Like many who consider themselves Reformed (of the “young and restless,” confessionalist, or whatever varieties), I was introduced to the world of Reformation theology through the doctrine of election. And like many within this camp (especially the “young and restless”), the doctrine of predestination composed a significant portion of my younger self’s identity. It was a doctrinal “badge” that separated out those who could “handle the truth” and those who could not. And like all good salesmen, I was able to make all of Christian orthodoxy and the gospel hinge upon one’s understanding of election. Indeed, like some late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Calvinists, I measured my own Christian maturity by the extent to which I relished and delighted in God’s eternal decree.
I still love the doctrine of election, but it has been a long time since I related to it in the above manner. Indeed, the older I get, this doctrine both sinks deeper into me and it becomes more difficult to grasp in its fulness. It both comforts me and it bothers me. It is a “Jacob wrestling with the angel” doctrine. Indeed, I find myself a bit suspicious of those who find only delight in it. I’m more sympathetic to those who deny the Calvinist variety of this doctrine, even while I want them to be persuaded of the Reformed view. To that end, I hope that this primer serves to both explain the various biblical themes that are summarized around the doctrine of election, perhaps attempting (ambitiously) to improve on some traditional formulas, but I also want to commend this doctrine to the Christian heart as a very practical truth when properly understood. The biblical, historical, philosophical, and theological works on the doctrine of election can hardly be numbered. Much of what I have written is drawn from them, but I have tried to keep this article as merely descriptive as possible with a view to giving the reader a sense of the “big picture.” I have also suggested some ways of thinking through the more pertinent objections to this view of election. I will not linger long on any point, however, since each of these topics and passages have been dealt with thoroughly elsewhere. The pace and modest length are meant to give the reader a sense of “the whole” and to commend it precisely as that.
Aspects of the Doctrine of Election
1. The doctrine of election is biblical. To some extent, this is obvious, but we should pause to say that this is the most important thing. The Bible speaks of those who are “chosen” among those called (Mat. 22:14). It speaks of the church as “chosen” in Christ (Eph. 1:4). It calls believers “predestined” to conformity with the image of Christ through the means of calling, justification, and glorification (Rom. 8:29-30, cf. Eph. 1:3-14). Those who believe can be spoken of as “ordained to eternal life” (Acts 13:48). Of course, the exegesis on all of these passages is hotly debated, and I do not mean to go into the details here which have been more competently addressed elsewhere. But I highlight this point first because the Christian must continually cultivate a “listening” posture toward holy Scripture. It sometimes violates our expectations and even our relatively valid ethical and theological intuitions. Of course, we confess and seek to understand the ultimate symmetry between the reality articulated in the Bible, our belief in God’s goodness, and our own legitimate moral intuitions – but as we seek to work all of this out, we must be honest with God’s own authoritative speech first, and then we seek to understand how it fits with other things that we know. Like Job, we must trust God and then seek to grasp Him. Like Jesus, we must live by every word from the mouth of God. That word reshapes us and pushes us up against realities that we often ignore. Of course, sometimes our first reading is wrong and other things that we know can be a tool which help us to determine when we’ve misread Scripture. But in either case, when we approach this doctrine, we must start with God’s own speech and allow it to have its way with us.
2. The doctrine of election is necessitated by the fall of man into sin. Here I am not taking a position on the famous “lapsarian” debate but am making a more simple point. The post-fall diagnosis of the human being is pretty bleak. Genesis 6:5 and 8:21 portray a human race that is incapable of pursuing God (cf. Jeremiah 13:23, 17:9). Paul can speak of pre-converted Christians as “dead” in their sins. If nothing else, such a passage seems to indicate something like an “inability to respond” to God. And so, even if the Biblical language concerning “election” and “choice” turns out not to support the traditional Reformed notion, the Scriptural diagnosis of human inability to seek God logically and theologically requires something like a doctrine of “election.” If we cannot respond to God, then our response must be the result of His work in us (John 1:13, 6:44, 65, Acts 18:27, Eph. 2:8-10, 1 Peter 1:21, 2 Peter 1:1). And if it is the case that God must overcome our depravity and effectively draw us to Himself, then it would appear that we cannot avoid something like “the doctrine of election.” Any answer as to why one person is saved and another is not can only be reduced to God’s grace.
