Below is a portion of a March 21-22, 2013 John 3:16 Conference presentation.
Read the Baptist Press article about the conference here: http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=39992
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Fred Klooster’s treatment of the biblical data concerning election in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology is typical of most evangelical approaches to the subject. He notes that the Bible gives us a “rich vocabulary to express several aspects” of election. He mentions specifically (1) elect angels, (2) election to service, (3) the election of Israel, (4) the election of Christ, and (5) election to salvation, with which, Klooster says “the rest of this article is concerned.” Millard Erickson, in his systematic treatment of soteriology, acknowledges the frequency of corporate ideas of election and election to service in the Scripture, but waives these off to deal, as Klooster does, with only the idea of individual election to salvation. Grudem, in his systematic theology, does not even mention the Old Testament in laying out his biblical basis for the doctrine of election. He assumes that determinism is the equivalent of election, so that’s all he finds in the Scriptures. What warrant could there be in simply jettisoning the totality of the biblical data? I frequently hear “election to service” and “corporate election” dismissed as sort of second class ideas concerning the doctrine, so we can all hurry to the discussion of how God chooses some individuals and not others. However, I think we are ignoring the lion’s share of the biblical data in doing so. What might election look like if we really allowed the Bible to speak?
In the Bible, election is the Father’s guarantee of His mission to save a maximum number by grace alone through faith alone in the Son alone by the power of the Holy Spirit alone. Election is not about how God damns; it is about how God saves. This mission rests on those two fundamental soteriological foci: (1) God sovereignly desires the salvation of all people and (2) God sovereignly desires that the faith-response of all people must be free in order to be a saving covenant relationship. In short, election is the outworking of God’s mission according to His desire for the savability of all and the freedom of all. The reality of freedom means that not everyone will put his faith in Jesus Christ, but election means that God guarantees that a massive multitude will be saved by faith even in the face of the radical, sinful misuse of freedom.
Now, the Bible does not articulate the specifics of how God guarantees that a massive multitude will be saved even in the face of the radical sinful misuse of freedom. It simply asserts the glorious truth that He will. The closest it gets is in Rom 8:29 and 1 Peter 1:1-2 where the Scriptures assert that God knows who He is going to save and that He has determined to save them. But the specifics of the who and the how are not addressed. The good news of election in the Bible, the guarantee of God’s mission, has two primary purposes related to the twin foci of savability and freedom. First, election is raised over and over again to reaffirm the claim that the salvation of all people is the scope of the mission. God chooses Adam for the purpose of covenant relationship that will result in all humankind ruling with Him in covenant relationship over a completed cosmos. God makes that covenant again with Noah. The first explicit scenario of election is that of Abraham, who is not chosen for his own sake, but so that through him, all the families of the earth will be blessed. This covenant is reaffirmed and expanded through Israel as a kingdom of priests and a light to the Gentiles, and guaranteed by God to them and through them over and over again. It is fulfilled ultimately in the Elect One, Christ Jesus, who is the means through which all the families of the earth will be blessed. The existence and expansion of the Spirit-filled, Christ-conforming, Jew and Gentile church is the visible demonstration of the guarantee of God’s mission and points toward its ultimate fulfillment in a New Heaven and Earth filled with and ruled by all who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ. There is, therefore, an intimate connection between God’s elective purposes for all things and the faith-response of individuals. How does an individual know if he is elect? If he has put his faith in Jesus Christ, he is elect, and that election is guaranteed.
The second emphasis in the purpose of election in the Bible is to reaffirm that the mission will be accomplished no matter how badly humans misuse their freedom in unfaith and wreck the world. So, on the heels of Adam’s fall is the promise of a New Adam who undoes the curse and restores the promise of world-transforming rule with God. After the flood, there is a covenant with Noah; after Babel, a covenant with Abraham. Out of Pharaoh’s attempt at genocide, Israel is born. The golden calf is followed by new tablets, wilderness wandering by the second giving of the law, rebellion by a new judge, Saul by David, Exile by Return, the Old Covenant by the New. All of this points to Christ, who brings forth the New Covenant in His blood for the forgiveness of sins and the purchase of a kingdom people from spiritual slavery. No matter how bad we get, God never gives up. And no matter how bad things get for God’s people, God continually displays his capacity for incorporating the misuse of freedom into His plan for maximum salvation through them. In short, election functions as theodicy. What is God’s word in the face of evil? He says, “I will never give up on My guarantee to save myriads through faith.” This elective guarantee is centered on substitution: those through whom election comes always suffer for those who are not chosen. God chooses the chosen to suffer in place of the unchosen.
