Unconditionally Elect and Children of Wrath?

St John writes: "Whoever believes [lit., is believing and continues to believe] in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects [lit., is rejecting and continues to reject] the Son will not see life [fig., heaven], for God's wrath remains on them." (John 3:36 NIV, emphasis added) What is "God's wrath"? Dr. David J. Ellis comments: "In the NT for the most part the wrath of God is spoken of in eschatological [end-times] terms."1 He notes that one's present state, with regard to one's relationship to God through Jesus Christ, whether in Christ by grace through faith or not, attests to one being judged even now, prior to the eschatological future. Divine wrath is divine anger.

This "divine anger" is expressed most clearly in the Cross event. Jesus is confessed as being "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29) This offering, to take away the sin of the world, is framed in universalistic language. The author does not confess, however, that the Lamb of God takes away the wrath of God within a universalistic context. The divine anger of God remains upon the one who continues to reject the Son (John 3:36). The wrath of God "is [presently] being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth." (Rom. 1:18 NRSV) How is the divine wrath being revealed? Each time God delivers one over to their depraved nature, the divine anger is displayed, and this state renders the individual hopeless. (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28) Such people will not and cannot be saved.

Moreover, the one who continues to reject "the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience," refusing to realize that "God's kindness is meant to lead [one] to repentance," such a one, by one's "hard and impenitent heart," is "storing up wrath for [oneself] on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed." (Rom. 2:4, 5, emphasis added) For such people, on that terrible Day, "there will be wrath and fury." (Rom. 2:8) But if one should, by the gracious enabling of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11; Rom. 2:5; Eph. 2:8), trust in Christ, such a one will be justified (Rom. 5:1), and "saved through him [Christ] from the wrath of God." (Rom. 5:9)

We must never lose sight of the fact that God is willing, even desiring and intending, to "show his wrath and to make known his power," though He continually endures "with much patience the objects of wrath that are made [lit., κατηρτισμένα, prepared] for destruction." (Rom. 9:22) This "prepared for destruction" is framed in the Greek as a perfect passive participle: lit. is being shaped, being molded and compacted together, being prepared for destruction. Such objects of God's wrath were not predetermined beforehand to this state (i.e., predestined or predetermined or decreed for eternity in hell or separation from God), though the verb form is in the perfect tense, but suggests, rather, attention to the resultant state rather than the experience itself.

The apostle Paul teaches us that, through our lived-out disobediences and sins, we are considered "dead" (Eph. 2:1). This "dead" state relates to the concept of being separated from the life of and a right relationship with God (cf. Isa. 59:2; Luke 15:24, 32; Eph. 2:12). The apostle informs us that, in this state, we are by nature children of the wrath of God Almighty (Eph. 2:3). After all, "the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient" (Eph. 5:6; cf. Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:16; 5:9; Rev. 6:16; 14:10, 19; 19:15), and each and every individual ever born experiences this inner disobedience toward God (Eph. 2:3). So, apart from union with Christ, by grace through faith in the same, every single person remains within the state as an object of the wrath of God (Eph. 2:3; John 3:36). Apart from union with Christ, we are strangers to God (Eph. 2:12), and enemies of God (Rom. 5:10).

This indicates, then, within a Calvinistic framework, that a person can be, at the same time and in the same manner, both an unconditionally elect individual and an object of God's divine wrath. Is this concept a paradox or does the notion betray the law of identity and, thus, opposes the law of non-contradiction? I think the latter is true -- that the Calvinistic position promotes an idea necessitating that the two states of identity are actually mutually exclusive. In other words, a person cannot exist as an object of God's wrath, anger and hatred while also being an object that He, from eternity past, unconditionally elected unto faith and salvation. Calvin writes:
Our being reconciled by the death of Christ must not be understood as if the Son reconciled us [the unconditionally elect], in order that the Father, then hating [the unconditionally elect], might begin to love us, but that we were reconciled to Him already, loving, though at enmity with us because of sin [the sin that God allegedly decreed from eternity past]. To the truth of both propositions we have the attestations of the Apostle, "God commendeth His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8).2 (emphases added)
Before we continue reading from Calvin we must address two concepts: 1) Calvin has, previously, contextualized the referents "us" and "we" and "our" to those whom God unconditionally elected unto faith and salvation. The reader must keep this in mind. He is not referring to all humanity in a general sense. From Calvin's point of view, God never intended to offer salvation to the world but only to His unconditionally pre-selected ones. 2) His interpretation of a passage such as Romans 5:8, that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, also refers to the unconditionally elect. Christ was sent by the Father to die for and reconcile back to God those whom He unconditionally pre-selected for salvation. Yet, in the eternal mind of God, from Calvin's perspective, and from the perspective of the Calvinist, God considered these select ones as already reconciled. From His eternal point of view, such were to never experience the wrath of God (cf. the Calvinistic interpretation of passages such as Romans 8:29, 30). How so?