Of course, there are many objections to this. Most of those who see the Bible as God’s word accept its bleak diagnosis of the human condition (not to deny its affirmation of human value and wonder). But some have tried to resolve the Biblical tensions with respect to God’s divine choice by a notion of “prevenient grace.” Certainly, it is argued, no-one can come to Christ apart from God’s power. But what if God gives everyone (or most people) just enough grace to come to a “moment of choice” wherein their salvation depends upon their acceptance or rejection of the Savior? I would just ask the reader to consult the biblical passages that seem to dealing with being “called” and “drawn” (in the above paragraph) and ask whether this description seems accurate. Salvation is spoken of more in terms of death and life than any “Purgatorial” in-between. And it is not clear that such a view of conscious human choice (dependent as it is on a “libertarian” notion of human free will) is even a coherent option in the first place. Is there any such thing as conscious equality of inclination (to death and to life) which is resolved entirely by mere “will?” There are plenty of philosophers to debate this, but my own intuitions side with those who argue that this seems incoherent or at least non-correspondent to the reality of our own experience with these human faculties.
One attempt to understand the biblical doctrine of election tries to root God’s “choice” in the “foreseen” faith of believers. That is, God’s “election” is founded upon the foreseen faith of individuals in history. This notion raises serious questions concerning the classical doctrine of God (whose knowledge of creaturely actions is a function of His own self-knowledge), but it also very unlikely that the notion of “foreknowledge” in Rom. 8:29 has anything to do with this. Note that it is “persons” who are foreknown rather than “facts” about persons. The “knowledge” here is probably more the Old Testament notion of knowledge wherein Adam “knew” his wife and she conceived (Gen. 4:1). Israel was “foreknown” (Rom. 11:2) and even Christ was “foreknown” (1 Pet. 1:21). These texts have more to do with God’s “setting His affection upon beforehand” more than his propositional awareness of events in the future.
3. The biblical doctrine of election is thoroughly “theocentric.” God elects for the praise of His glorious grace and for the praise of His glory (Eph. 1:3-14). He has saved us called us according to His purpose (2 Tim. 1:9, cf. Rom. 8:28). Election highlights the greatness of God’s grace in contrast to our efforts (Rom. 11:5-6). And in election, God’s purposes triumph over our expectations, magnifying His power! He chooses the weak over the strong (1 Cor. 1:27), the younger over the elder brother (Romans 9:6-13), a small nation over the greater nations (Deut. 7:7-8), etc. This is a doctrine that is thoroughly and completely about God’s glory, His grace, His purposes, and His name.
And here we must pause once more. To engage rightly with the doctrine of election does not just require us to fight against a general human tendency to seek our own glory rather than that of God. More than this, 21st century Americans, specifically, live in arguably the most individualistic culture that has ever existed in the history of the world. And this “individualism” is not just an issue of our ethical or social reflexes. It forms a major part of our perception of “reality.” We think of ourselves as essentially individuals who create meaning by “expressing” ourselves into imagined and constructed public spaces. The “drama” of life and history is mainly about us and it is almost impossible for us not to reflexively think and act this way. Mixed with an incredible and historically unprecedented technological “control” over the universe and a corresponding proliferation of personal comforts, a doctrine which so decentralizes the individual and ascribes the conscious “self” meaning in a decidedly and irreducibly proximate (secondary, derivative) relation to the final end of God’s own glory, cannot but cause us to struggle.
