God’s Election: What It Is and Is Not

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the doctrine of election. When I first started looking into it, I hated it. Who would spend so much time learning about a useless topic! But, then, I began to study it more, particularly the Calvinistic and Reformed understanding it, and I began to love it. How amazing that God would choose me to be in Christ based not anything in me, but solely in his love and grace! Then, as I began to reform my beliefs and depart with Calvinism, I began to hate it. I didn’t see it as lining up with the picture of God that is revealed in Jesus and the Spirit, but I didn’t know how to explain what they meant. Then, as I did more research on it, looking at a wider range of commentators, theologians, and pastors, I began to love it again. And I simply want to show why the election of God should be a doctrine that is not something we should hate or be embarrassed of. It is a beautiful doctrine that should incite praise and worship and, maybe surprisingly to some, move us to act in a deeply subversive, kingdom-of-God manner.

When it comes to election, it’s important to look at the metanarrative of Scripture. Too many times, people start with some verses in Paul’s epistles and try to prove a certain, presupposed framework with that. But, we have to take the entire story found in the Old Testament, along with the New Testament, into consideration. Because, when encountering OT texts, one finds that words like “election” and “chosen” appear a good bit. And so the question that has to be asked is: how was election understood throughout the OT narrative?

Genesis 3-11 gives an overview of the fall and its effects. Because Adam and Eve fell, sin, murder, immorality, and separation have occurred. The “goodness” that was found in Genesis 1-2 had been devastatingly lost and things had gone terribly wrong. Genesis 12 comes along and God approaches Abraham (Abram) and tells him that he is going to bless him and bless all the families of the earth through him (v. 3). This covenant is repeated to him in Genesis 15, 17, 22, and elsewhere, saying that he was going to make his offspring a great number and give them a great land. In other words, God was setting apart a man through whom a great people was going to come. God would not only bless this people, but he would use this people to bless the world.

We see this calling fleshed out later on. The line continues through Abraham’s son, Isaac, and then onto Jacob. Jacob’s family eventually moves to Egypt, where his son, Joseph, was made second in command, and his family begins to multiply. However, after being there 400 years, Jacob’s descendants, the people of Israel, are subordinated and oppressed as slaves by the Egyptians. Moses rises up and leads these people, God’s chosen people, out of Egypt to inherit the land that God had promised them. As they are in the wilderness, Moses reminds them of their vocation:

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. (Exodus 19:5-6)

In other words, God was reminding Israel that they were his people. In addition, all of the earth is his and they had a certain role as his chosen people while they were in the world. They were a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Their being a kingdom of priests meant that they were to have dominion over the earth, reflecting God’s wise rule all across the land (the kingdom part), and to act as God’s representatives on earth, reflecting his character to the other people of the earth (the priest part). In fact, this echoes the first humans original call. They were told to have dominion over the earth as well (Genesis 1:26) and were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26 as well), which was a priestly vocation, to represent and reflect God and his character here on earth. This was the purpose of God’s election of Israel. And he would set them apart by giving them a certain set of laws (given in the next chapter, the Ten Commandments), thus making them a “holy nation”. So, not only had he saved them out of Egypt, but they were going to be the vehicle through whom God was going to undo everything that Adam had done and bring salvation to all.

However, Israel was failing at her vocation. God was constantly rebuking them for not fulfilling their call to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Israel begins to see their election as a sign of their own superiority. Instead of doing their work for the nations, they became to focused on themselves. God reminded them of the basis and purpose of their election in Deuteronomy 7:6-8:

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.

It turns out that the people called to reverse the affects of Adam were, too, in Adam. The body that God had called as a vehicle to save the world, too, needed to be saved. They needed someone, a faithful Israelite, to fulfill the vocation of Israel, defeating the enemies of sin and its consequence, death. The person that was going to do this began to be known as the Messiah. The idea that this anointed One would embody Israel as a whole appears in Isaiah.  Notice in chapter 41, God calls the corporate body of Israel as his servant:

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
(Verses 8-9)

But in the next chapter, this corporate body of Israel is described as a single person:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
(42:1-3)

Thus, this “Israel-in-person” figure, this one whom we identify as the “suffering servant”, was put in direct contrast to Israel and was going to fulfill the role that Israel could never fulfill.

Obviously, this person is Jesus. Jesus comes and fulfills the role of the royal priesthood and holy nation. He preaches a new, subversive kingdom of God (a royal term), shows us what God is really like compared to what rabbinic tradition had taught (as a true priest should), and defined what it meant to truly be set apart for God (being holy). Why did Jesus do this? To save the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike. Israel could not fulfill this vocation, being in need of salvation herself.

