Does Acts 13:48 Teach Unconditional Election

For the last several months I have been preaching a sermon series on the Book of Acts and I recently finished a message on Acts 13. As I neared the end of the chapter, I was reminded of one of the “proof texts” Calvinists often use to point toward the doctrine that many refer to as “Unconditional Election.” Acts 13:48 says, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”[1] (emphasis mine) During my message, I briefly dealt with the issue of Unconditional Election, promising my congregation that I would deal with this text in more detail in a future message. This article is birthed out of my desire to help people clearly see the error of “Unconditional Election” and why Acts 13:48 cannot be used to teach this doctrine. While I do not want to disparage my Calvinist brothers and sisters, I believe that it is imperative that we not shy away from difficult passages of Scripture that have been misunderstood and misinterpreted to teach something about God the Scriptures do not teach. God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). All of humanity has intrinsic value and worth and I do not believe He has left anyone out of His redemptive plan. Although not all will be saved, I believe everyone can be (John 3:16, Romans 10:9-10), through the provision of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

For those of you who may not be familiar with what Calvinists believe, Calvinism can be summed up with five basic points that can be remembered using the acrostic TULIP:

  • T-Total Depravity
  • U-Unconditional Election
  • L-Limited Atonement
  • I-Irresistible Grace
  • P-Perseverance of the Saints

In future messages and articles, I plan to deal with the other four points of Calvinism, but for sake of space and time I will only be focusing on the doctrine of “Unconditional Election” and why I believe it is incompatible with Acts 13:48 and the rest of Scripture.

Before going any further I would like to introduce you to one of the best explanations regarding election that I have ever read. W. W. Klein does a masterful job explaining the two main views of election in an article he wrote for the Faithlife Study Bible. Klein notes that election refers to God’s choice of who to redeem and restore through Christ. In his article he also points out the difference between corporate and individual election. Corporate election refers to God’s choice of Abraham and his descendants being His chosen people and the one’s through which the Messiah would be born. This corporate election did not guarantee the salvation of every Jew, because they still needed to have a heart commitment of faith toward God (Isaiah 29:13). He then talks about the New Testament shift in which God’s chosen are no longer identified by ethnic characteristics but rather by faith in God and His redemptive plan (Romans 2:28-29). Both Jews and Gentiles could become the true children of Abraham (John 8:38-40, 56-59; Romans 4:16-17). Klein goes on to say…

Historically, nearly all Christian interpreters have agreed that God’s electing choice flows entirely from His grace, that human beings are moral agents responsible for our actions, and that personal participation in the community of the elect is by faith. But interpreters fall into two major approaches to the question of how God’s electing purpose comes to expression in the salvation of individuals: what might be called election unto faith versus election in view of faith. Are people believers because they are elect, or are they elect because they believe?

Many interpreters (like Augustine and Calvin) have understood the biblical data on election to mean that God has chosen to save an unknown number of specific individuals from the deserved consequences of all humanity’s sin—a choice based solely on God’s undeserved mercy. Because people are dead in sin if left to themselves, they cannot and will not embrace God’s gift of salvation apart from God’s own enabling power (Rom 3:9–19; John 10:26–29). God supplies His elect with a gracious and undeserved capacity to believe; election is unto faith, since faith is a gift of God (Eph 2:4–9).

Many other interpreters (like Arminius and Wesley) have understood the biblical data differently, taking it to mean that God does not elect unto faith, but desires to give all people equally the ability to receive His offer of salvation (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9) Everyone who believes is (therefore) included among the chosen…

Whichever approach is taken, the biblical theme of election should lead all believers to praise God, like Paul does, for graciously choosing—even before the foundation of the world—to love us and save us in Christ (Eph 1:4–5; 2:14–22; emphasis mine).[2]

There you have it. A summary of the two views on election. Calvinists believe that God elected certain people to faith, while I believe that we are elected based upon our faith. It is vitally important to understand faith is a gift from God, however, Arminians do not believe this is an “irresistible gift” as Calvinists would teach. We believe this gift can be thrust aside and that’s exactly what many of the Jews did in Acts 13:46. Jesus references a similar rejection in Matthew 23:37 when He said, “’O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” [3] (emphasis mine). To further demonstrate the Calvinist’s take on election and irresistible grace I would like to quote a very well known, and well-respected Calvinist of our day, John Piper:

Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. It is unconditional in that there is no condition man must meet before God chooses to save him. Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.