Yet difficult as this doctrine might be for 21st century moderns, it calls us to grow a “taste” for something that human beings innately (as created) desire. We all have inclinations to be a part of something greater than ourselves. There is no shortage of attempts in modernity to be involved in “movements” which give us an identity beyond the mere consumption of comforts. And while these transcendental drives are most often filled with idolatry, the doctrine of election invites the believer to develop new appetites, to re-imagine the cosmos as a theater wherein God and His glory are the main thing, where time is about eternity, contingency about the Absolute, finitude about the Infinite, and man about God. In other words, this doctrine is an invitation to reality itself, because none of us can stare even at even the finite universe and fancy our own primacy. We were made for something more than ourselves, and man finds His chief ecstasy in extraspective wonder.
4. Election is Christological. Election is “in Christ.” God chose us “in Christ” says Paul (Eph. 1:4). Through it, He is the “firstborn” among many brethren (Rom. 8:29). We are “given” to Christ as His own (John 6:37). Some have taken this to mean that Christ Himself is the only “proper” object of election as an individual, and that Christians are “elect” inasmuch as they choose to be identified with Him. This does not, however, seem to be the point of Paul’s “Christological” notion of election. Most of the time, the subjects of election are Christians. That they are chosen “in Christ” is only sometimes alluded to. Rather, the notion seems to be that in eternity past (Eph. 1:4-5, 2 Thes. 2:13, 2 Tim. 1:9), God chose Christ-together-with-His-people as a singular object of election. In the outworking of redemptive history, Christ is not a lone individual, but has a “body” which is united to Himself. And it is “individuals” who make up that body (1 Cor. 12:27). In eternity past, God chose that His Son be united to a historical and finite people and to eternally unite His history with their history. Christ’s election is our individual election and vice versa precisely because we are part of His body in election, ransomed in redemptive history (Gal. 1:4), and then existentially united with Him in our own personal story (Rom. 16:7). The “corporate Christ” is the Father’s eternally planned tapestry which is woven in the threads of history and necessarily involves the individual elective threads which make up the whole of His Son’s eschatological centrality – wherein all things are summed up in Christ (Eph. 1-3). And if this were not clear enough, it is (in any case) “by His doing” that we are “in Christ” (1 Cor 1:30).
5. Election is eternal, but it is worked out in history. Christians were chosen before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), and God’s calling is rooted in His eternal purpose (2 Tim. 1:9), and this is all related to God’s plan of summing up the entire cosmos in Christ (Eph. 1-3). But this plan is accomplished through God’s concrete dealings in history, through the individual acts of His elective and sovereign activity – out of which emerge the singular story. In Romans 9, perhaps the classical text concerning election, the focus is not on God’s eternal decree, but rather on God’s election as concretely executed in history. In each case, election is tied to a concrete historical promise and calling. Abraham was called out of the nations. Isaac was chosen over Ishmael as the child of promise. Jacob was chosen over Esau. And Moses represents God’s choice in contrast to the hardening of Pharaoh. This does not necessarily imply that Pharaoh was never ultimately repentant (as some Jews held), but rather the principle that being a part of God’s plan and His people is a function of His initiative and calling. This can be seen from both an eternal and a historical perspective, but the latter cannot be neglected.
To further explicate this, my hope is now to draw together into a larger picture how the various ways in which Scripture talks about election might “fit together.” When Paul speaks of the church as “elect,” we must see this against the Old Testament backdrop of Israel’s “election,” which itself points to the “Chosen one” (Isa. 42:1) in Whom the Father delights – and whose election is foreshadowed also in the royal appointment of David (Psalm 89). The individual instances of this elective motif are admittedly complex and we must try to put the pieces together to attain a coherent “whole” picture.
The tension between merely “historical” election and eternal election is one of the trickiest areas of theology. The doctrine of election is oriented to “redemption” and highlights God’s salvific grace (Rom. 11:5-6, 2 Thes. 2:13). But it cannot be denied that there are tensions when we coordinate this salvific and eschatological focus with God’s historical dealings. The election of Israel was oriented toward moving redemptive history forward, but not all Israelites were ultimately saved. Jesus’ choice of disciples mimics God’s own choice of us (Mat. 28:18-20 and John 15:16), but there is still the example of Judas.
