Because of humankind's sinful, fallen and irrevocable state (total depravity), God out of His own mercy, grace and sovereignty decided to save many, not because anyone is worthy of His love and grace, but due solely to His astounding and transformational love and power. This is what is called "election" or "predestination." While most Bible students agree that "election" is taught in the Scriptures, there are a number of differences in theological interpretation. The Remonstrants disputed the commonly accepted viewpoint of the Reformers, positing that divine election or predestination to saving grace is conditional upon the free will decision of any man or woman. God foresees this faith response and on that basis "chooses" such people to salvation. This faith response of the sinner is not generated by God, but freely given by the person's "unconstrained" will or choice. In more popular terms, God gets a vote, Satan gets a vote but we cast the deciding ballot!
The historical Synod of Dort in 1619 turned back this viewpoint with the declaration that God's election to salvation is totally "unconditional." God's predestinating grace is given to people not on the basis of any foreseen faith in them or by them, but solely on the basis of God's self-determined choice and pleasure. God gives faith and repentance to each individual He selects. Thus, God's choice of the sinner, not the sinner's choice of God, is the deciding factor and ultimate cause of salvation. The Calvinistic scholar, Loraine Boettner (The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination) puts it this way: "It [unconditional election] was taught not only by Calvin, but by Luther, Zwingli, Melancthon (although Melancthon later retreated toward the Semi-Pelagian position), by Bullinger, Bucer, and all of the outstanding leaders in the Reformation. While differing on some other points they agreed on this doctrine of Predestination and taught it with emphasis."
Such is the strength of the biblical evidence for "election" that non-Calvinists usually maintain that the passages cited in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, such as in Romans 9-11, refer to Jewish national election by God, not to God's choice of anyone to saving faith, inclusive of both Jews and Gentiles. Thus, these interpreters believe they can hold to the Scriptural teaching yet maintain an Arminian-based theology and not interfere with the "free will" of humankind. It is exegetically questionable whether their arguments can stand in the context or weight of the whole Bible on this topic.
The Scriptural basis for the doctrine of unconditional election can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. It is obvious in the Old Testament Scriptures that God literally chose a certain people to salvation, as seen in Deuteronomy 10:14, 15 -- "the Lord set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day." Israel is often noted as God's chosen people (Psalm 33:12; 106:5; Haggai 2:23, etc). Jesus affirmed the Father's sovereign choice in such places as Matthew 11:27 -- "no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away" (John 6:37). Jesus Himself notes that there are "sheep" and "non-sheep" -- "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me--just as the Father knows me and I know the Father--and I lay my life down for the sheep." "He [the good shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3). And, the classic passage is found in Romans 8:28-30, called the Golden Chain of Redemption, "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son . . .and those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified." God's choice was made before the creation of the earth -- "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. . ." (Ephesians 1:4). Rather than "foreseen faith," faith is the result of God's choice and power -- "as many as were ordained to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48).
What This DOESN'T Mean
Unconditional election does NOT mean that God, like a Robot, mechanically selects a few people to be with Him eternally. That is a distortion on a number of fronts. First, divine election always flows from God's amazing LOVE and compassion for sinful mankind. Second, it is sheer mercy that ANY of us are saved, or are chosen by God to be with Him. We DESERVE eternal death and separation from God (SEE the last post on "Total Depravity"). Third, the NUMBER of the elect, according to the book of Revelation, is immense and to our finite minds, uncountable (Revelation 5:9; 7:9ff).
Unconditional election does NOT mean that God damns those unchosen to hell. This is "hyper-Calvinism," a logical, but unbiblical, extension of the teaching of election. The non-elect themselves choose their fate by continuing in their rebellion and hatred of God. They are "left to themselves" in other words.
Unconditional election does NOT save anyone. It is crucial to salvation, but it is by faith and resultant good works that a person confirms his calling and election by God (1 Peter 1:5-11; Acts 13:48; 2 Timothy 2:10). Election is part of the divine process but it is not the end-all of salvation.
What this DOES Mean
The teaching of unconditional election is a precious and wonderful doctrine to the Christian. It gives the believer great hope and security and peace in knowing that God the Father and Jesus the Son have loved us with an everlasting love. Jesus died for us and through the Holy Spirit gives us that wonderful promise of eternal life. Unconditional election never allows us to "pre-judge" anyone. No one knows the elect except God. Unconditional election actually propels the believer to share his or her faith since we know God HAS definitely chosen many to enjoy and experience His saving power. They WILL respond favorably to the gospel presentation and message.
No, this is not a "cruel" doctrine or teaching. It is God's gift to humanity.