Volume 8, Issue 3: Disputatio
Douglas Wilson and Douglas Busby
When God determined before time to select a people to salvation, did He choose them as a group or individually or both or neither? Scripture gives important place to the question, so it ought not to be ignored. Many far-reaching issues are tied to these questions.
In the following interchange, the editor of Credenda/Agenda, Douglas Wilson, and Douglas Busby discuss divine election. Douglas Busby is pastor of Community Evangelical Free Church and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M. Div.). He is a co-author of A Reader's Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Zondervan, 1980).
DW: The Bible teaches that national Israel was elect (Is. 45:4; Rom. 11:28). Paul's adversaries thought this should embarrass him. Paul taught so strongly that nothing could separate God's elect from His saving purpose (Rom. 8:33ff), and yet Israel en masse had still rejected her Messiah. Paul was untroubled by this apparent discrepancy. Not all who are of Israel are Israel -- not all who are of the elect are elect. Paul warns us never to think the Word could be ineffectual (Rom. 9:6). God had a purpose in the election of national Israel which was fulfilled (Rom. 9:4-5). And He has a saving purpose in the sovereign election of those believers whom He foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified (Rom. 8:29-30).
DB: The Bible teaches a glorious view of election that has defied the theologian's synthesis. The glory of God in each of election's features is more evident in its Biblical setting than in its systematized formulation. Features of Biblical election include: the sovereignty of God, working both eternally and in human time in choosing a people for Himself; elimination of sinner's works as the basis of salvation; a sovereignly chosen One in whom all are saved; provision of salvation for all within the scope of God's plan (Israel, OT; the world, NT); the nonarbitrary hardening and damning of those who reject faith, and the true desire of God for saving those who reject God's provision. (Rom. 9-11; Eph. 1; etc.)
DW: Amen to most, and a few concerns with the rest. You mentioned a "sovereignly chosen One in whom all are saved." Do you mean those who believe that are saved, or do you hold every person is in some sense saved? You also referred to God's "true desire" for the salvation of those who reject Him. We agree that God stretches out His hands to a disobedient people (Rom. 10:21), and that this shows God's true desire. We do not differ on how true this desire is, but rather on what God desires more. And lastly, the Bible says that the choice of His people was made, not in "human time," but before eternal times (2 Tim. 1:9; Matt. 25:34; 1 Pet. 1:20-21).
DB: God's glory is seen in electing before human time (2 Tim. 1:9). He elects in Christ. Christ is chosen before all others existed (1 Pet. 1:20). All others are chosen "in Him," not independently (Eph. 1:4). And "he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless" [This sounds like His purpose for nationally elect Israel (Is. 5:2,7)!] Those who once were apart from Christ were included in Christ when ("because" ? -- participle) they believed (Eph. 1:13). So before faith, the "elect" are described as "separate from Christ, ... excluded ... foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope, and without God.... But now [by faith] in Christ Jesus..." (Eph. 2:13).
DW: Let me make sure I have heard you correctly. You appear to be saying that men are included in Christ because of faith they exercised while still apart from Christ. And because Christ is the Elect One, when men come into Him by their faith, they are then in God's Elect by so doing. They are not elect as individuals before they come. Christ is the train destined for glory, and each man is standing on the platform, deciding whether or not to get on. God makes no distinctions between the men standing on the platform. If a man outside Christ on the platform makes the right choice, then he will be saved. Is this correct?
DB: No. The picture distorts some things and leaves others out. I could similarly (inaccurately) summarize your view: The Elect-for-glory train stops at the platform of the damned. Conductor Jesus steps out making an impassioned plea for all to be gathered on board, like chicks are gathered to a hen. He warns, "Judgment is coming. Anyone not seated on the train will suffer terrible but deserved punishment." He announces that He paid for the whole world's seats, but a passenger yells out the window that all have been filled before the train left heaven's station. You'll have to learn, said the learned passenger, that Jesus' meaning is often different from the normal understanding of words.
DW: I am glad we agree such an analogy would be an inaccurate representation. And if you could explain what was missing or distorted, I would gladly modify my earlier illustration. In the meantime, an interesting point can be drawn from such caricatures of the Reformed position. In Romans 9:19, we see a striking similarity between the objection above and the objection leveled against Paul's doctrine. The objection common to both is: How can God hold people morally accountable when they are only doing what He foreordained them to do? The objection makes good sense to those who use illustrations like the above. It also made sense in the first century to those questioning the apostle.
DB: You are possibly confusing two objections. Contextually those offended by Pauline election are hardened Jews. Paul continues, "What if God did this to make the riches of His glory known to .... even us whom he also called ... from the Gentiles." Hardened Jews are Paul's objectors [!], incensed that Paul would directly evangelize the Gentiles, outraged when they, the elect, were bypassed (Acts 13-18). The believer's objections to Calvinistic election are fundamentally different. For example, in Calvin's election God damns people by a prefallen-world "horrible decree" (Calv. Instit. III.23) providing neither saving faith nor atoning sacrifice for them but saying He "... has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all" (Rom. 11:32).