It seems, however, that the biblical solution to this conundrum is the doctrine (perhaps “principle”) of election itself! Not all those who are from Israel are Israel (Rom. 9:6). There is a historical, outward, and contingent election – and there is an eternal, essential, and eschatologically effective election. From the perspective of history, these cannot be distinguished. Paul indiscriminately calls the members of the visible church “chosen” of God. And visibly, they are. Israel is “called” (Mat. 22:14) and “adopted” (Rom. 9:4), but not all are “called” (Rom. 8:29) and “adopted” (Eph. 1:5).
Some try to entirely separate historical and eschatological election, calling, adoption, and justification. It is better, however, to simply state that the historical is contingent, proximate, and “accidental” (in the old scholastic sense) with respect to “essential,” ultimate, and eschatological calling, forgiveness, election, etc. As God’s ultimate purpose in election is oriented toward redemption in Christ, so the essence of being elect is to be “in Him,” to be chosen in Christ for resurrection from the dead, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. But inasmuch as this is accomplished by means of God’s historical deeds in history, this election takes visible form and has visible and historical analogues in the life of an individual or people-group. Ultimately and essentially, only “the elect” are elect. But historically, some of the non-elect participate in the non-essential “accidental” historical aspects of election. These are real and important, of course, and their participation “merely” in the historical and visible aspects of election can only be known by us retrospectively (1 John 2:19). The fundamental essence of redemption is a relation to God in Christ that the human eye cannot see. But this relation has “visible” correlates in God’s “hands and feet,” the church. In the fellowship of the saints, in the spoken words of the liturgy, and in the nurture of the Christian community, God’s love is really and truly experienced. But all of these are the visible correlates of a relation to God which is essentially invisible before the eschaton.
And it is important to point out that this historical/eschatological tension is a function of the fall. That the visible and invisible do not always match is a result of the fact that we live in a broken cosmos. And inasmuch as God’s elective activity works itself out into that cosmos, it necessarily reaches into a world broken and fragmented by sin, and correspondingly cannot but (from the perspective of time) be filled with precisely these tensions. But the principle of election both moves through history and stands behind it. There is an “Israel within Israel.” The former is worked out in the latter. And as redemptive history moves forward and the world is progressively renewed through the gospel, this tension becomes less and less. In Old Testament Israel, the “gap” between the elect nation and true believers within the nation could be as bleak as “seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal” or worse. When Christ chooses His disciples and redraws Israel around Himself, it is interested to note that Judas is the exception rather than the rule. While he is treated visibly as one of the twelve (even by Christ), it is clear in the gospel of John especially, that Jesus was aware of Judas’ heart. In the epistle to the Hebrews (which is ripe with warnings concerning apostasy), one cannot help but be struck by the hopeful and expectant tone that the author takes with the recipients (Heb. 6:9). The unity of historical (John 15:16) and eschatological election in far greater in the New Testament church than in Old Testament Israel. But, it is only at the last day that the union between the visible and the invisible will be so perfect that the distinction between the visible and invisible church, between historical and eternal election, will (in these respects) fall away.
Given that we live in this worldly tension but with this heavenly promise, we might be tempted to reduce the visible correlates of an essentially invisible relation to something entirely “other” than the real thing. That is, we might be tempted to say that salvation is all “invisible” and that the “visible” is dispensable. But to say that the visible is the “accidental correlate” (again, in the old scholastic sense) is not to say that the visible is superfluous, but rather than it is not the main thing and functions as a sign to a thing signified – the two of which are only separated in very exceptional circumstances. Indeed, it is still through the visible that we “see” the invisible, the whole (visible and invisible) of which is predicated to visible saints by a judgment of charity, the disunity of which can only be rendered clear retrospectively, and the final “revelation” of which will only be clear at the final day when all of the hidden things will be revealed. The visible signs are indispensable for us, because through them we receive communication from Person to persons – we who dare not judge our own hearts by an inward look (1 Cor. 4:3-5) but rather find our security in actively grasping into the Christ who is the very visibility and assurance of our own election as offered to us in real space and time (bodily) history (Phil. 3: 12-14). Unlike the historical practice of many Calvinists, it is important to note that Paul does not encourage the visible saints to question their election until the end of at least four very frustrated epistles (2 Cor. 13:5). And Paul rarely does this. Only when the visible and invisible are almost impossible to hold together does Paul find it pastorally important to “question” the invisible relation to Christ. Most of the time, he rather points out the inconsistency and encourages believers based upon His confidence of Christ’s (at least!) visible and demonstrable love and grace toward them in word and sacrament.
