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Unconditional election vs free will

Updated: Feb 21

In 1517, at the very inception of the Reformation the definitional issue is laid out: God is the absolutely free Creator, the Potter, who has complete sovereignty over the pots, humans, who, as fallen creatures, find their wills enslaved to sin, in bondage and unable to "cooperate" with any offered grace. The truth that God saves by Himself, by His own power on the basis of His own will, defines the message of the Reformers. Those who follow their lead are convinced that their faith is founded firmly upon the consistent interpretation of Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) and all of Scripture (Tota Scriptura).

Dr. James White, The Potter's Freedom

Terms defined

When discussing theology with friends and family, the question of free will usually pop up sooner or later. Sooner if you reveal that you are Reformed or a Calvinist. One of the most controversial doctrines of the Reformed faith is the doctrine of unconditional election: The doctrine which entails that God unconditionally elects those to receive salvation, which means that salvation does not depend on the individual person meeting certain conditions, but wholly on God.

With the doctrine of election comes the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints: The doctrine which entails that when God chooses someone to save them, He will see it through to the end. This implies that it is impossible for the elect to lose their salvation, just as it was impossible for them to obtain it by themselves and through their own doing, to begin with (this is one of the wonderful comforts that come with the fact that our salvation depends wholly on God).

In contrast to unconditional election, many Arminians or Molinists hold to a doctrine of free will and conditional election: The doctrine that God saves people who put their faith in Him via their free will (the Calvinist also believes that God saves people who put their faith in Him). Given the option to choose either for or against God, these (Arminian) Christians chose to put their faith in God as a free act. God had nothing to do with this choice, other than make it available for them (via prevenient grace).

We should note here, that the issue of free choice is not under question. The Calvinists as well as the Arminians agree that we make choices every day. The decision to put our faith in Christ is an example of a choice that each individual makes. The question lies a level deeper than this - do we have the categorical ability to make this choice?

This article will contest that the choice we make is governed by our will, and if our will is enslaved to sin, we won't make the choice to place our trust in Christ because we love sin. A supernatural regeneration is therefore needed.

For a more complete discussion of human freedom and divine sovereignty, check out this article: Calvinism, human free will, and divine sovereignty explained. Also check out more recent research we did that also relates to this very question in Calvinism examined: Does faith precede regeneration


Immediately the objection to unconditional election comes in the form of a charge of unfairness. Isn't it unfair that God doesn't give everyone an equal chance? The Arminian position does seem to hold some kind of common sense advantage, right? Before a judgement can be made on the fairness or unfairness of unconditional election, we must ensure we have all the facts.

What would have happened if God left everyone to try and find Him (put their faith in Him) on their own terms? Wouldn't that have been a better system than divine election? It is important to point out that before we can have any meaningful discussion on election and God's role in the salvation of men, we need to have a clear picture of man's current state before salvation - and this is where we should always begin when talking about the doctrine of unconditional election, as election flows from the doctrine of total depravity.

Total depravity

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines total depravity as follows:

From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions...
Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.

The Heidelberg Catechism expands further on the issue:

Can you keep [God's Law] perfectly? No, for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor...
But are we so depraved that we are completely incapable of any good and prone to all evil? Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.

Total depravity, therefore, entails that we are completely dead in our sins (hence, totally depraved) and as the Heidelberg Catechism states, we are prone by our own fallen nature to hate God and our neighbours. After the fall, this is our default state.

Now, put on your thinking caps. As it is our nature to hate God, on what basis do those who hold to the idea of free will think we will choose God out of our own doing? Secondly, on what basis would God be obligated to save any sinners even if they wanted to be saved? God is certainly under no obligation to save any sinners, on the contrary, the perfectly fair and just thing for God to do would be to send all sinners righteously to hell to endure eternal torment. That was the agreement from the beginning: God made it very clear to Adam, that eternal death would be the consequence of sin against God.

The man and the pig

The best allegory I've heard that explains the total depravity of man comes from Paul Washer. Imagine the most delicious plate of food you've ever had, and next to it, the most disgusting trash filled with thrown-out food from the past week. Now imagine we let a pig into the room. Would the pig go for the trash can, or for the plate of food? The trash can, of course. The pig loves trash. It'll knock the bin over, jump in headfirst into all the trash and eat until its stomach reaches breaking point! This is the nature of man. The plate of food is the thing of God. The trash is a metaphor for sin. Natural man, dead in sins, hates the things of God and delights in sin.

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.

Romans 3:11-12, ESV

In summary

It is should be clear from Scripture and summarised by the early catechisms and confessions that man is totally depraved, does not seek God at all by nature, but rather hates God.

