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
- What has been your understanding of election? Does it match the author’s initial views? How is it the same/different?
- 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?)
- How does God’s election of Abraham and of Israel become a blessing for the whole world?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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)?