Few biblical doctrines have as contentious and biting a history within the church as predestination. Even among communities of believers who are passionately seeking to know God it often feels manifestly awkward to broach the issue in conversation. Perhaps this is due in part to a genuine desire for peace and a reluctance to enter hastily into old, worn out controversies, in light of the havoc this doctrine has wreaked at times in the life of the church. Our hesitation may also arise from a faulty perception of the supposed lack of practical importance this truth holds for our spirituality.
As I read the New Testament, however, I have become increasingly convinced that neither potential rationale held much sway for Jesus, or Paul, or Peter, or John (or…). The most striking difference between our theological dialogue and the Bible (with respect to this single issue of God’s election of His people) is the sheer frequency with which it is discussed in God’s Word. Ought we not feel that something is seriously amiss if such a radical chasm exists between us and the early Christians here? We need to lay aside our mistaken intuitions and begin talking again–with grace and patience–about what it means to be chosen by God. It is there for a reason. We ignore it to our peril and to our very great spiritual detriment.
With the aim of stirring up such discussion, I want to offer a perspective on predestination that is, I think, ordinarily overlooked. Most treatments of divine election focus on what this doctrine is. I propose that we start not with what divine election is, but rather what it does in the biblical narrative. I hope that in postponing an early, rushed decision on the meaning of predestination, we may glimpse aspects of reality here we would have otherwise missed as we ponder the function of being chosen by God. Of course, given the close, necessary relationship between what a thing is and what a thing does, we should fully expect that signifcant insight on the nature of divine election will be attained if we can come to grips with what role it performs in the life of the people of God.
1.) Divine Election reveals the unbreakable, sovereign and entirely free love of God. Whenever the biblical writers talk about being chosen by God, they are never far from gushing over the uncaused, eternal love of God for His people. In Deuteronomy 7, God informs Israel of the reason behind His choice of them, and it is stunning:
“For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8; see here and here for more on the intimate connection with love.)
Do you hear that? The Lord says that it is not for anything I see in you that I have set my love upon you (i.e. it was not because you were more in number, or smarter, or better, or more religious than the other peoples, etc.). Rather, I loved you…because I loved you. No reason can be given for God’s election of a people for Himself other than–God. The sole cause lay in Him, not in us. In other words, divine election (surprise) is about grace. It reveals the depths and wonders of God’s love for His people. Is it really such a terrible shock that the Gospel of John–the book most Christians think of first when they think of God’s love–is also the biblical document that most incessantly focuses on being chosen by God? See here for one particularly memorable instance.
2.) Divine Election aims at humility and boasting only in God, never in ourselves. To be the object of divine election is to have any and all potential grounds for pride ripped from beneath your feet. God alone is to receive glory in this matter. To be chosen by grace and to yet remain arrogant is the worst contradiction conceivable. If we forget these realites and begin to grow conceited, Paul urges us to remember the way in which God has chosen us:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And it is of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”” (I Corinthians 1:26-31)
3.) Divine Election is unto holiness, not because of holiness. What I mean by this is set forth in an illustration of Jonathan Edwards, highlighting the difference between how the world chooses and how God chooses:
“God has chosen the godly out of the rest of the world to be nearly related to him, to stand in the relation of children, to have a property in him, that they might not only be his people, but that he might be their God. He has chosen these to bestow himself upon them. He has chosen them from among others to be gracious to them, to show them his favor. He has chosen them to enjoy him, to see his glory, and to dwell with him forever. He has chosen them as his treasure, as a man chooses out gems from a heap of stones, with this difference: the man finds gems very different from other stones, and therefore chooses, but God chooses them, and therefore they become gems, and very different from others.” (Jonathan Edwards, “Christians A Chosen Generation”)
To be the last kid perennially picked for the kickball game on the playground in elementary school can, of course, be a psychologically devastating experience. Yet predestination reminds us that we are not chosen because God first finds us beautiful or alluring in ourselves (the opposite holds true because of sin). Rather, we are made beautiful because God sets His favor freely upon our broken existence. Could anything be more freeing? Could there be a greater incentive to putting off the old and walking in newness of life? Consider Genesis 18:19, Ephesians 1:4-5, II Thessalonians 2:13-14 and I Peter 2:9-12 for the aim of election issuing forth in (not from) holiness of life.
It bears repeating that every Christian necessarily believes in predestination (i.e. it can’t be disputed that it is in the Bible). They just differ over what this doctrine means! One helpful litmus test with respect to the validity of our understanding of divine election is to ask ourselves the simple question: is this doctrine performing these functions in my life? If not, perhaps we have misunderstood what divine election is.
Next time, I’ll discuss a few more functions of divine election in the life of God’s people. For those curious to read more and explore the dominant views held by Christians over the centuries, I recommend (from the Arminian perspective) this and this and this, and (from the Calvinist perspective) see here and here and here. Enough reading for you?