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Election -- God's gracious purpose

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article with endnotes explores diverse views of the doctrine of election, including Calvinism (also called the "doctrines of grace"), within the Southern Baptist Convention. The article is reprinted from the June 2010 edition of SBC LIFE, journal of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee. The writer is Roger S. (Sing) Oldham, vice president for communications and convention relations with the Executive Committee.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Southern Baptists are a diverse people. Nowhere is this diversity more apparent than on the subject of election.

The Preamble of the Baptist Faith and Message, which is, itself, an integral and important part of the confession of faith, sets forth several parameters for what the Baptist Faith and Message seeks to accomplish. Specifically, it identifies "certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe, cherish, and with which they have been and are now closely identified." (1)

The Preamble also stipulates that the Baptist Faith and Message is not a comprehensive statement of Baptist beliefs; (2) rather, it is a consensus statement of faith. (3) As a consensus, it states those "certain" doctrines around which we can find common ground with fellow believers.

Among these "certain definite doctrines" is Article V, "God's Purpose of Grace." The wording of the Article is loosely based on the New Hampshire confession of faith (1833), as modified by J. Newton Brown in the Baptist Church Manual in 1853. (4) It has changed only slightly in the three versions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, and 2000). (5) It currently states:

"Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God's sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.

"All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation."

While Southern Baptists have stated their general agreement on this doctrine, they continue to debate the specifics of what it means and how it works. Identifying Calvinism as a "second-order" doctrine, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted that "Calvinists and Arminians may disagree concerning a number of vital and urgently important doctrines -- or, at the very least, the best way to understand and express these doctrines. Yet both can acknowledge each other as genuine Christians." (6)

As a consensus statement, the wording of Article V is general enough to point to the common ground upon which those of a more Calvinistic persuasion and those of a less Calvinistic persuasion can find general agreement for cooperation in those Kingdom ministries which draw Southern Baptists together.


"Election," the opening word of Article V, is a word that elicits strong emotional and theological passions. The related words "eklektos" (adjective), "eklegomai" (middle-voice verb), and "eklogee" (noun) are found 51 times in the New Testament. They are translated "choose" or "chosen" slightly more than half of the time and "elect" or "election" in the remaining instances. One or more of these words is found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, James, 1 Peter, 2 John, and Revelation. (7)


The first two of these words are found on the lips of Jesus 19 times in the Gospels. Seven of these are recorded in the Olivet Discourse (three in Matthew 24, four in Mark 13): "Unless the Lord limited those days, no one would survive. But He limited those days because of the elect, whom He chose" (Mark 13:20).

Perhaps the most well-known passage in the Gospels comes from the parable of the vine (John 15). In concluding this extended metaphor about true discipleship, Jesus said, "You did not choose me, but I chose you. I appointed you that you should go out and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give you" (John 15:16).

Peter referred to the scattered tribes as the "elect" of God (1 Peter 1:2), identified them as a "chosen generation" (1 Peter 2:4-9), and urged them to "make their calling and election sure" (2 Peter 1:10). James asked, "Didn't God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith?" (James 2:5). John identified the recipients of his second epistle as "the elect lady and her children" and concluded his letter by greeting the "children of her elect sister" (2 John 1, 13). The angel referenced those who attended the Lamb as the "called and elect and faithful" (Revelation 17:14).

These words occur an additional fifteen times in the epistles of Paul. Not only has God "chosen the world's foolish things to shame the wise" (1 Corinthians 1:27); He "chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4). Paul reminded Timothy of his willingness to "endure all things for the elect" (2 Timothy 2:10). Referencing the Old Testament narrative of seven thousand men who did not serve Baal (1 Kings 19:18; Romans 9:4), Paul reminded the Romans, "In the same way, then, there is also at the present time a remnant chosen by grace" (Romans 11:5).

Clearly, the word "election" is woven throughout the text of the New Testament. Though the word calls up differences of interpretation, the word itself is not a word Baptists should either fear or casually dismiss.


A review of four recent Baptist systematic theologies reveals a wide range of interpretations about election.

Millard Erickson's "Christian Theology" has been widely used as a textbook in Baptist theology classes. His book contains a chapter on predestination and election. After laying a seven-page foundation of the "historical development of the doctrine," he described "differing views" of this important biblical doctrine. Using the word "nettlesome" (8) to describe the variety of opinions about election, he concluded the chapter with his "suggested solution" -- "The position taken herein is not that those who are called must respond, but that God makes his offer so appealing that they will respond affirmatively." (9)

James Leo Garrett, longtime distinguished professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, arranged his chapter on election in three divisions: Old Testament teaching on election; New Testament teaching on election; and "systematic questions with historical and contemporary answers." (10)


He set the framework for his discussion by acknowledging that "the doctrine of election presupposes a personal God who has a saving or redemptive purpose for his human creatures and who is able to work out such a purpose for and among human beings in the created order and within history." (11) In the final section, he posed seven questions to which he gave a range of answers that demonstrate the diversity of interpretation Baptists hold on this subject.