We are not saying that final salvation is unconditional. It is not. We must meet the condition of faith, for example, in Christ in order to inherit eternal life. But faith is not a condition for election. Just the reverse. Election is a condition for faith. It is because God chose us before the foundation of the world that he purchases our redemption at the cross, and then gives us spiritual life through irresistible grace, and brings us to faith.

Acts 13:48 reports how the Gentiles responded to the preaching of the gospel in Antioch of Pisidia. “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” Notice, it does not say that as many believed were chosen to be ordained to eternal life. It says that those who were ordained to eternal life (that is, those whom God had elected) believed. God’s election preceded faith and made it possible. This is the decisive reason some believed while others did not (emphasis mine). [4]

I want to let John Piper’s words speak for themselves. Note that he says in the first paragraph above, “Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save.” He says there is NO condition man must meet, but in the next paragraph he admits that “We must meet the condition of faith…but faith is not a condition for election.” In summary, Calvinists, like Piper would teach that God arbitrarily elects according to His own good pleasure and for His glory those He will redeem and then gives the elect irresistible grace and brings them to faith.  In the last paragraph he then proceeds to share one of the proof texts that Calvinists often point out to demonstrate their belief in unconditional election—Acts 13:48.

In the MacArthur Study Bible, John MacArthur, another well-known Calvinist, says that Acts 13:48 is, “One of Scripture’s clearest statements on the sovereignty of God in salvation. God chooses man for salvation, not the opposite.”[5] In his commentary on the book of Acts, Danny Dwyer, also reiterates the fact that Calvinists use this Scripture as one of their proof texts regarding Unconditional Election. Dwyer notes:

Calvinists hold that [this verse] confirms the teaching of sovereign election in the choice of people who are saved by the “sovereign good pleasure of God” (Berkhof). John Calvin states, “For this particular ordaining can only be understood of the eternal purpose of God…for He does not choose us after we have believed; but He seals His adoption, which was hidden, by the gift of faith in our hearts.” Calvinists therefore hold that some in Antioch had been elected to be saved by sovereign decree in eternity past and now they acted in faith as decreed…[6]

The questions Arminians must answer is, “Does Acts 13:48 teach Unconditional Election as many of the Calvinists so adamantly teach? If not, what is the correct interpretation and application of this passage of Scripture?” As with any passage of Scripture we must understand the context of the passage in order to understand its interpretation and application.

Acts 13 begins with the church in Antioch responding to the Holy Spirit’s direction to set Barnabas and Saul (Paul) apart for a specific work (v. 2). This is what we would come to know as their first missionary journey. On their journey, they take the Gospel to various places including the island of Cyprus. While there, they share the Gospel and are confronted with two distinct responses: Barjesus, also known as Elymas, seeks to turn Sergius Paulus from the faith (v. 8), but despite the opposition, Sergius Paulus responds with faith (v. 12). After leaving Cyprus, their journey eventually takes them to Antioch in Pisidia (v. 14) and, as would become their custom, they first take the Gospel to the Jews in the synagogue (v. 15).

Paul addresses those who are in the synagogue and speaks to two distinct groups of people: (1) the “Men of Israel” and (2) “you who fear God” (v. 16). He refers to these two groups again in verse 26: (1) “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham,” and (2) “those among you who fear God.” The distinction is made for a third time in verse 43 as Luke, the writer of Acts, demonstrates the two groups of people who had been listening to Paul’s message: (1) “Jews” and (2) “devout converts to Judaism.” It is important to establish the fact that there are not only Jews in the audience, but there are also Gentiles there who have embraced the God of the Old Testament by faith. They are referred to as individuals who “fear God” and who are “devout converts to Judaism.”

