The Doctrine of Election

The New Testament has fourteen references to "election" or "God's elect." Obviously, those passages refer to those who have found salvation in Christ. But thinkers like John Calvin were not at all content with such a simple explanation. Committed to the strong church-state system that had been in place for over 1000 years, and knowing that some (if not most) of their fellow countrymen were unregenerate, they faced a theological dilemma:

  1. The entire Constantinian concept of church-state identity would have to be discarded, or
  2. They would have to invent a new doctrine to patch over the problem.

Not surprisingly, they chose the second. To do otherwise would be to return Christianity to the minority faith of the powerless that it was before Constantine. So the notion of an "invisible" church sprang into being. While the "visible" church was defined by the state boundaries, those who were really saved--the "elect" of the New Testament--were members of an invisible church. Those outside of this group would come and worship alongside the invisible church--many of them displaying an outward piety that could fool even the most perceptive Christians. But God--and only God--knew who was actually included within the invisible church--the elect.


John Calvin

Passages like Rom. 8:30 caused Calvin to define the invisible church by focusing on "predestination." He reasoned that Paul must have understood election to have taken place before the creation; that God had pre-ordained some to salvation (election) and others to reprobation. Having decided the lot of all individuals in this manner, God then worked through Providence to ensure that those destined for salvation would realize their salvation and that those destined for reprobation would be blinded and hardened to the work of the Holy Spirit.

The Five Points of the "TULIP" of Calvinism
T Total Depravity. None are eligible for election based on their own merits or works (This was the one point on which all were agreed).
U Unconditional Election. Whether one's election depends on anything but God's sovereign decision.
L Limited Atonement. Whether Christ's death was sufficient to cover all or only the elect.
I Irresistible Grace. Whether God's grace in election can be resisted by the elect.
P Perseverance of the Elect. Whether it is possible for the elect to lose their elect status.

About seventy years after the last edition of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion had been published, this understanding of election started to unravel. A synod was called in the Dutch city of Dort to resolve the issue, and the five points of the "TULIP" of Calvinism (so called because of the acronym formed by the first letters of the five "points") became centers for the debate. "Five Point Calvinism," affirmed all of the five points. Because God was sovereign, His election must prevail absolutely. The logic for the TULIP is simple and logical, and goes like this:

Because all persons are totally depraved, those who are among the elect can do nothing to change their elect status, given purely through unconditional grace. Because God's predestined decisions are perfect and final, they must hold even if those who are among the elect resist their election and their election must persevere even in the event that they backslide. Furthermore, since the number of elect persons is a fixed quantity established before the foundation of the world, it is only logical that atonement would be limited to the elect.

The debate no doubt penetrated all levels of society. What, exactly, did "predestination" mean? Did it mean that history itself was pre-ordained, and that we were all doomed to walk a path in which all our decisions had been pre-made before the foundation of the world? Shakespeare wrote As You Like It during this period, and in that play we find the notion that

All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances...


Jacobus Arminius

Arguments against Calvinism centered around a professor of Calvinist theology named Arminius. Arminianism (as this position would later be called) saw the work of Christ being short changed in the Calvinism articulated by his colleagues. Even though totally depraved, some would respond to God's salvation through Christ. This allowed some room for human will (but not work--there is a big difference!). Arminius still regarded those who were so elected as being "predestined" because he understood that word to mean "foreknowledge"; God, in his sovereignty, foreknew how each individual in all history would respond to his Spirit. Unlike the pure Calvinists, Arminians insisted that Christ died for all, but that his death would only benefit those who would respond to him. Finally, the Arminians did not accept the perseverance of the saints. One would have to hold onto his faith for the remainder of his years but, of course, the ultimate outcome of this struggle was part of God's foreknowledge.

Further complicating the discussion was the question of single vs. double election; that is, whether God had made a single list of elect persons, or whether there were two lists--one of the elect and one of the damned.

Karl Barth's Doctrine of Election

Karl Barth

No discussion of Election can be complete without mentioning the seminal work of Karl Barth in the first half of the twentieth century. One might classify Barth as being in the "Arminian" camp because he felt that any good doctrine of Election had to be centered on Christ. The similarity ends there, however, because Barth focused his attention on the work of Christ rather than on Creation.

