Why Calvinists Really Believe in Unconditional Election

by J. Matthew Pinson

Often my Calvinist friends say that the reason they are Calvinists is because of total depravity—that the entire Calvinistic system flows from total depravity, because there is no way to rescue people from their total depravity except by complete regeneration prior to faith, which necessitates unconditional election. Many Arminians over the centuries, of course, have bought into this line of reasoning and have jettisoned the doctrine of total depravity.

I contend, though, that it is not really the doctrine of total depravity that causes Calvinists to be Calvinists. To result in the Calvinistic system, Calvinists must add something to total depravity to demand unconditional election. What they add is sovereign and particular grace (“sovereign,” of course, by their definition of it).

Human beings are naturally unable to desire God or salvation; they can do so only through divine grace. On this much Calvinists and Reformed Arminians agree. But Calvinism interprets divine grace in such a way as to necessitate unconditional election: First, for Calvinists, divine grace presupposes a deterministic view of divine sovereignty, and second, God extends this grace only to the particular few because of His good pleasure and His secret will, which He has not revealed.

Therefore, despite the desire of many Calvinists to say that Arminians do not really believe that natural man is unable to desire God on His own, the real difference is that Reformed Arminians believe that God’s grace reaches out to all people, not merely a select few. Furthermore, Arminians believe that God has arranged His universe in such a way that His sovereignty allows for the genuine freedom of His creatures.

Before continuing this discussion of election, it will be helpful to define what theologians typically mean by words like predestination, election, and reprobation. It is helpful to think of election and reprobation as subsets of divine predestination. Predestination is simply God’s predetermination of the destiny of human beings. Election is His gracious choice of people to be His for eternity, while reprobation is His decree that the non-elect will be eternally separated from him. On this Calvinists and Arminians agree. It is the question of how people come to be elect or reprobate that causes the disagreement.

In other words, why does God predestine certain people to be His for eternity (election) and predestine others to be separated from Himself for eternity (reprobation)? This brings us to the “U” in the TULIP: Unconditional Election. Calvinists believe in unconditional election, and Arminians believe in conditional election. According to Calvinists, God predestines people to faith without any conditions. His reasons for choosing these people and passing over others are known only to Him. It is a part of His secret will, as distinguished from His revealed will in Holy Scripture.

Calvinists differ on whether reprobation is conditional or unconditional. Single reprobationists believe that, while God unconditionally chooses His elect for salvation, He conditionally reprobates the rest of humanity on account of their sin. This of course makes little sense to Arminians, who think that, if God’s redemptive decisions are conditional, then His decisions regarding human judgment would be conditional as well, and vice versa. Thus, many Arminians believe that double predestination is the more consistent Calvinist position. This seems to have been the position of John Calvin (though Calvinists disagree on whether his position was single or double predestination).

Calvin wrote, in Book 3, ch. 22 of his Institutes: “Those whom God passes over, he condemns; and this he does for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines for his own children” [1]. Later he asked, “Whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many people, together with their infant offspring in eternal death, unless it so pleased God” [2]. Thus, for Calvin, the good pleasure of God, and that alone, is the reason for divine reprobation.

For Arminians, both reprobation and election are conditioned on whether or not, in God’s foreknowledge, one is in union with Christ. If God foreknows one as in union with His Son through faith, then God elects that person to be one of His people for eternity. If God does not so foreknow one, He reprobates that person on the basis of unbelief.

I contend that the reason Calvinists believe in unconditional election is not their view of total depravity. Unconditional election is just one way God could use to save people who are totally depraved. The reason Calvinists resort to the doctrine of unconditional election is their view of God’s sovereignty. Consistent Calvinists would agree with Calvin’s statement that the reason why “Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many people, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death” is simply that “it so pleased God” [3].

Another way of saying this is that this is the best of all possible worlds. In the Arminian view, there are contingencies in the universe. In other words, because God gives human beings the gift of freedom, events can transpire in a way God does not want them to transpire. Even our common experiences in the world of seeing people—including Christians—openly disobey God seems to confirm this belief. For the Arminian, something has gone terribly wrong in the world. It is not the best of all possible worlds. But it was the world that God chose to create because He chose to create free, rational creatures—creatures who would not love and serve Him simply because it could not be otherwise.

Classical Calvinists, on the contrary, believe that God foreordained all of reality. For example, Jerome Zanchius stated that “All beings whatever, from the highest angel to the meanest reptile, and from the meanest reptile to the minutest atom, are the objects of God’s eternal decrees” [4]. August Toplady said concerning the sparrow that God’s “all-wise providence hath before appointed what bough it shall pitch on, what grains it shall pick up, where it shall lodge, and where it shall build; on what it shall live, and when it shall die” [5].

God foreordains every detail of reality, according to Classical Calvinism. Things are just as God pleased to foreordain them. The sole actor is God, and to say that human beings can freely choose a course of action, and could have chosen an alternate course of action, is to make man the measure of all things and to detract from God as sole actor in the universe.

This, not total depravity, is the reason unconditional election is necessary in the Calvinistic system. It is what led Herman Bavinck to say, “The final answer to the question why a thing is and why it is as it must ever remain, is ‘God willed it,’ according to his absolute sovereignty” [6]. If this approach to divine sovereignty were true, then A. A. Hodge’s statement would naturally follow: “A conditional decree would subvert the sovereignty of God and make him . . . dependent upon the uncontrollable actions of his own creatures” [7] (emphasis added). That, not total depravity, is the reason Calvinism necessitates the doctrine of unconditional election.



[1] Book 3, ch. 22 of his Institutes, 947.

[2] 955

[3] Institutes, 3.23.7.

[4] The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted (New York: George Lindsay, 1811), 114.

[5] The Works of Augustus Toplady (London: J. J. Chidley, 1841), 664.

[6] The Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, repr. 1977), 371.

[7] Outlines of Theology (London: Thomas Nelson, 1863), 172.