DW: If hardened Jews are the objectors, then what does their question mean? Paul's comment in 9:19 is not, "One of you will say to me, 'Why did God bypass His elect and show mercy to Gentiles?'" Rather, the objection questions the fairness of God judging someone for doing what God made him do. "Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?'" (9:18-19). These two verses are identical to your second objection -- how can God act in two directions at once? They bear no resemblance to the Jewish defense of ethnic prerogatives.
DB: Your conclusion is only true if we take part of Paul's answer as the whole. To do this you paint two contradictory portraits. First you portray God (a la Calvinism) as being a mere puppeteer who makes some of His hapless puppets sin and then hardens them for His eternal damning purpose. Then, not wanting to appear that way, God plays with the meaning of words to give us the inevitable impression that His purpose is that He might show mercy on all. Sacrifice the truthfulness of God on the altar of Calvinistic sovereignty and you will lose the doxology (11:33-36) in the end. Even God's hardening has a way of extending salvation to the lost!
DW: But how can those who present only "part" of Paul's answer generate the same objection he does, and those who present "Paul entire" do not? You are not explaining how your interpretation could provoke the same objection as v. 19, and in addition have again raised the heart of the objection yourself. "How can God blame for what God does? Doesn't this present `contradictory portraits?'" Paul's questioner wants the same answer which you are requesting. And as for the doxology, it is there we learn that "of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen." "All things" includes hardening whom He pleases, and having mercy upon all.
DB: We're reading differently. You read, "Why does God find fault for what God does?" Your reading of Paul's counterquestion assumes a puppeteer God. I read, "Why does God find fault when He hardens whom He chooses?" The "Who are you . . .?" is a stern warning that God does harden. And even then, the gracious God uses hardening to spread His salvation. But that which pushes Paul into a doxology is this: God uses those saved as a result of those hardened to save even more! Who are the "more"? They are the hardened nonelect (11:7)! Understood any other way it is Paul who resists God's will by re-evangelizing Israel (Rom. 11:7-14; 28-36). God's election presses beyond.
DW: I am assuming that Paul's questioner is accusing him of having a puppeteer God. If this is not the assumption of the questioner, what is? "Why does God find fault (for being hardened) when He hardens whom He chooses?" If, in the last resort, the reason why some are hard and some are not is because of their own choices, the question has no force. The reader should look at verse 19 very carefully. "Why does God blame, for God's actions are irresistible." Paul provoked the question: "Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens" (v. 18). What else can he mean? The words appear to be very plain.
DB: So you agree with Paul's rebuke and yet share his questioner's view of God? Apparently you both assume the hardening occurs by eternal decree, irrevocably condemning the nonelect. This assumption crashes on the rocks of Romans 11. The nonelect were hardened (11:7), . . . but not beyond recovery (11:11), . . . If they do not persist in unbelief they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again (11:23) says the Apostle. Contextually Paul's words seem rock solid and crystal clear, and as usual, his opponent's objection does lose its force. Your interpretation seems red-flagged by being the single instance Paul accepts the theology of his unsaved opponent.
DW: You are neglecting the corporate aspect of election. When God grafts the Jews in again (as He promises to do), the individuals who are grafted in again will not be the same individuals who were cut out. The removal was two millennia ago, and the engrafting has not yet happened. Same people, different individuals. No contradiction exists between sovereign election of persons (Rom. 8:33) and sovereign election of peoples (Rom. 11:22). With regard to your first question, no. I agree with Paul's rebuke, and share the view of God found in verse 18. This view provokes men to see the wisdom in verse 19. You have not yet explained how your understanding provokes this reaction.
DB: Fretting over how a sinner could logically (!) voice his objection (Rom. 9:19), you gloss over how Calvin's horrible decree could logically inspire (1 Tim. 1:5) the passionate love (against God's decretive will) for hardened enemies that is clearly evident in Paul (Rom. 9:1-3), Moses (Ex. 32:32), God (Rom. 10:21), and His Christ (Luke 13:34)? Do your readers get this passion from Calvin's decree? While God consigns all groups, Paul meticulously proved that God has "consigned to disobedience" every Jew and Gentile (Rom. 1:18-5:12). Paul surely remembered that 4 -- 6 chapters later! In uncut Scripture, both Calvinist and Arminian must tremble before God's sternness and glory in His expansive elective mercy (Gen. 12:3; 1 Kings 8:41:43; Rom. 11:14). Until a synthesis does justice to all facets, I suggest we not divide the body of Christ.
DW: Calvin's decretum horribile translates as "awesome," or "terrible" in the older sense, not as "horrible" in our usage. And in this sense, yes, the Reformed understanding of God's exhaustive sovereignty over salvation does inspire a passion for the lost. How could it not? All of God's Word must be obeyed, not our questioning extensions from that Word. The One who wept over Jerusalem is the same who said that no one could come to Him unless drawn by the Father (John 6:44). The One who died for sinners also said that everyone given to Him by the Father would in fact come (John 6:37). Finite human reason has no right to reject such loving authority.
Doug, thanks for engaging in such an important debate with us. We appreciate the care and time you have given to it.