The 3rd Rail: Unconditional Election is Not Restrictive

KH LogoBy Ken Hamrick

See all the posts in the series, ‘The 3rd Rail’

The posts in this series are not in any particular order; but it may be helpful, before reading this one, to read the following posts: “The 3rd Rail: Inability of the Will is Never Literal,” and, “The 3rd Rail: The Fallacy of a Restrictive Foreknowledge.”

As we have seen in previous posts in this series, God’s knowledge of all events from outside of time does not in any way restrict man’s freedom to freely act—that, in fact, we retroactively write God’s foreknowledge with every decision we make. Many may balk at this because it sounds so foreign to our linear, temporal thinking; but we cannot expect a timeless God to interact with our world in ways that we comfortably understand. If we dare to ask tough questions, then we ought not to be satisfied with pat answers, but should strive beyond comfort to glimpse the truth, even if it be unexpected. But this is not to say that God is not in control. Middlers affirm that God determines the destinies of men—we simply deny that He does this against or in spite of their free will.

Part of the clarity offered by the middle is that of a more immanent grace—a full, two-sided compatibilism[1] wherein God works out His plan through the free will of men. When the inability of the sinful will is properly seen as figurative rather than absolute, with unwillingness, rather than inability, as the impediment to be overcome by grace, then divine persuasion (by means of influences toward God) can be seen as working to some degree in every man’s life. This leaves all men responsible for their own destruction, while God remains in control of the ultimate outcomes.

God knows exactly the amount and kinds of influence needed to bring any man to surrender in genuine faith in Christ. No man is too hard for God, and the influence needed differs between men. Ultimately, it is God who decides whether to provide exactly that level of influence that He knows will succeed, or to allow a level that will fall short. But either way, it is men who freely decide to reject or embrace God.

Unbelief is the manifestation of spiritual rebellion, and is a sin for which men are accountable. In Gen. 50:20, Joseph told his brothers who sold him into slavery, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” What men intend for evil, God uses for His good. But that same God “will render to each one according to his works…” (Rom. 2:6 ESV). They are accountable due to the freedom by which they choose to sin.

While sinners cannot escape their nature and avoid sin all together, the fact that men frequently resist temptation (whether in response to the threat of civil justice, the threat of social ostracism, the result of good parental upbringing, or the convictions of conscience) proves that sin in any particular moment is not without the possibility of choosing otherwise.

Sinners cannot escape the ramifications of the better path not taken, as it hangs over them as a judgment. It was not God who put them on the wrong path but their own sinfulness. Even nonelect sinners would have been saved if they had but been willing to lay down their rebellious unbelief and embrace Christ.

Every man has been graciously given at least a minimum of revelation of the truth of God’s existence (Rom. 1:18-23;—and many have been given much more), so any nonelect man who might choose to believe would have only God’s grace to credit for his conversion (and if he did not yet have the gospel, God would send a missionary as He did for Cornelius in Acts 10). And since it is impossible to get behind, beneath, or prior to God’s foreknowledge and plan, any nonelect sinner who might choose to believe would be included in God’s elect from eternity past.

In the same way, believers can take no ease in the fact that God will only save those whom He has already elected. There are many who perish for lack of a little more influence—such as one more witness or presentation of the gospel that would have been enough to bring them to their knees in repentant faith. There will be many who could have been reached and might have been converted but were not, because the laborers were few. Jesus said, in Luke 10:2 ESV, “And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

We know from history and experience that when the gospel comes to a people, country or land, people are converted to Christ. To be sure, our faith is always a minority; but time and again, when the gospel is preached, there are those who believe. Conversely, we also know that where the gospel does not yet reach, no one believes or is saved. Are we so naïve as to think that no one ever perished except those who would not have believed even if they had heard the gospel?—that no one who would have believed if they had been given more reasons ever perished without that needed influence?

Jesus denounced some unbelieving cities in His day because Sodom, Tyre and Sidon would have repented and believed if they had seen His works:

Matt. 11:21-24 ESV
21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Just as the people of the destroyed cities will condemn those cities that saw Jesus’ works and still did not believe, we can expect that there will be many who perish but would have believed if they had benefitted from the same amount of influences toward God as others received. God is indeed in control; but never in such a way as to absolve men of their sin, their unbelief, or their failures—not even when it comes to believers. If there are any problems in putting these two together, they are merely problems in our understanding of the mystery of God’s ways; but mystery is no disproof of the proposition. Had it not been for the sin of the race in Adam, all men would have been in righteous relationship with God; and that sin of Adam has far-reaching effects, even among the household of God.

The urgency of proclaiming the gospel must come from more than a mere desire to obey the Great Commission. The true urgency of the gospel entails an understanding that men’s lives really do hang in the balance—that men will perish or be saved based in large part on our efforts to reach them with the gospel in word, in witness and in example. An important component of the urgency of the gospel is the implication that God’s unconditional election in eternity past is not a limitation on whom may be saved as a result of our efforts, but a mysterious correlation to how much labor we are willing to apply to the fields that are “white with harvest.”

[1] The compatibilism of Baptist Centrists is a true compatibilism that acknowledges the freedom of men to “choose otherwise” while maintaining the certainty that men will only choose in accordance with God’s plan. Primarily, compatibilism speaks of determinism being compatible with free will. Because Calvinists limit the idea to the “one-way” direction of being free to do only what one desires, the compatibilism that they typically claim is one-sided and not the full compatibilism of a full freedom to do otherwise—it retains the language of compatibilism while eliminating much of its substance.

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