TheoThought 300

David W. Hegg


Election and Free Will



Introduction: The doctrine of Election, flowing as it does from the biblical teaching of predestination, often hits our minds and hearts like a sledgehammer. It offends our western, democratic sensibilities. Since birth we have been taught that we “are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights” and to think that any of them have been violated by that Creator has, for some, been unthinkable. They reject the very idea of predestination and election out of hand in favor of any of a number of other views thought to do justice to biblical data.


Chief among the problems thought to spell the death of election as a doctrine is the idea that it makes free will impossible for humanity in regards to “choosing” to follow Christ. How can a person make a “free choice” if, in fact, that choice was already “predestined” by God? Doesn’t that make salvation something God foists on us apart from our compliance? And if so, doesn’t that mean we don’t have free will?


But this can’t be true for everywhere Scripture calls upon us to act in obedience to the call of God on our lives. We are to choose to follow Christ. We are told that all who “received him” (John 1:12) were given the power to become sons of God.


So what are we to think? This lesson attempts to set both election and free will in proper biblical perspective so that we can rest in the truth of God’s sovereign, unconditional elective purpose while recognizing the reality and innate accountability that falls to us as free moral agents.


1. What is Election?


A. Definition: Unconditional Election


Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology): Election is an act of God before creation in which he chooses some people to be saved, not on account of any foreseen merit in them, but only because of his sovereign good pleasure.


Michael Bird: (Evangelical Theology): God elects people to salvation not because of any quality that makes them worthy, nor because God knows in advance who will choose him. God elects out of his own free decision to give salvation to some who do not deserve it.


Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter III):

I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;[1] yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin,[2] nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.[3]


II. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions;[4] yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.[5]


III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels[6] are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.[7]


IV. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.[8]


V. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory,[9] out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto;[10] and all to the praise of His glorious grace.[11]


VI. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto.[12] Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ,[13] are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified,[14] and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation.[15] Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.[16]


B. Scripture


1) Of Israel as a Nation:


There is no question that God “called” Israel to be his people out of all the other nations under heaven. In this we see that God’s calling was unconditional. God did not call Israel because of anything in her, but because of his own sovereign purpose:


Deut. 10.14 Behold,  to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens,  the earth with all that is in it.  15 Yet  the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.


Psa. 33.12   Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has  chosen as his heritage!


Amos 3.2     “You only have I known (called, chosen) of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.


Ezek. 16.1-7 (and following)   Again the word of the LORD came to me:  2  “Son of man,  make known to Jerusalem her abominations,  3 and say, Thus says the Lord GOD to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an  Amorite and your mother a  Hittite.  4 And as for your birth,  on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths.  5 No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you,  but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred,  on the day that you were born. 6   “And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing  in your blood, I said to you  in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you  in your blood, ‘Live!’  7  I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall  and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet  you were naked and bare.


2) Of New Covenant Believers


When we come to the New Testament we find that “not all Israel were descended from Israel” (see below: Romans 9:6). That is, God’s “choosing” of Israel in a national sense was not election unto eternal salvation (see below: Matt. 22.14 below).


While all Israel were “called” not all were regenerate. But, the situation in the New Covenant community (the church) is much different. Here, all who are called end up justified and glorified (see below: Romans 8:28-30).


Rom. 9.6   But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,


Matt. 22.14 For many are  called, but few are  chosen.”


Romans 8:28-30: And we know that for those who love God all things work together  for good,  for  those who are called according to his purpose.  29 For those whom he  foreknew he also  predestined  to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be  the firstborn among many brothers.  30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also  glorified.


C. Other Scripture:


Rom. 9.11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of  him who calls—  12 she was told,  “The older will serve the younger.”  13 As it is written,  “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”


Eph. 1.3    Blessed be  the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing  in the heavenly places,  4  even as he  chose us in him  before the foundation of the world, that we should be  holy and blameless before him. In love


Col. 3.12    Put on then, as  God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,  compassionate hearts,  kindness,  humility, meekness, and patience,


1Th. 1.4 For we know,  brothers  loved by God,  that he has chosen you,


1Pet. 1.1  Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,   To those who are elect exiles of  the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,  2 according to  the foreknowledge of God the Father,  in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and  for sprinkling with his blood:   May  grace and  peace be multiplied to you.


D. Notice: Romans 8:28-30:


1) Foreknew: Some have suggested that God’s elective choice unto salvation is predicated (conditioned) on the foreseen faith of those who believe. That is, God looks down through time to see who will respond (of their own “free will”) and then, on the basis of their faith, chooses them for salvation.



• Paul here is speaking about foreknowledge of persons, not facts about those persons.

  (“whom he foreknew). It is widely recognized that the word “know” (of which foreknew is a form) can be used in the Bible in terms of “intimate relationship” rather than mere cognition. In this text, Paul is not saying that God was cognizant of people, but rather that he had, through his sovereign choice, determined to make them an object of his love.


