In my last post, I began a series of critiques of John Calvin’s famous “five points,” most often referred to using the acronym, TULIP, which represents Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistibility of Grace, and The Perseverance of the Saints (“once saved, always saved”). In this installment, we’ll deal with Unconditional Election.
Calvin’s idea of Unconditional Election simply means that God “elected” certain men for salvation and others for damnation from all eternity, rooted in texts of Scripture, as we will see below, like Romans 9:10-12:
And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, she was told, “The Younger will serve the younger.”
Calvin’s ideas of election and double predestination are virtually indistinguishable. Double Predestination, as we saw before, is the teaching that claims God to have determined from all eternity who will go to heaven and who will go to hell giving to man no real choice in the matter. The Catholic Church condemns this understanding, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1037:
God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (Citing II Peter 3:9).
Just as with predestination, for Calvin, God both wills and brings about the damnation of souls by his positive decree of election. He must, or else, in Calvin’s mind, he ceases to be truly almighty:
They deny that it is ever said in distinct terms, God decreed Adam should perish by his revolt… They say that, in accordance with free will, he was to be the architect of his own fortune, that God had decreed nothing but to treat him according to his desert. If this frigid fiction is received, where will be the omnipotence of God, by which, according to his secret counsel on which everything depends, he rules over all? But whether they will allow it or not, predestination is manifest in Adam’s posterity. It was not owing to nature that they all lost salvation by the fault of one parent… As this cannot be ascribed to nature, it is plain that it is owing to the wonderful counsel of God… I again ask how it is that the fall of Adam involves so many nations with their infant children in eternal death without remedy [Calvin here refers to the false notion of unbaptized babies being predestined for hell], unless that it so seemed meet to God? Here the most loquacious tongues must be dumb. 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…Nor ought it to seem absurd when I say, that God not only foresaw the fall of the first man and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk III, Ch. XXIII, Para. 7).
Yes, this “decree…is dreadful,” but it is not God’s. It’s Calvin’s!
Twisting the Truth
There is some truth to Calvin’s notion of election. Scripture as well as the Catholic Church, will often refer to “the elect” as those who will finally persevere until the end and so be saved.
“The Church . . . will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven,” at the time of Christ’s glorious return. Until that day, “the Church progresses on her pilgrimage amidst this world’s persecutions and God’s consolations.” Here below she knows that she is in exile far from the Lord, and longs for the full coming of the Kingdom, when she will “be united in glory with her king.” The Church, and through her the world, will not be perfected in glory without great trials. Only then will “all the just from the time of Adam, ‘from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect,’ . . . be gathered together in the universal Church in the Father’s presence” (CCC 842).
Jesus himself speaks of the “elect” who will persevere and so be saved in texts like Matt. 24:22:
And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.
St. Paul speaks of the ”elect” as well:
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which in Christ Jesus goes with eternal glory (II Tim. 2:10).
The Catholic Church has no problem with referring to “the elect” as those who will finally persevere until the end and attain final salvation. The problem with Calvin is his claim that each Christian can know with “infallible certainty” (as the Westminster Confession says it) that he is one of the elect. And, his claim that man has no real say in whether or not he will be one of God’s elect.
St. Paul did not even claim for himself this “infallible certainty” of his final salvation.
… but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (I Cor. 9:27).
This word translated “disqualified” in the RSVCE is adokimos. This is the same word St. Paul uses for those who reject God and whom God then “gave up” to a “reprobate mind” in Romans 1:28. Or, in II Cor. 13:5, he uses it thus:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ is in you?–unless you fail to meet the test (or, as some translations have it, “unless you are reprobate”; II Cor. 13:5)!
One can know via a private revelation that he is one of the elect, but Scripture indicates that God alone knows, ordinarily speaking, who the elect are. St. Peter tells us we must continue to be zealous to do good works until the end of our lives in order to ensure that we are truly one of “the elect:”
Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall; so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In that same letter, St. Peter also warns that even those who have experienced the transforming power of God in their lives as he describes it in II Peter 1:2-4 can then fall away and be lost in 2:20-22. There is no presumption here with St. Peter as to who is one of the “elect,” as we see with John Calvin.
