Is God’s election unconditional?

The history of the church is unfortunately marked by divisiveness, which is why we have so many denominations. Disagreements over non-essential doctrines (as well as some essential ones) have subdivided Christianity, weakening the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17. But disagreements needn’t divide us if we follow Jesus’ command to love one another. In the divisive climate typical of today’s political and social discourse, the church has an opportunity to really be the salt and light he said we are to be by disagreeing without destroying fellowship, being an example standing in sharp contrast to the hateful hostilities marking much of the disagreements among unbelievers today.

I wish we could abolish all denominations and just identify ourselves as Christians instead of Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. That’s not gonna’ happen. But at least we can worship together here on earth and, praise God, we’ll be worshipping together in heaven. And we can discuss our disagreements humbly and graciously, as all my favorite apologists do, like Greg Koukl from Stand to Reason. Yesterday I relayed my disagreement with Greg on the doctrine of election, specifically responding to his answer to my question submitted to him via Twitter using #STRask. Today I’m finishing up my response. You can listen to the #STRask podcast episode here, or read the transcript here: Greg Koukl #STRask June 4, 2018

What is God’s work in our hearts?
In defending the Reformed understanding of election, Greg began by countering the opposing Arminian argument from Ephesians 1, which I responded to yesterday. Then he cited the record in Acts 16 of a woman who came to believe in Christ through Paul’s preaching. Here’s verse 14 as read in the ESV:

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 

And here are Greg’s comments on it:

And also, as to the group [interpretation], I’m just thinking of another verse, and there are more than this but, that other verse in the book of Acts, “And God opened Lydia’s heart to believe the gospel.” On this corporate view, it is Lydia that is doing the work to believe then God grants her something in virtue of her belief…No, here it says God is doing the work in her heart.

Apparently Greg was paraphrasing the verse because I’ve not been able to find a version that has “believe the gospel” there. All the versions listed on have some variation of “opened her heart to respond” or “to pay attention” to what Paul was saying. Since it says that Lydia was already “a worshiper of God” and therefore sensitive to things of God, it makes more sense to me to understand God’s activity not as causing her to believe but as blessing her submission to him by “opening the eyes of her heart,” as the popular worship song goes. He helped her really hear and understand what Paul was preaching so that she could and would respond to it by faith.

The Reformed or Calvinistic understanding of election has God determining unconditionally who would be saved and who lost. So Greg’s paraphrase of Acts 16:14 would seem to support that. But I think at the very least it’s unclear that his paraphrase accurately represents what Luke was saying. So I believe this verse is actually unsupportive of the Reformed view.

Why does God give and draw?
Greg then references John 6 where Jesus says that his followers are given to him by the Father, and connects that with Jesus’ teaching about believers as his sheep to make the same point of God’s unconditional election. Here’s what he says:

“Of all those the Father has given to me, I lose nothing, but I raise them up on the last day.” And he identifies, this is John 6, and also in John 10 we have similar language, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me, and I give them eternal life.” So you have the sheep that already belong to him are then following such that they reach a point of receiving eternal life from Jesus. So the giving of the individuals called Jesus’s sheep is before they start following. It’s when they follow they respond to “the voice,” I take that as to the pull, the call of the Holy Spirit, that he then gives them eternal life “and no one shall snatch them out of my hand because the Father has given them to me and no one is greater than the Father.”

Jesus clearly says that his followers are given and drawn to him by the Father. But I don’t believe this has to mean that God unconditionally elects those who will be saved, and do believe that John 6:45 holds the key to understanding what it does mean.

It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me—

So, those who come to Jesus are:

  1. given by the Father (6:37)
  2. drawn by the Father (6:44)
  3. everyone who has heard and learned from the Father (6:45).

The verses represented in points 1 and 2 would support unconditional election because they don’t tell us anything about why the Father gives and draws people to Jesus, but the third one seems to. How does one “hear” the Father? Certainly not audibly, so it must be by attending to his revelation in nature, conscience, and Scripture. All people have access to God through at least nature and conscience so all can be said to have “heard” God. But only those who not merely hear but “learn” from him come to Jesus, which means those who pay attention, submit to God as servants and students, and consider what they are taught to be true. This then excludes those who reject the truth of God’s existence as well as those who refuse to submit to him. 

Acknowledging the Father and submitting to him are the conditions which prompt the Father’s drawing one to the Son. This then is conditional election – the Arminian view.

Unity in diversity
As I said in this recent post on election, the Reformed view is held by many highly respected Christian leaders and teachers, Greg Koukl being one of them, so I’m open to being persuaded of it, but I simply haven’t been yet. I wish all Christian doctrines were so unmistakably clear in Scripture that we wouldn’t even disagree, but I’m grateful that at least we can disagree without division about matters that are, unfortunately, open to interpretation.

Interestingly, when I checked Instagram as I was almost finished writing this, I saw that Stand to Reason had just posted a short video of Greg talking about Christian unity, and echoing the gist of my opening paragraphs. If you don’t already follow Greg and his ministry, you’re missing out on a lot of helpful guidance and wisdom.