Below is a portion of a March 21-22, 2013 John 3:16 Conference presentation.
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Who Are the Elect?
Eric Hankins, Ph.D.
Recently, I made my first trip to Israel. It’s hard to describe how powerful it is to see in living color the place where the God who speaks and acts executed His plan to save us all through His chosen people and His Chosen One. It was an utterly providential juxtaposition that I would be in God’s chosen land at the same time I was finishing this lecture on election. In that place so imbued with the words and deeds of the covenant-making God, in that place where the convergence of election and mission whispers through every valley, two fundamental theological realities were radically reinforced. The first was the intensity of God’s passion for covenant relationship with all people. He doggedly engages us in the context of human history and calls us ubiquitously to fellowship with Himself. Unquestionably, this pursuit requires a response of faith from us. What transpires in the interaction and response of men to God matters in the unfolding of His plan. The question that echoed in my head as we travelled from place to place was, “Why would God go through this incredibly complex, incredibly painful process of bringing salvation by faith through the history Israel and her Messiah and His church if, in the end, it is all just ‘sound and fury signifying nothing?’ What purpose is there for putting on this show if the fix were already in without any consideration of our real response to Him?”
There is, however, no question that everything unfolded exactly as God had planned. The outcome was never in doubt, no matter how badly sinners rebelled. From Jeroboam’s sickening temple to Baal in Dan to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, the capacity for pure evil in the human heart is boundless. Yet, God makes a way, secured ultimately in the person and work of His Son. God’s promises for saving relationship with us have never been in question, but these promises for saving relationship with Him demand a real response of faith.
Second, everywhere I turned, Israel displayed the magnificence of God’s mission to and through that particular and peculiar chosen place for the whole world. Israel is tiny, about the size of New Jersey, and most of it is desert. It has essentially no natural resources, nothing inherently valuable. Even the interesting part is ordinary. The Sea of Galilee is a lake and not a very big one. The Jordan River is a creek. The only real mountain is Hermon. Cities that sound so epic to our ears, Capernaum, Nazareth, Cana, were villages of a few hundred in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ ministry took place in an astoundingly small, astoundingly common place. So, why was I so deeply moved everywhere we went? Why do millions visit from all over the world every year? Because what happened there in that small place of small people through that One Solitary Life was for us all. From the hill where Jesus taught to the hill where He died to the hill where He commissioned, Jesus empowered and taught those unremarkable people that they had been especially selected by God to change the world. Through this tiny postage stamp of a place, through these difficult people, and through One Man, the good news of salvation has gone out to the whole world.
My time in Israel, therefore, reinforced two fundamental realities about election that form the basic premise of this lecture: Whatever our view of election, it is wrong if it means we are not free to respond in faith, because without freedom to respond, covenant relationship is impossible. And, whatever our view of election, it is wrong if it means that salvation is not for every person in the world.
So, who are the elect? The typical, though truncated but not necessarily incorrect, answer is that the elect are those individuals whom God has chosen for eternal life. The doctrine of election emphasizes the utter necessity of God’s initiative in, provision for, and administration of the salvation of sinners. About this, there is little on which to disagree. The question that vexes us is, “What, precisely, does God’s choice of sinners for salvation entail?” While there are a variety of dynamics to this question, I believe the heart of the issue of election for most of us has to do with the nature of God’s foreknowledge of and providential activity in the salvation of free individuals, freedom being an essential aspect of human existence. The Scriptures give us the concept of election, and what is most interesting to us about the concept is that, on some level, it means that God has a certain plan to bring about an individual’s salvation, a plan which must include his responsibility to respond freely. So, the key question of the doctrine of election for our purposes could be put like this, “What precisely is the nature of God’s certain plan to save free individuals?”