Thus, for Catholics, however one understands the theology of “election,” as long as one does not deny certain essential truths, there is freedom. For example, a Catholic can believe that the number of the “elect” is “predetermined” inasmuch as God knows how many will cooperate with this grace and persevere until the end. That means there is a limited number of “elect,” and, of course, not everyone is “elect.”
A Catholic may not, however, teach “election” to mean that God does not give to every single person the real possibility of salvation. As Gaudium et Spes 22, paragraph 5, says:
For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.
In other words, “election” does not mean God arbitrarily “elects” some for heaven and damns others to hell as Calvin taught. A true biblical understanding of “election” must involve man’s free response as CCC 600 tells us:
To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace.
God’s predestination and/or election presuppose God’s initiative. God’s “eternal plan of predestination” goes before us so that if we respond to God’s call, it is only because God’s grace, predestination, election, and calling went before us. Without God as first mover, we could not take one step toward God as one of his elect. However, without our freely willing it, we will not finally “be in that number, when the saints come marching in.”
But What About Jacob and Esau?
Invariably, texts of Scripture like Romans 9, cited above, will be used by Calvinists to defend their position of unconditional election:
Though [Jacob and Esau] were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, [Rebecca] was told, “The elder will serve the younger” (verses 11-12).
In order to understand this text, we really have to understand the greater context of Romans. We have to make the necessary distinctions between God’s gift of grace and the plan of God, which are given to men independent of anything that man does or can do, and man’s call to respond to the gift of grace and the plan of God. When we see this, Romans 9 will come into focus.
St. Paul is writing to a people in Rome being assailed by “judaizers” who were coming up with their own plan of salvation and leading people astray. In essence, they were saying it is great to believe in Christ and the New Covenant, but if you want to be saved, you have to go back to the Temple, the Old Covenant Priesthood, sacrifices, the Old Law, especially circumcision, etc. True Christians who were rejecting the Old Covenant in favor of the New were being persecuted for their faith; and, no doubt, they were being tempted to succumb to returning to the Temple. If they would only do so, they would no longer be in danger of:
… being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction… [being imprisoned]… [experiencing the] plundering of… [their] property… (Heb. 10:32-34)
But, at the same time, as St. Paul says in Galatians 5, if they were to return to the Old Covenant and trust in it for salvation they would also be in danger of losing their souls:
Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you… You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace (Gal. 5:2-4).
It was in this context that St. Paul was exhorting Christians in his Letter to the Romans to understand God’s plan and gift of grace to have been decreed long before they were ever created. St. Paul encourages the faithful that nothing except their own willful turning away from God’s goodness can separate them from God’s grace which will keep them through all that they may have to endure. “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed” (Romans 8:18):
Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?… 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 everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality (Romans 2:4-11).
Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off (Romans 11:22).
St. Paul is in no way saying that the individual Christians to whom he is writing have their eternities sealed and that they are going to heaven no matter what they do. In fact, St. Paul makes clear all over the New Testament that what you do determines where you will spend eternity as much as what you believe (see Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-6; Col. 3:5-6, etc.). Far from encouraging a sense of presumption, St. Paul says:
Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (I Cor. 10:12).
St. Paul encourages these believers that nothing outside of themselves can ever separate them from God’s grace. There is nothing that any man, or any angel, or any power in the universe outside of themselves could ever do to take them away from God. God’s plan is secure and has been so from all eternity:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35-39).
God’s plan and God’s power are sure. The question for St. Paul is this: will his readers–or will we–respond to God’s predestined plan for our salvation, or will we choose to reject it to our own eternal loss.
Foreknown, Predestined, Justified, and Glorified
It is this context that leads up to Romans 8 and 9 and the famous texts on “predestination” and “election.” Among the many problems with Calvin’s theology of election, as well as with the Calvinists today who follow his teaching, is a failure to distinguish between the several categories St. Paul lists in Romans 8:28-30, most especially “foreknowledge,” “predestination,” “justification,” and “glorification.”
