When I was a kid my brother and I would sometimes spend part of Saturday handing out gospel tracts in our neighborhood. We were pastor's sons and probably felt some obligation to do it (as it was something promoted in Sunday school and youth group), but I can honestly say we also felt it was our contribution to the kingdom of God.

One of our favorite tracts pictured a voting ballot. The great preacher Herschel Hobbs, known among Southern Baptists as "Mr. Baptist," preached a famous sermon based on that tract on The Baptist Hour in October 1967. His sermon was "God's Election Day," and its main point was: "The devil and God held an election to determine whether or not you would be saved or lost. The devil voted against you and God voted for you. So the vote was a tie. It is up to you to cast the deciding vote."

Without doubt that concept of the doctrine of election has become popular among Christians. After all, we Americans prize our right and freedom to vote. But is that what Scripture means by election? Is the gospel that God votes for our salvation, Satan votes against it, and we—individually, freely—cast the vote that decides our eternal destiny?

Probably not. Some biblical scholars and theologians would say, "Definitely not!" It does seem to trivialize the concept of election and especially God's sovereignty in our salvation. On the other hand, there may be some truth in this way of conceiving the issue, even if it does not do justice to the profundity of the biblical doctrine of election.

Unfortunately, the "doctrine of election" has come to be associated especially, even uniquely, with one particular branch of Christian theology—the one people know as "Reformed." It descends from the Swiss Reformation of the 16th century and most notably from the French reformer John Calvin, who lived in and spiritually led the Swiss city Geneva. Too often, "election" is identified as the distinctive doctrine of Calvinism—as if no other branch of Christianity believes in it.

In fact, it would be impossible to be a Bible-believing Christian without affirming God's electing grace and having a doctrine of election. The same could be said about predestination, often thought of as a synonym for election. The Bible is filled with references to God's choice of people, both individuals and groups. Abraham was not just "called" by God but also "chosen" or "elected" to be the father of God's "chosen people," God's elect nation of Israel (Gen. 12:1-3; Isa. 45:4). The church is the elect of God, chosen for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:5). Paul was clearly chosen by God for apostleship (Acts 9).

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It would be no stretch of truth to say that God's election of people is central to the biblical message, to the gospel. And it can safely be said that people's election is God's grace, not human achievement. Nowhere does the Bible even hint that people elect themselves.

'Touched by an Angel' Theology

That brings us back to the gospel tract and Hobbs's sermon. All Christians, not only Calvinists, ought to reject the underlying message that election is a human act or achievement. Theologians have a term for that belief: semi-Pelagianism. It is arguably the default view of both salvation and service among American Christians, especially younger Christians. But all branches of Christianity have condemned it as heresy, because it completely contradicts Scripture.

Semi-Pelagianism is the idea that human beings take the initiative in their salvation and service to God. We decide whether to be saved or enter into God's service completely by ourselves, without prevenient (or necessary) grace. (Prevenient grace is grace that convicts, calls, illumines, and enables. Christian theologians disagree about whether it is resistible or irresistible, but all evangelical theologians agree it is necessary for the first exercise of a good will toward God.) Some years ago, a popular television series featured angels in human disguise helping people in distress turn to God. In one episode, a beautiful young angel with a Scottish accent counseled a man to "reach up to God as far as you can, and then he'll reach down and take you the rest of the way." I call that "Touched by an Angel theology." By itself, without careful biblical and theological clarification, it expresses semi-Pelagianism.

Contrary to what many think, both Calvinist and Arminian traditions of Protestant Christianity have always emphasized God's initiative in salvation and service. (Arminianism is the theological tradition named after Jacob Arminius, a 17th-century Dutch theologian who affirmed human free will.) That is, if any person or group finds reconciliation with God and/or a role in God's mission, it is due to God's electing grace and not to human decision or achievement alone.

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Unfortunately, the doctrine of election has become a battleground among evangelical Protestants. Three main viewpoints vie for attention and belief. All three appeal to Scripture. All three claim the other two fall short of biblical and theological correctness. Occasionally advocates of the three views fall into nasty verbal combat with each other. Advocates of all three need to realize they share much in common, specifically belief in the divine initiative—that God is the electing one, the one whose grace is necessary to every good thing a person does, including the first movement of the will toward God.

The first view is classical, traditional Calvinism. It was not invented by Calvin but came to be associated with his name in English lands through the Puritans. Earlier reformers Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli held much the same belief about election.

According to Calvin, election, which is the same as predestination and foreordination, refers to "God's eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man …. [E]ternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others" (Institutes of the Christian Religion III.XXI.5). Many people refer to this as "double predestination." Calvin based it on Romans 9 and other passages that emphasize God's sovereignty in everything, including each individual's eternal destiny.

The second view is classical, traditional Arminianism. It is named after theologian Arminius, but the basic outlines of the view predate him. Perhaps the most influential Arminian was John Wesley, founder of the Methodist tradition, who is also revered by Christians in the holiness and Pentecostal traditions.

According to Wesley's essay "On Predestination," faithfully following Arminius, election (pre-destination) means that "God foreknew those in every nation, who would believe, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things." He based this on Romans 8, especially verses 29 and 30. Like all Arminians (and many who do not use that label but agree with its essential doctrine of election), Wesley affirmed free will, enabled by grace, because otherwise, "[I]f man were not free, he could not be accountable either for his thoughts, words, or actions."

