Election: God’s Right to Choose

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

How does God choose who will be saved and who won’t? Historically there have been two major positions; today most call these two positions Calvinism and Arminianism, but they’ve gone by other names throughout history. There are other positions, but these two are the most common. Calvinists generally put more emphasis on God’s sovereignty to choose who will be saved, and Arminians put more emphasis on our responsibility to choose to trust in Christ. For some denominations, this issue is one of their distinctives; most all Presbyterians are Calvinists, and most all Methodists are Arminians. But other denominations are different; for example, Southern Baptists don’t hold this issue as one of their distinctives. Some Southern Baptists are Calvinists, and some aren’t. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the doctrinal statement of Southern Baptists, was written broadly enough to include both Calvinists and non-Calvinists.

Well-known Calvinists include John MacArthur, John Piper, and Al Mohler (president of one of the Southern Baptist seminaries). Well-known non-Calvinists include Billy Graham, Adrian Rogers, and Paige Patterson (who used to be president of two different Southern Baptist seminaries). Sometimes there has been strife between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, but it doesn’t have to be this way. One of the reasons I joined the Southern Baptists, became a Southern Baptist pastor, and earned both of my seminary degrees from Southern Baptist seminaries, was because I saw Southern Baptists like Mohler and Patterson respectfully disagree on this issue but still serve and minister together.

I was a Calvinist for twelve years, so I understand the reasons they believe what they do. In 2006 I moved away from that position, but I wouldn’t call myself an Arminian either. For those that are interested, my position is called Molinism. I’ve come to this position because I believe it best represents what the Bible says. Now I could be wrong; my interpretation of the Bible is not perfect nor infallible. But based on my study of Scripture thus far, I find this position to most closely match what the Bible teaches. If you’d like to read more about Molinism, I recommend a book by one of my Southern Baptist professors, Kenneth Keathley, called Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.

The key difference between my position and Calvinism is whether God’s choice of who to save is conditional or unconditional. A Calvinist believes that God unconditionally chose some people to be saved, that is, His choice is not based on any condition about the person or what they will do. (Rom. 9:11 is often used to defend this idea.) However, I believe that God conditionally chose some people to be saved, that is, based on the condition of whether or not they put their faith in Christ – Rom. 9:30-10:4, Rom. 10:8-16, Rom. 11:17-23. In other words, I believe that just as forgiveness and salvation are conditionally based on a person’s faith, so is election (God’s choice of whom to save) – Rom. 1:15, Rom. 3:22-24, Rom. 4:9-16. Those who put a strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty in election often have two objections to my position.

First, some say that if God made decisions in response to our free-will choices, then He wouldn’t be sovereignly in control of the universe anymore. I respectfully disagree; I believe that God is powerful enough so that He can allow us to have free will and still maintain control of the universe, even down to the smallest detail. I don’t have space here to explain how Molinism reconciles God’s sovereignty and human free will, two things which can seem contradictory, but you can read more about this in Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach by Kenneth Keathley. Basically it has to do with God orchestrating history based on His “middle knowledge” of all possible future scenarios and what people would freely choose in each scenario (see Acts 17:26-27 and Matt. 11:20-24). Molinism’s strong affirmation of God’s sovereignty is one aspect that distinguishes Molinism from Arminianism because some forms of Arminianism have a fairly weak view of God’s sovereignty.

Second, some say that if election was conditioned on faith, then those who put their faith in Christ are somehow better than those who don’t. I respectfully disagree. Molinists agree with Calvinists that no one would come to faith in Christ if left to themselves; God must take the initiative and do a special work of grace in someone’s heart before they can come to faith (Rom. 2:4). But the key difference is that Molinists believe this work of grace can be rejected or resisted by the person (Rom. 2:5, Heb. 6:4-6), whereas Calvinists believe it is irresistible. The reason Molinists don’t believe that those who put their faith in Christ are better than those who don’t is because faith isn’t a “work.” Therefore, faith isn’t something we can boast about because it’s not something that merits or earns us salvation. The Bible teaches that faith is the opposite of works (Rom. 9:30-10:4). Faith is merely a way to accept and receive God’s salvation, not earn, deserve, or merit it. Those that put their faith in Christ aren’t somehow better than those that don’t because faith isn’t a work that you can boast about (Rom. 3:9-28).

One belief that both Calvinists and Molinists agree on is that once a person is saved, they can never lose their salvation. This is another aspect that distinguishes Molinism from Arminianism because some Arminians believe Christians can lose their salvation.

For more on the topics of election and God’s sovereignty and for an in-depth look at Romans 9-11, watch “The Heart of God” series.

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