  1. Man is a constituted sinner in and through his relationship with Adam (cf. Ps 51:5, Ps 58:3, Rom 5:18-19).

  2. He is, therefore, unable to do anything good. (cf. Gen 6:5, Job 15:14-16, Ps 130:3, Psa 143:2, Pro 20:9, Ecc 7:20, Isa 64:6, Jer 13:23, John 3:19, Rom 3:9-12, Jam 3:8, 1 John 1:8)

  3. To believe in God (or come to Him) (cf. John 6:44, John 6:65, John 8:43-45, John 10:26, John 12:37-41).

  4. To understand truth (cf. John 14:17. 1Cor 2:14).

  5. To seek God (Rom 3:10-11).

  6. He is dead in sins (cf. Gen 2:16-17, John 3:5-7, Eph 2:1-3, Col 2:13).

  7. He is blinded and corrupt in his heart (cf. Gen 6:5, Gen 8:21, Ecc 9:3, Jer 17:9, Mark 7:21-23, John 3:19-21, Rom 8:7-8, Eph 4:17-19, Eph 5:8).

  8. He is captive to sin and to Satan (cf. John 8:34, John 8:44, Rom 6:20, 2Tim 2:25-26, Tit 3:3, 1 John 5:19)

  9. He performs action freely* according to his nature, but his nature is wholly evil (cf. Job 14:4, Mat 7:16-18, Mat 12:33, Mark 7:21-23, Jam 1:13-14).

  10. Therefore, left to our own, no one would seek or choose God.

*An important clarification is that man does perform actions freely according to his nature, which means that in our sinful state, God does not force us to do evil. We do that automatically. The one thing we cannot do due to our nature, however, chooses God, or do good - since that would go against our nature. It's like putting a ravished lion in a cage and presenting it with a bowl of delicious fresh meat, and one of the best-made salads ever. The lion, by its nature, will always go for the meat and not for the salad. In the same way, we will always freely choose against God as is our nature. The difference between choice and free will is important here, but a subject for another article on its own. This article can be read here.

Unconditional election

Therefore a man is wholly evil in his nature, all the good works performed are not of man's own will, but he can only do good works by the grace of God. In the same way, as no one seeks God and no one is able to believe or come to God by nature, the only way for someone to be saved is if God personally intervenes in the life of the sinner and personally grants him repentance.

C.H. Spurgeon wrote the following:

Hold, for instance, that man is utterly depraved, and you draw the inference, then, that certainly if God has such a creature to deal with, salvation must come from God alone! And if from Him, the offended one, to an offending creature-then He has a right to give or withhold His mercy as He wills-you are thus forced upon election, and when you have gotten that, you have all the others [doctrines of grace] must follow.

At this point, it should not be hard to understand where the doctrine of the election comes from, from only considering passages relating to total depravity. However, the Bible speaks multitudes about unconditional election as well. Consider for example Ps 65:4, Acts 13:48, Titus 2:14, John 5:21, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, John 15:16, John 15:19, John 1:12-13, Romans 11:5-6, Ephesians 1:11, 1 Peter 2:8-9, 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5, Philippians 1:29, 1 Corinthians 1:18, John 10:26, Romans 8:28-30, Galatians 1:15-16, Colossians 3:12, Romans 9:11-12,14-18, 2 Timothy 1:9, John 17:2, Ephesians 1:4-6 and 1 Peter 1.

The Bible clearly speaks of man being unable to earn his own salvation, and that it rather depends wholly on God to grant salvation to those whom He wills. The next objection we usually receive from friends, is how can God be called just if He doesn't give everyone or anyone even, a fair chance of salvation? Why doesn't God choose everyone and save everyone?

Why not choose everyone?

To answer this question, we must first ask the question 'What is the chief end of man?' Or 'Why did God create us?' The answer given by the Westminster Catechism is as follows:

Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Tim Challies writes that while the above is not a phrase drawn directly from Scripture, the wisdom behind it surely is. The Bible tells us with great clarity that man was created in order to bring glory to God. Thus the chief end of Christians (and also non-Christians) and of the church is to bring glory to God. There is no higher calling. As John Piper has told us repeatedly in his books and teaching ministry, we do so by enjoying Him forever. "The great business of life is to glorify God by enjoying him forever."

So God's ultimate purpose in all creation is the glorification of Himself.