In sum, election has in view a final cosmic end, of which Christ (together with His people) are the singular object, with a view to their fellowship in the new heavens and earth. And so Paul can relate predestination to our ultimate glorification (Rom. 8:29-30), being blameless (Eph. 1:5), God’s final purpose of immorality (2 Tim. 1:9), etc. Election is ultimately eschatological. And like a gravitational singularity, that eschatological end pulls all the particulars of history toward it, election working its way into the tensions of history – tensions which are increasingly resolved as election approaches its final goal in the new heavens and earth wherein the God who works all things after the council of His will makes Christ all in all (Eph. 1:3-14).
Inasmuch as the proximate is drawn into the ultimate, it is interesting to note the “scope” of election. As redemptive history moves forward, the tension between the visible and the invisible church decreases, and the scope of God’s elective paradigm increases. He moves through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and then to the nations in the book of Acts (note Acts 13:48 in context). And when Paul summarizes the outworking of election in Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 1-3, the expansion of election to the gentiles and the larger picture of cosmic renewal are always in view. And so counter to our impressions, the doctrine of election both “divides” humanity (in some sense) but also expands into humanity in increasing proportion and with increasing hope. Election, ultimately, is the hope of the nations and a cause for evangelism (Rom. 10-11, 2 Tim. 2:10)!
6. We should seek to understand the biblical relationship between “calling” and “election,” or more specifically, between being called to “service,” and being elected for “salvation.” Some have tried to reduce the biblical doctrine of election to a focus on God choosing persons or peoples or nations for a particular task. And there is good biblical reason to associate election with this. Adam was called to cultivate the earth (Gen. 1:28-29). Abraham was called to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). Israel’s was to be a light to the nations (Exo. 19:5-6). Jesus was called as a Servant for others (think the Servant Songs of Isaiah). The church is elected and called for the sake of others in the Great Commision (Mat. 28:16-20). And those texts which emphasize election specifically in the New Testament are often associated with “bearing fruit” (John 15:16, Eph. 1:4-5, etc). However, salvation and service really cannot be separated. One could argue that the entire biblical narrative is about Adam’s failure to fulfill the mission God gave him in Genesis 1:28-29. And redemptive “restoration” involves the completion and extension of precisely that task. Notice that we “reign” with Christ in eternity as Adam was to reign over the earth (Rev. 22:5). As well, the calling to service cannot but be associated with the divine word making us new to fulfill the human calling. The calling of Abraham to service is also the word of promise to which he responded in faith (Romans 4). The calling of Israel at least symbolizes a participation in or rejection of God’s very own salvific purposes (Gal. 3-4). The disciples were chosen for a task but also “made clean” by the very word of Christ which gave them that task (John 15: 3). Especially in the case of Paul, it would be almost impossible to separate conversion and calling (Acts 9). Indeed, the very word “called,” which seems to transition believers into the state of “justification” (Rom. 8:29) and by which they are deemed “elect,” carries overtones of calling to service, being set apart for God’s mission in the world. The Great Commission serves the creation commission, and God’s redemption takes the form of both forgiveness and restoration to grateful and free service in Christ. The tensions created by these biblical themes are of a piece with the tensions which I tried to tackle in the previous point.