It is obvious that using this verse to teach “conditional election” will require not only a different understanding of “foreknew” but also a new thought (the person’s “belief) to be added to the text.


Additionally, if we continue through the verse we find that all who are foreknown end up glorified. Thus, whatever “foreknew” means, it cannot mean mere cognition, for technically, God “knows” all things already. Here it must mean something more.


2) Other Texts where “know, foreknowledge” are found:


Gen. 4.1   Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten  a man with the help of the LORD.”


Amos 3.2     “You only have I known   of all the families of the earth;    therefore I will punish you   for all your iniquities.


Acts 2.23 this Jesus, delivered up according to  the definite plan and  foreknowledge of God,  you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.


3) Last Thoughts on Foreknew:


Lastly, the idea that God elects on the basis of foreseen faith really doesn’t solve the problem for those who won’t accept unconditional election for these reasons:


1) Their view would place the final element necessary to salvation outside the sovereignty of God, which would in effect mean he wasn’t sovereign at all.


2) Their view would mean that those who gained salvation did so as a result of something they did (believed).


3) Their view still makes salvation determined since, even before someone is born, this view believes their eternal destiny is already set.


Summary: Foreknew: It is obvious that “know” and its forms can be used in Scripture to describe a relationship that goes far beyond cognition, to describe intimate relationship.


It can also be seen, especially in Acts 2:23, that what was “foreknown” was not something that became part of God’s plan as a result of his “looking into the future to see what would happen in human history.” Certainly, the death of Jesus Christ was not “conditioned” on the acts of the people of his day, but rather was a predetermined part of the redemptive plan from all eternity.


In essence, what God “knows” is determined. What God foreknows is determined before it ever happens.


4) The Rest of Romans 8:28-30


It is important here to understand Paul’s train of thought. In vs. 18 Paul begins encouraging the readers concerning the future they will enjoy. Like all creation, all believers are now living in a broken state. But, the hope we have is that one day God will fully redeem both creation and “the sons of God.” This is the hope that carries us, that allows us to smile through the circumstances of life (see: vs. 24,25).


Until Jesus accomplishes the full redemption of both creation and us, we have the encouragement that the Spirit is helping our weaknesses. He intercedes for us, and we can trust his work in and for us.


We also need to know that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This is the crux of the text! Paul is not saying “every circumstance in your life is going to be good for you in a temporal sense.” He is saying “your hope of an eternal inheritance is not in jeopardy in this broken world simply because God is using everything, not to hurt you, but to bring you into conformity with Christ!”


Vs. 29 is the final proof that God can be trusted to bring his children safely through the circumstances of this world to their final reward and eternal inheritance. It is here that Paul puts forward the “golden chain” of salvation. Note the equality of the 6 “groups” of people:


Those he foreknew = those he predestined = those conformed to the image of Christ.

These = those he called = those he justified = those he glorified!


There is no leakage here! All those “foreknown” will absolutely end up glorified. Paul is so sure of this that he puts it all in the past tense.


(For further information on various other theories of election, along with Scriptural and logical discussions of their weaknesses, see: Grudem, Systematic Theology, pg. 674-684)


So … if God has already chose who will be saved, how in the world can we still say we have a say in it? How can we say we have “free will?”



2. What is Free Will?


Do we have free will? If God exercises providential control over everything, and nothing is outside his sovereignty then can we really say we are more than robots?


The first place in history that this debate occurred in the area of theology was between Augustine and Pelagius. Augustine said “grant us the ability to do what you command O God.” Pelagious countered “if God tells us what we ought to do, that means we have the ability to do it.”


Therein lies the great question: Does “ought” mean “ability?”


The answers here will depend on large part of the definitions we give to the word “free.” In the normal conversations of life we will all agree that we decided to wear what we have on today freely. That is, not under compulsion. No one dressed us, or threatened us bodily harm unless we dressed as they asked.


But in another sense, we would have to say that, due to pervasive depravity humans are not the master of their own will for they are born with an inclination toward sin.


So, before we can actually answer the major question before us we must look at some definitions:


A. Definitions:


1) Libertine Free Will


Simply put, libertine free will teaches that nothing in the nature of man inhibits his choice. Each person is fully able to perform something other than they chose to do if they had chose to do so. Nothing is predetermined by any influence or outside source including prior circumstances, desires, or even our affections. All our choices are free from any restraint either internal or external. All those holding this view consider that only this kind of moral freedom is compatible with moral accountability. We can only be accountable if we are able to fulfill the demands asked of us. Responsibility always means we could have done otherwise.


• Incompatiblism: This is the term used by those holding to libertine free will that describes their view that free will and sovereignty are incompatible. That is, they argue for what is known as “limited sovereignty.” This is a classic Arminian position in which God’s sovereignty is “self-limited” in a mysterious way that is undisclosed in Scripture but that allows for humanity’s “will” to hold a space in the universe that is free from the influence of God’s sovereignty.