Within this baseline understanding, eight dynamics are present in the Old and New Testament’s articulation of election: (1) Election is of God. If He does not do all the work in providing, initiating, and superintending salvation, there is no hope for anyone. Election means God guarantees to save. (2) Election is eschatological. The guarantee of God’s saving plan will be fully on display at the end of history. (3) Election is comprehensive. Its purpose is to bring salvation to myriads upon myriads. (4) Election is covenantal; it requires a response of faith. The sense is that the call and response are happening concurrently. (5) Election comes through one person and goes out to a maximum number. God renews his guarantee over and over again in response to the rebellion of many through the faithfulness of one. (6) Election is corporate. It deals with groups primarily; it deals with the many. Individuals find themselves to be a part of the elect group by a faith commiserate with the one through whom the covenant offer has come. (7) Election is vicarious. It encompasses the misuse of freedom, which has great value for theodicy and assurance. The most oppressed and least blessed are actually the objects of God’s favor and critical to God’s ultimate plans for the cosmos. The rejection of the rebellious actually advances God’s purposes for maximum salvation. And, finally, (8) election is missional. God’s salvation goes out to a maximum number through His chosen people and their faithfulness to His covenant in Christ.
Let me offer two biblical examples of how these themes of election function, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The foundation for the biblical view of election is God’s election of Israel. The meaning of election in the New Testament is rooted in its meaning in the Old. And here is what is crucial: election in the Old Testament does not mean that God chooses Israel and rejects everyone else. Whatever election means for Israel and brings to Israel is not set over against what is not and never will be given to everyone else. The first explicit mention of election in the OT and the archetype for election throughout Scripture is God’s choice of Abraham. The point of his election, and Israel’s election in him, is that God’s desire for the salvation of the whole world might be set forth in history. God elects Abraham so that all the families of the earth might be blessed through him.
C.S. Lewis puts it like this:
When we look into the Selectiveness which the Christians attribute to God, we find in it none of that “favouritism” which we were afraid of. The “chosen” people are chosen not for their own sake (certainly not for their own honour or pleasure) but for the sake of the unchosen. Abraham is told that “in his seed” (the chosen nation) “all nations shall be blest.” That nation has been chosen to bear a heavy burden. Their sufferings are great: but as Isaiah recognized, their sufferings heal others. On the finally selected Woman falls the utmost depth of maternal anguish. Her son, the incarnate God, is a “man of sorrows;” the one man in whom Deity descended, the one man who can be lawfully adored, is pre-eminent for suffering.
The election of Abraham is, first of all, of God. God’s choice of a wandering, idol-worshipping, childless Aramean to undo the disaster of Genesis 1-11 fully displays His gracious direction of all things. Second, Abraham’s election is eschatological. It is a promise for the future that he never sees in his lifetime. Only in Isaac does he glimpse the barely believable promise of a nation as innumerable as sand or stars. Third, Abraham’s election is comprehensive–the scope is indeed massive, all the families of the earth. Fourth is the critical role of Abraham’s real response of faith to close the circuit of God’s saving desire for him and through him to the whole world. God’s choice of Abraham is ratified by Abraham’s faith which results in his justification. This is the trajectory of God’s electing activity over and over again. The offer of covenant is extended by grace and grace alone and is accompanied by signs and wonders of the manifest presence and power of God, dramatically drawing a reluctant people. But the response of faith matters and their rejection of covenant invalidates it for them and affects the unfolding of God’s salvific desire for all. Fifth, clearly, Abraham’s election is from the one to the many. Sixth, Abraham’s election is corporate. A nation is born in him and through that nation all nations will be blessed. Seventh, the election of Abraham offers vicariousness as the solution to the problem of evil. What is God going to do about the radical sinful misuse of freedom in Genesis 1-11? What is God’s response to the childlessness of Sarah? What is God’s response to the sinful impatience of Sarah and Abraham? What is Abraham’s response to God’s call to sacrifice Isaac? God will not change His plan to save, and He will never give up. He is so sovereign that He is able to incorporate that misuse of freedom and the resulting brokenness into His ultimate plans. In fact, as Lewis says, God chooses Abraham to bear the brokenness of the nations, the deadness of the nations, in order that life might go out to the nations. Ultimately, election, because of all the components listed above, is substitutionary. Eighth, the purpose of Abraham’s election is to rescue all the inhabitants of the earth.