7. This point gets at the last two from another angle. Election is related to and revealed in the word. Again, Romans 9 is less about (though it implies) the eternal decree than about God’s intrusive and electing words of promise in history. And these words have the effects He intends (Isa. 55:11). Election is accomplished through “calling” (Rom. 8:29). Eternity is revealed in God’s “calling” of us (2 Tim. 1:9). God called those He chose to attain immortality (2 Thes. 2:13). I will deal with objections related to this doctrine below, but it is worth (again) pausing here to note the human “access point” to the reality of election, and it is not a peer into God’s book of decrees. It is rather “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Election is revealed in the promises. Do you want to know your own election? Then respond to the word of promise and you have been swept up into the centrifugal force of this eternal reality. Making our calling and election sure is active (2 Peter 1:10) in nature.
8. And this highlights the final point. Election is not a speculative, but rather a very pastoral doctrine. It is a comfort to those who fear that they cannot persevere in the faith (Phil. 1:6, 1 Thes. 5:23). It calls us to recognize ourselves as united to Christ in the mind of God from all eternity and destined to share a common life with Him at the last day. But, again, it does none of this apart from entering into the history through which it is accomplished. For us, that means that we “see” election in seeing Christ. We know our own election in knowing Christ. There is no biblical reason to “wonder whether or not you are elect.” Rather make your calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10) by gazing into the Christ who is, as Calvin famously put it, the mirror in which we can truly contemplate our own election. Election tells us that salvation is entirely of grace and it calls us to find our security in Christ alone as He is offered to us in God’s promises – through which His eternal purposes are accomplished. And His sheep will hear His voice and follow Him (John 10:27-28).
Objections to the Doctrine of Election
1. How can God’s sovereignty over the human will be reconciled with human freedom and responsibility? The doctrine of election certainly assumes God’s sovereignty over the human will. But it also teaches human freedom and responsibility. D.A. Carson has persuasively shown that these two themes go together almost seamlessly in the Old Testament with very little “pressure” to reconcile them (Gen. 50:20, cf. God/Pharaoh “hardening his heart”). So the first thing to say to this question is that the Bible seems to teach both. Indeed, the “objector” in Romans 9 doesn’t make sense unless it does. And calling this question a “mystery” is not a “punt.” In fact, the particular question of necessity and freedom, the relationship between determinism and responsibility, is a question that many cultures have asked and answered in many ways. It appears to be one of the basic “tensions” that human beings have never really been able to escape. And if one takes a glimpse of the current philosophical options on the market, one will quickly realize that this tension has achieved very little by way of consensus. It is not even entirely clear, for instance, that the libertarian notion of free will that the objection depends upon is actually coherent. At best, my own judgment is that we can avoid incoherence on this question, but still fall short of a completely “comprehension” of the subject. Inasmuch as the question is a philosophical one, the reconciliation must be so as well. But this is precisely the problem. This issue is far more complex than our common intellectual instincts might imply. And our “reflexive” solutions are often rooted in our own biases. Again, we live in an era of unprecedented quantities of “decision-making” and “potential,” and this might leave us feeling like “freedom” is far more obvious than “determinism.” But many in the past felt the opposite. Inasmuch as they had very little mastery over the world and were, consequently, far more subject to the whims of the cosmos, they often reflexively imagined “determinism” to be far more obvious than “freedom.”