Mountains of Verses

Most contemporary evangelical Christians lean one way or the other—toward either Calvin's or Wesley's view of election. All agree that God elects people to service; all agree that God chooses (through corporate election) to have a people. The flashpoint of controversy is election to salvation. Is it unconditional and irresistible, or does it depend on one's willingness to accept it?

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The divide is over individual salvation and especially whether God predestines some people to hell. Arminians find that abhorrent and damaging to God's reputation, based on passages such as John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Timothy 2:4. Calvinists argue that allowing humans to resist and thwart God's will limits God's sovereignty and, however unintentionally, diminishes his deity. If sinners can freely contribute to their own salvation, then grace is not the only factor.

Both sides in this debate can pile up mountains of verses and arguments to support their view. It seems doubtful that equally God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians will ever reach consensus about the matter. But consensus already exists in this: whatever role humans play in their salvation, salvation is God's work. Even Arminians, at their best and truest, believe sinners receive saving grace only because God enables them to receive it with the free response of faith.

All evangelicals agree that salvation is God's work and not ours. Our good works, even our free decisions or signs of grace, amount to nothing when compared with God's electing grace and power.

A third view appears among contemporary evangelical Christians. Whether it leans closer to the classical Calvinist or Arminian doctrine of election is much debated. So-called "evangelical Calvinism" is championed by followers of Scottish theologians Thomas and James Torrance. They, in turn, were influenced by Swiss theologian Karl Barth and, before Barth, by Scottish theologians John McLeod Campbell and P. T. Forsyth. This view has recently been spelled out and defended by 12 leading evangelical theologians in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church.

According to evangelical Calvinism (something of a misnomer, as all Calvinists consider themselves evangelical in some sense), Christ must be central to election as both its object and its subject. God elects Jesus Christ to be the Savior, and then elects people only "in him." In Jesus and his cross, God has said, "Yes!" to all people; there is no corresponding divine "No!" If anyone has been elected to salvation, it is because God first elected Jesus Christ and then, by grace, included sinners in that election. If anyone rejects their inclusion in Christ's election, it is solely because of their inexplicable rejection of the grace God extended to them in Jesus Christ.

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The editors of Evangelical Calvinism affirm that "[A]ll are included in Christ's salvific work, and … salvation is by grace alone and Christ alone." Election to salvation is good news, because it is not dependent on the frail and faltering free will of sinners, and no one is excluded except those who willfully exclude themselves.

Classical Calvinists and Arminians agree with much in evangelical Calvinism, but both find it inconsistent at certain crucial points. Their main common complaint is that it falls into contradiction. How, they ask, can one affirm the universality of electing grace and deny free will with regard to being elected, while also affirming free will to reject the truth of one's election? Evangelical Calvinists, on the other hand, find both alternative views of election problematic in that each, in its own way, seems to impugn the goodness of God's character.

Evangelical books about the doctrine of election abound. Unfortunately, most of them are polemical—spending more time arguing against another view than underscoring and explaining common ground. Especially in the past two to three decades, the doctrine of election has become a cause of division more than of unity among evangelicals. More attention needs to be given to areas of broad and profound agreement, and less to areas of diversity. Evangelical Christians, at their best, share a common doctrine of election. The devil is in the details, especially when they become points of polemical accusation and opportunities for charges of heresy or biblical infidelity.

All evangelicals agree that salvation is God's work and not ours. Our good works, even our free decisions or signs of grace, amount to nothing when compared with God's electing grace and power. They're like the deceptive pillars English architect Christopher Wren installed to reassure the city fathers who doubted his scheme for supporting the second floor of Windsor's town hall. Wren had in fact left space between the pillars' tops and the ceiling of the first story. But the space was so miniscule as to be invisible, and it wasn't until years later, when workmen built scaffolds to clean the ceiling, that the ruse was discovered. The pillars, which had seemed so important to the architectural design, were revealed (like our outwardly impressive good works) as meaningless.

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'God Will Find a Way'

If a sinner comes to Christ and receives salvation, all evangelicals agree, it is due to God's electing grace and not at all due to any meritorious work. They also agree that God is sovereign in salvation; election is one biblical way of expressing that sovereignty. The whole of Ephesians 1 extols God's sovereign election of his people. There as elsewhere, however, it is possible to interpret election corporately. All evangelicals agree that God's election of a people, Israel and the church, is unconditional. God chooses to have a people for his name and for his glory. He chooses to have a people on whom to lavish his love. He chooses to have a people to be a light to the nations and a testimony of God's greatness and goodness to the spiritual beings that populate the invisible world.

Evangelicals can and do disagree about whether individuals' inclusion in God's elect people involves any level of free will, but all agree that the existence of the people of God is not dependent on human choice. As a famous line from Jurassic Park says, "Life finds a way." Evangelical faith of all types and tribes agrees that "God will find a way" to have a people for his name.

Calvinists, Arminians, and evangelical Calvinists tend to find each other's positions inconsistent. But inconsistency is not heresy. Perhaps evangelicals divided over the details of the doctrine of election could rally around a prayer. The great English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, saved in a Methodist church but a passionate Calvinist, frequently prayed a seemingly inconsistent prayer at his church's evening prayer meetings: "God, call out your elect. And then elect some more." Evangelicals of varying opinions may cringe at the apparent contradiction, but all can rejoice at the spirit of generosity and hope that pervaded Spurgeon's appeal.

Roger Olson is professor of theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, and the author, most recently, of Against Calvinism (Zondervan).

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