility, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t seem to me to be what Thomas is saying in the sunlight quote.

  2. For indulginces, the treasury of merit the church has, I’d wager, is infinite. If so, it would be sufficient for all, but only efficacious to some in that context.

    Could it work the same way with salvation?

  3. Daniel,

    That is the view we have of the Atonement: that it’s infinitely sufficient, but only efficacious as to the saved.

    What I think Robert is saying is that if conceptualize a category of people for whom the Atonement is sufficient, but under no circumstances efficacious, that seems to thwart the whole point of the unlimited nature of the Atonement. Robert, am I getting your argument right?


  4. My conversion experience is:

    7 point calvinist Republican Navy (me), meets Unitarian Republican Navy, Evangelical Protestant Republican Marine, and Jewish Republican Navy at a bar. Runs into Latin Mass going Christendom grads.

    Three of us become Catholic, and one becomes Greek Orthodox after 5 years of coffee, wine, cigars, and many many knock down drag out debates.

    My breaking point wasn’t theology, but history. Warren Carroll’s History of Christendom was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I also credit my wife ( a revert), Fr Corapi on tv, A Tiptoe Through Tulip by Akin, and of course this article. And Protestant Josh McDowell’s book Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

  5. Right. That is a nice way to put it. In what sense is the grace sufficient, if it is never enough in actual circumstances? And if it is not sufficient in any meaningful sense, how is this consistent with God’s salvific will for all?

    The better interpretation, and the one even Thomas seems to make at times, is that election is conditional on our accepting the sufficient grace offered to us. Otherwise, I don’t think God is in any meaningful sense “impartial”. Am I right?

  6. But that first choosing of accepting the grace is a grace I think, more than it would be considered a work.

    Wait that’s too confusing.

    Down to brass tacks. The problem with using the phrase unconditional election is that those who advocate it don’t believe it is unconditional, but rather that the only condition is God’s election.

  7. Ah. No. The opposite is true. From the Council of Orange:

    CANON 3. If anyone says that the grace of God can be conferred as a result of human prayer, but that it is not grace itself which makes us pray to God, he contradicts the prophet Isaiah, or the Apostle who says the same thing, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me” (Rom 10:20, quoting Isa. 65:1).

    CANON 4. If anyone maintains that God awaits our will to be cleansed from sin, but does not confess that even our will to be cleansed comes to us through the infusion and working of the Holy Spirit, he resists the Holy Spirit himself who says through Solomon, “The will is prepared by the Lord” (Prov. 8:35, LXX), and the salutary word of the Apostle, “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

    Two things to note:

    1) God gives these initial graces freely; and

    2) these graces enable us to respond to His Call: they don’t force us to.

    If we’re totally asleep in sin, we lack the ability to decide to be awake or asleep. It’s only awake that we have that free will. God awaken us enough for us to choose to rise with Him, or go back down into our bed of sin.



  8. Ok, I see that that is heresy, but isn’t Predestinarianism something different. From the Catholic encyclopedia:

    Predestinarianism is a heresy not unfrequently met with in the course of the centuries which reduces the eternal salvation of the elect as well as the eternal damnation of the reprobate to one cause alone, namely to the sovereign will of God, and thereby excludes the free co-operation of man as a secondary factor in bringing about a happy or unhappy future in the life to come.

    Your analogy is a nice one and very helpful. I take it from your Chinese food analogy that you are a Molinist. Right?

  9. I think what the Thomist position lacks is the truth that God is love. I find it difficult to reconcile Thomism with a loving God.

    Molinism seems a lot more compatible with omnibenevolence, especially the idea that God chose to create the “best” of all counterfactual worlds while still allowing for the free will of man. This reconciles the absolute sovereignty of God with the gift of free will.

    But I don’t pretend to know more than St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine or any other saint or scholar, this is just my humble opinion 🙂

  10. Hopefully I’m not too late to this party. Some thoughts I’d like to share:

    (1) Regarding the “good news” of Calvinists, Joe is very correct that logically one cannot know if they are elect in Calvinism. This “now knowing” is of course disastrous, for it makes no sense to have joy about something you don’t know actually applies to you or not. This is why most Calvinists believe the elect do know, but the embarrassing part is that their answers are purely subjective (e.g. “I must be elect because I’m following Christ”). Of course, this is even more exposed in Joe’s powerhouse Evanascent Grace article he posted last year.