In presenting his own theology of election in Romans 8, St. Paul says:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestinated to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified… Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect (Romans 8-30)
According to St. Paul, the elect were already “fore[known]… predestined… called… justified… and glorified.” Calvin wrongly thought from this that I could then determine that I am already “glorified” by God’s eternal decree so that there is nothing more I need to do. This is incorrect. St. Paul is continuing his thought that God’s predestined plan is secure. God has done it all for us on the objective level. But that does not mean were do not have to cooperate with his plan on the subjective level.
In other words, Christ purchased my salvation, justification, and glorification on the cross. It is a done deal on the objective level. But that does not mean I do not have to do something in order for it to be subjectively accomplished in my life.
Let’s take justification for example. Christ “justified” all men on the cross. He paid the price for all. However, a man still must “believe in his heart unto justification” (Romans 10:10) in order to actually be justified. And he must continue to practice ”obedience unto righteousness” (Gr. justification) in order to finally be justified (Romans 6:16; Cf. I Cor. 4:3-5; Matt. 12:36-37; Romans 2:13; Gal. 2:17; James 2:21-25).
Now let’s consider glorification. Catholics believe that Jesus ”glorified” all on the cross just as he justified them. However, we must “suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him,” on the subjective level (Romans 8:17; Cf. Romans 2:6-10; II Thess. 2:14; I Cor. 15:42-43). Christ’s glorifying us will take no effect in our lives unless we choose to allow what he did on the cross to actually be applied to our lives.
Thus, if we are finally justified, it is only because Christ already “justified us” on the cross. If we are “glorified,” it is only because Christ already “glorified” us on the cross. However, if we choose to walk away from Christ, we will not be finally justified or glorified. We will have rejected God’s predestined plan for our salvation, in favor of our own demise.
St. Augustine Weighs In
St. Augustine, who is often misunderstood and errantly used by some Calvinists to “prove” their position—a position that he never held—wrote:
… predestination, which cannot exist without foreknowledge, although foreknowledge may exist without predestination; because God foreknew by predestination those things which He was about to do, whence it was said, “He made those things that shall be.” Moreover, He is able to foreknow even those things which He does not Himself do,—as all sins whatever. Because, although there are some which are in such wise sins as that they are also the penalties of sins, whence it is said, “God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient,” it is not in such a case the sin that is God’s, but the judgment. Therefore God’s predestination of good is, as I have said, the preparation of grace; which grace is the effect of that predestination (On the Predestination of the Saints (Book I)—In What Respects Predestination and Grace Differ, Chap. 19 ).
Though I should mention that St. Augustine is not always either consistent nor correct on all matters relating to predestination, the “Doctor of Grace” presents well the Catholic and biblical position here when he explains predestination only refers to God’s plan for redemption, not reprobation. For that (reprobation), man must reject God’s call to all for salvation. As St. Paul said it:
[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (I Tim. 2:4).
… because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe (I Tim. 4:10).
St. John provides:
[Jesus Christ] is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
And St. Peter adds:
The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but if forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (II Peter 3:9).
Very important to our discussion is St. Augustine’s distinction between what he calls “the operating grace” and “the cooperating grace” in the lives of men. The first grace is given by God apart from man’s cooperation and prepares his will so that he may choose God. This grace is integrally related to God’s providential plan that existed from all eternity in the mind of God. This is the grace that the persecuted Christians to whom St. Paul was writing in his letter to the Romans can know is there for them and no power on earth can ever change that. The latter grace is given by God as well, but requires man’s cooperation for it to be effectual in his life.