We can now answer the question as to why God doesn't choose everyone, or better stated, why God actually chooses some. It is always puzzling that people have no problem in accepting the sinful state of man and our guilt before God, but then in the very next sentence demand a "fair" chance at salvation. If God were to give everyone a fair chance to salvation, then God in His fairness would have to condemn everyone immediately. We all would be in hell! Therefore the correct logical flow of thinking should not be "We all stand guilty before God, so why doesn't everyone have a shot at getting to heaven" but rather "We all stand guilty before God, so why aren't we all in hell already?"

Reflecting back on the preceding thoughts, we can see that the Biblical answer to the question at hand is simply because God is under no obligation to choose everyone. Remember that we are sinners saved by grace, and grace must be dispensed freely by the Giver. If the Giver was under some sort of obligation to bestow grace on everyone, then it would no longer be grace! And also, God's ultimate purpose of creation is the glorification of Himself in all His attributes. If God were to send Jesus as atonement for everyone, then there would be no one left for Him to display His wrath and justice, leading to Him not being maximally glorified.

Important points to remember:

  1. We are all sinners and we stand under the righteous condemnation of God.

  2. God is under no obligation to show kindness to those who He can justly condemn.

  3. If God were to show kindness, He can bestow His grace as He wishes to who He wishes and He is under no obligation to do so. If He were to bestow grace on none, that would be fair. If He wished to bestow grace on some, that would be fair as well.

Is God unjust for not choosing everyone?

So is there any injustice in God not choosing everyone? Not at all. Consider again that sin came into this world through Adam acting as our federal head. The Bible then makes it clear that we all share in this sinful nature we inherited from Adam, and as a result, we all stand guilty before God.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.

Romans 5:12

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Psalm 51:5

If God were only perfectly just, then on the day of judgment, God will judge each of us according to our lives on Earth and provide us with our due penalty. So each of us will have to bear God's justice in our own lives, which will leave all of us being alienated from God having to carry our burden for our sins against Him, and then probably continuing sinning against Him in anger even after our judgment with no remorse, as is our nature. Let's call the above the default state without any grace from God's part - with everyone standing condemned having to bear their own punishment.

It should be clear that God is under no obligation to show kindness to anyone, but He is under the obligation to be just and treat everyone fairly which is happening in our above scenario. Now if God were to freely choose, as the potter, to take one person and bestow grace on that person by offering to pay for his/her sins via a substitute on the cross, that wouldn't be unfair to the people, it would be unfair toward the substitute on the cross - as He is the one without sin who doesn't deserve the punishment He is receiving.

Therefore it should be clear that there is no injustice in the doctrine of election apart from the cross one could argue, but Jesus willingly went to the cross and the Father willingly sent His Son to die as a sacrifice for His children as the ultimate display of love, mercy, grace, and faithfulness to His Word - all to the glory of His great and Holy name.

The nail in the coffin

When in a debate with our Christian friends of other denominations, the final objection we usually receive should sound alarmingly familiar. They will say to us then, "Why does [God] still find fault? For who can resist His will?" ~ How does God find fault with us if we are born in this state and by nature can do no other than sin?

Have you recognised this objection yet? If someone raises this objection against you, rest assured that you are in the right, for this is the exact objection Paul anticipated in Romans 9. Thus if the same objection is raised against you that Paul anticipated, obviously it means that your interpretation of Scripture in this instance is sound, why else would Paul anticipate the response?

Paul's answer in Romans 9 is the nail in the coffin, and also serves as inspiration for James White's brilliant book on the issue you would do well to read titled "The Potter's Freedom":

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.

Some questions to ask our friends who hold to free will

  1. If you say you have free will, free from what? Sin? God?

  2. Why do you pray for God to change someone's heart if God cannot do that without 'violating'* the person's free will?

  3. Why did you choose God and the person next to you didn't? Are you better or smarter than them?

  4. How did you manage to choose God if the Bible explicitly states that we are dead in our sins and transgressions, that no one seeks God and that no one is righteous?

  5. How can God use humans to write down His Word if He never infringes on someone's will ~ or if the will is free?

* Note, God does not 'violate' someone's will as many Arminians claim, rather God regenerates the will or restores the will. A person is not brought kicking and screaming against his will to paradise, but rather as the prophet Ezekiel states, God gives the person a new heart and opens his/her eyes so that they willingly come to God and do His will. Man's will is changed and thus the choices man makes out of this changed heart will reflect it.

Further reading

  1. 'The Potter's Freedom' by Dr James White

  2. God's sovereignty and Human Will by A.W Pink


Published by Apologetics Central

At Apologetics Central, we are committed to providing biblically grounded, Reformed presuppositional apologetics resources to equip believers in defending the Christian faith. As a ministry, we strive to uphold the truth of God's word and present it winsomely to a world in need of the gospel.


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