Unconditional Election: Answering the Charge of Arbitrariness

Arbitrary means what exactly? Well like any word there are various nuances in how a word might be interpreted depending upon the context. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, arbitrary is defined as:

  1. Depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by law
  2. A) not restrained or limited in the exercise or power: ruling by absolute authority… B) marked by or resulting from the unrestrained and often tyrannical exercise of power
  3. A) based on or determined by the individual preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something…B) existing or coming about seemingly at random or by chance or as a capricious and unreasonable act of the will.[i]

So, the first use of arbitrary is seen as a decision not based upon an objective standard, but a subjective one. That is relative to the individual’s presuppositions.

The second use of arbitrary is tied to authority. An absolute authority is an arbiter[ii] that exercises their authority in an either righteous or unrighteous (i.e. tyrannical) manner.

The third use of arbitrary is similar to the first. In this sense arbitrary decisions are made without proper warrant or justification. Therefore, they are identified as random or determined by chance; not based on good reasoning but a whim.

Not an exciting way to start a post, I know, but I thought it necessary in order to properly address my subject matter for today. The charge is often laid at the feet of Reformed (a.k.a. Calvinism) thought that the doctrine they teach regarding unconditional election (God’s choice in salvation) is, if true, arbitrary. “God just arbitrarily picks this person over that person.” I guess like a lottery?

At this point, Roger Olson offers some sound advice, “The most common root of confusion in theology is misunderstanding terms. Theological discourse is fraught with such confusion.”[iii]  Therefore, it seems prudent on my part to define what Reformed Christians mean by “unconditional election,” and ask the following probing question of the accuser: “So, in what way is God being arbitrary if He unconditionally elects a people to be His own via adoption in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit?”

Unconditional Election taught from Reformed Thought

  • “The doctrine of election declares that God, before the foundation of the world, chose certain individuals from among the fallen members of Adam’s race to be the objects of His undeserved favor…His eternal choice of particular sinners for salvation was not based upon any foreseen act or response on the part of those selected, but was based solely on His own good pleasure and sovereign will. Thus, election was not determined by, or conditioned upon, anything that men would do, but resulted entirely from God’s self-determined purpose.”[iv]
  • “Often the term election is used as a synonym for predestination. Technically this is incorrect. The term election refers specifically to one aspect of divine predestination: God’s choosing of certain individuals to be saved…The term unconditional simply means ‘with no conditions attached,’ either foreseen or otherwise.”[v]
  • “Many controvert all the positions which we have laid down, especially the gratuitous election of believers, which, however, cannot be overthrown. For they commonly imagine that God distinguishes between men [people] according to the merits [choice] which he foresees that each individual is to have, giving the adoption of sons to those whom he foreknows will not be unworthy of his grace, and dooming those to destruction whose dispositions he perceives will be prone to mischief and wickedness. Thus by interposing foreknowledge as a veil, they not only obscure election, but pretend to give it a different origin…[However,] the truth of God is here too certain to be shaken, too clear to be overborne by human authority. Others who are neither versed in Scripture, nor entitled to any weight, assail sound doctrine with a petulance and improbity which it is impossible to tolerate. Because God of his mere good pleasure electing some passes by others, they raise a plea against him. But if the fact is certain, what can they gain by quarreling with God? We teach nothing but what experience proves to be true, viz., that God has always been at liberty to bestow his grace on whom he would.”[vi]

Therefore, unconditional election in Reformed thought means that no condition in the creature prompted God the Creator to choose one person from another. The condition for election (i.e. choosing) is not found in the individual, but in God.

Now you may not agree with this conclusion, and you may find fault with any number of writers who hold to it, but you should know that such teaching is not a “rabbit drawn from a hat.” No slight of hand has occurred here, where learned men are seeking to mislead others. Reformed Christians throughout the ages have believed this doctrine in light of what the Scriptures teach.

A Quick Purvey of Paul’s Argument for Unconditional Election

Paul taught in the epistle to the Romans that “the gospel… [of Jesus Christ] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1.16).[vii] However, this raised questions in his time because a great number of the Jews, who had the Bible as opposed to the rest of the heathen world, did not believe. No doubt this caused some confusion with his audience. For if the Jews whose Scriptures foretold the Messiah’s coming, were rejecting their said Messiah, then perhaps God was not able to save His people.

Paul’s response to this charge (concern or questioning) is found in Romans 9, where he tells his audience that “it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom 9.6). Nor are they all “children [of God] because they are Abraham’s descendants…” (Rom 9.7a). In other words, “Do not become alarmed because so many are rejecting the gospel from Israel, for the unbelieving are not really children of God.”

I can see that raising some eyebrows, but that is what the apostle is saying. “Well, then who are the children of God?” you ask. Paul says that the one’s “who are God’s children, [are] the children of the promise…” (Rom 9.8).

“What does that mean?” you say. Well, if you read a bit further you will see that he answers that question by identifying those who are chosen not by natural means, but by supernatural decree. The first was Isaac over Ishmael (v. 9). The second was Jacob over Esau (vv.10-13). The third was Moses (and Israel) over Pharaoh (and Egypt; v.15, 17).

Paul by the Holy Spirit gives these examples to prove two things:

  1. “So that God’s purpose according to election might stand” (Rom 9.11b)
  2. “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Rom 9.15)

“Based on what precisely?”

  • God’s purpose in election is “not from works but from the One who calls” (Rom 9.12).
  • Because God’s election “does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy…He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden” (Rom 9.16, 18).

