Is the doctrine of election a primary doctrine?

Steven Lawson & 2 others
2 Min Read

LAWSON: Is the doctrine of election a primary doctrine? It is if you’re God. I would need clarification for what “primary” means in this case. You do not have to believe in the doctrine of election to be saved or to be a Christian. I was converted when I was seventeen years old. I did not come to embrace the doctrines of grace and, specifically, election until I was twenty-eight years old. So, there was an entire decade in which it was not primary in my life, though I was still saved.

The doctrine of election is primary as you read Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. It is not a doctrine that is tucked away in the corners of books. What’s interesting when you read the New Testament is where you find the doctrine of election and the doctrines of grace. Where are they found in the gospel of John? Where are they in Romans, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Peter, and 2 Peter? You will find them in chapter 1 verse 1, chapter 1 verse 2, and chapter 1 verse 3. All of this presupposes how well the early church was taught that the doctrine of election could be the front doorstep to the weight of either that gospel or that epistle. So, under the apostolic teaching, election was a primary doctrine in the first-century church because it was positioned in such a prominent place and not hidden in the back of a book.

In Romans, even though the weight doesn’t come until chapters 8 and 9, Paul talks about those who are “called” in Romans 1:6. Who is called, and why are they called? The reason they are called is that they have been chosen by God. Ephesians 1:4, 1 Thessalonians 1:4, 1 Peter 1:1, and 2 Peter 1 are front-loaded with the doctrine of election. The same is true in 1 Corinthians 1:2 and throughout the entire opening chapter of 1 Corinthians. Therefore, election is a primary doctrine, not in the sense that it’s necessary for conversion, but that it’s necessary to understand how you are saved and who the God is who saved you. So, it would depend on how you define “primary.”

NICHOLS: I find it interesting that, as you look through church history and as people recall their conversions, even those who would not identify as confessional Calvinists and may even be against Calvinism still speak of God choosing them when giving their testimony. They don’t speak of themselves choosing God. Even in their experience, they are testifying to the primary notion of the doctrine of election.

PARSONS: I’ll add this to what has already been stated: I think it depends on what someone does after studying the doctrine of election. If they study it in-depth biblically and reject it or try to come up with some fanciful contortion of what Scripture means, they’ll wind up with a very shallow theology and a very shallow understanding of salvation, if indeed they are saved at all. That's part of the difficulty and the complexity of this question. Our forefathers wrestled with this because someone may not need to understand it or grasp it to be saved—we certainly would agree on that. However, if one lives his or her Christian life for many years, studies the doctrine of election, and then rejects it, I don’t know how they could truly understand the grace of God in their salvation.

This is a transcript of Steven Lawson’s, Stephen Nichols’, and Burk Parsons’ answers given during our 2021 National Conference, and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email or message us on Facebook or Twitter.