It is a truism that every Christian or system of Christian theology has or must have a doctrine of election. This is because the Bible uses words like “elect,” “election,” “predestine,” and “predestination” so any serious student of the Bible or theology must account for them and explain them in light of the rest of Scripture and biblical/theological thought.
In II.2 of his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth lists three points every serious doctrine of election must both have and emphasize:
1. Every serious doctrine of election must assert “the grace of God as free” (19).
Barth explains what exactly God’s freedom in this respect means:
(1) God’s decision is independent of and precedes any creaturely decisions.
This should go without saying since “Salvation is of the Lord,” by which we not only mean that salvation comes through the Lord’s work, but is wholly rooted in his character, nature, and choice.
(2) God’s grace “cannot be called forth or constrained by any claim or merit, by any existing or future condition, on the part of the creature.” (19)
Those who hold to a prescient view of foreknowledge in essence base election on the character and work of humanity and so deny God’s free choice in election.
(3) This means that “there is no place for the self-glorying or the self-praise of the creature.”
These two necessarily go together. If my election is God’s free choice then there is no occasion for boasting. If my election is in any way tied to my choice then any claim of humility is false because I do indeed have occasion, not only to glory, but to glory over others who did not make such a choice.
(4) On the part of the creature, there must be a “recognition of utter weakness and unworthiness.”
Helplessness, though viewed in human terms as a weakness, is the very weakness that God elevates over the proud and strong. Our unworthiness is the reason for the Incarnation since our Lord says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
This means we must understand grace as grace or our grace is no longer grace.
2. Every serious doctrine of election must emphasize the mystery of the God who decrees (20).
Barth: “We were not admitted to the counsel of God as He made His election, nor can we subsequently call Him to give account or to make answer in respect of it.” (20)
Barth says that to peer into this mystery by demanding God give an account of Himself with respect to his “resolve and decree” is to “resist the very being and existence of God Himself.” (20)
At first glance it would seem that Arminianism is the only system guilty of this but the Calvinist also fails to recognize the mystery of God when he or she delves too deeply into the secret things of God just as Calvin himself warned against:
The subject of predestination, which in itself is attended with considerable difficulty is rendered very perplexed and hence perilous by human curiosity, which cannot be restrained from wandering into forbidden paths and climbing to the clouds determined if it can that none of the secret things of God shall remain unexplored. When we see many, some of them in other respects not bad men, everywhere rushing into this audacity and wickedness, it is necessary to remind them of the course of duty in this matter. First, then, when they inquire into predestination, let then remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity will enter in inextricable labyrinth. For it is not right that man should with impunity pry into things which the Lord has been pleased to conceal within himself, and scan that sublime eternal wisdom which it is his pleasure that we should not apprehend but adore, that therein also his perfections may appear. Those secrets of his will, which he has seen it meet to manifest, are revealed in his word—revealed in so far as he knew to be conducive to our interest and welfare. (Institutes III.21.1)
To glory in one’s salvation in an arrogant or haughty way also minimizes the mystery of God’s grace because such haughty glorying is tantamount to saying, “Of course God chose me; why would he not?!” and thus not only removes the mystery of grace by positing some definable human basis for one’s election, but also turns grace into something deserved or merited.
3. Every serious doctrine of election must maintain God’s righteousness in the mystery of his freedom. (21)
Citing Romans 9:20 (“But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?”), Barth explains that “[w]e must recognize the sovereignty of God and the inscrutability of His election.” The notion of inscrutability with regard to God’s will is important and reminds us of Calvin’s warning from above about delving into the secret things of God.
But to trust God in this we must be reminded of two other characteristics of God: His wisdom and his righteousness. “God Himself, and in Him wisdom itself and righteousness itself, has communicated Himself to us and given Himself as the answer.”
So God’s electing choice is guided by his own wisdom and righteousness. To take issue with God’s electing choice is to malign to character of God and accuse him of both foolishness and unrighteousness. But in taking issue with God’s electing choice, we are judging these two, foolishness and unrighteousness, by human standards which are irrelevant when applied to God. It is also insulting because it permits God’s wisdom and righteousness to be judged by human standards rather than submitting our own judgments and standards to the wisdom and righteousness of God.
What God does in freedom is in order. And in that it is done in freedom, we can and must perceive and recognize that it is in order without first measuring it by our own conceptions of order and only then recognizing it to be such. It belongs to God that He should teach us what order is. It belongs to us to measure our conceptions of order by His decision, and to learn from Him what order is. In so doing we do not make any sacrificium intellectus [sacrifice of the intellect], but we become and are truly wise: so assuredly is the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom. (22)
So if one’s doctrine of election holds God to any human standard of righteousness, justice, or fairness, it is not only deficient, it is insulting to the character of God by placing Him under us rather than over us.