Unconditional (Sovereign) Election

R.C. Sproul

Upon what condition did God elect sinners to salvation? Was your positive choice for the gospel the basis for your election before the foundation of the world? Was God’s choice based on your foreseen choice? Simply put, did God choose you because you first chose Him? Would God be unfair if He chose some to salvation and not others? In this message, Dr. Sproul helps us understand this hard, yet biblical doctrine as he looks at “Unconditional Election.”

Ulysses S. Grant was the head of the Union forces in the war between the states and later became the president of the United States. During his military career, he received a nickname based upon his initials: “Unconditional Surrender Grant.” When he defeated the enemy, he would not allow for a negotiated peace that meant acquiescing to certain conditions. So, we have this concept of that which is unconditional.

In the acrostic TULIP, the U stands for “unconditional election.” It’s another one of those terms that I think can be a little bit misleading. I prefer simply to use the term sovereign election, but that totally destroys our TULIP. Not only is it now RULIP but it becomes RSLIP, and that doesn’t quite work.

The Basis of Election

What are we talking about when we use the term unconditional election? It doesn’t mean that God will save people no matter whether they come to faith or not. There are conditions that God decrees for salvation, not the least of which is putting one’s personal trust in Christ. But that is a condition for justification, and the doctrine of election is something else. It’s related to the doctrine of justification, but when we’re talking about unconditional election, we’re talking in a very narrow confine of the doctrine of election itself.

The question at this point becomes, On what basis does God elect to save certain people? Is it on the basis of some foreseen reaction, response, or activity of the elect?

Many people who have a doctrine of election or predestination look at it this way: from all eternity God looks through the corridors of time, and He knows in advance who will say yes to the offer of the gospel and who will say no. On the basis of this prior knowledge, those whom He knows will meet the condition for salvation—those who express faith in Christ—He then elects to save.

So, conditional election means that God’s electing grace is distributed by God on the basis of some foreseen condition that human beings exercise themselves. Whereas the Reformed view is called unconditional election, meaning that there is no foreseen action or condition we meet that induces God to decide to save us. Rather, election rests upon God’s sovereign decision to save whomsoever He is pleased to save.

Jacob and Esau

Now we’ll turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the ninth chapter we find a discussion of this difficult concept, where we read this: “And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, ‘The older shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated’” (Rom. 9:10–13).

In Romans 9, the Apostle Paul is giving his exposition of the doctrine of election. He dealt with it significantly in chapter 8 and now he is illustrating his teaching on the doctrine of election by going back into the past of the Jewish people and looking at the circumstances surrounding the birth of twins—Jacob and Esau.

In the ancient world, it was customary that the first-born son would receive the inheritance, the patriarchal blessing. But in the case of these twins, God reversed the process and gave the blessing not to the elder, but to the younger.

The Apostle labors the point that this decision was not with a view to anything they had done or would do. The point is that the decision was not only made before their birth, that would be manifestly obvious, but also that it was not made with a view to their doing any good or evil. Paul uses this illustration to show that the purposes of God might stand. It does not rest on us; it rests solely on the gracious, sovereign decision of God.

“How Can This Be Fair?”

As we continue, we read these words: “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!” (Rom. 9:14). Other translations read, “God forbid,” and still others, “By no means.”

I find it fascinating that Paul raises this rhetorical question immediately after setting forth his metaphor of the birth of Jacob and Esau and God’s preference for one rather than the other without a view to their works.

I remember when I was a seminary student and I was deeply struggling over the doctrine of election, as most seminary students do. There was just something that didn’t fit for me. It didn’t sit right to think that God dispenses His saving grace to some and not to others and that the reason for giving salvation to some and not to others doesn’t rest in us, but solely in the determinate grace of God. That bothered me. My initial response was: “How can this be fair that God would choose to save some and not others?”

I understood that nobody deserved salvation in the first place. I knew that if God let the whole human race perish, He would be perfectly just to do so. I also understood that the only way we could ever be saved at all is by the grace of God. But I certainly didn’t think it rested this heavily on the grace of God. I thought, “Why would God give His grace to some people in a greater measure than He would to others?” It just didn’t seem fair to me.

As I struggled with it and read Edwards and other Reformed theologians, I still wasn’t convinced. I had a little card in my desk in seminary that it said this: “You are required to believe and to preach what the Bible says is true, not what you would like it to say is the truth.” That put some restraints on me because I read this passage in Romans in every conceivable way, and I knew there were people who said: “Paul’s not really talking about the election of individuals here. He’s talking about the benefits of salvation that were given to the Jews rather than the Arabs. He’s talking about nations that are chosen not individuals.”

That didn’t persuade me for five minutes, because even if he were talking about nations, he illustrates it by the individuals who are at the head of that nation. No matter how you slice it, you’re still back to wrestling with one person receiving a blessing from God and the other person not, and you’re still back to it being based ultimately on the good pleasure of God Himself. It still seemed not right.

Anticipating Protest

I’ve written lots of books and taught lots of courses. I know that when you set a thesis forth, if you’ve done that often enough, you can anticipate the objections or questions people will immediately raise to a certain thesis.