As Paul shared the word of the Lord the following Sabbath, the crowd has swelled in size (v. 44). This sent the unbelieving Jews into a jealous frenzy and they began contradicting Paul’s message and slandering him (v. 45). Paul and Barnabas responded to their vicious attacks by accusing them of rejecting God’s Word. As a result, their message would now focus on the other group of people, the Gentiles (vv. 46-47). This, of course, excited the Gentile believers because it reminded them they could be grafted into the family of God by faith (v. 48). Verse 48 reads this way in the ESV, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.[7] (emphasis mine)

To clearly understand what is being taught in this passage, it is important to answer two questions about this verse: (1) What did Paul mean by the word “appointed,” and (2) who was being appointed? In his commentary on the book of Acts Dr. Dwyer deals with the meaning of the word:

The Greek word translated [appointed] (Greek tetagmenoi) is a perfect passive participle and is taken from a military term meaning “to appoint, arrange, position, or assign” …Brian Abasciano argues strong for the translation “were disposed”…[8]

Greek scholar, Dr. Robert Picirilli, seems to agree with Abasciano’s assessment. He adds:

Even in the English language a passive voice verb can be used with such a ‘middle’ sense, having no reference at all to some agent other than oneself. Thus we say, for example, ‘I am disposed’ to do something or other, or ‘I am inclined’ to act in a certain way, and we do not mean that someone else has disposed or inclined us…There is no convincing reason, then, to think that Acts 13:48 means that God had already ordained or appointed to eternal life those who were saved by faith in Antioch.[9]

With that said, Acts 13:48b could be rightly translated, “and as many as were already inclined to eternal life believed.” Who would have been the individuals “already inclined to eternal life”? In my opinion, it was the Gentiles who were already known as those who “fear God” (vv. 16, 26) and who were “devout converts to Judaism” (v. 43). Therefore, we have answered the two questions referred to above.

Calvinists believe, however, that God elects people to faith, rather than electing people because of their faith. They not only believe in total depravity, but they also believe in fallen man’s total inability to respond to the Gospel. In the same article referred to earlier, Piper said, “all of us are so depraved that we cannot come to God without being born again by the irresistible grace of God.” Calvinists believe that man must be regenerated before they can believe. They assume that being “dead in trespasses and in sins” (Ephesians 2:1) is the same as total inability to respond to the preached word and the drawing of the Holy Spirit. That’s why Piper went on to say, “Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So, there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.” (emphasis mine) Arminians would agree that lost mankind cannot respond to God apart from the Word (see Romans 10:14-17) and the influence of the Holy Spirit (see John 6:44). Forlines admits, “In both cases, the human personality exercises faith by divine aid. In Calvinism, the divine aid is regeneration by the Holy Spirit. In Arminianism, the divine aid is the drawing and assisting power of the Holy Spirit.”[10] However, as stated above the drawing of the Holy Spirit can be resisted and thrust aside.

One of the clearest passages to me, that demonstrates the ability of man to respond to the Word of God and the drawing of the Holy Spirit prior to regeneration is found in Acts 28:23-28:

When they had appointed a day for [Paul], they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening [Paul] expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. 24 And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved. 25 And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: 26 “ ‘Go to this people, and say, “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” 27 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.28 Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”[11] (emphasis mine)

