If you believe in heaven, or care to get there, what can you do? Earn your way with a sufficient number of sufficiently good works? Endure religious rituals carried out with great attention to detail and tradition? Can you petition a kind, motherly God to reward you for making the right choices? Or will a stern, fatherly God pick you—of all people—as if for a team, as if for a job—and for no other reason than “His sovereign good pleasure”? These are ancient questions, with no comforting answers. And heaven is not the only destination in view. Similar questions can be asked in this life about the desire for health, prosperity, peace, justice.
Some answers can be found in the New and Old Testaments, but they are troublesome. In his letter to the Ephesians, (1: 4-7), Paul writes these words:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
It is clear throughout the Bible that not all will be selected—not for grace, not for the team, not for the job. Here is clarification in Paul’s letter to the Romans, (9: 14-18) which recalls passages in the Old Testament:
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”
An earthier expression of this idea is in Isaiah 45: 9-10:
“Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’
These scriptural observations support a concept known to Calvinists as unconditional election, the U in the famous acronym T.U.L.I.P. This was Calvin’s five point response to the Arminians, thought to express key points of his theology of salvation. Unconditional election is the idea that God elects from among the mass of depraved humanity—all of us, that is—a subset who will receive the grace of faith in Jesus Christ, and so be saved. Charles H. Spurgeon summarizes the implications of unconditional election in this way:
“I believe the doctrine of election, because I am quite sure that if God had not chosen me I would never have chosen him; and I am sure he chose me before I was born, or else he never would have chosen me afterward.”
While the total depravity of humankind is easy to demonstrate, the concept of unconditional election, along with its corollary of predestination, is offensive to many because of its current political incorrectness. Doesn’t everyone get a prize in this superficially egalitarian society? Doesn’t everyone go to heaven if they are reasonably moral and follow procedure?
It may be that ideas like election and predestination are universal, with expression in other religions besides Christianity. (It would be interesting to hear from people of other faith traditions whether this is true.) Though the conflict between late 16th century Calvinists and Arminians seems obscure now, the basic debate—whether personal salvation is solely at God’s discretion or a product of our own efforts—remains a root cause of our culture wars.