The Good News about Election

Election portrays the ever-widening embrace of God’s love.

For many of us, the doctrine of election means that God has chosen a certain number of people to be saved—and, depending on how you interpret the Canons of Dort, a certain number of people to be damned.

In thinking about election, we tend to dwell on those passages that seem to portray election as God choosing individuals for salvation. Some, maybe even a few, are chosen, while others are not. And no one can complain because we all deserve damnation anyway. Is that all there is to the doctrine of election?

Some time ago I became familiar with the writings of the great British missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin. In his book The Open Secret on the theology of mission, he names election as the foundation of the mission of the church. How can that be? The doctrine of election seems to be a problem for the mission of the church rather than its foundation.

The trouble is that we tend to think about election mainly from the perspective of Romans 9-11. Many interpreters, from Augustine to Calvin, understood these chapters to be about the election of individuals and the church to salvation. But, as more recent interpreters point out, Paul’s doctrine of election here has a wider reach with roots deep in the Old Testament.

It begins in Genesis 12 with God’s call of Abraham and Sarah. Inexplicably, sovereignly, God chooses this barren couple. God’s purpose is clear:

I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you . . .
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you (vv. 2-3).

Abraham was elect—that is, chosen by God to bear God’s blessing to the whole wide world.

God then widens his purpose with the election of the people of Israel, Abraham’s descendants. Out of all the people in the world, God chooses them to be his own royal priesthood and holy nation (Ex. 19:5, 6). But their election has the same goal as that of their father Abraham: to be a “light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 49:6). 

Jesus Christ finally appears as the “new Israel,” embodying the elect and holy people Israel failed to be. His purpose as the true Israel is to show God’s love for the whole world. Jesus then chooses (elects) disciples and finally sends them out to “all the world” to make disciples of the nations (Matt. 28:19).

Every step of the way, God works by electing some with the purpose of reaching more. Election is the means of God’s mission, which means that our own election is never meant to stop with us so we may be an exclusive group of elect people to enjoy God’s favor. It’s not about setting limits and building fences.

Election portrays the ever-widening embrace of God’s love. Its purpose is always inclusive rather than exclusive. It’s the way the sovereign God gets things done. God chooses some so that they may bear the blessing of his love and salvation to the many.

It’s a great encouragement not only to know we are elect, but to realize that God continues his electing love through us. When Paul speaks to Lydia about Christ, Scripture says, “the Lord opened her heart” (Acts 16:14). Through his electing love and by the witness of Paul, God called Lydia and eventually gathered his church in Philippi through her. God is way ahead of us in his gracious electing love.

By sovereign election, God is accomplishing his loving purpose to spread the blessing of his love to every corner of the world, to every tribe and tongue and nation. Or, as Paul concludes in his discussion of election in a doxology:

For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!

For from him and through him and for him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Rom. 11: 32-33, 36)


Questions for Discussion

  1. What has been your understanding of election? Does it match the author’s initial views? How is it the same/different?
  2. How does the doctrine of election seem to “be a problem for the mission of the church”? (Hint: if God has already predetermined the ultimate destination of every human being, then what is the point of evangelism?)
  3. How does God’s election of Abraham and of Israel become a blessing for the whole world?
  4. Discuss the claim that “Election portrays the ever-widening embrace of God’s love. Its purpose is always inclusive rather than exclusive.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
  5. If God works out his mission for the world through election, what does that imply for those who are elect? What does it imply for us?
  6. How did this article and your discussion help you to view election as something much deeper and grander than just a matter of eternal “innies” and “outies”? Does it make it easier for you to bring God the glory (Rom. 11:32f)?

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (3)


Thanks for this latest article on election.  As the new interim editor of the Banner, you are tackling some difficult topics.  I laud you for this.  Although you express an appreciation of this doctrine (election), you do so by redefining the way it has always been taught in our churches.  You put a spin on election that the authors of our Canons of Dort would have never agreed to and I doubt that our seminary would teach either.  When considering the Bible’s teaching on this doctrine (which is abundant) the weight of what we read in the Bible aligns heavily with the teachings of the Canons.  What you are suggesting in this article finds much more sympathy with the Arminian teaching which a Calvinistic perspective (our denomination) strongly disagrees with.