After Paul expounds to them the “kingdom of God” and seeks to “convince them about Jesus” from the Law and the Prophets (v. 23), some were “convinced” and others “disbelieved” (v. 24). As Paul contemplated the results of his message, he was reminded of a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah (see again vv. 26-28 from the above passage). Why would they never understand? Was it because of their total inability due to their deadness? Was it because they were not elected to faith? No! It was because their hearts had “grown dull.” If we assume that being spiritually “dead” and being totally depraved means total inability to respond to the Gospel and the drawing of the Holy Spirit then why would Isaiah say their hearts had “grown dull.” The reason they had become calloused to the truth is because they had RESISTED the Word and the working of the Holy Spirit. They closed their eyes (v. 27). Yes, they were depraved, and yes, they were “spiritually dead” but they still had the capacity to respond to the truth and the working of the Holy Spirit. As a result of their resistance, their eyes were being blinded to the truth (see also 2 Corinthians 4:4…why would the “god” of this world seek to blind people’s eyes to the truth if they are so dead they are unable to respond?). In contrast, what would have happened if they had positively responded to the Gospel? Verse 27 makes it clear: “…lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them (emphasis mine).”

I do not believe Acts 13:48 is a good passage of Scripture to teach Unconditional Election. For that matter, I do not believe Unconditional Election is taught anywhere in Scripture when God’s Word is rightly understood in its context.

In conclusion I would like to present to you what Dr. Picirilli refers to as “The Arminian Doctrine of Election”:

  • Election is Christocentric…Christ (not election per se) is the foundation of the church; salvation is by Christ (not by election, except as election is an expression of God’s love in Christ); the gospel is about Christ (not about God’s decree of election). God saw man as lost, He said: “I will make my Son a mediator and love men in Him.”
  • Election is personal and individual. This is not to deny that there is such a thing, in the Bible, as national election or election to particular roles of service. But these are not election to salvation…What Arminius taught was election of individuals as believers, but individuals nevertheless.
  • Election is eternal. God’s will to save (which includes both determining what the condition is and knowing who will meet it and electing to save them) is as eternal as He is…Arminius…defined election as the decree of God by which He determined from all eternity to justify believers (emphasis mine).
  • Election is conditional. This is Arminian’s main point of departure from Calvinism…faith is the “condition” for election. For Arminius, if salvation is by faith, then election is by faith. If salvation is conditional, election is…God’s eternal decisions are made without any conditions imposed on Him. He has unconditionally decreed a conditional election, electing people as believers (emphasis mine).[12]

Conditional election is decreed by God, not by man, therefore it does not in any way deny His sovereignty. God is sovereign, but in His sovereignty, He has chosen to give man a limited free will. Part of the free will that he has given mankind allows them to choose to respond positively to His revelation and working of the Holy Spirit or to cast it aside and refuse it.

Regardless of what you believe, I think every believer, whether Calvinist or Arminian can agree with the assessment given earlier by W. W. Klein. I would like to end this article with a portion of his words as quoted previously:

Historically, nearly all Christian interpreters have agreed that God’s electing choice flows entirely from His grace, that human beings are moral agents responsible for our actions, and that personal participation in the community of the elect is by faith…

Whichever approach is taken, the biblical theme of election should lead all believers to praise God, like Paul does, for graciously choosing—even before the foundation of the world—to love us and save us in Christ.[13] (emphasis mine)

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ac 13:48). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[2] Klein, W. W. (2012, 2016). Election. In Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 23:37). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[4] https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-we-believe-about-the-five-points-of-calvinism

[5] MacArthur, John. (1997). Brief commentary on Acts 13:48 in The MacArthur Study Bible, Nashville, Word Publishing.

[6] Dwyer, Danny L. (2018). p. 207. The Randall House Bible Commentary: Acts, Nashville, Randall House.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ac 13:48). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[8] Dwyer, p. 208.

[9] Picirilli, Robert E. (2017) p. 115-116. Free Will Revisited: A Respectful Response to Luther, Calvin and Edwards, Wipf & Stock.  

[10] Forlines, F. Leroy (2011) p. 121. Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation. Nashville: Randall House.

[11] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ac 28:23–28). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[12] Picirilli, Robert, E. (2002) pp. 49-54. Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism, Nashville: Randall House.

[13] Klein.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s