Our question of the doctrine election, therefore, is a specific issue within the larger doctrinal category of soteriology. Soteriology asks the question like this: “Who are the saved?” That question has, for Southern Baptists, a simpler answer than the one which I’ve been assigned. “Who are the saved?” The saved are all those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ alone. Therefore, from the outset of this discussion, the critical relevance of the faith-response of individuals to the gospel will be allowed to have its full weight and central significance. When the question of the salvation of individuals is raised in Scripture, the primary biblical answer is “faith,” not “election.” The faith-response of the individual is necessary to his salvation. Calvinists, of course, will exclaim that their view of unconditional election affirms this as well, but, ultimately, they do not mean what I mean, they do not mean what most Southern Baptists mean, and the logical consequences of what they believe actually eviscerate the biblical meaning of faith. Calvinists believe that the faith-response of certain sinners has been determined by God alone. I do not. The only way for a faith-response to be meaningful is if it is free, not determined. I will not hide from the fact that our real freedom is necessary for our salvation. The sovereign God of all things can create any kind of universe He likes. If God wanted a world filled with automatons who always do His bidding (even if the automatons think they are doing what they desire most, though they have no choice over their desires) then He is certainly well-able to have that kind of world. But the Scripture clearly teaches that our ability to choose between revealed, morally-differentiated options is real and that these choices, including our response to the gospel, matter to God. Certainly, this world and human nature have been radically marred by compounding sin, but God continues to call us to covenant relationship through the Spirit and the Word, and our response of faith matters. For it to matter, it must be free. For it to be free, we must be able to do otherwise. Again, I don’t apologize for the significance of human freedom in salvation. God created the world this way because it is the best possible world. Therefore, whatever election means, it must include real freedom. Whoever the elect are, their free response plays a part in their salvation.
Moreover, when the Bible raises the soteriological question, “Who are the saved?” the answer is unequivocally “anyone.” Anyone can be saved. This is in keeping with the central soteriological claim of the Bible: God wants everyone to be saved; therefore, anyone can be saved. Whatever election means, it cannot contradict this central claim. Therefore, from the outset of this discussion, I must state clearly that election cannot mean that God chooses some and not others without respect to their free response of faith. Election cannot mean that only some are saved while the rest are damned for God’s good pleasure alone, having nothing to do with the individual, unless you dispense with the clear teaching of Scripture and its central soteriological claim that God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved.
The savability of all and the necessity of freedom form some of the crucial boundaries of biblical soteriology and, therefore, they control the meaning of election. Therefore, these two issues are at the crux of the conflict between ourselves and Calvinists. Calvinists do not believe what we believe about freedom or savability. In fact, I want to assert here that they do not believe in freedom or savability at all in the normal sense of the terms but only in the most qualified and, frankly, contradictory sense. This is not about mystery or antinomy or paradox. I am fine with those who want to say that it is a mystery how God is sovereign in salvation and yet we are responsible. But Calvinists are not appealing to mystery; they are appealing to a contradiction. They are saying that God causes the free faith response of sinners. God determines their free choices. Despite the protests of Calvinists (“You are misrepresenting our views! We believe in freedom! We believe that faith matters! We believe in God's love for all!”), their determinism simply does not work.
Now, I can already hear the protests of Calvinists: In Wayne Grudem’s chapter on election and reprobation in his systematic theology, he anticipates our objections to his doctrine of unconditional election. Non-Calvinists like me raise six problems for which Grudem believes there are simple answers:
I agree with Grudem that this is essentially the list of objections. Grudem’s answers, however, to these objections are all the same. He simply assumes that theistic determinism is true. So, (1) God causes us to choose Christ freely. (2) If God says that caused choices are free, that settles it. (3) We are not robots; we are people. But all of our choices are caused by someone else (like robots). (4) Unbelievers do have a chance to believe, but in the deterministic way in which the matter is already settled. (5) Unconditional Election is fair because God can do whatever He wants because He determines everything. (6) God does want to save everyone, but He wants to determine to save only some even more, so He sort of doesn’t want to save everyone. In Grudem’s chapter on providence, he essentially admits that he doesn’t know how God can determine everything and yet not be the cause of evil. He just is not. Again, this is not an appeal to mystery. It is an appeal to what is logically fallacious.
This core difference between us and Calvinists must be constantly kept in mind. The disagreement has no middle ground. There is no mediating position. Either theistic determinism is true and representative of the biblical data concerning salvation or it is not. If it is true then the Calvinists are correct. If it is not, then Calvinism has real problems. The question is whether or not we will grant one another liberty in holding one view or the other. In the past, this liberty was granted, even though real freedom and true savability were the majority view. The peace has been shattered recently, not by us, but by Southern Baptist Calvinists, who aver that our views on soteriology are deficient and outmoded. If that’s the road we are going down, then we are going to respond in kind.