Calvin insists that, by the death of Christ, the unconditionally elect were already reconciled to the Father by His own particular, unconditionally-selective, and saving love for them. The Father does not love the unconditionally elect because Jesus, by His death, reconciled them. He loved them already. He reconciled them already out of His eternal love for them. Calvin continues:
Therefore He had this love towards us [the unconditionally elect] even when, exercising enmity towards Him, we were the workers of iniquity. Accordingly, in a manner wondrous and divine, He loved even when He hated us. For He hated us when we were such as He had not made us, and yet because our iniquity had not destroyed His work in every respect, He knew in regard to each one of us, both to hate what we had made, and love what He had made.3
But He, allegedly, only hates "what we had made" because He decreed for us to make what we had made of ourselves -- i.e., made ourselves sinners by disobeying Him. Calvin and Calvinists cannot have their proverbial cake and eat it, too, since by their own confessions they admit that God has decreed, from eternity past, every minutiae of our existence.4 So, in one vessel, Calvin proffers that such can be an object of the wrath of God as well as an unconditionally-elected being. If so, then in what sense did that object of the wrath of God actually experience the wrath of God, since God had predetermined the individual would not experience the wrath of God?

In this life, the wrath of God is presently being revealed and displayed in those whom God delivers unto their own depraved natures, giving them what they truly desire -- an existence outside of the life of and a right relationship with God (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). But such a view of the wrath of God was never intended by God for the alleged unconditionally elect. How, then, can anyone suggest that the unconditionally elect were ever a true child of wrath? Yet, the apostle Paul explicitly states as much, insisting that all of us were, at one time, an object of the wrath of God. (Eph. 2:3) Why were we objects of the wrath of God? Because we were not trusting in, followers of, and in union with Jesus Christ (John 3:36). Until the very moment when we respond to the Holy Spirit, through faith in Jesus Christ, we are an object of the wrath of God. We are at a loss in determining exactly how the Calvinist can agree with this explicitly-biblical teaching.

Let this be clear: We are not arguing that God is incapable of both hating and loving His enemies. God would not command us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44), and to pray for and bless those who persecute us (Luke 6:28; Rom. 12:14), unless He practices the same. From the Cross, Jesus Himself cries out, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) Jesus expresses unearthly compassion toward His accusers, and those murdering Him slowly, by asking the Father to forgive their ignorance. In this we view no inconsistency, that God can love and hate His enemies. What we do find inconsistent is that God could consider the object of His so-called electing love, a love that extends back to eternity past, as a child of wrath at the same time and in the same manner. Philosophically, one might suggest that this notion is tantamount to insisting that an individual can be both married and single at the same time and in the same manner.

Consider what Calvinists refer to as the Golden Chain of Redemption: "Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified." Rom. 8:30 ESV) From a Calvinistic understanding of this passage, we learn that God predetermined to save some people, and not others, and He then "called," "justified," and "glorified" these unconditionally elect persons. Note that, in the Greek text, all the verbs (predestined, called, justified and glorified) are aorist active indicatives. Why is this significant? Because the aorist tense, when presented in the indicative mood, is translated as simple past tenses without necessarily referring to eternity past.5 One need not necessarily infer that God, from eternity past, predetermined certain ones unto spiritually-salvific blessings.

However, if we assume a Calvinistic interpretation of this passage, and God's eternal decree to unconditionally elect some unto salvation and not others, then the other verbs mentioned in this text also refer to an action belonging to eternity: God called them from eternity past; God justified them from eternity past; and God glorified them from eternity past. We are not permitted to arbitrarily choose which verbs in this text refer to eternity past and which do not; and suggesting that God predetermined the salvation of some imagined unconditionally elect persons, but that God calls them in time, justifies them in time, and glorifies them in time, then such betrays the aorist (past) tenses of those verbs. The conundrum should be evident: a Calvinistic understanding of this passage warrants a hyper-Calvinistic context for eternal justification.

John Piper argues: "Paul says that the death of the Son did its justifying work for us while we were still helpless and ungodly and enemies of God. In a sense our acquittal is absolutely independent of anything in us at all. Our debt was canceled while we were still in jail." (link) But if the debt of the unconditionally elect was already canceled, as Calvin also argues -- the unconditionally elect were already reconciled -- then God has no more claim, no divine complaints, no divine wrath against such people. This is why so many young Calvinists insist that they were saved 2000 years ago when Christ died on the cross. They then quickly intuit that God applies the benefits of this action in time. If so, then such were never children of the wrath of God, at any moment of their existence from their birth. If this inference is correct, then St Paul is, clearly, incorrect (Eph. 2:3), and we are inevitably mandated to choose whom to believe.


1 David J. Ellis, "John," in The International Bible Commentary with the NIV, ed. F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 1240.

2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), I.16.4.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., I.18.1, 4. Cf. Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 319-30; Wayne A. Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 143.

5 The aorist tense is "used for simple, undefined action. In the indicative mood," such as we discover at Romans 8:30, "the aorist tense usually denotes a simple act occurring in past time. It should be distinguished from the imperfect tense which signifies continuous action in past time. With few exceptions, whenever the aorist tense is used in any mood other than the indicative, the verb does not have any temporal significance. In other words, it refers only to the reality of an event or action." Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible: Key Insights into God's Word: NASB, ed. Spiros Zodhiates (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2008), 1703.


Post a Comment


My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.