Unconditional Election: The Calling and Commissioning of the Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul in Romans 9 addresses God’s sovereignty and uses the illustration of the potter and the clay. The potter, of course, creates out of his pile of clay whatever he or she desires. The clay has no say in the matter. Paul reaches a climax with these words in verse 18: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” Paul here demolishes any notion of human libertarian free will. This teaching is so clear that many will bypass Romans 9 in order to avoid its clear implications. Scripture, however puts a human face on the doctrine that has come to be known as unconditional election from the acrostic TULIP that stems from the Canons of Dordt.

Before we consider this human face of the doctrine of unconditional election it would be helpful to define our terms. Calvinists and Arminians both affirm that the Bible teaches a doctrine or doctrines of election. Election is the doctrine that God chooses those whom he will save. Some think of divine election involving God looking down the corridor of time and seeing who will believe the gospel and consequently electing these folk who believe the gospel. Two initial problems with this view spring immediately to mind. The first is: who is upholding the corridor of time God is looking down? It is God, of course. The second question is: does this view not make God dependent upon his creatures to complete redemption? Given Paul’s arguments in Romans 9, these two issues are very problematic no matter how popular this view is. Another view sees divine election or divine choosing as relating to nations or groups of people and not relating to individual salvation. For instance, scholars will often note that Israel is a chosen nation or that what is in view in Scriptural passages touching on election is consideration of groups such as the group of all those who believe the gospel. It is no doubt true that God chose Israel to be his peculiar possession and that divine election does have in view all those who believe the gospel. But groups are made up of individuals or else they are non-existent (what in mathematics is called a null or empty set).

I would suggest that the biblical discussion of divine election or unconditional election cannot bypass Romans 9 or other Scriptural passages that indicate that God chooses those whom he will save based upon his own reasons which do not include anything special about the one chosen at the time God saves a sinner. The Apostle Paul’s own experience bears out the utter gratuity of God’s grace to sinners. When Paul is confronted by the risen and reigning Lord Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus there is nothing in him or in his character that would commend him to God. This is not denying that God in his providence prepared Paul for his special calling as apostle to the Gentiles. What I am saying is that Paul did not earn his salvation by self-determination or by the self-production of saving faith.

As we look at the three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts (9:1-19, 22:1-16, 26:12-21) and his description of his own character in Philippians 3:1-11 and 1st Timothy 1:12-17 we see that Paul himself recognized his own intrinsic unworthiness to be graciously chosen by God for salvation. Consider first what Paul was doing when he was confronted by Jesus. He had been trained in the best Pharisaical schools of his day and had rejected the Christian message. To Paul Jesus was a discredited teacher and because Jesus was crucified he was under God’s condemnation (as he himself notes in Galatians 3:13). Paul utterly hated Christianity and sought to persecute the church. Jesus stopped Paul dead in his tracks as he was on his way to Damascus to hunt down and ferret out Christians to bring them to “justice” and due punishment. Note how Paul describes himself to his son in faith Timothy. In his first letter Paul says that he was a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1st Timothy 1:13). Those scholars who deny that Paul was converted on the road to Damascus but merely called and commissioned as an apostle fail to do justice to the Scriptural record. Paul was an absolute sinner in need of saving grace.

In Philippians 3:1-11 Paul recalls his training and how he surpassed his fellow Jews in veneration of the traditions of the fathers and excelled them in theological acumen. These things are no doubt true. But they do not merit salvation for Paul or anyone else for that matter. Paul considered his past accomplishments as rubbish compared to the surpassing riches of knowing Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul notes that he did not want to be found possessing his own righteousness but that he wanted to be found in Christ possessing Christ’s righteousness. Paul’s own righteousness could not and did not measure up to divine standards. Paul thought of himself as the chief of sinners. Clearly, Paul conveyed to Timothy the idea that we all ought to consider ourselves the chief of sinners utterly undeserving of God’s grace and favor. Paul did not deserve God’s grace. We err if we read back Paul’s exemplary post-conversion service into his pre-conversion condition. Paul recognized that he was what he was by the grace of God. Whatever he accomplished was the result of the Holy Spirit working in and through him. If Romans 7 can be understood as Paul’s own Christian experience (as I believe it should be understood), then he recognized the continuing traces of sin in his own life which he had to fight against even as an apostle to the Gentiles.

Israel was not chosen because she was better than any of the nations that surrounded her. She was not the biggest or best. Nevertheless, God set his love upon her and he made her his special people. This is emblematic of individual salvation. Paul did not choose Christ. Christ chose him. Paul was the subject of unconditional election. Paul’s apostolic ministry grew out of his own experience of saving grace. It was not the cause or basis of his experience of saving grace. We do not merit God’s favor either. If we have heard the proclamation of the gospel and have responded to the summons to repent and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we have done so because God has chosen us in Christ since before the foundation of the world and his Holy Spirit has worked in us the faith by which we believe on Christ. Unconditional election is another way of talking about amazing grace. John Newton understood amazing grace. As a slave trader he had sunk to desperate levels of degradation. And yet God saved him. Newton like Paul before him was saved from eternal damnation, plucked like a brand from a burning fire.

The calling of Israel, of Paul, and of John Newton remind us that our salvation is all of grace and due only to God. To claim any basis for our redemption in ourselves is to rob God of his glory in redeeming a people for himself. Unconditional election is not just a doctrine. It was the experience of Paul and it is the experience of every sinner-turned-saint. If you have or ever will believe on Jesus Christ it is or will be your experience too.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington