redeeming election

As I take up the challenge of becoming a little more confessional — and maybe even establishing some Reformed ‘cred’ — let me say up front that I believe in election (and predestination). I think the Bible teaches it.

I can hardly put it better than Article XVI of the Anglican Church:

Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour.

I want to be clear about this. I don’t want to hedge or qualify. Election doesn’t  need ‘redeeming’.

But I do want to say that, biblically, election is purposive. It aims at redemption: God consistently chooses some for the sake of all. It thus serves God’s work of reclaiming, perfecting and transforming his dearly-loved creation.

We see this in Genesis 12. God’s choice and call of Abraham is painted against the widest possible canvas, the creation of world pleasing to God, and the subsequent tragic rebellion and fall of humanity. Into the resulting situation of curse, God speaks to Abraham ,explicitly calling him out in order to bring blessing upon ‘all the families of the earth’.

Likewise, the nation of Israel is chosen not because of its moral or military impressiveness but in order to be a priestly kingdom who mediate the knowledge and blessing of God to the nations (Exodus 19).

Ultimately, when Jesus chooses and calls some Israelites in the Gospels — rough as guts fishermen, tax collectors, and even (mysteriously) at least one who would betray him — he commissions them as ‘fishers of men’ and calls them ‘a city on a hill’ and ‘the salt of the earth’. Later, he sends them out to announce the good news of the kingdom — first to Israel then to the world.

This is partly why, I believe, Article XVI goes on to speak of the ‘sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort’ election is to the godly. Rightly taken, it doesn’t feed anxiety or gnaw away at assurance (‘How can I ever know that I’m one of the elect?’). Nor does it bolster a triumphalism that licences ungodliness (‘I’m part of the elect but you aren’t’).

Rather, election motivates the godly person to live Christianly in firm confidence and ardent devotion.This is how the promise of election is ‘generally set forth to us in Holy Scripture’ (as the Article puts it). Even in 2 Peter 1, the exhortation to ‘make your calling an election sure’ is no invitation to introspection but a call to active faith manifested in Christian character.

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10 comments

  1. Hey Chris – I hope this comment finds you and Nat doing well!

    I am really looking forward to your forthcoming “kind of position statement,” and enjoyed this opening chapter on this sweet, pleasant and unspeakably comforting doctrine. I would only add that for an only marginal improvement on Article XVI your readers should turn to Chaper III/v of the Westminster Confession:

    Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto; and all to the praise of His glorious grace.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I’m quite interested on your take here. It’s certainly a perspective I haven’t previously considered and I especially enjoyed the conclusion of your last paragraph. I’d be interested in your further comment though. Is God’s action of election somehow to be considered “for” those who are not elect? That is, is the election of the members of the church in any way a blessing “for” the reprobate?

    As a minor side issue:

    “This is partly why, I believe, Article XVI goes on to speak of the ’sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort’ election is to the godly.”

    I’m pretty certain that the protestants didn’t have this perspective of election in mind when they framed this (and other) confessions. I think they speak of “sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort” because it makes salvation an act of God – something that no one (not even ourselves) can rob us of. For that reason it is a comfort. You can read in the post-Barthian take on election into the article if you like, and I’m even for it 🙂 You’ve enriched my understanding of election. But I don’t think it’s what’s going on in a fair reading of Article XVI.

    1. Hi Nathan, Hi Chris. Two really thoughtful and well-researched comments!

      Nathan, I have to admit that I heard Chris Wright make a similar point in a lecture about ‘the missional basis of the Bible (rather than the biblical basis of mission)’. In terms of what it means for the non-elect, I’m not really sure. I tried to speak of God’s universal purpose for ‘the world’, ‘the nations’ or ‘all the families of the earth’, which is the kind of language used in most of the elect texts that spring to my mind. I know that doesn’t answer your question (except to highlight my silence on the issue). Did you have any thoughts?

      Chris, I agree that the section of the Westminster Confession you cite does an excellent job of underlining — and putting in bold and capital letters — the graciousness of election. Having a glance back over the sequence of Articles XI-XVIII, the same kind of emphasis seems to emerge as it jumps up and down on the graciousness of God’s justification of us by faith in Christ. This is an emphasis, mind you, that may well speak to Nathan’s concern about what I might be reading in to Article XVII. The doctrine of election seems to appear here as part of a group of doctrines supporting, explaining and refining the key note of this section (and of the classic Reformed theology of the Articles as a whole) — that God has acted graciously, decisively and redemptively for the world in Christ.

  3. Thanks for you comment Chris. I have no further wisdom on the subject. I agree with you that election as the basis for worldwide blessing would certainly seem to be a biblical theme, particularly in Genesis.

    That being said, when it comes to the traditional reformed approach to the doctrine, I’m quite certain that election functions as the pillar of sola gratia. Reformation and post-reformation dogmatics never moves in the direction you have in this post.

    Mind you, Calvin gets quite close sometimes. At one point in his commentary on Job he says that “Christ died for them [the reprobate] as well as for us.” Perhaps there is some grounds to see the benefits of salvation/election as broader in some way than those who are saved/elected?

    1. Thanks Nathan. Calvin’s Job commentary’s already on my reading list — and it just move up a rung or three! I’m really fascinated by how far Calvin is willing to run with things in his exegesis that barely get a guernsey in the Institutes

    1. Hey Jenny,

      I’m not sure I’ve got all the crinkles ironed out, but if we take God’s election of Abraham as our starting point I think we can say that God chooses because he loves and is committed to all. The way Genesis 12 seems to provide a major turning point in the narrative — depicting the beginning of Israel’s particular story against the universal backdrop of creation-fall/curse — suggests that what God undertakes to do in/through Abraham will express both his loving intention to overcome the curse so that creation is redeemed (rather than undone as it almost was in the flood) and to do so without compromising his holy wrath against evil (and especially against human pride and rebellion). That and God explicitly promises that his particular blessing for Abraham will ultimately overflow for the sake of ‘all the families of the earth’.

      There are of course all sorts of surprises as we follow this thread through the Bible’s story, not least being the way Paul talks (in Romans 9-11) about God’s choice to graft the Gentiles into his chosen people being something that aims to provoke the historical chosen people (ie. Israel) to jealousy — so that they too may be saved in turn. Slightly less challenging (intellectually) is the fact that those who are chosen in Christ are not so much taken out of the world as sent back out into it for the sake of its redemption: salt of the earth, a city on a hill, etc. So, in a sense, his love for all is still being expressed by his choice of some.

      I don’t know… I’m still wrestling with it myself.

  4. Could u say that God’s love overarches election?so election is an out working of the love of God?

    This allows people to not ask the question; how can he choose some and not all bc he does want all to b saved?  

    1. I like that: God’s love overarches election … so election is an out working of the love of God. That sounds good to me.

      Although, I’m not sure it means that people can’t — or shouldn’t — ask the question and wrestle with it. As Andrew has really helpfully pointed out, it seems like the anguish the Apostle Paul experience over the issue of election, and the peril of unbelieving Israel, actually impels him into self-sacrificial outreach (and — I might add — careful, profoundly productive theological reflection).

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