With respect to Abraham, then, election refers to God’s plan to do all that is necessary to save an undeserving and unexpected people through faith in His covenant offer, which, through them, goes out to the whole world. In the facts of God’s love for the world and His desire for real responses of faith in Israel’s election, we find the same affirmations stated above for a correct view of election: God’s desire to save everyone and His gift of libertarian freedom to every person. Election does not mean that God has chosen each Israelite irresistibly and rejected the nations permanently. That is the opposite of the story of the Old Testament.
These eight dynamics reveal that the New Testament text most often cited as proof that election means God’s fixed choice of some and not others are actually making the opposite point. Romans 8:29-30 and chapters 9-11 are arguably the “pillar passages” for the Calvinist view of election, but actually fit beautifully into this matrix and reveal that God’s saving intentions are for all, not just a select few. There is no question that the election of Israel forms the basis for these chapters. Whatever election means here, it must be collated with what God was doing in His choice of Israel. Paul’s point in the letter from beginning to end is that, as the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, he is proclaiming that God’s commitment to bring salvation to the world through Israel has been fulfilled in Israel’s Messiah and through the Messiah’s People. In Romans 9-11, God’s covenant with Israel is the driving force. The question of 9:6 (Has God’s covenant with Israel failed?) is answered in 11:25-26 (Israel’s present resistance to the gospel is temporary, purposed by God for maximum salvation among the Gentiles, which will result in all Israel being saved.). The conclusion of this plan is exclaimed in verse 32: “that He might have mercy on them all.” Who benefits from these covenant promises? Anyone who believes (Rom 10:9-13).
First, there is no question that Paul speaks of God’s absolute sovereignty in the plan of salvation in Rom 9:6-29. God, indeed, can save whomever He wants however He wants, but the question is, “Who and how does God want to save?” Does He want to save certain ones and not others? That hardly seems to be the point of a passage that ends with the proclamation that there will be mercy for all. The point of Romans 9 is that nothing can stop God’s plan for maximum salvation, not even Israel’s unfaithfulness. In fact, her temporary disobedience is actually a part of that plan.
Second, this entire passage is completely eschatological. The end of Romans 8 is about the hope of glorification for the elect, and the conclusion of the argument in Romans 11 is that there is a wide difference between God’s temporary hardening of Israel and His ultimate plans for “mercy on all.” This whole passage is future tense. Third, for Paul, the elective purposes of God are comprehensive. Paul’s argument crescendos to its conclusion in 11:32 in a massive coming to faith of both Jews and Gentiles. Fourth, while Paul, in 9:29, makes no bones about God’s absolute sovereignty, he turns in the next verse to argue just as emphatically that Israel’s own unbelief is the precipitating cause of God’s current rejection of them, the remedy for which is faith in Christ alone for anyone who will confess and believe (9:30-10:16). Not everyone will hear the good news (“How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?”) and not everyone will believe (“All day long I have lifted My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people”). But Paul’s point about election in Romans 9-11 is clear: God never just gives up on people. No one is outside of His reach or His mercy. Anyone can be saved. His electing purposes for maximum salvation are unstoppable, yet they fully include the real responses of people to the gospel.
Fifth, Paul is the theologian of the “One to the Many” in the OT and how that is fulfilled in Christ. He has already discussed it thoroughly in Rom 5:12-21, and it is on display in the core of this passage in Rom 10:5-17. Christ is the fulfillment of the New Covenant promised to Israel in Deut 30:12-14 (Rom 10:6-8). Belief in the Lordship of the One Living Christ alone results in salvation of many.
Sixth, election in Romans 9-11 is corporate. Paul is talking about God’s dealings with two groups, Jews and Gentiles, who are being made into one group (Rom 11:16-24). God’s choice of Israel (and His sovereign administration of Israel’s unbelief) has resulted in the coming of the Gentiles, whose belief through the temporary hardening of Israel will result in “all Israel” being saved (Rom 11:26).
