Books Soteriology

Horton on election

Michael Horton’s presentation

 In chapter 3, treating election (which is to be “loved before time”), Horton begins by asserting that unconditional election was not a doctrine originated by Calvin and his heirs. It is found in the writings of Augustine, Gregory the Great, Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas (54). But the doctrine had become “obscured by a focus on human ability,” which is why “all of the Reformers—Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Cranmer and others—emphasized unconditional election as an important aspect of the gospel” (54).

Horton sees, throughout the Scriptures, God’s work of sovereignly choosing people, both for roles in history and for salvation. The people of Israel was chosen to a peculiar role in redemptive history (Rom 9:19-23) and, within Israel, God kept a remnant of the covenant people faithful to himself (Rom 9:24-29). For Paul, the unconditional nature of God’s choice of individuals for salvation is seen as essential to the graciousness of God’s saving work, which does not depend on human work, but on God’s mercy (Rom 11:5-6). What God foresees in regard to salvation is not the libertarianly free choice of God by divinely enabled people, but his own effective drawing of people to himself through the gifts of repentance and faith (56).

The unavoidable corollary of reprobation, namely, God’s not choosing everyone, is acknowledged, but Horton emphasizes that God choice of some to salvation is not arbitrary, and that those who are not chosen are left to the destiny we would all have chosen for ourselves, apart from God’s intervention (57). So, although “the fall was included in God’s plan, it was permissive rather than active, and reprobation “took account of sin” (57). “Human beings are alone responsible for their hardness of heart, but God alone softens and in fact recreates the hearts of his elect (1 Kings 8:58; Ps 51:10; Isa 57:15; Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 11:19; 36:26; 2 Cor 3:3; 4:6; Heb 10:16) (57-58).

Horton believes that God determines everything that happens, not just matters pertaining to salvation, but there is a significant difference between God’s effective action (bringing about good) and his permission (allowing evil). Nevertheless, God’s control is no less in the latter than in the former. We can draw comfort, however, from the knowledge that “the one who is ultimately in charge of the universe is good, kind, wise, merciful, just, and righteous” (59). Although God never causes sin, “he is Lord over it, and it can progress no further than his wisdom and goodness will allow” (60).

Aware of the effort of some to portray divine election only in corporate, not individual terms, Horton demonstrates that God’s saving work is the outworking of his choice of particular individuals, not just of a body whose membership is undetermined by God (Eph 1:1-13; 2 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 1:9) (60-61). “God has elected his church in Christ because he has chosen who will belong to it from all eternity” (62).

To the objection that individual unconditional election by God is unfair, Horton counters that, if fairness entails receiving what we deserve, we should be thankful that God is not fair. Unfairness must not be equated with injustice, and God’s grace in saving anyone should be recognized as an act of generosity and mercy that prompts us to praise (62). Arminians and Calvinists agree that God chose not to save everyone, but they disagree about whether God’s electing grace or our free will is the deciding factor (63). Once again, however, Horton emphasizes that God does not coerce the will of the reprobate (64). The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, for instance, was indirect and mediate, and Pharaoh was active in hardening his heart against God (69-70). God’s secret predestination is not opposed to our free action, it is “the basis for it” (70).

As in God’s more comprehensive predestination of all things, God’s election of some to salvation does not absolve those who persist in unbelief. But Horton does not attempt to explain how meticulous divine sovereignty and human responsibility are compatible. He is content to demonstrate the conjoining of these in the crucifixion of Jesus (and other biblical events), as evidence of their compatibility (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). Scripture does not explain how this can be so, it simply states it to be the case (64). Reformed theologians speak of this as “double agency,” the situation in which God decrees events but human beings execute them “so freely that they are blameworthy of the act” (64). This is not a mystery that we can resolve but we must affirm it because Scripture teaches it (65). Mysteries “elude our ability to capture their essence. They do not contradict reason, but transcend it” (78).

“We shouldn’t think in terms of a single pie that is divided between God and us [as Arminians and hyper-Calvinists do], but of God’s own way of being free (as sovereign Creator) and the creaturely freedom that God has given us as his image-bearers” (66). Knowing God to be transcendent yet immanent, we understand God’s agency to be operative in, and with creaturely agency. God’s meticulous sovereignty and our responsibility “would only be a contradiction if God’s freedom and ours belonged to the same register” (67), but we must not overlook genuine secondary causes within God’s controlling work. “God’s decree not only determines that the act will occur (Ps 33:11; Prov 19:21; Isa 46:10), but that it will be freely done by the agent” (70).

