Many Bible readers—especially those raised in Reformed church circles—find themselves unsettled when they consider the doctrine of election. What about those who are not chosen?
In response, we are often reminded that the doctrine of election can be a comfort. Why? Because it is a strong articulation of God’s faithful and free gift of salvation, identity, and belonging, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done. But I wonder if those unsettling questions about those deemed “not elect” are on the right track. Is there something in the logic of election that we are missing?
Focusing on the comforting nature of the doctrine of election for believers can distract us from the missional heart of the biblical story of election: that God calls some for the sake of the many. Abraham and Sarah, the people of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, the first apostles, the earliest church—the story of God choosing a few is also and always the story of God inviting all to participate in God’s kingdom of “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). The Redeemer and Reconciler’s invitation to all always come through the witness of the few.
In fact, those in the biblical story who dwell too long on the comforting nature of their election at the expense of their calling to invite others into God’s story often find themselves the object of God’s frustration and anger. In Jonah 4, God asks the prophet Jonah to consider the possibility of God’s care for those outside of Israel, clearly upset with Jonah’s (and, by implication, Israel’s) overconfidence in his identity as the chosen and his neglect of the other. Or, as God says through the prophet Amos: “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (Amos 3:2). To read the Hebrew prophets is to recognize that to be chosen is a fearful responsibility.
Lesslie Newbigin, the British Reformed theologian and longtime missionary to India, thought long and hard about this question. Why does God appear to choose only some rather than revealing Godself to all? Why does a powerful God choose to work through the (broken and often-misguided) few? Newbigin’s answer in The Open Secret is helpful: “The gift of salvation is bound up with our openness to one another. It does not come to each, direct from above, like a shaft of light through the roof. It comes from the neighbor in the action by which we open the door to invite the neighbor in.”
Why does the gospel work this way? Because the how of the gospel is in keeping with the God of the gospel: a God of communion, whose very being is triune love-in-relation. Again, Newbigin puts it well: “There is no salvation except in a mutual relatedness that reflects that eternal relatedness-in-love which is the being of the triune God. Therefore salvation can only be the way of election: one must be chosen and called and sent with the word of salvation to the other.”
That, I think, is the logic and challenge of election—the challenge of being in life-giving relationship with God and with our neighbors, for their sake and ours. It’s a challenge we’ll miss if we focus solely on the comfort we can derive from the doctrine. In this understanding, the gospel is less about the rescue of the souls of the elect and more about the redemption of human persons knit together with others in a shared participation in and responsibility for God’s created world.