Answer: Unconditional election is a phrase that is used to summarize what the Bible teaches about the predestination—or the election—of people for salvation. It represents the second letter of the acronym TULIP, which is commonly used to enumerate the five points of Calvinism, also known as the Doctrines of Grace. Other terms for the same doctrine include “unmerited favor,” “sovereign election” or “adopted by God.” All these terms are good names for this doctrine because each reveals some aspect of the doctrine of election. However, more important than the term we use to describe the doctrine is how accurately the doctrine summarizes what the Bible teaches about election and predestination.
The debate over unconditional election is not whether or not God elects or predestines people to salvation but upon what basis He elects them. Is that election based upon foreknowledge that those individuals will have faith in Christ, or is it based upon God’s sovereign choice to save them? As the word “unconditional” implies, this view believes that God’s election of people to salvation is done “with no conditions attached, either foreseen or otherwise.” God elects people to salvation by His own sovereign choice and not because of some future action they will perform or condition they will meet. Those who come to Christ become His children by His will, not by theirs. “They were not God’s children by nature or because of any human desires. God himself was the one who made them his children” (John 1:13 CEV).
God, before the foundation of the world, chose to make certain individuals the objects of His unmerited favor or special grace (Mark 13:20; Ephesians 1:4-5; Revelation 13:8; Revelation 17:8). These individuals from every tribe, tongue and nation were chosen by God for adoption, not because of anything they would do but because of His sovereign will (Romans 9:11-13; Romans 9:16; Romans 10:20; 1 Corinthians 1:27-29; 2 Timothy 1:9). 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 many verses in both the Old and New Testaments that speak of election, and, when one looks at all the Bible teaches about election and predestination, it becomes obvious that God’s choice was not based on any foreseen act or response, but was based solely on God’s own good pleasure and sovereign will. Properly understood, God’s unconditional election is one link in the unbreakable chain of salvation seen in Romans 8:28-29: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” All those who are predestined will be saved (John 6:39; Romans 8:30) because they are the ones that God the Father gives to Jesus Christ (John 6:37) who will raise them up on the last day (John 6:39; John 17:2). They are Christ’s sheep (John 10:1-30) who hear His voice and for whom He died (John 10:15) in order to give them eternal life and make them secure forever in the hand of God (John 10:26-30).
There are several common misconceptions about unconditional election. First, it is important to understand that the doctrine does not teach that God’s choice is capricious or arbitrary. It is not random or made without reason. What it does teach is that God elects someone to salvation not because of something worthy God finds in that individual but because of His inscrutable, mysterious will. He makes the choice as to who will be saved for His own reasons, according to His own perfect will and for His own good pleasure (Ephesians 1:5). And while some object to the doctrine of election as being unfair, it is nevertheless based upon God’s will and it pleases God; therefore, it must be good and perfectly just.
Another misconception is that unconditional election precludes and stifles evangelism, but the reality is just the opposite—it empowers and confirms it. When one correctly understands that God has not only elected certain individuals to salvation but also has ordained the means of salvation—the preaching of the gospel (Romans 1:16; Romans 10:14-17)—it empowers the spreading of the gospel message and the call to evangelism. We see this very thing in Paul’s writing to Timothy in the midst of deep persecution. “I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ…” (2 Timothy 2:10). A proper understanding of the doctrine of election encourages evangelism and guarantees its success. It overcomes the fear of failure when sharing the gospel and empowers people to remain faithful to the message in times of great persecution. They know that the power lies in the gospel message and in God’s sovereign election and not in their own feeble presentation. A biblical understanding of election helps one share the gospel freely with all people, knowing that any one of them could be Christ’s sheep whom He is calling into His fold (John 10:16). It is not up to us to determine if someone is elect or non-elect, and there is always the promise of salvation for anyone who will repent and believe in Christ. The gospel message should be preached to all people in the knowledge that God will use it to draw His sheep to Himself.
Unconditional election also does not mean that there will be people in heaven who do not want to be there, nor will there be people in hell who wanted to be saved but could not be because they were not elect. Unconditional election properly recognizes that, apart from God’s supernatural work in the life of a sinner, men will always choose to reject God and rebel against Him (see the article on Total Depravity for more information on this subject). What unconditional election does correctly recognize is that God intervenes in the lives of the elect and works in their lives through the Holy Spirit so that they willingly respond in faith to Him. Because they are “his sheep…they hear his voice and follow him” (John 10:1-30). As for the non-elect, God is still gracious to them, but because of their sin they are not thankful for that grace, nor do they acknowledge Him as God (Romans 1:18-20). Consequently, they receive the just punishment due them. Those whom God elects are beneficiaries of His sovereign grace and mercy, and those whom He does not elect receive the justice they have earned. While the elect receive God’s perfect grace, the non-elect receive God’s perfect justice.
Those who argue against unconditional election often use verses like 1 Timothy 2:4 and John 3:16. How can we reconcile election with a verse like I Timothy 2:4, that says that God “desires all men to be saved,” or John 3:16, that says God “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”? The answer lies in correctly understanding the will of God and the love of God. God’s passive will needs to be understood in contrast to His decreed will (those things He foreordains to happen). The passive will of God includes the things He might desire in a sense but does not foreordain or bring to pass. Certainly, if God is sovereign and all-powerful, as the Bible declares Him to be, then He could bring about the salvation of all men, if that was His decreed or pre-determined will. Reconciling this verse and others with the many that teach election is an unconditional choice of God is no more difficult that recognizing that there are things God might desire but does not decree to happen. It could be said that God does not desire men to sin but as part of his predetermined plan He allows them to sin. So while there is a real sense in which God does not take pleasure in the destruction of the wicked and desires that all be saved, His pre-determined plan allows for the fact that some will go to hell.
In a similar way, concerning John 3:16 and God’s love, the difference lies in God’s general love for all creation and all humanity versus His specific love for His children, the elect. The difference is that God’s love for His elect is an intensive love that has Him actually doing something about their lost condition instead of simply sitting by wishing that they would in turn love Him, a picture so often conjured up by those who believe themselves to be in control of their own eternal destiny. In a generic sense, God desires all to be saved and He loves all of humanity, but that is completely different from the specific love He has for His elect and His desire and provision for their salvation.
When one examines what the Bible teaches about election and predestination, it becomes clear that the doctrine of unconditional election does accurately represent what the Bible teaches on this important subject. While this—or any of the other Doctrines of Grace—can stand on their own merit, their importance becomes even clearer when they are considered together systematically with all the Bible teaches about salvation. They essentially serve as building blocks, with each one furnishing a necessary part of a biblical understanding of salvation. Total depravity defines man’s need for salvation and reveals his hopelessness when left to his own resources. It leaves man with the question “Who can be saved?” The answer lies in an understanding of unconditional election—God’s sovereign choice to save people despite their depravity and based solely on His redeeming for Himself people from every tribe, tongue and nation. This He accomplishes by predestinating them “to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Ephesians 1:5). A proper understanding of this doctrine should not result in questioning the justice of God, but instead in marveling at His great mercy. The question we really should ask is not why God chooses only some to salvation, but why He would choose any at all.