When I shall have proved this, it will more manifestly appear that to lead a holy life is the gift of God,—not only because God has given a free will to man, without which there is no living ill or well; nor only because He has given him a commandment to teach him how he ought to live; but because through the Holy Ghost He sheds love abroad in the hearts of those whom he foreknew, in order to predestinate them; whom He predestinated, that He might call them; whom He called, that he might justify them; and whom he justified, that He might glorify them [Rom.8:28ff]… even man’s justice must be attributed to the operation of God, although not taking place without man’s will; and we therefore cannot deny that his perfection is possible even in this life, because all things are possible with God,—both those which He accomplishes of His own sole will, and those which He appoints to be done with the cooperation with Himself of His creature’s will (On the Spirit and the Letter, Ch. 7).
As we will see in more detail when we discuss the “P” of TULIP in a few weeks, God alone foreknows those who will finally persevere until the end in grace (except in cases of private revelation, as I said above), according to Scripture and to St. Augustine. But the key for us now is to see that St. Augustine very clearly teaches as Scripture does, that man must cooperate with the plan and grace of God in order to be saved. Thus, his election is not unconditional. God’s gift of grace includes our cooperation. This is all part of God’s immutable and predestined plan.
… it is God who both works in man the willing to believe, and in all things prevents us with His mercy. To yield our consent, indeed, to God’s summons, or to withhold it, is (as I have said) the function of our own will. And this not only does not invalidate what is said, “
For what do you have that you did not receive?” (citing I Cor. 4:7) but it really confirms it. For the soul cannot receive and possess these gifts, which are here referred to, except by yielding its consent. And thus whatever it possesses, and whatever it receives, is from God; and yet the act of receiving and having belongs, of course, to the receiver and possessor (St. Augustine, On the Spirit and Letter, ch. 60).
How far is this from the dreary predestination of Calvin’s invention that claims:
We, indeed, ascribe both prescience and predestination to God; but we say that it is absurd to make the latter subordinate to the former [as St. Augustine and St. Paul do!]… By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which He determined with Himself whatever He wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk III, Ch.21, Para. 5).
Michael Jordan Knows About Choice
For many Calvinists, John 15:16 is as plain as it gets when it comes to unconditional election. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.” “See?” they’ll say. “The idea of God offering salvation to all is bogus. Jesus only elects a few, and it is his choice, not ours, as to who they will be.”
The 1984 NBA Draft is a great way, I find, to explain the biblical concept of God “choosing” us. The draft of 1984 is famous for having four Hall of Famers selected in the first round. You had Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, all chosen in that same year. That is quite a class!
Hakeem Olajuwon, from the University of Houston, was chosen first overall by the Houston Rockets. That was certainly a good pick because he would become one of the greatest centers to ever play the game. But the second pick was where it became interesting. The Portland Trailblazers had Michael Jordan, from the University of North Carolina, available, but they chose Sam Bowie, from the University of Kentucky, instead. At the time it seemed like a decent pick because Bowie was an extraordinarily good college player, but it would eventually prove to have been the biggest mistake in NBA history. Bowie would unexpectedly flop in the NBA, while Michael Jordan would go on to be… well… Michael Jordan.
How doe this relate to our topic? Here’s how. The third team to pick would be the Chicago Bulls, and they would choose Michael Jordan. If you would have asked Michael Jordan what team he would have liked to play for back then, there is no way he would have picked the Bulls. They were perennial losers at the time. But the truth is, he did not choose the Bulls, the Bulls organization chose him. And to this day, you will hear the refrain, “The Bulls made the best choice in NBA history. They chose Michael Jordan.”
Would anybody believe that because the Bulls “chose” Michael Jordan that he would not, in turn, have to choose them? Of course not.
So it is with Christ. He chooses us. Of that there can be no doubt. But according to his own words, he then asks us to choose him:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne…
The Catholic Church teaches that God elects only some for salvation and that election was known to God from all eternity. All of you reading this post who persevere until the end with our Lord and are saved will only be so because God “elected” you to be so from all eternity.
In saying that, the Scriptures and the Catholic Church do not mean to say that God does not offer to all the real possibility of salvation. He does. Whether or not we will finally be counted among the elect depends first of all upon the call and “election” of God, but secondarily, it relies upon our free response to his call and our persevering in the grace of his call until the end.
If you enjoyed this post, and if you want to dive deeper into the topic of salvation, click here.