Within these broad soteriological parameters of the freedom and savability of all, we can turn to our specific question of election, “What precisely is the nature of God’s certain plan for the salvation of free individuals?” It is extremely important to note that, while that specific question is of intense interest to us, it is a level of philosophical interest not shared by the authors of Scripture, including Paul. The Bible simply assumes both God’s complete sovereignty over salvation and the reality of human freedom in salvation without offering an explanation as to how both can be simultaneously true. This is not to say that the biblical concept of election does not allude to our question or supply us with some information about and constraints for the answer. But the Bible doesn’t address our question precisely. Election, as we shall see later, functions in the Scripture for different purposes. Our question arises from very specific and post-biblical philosophical concerns about the nature of divine action, divine foreknowledge, freedom, time, and the individual, among other things. While the Bible certainly affirms the reality of all of these things, it does not treat them philosophically or systematically.
An observation made by Alister McGrath about the doctrine of justification in his seminal work Iustitia Dei helps illustrate the point I am trying to make. He notes:
The concept of justification and the doctrine of justification must be carefully distinguished. The concept of justification is one of many employed within the Old and New Testaments, particularly the Pauline corpus, to describe God’s saving action toward his people. . . . The doctrine of justification has come to develop a meaning quite independent of its biblical origins, and concerns the means by which man’s relationship to God is established. . . . The ‘doctrine of justification’ has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins. . . .
Now, McGrath is not making the point that the doctrine of justification in its post-biblical development is necessarily wrong; but it is post-biblical, and it is not the equivalent of the meaning of justification in the Bible. When we load that post-biblical development back into the biblical text, however, that is when Paul's meaning can get distorted. McGrath goes on to relate how certain “accidents of history” (his words, not mine) forged the development of the doctrine that de-coupled it from its biblical meaning. These post-biblical “accidents” are related to the theology of Augustine (who was committed to philosophical determinism) and his particular treatment of the letters of Paul.
I believe the same sort of distinction developed between the concept of election in the Bible and the doctrine of election as it developed after the close of the canon for many of the same reasons, especially those having to with the influence of Augustine’s determinism. The biblical meaning of election is yet another of the manifold ways that the Scriptures (as McGrath says) “describe God’s saving action toward his people.” But the imposition of determinism by Augustine and his attendant redefinition of free will, both of which were intensified in the thinking of Luther and Calvin, resulted in the Reformation’s meaning of election, which, to re-appropriate McGrath, “concerns the means by which man’s relationship to God is established,” a meaning “which is quite independent of its Pauline origins.” The focus on the specific inner-workings of the doctrine of election with respect to the metaphysics of divine and human action moved well-beyond the borders of the biblical data. And because of a commitment to determinism that the authors of Scripture do not share, the Reformed doctrine of election has come to mean God’s determined and unchanging decision to save some and damn others without respect to their free response of faith. When confronted with the plain-sense meaning of the Scriptures that speak of God’s love for and desire to save all by a free response of faith, the theology of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Beza, and their followers simply trimmed away at the meanings of “love,” “save”, “all,” and “desire,” and “faith” until room was made for its post-biblical determinism. When this distorting determinism is replaced by a view that gives a better account of all the biblical data, those biblical terms can return to their original shape. We will return in a moment to the topic of determinism, but let’s make sure we grasp the significance of the distinction between the biblical meaning of election and the meaning of election as the doctrine developed after Augustine. One of my goals for this presentation is that you would be better equipped to have well-informed and incisive conversations with your Calvinist friends about election. One of the matters you need to establish up front can be introduced in the form of a question: “Are we talking about the meaning of election in the Bible or the meaning of election as defined by Calvinism?” “Are we talking about God’s sovereignty in election or are we talking about theistic determinism in election, because those aren’t the same things?”
Why is this distinction so important? Because Southern Baptists put a premium on the authority of Scripture, and rightly so. Both Southern Baptist Calvinists and Southern Baptist Traditionalists, at the end of the day, want to say what the Bible says about election. Calvinists insist that they are just letting the Bible speak for itself on the matter of election. They assert that they are simply taking the Bible seriously on the matter, even if God’s determination of the damnation of most people without reference to their response of faith is indeed a “horrible decree.” They trot out their central texts, Romans 8 and 9-11, Ephesians 1 and 2, John 6, etc., and say, “How can these verses be understood any other way? God chooses some and not others. His choice has nothing to do with them, and that’s just the way it is.” Then we trot out our verses, John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4, 1 John 2:2, etc. and say, “God loves everyone and wants everyone to be saved. He would never cause some people to go to hell, and that’s just the way it is.” They have their verses, we have ours, and the debate bounces back and forth with apparently no hope for resolution. Can anything break the tie? Do we just throw up our hands and declare it all to be a “mystery”? I don’t think so. Anytime there is a textual/theological deadlock like this, we must turn, of course, to the issues of hermeneutics and systematic theology. What preconceived notions are we bringing to the texts that could be skewing the way we are reading them? How do we bring together the various texts touching this topic in a coherent way?
