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In Christian theology, election refers to God's choosing of individuals or peoples to be the objects of his grace or to otherwise fulfill his purposes. Most often God's election is associated with his choice of individuals unto salvation. The Calvinist view of election (also known as unconditional election) teaches that in eternity God chose some individuals from the mass of fallen humanity unto salvation without regard to any merit or foreseen faith in them, but solely based on His sovereign intentions.

Election and predestination are very similar concepts to the point that the terms can sometimes be used interchangeably. However, there is a difference in the emphasis of the two terms. Election primarily has in view God's sovereign selection, whereas predestination accents the purpose or goal of His election. Scripture clearly teaches both election and predestination; however, there are a variety of views as to who, when, why, and how God does so.


Conditional election

Jacobus Arminius disagreed with the Calvinist understanding of election, as reflected in the Belgic Confession. Upon his death, Arminius' followers drew up Five articles of Remonstrance, a document opposing some of the prevailing Calvinist views in the Dutch church.

Article I. That God, by an eternal, unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ, his Son, before the foundation of the world, hath determined, out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ's sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath, and to condemn them as alienate from Christ, according to the word of the Gospel in John iii. 36: "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him," and according to other passages of Scripture also.
Article IV. That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of an good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without that prevenient or assisting; awakening, following, and co-operative grace, elm neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements that can be conceived must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But, as respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible, inasmuch as it is written concerning many that they have resisted the Holy Ghost, -Acts vii., and elsewhere in many places.

Thus in this view, God's choice of individuals for salvation is not unconditional. It is conditioned upon God's foreknowledge of (enduring) faith in individuals which is made possible because of God's prevenient grace. That is, God's prevenient grace enables mankind to make the choice to believe, obey and persevere in faith, but they can resist this grace and choose to be lost. Those that God foresees will believe, obey and endure to the end (as enabled by His grace), are the ones whom He chooses from the beginning for salvation. The choice to be chosen is ultimately based on the individual, not on God, whom they insist wants all to be saved.

Arminians use primarily Rom 8:29 ("those whom He foreknew, He also predestined") and 1 Pet 1:1-2 ("chosen according to the foreknowledge of God") to argue that foreknowledge of faith is the basis of election. They also argue from deductive logic based on God's character, and the necessity of free will for man to be morally responsible.

Corporate election

An alternative understanding of Election found in Arminianism [1] is that Christ is primarily God's elect, and that through Christ's redemptive work God has purposed to form a people to be His body (who become part of the Elect/ Christ). This election is freely offered to all. Anyone who wants to be identified with Christ, becomes part of the elect, and is assured of salvation. But at the same time they can lose that salvation if they cease to be identified with Christ.

An analogy used is that, Christ is the captain of a ship called "elect" (which is the Church), this ship is on a secure journey towards salvation. It is the individual's choice whether he wants to be on this ship or not. If the individual does, he is part of the elect and his salvation is secure, but if he chooses to bail out, then he's no longer part of the elect and he's lost.

Thus in biblical passages mentioning/alluding to God's election, the elect refers to an undefined group of elect people in Christ, not specifically chosen individuals. For example,

  1. "You did not choose Me but I chose you (plural)..." (John 15:16a NASB) - The Church did not choose Christ but Christ the Church
  2. "What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened;" (Rom 11:7 NASB) - believing Jews obtained it, the rest were hardened
  3. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Thess 5:9 NASB)- God did not destine the Church for wrath but for salvation
  4. etc...

Calvinist argument

Regarding this view, John Piper (a Calvinist theologian) says,

First notice what the point of God's choosing is in 1 Corinthians 1:27-30.
27 God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

What this text says very clearly is that God chose particular kinds of people to be in the church. He did not just choose the church and leave its composition to man. He chose foolish individuals and called them into Christ. He chose some weak individuals and called them into Christ. He chose some low and despised individuals and called them into Christ. So that no one might boast in anyone but the Lord.

And then to make this crystal clear he said in verse 30 (literally): "From him [God] you are in Christ Jesus." Or as the NASB says, "By his doing you are in Christ Jesus." Or the NIV: "It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus." In other words, it is just as though Paul knew that someone would come along some day and say that God does not choose who is in Christ, but only chooses Christ and any who put themselves in Christ. So he says, in verses 27-29, that God chose the individuals who would make up the church in Christ. And he says in verse 30 that it is by God's doing that they are put in Christ.[2]

Michael Browne, author of The Biblical Doctrine of Substitution: And a Defence of Divine Sovereignty: including an excursus on Election; Corporate or Individual?[3] writes:

If individuals are not involved in God's election but only the Church viewed as a corporate whole, we are at a loss to know how it is possible for God to elect the Church without in any way being responsible for the election of any individual saint who forms a part of it. Christ, on the other hand, states that as the Good Shepherd He calleth His own sheep by name and leadth them out; and as the Door, pictures His own sheep entering one by one ('if any man') through faith in Him unto salvation (John 10:3,7,9).
Paul, in Romans 9, sets out to prove that God’s salvation-righteousness was never conditioned upon birth or family privilege, neither upon personal merit or good works (the corporate election argument of the Jew, with his faith in the law). No, salvation has been always on the basis of divine individual election. It is God alone Who, on the ground of His sovereign grace and mercy, unconditionally chooses whom He will for salvation and blessing. Thus, He had opened the flood-gates of salvation now to Gentiles.

