Few biblical doctrines have as contentious and biting a history within the church as predestination. Even among communities of believers who are passionately seeking to know God it often feels manifestly awkward to broach the issue in conversation. Perhaps this is due in part to a genuine desire for peace and a reluctance to enter hastily into old, worn out controversies, in light of the havoc this doctrine has wreaked at times in the life of the church. Our hesitation may also arise from a faulty perception of the supposed lack of practical importance this truth holds for our spirituality.
As I read the New Testament, however, I have become increasingly convinced that neither potential rationale held much sway for Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or John (or…). The most striking difference between our theological dialogue and the Bible (with respect to this single issue of God’s election of His people) is the sheer frequency with which it is discussed in God’s Word. Ought we not feel that something is seriously amiss if such a radical chasm exists between us and the early Christians here? We need to lay aside our mistaken intuitions and begin talking again–with grace and patience–about what it means to be chosen by God. It is there for a reason. We ignore it to our peril and to our very great spiritual detriment.
With the aim of stirring up such discussion, I want to offer a perspective on predestination that is, I think, ordinarily overlooked. Most treatments of divine election focus on what this doctrine is. I propose that we start not with what divine election is, but rather what it does in the biblical narrative. I hope that in postponing an early, rushed decision on the meaning of predestination, we may glimpse aspects of reality here we would have otherwise missed as we ponder the function of being chosen by God. Of course, given the close, necessary relationship between what a thing is and what a thing does, we should fully expect that signifcant insight on the nature of divine election will be attained if we can come to grips with what role it performs in the life of the people of God.
1.) Divine Election reveals the unbreakable, sovereign and entirely free love of God. Whenever the biblical writers talk about being chosen by God, they are never far from gushing over the uncaused, eternal love of God for His people. In Deuteronomy 7, God informs Israel of the reason behind His choice of them, and it is stunning:
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8; see here and here for more on the intimate connection with love.)
Do you hear that? The Lord says that it is not for anything I see in you that I have set my love upon you (i.e. it was not because you were more in number, or smarter, or better, or more religious than the other peoples, etc.). Rather, I loved you…because I loved you. No reason can be given for God’s election of a people for Himself other than–God. The sole cause lay in Him, not in us. In other words, divine election (surprise) is about grace. It reveals the depths and wonders of God’s love for His people. Is it really such a terrible shock that the Gospel of John–the book most Christians think of first when they think of God’s love–is also the biblical document that most incessantly focuses on being chosen by God? See here for one particularly memorable instance.
2.) Divine Election aims at humility and boasting only in God, never in ourselves. To be the object of divine election is to have any and all potential grounds for pride ripped from beneath your feet. God alone is to receive glory in this matter. To be chosen by grace and to yet remain arrogant is the worst contradiction conceivable. If we forget these realites and begin to grow conceited, Paul urges us to remember the way in which God has chosen us:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And it is of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”” (I Corinthians 1:26-31)
3.) Divine Election is unto holiness, not because of holiness. What I mean by this is set forth in an illustration of Jonathan Edwards, highlighting the difference between how the world chooses and how God chooses:
“God has chosen the godly out of the rest of the world to be nearly related to him, to stand in the relation of children, to have a property in him, that they might not only be his people, but that he might be their God. He has chosen these to bestow himself upon them. He has chosen them from among others to be gracious to them, to show them his favor. He has chosen them to enjoy him, to see his glory, and to dwell with him forever. He has chosen them as his treasure, as a man chooses out gems from a heap of stones, with this difference: the man finds gems very different from other stones, and therefore chooses, but God chooses them, and therefore they become gems, and very different from others.” (Jonathan Edwards, “Christians A Chosen Generation”)
To be the last kid perennially picked for the kickball game on the playground in elementary school can, of course, be a psychologically devastating experience. Yet predestination reminds us that we are not chosen because God first finds us beautiful or alluring in ourselves (the opposite holds true because of sin). Rather, we are made beautiful because God sets His favor freely upon our broken existence. Could anything be more freeing? Could there be a greater incentive to putting off the old and walking in newness of life? Consider Genesis 18:19, Ephesians 1:4-5, II Thessalonians 2:13-14 and I Peter 2:9-12 for the aim of election issuing forth in (not from) holiness of life.
It bears repeating that every Christian necessarily believes in predestination (i.e. it can’t be disputed that it is in the Bible). They just differ over what this doctrine means! One helpful litmus test with respect to the validity of our understanding of divine election is to ask ourselves the simple question: is this doctrine performing these functions in my life? If not, perhaps we have misunderstood what divine election is.
The really surprising thing about divine election in the Bible is that it is consistently spoken of as if it were practical. In our endlessly heated and stuffy academic debates about predestination, we easily forget that this doctrine is supposed to be useful–in a rugged, bottom-line kind of way–to those who are feebly trying to follow Jesus more authentically and faithfully.