The questions he listed included:

-- Does election necessarily imply reprobation?

-- Does election embrace all humankind, or is election limited to certain human beings?

-- Is election only a call to service, or is it also a call to be the redeemed people of God?

-- Does the doctrine of election hinder or help the proclamation of the Christian gospel to all human beings?

-- Is election primarily God's choice of certain individual human beings or of an elect people? (12)

Viewing election as "a bridge between the doctrines of the Christian life and of the church," Garret "left unresolved the thorny question as to whether election is not or is conditioned upon God's foreknowledge of human responses." (13)

Unlike the previous two authors, who expressed varying degrees of concern about the Calvinistic perspective of the doctrine of election, Wayne Grudem, who is a thorough-going Calvinist, laid out the case for his theological position in his Systematic Theology. In his Introduction, he acknowledged that one's view of the "extent of the atonement" may "fall somewhere between" a "major doctrine" and a "minor doctrine." (14) He later urged "caution" regarding making "belief in particular redemption a test of doctrinal orthodoxy." (15)

Nevertheless, embracing the "Reformed position" (16) on this and its related doctrines, (17) Grudem presented the case for the theological affirmations of what are commonly called "the doctrines of grace:" 1 -- the total depravity of humanity; 2 -- unconditional election by God; 3 -- limited atonement (an atoning death of Christ for the elect only); 4 -- irresistible grace; and 5 -- perseverance of the saints. (18)

At the same time, he emphasized that the doctrine of election was "something brought about by a personal God in relationship with personal creatures." (19) He added, "Not only do we make willing choices as real persons, but these choices are also real choices because they do affect the course of events in the world." (20)

These choices "affect our own lives and they affect the lives and destinies of others. ... The implication of this is that we certainly must preach the gospel, and that people's eternal destiny hinges on whether we proclaim the gospel or not." (21)

In a massive missive, Kenneth Keathley, dean of graduate studies and professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, contributed the chapter on salvation in "A Theology for the Church." (22)


In the opening section of his chapter, he followed Erickson's and Garrett's model by presenting an historical review of the various perspectives on the doctrine of election. He then adopted Grudem's method of laying out a logical, systematic argument for the position he espoused, what he called the "concurrent" or "congruence" perspective of election.

Arguing that "Scripture presents predestination and human freedom as twin truths in tension," Keathley contended that "the Bible teaches both that God sovereignly and unconditionally chooses to elect for salvation and that each individual person freely decides to accept or reject Jesus Christ as Savior." (23)

In contrast to Grudem's conclusions, Keathley asserted five corollaries of the Congruence model of election: 1 -- "salvation is a sovereign act of God from beginning to end;" 2 -- "God desires the salvation of humanity;" 3 -- "God purposes the salvation of the elect but only permits the damnation of the unbeliever;" 4 -- "each person has the freedom to choose or reject salvation;" and 5 -- "election originates, is accomplished, and will be consummated in Jesus Christ." (24)

This brief review demonstrates the breadth of opinion Baptists bring to the subject of election. As Mohler noted, "these differences can become so acute that it is difficult to function together in the local congregation over such an expansive theological difference." (25) But, he hastened to add, "such ecclesiastical debates, while understood to be deeply important because of their biblical nature and connection to the gospel, do not constitute a ground for separation among believing Christians." (26)


At issue for Southern Baptists is this: can a theological détente be reached between those who are deeply committed to Calvinism and those who are equally committed to a non-Calvinistic perspective of election? Some say no; but our history says yes.

Pastor and author Jim Elliff introduced an illustration of a "three-legged stool." (27) His three-legged stool is summarized in a simple three-word sentence, "God saves sinners." He wrote:

"To put it so that the emphasis is not misunderstood perhaps it should be written: GOD saves sinners. Thus the Initiator of salvation is given greater visibility. He does it all. But to fail to emphasize the word 'sinners' would make the sovereignty of God seem less gracious, so we will write it: GOD saves SINNERS! Will that do? No, because the action God takes toward us is too precious and freeing to be diminished in the least. So, let us write a completely emphasized version: GOD SAVES SINNERS! Then we must underline it -- and continue to underline it without ever becoming casual or passive with the theme!"

Though Elliff wrote from the Calvinistic persuasion, this brief sentence is one Baptists of every conviction should be able to embrace. The sentence lays out three truths: 1 -- God, as the subject of the sentence, takes the initiative in our salvation; 2 -- as the direct object of the verb, sinners are recipients of the action God takes; and, 3 -- the active verb "saves" demonstrates that our salvation is not something we do for ourselves; it is what He does on our behalf.