Seventh, on a note of substitution and theodicy, in chapter 8, Paul speaks of the present sufferings of the elect under their own and the world’s ongoing brokenness as actually testifying to a glorious future hope. The suffering of God’s elect sublimates the suffering of all creation and their glorification will inaugurate the restoration of all things. Moreover, there is a sense in which the entirety of 9-11 is theodicy, an answer to the question of evil with respect to Israel. How could God let this happen to His Chosen People? How could His covenant people be walking away from their Messiah? Has the word of God failed? Romans 9-11 is a discussion of God’s righteousness in the face of an unexpected evil. Paul’s point is that Israel’s present rebellion is actually a part of the plan to bring salvation to the whole world (9:17-18; 11:11-15). The grafting in of the Gentiles required a breaking off Israel. “My People” becomes “Not My People” so that those who are far off can be brought near. God is hardening Israel for a little while, not according to some hidden will to save some and not others, but according to His revealed will to save anyone and everyone who believes. This is in service of Paul’s larger point of theodicy at his conclusion: God has shut up all in disobedience that He might have mercy on all (11:32). The obedience of Gentile believers in the face of the hostility of the Jews is vicarious as well and makes a way for those “enemies of the gospel” to be saved. And, eighth, again, all this results in the accomplishment of God’s mission in election: maximum salvation through the gospel of Christ’s suffering and victory, which is really the point of the whole letter.
What is the bottom line for us today concerning what the Bible says about election that could inform us theologically as Southern Baptists? The Bible gives us election in order to tell us that, no matter what, God is going to save myriads and myriads of people by faith in His suffering Son, and He is going to use the suffering obedience of His people to do it. When He saves He seals, and when He saves He redeems us for service. His plan is not based on our obedience or ability but His grace through His Son by His Spirit. In fact, the brokenness and punishment of His Chosen One and His chosen people are actually allowed to stand in for the brokenness and punishment due to the unchosen. God demonstrates that He will never give up. What we do matters, but it cannot change His plan to save a maximum number by faith. This unstoppable plan is driven by his desire to save all while taking seriously the reality and consequences of freedom.
Klooster, “Elect, Election.”
Grudem, 670-73. Cf. Garrett, 472-81, who devotes four pages of text apiece to the Old and New Testaments in laying out the biblical basis for his doctrine of election.
Garrett asks, “Is it possible that Augustine and later Calvin, with the help of many others, contributed to a hyper-individualization of this doctrine that was hardly warranted by Romans 9-11, Eph. 1:3-14, and 1 Pet. 2:9-10?” (494).
Ekaterini G. Tsalampouni, “‘Election’ and the ‘People of God:’ An Orthodox Theological Perspective,” Ecumenical Review 64 (2012): 16.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, in Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 1 (Fortress: Minneapolis, 1992), 259-60: “The technical term for this doctrine [Judaism’s combination of monotheism and theodicy] is election. The creator god has found a way of restoring his world: he has chosen a people through whom he will act.”
Keathley, “Salvation,” 707, 718-20.
Charlie Trimm, “Did YHWH Condemn the Nations When He Elected Israel? YHWH’s Disposition toward Non-Israelites in the Torah,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 15 (2012): 536.
Lewis, Miracles, 142.
Ibid., 140: “[Christianity] does not tell of a human search for God at all, but of something done by God for, to, and about, Man. And the way in which it is done is highly selective, undemocratic to the highest degree.”
Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), notes, “In these chapters, Paul is not simply using Israel to illustrate a theological point, such as predestination or the righteousness of God. He is talking about Israel herself, as he wrestles with the implications of the gospel for God’s ‘chosen people’ of the OT” (548). Robert H. Mounce, Romans, NAC (Nashville: B&H, 1995), observes: “Paul was not building a case for salvation that in no way involves the consent of the individual. Nor was he teaching double predestination. Rather, he was arguing that the exclusion of so many Jews from the family of God did not constitute a failure on God’s part to maintain his covenant relationship with Israel. He had not broken his promise to the descendants of Abraham” (199). Cf. Garrett, 479.
James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, WBC, vol. 38b (Dallas: Word, 1988), 519.
Lewis, Miracles, 143: “And certainly we have here come to a principle very deep-rooted in Christianity: what may be called the principle of Vicariousness. The Sinless Man suffers for the sinful, and, in their degree all good men for all bad men.”