Throughout the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for individuals to so associate the doctrine of election with John Calvin that they mistakenly concluded that the concept of election had originated with him. Far from finding its origins in the Genevan Reformer, the doctrine of election has long held a place in the history of the church because it is everywhere taught in Scripture. The early church theologian Augustine, in his tractate on John 15:15–16, appealed to the clear teaching of Romans 11:5–6 regarding the doctrine of election. He wrote:
What was it then that He chose in those who were not good? For they were not chosen because of their goodness, inasmuch as they could not be good without being chosen. Otherwise, grace is no more grace, if we maintain the priority of merit. Such, certainly, is the election of grace, whereof the apostle says: “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant saved according to the election of grace.” To which he adds: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise, grace is no more grace.”
Augustine was underlining the importance of the unmerited nature of election. God did not choose those He would save through Christ on account of anything in them by which they could have merited that salvation. God did not foresee something in those He saves that moved Him to choose them. God did not even choose them on account of Christ. Rather, He chose them even though they had nothing with which to merit His grace and had, in fact, demerited His favor. The idea of unmerited election is encapsulated in the Calvinistic acronym TULIP under the designation unconditional election (the U in TULIP). But what do Reformed theologians mean when they speak of the unconditional nature of election? Dr. R.C. Sproul defined unconditional election in the following way: “The Reformed view of election, known as unconditional election, means that God does not foresee an action or condition on our part that induces Him to save us. Rather, election rests on God’s sovereign decision to save whomever He is pleased to save.”
The term unconditional can be somewhat misleading. It does not mean that there is no cause for the electing grace of God. Rather, it simply means that there is no cause or condition in us. The Scriptures make clear that the condition (if we may speak of it in that way) of God’s election of His people is His mere “good pleasure” (Eph. 1:5). As the Reformed theologian Francis Turretin explained, “Election was made from God’s mere good pleasure . . . good pleasure excludes every cause out of God upon which election may depend.” In this sense, we may speak of a condition or cause of election in God alone. However, it also means that there is no cause or condition for His electing grace outside of Himself.
Embracing the unconditional nature of election is vital if we are to come to understand the greatness of God’s grace. God does not confer His grace upon us because of any good in us—whether past or future good. In fact, the Scripture describes man’s depravity in the most straightforward way when it says:
None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one. (Rom. 3:10–12)
The first doctrine represented in the acronym TULIP sets the logical course for this subsequent doctrine of unconditional election. The doctrine of total depravity (perhaps better termed pervasive depravity) necessitates unconditional election. Since we justly deserve God’s wrath and are without hope apart from the saving grace of Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:1–3), our salvation must depend entirely on the electing grace of God.
Many attempts have been made to explain away the doctrine of unconditional election. Semi-Pelagian theologians (i.e., Arminians) insist that God chose a people to save before the foundation of the world after looking down the corridor of time and noting a decision they would make to trust in Christ. In this proposal, God doesn’t know all that He will do; He learns something that He didn’t foreknow. The biblical doctrine of election is built on the foreknowledge of God, not on the fore-learning of God (see Rom. 8:29; 11:2).
The doctrine of unconditional election is one of the most precious doctrines concerning God’s salvation. It is the foundation of our understanding of grace, the guarantee of the application of redemption, and the reason to praise God for the glory of His grace. The addition of any condition outside of God changes the very nature of these gifts and takes glory from God and gives it to the creature.
This article is part of the What Is TULIP? collection.