Still, with all these caveats, a brief hint at “resolution” might be in order. One of the things that the objection above assumes is that divine sovereignty and human freedom operate in the same causal “spectrum.” If God is 99% sovereign with respect to my will, then I am only 1% free. That is, the “pool of causality” is the same reservoir for God and for man. But the classical and biblical notion of God is that He is “above” our reality (though He enters into it). God is 100% sovereign and we are 100% free because our “freedom” exists at a creaturely level whereas His sovereignty exists at a “God” level. Think of the relationship between an author and the characters in a book that the author writes. Did Dr. Frankenstein make the monster or did Mary Shelley? Well, it depends upon which “level” we are looking at (the “author” versus “the character”). Kevin Vanhoozer has extended this analogy (in his masterful Remythologizing Theology) to even talk of different sorts of authorship. There is authorship wherein the author gives you his or her perspective throughout the narrative, and then there are those authors whose characters almost “taking on a life of their own” (he notes Dostoevsky here). That is to say, the characters “feel” as though they are complex and subtle enough to reflect genuinely different authorship and authentic “individuality.” The author is in “control” in a very relevant sense, but the characters are also “free” in that they spontaneously and naturally develop in the writing process as an authentic outworking of their original “voice-idea.” Vanhoozer’s treatment is far more complex than this, but one can perhaps get a “hint” of a helpful analogy here. The absolute sovereignty of the author is not incommensurate or even on the same ontological plane as the complete freedom of the characters. Of course, the relationship of mere freedom and responsibility to the fall of mankind in Adam is also relevant to this objection and the larger discussion of election, but I must forego this here and be confined to recommending Bavinck’s matchless treatment of this issue.
2. If God chooses who will be saved, what about the free offer of the gospel? Does God desire all to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, etc)? There are many debates about the “free offer” passages, and I won’t enter into them here. However one takes them in context, there is no ultimate tension between an “idea” of God’s genuine desire for all persons to be saved and His decision to elect only some of them. God is both said to “will” or “desire” to save (Eze. 33:11, Mat. 23:37, etc), and to will and choose to put to death and condemn (1 Sam. 2:22-25, Rom 9:18). Again, there is much debate about all these passages and I would highly commend John Piper’s treatment of this subject.
Theologians have sometimes made the distinction between God’s “will of decree” and “prescriptive will.” These are helpful terms but I think we can break them down very practically. God’s “will” in terms of His decree concerning all things (Eph. 1:11) is God’s will concerning every particular thing in relation to every other particular thing. For instance, God’s decree concerning this essay is His desire for it in its relation to every moment in history and particle in the universe. I have no idea what that decree is, and I cannot even imagine a singular glimpse of all of the reality of space and time as a singular whole. On the other hand, God’s preceptive will or “will of command” is better described as what God “values” as such. That is, while the decree focuses upon God’s desire concerning one thing in its relation to all things, God’s revealed will is a reflection of His character and desires “in the raw.” And so when the Bible speaks of God’s desire to save, of His desire not to see the death of the sinner, of His delight to show goodness to His creatures, it really means that God is well-disposed towards creatures made in His image. When it says that He will “delight” to condemn, the perspective there is not God’s delight in death and suffering “in the raw,” but His delight in that particular facet of reality in its relation to other facets of reality (the defense of His people, the maintenance of justice, the vindication of His name, etc). The creature cannot fully comprehend the relation between these two “wills” (which are singular in God), and to say this is not to punt, but to confession mystery precisely where we’d expect it – at the boundary between the finite and the infinite.
It is impossible for us to imagine what it would be like to see all things in relation to all things and to will their placement in the complex tapestry of history. And so it is, once again, the task of the Christian to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. God’s revealed will is what He values “in the raw.” It really does reflect His character. And because of this, we can legitimately and meaningfully offer the gospel to all persons. We can appeal to God to save our neighbors knowing that He delights to save. We can offer Christ to those around us with the confidence that Christ would delight to save precisely this person. Any doctrine of election which denies this is toxic to the Christian and to the church. Election without the free offer of the gospel is a recipe for introspection, insecurity, and the stifling of all Christian souls except for the most rawly rationalistic. The free offer of the gospel opens up the heart of God not only to the world but to the Christian. And in so doing, it draws the Christian into the promises of Christ wherein they see their own election and are caught up the divine purpose.
