The Good, the Bad and the Elect

Book 3 Chapter 22 Section 1-11

In Calvin’s second chapter on election and predestination we are taken through the scriptural justifications for this doctrine. Calvin begins by challenging us to remember that God is ultimately free in every regard – even including the incarnation. Why do we not complain that it was unfair of God to choose to only fill Christ with all his fullness? “He did not become the Son of God by living righteously, but was freely presented with this great honour.” If concede that God was free in this respect, then it is inconsistent to complain when that freedom also includes his eternal electing purposes concerning us. In his decisions, either he is free with all, or not at all.

How were the elect chosen? Was it with a view to those who would respond to the call of God? Many would claim that “God distinguishes between men according to the merits which he foresees that each individual is to have, giving the adoption of sons to those whom he foreknows will not be unworthy of his grace, and dooming those to destruction whose dispositions he perceives will be prone to mischief and wickedness.” Thus, foreknowledge is used as the cause of election, ultimately having its foundation in our good or bad works. This leaves mankind as the ultimate decider of their election.

Calvin emphatically rejects this view, turning to Paul to exemplify his arguments. When Paul says in Ephesians 1.4-9 and 1 Timothy 2.9 that election precedes divine grace Calvin argues “how can it be consistently be said that things derived from election are the cause of election?” Again, he states that “two things are evidently inconsistent – that the pious owe it to election that they are holy, and yet attain to election by means of works.” Thus our good or bad works cannot be the ground for our election.

From considering the explicit teaching of Paul, Calvin turns to individual examples to illustrate how this doctrine works out practically. He reminds us that God is no respecter of the natural order in his electing purposes – overlooking Ishmael and Esau, both firstborn sons, to favour Isaac and Jacob, respectively. “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” Jesus says to the 12, and yet even amongst those who held the great privilege of apostleship, one demonstrated that he was not elect. Thus, God takes no account of office in his electing purposes; the only determining factor is his free will and sovereign plan.  


The reason we struggle so much with this teaching is firstly because we feel the illusion of freedom and secondly, we cannot comprehend the idea that our fate is fixed before we are even born. We daily choose what food to eat and what clothes to wear. We choose where to live, who to marry and what to do with our money. But are we really free to choose God? Can we cause him to come near to us at our beck and call? Can we choose to love him at any point in our lives? We feel free but we are not when it comes to spiritual things. We are at the mercy of the unseen Spirit revealing himself to our human minds. Our freedom is real but limited, we are not the ultimate source of freedom in the universe.

This makes me wonder whether there can be more than one truly free entity in the universe? Perhaps the deists would claim so, but logically there cannot be two completely free agents. Two equal forces would suggest that neither is free for they are both limited by the other. To be really free is to be without limit or restraint in action, power or wisdom.  It is worth remembering that God would be completely unknowable had he not revealed himself. His ways are mysterious and wonderful and they are certainly free. Who can tell him not to do something, or make him do what they require? Who can stop his plans, or alter his purposes? The amazing thing is that this completely free and limitless God, deliberately, decisively, chose to take a people from among the mass of lost mankind and keep them for himself.

Although it grates to think that our eternal destiny is fixed before we are born, in reality because this knowledge on a personal level is hidden from us we should not claim that God is unjust. There are many things in life that are determined for us before we are born – our parents, our nationality, our physical appearance, our intelligence. All these greatly affect our enjoyment of our life and yet (for many of us) we accept our lot once we arrive in the world. If God had told us when we were born “there is nothing you can do, you are not one of the chosen so don’t even try”, then we would have had reason to charge him with injustice. But God has done exactly the opposite – everyone who hears the gospel is called to come to him. His arms are open wide, desiring that all may come to him for safety. Will you come to him today and as you come you will find that there is a room in his mansion already with your name on it. He knew you were coming and made sure that everything was ready for you.

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgements, and his paths beyond tracing out. Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor? Who has every given to God that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen” Romans 11.33-36

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