Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Truth about Election

The fact that most people have not been chosen by God and will never believe the gospel in this lifetime does not mean God does not love them, or that he has forsaken them. Most Christians believe that there will be a permanent and eternal division between the members of the human race. It is believed that there will be a permanent division between those who are presently “holy and blameless in God’s sight,” and those who aren’t; a division between those who presently love and obey God, and those who don’t; a division between those who get to spend eternity in God’s presence, and those who must remain eternally separated from him. 

There are, of course, certain passages of Scripture are relied upon as supporting this common view. However, while Scripture does, in fact, speak of a division between people that has lasted – and will continue to last – for much of human history, it also reveals that God's story of redemption is not going to end this way. The few glimpses of the final scene of redemptive history which God has provided for us in Scripture (through the apostle Paul) do not depict a permanent division between human beings, and of multitudes of human beings in a state of eternal separation from God. Not only would this be a terrible and tragic ending to redemptive history, it would mean that God is either unable to accomplish his redemptive plan for all people, or that God is unwilling to save all people (and is thus less loving than he calls his children to be). Fortunately, the final scene with which Scripture presents us is much more beautiful and God-glorifying than this. Consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:9-10:

“…making known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in him unto a dispensation of the fullness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth…” (ASV)

What’s fascinating about this passage is that Paul is not only telling us what God’s will is with regards to the ultimate destiny of everything in the universe, but he's telling us that this “mystery” has been made known to God’s elect – i.e., those whom God has chosen beforehand to believe Paul’s gospel and become members of Christ’s body. So what is the "mystery" of God's will that has been made known to those who are members of Christ’s body? It is this: that “all things” – both “in the heavens” and “upon the earth” - will be summed up “in Christ!” 

The Greek word variously translated as “sum up” (ASV), "unite in" (ESV), "summing up of," (NASB), "bring unity to" (NIV), "gather together in one" (RSV) and “bring into one the whole” (YLT) is anakephalaiomai. It is found only here and in Rom 13:9, where Paul speaks of the entire law being "summed up" in the commandment to love. In his “Modern English” translation, J.B. Phillips beautifully captures the meaning of Paul’s words in verse 10: “For God had allowed us to know the secret of his plan, and it is this: he purposes in his sovereign will that all human history shall be consummated in Christ, that everything that exists in Heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him.”

According to Paul, Jesus Christ is ultimately destined to “fill all things” (Eph 4:10). Christ has already sacrificed himself on behalf of all sinners as the divine pledge of their redemption from sin and their reconciliation to God (John 1:29; 12:32; 2 Cor. 5:19; Col 1:19; 1 Tim 2:3-6; 4:10; 1 John 2:2; 3:4-8). He was raised from the dead as the pledge that death itself will one day be abolished, and that all people will ultimately be made immortal (1 Cor. 15:20-22, 50-57; 2 Tim 1:10). And he has been made Lord over all and given all authority in heaven and on earth to bring about this glorious victory (Acts 2:36; 10:36; Rom 10:12; 14:9; Matt 28:18). However, we do not yet see this victory fully manifested. 

What was accomplished prospectively through Christ’s death and resurrection has not yet been fully realized in the universe. The kingdom of Satan has yet to be overthrown, and both sin (which John calls the “works of the devil”) and death (which Paul calls the “last enemy”) have yet to be abolished. Christ has not yet subjected all to himself (1 Cor. 15:25-28; Heb 2:8-9), since many created beings – both human and angelic – remain in a state of rebellion against him. Only a relative few can be said to have been “subjected to Christ” and (prospectively) brought into his kingdom at this present time (Col 1:13). But just as the church is presently subjected to Christ and under his headship (Eph. 5:22-24), so shall all created beings ultimately be subjected to him. And when this time comes, all things in heaven and on earth will finally be unified under Christ, Christ will finally “fill all things,” and God will finally be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

When understood correctly, I submit that the scriptural doctrine of election is fully consistent with this understanding of the consummation of redemptive history, and does not entail such a deeply unsettling view of God as that found in Calvinistic Christianity. Although (as noted earlier) the traditional Christian view is that certain people were selected by God to spend eternity with him in heaven while the rest are doomed to be eternally separated from him in a place of conscious, fiery torment (which is traditionally thought to be the “default fate” for sinners), election in Scripture has nothing to do with avoiding such a fate. It is not about where or how one will spend eternity. It is not about one’s final destiny at all.