Barth saw numerous references in the Bible that identified God's messiah as the only elected one (that is, the only one identified as God's "chosen one"). See Ps. 89:3, Isa. 42:1, Lk. 9:35 and Lk. 23:55. He reasoned that God's "election" of individual humans could only be properly understood as another way to reckon those who had responded to Christ. That is, God had never elected any individuals at all, but His election of Christ allowed a way for men and women to join the elect by clinging to the elected one--that is, by being "in Christ." Eph. 1:4: "just as he chose [elected] us in Christ before the foundation of the world."

The strong point of Barth's reasoning is its emphasis on Christ as the instrument of election. But some see in Barth's full exposition an opening (that Barth himself denied) for the possibility that Christ will take upon himself all the sin of all humankind and that there will therefore be universal salvation (indeed, this is a point that makes Barth more popular among "liberal" theologians than among many evangelicals). Bernard Ramm's After Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Harper and Rowe, 1983) is an excellent response to those critics.

A House Church Witness to Election

From a home church perspective, it might be said that election is an "unnecessary" doctrine. This is because the very assumptions from which the doctrine sprang were faulty in the first place. That is, there can be no "invisible" church because the church was charged in passages like Mt. 18:15-35 to deal seriously with the possibility that back-sliding can take place within the fellowship. Indeed, one of Paul's most serious complaints against the Corinthian church was their failure to do this in 1 Cor. 5.

Christendom (the church-state establishment that sprang into existence with Constantine and which has only recently become disestablished) did not, in fairness, ignore these passages. Instead, they took them in another direction, magnifying "excommunication" as the equivalent of high treason within the church establishment. Inquisitions were born of the same stuff, along with military conquests for "Christian" purposes (crusades) and doctrines of "just war." But, rather than condemning the authors of the doctrine of election, we need to recognize these people as victims of the church-state union who wrote with biblical intent. Once we can understand their historical context, we can deal sympathetically with the distortions within the resulting doctrines.

When the house church appropriation of the New Testament witness began to make its reappearance in the sixteenth century, the "church discipline" passages of Mt. 18, 1 Cor. 5, and so on, took on a whole new interpretation. The community saw itself not as a mix of believers and unbelievers, but rather as a community of believers joining together for mutual accountability and to recreate the kind of living, Spirit endowed, Christ led fellowships that were modeled in Acts and in the New Testament letters. The "ban" (excommunication) was enforced--not by inquisitions, but by denying fellowship (it appears strongly in such early house-church confessions of faith as the Schleitheim confession of 1525). Being "in Christ" was not seen as an indicator of some kind of internal, personal, and individual appropriation of the faith, but rather as membership in the messianic community that was an outpost of the very real and very present kingdom of God.


Because Calvinism appeals to those who like to apply deductive reasoning and systematic methods to the Bible, it is enjoying a modern revival among evangelicals. Yet these same evangelicals leave their logic and reason at home when they preach repentance to the "lost" and lead the "heathen" in the "sinner's prayer" because, according to Calvinism, the distinction between salvation and damnation was predestined before the foundation of the world! Calvinists of years past, like John Gill (1696-1771), actually refused to evangelize--but, to their credit--they were at least consistent in their thinking because they realized that their Calvinism made preaching repentance to the lost impossible because God had already locked outsiders out of heaven.

Calvinism of DortArminianismHouse Church
Total Depravity YesYes Yes
Unconditional Election YesNo Salvation is in Christ
Limited Atonement YesNo Only those who are in Christ are elected
Irresistible Grace YesNo The Holy Spirit confronts all (Jn. 1:9), but grace must be received (Jn. 1:12)
perseverance of the elect YesNo The focus should be on the perseverance of God

But here at House Church Central, we are happy to please. Even though New Testament churches would have been aghast at the notion of an "invisible church" and all of the doctrine built on such a shaky foundation, home churchers can still find a way to fall under the rubric of "modified Calvinism" by finding ways to affirm the five points of the TULIP. With a little help from Barth, all one needs to do is nuance the five points a little bit, as shown in the table on the left and one can admit to being a "modified calvinist."

One way that Christians who are unable to part with their Calvinism can cope is by following in the footsteps of the famous missionary and Bible translator William Carey (1761-1834), who went to India and sparked the great mission movement of the last century. A strong Calvinist, Carey did not go abroad to convert the "heathen"; rather, he went to find God's "elect" and then to tell them about it.

As for the house church, there is a lesson to be learned from Karl Barth. Calvinism and Arminianism need to be challenged for their treatment of election as a Creation doctrine. It is very doubtful that the Hebrew thinking authors of our Bible thought about election in such a way.

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