3. Why doesn’t God elect everyone if He delights to save? I do not know the answer to this question. And I think every Christian must struggle with it. But this is not a unique problem for those who affirm the doctrine of election. Unless one is a universalist or unless one denies that God could save everyone if He so desired, this reality is simply that, reality. Of course, there are those who argue for the aforementioned options, and while I do not have the time to deal with them here, they strike me (at least often) as attempts to avoid the darker existential questions that all humans must face. But the truth of “reprobation,” of God’s passing over some and choosing others, is only a derivative and particular instance of the much larger problem of suffering and evil itself. Why would a good God choose to actualize a world wherein sin and suffering existed at all – or wherein they were even possible in the first place? Again, I cannot give a rational account of evil. Nor should I expect to be able to do so. Our minds are fashioned to relate to being and to reality. But evil is the disintegration of reality, the privation of being, a parasite on good things. As such, it is (for human beings) necessarily elusive.
But here is the simple fact. The doctrine of election (and the sinful world with which it has to do) is simply reality. Reality is not what we want it to be. It is simply what is. The principle of election is clear at every level of our experience. There are those who have never heard of Christ and those who have. There are those who were raised in terrible Christian homes that turned them away from Christ versus those who were raised in good Christian homes that attracted them to Christ. And these sorts of examples could be multiplied. In each case, we see advantage and disadvantage. And that God does not intervene to rid the world of all unbelief and evil is the great conundrum. It is Job’s question. Why? Why sin, judgment, Hell, suffering, at all? These things are real and God is real. And God is, so we confess, good!
As mentioned above, we moderns have a uniquely difficult time living in reality. We are far more apt to construct our own realities and to play in them. But these are always suspended atop the deeper fabric of truth that we cannot escape. Death, sin, Hell, judgment, suffering, and evil are all very real. And God does not get rid of them in the way that we want Him to. And our tendency is to want to answer this conundrum by either denying God’s existence or by denying His absolute sovereignty. Biblically and metaphysically (not to mention historically), these options are completely incoherent. Questioning God’s goodness, however, is the most common biblical and historical response to evil. The suffering saints always question whether or not God is good. And it is only by both encountering the transcendent greatness of God Himself (like Job) and also by having “God with us” in Christ that we know that (a) God is greater than man and (b) the answer simply cannot be that God does not care about evil. No, God cares enough to punish His own Son on our behalf, to suffer the suffering of Christ Himself (Rom. 5:8). Christians live in-between these two poles of reality – the transcendence of God Whom we cannot comprehend but who has humbled Himself to be one of us and die a death on the cross (Phil. 2). Henri Blocher’s treatment of this topic is highly commendable.
Amazingly, election is a call to believe. We can only see it and it is only revealed to us as refracted through the lens of Christ as revealed in the gospel. In approaching this through Christ, we are caught up into the eternal plan of God in time. We are carried along in the torrent of eternity as it breaks into our history. In precisely this sense, I think this is a doctrine for our day. It draws us outside of ourselves by drawing us to Christ but also drawing us into God’s eternal purposes. We are made to behold the tapestry of reality and relish in the the threads which are drawn together in the Logos – who unites us to Himself electively in eternity, objectively in history, and personally through the down-payment of the Holy Spirit and in our future resurrection. And so, Christian, you can look to Christ in whom you behold all these things and precisely “for you,” freely given in the word of promise, revealing God’s very own heart.
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Bring her into the wilderness
And speak kindly to her.
“Then I will give her her vineyards from there,
And the valley of Achor as a door of hope.
And she will sing there as in the days of her youth,
As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.
“It will come about in that day,” declares the Lord,
“That you will call Me Ishi
And will no longer call Me Baali.
“For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth,
So that they will be mentioned by their names no more.
“In that day I will also make a covenant for them
With the beasts of the field,
The birds of the sky
And the creeping things of the ground.
And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land,
And will make them lie down in safety.
“I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,
In lovingkindness and in compassion,
And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.
Then you will know the Lord.
“It will come about in that day that I will respond,” declares the Lord.
“I will respond to the heavens, and they will respond to the earth,
And the earth will respond to the grain, to the new wine and to the oil,
And they will respond to Jezreel.
“I will sow her for Myself in the land.
I will also have compassion on her who had not obtained compassion,
And I will say to those who were not My people,
‘You are My people!’
And they will say, ‘You are my God!’”
(Hosea 2: 14-23, NASB)