To better understand the subject of election in the Bible, consider the following examples of both individuals and corporate groups that were “chosen” or “elect” according to God’s redemptive purpose: Israel (Isaiah 45:4; Deut 7:7; Acts 13:17; Romans 9:11; 11:28), Christ (Isaiah 42:1; Luke 9:35; 23:35; 1 Peter 2:4, 6), the twelve disciples (Luke 6:13; John 6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19; Acts 1:2, 24-25) and the Apostle Paul (Acts 9:15; see also Acts 22:14; 1 Cor. 9:1, 15). In none of these cases does election have anything to do with one’s being chosen by God to spend eternity with him in heaven rather than being eternally separated from him in “hell.” 

This is especially evident with Christ’s election: while Christ is said to be “chosen” and “elect,” his being chosen and elect has nothing to do with his spending his eternal destiny in one location rather than another (for of course, Christ’s eternal destiny was never in question). Rather, Christ’s election was all about his unique vocation and divine calling. Christ was chosen for a certain redemptive mission, and that mission involved his perfectly manifesting the will and character of God to the world, and his faithfully doing the work of his Father (a work which culminated in his sacrificial death on the cross for the sins of the world). And I submit that Christ’s election is the paradigm for how the election of the believer should be understood. Election is essentially about God’s choosing individuals or groups of people ahead of time for certain important roles or tasks (e.g., lineage and/or service). As was the case with Christ, to be elected or chosen by God involves being given a certain office or vocation (which carries with it both blessing/privilege and responsibility).

To better understand the significance of election, we should take a look at Israel’s purpose in the Hebrew Scriptures or "Old Testament." In these Scriptures we find that God singled out the nation of Israel to ultimately be a blessing to the rest of the world. It is significant that God is recognized as not just God over Israel but over the whole earth and all nations (e.g. Psalm 24, 96, 1 Chron. 29:11, etc.). Early in the Scriptural narrative, then, we find that God has a purpose and a goal in regard to the inhabitants of this planet: blessing all the families and nations of the earth through the (Jewish) offspring of Abraham (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Ps. 22:27; 67:2; 72:11; 82:8; 86:9; Isaiah 25:6-8). 

God’s special favor toward Israel stood at the center of his plan to eventually bless the entire world. Just as God singled out Joseph from among his brothers to be a blessing to the entire nation of Egypt, so the nation of Israel was marked by God as the divinely chosen agent in ultimately mediating blessing to all nations (see Isaiah 61-66). As many students of Scripture have noted, Jesus seems to be alluding to the original purpose of Israel in choosing twelve Jewish disciples to continue God’s redemptive plan for the world. Just as Israel was to be a light to the nations, the twelve disciples were chosen to be a light to the rest of the darkened world (Matt 5:14), so that the world would know God and glorify him (5:16). The number twelve is, of course, significant, as twelve is also the number of the tribes of Israel.

Just as national Israel is to be the agent through which God will ultimately mediate redemption to the nations on earth, so the body of Christ is to be the agent through which God makes known his manifold wisdom to the rulers and authorities "among the celestials" (Eph. 3:10; cf. Eph. 2:4-7). Paul said that those who are “in Christ” by faith (i.e., those who are “members of his body”) were chosen to be “holy and blameless in God's sight” (Eph. 1:4). They are also said to be “predestined to be adopted through Jesus Christ” (v. 5). Paul isn’t talking about anyone being chosen for one eternal destiny rather than another here; he’s talking about what's true of believers now, and what will be true of believers during the coming ages or "eons" of Christ’s reign (Eph. 2:6-7). 

