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Does God choose who will believe?

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–Does God unconditionally choose every person who will ever be saved or does He look deep into the future and choose those whom He foresees will trust in Him?

Two Southern Baptist theologians grappled with the controversial doctrine of election Nov. 27 during the three-day “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” conference co-sponsored by Founders Ministries and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and held at the LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center. Founders Ministries formed in 1982 to advance Reformed theology in SBC churches.

Greg Welty, associate professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, unpacked the Calvinist view of unconditional election -– the belief that God has chosen before the creation of the world every individual who will ever be saved apart from foreseen faith or good works.

Ken Keathley, senior associate dean and professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., proposed a solution to the Calvinistic (unconditional election) and Arminian (God chooses those whom He foreknows will trust in Him) disagreement on election through a theological system known as “Molinism.”

Welty argued in favor of unconditional election, pointing to a number of biblical texts that seem to support the Calvinistic doctrine, including Ephesians 1:3-11. This passage, he said, demonstrates that election is God’s choosing of individual persons; election is eternal, having taken place before the foundation of the world; and election is grounded in the will of God and not the will of man.

“God’s will is to love us and show us mercy,” Welty said. “This text tells us that He predestined us in love. It is not a cold and analytical doctrine. The will of man is not mentioned here as the basis of God’s choice. It is clear to [the Apostle] Paul that election is grounded in the will of God. It is not conditioned on something in the creature.”

Elsewhere, in Romans 9, Paul clearly asserts God’s choosing of a people irrespective of foreseen faith or works, Welty noted. In the latter portion of the chapter, Welty pointed out that Paul even anticipated human objections to the doctrine of unconditional election and answered them. While humans charge God with injustice for choosing some and not others for salvation, Paul does not flinch in asserting the justice of a sovereign God in freely carrying out His holy will.

“If election were conditional,” Welty said, “Paul would have every reason to say, ‘Wait, you misunderstood my teaching; God’s choice of man ultimately hinges on man’s choice of God, so it is all fair in the end. God’s choice of Jacob was really based on Jacob’s future choice of God, so there is no injustice here.’ That might be appealing to us on some level, but that is not where Paul goes. Paul traces this back to the eternal purpose of God in our lives.”

Welty also dealt with a number of objections to unconditional election such as the Arminian assertion that election is based on God’s foreknowledge of all who will believe in Him. Interpreting texts such as Romans 8:29 and 1 Peter 1:1-2 to uphold this view is neither necessary nor plausible, he said. “Foreknowledge” in these two texts does not mean that God merely foresees the actions of individuals, but shows that He has foreknown them relationally, Welty said. Neither text speaks of foreseen faith, he added.

“God foreloves individuals and marks them out,” Welty said. “That is what foreknowledge in these texts means…. God is a God who chooses throughout the Bible. Most Christians will not deny that. God chose Israel in the Old Testament, for example. Paul’s doctrine of election reflects on how God has chosen in the past.”

Because of the logical problems inherent in both Calvinism and Arminianism, Keathley said he views Molinism as “a more biblical and logically coherent” alternative.

Molinism is named after 16th-century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina and attempts to reconcile the sovereignty of God with human free will by looking at God’s work of redemption through His foreknowledge.

Foundational to Molinism is the belief that God knows everything, including all the possible actions of human beings given every possible circumstance. Contemporary adherents to Molinism include apologist William Lane Craig and philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Keathley proposed Molinism as a solution to the divide between Calvinism and Arminianism, arguing that Molinism, like Calvinism, affirms the absolute sovereignty of God, while also affirming God’s permissive will, which establishes the free choices of men.

A key to Molinism’s ability to better explain God’s choosing some men for salvation without violating their free will is its doctrine of “middle knowledge,” Keathley said. Middle knowledge postulates that God knows all possible worlds He could have created in addition to the one He chose to make. Thus, God created that particular world in which all of His elect people would experience circumstances appropriate to cause them to freely trust in Christ.

The primary weakness of both supralapsarian Calvinism (God decreed to save some men before the fall) and infralapsarian Calvinism (God decreed to save some men after the fall) lies in their inability to explain sin and evil without stipulating God as the cause of them, Keathley said. Molinism better reconciles God and the so-called “problem of evil,” he said, and eliminates the charge of God having caused evil.

“God controls all things but He does not cause all things,” Keathley said. “We must embrace God’s permission to avoid having God causing evil.”

Both Welty and Keathley agreed that both Calvinists and non-Calvinists must be charitable in expressing their differences on the doctrine of election.

“To my non-Calvinist brethren I respectfully ask them to consider the arguments and the Scriptures that I have given,” Welty said.

“To my Calvinist brothers, I want to say it is important to distinguish between doctrines that are essential to the Gospel and those that are essential to the flourishing of the Gospel…. Let us avoid using language such as ‘Calvinism is the Gospel.’ I find that unhelpful because it usually generates more heat than light. We don’t want to give someone the impression that he has to believe all the traditional points of Calvinism if he is going to believe the Gospel.”
Jeff Robinson, director of news and information at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was among the writers covering the “Building Bridges: Southern Baptists and Calvinism” conference at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center. Audio podcast downloads of all the conference presenters are available at www.lifeway.com/insidelifeway.

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  • Jeff Robinson
    Jeff Robinson is director of news and information at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.Read All by Jeff Robinson ›