God cannot act inconsistently with his nature, so “he cannot determine that any of his purposes will end in evil or sin” (67). God decrees to permit acts which are genuinely evil and for which human agents justly incur guilt, but he only does this “in such a way that the same decree simultaneously determines the triumph of God’s just and gracious purposes in Jesus Christ” (67).

Horton believes that much of the confusion regarding the Calvinist position can be attributed to overlooking the crucial distinction between natural and moral ability (71).God’s promise to save all who believe in Jesus “is given to the elect and reprobate alike,” and “every human being, created in God’s image, has the natural ability to respond affirmatively to God’s promise” (71). That the reprobate do not choose to believe unto salvation is not because of a sovereign necessity imposed by God, making belief impossible. Rather, they refuse to believe because they are bound by sin. The elect believe because God gives them faith, but God can not be “reproached for leaving the rest to their own decision” (71). Once God has decreed something it becomes necessary, but the manner in which it comes about is not necessarily by coercion. “God’s decree is the source, not the obstacle, since it includes the decision that his purposes will be realized through the free action of creatures” (71). But we are held responsible for our response to what God has revealed to us, not for what he has kept hidden (72).

Our assurance of salvation rests in “God’s commitment to us, not our commitment to him,” but we must be wary of falling out of God’s grace, so as to be kept from false security (72). We should seek our election in Christ, who is the mirror of our election (74), not in the quality of our own repentance and faith (73). Similarly, we should preach the gospel indiscriminately, not in an attempt to find the elect but, when people believe, we will rejoice that God has chosen them in Christ (75). And if the children of godly parents die in infancy or are unable to believe through disability, the parents “ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children” (76, citing the Canons of Dort, which referenced Gen 17:7, Acts 2:39, and 1 Cor 7:14 in support of this hopefulness).

Reflections on Horton’s presentation

Not surprisingly, I am in substantial agreement with Horton’s understanding of the doctrine of election and I affirm the approach he has taken in presenting it. I believe that his arguments for divine election of individuals to salvation, unconditioned on human decisions, are strongly supported by Scripture. Horton shows his awareness of the alternate positions taken by Arminians and hyper-Calvinists, and I believe that he addresses the errors of those positions clearly and effectively. In particular, I think that his defense of God’s justice and love is well done. Admittedly, the persuasiveness of this defense will depend on the extent to which readers accept his arguments for the compatibility of God’s meticulous sovereignty and human responsibility. On that point, I think that Horton takes the best route available to us. He acknowledges that this compatibility is mysterious, but he affirms it because Scripture teaches both of these to be true, and he defines the conjunction with care, drawing on the distinctions made by Reformed orthodox theologians and creeds. Throughout Horton’s presentation, he indicates the practical and pastoral implications of the truth of God’s comprehensive control of history and of his elective grace.

I have just two relatively minor quibbles, but I’ll state them for the record. Given my Mennonite ancestry and my current ecclesial location within the Radical Reformation tradition, as a Baptist, it irked me to read Horton’s statement about “all of the Reformers” (54), which I cited above. A large proportion of the evangelical Protestant community, worldwide, exists in significant continuity with the Radical rather than the Magisterial Reformation, and synergism was alive and well in that branch of Protestantism, whose global spread is very impressive. The Radical Reformers should not be so blithely ignored.

Secondly, as attractive as it is to believe that God has elected to salvation all the children of godly parents, or those who are cognitively disabled, the biblical support given for this hope is inadequate. Additionally, I think it worth noting that Westminster Confession 10.3, which Horton cites in support of his belief in the election of all the children of believers who die as infants, is ambiguous, as is evident in the way it was understood by those of its time. The Confession stated that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit who worketh when and where and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (76). What this does not specify is whether all infants who die in infancy, and all the cognitively disabled, are elect, or whether there are some from among such people who are elect to salvation. Having observed this ambiguity, however, I will also point out that the statement conform with an accessibilist understanding of salvation better, I think, than it does with gospel exclusivism. At the least, it allows that some of those who die in infancy are elect, and that God saved them, through Christ by the Spirit, in an unusual way. Likewise, it asserts that this is also true of some of the unevangelized, who are “incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word,” possibly because no minister of that Word reaches them.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1,


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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