So, we see this elect body of people embodied in one person. In addition to being fully human and fully God, Jesus was also fully Israel. He was Israel-in-person. He, thus, became the Elect One. The Father calls him this at the transfiguration (Luke 9:35). Jesus is representative of Israel as a whole, and is, in that sense, “chosen” by God. Everything that Israel had been called to in her election, Jesus fulfilled. He was the faithful Israelite, doing what Israel could never do.

What becomes of election now, in the New Testament?

Jesus had inaugurated God’s kingdom, his sovereign rule over earth. And he did so in some radical ways that went against common perceptions at the time. One of these subversive new ideas was the fact that Gentiles were now included in this chosen people of God. This doesn’t mean that Gentiles could now be saved, because there were Gentiles saved in the Old Testament (think Rahab, and also Nineveh, where Jonah preached. The whole city of Gentiles repented!). After all, the promise was not only for the Jews, but through them! The new twist was that Gentiles were actually included into the covenant. What had once been for ethnic Jews was now available to all, by placing faith in Jesus Christ.

How was this so? Paul spends a lot of his time talking about how God can still be faithful to his word, his covenant, while including Gentiles into it. One big reason was because Jesus was, indeed, Israel-in-person. Israel wasn’t about ethnicity or Torah or circumcision or anything of that sort. Israel was now associated with one person and one person alone: Jesus. Now, if anyone is included in Jesus, that person is included in Israel. Because Jesus is Israel-in-person! He fulfilled all that Israel was supposed to accomplish. And now, through him, people of all ethnicities and backgrounds could be a part of this chosen people who find their common identity in Jesus.

Notice, though, that Paul doesn’t completely abandon Jewish theology. It’s still about being a part of Israel, but now, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). All of the things that were important to Jewish theology was still there, but simply redefined in Jesus, not anything else, like ethnicity. Those in the covenant still have to be included in Abraham, but “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” and “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:7,29). Being a circumcised Jew is still an important idea, but now “a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom. 2:29). The law still needs to be kept, but now “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).

So, when we approach the language of election in the New Testament, we have to keep this corporate-body-identified-in-Christ framework in mind. Israel’s election was corporate, not individual. Election in the New Testament is corporate, not individual. Election in the OT was largely about vocation, the call to bring salvation to world. Israel was the body chosen for the vocation and everyone else was the ones who received the salvation. In the NT, the purpose of vocation and salvation have been fused together in one body. Our vocation is to bring the salvation of Jesus about to the world in order that they might join in our vocation to further spread this salvation to the world. Salvation is something that God does for the Church, but also through the Church, in order that more might be added to the Church.

Then we get to verses like Ephesians 1:3-6:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.

Notice the words I bolded. “In Christ” or some variation appears four times in those three verses. The reason is because when he speaks of election, Paul isn’t, for some reason, abandoning the Jewish framework of election he was all too familiar with. He was simply redefining it around Jesus. We are chosen, yes! But, we are chosen in Christ. Christ is the chosen One, the Israel-in-person. And if we are in him, then we are in Israel, the chosen people of God. Notice, it doesn’t say that God choses or predestines whether or not we’ll be in Christ. It simply says that for those who are in Christ, you are chosen, blessed, and predestined for wonderful things.

And the beautiful thing is that this intensifies our calling and our own vocation! Many times, theories of election end up doing something more like what happened in Deuteronomy 7. It makes people arrogant and leads them to see themselves as the ones who God specifically set apart. Even if it is by grace and love! There’s something about being individually chosen that boosts the ego and seems to stem from a culture of radical individualism. God chose ME. But God’s election isn’t about his choosing of any woman or man! It’s about God’s choosing a people and that people being embodied by Jesus Christ as the representative for us all. That’s the thing that both sides, Calvinism and Arminianism, seem to miss. Both are wrapped up as to how God goes about choosing individuals, but the reality is that election doesn’t speak to that at all! To read that into language about election is to commit a hermeneutical error. If one concludes that God has to choose individuals because of one’s view of divine providence, then that is simply a deduction, not an exegetical truth. Election is always speaking on a corporate level (which, of course, is comprised of individuals!), but not specifically of individuals.

Peter speaks of the Church in his first epistle and describes them as such:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

All of these things echo Israel. They were a chosen race, a royal priesthood (kingdom of priests), a holy nation, his possessed, corporate people. Jesus called on his listeners to be a “light to the world” (Matt. 5:14), something that Israel was called to do (Isaiah 49:6). We see Israel as a model of what God’s people were called to do, albeit a flawed model. And then we see Jesus as the fulfillment of that, God’s chosen one, King of God’s kingdom, the one who reflected God perfectly, the true Light of the world, and the beloved Son of God’s own possession. It is in him that we find salvation and it is in him that we are chosen and elect. Our being chosen should never be about us. We are chosen in Christ for the purpose of proclaiming the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light, in hopes that the whole world will be saved, restored, and find justice in him.

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