In producing this series it has been my aim to accurately represent both Arminian and Reformed arguments, though I'm arguing for the Reformed position. I have requested that readers point out any flaws in the arguments presented on either side. The latest article in the series generated the most passionate and numerous comments so far. I was kept busy responding to these, while at the same time I began working on a more in-depth response, which I had hoped to complete and post in one article. I prefer to have my total argument completed before posting, but rather than further delay posting, I have now divided my answers to "objections to unconditional election" into several smaller posts.
So the purpose of the present article is to begin responding to objections to the doctrine of unconditional election. I will do this in part by answering actual objections made recently by a reader, Daniel Jordan. [You may notice that we are both named Jordan. That's because Daniel happens to be my brother--in the flesh, as well as in the Lord. He's also a pastor and gifted as a skillful communicator].
Romans 9, Exodus 33:19 and the Sovereignty of God in Election
[The following argument by Daniel Jordan was presented. We had been discussing the interpretation of Romans 9, and Exodus 33:19 is a verse which Paul quotes in Romans 9.]
Daniel: Let’s start with Ex 33:19 in its context.
15 Then Moses said to him, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?" 17 And the LORD said to Moses, "I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name."
18 Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory." 19 And the LORD said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." (NIV)
"First of all we must remember that this passage has ostensibly nothing to do with salvation.
Just before this statement on having mercy upon whom he chooses, God states that the reason that he will go with Moses and Israel is because he is PLEASED WITH HIM. How then can you say that this scripture proves that “no actions of men form the basis of his choices”? God says the exact opposite.
It seems to me that in this mercy passage, God is just telling Moses that he does not owe Moses this privilege but is doing it out of his own grace. The mercy God refers to is this revealing of his glory to Moses, not salvation.
Briefly, going back to the Romans 9 passage. Why does Paul quote this verse? Remember Paul is trying to answer the question of Israel in chapter 9. Why are the Gentiles now receiving salvation? In order to answer this, Paul has to show the spiritual nature of salvation. He finally talks about Jacob and Esau and shows that Jacob was shown special favor just like Moses received.
Just like Moses, we know from the Bible that Jacob prevailed with God and was called Israel. Yet the grace he received was still dependent on the mercy of God and not works. This is what God had told Moses and what Paul reminds us of in Romans 9. Paul is saying to the Jews that God doesn’t OWE them salvation by virtue of birth but that he has mercy upon whom he chooses. Yet we know that the condition of that mercy is faith in Christ from countless other scriptures. So our election is conditional."
Also, in response to me, Daniel clarified further this portion of his argument concerning Romans 9 and Exodus 33:
"The reason God says to Moses “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy” was to explain to Moses that He did not OWE him this revelation. Paul quotes it in Romans 9 for the same reason: God does not OWE the Jews salvation based on birth or works. Salvation is based on his mercy. But even this mercy is conditioned on acceptance of the cross."
Let me see if I follow your argument.
1. Exodus 33 has nothing to do with salvation, so therefore Paul quoting from it would also not be to make a point about salvation.
2. God gave Moses the special mercy of showing Moses His glory because He was pleased with him. Nevertheless His statement to Moses in v19: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and have compassion on whom I have compassion” is to explain to Moses that even though He is pleased with him, showing him this particular mercy (revealing His glory) it is not owed. God chooses to give it to Moses purely out of grace.
3. Jacob, like Moses, received special favor from God when he “prevailed with God and was called Israel”. However the grace Jacob received, like that Moses receives here in Exodus, was still dependent upon God and not upon works.
5. Therefore in Romans 9, what Paul is saying is that God doesn’t owe the Jews salvation, just as He did not owe either Jacob or Moses special favor.
6. So Paul’s argument in Romans 9 is that God doesn’t owe salvation to the Jews by virtue of birth or works, and therefore the election spoken of here is conditioned upon being “in Christ”.
7. To be a recipient of the mercy of salvation, or to be found in Christ, is based on our “acceptance of the cross", and so salvation is conditioned upon our action of "accepting the cross".
I believe this is your argument, and now will give you my answer to it.
Although Exodus 33 is not in itself about salvation, Paul quotes Exodus 33:19 as part of an argument that deals with (in part) God’s purpose of election. The topic of God's election of certain people is part of Paul's larger argument as to why the word of God to the Israelites has not failed (Romans 9:6). What does Paul mean when he says that the word of God to the Israelites has not failed?
In verses 1-5 of Romans 9, Paul begins by saying that Israel was the blessed recipient of “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” of God and that “from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever”. Israel, in other words, had all the natural advantages any nation could hope to have, in terms of receiving favor from God. Even so, many in Israel rejected Christ when He came, not recognizing Him as the promised Messiah, and were continuing to reject Him. This fact causes Paul “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart (v2). He wishes that somehow (if it were possible) he himself could be cut off from Christ and accursed, if then his Israelite brothers in the flesh might not remain separated from Christ (v3). But then he goes on to say that despite the fact that many in Israel are not being saved because they reject Christ, nevertheless "it is not as though the word of God has failed" (v6). Since in Romans 1-8 Paul has enumerated the great promises in store for the believer through faith, it is crucial for Paul to show that God's word/promises have not failed with His chosen nation and people Israel. For if His word to Israel had failed, there might be grounds to think that also the great promises of complete redemption that God is working out for His elect may also fail.
