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Unconditional Election

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

I never thought I'd say this, but Calvinism is becoming popular and attracting a following. This is especially true among Americans your age. A recent story in Time magazine ran with the headline that Calvinism is one of ten ideas "changing the world right now."

I sometimes wonder what the popularity of Calvinism is among Presbyterian college students for whom the doctrines of grace are not new and exciting, but old and routine—if not a bit stale. If your friends read magazines like Time, what is their reaction? Do they see themselves among the young people who are forcing journalists to scratch their heads in wonder? Or is Calvinism simply part of the doctrinal "furniture" in their lives?

I ask this question in part because we were corresponding recently about dorm "bull sessions" and the inevitable subjects that come up at Rutherford College. Unconditional election is another one of those doctrines that fascinate at least for a night or so of intense and protracted banter. You haven't mentioned this doctrine to me yet, but I suspect that you will encounter it soon in one of your religion classes.

As you may recall from catechism class with Mr. Greene, the Westminster Shorter Catechism does not teach the five points of Calvinism in a formal way. Those doctrines actually stem from the Dutch Reformed Synod of Dort, which met in 1618 to refute Arminianism. But even if TULIP does not organize the contents of the Shorter Catechism, you can find unconditional election in Answer 20, which teaches that God, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life and entered into a covenant of grace with the elect. The ultimate origin of our salvation, even before Christ's work as our only Redeemer, was God's decision to choose a people that would be his own.

The important implication of this doctrine is that our salvation does not rest upon anything in us. God did not choose us because he foresaw anything superior about us. The basis of God's decision was simply his good pleasure. For reasons that we cannot comprehend, God did this to manifest the riches of his grace and glory.

This is one of those doctrines that is less popular, even among the bigger fans of Calvinism. If you have noticed some of the stories about Calvinism's appeal, you will see that its attraction is precisely the sovereignty of God—his control of all things. This means that, for those who are sometimes called the "young, restless, and Reformed," God is a powerful and loving being who either establishes order in broken lives or provides hope for the restoration of wholeness. In a recent book devoted to the young Calvinists, one student who was interviewed said, "To believe that God is sovereign is very comforting in the deepest possible way."

Not always evident in this understanding of God's sovereignty is his control in electing a people for himself. Unconditional election is obviously one aspect of God's sovereignty: he is sovereign even over the number of people who will be saved. As comforting as this teaching is, it is also profoundly troubling, because it reminds us that God's ways are not our ways, that his sovereign purpose is beyond our reasoning, and that we have no right, as Job learned, to question God's purposes.

Although unconditional election might be challenging to those who want God's sovereignty to make sense of the world, it can breed theological smugness among cradle Presbyterians—especially guys. I can recall one late-night theological discussion in Alexander Hall, where a student from down the hall was reveling in the philosophical inconsistencies of some fellow students who were uncomfortable with the downside of election—the implication that those who are not chosen for eternal life will experience eternal judgment. This theological bully kept taunting the students who were squeamish about damnation with Calvinism's logical consistency. If you accept God's sovereignty, and if you accept man's depravity, he kept insisting, then election inevitably followed. And if you can't stomach the logic of election, he added, then you lacked manly intelligence. This was a version of Calvinism that was not for wimps.

The irony of this argument still haunts me when I recall it. Unconditional election is a doctrine that is supposed to keep us humble because it tells us that our salvation was entirely God's decision, not based on our own worthiness. But as a piece in a string of logical deductions, it becomes a doctrine that can tempt us to claim intellectual superiority. This is a real danger in those dormitory sessions of doctrinal discussion. Those who believe the truth of Calvinism can detach it from its personal reality and turn it into a strategy for successful debate.

Don't take this to mean that I am discouraging your participation in theological arguments. Of course, you should remain gracious. But even more importantly, you should be careful not to turn your theology into an airtight argument that always wins debates. Unconditional election, in fact, should be a check upon this form of intellectual pride because its fruit is greater humility before the depths of God's mercy.

Uncle Glen

"Uncle Glen" Roberts is a pseudonym for two Orthodox Presbyterian elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2009.

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