The basic teaching on election, as taught in our own denomination (Bible Way curriculum), has used the acronym T-U-L-I-P.  The letter L in this acronym stands for “limited atonement,” that is, God’s atoning sacrifice of Christ is “limited” to those chosen (or elected) by God.  All others are excluded from salvation.  You, Leonard, by suggesting that “Election portrays the ever-widening embrace of God’s love,” seem to be suggesting an unlimited embrace of God’s love.  “Limited” in contrast to “ever-widening” seem to say two different things.  Although, on the one hand, you give the impression of appreciating the CRC’s doctrinal heritage, you seem to be redefining it in some important ways.

You support this unlimited character of God’s electing love by saying, “By sovereign election, God is accomplishing his loving purpose to spread the blessing of his love to every corner of the world, to every tribe and tongue and nation. Or, as Paul concludes in his discussion of election in a doxology: For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”   You take this verse (Romans 11:32) out of its context to make it say something it obviously doesn’t say.  This chapter 11 is part of Paul’s discourse on election in which he explains that there are elect or chosen ones from within Israel and from among the Gentiles, and that all these elect will be the objects of God’s mercy.  He’s not suggesting a universal salvation or even an unlimited atonement.  You missed Paul’s point.

There are many Christians who do not like this doctrine of election as it is taught in the Bible.  I’m one of those.  And it sounds like you may be one as well.  Many Christians will deny the Biblical teaching of election.  Arminius, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was one of those, and his teaching was the reason for the Canons of Dort to be penned in 1618.  Others may redefine the teaching to make it accord with a free-will perspective on salvation and a broad missionary appeal.  You, Leonard, seem to be doing the same, or at least coming close.  A soft perspective on election may make it sound much more appealing.  But this is no different than taking a soft approach on or redefining God’s justice and the eternal damnation of the unbelieving (or those not chosen).  It might be nice if we could somehow soften the blow on God’s wrath and hell.  But I don’t think that will work either.  If we are to go with the Bible as our source of religious authority, then we are stuck with a just God that somehow limits his salvation to the chosen ones and sends the rest to hell.  Why, this almost makes the Gods of other religions sound quite appealing.

Roger, you wrote, "He's [Paul] not suggesting a universal or even an unlimited atomennt." Nor do I. Paul is saying that the inclusion of the Gentiles (undersood as a gruop, not as individuals) is a cause for wonder at the astounding grace of God. I agree that Dort does not contain my understanding of election, which is exactly why I wrote about it. Without denying Dort, I want to add this groader goal of election to it, which, to my mind, is clearly biblical.  Also, "ever widening" is not the same as "unlimited." I never use the word limited or unlimited in the article, I prefer widening. Frankly, I do not presume to know the limits of God's grace, but I do know that it is very wide indeed.

Thanks, Len, for your clarification.  I remember from speech classes in high school and college how we were encouraged to be very clear in communicating, whether in a speech or in writing.  A conversation can communicate several different messages at the same time.  There’s the message that the speaker intended to give, the message that was actually spoken, the message that the listener thought they heard, and the message the listener wanted to hear.  There were other messages that could be heard, as well, depending on individual biases.  I’m not criticizing your communication, Len, but rather the apostle Paul’s.  There was your understanding of what Paul was conveying, there was mine, and we could also include Karl Barth who understood this verse to teach a universal salvation.  He thought the same “all” or “everyone” that God has bound over to disobedience is the same “all” or “everyone” that God has mercy on.  And in the context of this chapter, Paul is talking about the grace or mercy of salvation. Of course Barth was a universalist.  Christ died for all and saves all.  And I would imagine we could include Arminius’ understanding of this verse, as well.  The point I”m making now is that we can make Scripture say pretty much whatever we want.   Hence, the hundreds of denominations.

But now here’s another thought.  The authors of the Canons of Dort wanted to make very clear to their readers how the doctrine of election (and the corresponding verses) should be understood and our denomination has agreed with those authors.  We sign a form saying we agree and will not teach otherwise.  In that you said, in your comment, that Dort does not contain your understanding of election, is that significant for an office bearing member of the CRC?  In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as we can live with our own understanding.  I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of inconsistencies in the Bible unless we are willing to do some interpretive gymnastics.  We often do that for ourselves.

There is a reason that so many denominations and individuals do not like the doctrine of election.
It is offensive to many Christians’ understanding of God’s love.  Maybe that was your sentiment, as well.  The solution for many is easy, interpret the relevant verses after the pattern of Arminius or Karl Barth or whoever we want. We get to pick.  I think I’m seeing a lot of that in our denomination.  So much for a confessional church. 

Thanks Len, for your further response.  I really do appreciate the additional thought and effort that you made.  It means a lot to hear back from the authors of articles.  Keep up the good work.