So Paul explains that the reason the word of God to Israel has not failed is because it is not the children of the flesh (those physically descended from Israel) who are counted as God’s offspring, but the spiritual "children of the promise". In other words, it was always God’s purpose to save, not every single person within the entire nation of Israel according to the flesh, but only those whom God called (chose), to become "children of the promise" in a spiritual sense.
Going back to Moses in Exodus 33. If you are saying that sometimes individuals please God and thus receive special favor with God, I agree. This seems to be exactly the case in Exodus 33- that Moses receives special favor because he pleased God. But then you state that God’s declaration "I will have mercy..." is God’s explanation to Moses of why He is showing him this special grace. It’s as God is communicating, “I am pleased with you Moses... and that’s why I am revealing to you my glory...BUT... don’t get the idea that I OWE you this mercy, because I have the right to dispense this mercy to whom I wish.”
Your interpretation of what God is communicating here is contradictory. Either God was pleased with Moses and that’s why He showed Moses His glory, or else, He just had mercy on Moses and decided to show him His glory.
But the real blow to this contradictory argument-- that Moses received mercy because he pleased God and yet that the mercy was not owed to him-- is that when Paul quotes Exodus 33:19 in Romans 9, he does not explain the quote by saying "this is God showing mercy to Moses and therefore we receive mercy in this same way". In fact, Paul doesn't bring up Moses at all. Why? Paul is not quoting Exodus 33:19 to show something about how God was relating to Moses in that particular episode of biblical history. Rather, Paul is focusing upon God’s statement concerning Himself ("I will have mercy and whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion") to give evidence that God is the sovereign Lord, and that His having mercy on whom He has mercy and compassion on whom He will is an important demonstration of this lordship, revealing also God's sovereignty and His glory.
What's in a Name?
God previously revealed to Moses His name as “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14), and in so doing revealed something to humanity about His nature. One of the things this name seems to show is that He has always existed. As an infinite being, even the form of His name is different from human names, which refer to finite beings.
Now here again in Exodus 33:19, God is revealing something important about His nature. He is revealing His glory to Moses, in part, through the very act of declaring this name: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion”. This name declares that it is God's glory-- part of what defines Him as God-- to bestow mercy or compassion as He pleases, because He is Lord and thus acts according to His own counsel. The implication of this revelation is that He is completely uninfluenced in the making of such determinations by anything outside of Himself.
So in what manner is Paul saying that God had compassion on Jacob? The choosing of Jacob is an example of "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy". It was God's sovereign determination, made not because of Jacob’s works, since Jacob was not yet born and thus had no works to commend him to God when God sovereignly chose to have mercy on him. Paul makes this point even more clear-- that God choosing Jacob is an act of pure divine mercy-- when he goes on to say that the choice is not dependent on "human will or exertion", but issues from the mercy of God (Romans 9:16).
Given the above, it is not because He is “pleased” with Jacob that Jacob receives special favor. It is because God is God that He has the divine right, not only to choose Jacob over Esau, but also, to harden others, such as Pharaoh.
I agree with your statements then, that God owes salvation to no one by virtue of birth or works. This is precisely why salvation comes to all by God’s sovereign, unconditional choice of particular individuals to receive His mercy, extended to us through the Cross of Jesus Christ. We cannot cause ourselves to be born into this salvation, and we also cannot perform any works that will earn this salvation. For this reason I disagree with your statement that our “acceptance of the cross” is the ultimate factor in getting us saved, since your argument is that this act of acceptance is caused by something within us, rather than by God. This view logically makes man, and not God, sovereign in his own election. But God is sovereign in election, because if sovereign at all, He must be sovereign over all. For as we have seen in Romans 9, salvation is totally of God's mercy--- some are chosen for it, and salvation happens to those who are chosen for it. It is not, because of a decision of "human will or exertion"(Rom 9:16) that we are born again, but we are "born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God"(John 1:13).
You have claimed that being found in Christ (or being "in Him"), as a result of election, is conditional. I will address this issue in the next post. But if Romans 9 is teaching unconditional election, it does not make sense to conclude that to be found "in Christ" is conditional. Again, Jacob did not meet conditions at the time he was elected by God, for he was chosen by God before his birth, apart from any works he could perform. Yet some argue that the election spoken of in Romans 9 is not of individuals to salvation. In the next section, we examine this point.
Is Election in Romans 9 Individual?
Matt Perman has written an excellent analysis of Romans 9 that examines the question "Is Individual Election to Salvation Taught in Romans Nine?"
Rather than try to reproduce his analysis here, I will quote his summary, which gives his reasons for why Romans 9 is about unconditional, individual election.
