Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Unconditional": The Ambiguous Word

I’ve discussed the word “unconditional” at the blog a lot within this past week. Taking the Contemporary Theology class on Molinism this past week put me face-to-face with the phrase “unconditional election.” As you all know, Dr. Ken Keathley advocates this view of election in his book, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach” (see pages 153-154 of the book).

In today’s post, I will not be quoting from Dr. Keathley, but instead, from John Piper, one of the foremost “consistent” Calvinists today. This is a portion of what Piper had to say regarding Romans 9:

“Verse 8 says it again: "It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants." In other words, not all the physical descendants of Abraham are the beneficiaries of the covenant promises. Who then is? And here Paul goes right to the bottom of the explanation. He says, The beneficiaries of the promise are the children of promise. But, we ask, who are these? What are the conditions they must meet to be the "children of promise"?
Paul’s answer to this in verse 11, with the illustrations of Jacob and Esau, confronts us with the ultimate sovereignty of God in choosing who the beneficiaries of the promise will be. In referring to Jacob (who became the heir) and Esau (who did not) Paul says: "for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad [there’s the unconditionality, and here’s the reason for it], so that God's purpose according to election would stand [there’s the explanation deeper than human conditions - God’s sovereign purpose], not because of works but because of Him who calls [notice: he did not contrast works with faith, but with "Him who calls" - not even faith is in view here as a condition], Rebecca was told, "The older will serve the younger."

Romans 9 is one of the most controversial chapters in not just all of the book of Romans, but all of Scripture itself. Verses 10-12 are gonna be the focus of this post:

And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 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 HIS CALL---she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger’” (Romans 9:10-12, English Standard Version).

Notice above that Piper states (regarding the twins who “had done nothing good or bad”) that “there’s the unconditionality.” What he means by this is that it wasn’t because of anything that they had done. But then, we see these “deeds” more specifically classified in the following words: “In order that God’s purpose of election might continue, NOT BECAUSE OF WORKS BUT BECAUSE OF HIS CALL...” (v.11) In this, we see that election is according to the call of God, not works. And this is why God foretold that Esau would serve Jacob: because God declared Jacob to be the one to inherit the promises, not Esau. God did this freely, of His own choosing. There was nothing that made Him choose Jacob over Esau: He did it of His own volition and good pleasure.

James White gives a definition of “unconditionality” in his debate with Dave Hunt:

“Unconditional election is simply the recognition of the biblical teaching that GOD IS FREE IN THE MATTER OF SALVATION. He chooses to exercise mercy and grace toward undeserving creatures solely on the basis of ‘the good pleasure of His will’ (Ephesians 1:5). There is nothing in the creature that merits, earns, or attracts His favor. His election is unconditional in that IT IS BASED SOLELY ON HIS PURPOSE AND HIS PLEASURE AND NOT IN ANYTHING WHATSOEVER IN THE CREATURE” (James White, “Debating Calvinism: Five Points, Two Views.” Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2004, pages 91-92).

Classical Arminians would agree with Piper and White’s statements above: we believe that God is free in the matter of salvation. He is free to do whatever seems good to Him. Like White, we also affirm that “there is nothing in the creature that merits, earns, or attracts His favor.” None of His creation is deserving of His goodness and kindness in Christ. It is not based on anything in humans that “makes” them worthy of salvation.

However, here’s where things get more nuanced. Let’s continue with Piper’s analysis regarding Romans 9:10-12. In Romans 9:11, with the words “not because of works but because of his call,” Piper writes:

“[notice: he did not contrast works with faith, but with "Him who calls" - not even faith is in view here as a condition]”

Now we see what Piper means by “unconditionality”---neither works NOR FAITH is what is meant here. While I agree that we are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:8-9), I do not agree that election comes WITHOUT FAITH! Piper is betrayed by his own interpretation when one arrives at the end of Romans 9:

“What shall we say then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a RIGHTEOUSNESS THAT IS BY FAITH; but that Israel...did not succeed in reaching that law [of righteousness]. Why? BECAUSE THEY DID NOT PURSUE IT BY FAITH, BUT AS IF IT WERE BASED ON WORKS” (Rom. 9:30-32, ESV).

The issue with the Jews is not that they have not been unconditionally elected, but rather, that they have failed to do things God’s way--- they have not adhered to “the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27).

One thing I’ve learned about the importance of sound exegesis is to always match up an interpretation of one passage with the immediate context (preceding and following chapters), books of the Bible, Testaments (Old and New), and all of Scripture itself. If we follow this rule with regards to Piper’s interpretation of Romans 9, we see that his interpretation is incorrect. I showed you above that vv. 30-32 of the same chapter (Rom. 9) testify to faith as the condition of salvation, which explains why the Gentiles have obtained it and the Jews have not. In chapter 10, Paul makes it clear that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES” (Rom. 10:4). Romans 10:9 is the “law of faith” of Romans 3:27. Romans 10:13 references Joel 2:32; 10:16 references Isaiah 53:1, which is an Old Testament evidence of the condition of faith. In Romans 11, Paul warns the Gentiles about their boasting and tells them, “they were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast THROUGH FAITH” (Rom. 11:20, ESV). The issue for Paul, at least, was the condition of faith.

I could go on about Romans 9-11, and I could discuss the roll call of faith in Hebrews 11 (which shows that faith was required in the Old Testament even as far back as Abel, Genesis 4); however, I will digress.

What I wanted to show in this post is that “unconditional” election is against the biblical message. Why is it that the immediate context of Romans 9 (chapters 10 and 11) concerns the condition of faith, IF Piper’s interpretation of Romans 9 is correct? Piper and other fellow Calvinists have their reasons for arguing unconditional election: One of them concerns “the graciousness of grace.” But that’s a good post that I will save for another time...


The Seeking Disciple said...

I look forward to that post. God bless you for your studies of His word.

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...


Thanks so much. It's coming soon. At this point, my next direction will involve some study of the Doctrine of Election (some of which I've already been doing)and the Doctrine of the Atonement. Keep praying and keep reading...