Paul's personal testimony of conversion affirms and personalizes these three simple, interwoven truths: "'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners' -- and I am the worst of them" (1 Timothy 1:15). They are the heart of the testimonies of countless saints of God. And, they are the soul of the consensus statement in Article V. I am deeply moved each time I read the eloquent words of this article:

"Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God's sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility."

Through His loving favor and gracious mercy, God has done for the sinner what no sinner can do for himself. Paul said it so clearly -- "But God, who is abundant in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses and sins. By grace you are saved!" (Ephesians 2:4-5)


As a natural corollary to our salvation in Christ, the second paragraph of Article V points to the security of the believer.

"All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation."

In John 10, Jesus described what theologian/teacher Roy Beaman called the "double divine grip" of eternal security. (28) Jesus said, "My sheep hear My voice, I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish -- ever! No one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all. No one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one" (John 10:27-30).

An evangelist spoke of a father and son approaching a busy intersection. In my own mind, I go back to numerous instances when, as a boy, my dad and I approached the busy intersection near our home. My dad would always say, "Here, son, take my hand." I would reach up to clutch his hand, only to find and feel that he had already reached down to grip my hand tightly in his.

That which the Lord initiates, He completes (Philippians 1:6). Though the human heart is "prone to wander," (29) the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit is both the "down payment" ("earnest," KJV or "guarantee," NIV) and the "seal" of the believer's redemption (Ephesians 1:13-14; 2 Corinthians 1:22). He assures the believer that the Lord will never leave nor forsake His own (Deuteronomy 31:6-8; Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5).


Though the word election calls up a variety of perspectives on the nature of human responsibility and divine sovereignty, the word itself points to the fact of the believer's "blessed assurance." Hymn writer Fanny Crosby said it well, "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of His spirit, washed in His blood." (30)


Since differences over the doctrine of election can lead to "wrongful argumentativeness and divisiveness among God's people," (31) it is a doctrine that is feared by some and avoided by others. One should approach the study of this subject with a spirit of humility toward oneself and Christian charity toward those who may hold different perspectives.

Biblically understood, it brings great comfort to the believer that God is always in control, no matter one's circumstances, and that our salvation ultimately depends on Him, not us. It gives assurance to the human heart that we are "protected by God's power through faith" (1 Peter 1:5). It thrusts the believer into the mission field of this fallen world.

Above all else, it creates a sense of awe and wonder at God's infinite wisdom and matchless grace. The Just One has redeemed the unjust unto Himself -- for time and eternity!

1. Baptist Faith and Message Preamble, p. 6.

2. Preamble, p. 5, #3: "That we do not regard them as complete statements of our faith, having any quality of finality or infallibility."

3. Preamble, p. 4, #1: "That they constitute a consensus of opinion of some Baptist body, large or small, for the general instruction and guidance of our own people and others concerning those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us. They are not intended to add anything to the simple conditions of salvation revealed in the New Testament, viz., repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord."

4. William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, pp. 360-361.

5. For a comparative reading, see

6. R. Albert Mohler, "The Pastor as Theologian," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Danny Akin, p. 931.

7. A personal word count from George Wigram, The Englishman's Greek Concordance of the New Testament, s.v., "eklegomai," "eklektos," and "eklogee," pp. 228-229.

8. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 924.

9. Ibid., p. 927.

10. James Leo Garrett, Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, volume 2, pp. 432-454.

11. Ibid, p. 433.

12. Ibid., pp. 442-454.

13. Ibid, p. 454.

14. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 30.

15. Ibid., pp. 601-603.

16. Ibid., p. 600.

17. Ibid., pp. 596-603; 674-684.

18. While Grudem does not lay out these classical statements in a single chapter, he addressed his affirmation of each of these statements in different sections of his book as follows: total depravity, p. 497 (and see footnote 13); unconditional election (pp. 674-679); limited atonement (pp. 594-603); irresistible grace (p. 700); and perseverance of the saints (pp. 788-809).


19. Ibid., p. 674.

20. Ibid., p. 675.

21. Ibid.

22. Kenneth Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Danny Akin, pp. 686-764.

23. Keathley, p. 718.

24. Keathley, p. 722.

25. Mohler, p. 931.

26. Ibid.

27. Jim Elliff, "A Three-legged Stool: All Sides of God's Salvation Process,", as of May 15, 2010.

28. Classroom discussion, Th.D. seminar in Systematic Theology, MABTS, spring 1983.

29. Robert Robinson, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," Baptist Hymnal, 2008 edition, Hymn #98, stanza 3.

30. Fanny Crosby, "Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine," Baptist Hymnal, 2008 edition, Hymn #446, stanza 1.

31. Grudem, p. 603.

Roger S. (Sing) Oldham is a member of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., the SBC Executive Committee vice president for Convention Relations, and executive editor of SBC LIFE.

Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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