“Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, God chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race.” This statement found in Point 1, Article 7 of the Canons of Dort is the source of concern for some, with a common objection being that if this is true, the world would be divided into two categories: the elect and the non-elect. Placing oneself as one of the elect would seem to be an act of arrogance (“You must think you are so special because you are one of the elect”). The fact that the Canons of Dort cite Romans 8:30 and Ephesians 1:4-6 in the discussion of election here shows that the idea of “election” has a biblical basis, but there are some who would define it differently than what is found in the Canons of Dort (remember, the Canons of Dort were written to refute various ideas and teachings that were causing division and confusion in the churches of the Netherlands).
Other Explanations and Problems with Them
One of the most common alternative explanations of what is meant by election is that God elected to save those who have faith in Christ — it was not choosing individuals but rather a condition that would then lead to salvation. A variation of this statement that I have often encountered (and to be completely honest, I once believed) was that God chose to save people based on them choosing Him; He could foresee their faith, and thus chose to save them. The Canons of Dort, however, reject that view because salvation would then be conditional on some merit in us, contradicting the idea of being saved by God’s grace. If God saves us because of something in us, then it is not by grace but by rather by some form of merit. (The Apostle Paul counters this idea well in Romans 11:6: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace”.) If we are saved by grace, then it can’t be because of something in us. Article 7 of Point 1 of the Canons of Dort makes it clear that there is nothing in those whom God chooses that causes God to choose them: “Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery.” The rejection of errors that follows Main Point 1 includes some Scriptures that make it clear that we are not chosen based on any works or merit in ourselves: “God called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of works, but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Timothy 1:9; also see John 15:16 and 1 John 4:10 that are cited in that section). Basically, all are sinners and under God’s wrath unless he intervenes, giving faith – which is the gift of God (see Ephesians 2:4-9, also cited in the rejection of errors).
Article 9 makes this idea even more clear, explicitly ruling out the idea of election based on obedience or foreseen faith: “This same election took place, not on the basis of foreseen faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, or of any other good quality and disposition, as though it were based on a prerequisite cause or condition in the person to be chosen, but rather for the purpose of faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, and so on. Accordingly, election is the source of every saving good. Faith, holiness, and the other saving gifts, and at last eternal life itself, flow forth from election as its fruits and effects. As the apostle says, ‘He chose us’ (not because we were, but) ‘so that we should be holy and blameless before him in love’ (Eph. 1:4).” In addition to ruling out election based on foreseen faith, these words make clear that we obey not to be elected, but because God has elected to save us. The purpose of God’s election was not so that we would not go to hell but that we might become holy and blameless. Election leads to a life of faith and holiness.
Explaining Why and the Limits of Our Knowledge
That explanation of election, however, still leaves open the question of why only certain people are chosen, and why these people in particular. Article 10 of Main Point 1 gives what I think we might feel is not a complete answer, but the only answer we have: “But the cause of this undeserved election is exclusively the good pleasure of God. This does not involve God’s choosing certain human qualities or actions from among all those possible as a condition of salvation, but rather involves adopting certain particular persons from among the common mass of sinners as God’s own possession. As Scripture says, “When the children were not yet born, and had done nothing either good or bad…she (Rebecca) was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’ (Rom. 9:11-13). Also, ‘All who were appointed for eternal life believed’ (Acts 13:48).”
It is God’s will to save some from sin and misery, and we don’t know why these in particular were chosen, other than that God did this according to His good pleasure. It does not seem like we should further try to understand the reasoning.
The Canons also do not tell us to figure out who is elected and who is not; that is not for us to judge. We are called to proclaim the gospel, as the elect come to faith through the proclamation of the gospel (remember Article 3 of Point 1 discussed in the last post). The sign of election is faith, so if you have it, you should believe that it came from God and that it means God has saved you. The doctrine of election should lead to great humility in this truth — God does not save you because you would be a good addition to His team or because you are smarter or scrappier than the rest of people. In fact, the doctrine of salvation on foreseen faith, as the Remonstrants taught, leaves that possibility open – “I chose God and you did not, so I must be better than you.”
More Objections to Election
Another objection is that the doctrine of election means that people will do whatever they want because they are “elect” and nothing can change that. The next articles in Point 1 of the Canons of Dort deal with this issue, and we will talk about this in the next post.
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