For my first post, see here.
The really surprising thing about divine election in the Bible is that it is consistently spoken of as if it were practical. In our endlessly heated and stuffy academic debates about predestination, we easily forget that this doctrine is supposed to be useful–in a rugged, bottom-line kind of way–to those who are feebly trying to follow Jesus more authentically and faithfully.
Yet most Christians I have conversed with do not, admittedly, possess this sort of nitty-gritty, beneficial experience with election. Hence my aim is to explore the function of being chosen by God (rather than its meaning) in the Scriptures, in the hope that this might win us a new angle of fresh insight into this ignored theme. Leaving to the side, for the time being, what election is, I now follow up on last week’s initial three observations with three more things election does (or at least ought to do) in the Christian life:
4.) Divine Election is meant to provide deep-rooted assurance of salvation for individual Christians. To know myself to be chosen by God is to realize that I have been loved from everlasting to everlasting. Just as this love had no beginning, neither will it have an end. Before the foundation of the world I belonged to God, and I will be His forever, world without end. I may say truly that God loves me, but I can never say that God loves me because…for there is no reason other than His own good pleasure and mercy. Thus, nothing will ever separate me from His love, nor will anyone be able to bring any charge against God’s elect (see Romans 8:28-39). Compare also Ephesians 1:3-14.
This assurance stands in marked contrast to the empty philosophical speculation and frivolous, soul-numbing doubt that twisted, sub-biblical understandings of election have sometimes produced in God’s people. If election produces mental or spiritual instability in a believer, they simply do not understand election. To such at these the advice of M’Cheyne is apropos:
“‘If I knew I were one of God’s elect, I would come to Christ; but I fear I am not.’ To you I answer: nobody ever came to Christ because he knew himself to be one of the elect. It is quite true that God has of His mere good pleasure elected some to everlasting life, but they never knew it until they believed in Christ. Christ nowhere commands the elect to come to him. He commands all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel. The question for you is not, ‘Am I one of the elect?’ but ‘Am I a sinner?’ Christ came to save sinners.” (Robert Murray M’Cheyne)
The tricky question here, of course, is how one comes to know his or her elect status. Do we find this lofty, esoteric information in the hidden, mysterious, eternal counsels and decrees of God? Do we find it through morbid, ruthless introspection? Me genoito. Instead, election is personally recognized and known in two corresponding ways in the New Testament, both of which are focused upon Jesus. Election, we must never fail to insist, bears the indelible mark of a Christ-centered stamp in any truly Christian theology.
a.) Election is known and acknowledged retrospectively after we come to faith in Christ. In other words, the believer’s election is known indirectly and derivatively in Christian theology—not directly, intuitively, or mystically. We see our election in Christ. As Paul writes:
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (I Thessalonians 1:4-5)
If you ask who the chosen people are in the world, the New Testament is crystal clear: look for those who adore Jesus and follow him. If you are drawn to Jesus, it is because God has first wooed you. When you ponder if you are one of the elect, simply look to Jesus. Do you love what you see in him? Then you are chosen. Calvin puts it this way, highlighting Jesus as the “mirror” of election:
“But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life.” (John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.24.5)
b.) Election is confirmed and validated prospectively as we continue to walk by faith with perserverance, living in obedience to our crucified and risen Savior and seeking His glory and will in all things. As Peter puts it:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (II Peter 1:3-11)
Election assures us that we are loved by God in Christ.
5.) Divine Election functions as a confident foundation for evangelism of unbelievers. This aspect, no doubt, is completely unexpected and utterly counter-intuitive to modern sentiments. Yet listen to this:
“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” (2 Timothy 2:8-10)
Arguably a similar function (i.e. the invincibility of God’s saving purposes in the world giving rise to bold, risk-taking mission) is ascribed to divine election in John 10:16, 27-30 and Acts 18:9-11. Think about it: if we are saved completely by grace, then neither our good qualities nor our bad deeds serve to either attract or repel God’s favor to us. On the one hand, therefore, let no one presume anything apart from Christ. For who sees anything different in us? Yet on the other hand, let no one ever despair that they are beyond redemption or outside of hope. Such dark ruminations too quickly forget the logic of divine election. Election frees us to proclaim the gospel confidently to those who are still in darkness, knowing that their faith rests ultimately not in our wisdom but in God’s power.
6.) Divine Election is not an end in itself, but is for the sake of the world. God does not choose a people for Himself, out of all the nations of the earth, so that they can contentedly pat themselves on the back and enjoy cheap, selfish comforts at home as the rest of the world suffers tragically under the curse of Adam. The first human God called and chose in the biblical narrative is the archetype of all the elect who come after him. Abraham was called out of futile idolatry and chosen by God, in order that the world might be blessed through him. So are Christians. In John 17, we see both aspects of this dual reality: particularlity for the sake of universality. Jesus expressly refuses to pray for the world, but only for “those the Father has given him.” Yet he prays for them (i.e. the elect), in order that they might be one and that the entire world might know that the Father has sent the Son through their unified witness. Election, therefore, is always the beginning of mission.
“We cannot know for what reason one was chosen, [but] we most certainly can known for what purpose he was chosen: he was chosen in order to be a fruit-bearing branch of the one true vine (John 15:16), a witness through whom others might be saved. He is chosen in order that through him God’s saving purpose may reach to others, and they too be reconciled to God in and through his reconciled and reconciling people. And while the ultimate mystery of election remains, one can see that the principle of election is the only principle congruous with the nature of God’s redemptive purpose.” (Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 101)
Does election perform these functions in our lives? If not, why not?