While the Bible clearly teaches that God elects people to salvation, there are disagreements as to the basis of that election. Conditional election is the belief that God elects people for salvation based on His foreknowledge of who will put their faith in Christ. Conditional election says that an all-knowing God looks to the future and decides to elect people based on a future decision they will make to come to faith in Christ. It is considered “conditional” election because it is based on the condition of man doing something of his own free will. According to conditional election, those who God knows will come to faith in Christ are elected by God, and those who God knows will not accept Christ are not elected.
Conditional election is one of the Articles of Remonstrance that define Arminian theology, and it is a core part of that worldview and theological system. As such, it stands in direct contrast to the belief held by those who hold to Reformed theology, which believes that the Bible teaches unconditional election, the view that God elects people based on His sovereign will and not on any future action of the person being elected.
Those who believe in conditional election will often cite verses like 1 Peter 1:1–2, where Peter is writing “to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” The key phrase here is elect . . . according to the foreknowledge of God. Or another verse with similar implications is Romans 8:29–30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined, he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Yet there really is no debate or disagreement in the fact that God, because He is all-knowing, knows beforehand who will be saved and who will not. The debate between conditional and unconditional election is about whether these verses teach that man’s “free will choice” is the cause of God’s election or an acknowledgement that God has the foreknowledge of who will be saved and who will not. If these were the only verses in Scripture that dealt with election, the issue as to whether the Bible teaches conditional election would be up for debate, but they are not. There are other very clear passages that tell us on what basis God elects people for salvation.
The first verse that helps us understand whether conditional election is what the Bible really teaches is Ephesians 1:4–5: “He chose us in Him 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.” Clearly, we see that God predestines or elects individuals “according to the purpose of His will.” When we consider the idea of adoption and the fact that it is God who chooses us for adoption and that it is done before the foundation of the world, it seems to be clear that the basis of God’s election and predestination is not a choice we would make in the future but solely His sovereign will, which He exercises “in love.”
Another verse that strongly supports unconditional election is Romans 9:11, where God describes “the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls.” While some want to dismiss Romans 9:11 as applying to corporate election and not individual election, we simply cannot dismiss this section of Scripture that clearly teaches that election is NOT conditioned on anything man has done or will do but is solely based on the divine will of a sovereign God.
Another verse that teaches unconditional election is John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” Further, in John 10:26–27 Jesus says, “But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice and I know them, and they follow me.” Conditional election says that people who believe are chosen as His sheep because they believe, but the Bible actually says just the opposite. The reason they believe is that they are His sheep. Election is not conditional upon man’s acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior but is instead the cause of his acceptance.
Conditional election is the view that man’s “free will” decision to accept Christ as Savior is the basis for his/her election. Therefore, in a very real sense, man’s decision is the cause of salvation. This view of election is in large part necessary because of the Arminian worldview where man chooses God, instead of God choosing man. Boiled down to its simplest form, Arminian theology is that, ultimately, man’s salvation depends on his “free will decision” alone and not God’s will. Conditional election leads to the conclusion that God’s actions in election are dependent upon man’s free will choices. This view of election and salvation makes God subject to the whims of men and their decisions, and man’s will becomes essentially the cause and effect of salvation.
On the other hand, in unconditional election it is God’s sovereign will that determines who is elected and who is not. Therefore, it is God’s will and God’s grace that are completely responsible for man’s salvation. All those whom God elects to salvation will come to saving faith in Christ, and those whom He does not elect will not (John 6:37). In this scenario, it is God who gets the glory for His grace and mercy in offering salvation to those who do not love Him and who can’t come to Him on their own (Ephesians 2:1–5).
These two views on election are not compatible at all. One is true, and the other is false. One makes God’s election and ultimately man’s salvation dependent upon man, ultimately giving man the credit and glory, while the other recognizes that election and salvation depend on God’s sovereign will. One worldview has man being the master of his destiny and, in essence, in control of his salvation, while the other has God rescuing lost, hopeless sinners not because they deserve it but because He wills it. One view exalts man, and the other exalts God. One is a testimony to man’s goodness and ability, and the other is a testimony to God’s amazing grace.