Some who deny the Calvinistic doctrine of divine, sovereign, unconditional election of some individuals to eternal life employ an argument about the biblical teaching on election that goes something like this: Scripture always addresses as elect those who are already believers. In light of this truth, we should infer that election is a corporate reality that becomes true of someone once he or she becomes a believer. Christians are elect by virtue of the fact that they have been joined to the elect community. On this view, election is not about the eternal destinies of individuals foreordained before the foundation of the world. It is about God’s purpose for the church as a whole, to which any individual may join himself or herself by faith in Christ. The church is “elect,” and I only become “elect” when I join myself to it.
There are numerous problems with this view, but one that seems insurmountable to me is this: in some places Scripture attributes the fact that some do not believe in Christ to the fact that they have not been chosen by God. The view described above (sometimes called “corporate election”) cannot account for this teaching. Those who are not elect, on the corporate election view, are simply those who never believe. The reason they do not believe cannot be because they are not elect, because no one is elect prior to believing, on the corporate election view. If not being elect were the cause of not believing, then no one would ever believe.
And yet Scripture teaches that some do not believe in Christ because they have not been chosen by God to believe. Take Jesus’ argument in John 6:36-39:
36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
In context, Jesus is giving a theological explanation for the fact that the masses do not believe in him. By doing so, he defends himself from the charge that he is a failed Messiah because he cannot gather and keep a large following. In essence, Jesus says, “You all do not believe in me because you were not given to me by the Father.” In other words, Jesus tells the masses who do not believe, “You are not among the elect, and that is why you do not believe. I have not failed here. My mission is to keep all of those given to me by the Father. Since you do not belong to that group, your departure from me does not indicate any failure on my part to do what the Father has sent me to do.”
The same truth comes out after Jesus finishes his discourse, climaxing with a statement that it is necessary to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. John 6:60-65 reads:
60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
Verse 65 is key: Jesus says, once again, “You do not believe because the Father has not granted it to you. You are not among the elect, so your departure from me now is nothing less than the fulfillment of God’s plan from eternity.” (See also the same kind of statement in John 10:26.)
The point to take home here is that the Bible speaks, on occasion, of election in a negative sense. What I mean is that it specifically identifies those who are not elect and uses that theological reality to explain why they do not believe in Christ. This doctrine, as difficult as it may be, is ultimately a comfort to believers because it teaches us that God’s purposes are never thwarted, even by those who will never willingly bend the knee to Christ.
A doctrine of election that is merely corporate simply will not do. It cannot account for the fact that some do not believe precisely because God, who is under no obligation to save them, has chosen to allow them to follow their sin to its ultimate end. If you are a believer in Christ, give thanks to God right now. The only reason you have not been allowed to follow your sins right into hell is because God, in his sovereign grace, set his favor upon you. It is the grace of God alone that causes us to differ.