    (2) The issue of “Double Predestination” exposes a serious logical problem in the Calvinist scheme. Some Calvinists (e.g. Calvin) say God formed his plan of who to save *and* who to damn before taking into account Adam’s sin, and thus Adam’s sin had to be caused by God to accomplish his plan of putting souls on the road to hell. The majority of Calvinists reject this, and instead believe God chose who to save and who to damn after taking into account Adam’s sin, but they’re left with the logical dilemma about how Adam’s own Predestination fits in here, and more importantly Adam’s Free Will co-existing with God’s Predestination in order to make the Fall not be ‘foreordained’ (i.e. not freely chosen).
    p.s. some Fathers like John Chrysostom interpreted “predestined” in Rom 8:29 and Eph 1:14 as “predestined to Adoption” (i.e. to conversion to Christianity, not looking further than that).

    (3) Despite the lack of Biblical evidence for a “Limited Atonement,” Calvinists are forced to believe this because they believe in Penal Substitution. If Jesus took the punishment a given sinner deserved for his sins, that person obviously cannot be damned. Thus, if Jesus died in the place of everyone, then nobody would be damned, which is obviously false. Thus, Jesus must have only died for some, specifically those God predestined to be saved. But if Penal Substitionary Atonement is false, which it is, then that whole line of thinking collapses.

    (4) This brings us to the next piece of the puzzle, Sola Fide. Sola Fide teaches Jesus did everything for the sinner since the sinner couldn’t do it themself, and the sinner merely “accepts” this work of Christ on their behalf, especially Penal Substitution. Thus, Sola Fide needs Penal Substitution to survive.

    (5) But Joe brings up another common objection, which is that all this contradicts Scripture which teaches man isn’t saved unless and until he believes, but this is all negated in a Calvinist scheme where man’s salvation is already accomplished and the non-believer is damned for “rejecting” a Savior that in reality never was a Savior to him.

    (6) Joe quotes Romans 2:6ff, but I think 2:4-5 are just as powerful:
    Or do you show contempt for the riches of God’s kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
    Here Paul condemns a hypocritical sinner, pointing out God “forbearance and patience” (cf Rom 3:25) has the intention of good will so that the sinner will stop his sin and repent! In other words, that’s not the talk of a God wanting a sinner to remain in sin. (Enter Pharaoh)

  11. (7) This leads to the final realization, that Romans 9 (which must be read as one thought with Ch10-11) is actually attacking the Jewish heresy of Unconditional Election. In the Jewish mind, God unconditionally predestined a person to be a Jew because He loved them more. Paul realized this was an abomination, and pointed out how throughout history people have lost their favored status by turning to sin. Re-read the chapter and you’ll see everyone painted in negative light threw away their favored status, which is the antithesis of unconditional election. Paul’s thesis is that of a Jew-Gentile dichotomy, not a saved-damned one!

    Consider how close to Romans 9 this passage in 2 Timothy 2:20-21 sounds:
    “20 In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. 21 Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.”

    And note the context in Romans 9 – YOU MUST EXAMINE PAUL’s NUMEROUS OT REFERENCES IN CONTEXT –

    “22 What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? 25 AS HE SAYS IN HOSEA:
    “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people;
    and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”

    Paul INTERPRETS HOSEA here as a prophecy for what he said in 22-24. The Context in Hosea is that God is going to say to “His People” the Jews “You are not my People” and the People who are “Not His People” the Gentiles will take on the name “My People”. So the lesson is Israel is losing it’s “firstborn” son status as Ishmael, Esau, and Pharaoh did and why Paul mentioned these guys.

  12. It appears that misunderstanding the Jew-Gentile debate brought about by the Judaizers and underestimating its significance throughout the New Testament has really muddled things and is at the heart of many of the current disagreements.

