During the American Civil War, the Union general, Ulysses S. Grant, received a nickname, Unconditional Surrender Grant, based on his unwillingness to negotiate terms of surrender with the enemy. The idea of something being “unconditional” is found in Reformed theology in association with the doctrine of election. God’s sovereign election might be a better term.
Unconditional election does not mean that God will save people whether or not they repent of sin, and believe in Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour. There are conditions which God decrees for salvation. There are decrees for justification. The doctrine of unconditional election addresses a different topic. It asks specific questions. “On what basis has God elected certain people for salvation?” “Is election based upon some foreseen response, or activity on the part of the sinner?”
If election is based on God coming into knowledge based on what He foresees will be the response of the sinner to the gospel, then, not only is His sovereignty eliminated, but election is conditional. The condition of election is foreseen faith.
In contrast, unconditional election states that there is no foreseen action, or condition met on the part of the sinner, prior to election. Election is base exclusively on the sovereign choice of God to have mercy on whom He will have mercy. God is not induced to save anyone. “And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; 11 (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) 12 It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. 13 As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Rom. 9:10).
The case of Esau and Jacob illustrates the doctrine of unconditional election. The decision that Jacob should be preferred over Esau was not based on anything other than God’s sovereignty choice. The decision of God was not based on anything they did, or would do. Nor was the decision made upon some foreseen choice.
Paul uses the story of Esau and Jacob to teach that the purposes of God shall stand. What God purposes, not what man decides, is the teaching of the passage. Election does not rest upon man, but upon the sovereign grace of God.
Is this not unfair, and even unrighteous? “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid” (Rom. 9:14). The answer is, “No.” God is not unrighteous when He exercises His sovereignty. God is under no obligation to save anyone. That He does save a person is an expression of His great grace and mercy. Salvation rests upon the grace of God, not just heavily, but totally.
As objectionable as the doctrine of election is to many, the honest Christian is required to believe, and teach others, what the Bible says is true, and not what the human heart wants to be true. It does not change the teaching of Romans 9 to suggest that Paul is really talking about two nations, represented by Esau and Jacob, because nations are made up of individuals. If nations are to be saved, individuals are to be saved, and the argument comes full circle.
Paul anticipated the objection to his teaching on the sovereign grace of God. His answer, “God forbid that such a thought would be entertained.” If Paul was trying to teach a doctrine of election based on Pelagianism, or Semi-Pelagianism, whereby, in the final analysis, the will of man was the determining factor in salvation, why would anyone object? That is exactly what individuals want to believe. People want to believe that God is for every person believing, the devil is against any person believing the gospel, and man casts the deciding vote.
Why would Paul raise the question about God being fair, or righteous, if he was teaching the Arminian point of view? The very fact that Paul raises the point of an objection against election, strengthens his argument that salvation is of the Lord. Election is based upon the sovereign grace of God.
Following the objection to God’s sovereignty, Paul continues to amplify his argument.“For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 16 So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy. 17 For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. 18 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom. 9:15-18).
Notice the movement of time in the passage. Paul has spoken about Esau and Jacob, roughly 2000 years before Christ, and then he speaks of what God said to Moses, who lived about 1400 years before Christ. The point is that the spiritual truth God revealed in one generation, He revealed in another generation. The sovereign electing work of God reflected in the life of Jacob (c. 1950 BC), is confirmed to Moses (c. 1450 BC). Paul is reminding people, what God had declared centuries before. Namely, it is God’s divine right to execute executive clemency when, and where, He so chooses.
If God is not pleased to elect one person, does that person receive less justice than that person deserves? The answer is, “No.” God will never be unjust to anyone. A governor has the power to stop an execution, and show clemency, and mercy. Or, he has the right, and power, to let an execution proceed forward without violating justice.
Esau did not get the blessing, but then, he did not deserve the blessing in the first place. God showed Esau no injustice. Jacob did not deserve the blessing, and yet he got it, for God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. With that in mind, Paul comes to a conclusion. “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Rom. 9:16).
One would think that when the Scripture declares that election is “not of him that willeth”, the discussion over Pelagianism, or Arminianism, would end. However, the heart is stubborn, and the debate continues. Yes, election is based upon will. Yes, election is based upon free will. However, the free will belongs to the sovereign God that sheweth mercy. Election is according to the good pleasure of His will. “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Eph. 1:5).
There is a purpose to election and that purpose is to display the power of God in order for His name, and His glory, to be manifested throughout the earth. “For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. 18 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom. 9:17).
If the question is asked, “Why am I one of the elect of God, and my friend is not?”, the only answer is this. “I am saved, not because of some condition I met, or some foreseen faith I exercised. I am saved by grace alone, that I might show forth the power of God, and that His name might be declared throughout the earth.”
If election is based upon foreseen faith, if election is based upon merit, then grace is no longer grace. The conversation would turn to a wise decision having been made, a good work performed, or a fortuitous act of faith exercised. If the Bible teaches anything, it teaches that salvation is of the Lord.
There is a way for a person to discern whether or not they are one of God’s elect. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. “And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). The focal point in the doctrine of election is on grace. All attention given to man is diverted to God, who has the sovereign and eternal right, to have mercy on whom He will have mercy.