On Nonchalance and Unconditional Election
It should be clear that if a doctrine is a) biblical, b) directly related to salvation, c) a critical and distinctive part of the Reformed Protestant tradition, and d) pastorally helpful in providing comfort for sanctification, that rejecting it is not being merely incorrect, but spiritually harmful.
The doctrine of unconditional election, or sola gratia and sola fide, teaches that God saves his people apart from any good done by us, any characteristic we possess, or anything that we may do or possess. Rather, God saves his people solely by grace, from his great love, without any merit on our part. God chose us before creation existed, before we existed to be holy or do good or evil, so that we should become holy (Romans 9:11, Ephesians 1:4). Our salvation does not depend on our present or future willpower or faith, but is by grace on the basis of God’s mercy through Christ’s finished work (John 1:12-13, Romans 9:16, Ephesians 2:8-9).
This is critical for our assurance of salvation. My confidence before God is founded upon the redemptive work of Christ and the sealing of the Holy Spirit, not upon the varying strength and wavering of my faith (Romans 8:30, 2 Timothy 2:18-19, Hebrews 6:11-18). Pastorally I can remind those who are struggling that their faith is not the basis of their salvation, but what Jesus did.
But if this is denied, if unconditional election is rejected, then this goes out the window. Conditional election, the false doctrine that God saves people based upon them meeting a condition, strips salvation of grace. The first of the Articles of Remonstrance to which the Synod of Dort responded held that God’s salvation of people is dependent upon them possessing faith. Some nuances of this have argued that God has saved people on the basis of foreknowing that they would later have faith. But faith is a gift from God (2 Corinthians 4:10, Ephesians 1:17-19, 2:8-9, Philippians 1:29) and without faith one cannot do good or please God (Romans 14:23, Hebrews 11:6). If salvation is dependent upon the faith I possess, I will lose it, much less ever have it. When salvation is based upon my will to believe, I have embraced a Pelagianism where I am the master of my fate. Of course good works and faith are evidence of salvation, but as symptoms, not causes.
This small summary should be nothing new for those coming from the Reformed faith. But I have been shocked at the number of people who treat this as a non-issue, as if it is no big deal or a mere technicality. Affirming unconditional election as biblical and helpful, but then holding that conditional election is just a bit imprecise with no discernible consequences, is bafflingly inconsistent. It is not coincidental that theological traditions that reject unconditional election (e.g., Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, General Baptists, and many Pentecostals, Church of Christ, Anabaptists, and Methodists) all either teach that you can lose your salvation, that any sin shows lack of faith and that your salvation is compromised, or that good works or attitudes are necessary to earn your salvation. The confidence of our salvation is Christ and his work, not the good that I have done, but that disappears when the good that I have done or am is why God saved me. I think it is important to show charity to Christian traditions to which I don’t belong, but I should also honor my spiritual forefathers who recognized this rejection as coming from the pits of hell. And as a pastor and presbyter, I have an obligation to the church to show love to God’s people. It is not loving to promote an understanding of salvation that if diligently followed leads people to rest upon themselves, and not upon Christ for their justification.
The Bible does contain truth about salvation arbitrarily or flippantly. When we confess that it teaches something about the basis for of our salvation, and then treat the importance of that truth as incidental, we are dismissing what the Bible has to say at our people’s peril.