Being “in Christ,” believers are presently considered holy and blameless in God’s sight (that’s why they’re said to be “justified,” and are always addressed as “saints” – even the ones who were in obvious need of further spiritual growth!). Believers are also given the special status of being “adopted” (a beautiful metaphor which Paul elaborates on in greater depth in Galatians 3:23 through 4:7). Although this status enjoyed by believers brings with it great privileges, believers are not blessed for their own sake alone. Rather, believers are called to serve others (both now and in the future) and to "wrestle" against the “principalities and powers” that are in rebellion against God and hostile towards humanity (Eph 6:10-17). In the Bible, election is always a vocational calling; the election of believers is inseparable from their calling to humbly serve and be a blessing to others.

Elsewhere Paul writes that believers are "[God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance for them to walk in" (Eph 2:10).
God’s election of Jacob instead of Esau, and his “hating” Esau and “loving” Jacob (Rom. 9:13; Mal. 1:2-3) is sometimes thought to support the idea that God has permanently divided humanity into two groups, with one portion of humanity destined for an eternity in heaven and another destined for an eternity in “hell.” However, as noted earlier, God's election of individuals or groups is always to historic and redemptive vocation (e.g., lineage and service), and does not entail that those who weren't elected are eternally doomed. God's "hatred" of Esau was no more a literal, personal hatred of Esau and his national descendents than was Jacob’s "hatred" of Leah (Gen 29:30-31). Nor was it any different than the "hatred" Christ says we are to have toward our family and our own lives (Luke 14:26). It was an idiomatic way of speaking common among the Hebrew people to use the terms "love" and "hate" in a comparative sense, with "love" denoting a greater regard or affection for someone, and "hatred" denoting less regard or affection for someone (as opposed to positive hatred or indifference). 

God's "hatred" of Esau (that is, the nation of Edom - Gen 25:23; Mal. 1:3-4) simply meant that, in contrast to Jacob and his descendents, God had less regard towards Esau and his descendents in relation to the outworking of his redemptive plan in history. In other words, God’s love of Jacob (Israel) and his hatred of Esau (Edom) simply had reference to the higher and more preeminent position of the Hebrew nation in God’s sovereign purpose. Before Jacob and Esau were even born, God determined that Esau’s nation, Edom, would not to be the chosen people and vessel through which the Messiah would come, and through which he would ultimately bless all the nations of the earth. To affirm that God literally and absolutely hates some would be completely inconsistent with the God revealed by Jesus and his apostles. According to Christ, God loves the world, including those who do not (yet) love him (John 3:16; Mt. 5:43-48). And according to the apostle John, God’s love for this sinful world defines his very essence (1 John 4:8-9, 14; cf. 1 John 2:2; 5:19).

But are not the non-elect said to be "vessels of wrath" (that is, under God’s wrath), and to be "vessels of dishonor?" Certainly, but nowhere does Scripture say or suggest that God’s wrath should be understood as eternal conscious torment in “hell.” As far as Scripture reveals, any divine wrath that fell upon Esau’s national descendants was confined to this life (Isaiah 34:5-10; Mal. 1:2-3). It did not extend beyond this mortal, earthly existence. Moreover, throughout his epistle to the Romans, Paul nowhere speaks of God's wrath as something that will take place in “eternity,” during the immortal state of man’s existence (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28, 32; 12:19; 13:2, 4). Like the wrath that fell upon Edom, the destruction of the "vessels of wrath" of which Paul spoke (Rom 9:22) is also spoken of as being an imminent temporal judgment “upon the earth”: 

"Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: 'Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, because the LORD will make a short work upon the earth.' And as Isaiah said before: 'Unless the LORD of Hosts had left us a seed, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have been made like Gomorrah.'" Romans 9:27-29

