The issue of election is quite the hot topic. It is fiercely debated within denominations, across denominations, and even across religions. One objection I commonly hear is that election means God is arbitrary. The argument often goes something like this:
“If election means that God ultimately decides who will be saved, then God is arbitrary. Because God is not arbitrary, election cannot mean that God ultimately decides who will be saved.”
Notice that my understanding of election is rejected because the objector believes it makes God arbitrary. One of the most critical tasks in debate is understanding terminology, so let’s first determine what the word “arbitrary” means. Dictionary.com offers four definitions of “arbitrary”:
- subject to individual will or judgment without restriction; contingent solely upon one’s discretion: an arbitrary decision.
- decided by a judge or arbiter rather than by a law or statute.
- having unlimited power; uncontrolled or unrestricted by law; despotic; tyrannical: an arbitrary government.
- capricious; unreasonable; unsupported: an arbitrary demand for payment.
Now, you may all ready be working through in your mind, “Well, God could be this one, but He’s not that one,” which brings us to the next critical task in debate: understanding what the objector means when he uses the word “arbitrary.” Since there are four options, we need to clarify which definition he has in mind.
The second definition speaks to the process of arbitration, which is used in America by those wanting to settle disputes outside of court. Because I assume the objection is not that election means God comes in suit and tie to resolve disputes between American individuals and businesses, I won’t address this one. Neither does the objector likely have in mind the third definition (minus the words “despotic” and “tyrannical,” which carry much different implications from the first part of the definition!) because most Christians, regardless of where they stand on election, affirm the sovereignty of God.
In my own experience, the first and fourth definitions are the ones those who raise the objection have in mind, and their argument is essentially this: election based ultimately upon God’s free choice makes election much like blindly picking marbles from a bowl. The implication is that election based ultimately upon God’s free choice means there is no reason or purpose behind God’s election of individuals.
I think Romans 9 is the clearest and most helpful passage to address the issue, so let’s get into the text.
Does Romans 9 Actually Teach the Doctrine of Election?
Christians who oppose my position on election will often argue that Paul does not affirm God’s sovereignty over election in Romans 9. Typically, they appeal to at least one of the following two arguments:
1. God chose Jacob in advance because He knew Jacob would trust Jesus (Rom. 8:29). Although Romans 9:10-13 denies this notion implicitly, Romans 9:14-18 does so explicitly. The question Paul anticipates from his readers makes it apparent that Paul knew his teaching on election would raise questions about God’s fairness. Were he attempting to argue that God’s election depends upon God’s foreknowledge that Jacob would believe in Him, why would he anticipate a question about God’s fairness? Some say that he asked the question because he wanted to address the potential misunderstanding, making it clear that God’s election is based upon foreseen faith. Rather than carefully dismissing the notion that election depends upon God’s sovereign choice, Paul answers the question of God’s fairness by saying that God will show mercy to whom He will show mercy. He even says that “it [election] depends not on man’s will or effort, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16)! It is clear, then, that election does not depend upon God’s foreknowledge of the free will choice of Jacob to trust in God, but upon God’s sovereign choice of Jacob.
2. The “what if” in Romans 9:22 indicates an honest question, not an implicit statement. Paul’s “what if?” in verse 22 is not an honest question he has, but a rhetorical device, intended to make the point that God’s election works in exactly the manner and for exactly the purposes mentioned in Rom. 9:22-23. The evidence is that the “what if?” statement is simply the clarification of the rhetorical device in the previous verses, which do not include a “what if?” statement. Rather, Paul writes, “Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Rom. 9:20-21). The question regarding the clay is clearly rhetorical, intended to highlight not the will of man in election, but the will of God in election. Romans 9:22-23, then, bring clarity to the reason for God’s election, but no more clarity to the reality of God’s election than the previous verses.
Now, consider the implications of this question if it were hypothetical. At the very least, it would reveal that Paul sees no issue in God if He prepares some for destruction in order to make known the riches of God’s glory to those prepared beforehand for mercy! In doing so, Paul addresses what I believe is often an objection behind the objection that election means God is arbitrary: God is not fair/just if He ultimately determines who He will and will not save… but more on that later.
Does Romans 9 Mean God’s Election Is Arbitrary?
- Definition 1: God’s election is arbitrary in that it is contingent solely upon His own discretion (Rom. 9:10-23).
- Definition 2: God is not an arbitrator who dresses up in suit and tie and helps American people and businesses settle their disputes outside of court. ;)
- Definition 3: God is arbitrary in that He possesses unlimited power over election (Rom. 9:14-18).
- Definition 4: God’s election is not purposeless (Rom. 9:11), but is aimed at His own glory (Rom. 9:17, 22-23).
The Objections Behind The Objection.
In my experience with people who make this objection, there is often, if not always, at least one of two common objections behind the objection:
1) God is not fair.
It’s the justice or fairness, not the arbitrariness, of election that is the issue, and Romans 9 also speaks clearly to this, though not in terms that necessarily satisfy the intellect:
- How is it just/fair for God to elect people for salvation? Because God has the right to save whoever He wants (Rom. 9:14-18).
- How is it fair for God to hold people accountable for their rebellion if they were created for that purpose? What gives people the right to question what God does (Rom. 9:19-20)?
I’ll be the first to admit that these answers aren’t easy to swallow, but they are undeniably present in Romans 9.
2) God must have foreseen something good in me.
This objection is rarely voiced, but I believe it is often held. No Christian argues that God chose Him because God knew in advance what a good person he would be. Many Christians argue that God chose them because God knew in advance that they would trust in Christ and repent of sin. The common denominator in both instances is that election is based upon some foreseen rightness in the elect, whether foreseen right behavior or foreseen right belief. In response, I’ll simply ask a question: If your election depended most ultimately upon something God foresaw in you, whether right behavior or right belief, wouldn’t that give you legitimate grounds for at least a little boasting? After all, the reason you’re elect is because of something God foresaw in you. By extension, then, the reason others are not elect is because God didn’t foresee in them the same rightness He saw in you. If I’m looking at this incorrectly, let’s talk about it. The comments are open.
A Final Word To Christians.
In the end, I am convinced that Romans 9 affirms God’s sovereignty in election (i.e., that salvation depends ultimately upon the choice of God, not the choice of man) in overwhelmingly clear fashion. As result, I believe most objections to election are not based upon textual objections, but philosophical objections, and I want to encourage caution here to myself and to all Christians: philosophical objections (e.g. that election means God is arbitrary) must never trump the clear teaching of Scripture. Otherwise, though we may claim to affirm the authority of Scripture, we functionally affirm the authority of our own independent philosophies.