In working through my series of posts responding to Rocky Munoz’s critique of Calvinism, I’ve come to his fourth post, which is focused on the second plank of the T.U.L.I.P. acronym: Unconditional Election.
I find Munoz’s post on Unconditional Election to contain the weakest of his arguments against Reformed theology, since throughout it he continually describes the doctrine of Unconditional Election in inaccurate ways. At one point, he even confuses the Conditional Election of non-Calvinist Arminianism for a Calvinist perspective, wrongly describing it as a solution that some Calvinists have offered in their effort to avoid certain theological difficulties. I’m hoping that my response can help in pointing out and dealing with some of this confusion, as well as answering his most relevant and important objections.
What the doctrine of Unconditional Election suggests, properly stated, is this: God has not given any person the gifts of grace, faith, and salvation because he or she is at all “humble” enough or “intelligent” enough or “childlike” enough or “righteous” enough to turn to Him. Rather, since the just, default end for every rebellious sinner is damnation, God has offered mercy to some indeterminable number of people (a number which isn’t necessarily small) and will meet out justice to the rest. God did not extend this mercy to anyone on any basis other than His own wise, just, and perfect will—it had nothing whatsoever to do with their own worthiness or personal characteristics in any way, shape, or form.
On the idea of Unconditional Election and its connection with God’s justice, Munoz first offers the following story as an illustration:
“Once upon a time, there was a king who would regularly invite a peasant into his throne room. The king was good and just, and the peasant was selected at random from his kingdom. Upon entering the throne room, the peasant would find him/herself staring at the back of the throne, for the king would turn his throne around and face the other way before the peasant entered so as not to see them. The peasant would wait silently until the king made a pronouncement, either to offer them a large sum of gold and a place of prestige in society or else to have them executed. Sometimes good people would be given the gold and honor, sometimes they would die. And the same went for evil people as well.
One day, one of the king’s advisors boldly asked him, “How is it that you know so well which subjects to honor and which to behead? You do not ask me or the other advisors for guidance, you do not speak or even look upon the subject, and we cannot figure out by what criteria you make such a decision. What insight do you have into whether or not each subject is deserving of glory or destruction? Quite honestly, it seems random.”
The king answered, “The decision is based on absolutely nothing. No insight or knowledge, no merit or crime. This is why I turn my throne around before they enter, so that my choice will not be influenced by anything.”
“So, it is random,” his advisor said.
“Not random,” the king replied. “Merely unconditional. How gracious of me to offer blessings to those who don’t deserve it, don’t you think?” After all, he was a good and just king.
I hope that when you read the above story, you feel a little uneasy and dissatisfied with the king’s answer. In fact, I hope you are incredibly uneasy and dissatisfied by it. Were this a true story of a real-life ruler, I would hope that you would be incensed and upset. Why? Because despite what the story claims, the king is neither good nor just.”
I’ll start by noting that this story could more easily be used as a criticism of Islamic soteriology than Reformed Christian soteriology, since it portrays a king (clearly representative of God) who has no basis for legal decisions or justice, is inconsistent in his application of laws and rulings, and is inconsistent—or even fickle—with regard to his nature.
In fact, just as we’ve seen throughout Munoz’s previous posts from his series critiquing Calvinism, this story is a straw-man as well as a fallacy of appeal to pity. It is nonsensical to confuse the idea of “decision[s] based on absolutely nothing” or choices based on “no insight or knowledge,” as Munoz does, with what a passage like Ephesians 1 unequivocally states:
“In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (vv. 5-6)
“He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.” (vv. 9-10)
“In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.” (vv. 11-12)
To suggest that the Calvinist is teaching any choice on God’s part to be “chance” or “random” is to completely misrepresent the Reformed position. Even though I’ll touch on this in more detail later on in this post (especially Munoz’s interpretation of this passage as merely corporate in nature), it’s important to understand how Munoz is framing his argument to begin with.
Looking to the example of his own story, Munoz suggests that we view it from a perspective that holds to “true justice”:
Retributive justice holds that it would be bad to punish a wrongdoer more than she deserves, where what she deserves must be in some way proportional to the gravity of her crime. Inflicting disproportionate punishment wrongs her just as, even if not quite as much as, punishing an innocent person wrongs her.