What Paul quotes in verses 27-28 was spoken originally of the few Israelites that were saved from the ravage of the Assyrian army (Isaiah 10:22-23). This historical judgment - like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 29; cf. Luke 17:29-30; 2 Peter 2:6) - was completely temporal (as opposed to "eternal") in nature - and the salvation of the "remnant" of which he speaks was no different in this regard. Paul never said a word about God's “wrath” or "indignation" being experienced by immortal human beings in an eternal state of existence. Like God’s wrath upon Edom, it is solely confined to those sharing in this temporal, mortal existence. Those of whom Paul wrote as being "vessels of wrath" were his unbelieving, first-century Jewish brethren. And the judgment for which they had been prepared was not endless torment in an immortal state of existence, but a judgment that would be similar in nature to the judgments that came upon the unrighteous previously in history.

But what about "predestination?" Does this word not imply that some have a different eternal destiny than others? Not at all. To "predestinate" simply means to "designate beforehand"; the word doesn't tell us what a person was predestined to or for. Whenever it is used by Paul in reference to believers, it never need be understood to refer to our final, eternal destiny. Instead, it refers to the destiny of certain people (i.e., members of Christ’s body) before the final consummation (i.e., before the time when all are subjected to Christ and God becomes “all in all”). The destiny given to believers is their being conformed to Christ’s likeness, before anyone else (Eph. 1:4-7; Rom 8:29-30). This is a process that begins now (2 Cor. 3:18). It is this noble destiny which God marked out for those whom he "foreknew" - i.e., those whom God graciously chose beforehand for a special purpose, as part of his redemptive plan for the universe. 

Unlike the rest of mankind, those who are chosen to become members of Christ’s body are granted the faith that leads to reconciliation with God and a deliverance from sin’s dominion in this present life. And it is these whom God is going to be showing “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness” in Christ (Eph. 2:7) – not in eternity (with everyone else eternally excluded), but in “the ages [plural] to come.”[1] But this in no way means that only those who are called to be believers in this life will be finally saved, for Paul calls God "the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe" (1 Tim 4:10). Believers – those whom God has chosen before the foundation (or rather, “disruption”) of the world are being saved now, and enjoy God’s grace during this life and in the ages to come. Those not chosen by God will be saved later, when the future ages of Christ’s reign reach their conclusion and he subjects all to himself.

The elect are essentially God’s pledge on behalf of the rest of humanity, and as such may be understood as a prophetic sign to the rest of the world revealing their ultimate destiny. An illustration of how God elects some on behalf of others can be seen from the scriptural theme of "firstfruits" and the "firstborn." Israel, as God’s elect nation, was known as the "firstfruits" (Jer. 2:3) and "firstborn" (Ex 3:22). But "firstfruits" serve as the pledge of the whole harvest. To offer up firstfruits to God meant that the rest of the harvest belonged to him as well. The New Testament uses this imagery as well; as those who are included in Christ’s body in this age of redemptive history, believers are known as "firstfruits" (2 Thess. 2:13; cf. James 1:18; Rev 14:4) and possess the "firstfruits of the Spirit" (Rom 8:22). But such language can only mean that an even greater, more inclusive harvest is yet to come in the future. In the same way, the "firstborn" involves and includes (in the divine economy) the whole family. Jesus is the firstborn of not the elect only, but of all creation (Colossians 1:15). While the firstborn and firstfruits are few in number, they have relation to the entire creation - all who are in need of being reconciled to their Creator.

[1] While Christ often spoke of the “age to come” during his ministry, Paul makes it clear that there is more than one age to come. Thus, the “age to come” is not an endless duration of time, since it is to be followed by another age. The “age to come” of which Christ spoke refers to the coming age of the millennial kingdom (to which every Israelite looked forward and hoped to inherit). And since this coming age is not eternal, we need not understand the age to follow it to be eternal, either (and Scripture elsewhere reveals that it is not).

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