"Let us sum up the main evidence that Paul is teaching individual election to salvation throughout this whole chapter. In verses 1-5, Paul raised a problem that makes it look as if God's word has failed. But God's word has not failed, and Paul writes the rest of the chapter (vv. 6-24ff.) to explain why. Since the problem Paul is addressing concerns the eternal destinies of individuals, the solution Paul gives must also involve the eternal destinies of individuals. Therefore, we are justified in interpreting all of the references to predestination in this chapter as applying to individuals and their eternal destinies.
The specific flow of Paul's argument is this. In verses 1-5, he raises a problem. God has made promises to Israel that appear to guarantee its salvation. But the reality is that many individual Jews are not saved. Therefore it appears as if God's word has failed. In verses 6-13, we find the solution to this problem: not everybody who is a physical Jew is a true Jew. The true Jews are the "children of promise"--those whom God chooses to save. The examples of Isaac and Jacob are used by Paul to establish this the ongoing principle by which God chooses who will be a member of the true Israel. It is to the true Jews that the guarantee of salvation belongs, not physical Jews, and God makes sure that they (the true Israel) all get saved. Therefore God's word has not failed.
But this raised the objection of verse 14, which Paul answered in verses 15-18. In the course of answering this objection, Paul taught unconditional election even more clearly. But in doing so, Paul anticipates yet another objection (v. 19) which he answers in verses 20-24. Paul's flow of argument is woven very tightly, and it cannot be denied that individual election to salvation is the main theme running throughout the whole passage. One of the many reasons for this is that verses 6-24ff. are all centered around addressing, in one way or another, the problem from verses 1-5 of individual Jews being eternally lost. Therefore corporate election to historical role interpretation argues against the context of Romans 9:1-29ff.
With such clear evidence that this chapter is dealing with the eternal destinies of individuals, let us quickly review the many places in this passage where Paul teaches unconditional election--that is, predestination. First, Isaac was chosen unconditionally by God. All Christians are children of promise like him, and therefore all Christians are chosen unconditionally (vv. 7-9). Second, the case of Jacob and Esau illustrates that God chooses who is saved before they are born, before they have done anything good or bad, that His decision is not based upon any foreknowledge of their faith or works, and that God's choice cannot fail because it is dependent upon His own will, not our will (vv. 10-13). Third, God "will have mercy on whom He will have mercy" (v. 15). Fourth, election does not depend upon human will or effort, but God (v. 16). Fifth, the example of Pharaoh illustrates that God chooses who will not be saved (v. 17). Sixth, this means that "God has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires" (v. 18). Because of this, God's will is always done (v. 19). Seventh, God exercises His sovereign rights as creator to make vessels of honorable use and vessels of common use (v. 21). Eight, these vessels are chosen out of the same lump, and therefore had not distinguished themselves on their own (such as by believing) (v. 21). Ninth, verse 22 again reiterates the point that God prepares vessels of wrath, and (tenth) verse 23 reiterates the point that God prepares vessels of mercy. Eleventh, God selects these vessels of mercy by His own will out of Jews and Gentiles (v. 24). And because of Paul's flow of argument, there is no denying that this all applies to individual election to salvation. Verses 25-29 also teach predestination in several ways, but we have ended our study here.
Conclusion: Romans 9 teaches an election to salvation in Christ that is both unconditional and individual.
Why is one's understanding of election important?
Why is it important to understand that election is unconditional and individual? If we believe, as Arminians propose, that election is the result of God looking ahead via His omniscient foreknowledge to see who will choose Him and persevere in Him, we make God's choice of particular people contingent upon their choice/faith in Him. This makes election a reward or an obligation that is given in response to foreseen faith. This is not the gospel of grace. Election in this view is not God independently choosing us; rather, we are choosing Him and He is merely ratifying the choice by calling "elect" those who have chosen Him. Again, this makes man, not God, sovereign in election, and dishonors God by diminishing His sovereignty.
Such a view also leaves a pocket for pride in the human heart. Since the choice to believe is supposedly made by the sinner independently, the one who chooses to believe and respond positively to the gospel offer has proven himself more "worthy" of salvation, with all its attendant blessings, than the one who rejects the gospel. Of course, such an exalted view of man is unjustified by Scripture.
So we find that there are extremely important implications for how we see ourselves in relation to God's sovereignty, for how we preach the gospel, and what the gospel itself is, that are tied together with one's view of how God's election works. Do we believe that the gospel is given by grace alone and by God alone to unworthy sinners, or do we exalt man by saying that he makes himself worthy to receive the gospel by his act of faith? Do we believe that in election God has a purpose that He will sovereignly accomplish and which nothing can thwart, or are His omnipotent hands tied up, so to speak, by the decisions of His own creatures?
In part 2, I will continue responding to objections to unconditional election by relating the doctrine back to the teaching on total depravity/inability, which cannot be escaped when speaking on the manner in which human beings are chosen by God. For the doctrine of total depravity/inability helps us see man rightly in relationship to God.
I will also try to show that it is for the very reason that God has a purpose in election that He chooses the elect and supplies all the means of grace by which His purpose is accomplished in them and through them. Further objections to the doctrine of unconditional election will also be covered in this next post, or if necessary, a subsequent one.