At this point, at least, I can identify with the Apostle Paul as a teacher because, when he was setting forth this doctrine, he anticipated a response or a question. He no sooner spells out the sovereign grace that is given to Jacob over Esau than he stops and says: “What then? Is there unrighteousness in God?”

One of the things that persuaded me that the Reformers had it right with respect to election was contemplating this very question Paul raises. I thought like this: “If Paul is trying to teach a semi-Pelagian or Arminian view of election by which a person’s election is based upon that person meeting some kind of condition; if in the final analysis it’s dependent on you, what you have done, and what this person hasn’t done, who would raise any objection about that being unfair? Who would possibly raise an objection about that involving unrighteousness in God? That would seem manifestly fair.”

I am sure that people who teach Arminianism or semi-Pelagianism and articulate their views on this matter have certain questions that come to them, and they have to respond just like anybody else. But I wonder how often people protest against their teaching by saying, “That’s not fair.” I doubt they’ve ever heard that. I doubt they’ve ever heard, “Wait a minute, this means that God is unrighteous.” But the Apostle anticipates that response. And what is the teaching that engenders that response? It is the teaching that election is unconditional.

It’s when you’re teaching that election rests ultimately and exclusively on the sovereign will of God and not the performance or actions of human beings that protest arises. Paul anticipates the protest, “Is there unrighteousness in God?” He answers it with the most emphatic response he can muster in the language. I prefer the translation, “God forbid!” Then he goes on to amplify this.

Stick-Figure Justice

“For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’” (Rom. 9:15).

The Apostle is reminding people of what Moses had to declare centuries before, namely that it is God’s divine right to execute executive clemency when and where He so desires it. He says from the beginning, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” It is not, “On those who meet my conditions,” but, “Upon those whom I am pleased to bestow the benefit.”

I like to draw a picture on the blackboard of a group of stick figures. These people represent the masses of the human race. I’ll put six stick figures on the board, and I’ll put a circle around three of them and another circle around the other three. The circle on the left represents the people who receive this unspeakable gift of divine grace in election, and the circle on the right represents those who do not.

If God sovereignly chooses to bestow His grace on some sinners and withhold His grace from other sinners, is there any violation of justice in this? If we look at those on the right, who do not receive this gift, do they receive something they do not deserve? Of course not. If God allows these sinners to perish, is He treating them unjustly? Of course not. One group receives grace; the other receives justice. No one receives injustice.

God, like a governor in a state, can allow certain criminals who are guilty to have the full measure of their penalty imposed against them. But the governor also has the right to pardon, to give executive clemency as he declares. The person who receives clemency receives mercy. If the governor commutes one person’s sentence, does that mean he’s obligated to do it for everybody else? By what rule of justice? By what rule of righteousness is that so? None at all.
Paul is saying that there is no injustice in God giving grace to some and not to others because Esau didn’t deserve the blessing in the first place, and he doesn’t get the blessing. God hasn’t been unfair to Esau. Jacob didn’t deserve the blessing either, and he does get the blessing. Jacob receives blessing; Esau receives justice. Nowhere is an injustice perpetrated. Why is that?

The Good Pleasure of His Will

Paul then comes to verse 16, which is a very important verse in Romans 9. He begins it with this word: “So.” It’s kind of like the word therefore. He’s coming to a conclusion. He says, “So then, it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up that I may display my power in you and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’ Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens” (Rom. 9:16–18).

You would think that when Paul speaks as emphatically and clearly as he does when he declares, “It is not of him who wills or of him who runs,” that would end all of the debates, discussions, theories, and doctrines that make election conditional on the one who wills. Paul demolishes human will as the basis for God’s sovereign election.

The only basis I can find according to the Scripture is that, yes, salvation is based upon will. And yes, it is based upon free will. Now I’m confusing everybody. It is based upon the free will of a sovereign God who elects, as Paul teaches elsewhere, according to the good pleasure of His will (Eph. 1:5).

Salvation Is of the Lord

If you ask me why I came to faith and why I’m in the kingdom and my friends aren’t, I can only say to you, “I don’t know.” But this much I do know—it’s not something I did to deserve it. It’s not some condition that I met in my flesh. The only answer I can give is the grace of God.

You ask me, “Why does He give that grace to me and not to somebody else?” If I begin to give an answer that suggests it was something good in me that He perceived, I would no longer be talking about grace. I would be talking about some good thing I did that was the basis for God to elect me. But I don’t have anything like that to offer.

If the Bible teaches anything over and over and over again, it is that salvation is of the Lord. This is at the heart of Reformed theology. It’s not because we’re interested in the abstract question of sovereign predestination and we simply enjoy the intellectual titillation that speculation on this doctrine engenders. Rather, the focal point in this theology, as it was in the T of total depravity going back to Augustine, is grace.

The accent here removes all merit, all dependence on my righteousness for my salvation, away from me and puts the focus back where it belongs—on the unspeakable mercy and grace of God who has the sovereign, eternal right to have mercy upon whom He will have mercy. It is not of him who wills, except of the divine will. It is not of him who runs, but of God. That’s where the accent lies in the Reformed doctrine of election.