2) Middle Knowledge (Molinism)


This view is never said to be argued on the basis of Scripture simply because it is a philosophical argument to which Scripture does not speak. The view is attributed to a 16th century Jesuit, Luis de Molina, and is based on the theory that God’s knowledge is made up of “three logical moments.” These are natural knowledge, middle knowledge, and free knowledge.


1. Natural Knowledge – This is God’s knowledge of all necessary and all possible truths. In this “moment” God knows every possible combination of causes and effects. He also knows all the truths of logic and all moral truths.


2. Middle Knowledge – This is God’s knowledge of what a free creature would do in any given circumstance. This knowledge is knowledge of what philosophers call counterfactuals.


3. Free Knowledge – This is God’s knowledge of what He decided to create. God’s free knowledge is His knowledge of the actual world as it is.


(Taken from:


This theory basically says God is the perfect chess player. He knows all he intends to do, as well as every possible move, and also what it will take to get free moral agents to choose to do what he had determined needs to be done.


Molinism grants God sovereignty while positing that he brings about his sovereign will without directly determining the actions of free moral agents.


There are several problems with this view, but the primary one is that it cannot be built on God’s Word, and must add to the things God has revealed about himself.


3) Free moral agency


A third view defines “freedom” in terms of human choice and action. A person is free to the degree that his/her actions are the result of their own choice. “Freedom” is the ability to do what one chooses to do.


Simply put, if my action flows from my own analysis and choice based on that analysis, then my action was free and not done under compulsion.


This view teaches that there is no such thing as libertine free will. None of our actions – except reactions – are uninfluenced. Everything we do is influenced by our past experiences, our desires, and a host of other influences. Chief among these influences is our nature.


This view teaches that we are all free but only within the bounds of our nature. Martin Luther’s book The Bondage of the Will took this view. His point was that all of the choices available to us as sinners are “bound” by our nature. This does not mean we could not choose to do “good” things on the human scale. Rather, it means we cannot do anything that God will consider meritorious. We are not free to bring ourselves to God or to in anyway repair the breech between God and man that sin has created.


So, if my action is a result of my own choice, then I am free in that action, and thus, accountable.


This view holds to the absolute sovereignty of God in all things, and as well, the free moral agency of everyone on the basis that, within the bounds of our nature, we can carry out the choices we make.


The key here is to understand that God can and does cause us as free moral agents to act according to his sovereign will. Yet, in doing so, he never diminishes our experience of analyzing, determining, choosing and acting. In this way, we can say God’s sovereignty and our freedom are compatible.


• Compatibilism: The belief that God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom are compatible. This is based on the clear teaching of Scripture that God is sovereign, and man is responsible. It is also necessary here to understand that man’s accountability is based on God’s status as creator and law giver, and not on man’s ability to keep God’s law:


Note: An example: Everyone is responsible to keep the law of God perfectly. To fail to do so is to sin and reap sin’s wages of death. Yet, neither Adam nor any of his posterity had the ability to keep the law! Our accountability to God is based on his position as our Creator and law giver, and not on our ability to live up to his standards.


B. Scripture


God’s Sovereignty


Eph. 1.11   In him we have obtained  an inheritance,  having been predestined  according to the purpose of him who works all things according to  the counsel of his will,


Psa. 115.3   Our God is in the heavens;    he does all that he pleases.


Dan. 4.34    At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and  my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored  him who lives forever,    for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,   and  his kingdom endures from generation to generation;

35   all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,   and  he does according to his will among the host of heaven   and among the inhabitants of the earth;    and none can stay his hand   or  say to him, “What have you done?”


Man’s Responsibility


Acts 2.23 this Jesus,   delivered up according to  the definite plan and  foreknowledge of God,  you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.


Acts 4.27   for truly in this city there were gathered together against your  holy servant Jesus,  whom you anointed, both  Herod and  Pontius Pilate, along  with the Gentiles and  the peoples of Israel,  28  to do whatever your hand and  your plan had predestined to take place.


4. Conclusions


As humans, our actions are free to the extent that they flow from our own choices. The fact that our choices are all influenced by past experiences, desires, affections, emotions, and other forces in no way renders them not free. Influence does not equal compulsion.


Thus, if God in his sovereignty can influence our actions so that everything that happens aligns with his eternal plan, and do so in a way that does not alter our experience of analysis, choice, and action, then it is right for us to say God is both sovereign, and we are free moral agents, fully free and fully accountable for our actions.










Systematic Theology; Wayne Grudem; pg. 330,331; 669-684


The Christian Faith; Michael Horton; pg 566-572; 978, 979


Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God; J. I. Packer


Chosen for Life; Sam Storms


Chosen by God; R. C. Sproul


The Bondage of the Will; Martin Luther


The Freedom of the Will; Jonathan Edwards


Hard to Believe; John MacArthur


Willing to Believe; R. C. Sproul


The Bondage and Liberation of the Will; John Calvin