In short, true justice means that a punishment must fit the crime. Sure, it may have been very gracious of the king in the story to give extravagant blessings to those who didn’t deserve them. That’s all good and well. But what he did in executing people who had broken no laws, that violates the principle of proportionality in the opposite direction and is therefore unjust. (emphasis mine)
What Munoz implies here is that, under Unconditional Election, God would be continually punishing people who have neither done anything wrong nor violated any set of laws.
Yet there is no Scriptural warrant provided for this claim, and neither does any view of the atonement suggest anything other than a broken relationship between man and God because of man doing something contrary to God’s will (Gen. 9:8; Romans 1:25-32, 6:23). When Scripture says that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23; cf. also Rom. 1:32), death cannot be regarded as anything other than a just punishment for sin. But it appears that any pardons which are not universal in nature, as we see in the gracious granting of salvation and repentance, are “unjust” in Munoz’s eyes.
Let us simply compare this with Paul’s statement in Ephesians:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-10)
The standard exegetical observation provided here is that the Greek word touto—translated as “that”—refers to everything in the preceding statement because it is a neuter term. Everything listed here is a gift of God that doesn’t originate with any individual: a person’s grace, a person’s salvation, and a person’s faith. And even more than this, we have a statement of purpose for those who are given such gifts, that they are “created …. for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” The gifts were ordained before we were even born, and the good works that we are to carry out were ordained before we were even born. We were chosen on only one condition, which is God’s wisdom. As a result, every Christian is in a position in which “no one may boast” because the Godhead has accomplished it all and brought everything to fruition.
Munoz continues by emphasizing the concept of justice:
“True justice, in other words, is not about returning one offense for another, but about restoration and healing what is broken.
However, even with a view of justice as restoration, the principle of proportionality is there. You restore what is broken. Attempting to restore something that is not broken does not produce more justice, and neglecting to restore what is broken fails to produce justice. In other words, action taken must be warranted by the problem at hand.”
I must confess that I don’t understood Munoz’s analogy here at all. In what sense is every person’s relationship with God not broken in some way and in need of some kind of restoration? Is the author actually suggesting that if God doesn’t reconcile every single person to Himself, but instead judges anyone, then His actions are unjust? From what Scriptural standard is this at all drawn?
Munoz provides another illustration to clarify his point:
Perhaps a deeper principle to consider when thinking of this is not proportionality, but causality. Even if we fail to respond to injustices with the correct proportion of retribution or restoration, at the very least our response ought to be in relation to the injustice at hand. Here’s an example of what I mean:
I had a friend in college who was standing outside a pizza joint. He wasn’t doing anything other than hanging out with his friends talking when suddenly a large man stumbles out of the joint. The man had been in a scuffle inside, and had just been asked (or forced) to leave. After angrily coming out of the pizza place, the man catches a glimpse of my friend and throws a wide hood straight into his face, breaking my friend’s jaw. Now, why was this unjust? Was it because the man had dealt a disproportionate consequence to my friend? Not at all. The injustice of his action was precisely because his violence toward my friend had absolutely nothing to do with my friend. Aside from the misfortune of accidentally being in the wrong place at the wrong time, my friend was entirely unrelated to the scuffle inside the pizza place. Even more fundamental than the lack of proportionality was the lack of causality.
This is precisely why the doctrine of Unconditional Election is problematic, because it ascribes injustice to God. Unconditional Election teaches that God’s unilateral decision to elect only part of humanity to be saved (remember Limited Atonement) was based on essentially nothing (hence, unconditional). Moreover, it assumes that, prior to humanity’s existence, God unilaterally acted unjustly toward humanity. God’s entire relationship with the human race is premised on an unjust disposition—choosing some to be saved and some to be damned based on absolutely no sense of proportionality or causality.
One has to wonder what parallel actually exists between a rebellious sinner at war with God, who continually chooses to disobey His commands, and an innocent fellow outside of a pizza restaurant who “wasn’t doing anything other than hanging out with his friends talking.” I’d be interested in an explanation on this point alone.
Here’s the larger problem: this illustration is not merely a critique of Unconditional Election, but also of special creation by a God who knew anything about the future to begin with. I have to wonder what Munoz’s argument actually is (he never tells us).