Yet most Christians I have conversed with do not, admittedly, possess this sort of nitty-gritty, beneficial experience with election. Hence my aim is to explore the function of being chosen by God (rather than its meaning) in the Scriptures, in the hope that this might win us a new angle of fresh insight into this ignored theme. Leaving to the side, for the time being, what election is, I now follow up on last week’s initial three observations with three more things election does (or at least ought to do) in the Christian life:
4.) Divine Election is meant to provide deep-rooted assurance of salvation for individual Christians. To know myself to be chosen by God is to realize that I have been loved from everlasting to everlasting. Just as this love had no beginning, neither will it have an end. Before the foundation of the world I belonged to God, and I will be His forever, world without end. I may say truly that God loves me, but I can never say that God loves me because…for there is no reason other than His own good pleasure and mercy. Thus, nothing will ever separate me from His love, nor will anyone be able to bring any charge against God’s elect (see Romans 8:28-39). Compare also Ephesians 1:3-14.
This assurance stands in marked contrast to the empty philosophical speculation and frivolous, soul-numbing doubt that twisted, sub-biblical understandings of election have sometimes produced in God’s people. If election produces mental or spiritual instability in a believer, they simply do not understand election. To such at these the advice of M’Cheyne is apropos:
“‘If I knew I were one of God’s elect, I would come to Christ; but I fear I am not.’ To you I answer: nobody ever came to Christ because he knew himself to be one of the elect. It is quite true that God has of His mere good pleasure elected some to everlasting life, but they never knew it until they believed in Christ. Christ nowhere commands the elect to come to him. He commands all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel. The question for you is not, ‘Am I one of the elect?’ but ‘Am I a sinner?’ Christ came to save sinners.” (Robert Murray M’Cheyne)
The tricky question here, of course, is how one comes to know his or her elect status. Do we find this lofty, esoteric information in the hidden, mysterious, eternal counsels and decrees of God? Do we find it through morbid, ruthless introspection? Me genoito. Instead, election is personally recognized and known in two corresponding ways in the New Testament, both of which are focused upon Jesus. Election, we must never fail to insist, bears the indelible mark of a Christ-centered stamp in any truly Christian theology.
a.) Election is known and acknowledged retrospectively after we come to faith in Christ. In other words, the believer’s election is known indirectly and derivatively in Christian theology—not directly, intuitively, or mystically. We see our election in Christ. As Paul writes:
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (I Thessalonians 1:4-5)
If you ask who the chosen people are in the world, the New Testament is crystal clear: look for those who adore Jesus and follow him. If you are drawn to Jesus, it is because God has first wooed you. When you ponder if you are one of the elect, simply look to Jesus. Do you love what you see in him? Then you are chosen. Calvin puts it this way, highlighting Jesus as the “mirror” of election:
“But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life.” (John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.24.5)
b.) Election is confirmed and validated prospectively as we continue to walk by faith with perserverance, living in obedience to our crucified and risen Savior and seeking His glory and will in all things. As Peter puts it:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (II Peter 1:3-11)
Election assures us that we are loved by God in Christ.
5.) Divine Election functions as a confident foundation for evangelism of unbelievers. This aspect, no doubt, is completely unexpected and utterly counter-intuitive to modern sentiments. Yet listen to this:
“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” (2 Timothy 2:8-10)
Arguably a similar function (i.e. the invincibility of God’s saving purposes in the world giving rise to bold, risk-taking mission) is ascribed to divine election in John 10:16, 27-30 and Acts 18:9-11. Think about it: if we are saved completely by grace, then neither our good qualities nor our bad deeds serve to either attract or repel God’s favor to us. On the one hand, therefore, let no one presume anything apart from Christ. For who sees anything different in us? Yet on the other hand, let no one ever despair that they are beyond redemption or outside of hope. Such dark ruminations too quickly forget the logic of divine election. Election frees us to proclaim the gospel confidently to those who are still in darkness, knowing that their faith rests ultimately not in our wisdom but in God’s power.
6.) Divine Election is not an end in itself, but is for the sake of the world. God does not choose a people for Himself, out of all the nations of the earth, so that they can contentedly pat themselves on the back and enjoy cheap, selfish comforts at home as the rest of the world suffers tragically under the curse of Adam. The first human God called and chose in the biblical narrative is the archetype of all the elect who come after him. Abraham was called out of futile idolatry and chosen by God, in order that the world might be blessed through him. So are Christians. In John 17, we see both aspects of this dual reality: particularlity for the sake of universality. Jesus expressly refuses to pray for the world, but only for “those the Father has given him.” Yet he prays for them (i.e. the elect), in order that they might be one and that the entire world might know that the Father has sent the Son through their unified witness. Election, therefore, is always the beginning of mission.
“We cannot know for what reason one was chosen, [but] we most certainly can known for what purpose he was chosen: he was chosen in order to be a fruit-bearing branch of the one true vine (John 15:16), a witness through whom others might be saved. He is chosen in order that through him God’s saving purpose may reach to others, and they too be reconciled to God in and through his reconciled and reconciling people. And while the ultimate mystery of election remains, one can see that the principle of election is the only principle congruous with the nature of God’s redemptive purpose.” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 101)
Does election perform these functions in our lives? If not, why not?
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