Anticipating the cry of injustice by some of his readers, Paul writes:

  • “You will say to me, therefore, ‘Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?’ But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this? Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make form the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? And what if he did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory—on us, the ones He also called [elected], not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles” (Rom 9.19-24).

The doctrine of election is derived from Scripture, not human rationale. And according to Scripture (there are other places we could turn), God is free in choosing whom He desires to place His eternal love. His will is the deciding factor.

The Charge of Arbitrariness

What do we then say of the charge leveled against the Reformed Christian’s understanding of divine election? To whom, and in what way, is the term arbitrary being applied? In the first sense, the second sense, or the third?

Def 1?

Is God using an objective standard to choose whom He wills? Depends doesn’t it, on what you think about God? To what objective standard can God appeal; would it be just for Him to appeal? Is that standard found in the creature? No. In the Creator who is Holy and Just? Yes. There is no other standard by which God can swear by than Himself (cf. Heb 6.13), for there is none like Him; He is God alone (cf. Isa 45.18, 21). So, NOT the first sense.

Def 3?

Let’s move down to the third sense since it is so closely related to the first. Chosen by personal preference or intrinsic value? Well, obviously God—like us—has personal preferences. “Jacob I loved, Esau I hated….” What about intrinsic value? Does man have value? Yes, but only insofar as he/she is the creation of God. So, our value comes from God, not from our selves. Therefore, our value is limited to how God views us, our value is not determined by how we view ourselves (contrary to the ME-TOO movement). However, God is of great value and worth; HE alone is to be worshipped praised.

So, at first glance it appears our accusers might be on to something here, but wait…. Does God choose at random or capriciously? Well, I can see where fallen man might assume so. Certainly, Paul anticipated this from his audience, but no God does not make His choices at random. Nor does He leave things to chance, but He does choose according to the purpose of His will (Rom 9.11; cf. Eph 1.5).

So, God is not arbitrary in this sense for He makes His choice based on factors we are in the dark about (cf. Dan 2.20-22; Deut 29.29). Now if you have a problem with that. If it doesn’t satisfy your curiosity. If it doesn’t fit well with you. All I can say is “How many other things do you not understand about God or His ways, but you are left in the position to trust that “the Judge of all the earth [will] do what is just” (Gen 18.25).

Def 2?

Finally, let us look at the second sense of “arbitrary” and see if this does in fact fit with the charge against God’s unconditionally electing those whom He shall eternally save. Does God have absolute power to determine the fate of all creatures within His creation? Yes, for He is the reigning King over all creation (Psa 47.2). But is God tyrannical? No, Scripture says He alone is “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isa 6.3), and a just/righteous judge (Isa 11.1-5).

So, I suppose if one properly understood what is meant when we speak of the God of the Bible, and we were careful in how we defined our terminology, one might say that God’s election is arbitrary. In the sense that it is a demonstration of His Sovereign power, not driven by wicked tyranny, but pure justice. In this way God reserves the right to “show mercy to whom He wills, and harden those He wills” and none can lay a charge against Him.

For what can mankind say in opposition to the Lord? For He is holy, we are not; He is righteous, we are not; He is God…we are not.  Let the “one without sin cast the first stone” …Ohhh, wait a minute we can’t, because we are all sinners that have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3.23)!

Closing Remarks…

While those opposed to Reformed thought and the doctrines that have graciously been derived from the clear teaching of Scripture, may find fault, I ask who stands on the surer footing?  To be sure there is an illicit use of arbitrariness, but it is in the creature and not the Creator. To pick and choose sections of Scripture that fit within your preconceived notions, rather than to have your notions formed by Scripture is exceedingly arbitrary in the negative sense. Faith, truth faith, is an act of submissive obedience not perfect understanding on the part of the creature. For how can you possibly know the mind of God, or reason like Him?

  • “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts…my word…that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55.8-9, 11).

Christian you may have the mind of Christ (1Cor 2.16), but your knowledge is veiled to an extent (1Cor 13.12), and you can only make sense of the truth when you think like Christ from the Scripture. You may not agree with these things, but please be honest in your denial of them.


[i] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., “arbitrary,” s.v., 63.

[ii] “Arbitrary” is a derivative of arbiter, one who has the “power to decide a dispute: JUDGE…a person or agency whose judgment or opinion is considered authoritative.” (p. 63). Pretty sure the Triune God of Scripture fits this definition.

[iii] Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 15.

[iv] David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, [1963], 2004), 27. Italics added.

[v] R. C. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology: Understanding the Basics, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997), 141, 142. Italics in original.

[vi] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge, Reprint (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, [1989], 1993), 3.22.1. Italics added.

It should be noted that the use of the word “merit” here means more than a physical work, such as a sacrifice or any other good thing towards God, but also includes turning towards Christ in repentance in faith. Trusting that the Father sent the Son to die for sinners; specifically, “to save His people from their sins” (Matt 1.21). And that what Christ accomplished in the work of Christ sufficiently paid for their sin (personally as a substitute). To which the Holy Spirit works in drawing those said individuals to Jesus for eternal life. To do this is, likewise, a good thing—a spiritually motivated thing—but that motivation is not found in fallen (i.e. natural) man. Therefore, while some will say “You’re right our good works do not save us, but our faith does!” Please note that believing in (on) Christ alone is properly defined as a good work in the sense that it is a movement towards Him; as faith apart from obedience is dead. And so, Calvin’s use of “merit” applies to those who say “Well, God saw in history that I would believe, and that’s why I am elect;” an inaccurate use of the word “foreknow” as see in Rom 8:29.

[vii] All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).

Image by Gerd Altmann