Had God created everything and allowed no atonement to anyone whatsoever for sin, would this have been less unjust? Or had God instead elected every single person to be saved, how would this have been more just? How are we to understand the idea of a God who has a holy, eternal law and yet could (or would) unilaterally pardon everyone who breaks it? Why, then, would the law have even existed to begin with?
I would insist—as the typical Calvinist likely would—that God judges the damned based on what they have done, and He extends mercy to others not based on what they’ve done, but based on His own perfect wisdom. Thus, for all of Munoz’s own insistence on discussing God’s supposed non-proportionality or non-causality in decisions, he never demonstrates why God was obligated to extend mercy anyway to even a single person. All that is hinted at, especially in Munoz’s parable, is that we’ve essentially done nothing wrong. Or, at least slightly more than that, we’ve done nothing that we had any ability of avoiding doing.
Compare this, however, to the Scriptural account:
“Now we know that whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be justified in His sight by works of the Law. For the Law merely brings awareness of sin.
But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, as attested by the Law and the Prophets. And this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:19-24)
Freedom to Bend Scripture
The least convincing portion of Munoz’s rebuttal pertains to the passages “which are believed to teach and support the notion that God chooses some and not others based on no conditions whatsoever.” With this, he incorrectly describes the Calvinist position from the get-go. The Reformed notion, instead, is that God chooses some and not others based on his good pleasure, wisdom, and will, but not on conditions that have anything to do with the individuals themselves.
Of course, as with any theological tradition lasting more than a week, the Calvinist doctrine of Unconditional Election has been paired with a number of passages which are believed to teach and support the notion that God chooses some and not others based on no conditions whatsoever. Understanding what Scripture actually says on this topic, however, requires a keen eye and a critical mind, since often passages will be passed off as supporting this view, even though they don’t actually pass muster.
For example, John 1:13 speaks of those “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” But what does that have to do with Unconditional Election? In the ancient world, being “born of” God (or the gods) had nothing to do with being handpicked by God (or the gods). Rather, it simply meant that you were a follower of that God (or god). In fact, you almost have to go cherrypicking specific English translations in order for the wording in this verse to fit Unconditional Election (you’ll notice that when Calvinists reference this passage to support their view, it is not an accident that they will almost always go with the CEV translation).
Munoz’s critique would be appropriate if the Reformed claim were actually that “born of” here means being “handpicked by God,” but this isn’t the Calvinist’s claim at all. Rather, the idea of being “born of God,” as Scripture relates, is connected both contextually and exegetically with regeneration by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3; Rom. 8:29; 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1-18). The only additional idea that could be inserted here by the Calvinist is that no person has ever been able to regenerate himself or herself—since, if we needed to be given a “new heart” by God, there was necessarily something deficient about the previous heart. (Obviously, this is something that will come up in our next post covering Total Depravity).
Munoz goes on:
Even if you could point to passages that support Limited Atonement (and that’s a big “if”), that doesn’t necessarily prove that this election was unconditional. So passages mentioning election, such as Mark 13:20 and Revelation 13:8 and 17:8, actually do nothing to support Unconditional Election.
And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, passages mined from Romans 9 do not actually support Calvinist theology once they are interpreted within the flow of Paul’s argument (in fact, the opposite is true).
Moreover, when we come across passages that do seem to strongly suggest a choosing on God’s part, they explicitly say that this choice was not unconditional. For example:
‘[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.’ (Eph 1:4-5)
God’s choice was according to His kind and loving will. In other words, God’s choice was not unconditional.
Again, the Calvinist position is not that God’s choice was “unconditional” in every regard, so this criticism (although it is true) is unwarranted. Rather, it is that God’s choice is not conditioned on anything pertaining to any of the individuals being chosen—not conditioned on their race, their eye color, their hand shape, their shoe size, the gravity or non-gravity of sins committed throughout their life, or anything else that could be imagined to be a positive, deciding factor. Munoz’s criticism here, then, is irrelevant to the problem at hand: the question of whether Unconditional Election, as it’s actually described by Calvinism, is Scriptural or not.
For the sake of space, I’ve chosen to break this particular point of Calvinism into two parts. My next part will focus on the solutions that Munoz proposes, as well as respond to additional misunderstandings of the Unconditional Election doctrine. I will also seek to offer further Scriptural basis for the claim that God elects some and passes over others with regard to salvation.