    Too many Protestants read the Jew-Gentile dynamic in the NT as a Catholic-Protestant debate. Doing this causes them to miss the trajectory of St. Paul’s (primarily) arguments against the Judaizers.

  13. Article 9 and 10 of the Canons of Dordt explicitly reject the idea that God’s election is based upon any inherent distinction between the saved and the damned.

    Specifically, Canon 10 says that “the cause of this undeserved election is exclusively the good pleasure of God. This does not involve his choosing certain human qualities or actions from among all those possible as a condition of salvation, but rather involves his adopting certain particular persons from among the common mass of sinners as his own possession.”

    So according to Dordt, if you ask why one person goes to Heaven, and another goes to Hell, the only explanation is the “good pleasure of God.” He might send one twin to Heaven for all eternity, and another to Hell for all eternity, but it had nothing to do with their faith, or their works, or anything else. The faith and works of the saved twin are a result of his salvation, rather than a cause or fortification, within the Calvinist schema.



  14. As I understand the citations you quoted, Dort simply denies the idea that the divine predestination is based upon any foreseen merits ON MAN’S PART such as a faith, good works, etc., but those statements hardly equates to saying that God didn’t have ANY REASON in himself why He chose certain persons unto salvation. In fact, Calvinists will tell you that while predestination is unconditional on man’s part, God still has reasons for choosing one over the other which is reserved ti Himself as a secret divine counsel.

    You said you were not exaggerating the reformed position, but you actually did it on this particular point.

  15. You have distorted the Calvinist position on many points, some of which are as follows:

    1) You said in your paper: “If He chose some and not others for coherent reasons known only to Himself, that would still be a condition (just one we don’t know). Calvinists deny that He had any reason.” It is clear in this statement of yours that you don’t really understand what UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION really means for Calvinists. When they say that God’s election unto Salvation is “unconditinal”, it simply means it is not based on human worth. It doesn’t have any condition on MAN’s PART only, but it doesn’t mean that GOD doesn’t have any reason/s hidden and reserved to Himself why He picked one over the other.

    2) You also said: “Instead, He looks across all of Creation, and arbitrarily chooses some to go to Heaven, and some to go to Hell.” Of course this only your conclusion about what you believe to be the position held by Calvinists. As explained above, God has a reason for choosing people unto Salvation, therefore, it is not arbitrary.

    3) You misunderstood Calvinism when you commented that in the said system it seems that faith is rendered irrelevant to Salvation because predestination implies that we are saved by election, not by faith. The truth is that historical Calvinism doesn’t teach that one is saved by election or that faith is just a product, and not a prerequisite, unto Salvation. Instead, it affirms that Justification is attained by an individual through faith alone. This is clearly set out in the First Head of Canons of Dort, especially in articles 2 an 4. But since no one is capable of savingly believing the Gospel because of man’s deadness in Sin (Rom 3:9-12; 1 Cor. 2:14), faith then must be a divine gift, and Calvinists are convinced that this gift flows from God’s gracious election. Thus, election is not Salvation per se, but a preparation towards it (Dort, I, A-6-8).

    4) Your comments on the Calvinist usage of Romans 9 is also misleading. It is true that in Romans 9 Paul was opposing those who hold that God’s choice of people unto Salvation is based on being an Israelite/Jew and that the Gentile world has no part in it. These people (who are obviously Jewish) must have been shocked when Paul declared in the previous chapter that all of God’s elect will be saved to the fullest (Rom. 8:30-39). For if that’s the case, then it would appear that the Israelites were not really God’s chosen people because many of them are hostile to the Gospel. Now if they were truly God’s chosen, His promises to them therefore failed. In response, Paul explained in Romans 9 that not all who are Israelites according to the flesh really belong to the true spiritual Israel of God consisting of all the elect unto Salvation (v. 6-7). God choise (with regards to Salvation) is not based on what ethnic group you belong (therefore, an open door for the Gentiles also). Moreover, it is not based upon any human worth, but on God’s mercy alone. Notice how Paul emphatically stressed that God’s choice is not “on him who wills or runs” but based on His mercy alone. This truth complements the overall argument of Paul from Romans 8-11 which–beyond the Calvinistic interpretation–would not make any sense at all.

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