Therefore, it must be acknowledged by all comers that our question of the meaning of election, “What precisely is the nature of God’s certain plan to save free individuals” is a post-biblical discussion that requires philosophical and theological speculation and systematic construction. It is a question explored by systematic theology, not biblical theology per se. In fact, our question, to a great degree, runs in the opposite direction of the emphases within the biblical meaning of election. Our question is concerned about decisions God made before the beginning. Biblical election is much more eschatological. Our question is interested in individuals; biblical election is focused on the corporate people of God. Our question treats the moment we became believers in Christ. Biblical election is focused on the total mission of the redemption of the whole world. Our question is interested in what God has done with respect to us with little concern for those who are not elect. Biblical election concerns God’s love and desire to save everyone.
C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: MacMillan, 1947), 140-41: “After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out. He is separated . . . and made an ancestor of a nation who are [sic] to carry the knowledge of the true God. Within this nation a further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon. . . . The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last to one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity . . . has narrowed to that.”
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 921; James Leo Garrett, Jr. Systematic Theology, 2d ed., vol. 2 (North Richland Hills, TX: BIBAL, 2001), 490; Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 670; Kenneth Keathley, “The Doctrine of Salvation” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 707; Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1994), 397-400; Fred Klooster, “Elect, Election,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.
Garrett, 490, says it well: “If election is to be determined as the divine plan or the principle of selection through faith, what God foresees in human individuals must not be inherently meritorious with the result that the free grace of God is denied. If election is to be interpreted as the eternal choice of particular human beings, that choice must not be totally detached from the faith of those human beings.”
Ibid., 472: “The doctrine of election presupposes a personal God who has a saving or redemptive purpose for his human creatures and who is able to work out such a purpose for and among human beings in the created order and within human history.”
Jerry L. Walls, “Why No Classical Theist, Let Alone Orthodox Christian, Should Ever Be A Compatibilist,” Philosopia Christi 13 (2011): 98-99: “. . . theological compatibilists often make claims and engage in rhetoric that naturally lead people to conclude that God loves them and desires their salvation in ways that are surely misleading to all but those trained in the subtleties of Reformed rhetoric. . . . Such language loses all meaning, not to mention all rhetorical force, when we remember that on compatibilist premises God could determine the impenitent to freely repent, but has chosen instead to determine things in such a way that they freely persist in their sins.”
Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 65-69.
Dean Zimmerman, “Yet Another Anti-Molinist Argument,” (Rutgers University, accessed November 11, 2012); available at http://fas-philosophy.rutgers.edu/ zimmerman/Anti-Molinist-Arg-Jan-25.pdf : “And increased enthusiasm for Calvinism [while notable in theology] is not detectable within philosophy. It appears to me that most Christian philosophers—including many who, like Nicholas Wolterstorff and Alvin Plantinga, identify closely with Calvinist theological traditions—reject Calvin’s teachings on grace and predestination” (37). Zimmerman argues that the reason for this is that the problem of evil poses such massive philosophical problems for Calvinism.
Collin Hansen, Young, Restless, and Reformed: A Journalists Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 12: “Reformed theology had recently become a major point of contention in . . . the Southern Baptist Convention.” Cf. pages 69-93. In a section of By His Grace and for His Glory, rev. ed. (Cape Coral, FL: Founder’s Press, 2006), entitled “Opposition in High Places,” Tom Nettles names Adrian Rogers, Jerry Vines, Frank Page, Roy Fish, and Paige Patterson among those who are opponents of the advance of biblically sound theology in SBC life (268-88). Nettles states in a chapter entitled, “A Historical View of the Doctrinal Importance of Calvinism among Baptists” in Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, ed. E. Ray Clendenen and Brad J. Waggoner (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), “At the same time, one could argue that these commonly held core affirmations are more consistently attested in the Calvinist system, and thus a decline in Calvinism will mean a decline in overall health of the churches” (52).
Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2d ed. (New York: Cambridge University, 1998), 2-3.
Katherin A. Rogers, “Augustine's Compatibilism,” Religious Studies 40:4 (2004), 415. See also, James K. Bielby and Paul R. Eddy, eds. Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001). The chapter on determinism, written by Paul Helm, is called “The Augustinian-Calvinist View.”