Paul then gives sound scriptural examples that God had always acted in this way, even from within the privileged elect nation of Israel. He cites three incontrovertible examples of individual and unconditional election: Isaac and not Ishmael (Romans 9:6-9); Jacob and not Esau (Romans 9:10-13); and Moses, not Pharaoh (Romans 9:14-18). In Romans 9 we are on the ground of individual election to salvation.

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John Calvin

For John Calvin (1509-1564), the doctrine of "eternal election" refers to both the predestination of the elect and the reprobate.[4]

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...
John Calvin , Institutes, book 3, ch.21, sec.5

The ultimate cause of both election and reprobation is the secret council of God, and not any cause in the individuals (whether good or bad).

They [those who object to "eternal election"] add also, that it is not without cause the vessels of wrath are said to be fitted for destruction, and that God is said to have prepared the vessels of mercy, because in this way the praise of salvation is claimed for God, whereas the blame of perdition is thrown upon those who of their own accord bring it upon themselves. But were I to concede that by the different forms of expression Paul softens the harshness of the former clause, it by no means follows, that he transfers the preparation for destruction to any other cause than the secret counsel of God. This, indeed, is asserted in the preceding context, where God is said to have raised up Pharaoh, and to harden whom he will. Hence it follows, that the hidden counsel of God is the cause of hardening.
John Calvin , Institutes, book 3, ch.23, sec.1 (Comments in brackets inserted)

The elect are saved based on God's free mercy, while the reprobate are excluded from it by God's righteous and "incomprehensible" judgement.

...We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment...
John Calvin , Institutes, book 3, ch.21,sec.7

All elect individuals, including those from the O.T. belong to One seed (Jesus Christ), and are ultimately connected to God the Father (not Abraham).

These [elect individuals] are considered as belonging to that one seed of which Paul makes mention, (Rom 9: 8; Gal 3: 16, &c). For although adoption was deposited in the hand of Abraham, yet as many of his posterity were cut off as rotten members, in order that election may stand and be effectual, it is necessary to ascend to the head in whom the heavenly Father has connected his elect with each other, and bound them to himself by an indissoluble tie.
John Calvin , Institutes, book 3, ch.21,sec.7 (Comments in brackets inserted)

The evidences of election (today) are calling and justification, while the marks of reprobation are either a lack of knowledge of Jesus Christ or a lack of sanctification.

In regard to the elect, we regard calling as the evidence of election, and justification as another symbol of its manifestation, until it is fully accomplished by the attainment of glory. But as the Lord seals his elect by calling and justification, so by excluding the reprobate either from the knowledge of his name or the sanctification of his Spirit, he by these marks in a manner discloses the judgment which awaits them.
John Calvin , Institutes, book 3, ch.21, sec.7

See Institutes of the Christian Religion ( book III chap 21 | book III chap 22 | book III chap 23 | book III chap 24 ).

Westminster Confession of Faith

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;[Eph 1:11, Rom 9:15, 18; 11:33; Heb 6:17] yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin,[Jas 1:13, 17; 1 John 1:5] nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. [Acts 2:23; 4:27, 28; Matt 17:12; John 19:11, Prov 16:33]
V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory,[Eph 1:4,9,11; Rom 8:30; 2 Tim 1:9; 1 Thess 5:9] out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto;[Rom 9:11, 13, 16; Eph 1:4, 9] and all to the praise of His glorious grace. [Eph 1:6, 12] (italics added)
VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto.[1 Pet 1:2; Eph 1:4, 5; 2:10; 2 Thess 2:13] Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ,[1 Thess 5:9, Tit 2:14] are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified,[Rom 8:30; Eph 1:5; 2 Thess 2:13] and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation.[1 Pet 1:5] Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.[John 6:64-65; 8:47; 10:26; 17:9; Rom 8:28; 1 John 2:19]

Thus, God's election is unchangeable, it permanently ordains what will happen, but at the same time in a way that does not hinder the individuals' free will or choice, rather it establishes it (election ensures that the choice/possibility is real). It is not based on anything in the individual; neither good motives or good actions, since both are evil continually (in this way it is unconditional). And that there are means God has ordained, by which the elect must be saved. They must be called, justified, sanctified, persevere in faith, etc. to be saved, and they all will be saved and no one else.

See Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter III "Of God's Eternal Decree".


  1. Arminians are not so much insistent on conditional election as much as they are opposed to unconditional election.
  2. Taken from "God has chosen us in Him before the Foundation of the Earth", sermon by Piper
  3. The Biblical Doctrine of Substitution: And a Defence of Divine Sovereignty: including an excursus on Election; Corporate or Individual? ISBN 1-901193-70-5, Moray Books (1997).
  4. Book 3, Chapter 23 of the Institutes, titled "Refutation of the calumnies by which this doctrine [eternal election] is always unjustly assailed" (brackets inserted)- which he defends both election and reprobation. For Calvin, there is no separate doctrine of reprobation, as it falls under the doctrine of "eternal election."

See also

External links

Unconditional election

By John Piper: