Election According to Scripture, Pt. 1

Divine Election vs. God’s Love

Many Christians flinch at biblical talk of election.  It seems a dark corner of Christian theology that is better left alone.  It’s like God’s dirty secret that we’d rather not know about, the skeleton in God’s cosmic closet.  We’re afraid we’re going to find out that God’s heart is like the Grinch’s—two sizes too small.

Is it really the case that before creation God sat down with the names of everyone who would ever live and chose some for salvation and some for damnation?  How arbitrary!  How unloving!

Further, how can we reconcile this with the open call of the gospel, that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved?

Well, relax.  Scripture’s election talk does not stand in tension with God’s love.  It is, rather, an extension of God’s passionate love for humanity and God’s mission to reclaim creation.

We rightly understand election when we recognize two aspects of this notion in Scripture.  I’ll develop the first of these in this post.

Election talk in the Bible is God’s love language.  God uses it to express love for his people.  “Before you had any notion of me at all, before you could do anything to earn my love, I set my love upon you and pursued you out in order to save you.”

This isn’t language that describes a cold, dispassionate act before time began.  It’s the language of God as a Lover and it is used specifically and solely to speak of his relationship to his people.

Lovers enjoy revisiting with each other the first moments of awakening desire.  “You didn’t even know my name at the time, but when I first saw you, I was absolutely smitten.  I made sure that we sat next to each other just so I could talk to you.”  It’s a way of delighting in the love that they share.

The same holds when election talk is applied to the church.  Paul tells believers in Asia Minor that they were on God’s heart and mind from eternity past (Ephesians 1:3-14).  He set his love on them and pursued them to save them.  These “nobodies” in the world’s eyes are precious to the God of all creation.

My point, then, is just to say that election language in Scripture functions very specifically to shape the identity of the people of God.  We are the ones who have our origin in the love of God from eternity past.  God set his love upon us and sought us out to reclaim us and redeem us.

That is the only function of election language in the Bible. 

We pervert divine election when we take it out of the context of God’s love for his people and use it to speak of those outside of God’s love.  When we do that we now have the “elect” and the “nonelect.”  We only end up with that latter category when we take election talk out of its biblical context as God’s love language for his people.  But the “nonelect,” or the “elect unto damnation,” isn’t a biblical category.

When Scripture considers the group of people outside of God’s saving love, it sets election talk aside and picks up other sets of language.  Scripture talks about those to whom the elect are sent in order to demonstrate God’s love.  Scripture talks about those whom God longs to redeem.  Occasionally Scripture talks about those who are enemies of the gospel, perhaps those who have rejected God and are persecuting God’s people.

But the Bible does not consider “those whom God has chosen for damnation.”  When it comes to election, the two groups are the elect—those upon whom God has set his love in order to save—and those to whom the elect are sent so that they might also be swallowed up into God’s love.

We must be careful to respect the biblical function of election talk.  Too often election talk has been excised from its biblical contexts and put to use in doctrinal systems.  It does not belong there.  That move distorts the Scriptural depiction of God.

Consider an analogy.  I am talking to my kids about how crazy I am about my wife.  I do this often and usually embarrass them.  My kids might ask me, “well, what about Mrs. Jones, our neighbor?  Why are you not crazy about her?”  I would respond by putting “lover” talk aside and using a different set of language.  “Lover” talk is nowhere on the radar when it comes to Mrs. Jones.  She’s our neighbor.  She’s really very kind, but as it happens, she is better regarded in the category of a casual acquaintance who made us cookies last Thanksgiving.

I do not think of my wife as being my lover and all other women as “not my lover.”  Their identity with reference to me is that they are friends, co-workers, neighbors.  I use other language tools to speak of them.

Divine election, then, does indeed appear throughout Scripture.  God sets his love upon a particular people and commits himself to pursue them and save them.  We can celebrate God’s love for us that stretches back to eternity past.  But when we turn to consider our friends and neighbors outside of Christ, we must think and speak in terms other than divine election.

Divine election does not mitigate or threaten God’s love.  It is an extension of God’s love for his people.

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27 responses to “Election According to Scripture, Pt. 1

  • Andrew Cowan

    What about the election language in 1 Peter 2:7-9? “To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,’ and “A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall’; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Granted, this does not use the words “non-elect” or “chosen for damnation,” but it speaks of unbelievers in contrast to believers (referred to as the “chosen”) as “destined” or “appointed” (tithemi; a divine passive!) for their fall. I don’t think that it speaks of them in terms that can be interpreted as “those to whom the elect are sent so that they might also be swallowed up into God’s love;” at face value, it appears to present the very contrast you here deny. Am I reading it wrong somehow?

    • timgombis

      Good questions, that’s a tough text! A few thoughts:

      First, I do note that at times “Scripture talks about those who are enemies of the gospel, perhaps those who have rejected God and are persecuting God’s people.” I’d only add that when it speaks of these, Scripture usually does so in blameworthy language without reference to “election” talk.

      Second, the “election” language is used in 1 Peter 2 to speak of “those who believe,” and election language is set aside when speaking of those in vv. 7b-9.

      Third, the two groups in the context are “those who believe” and “those who disbelieve” (v. 7), or “those who are faithful” and “those who are unfaithful,” but not “those who are elect” and “those who are unelect.” So the emphasis is on the human response to the gospel, specifically to the way God has done his work in Christ, which is an offense to human wisdom, pride, and self-sufficiency.

      Fourth, in v. 8 (“being disobedient they stumbled at the word, unto which they were also appointed”), it seems that what is appointed is that those who are disobedient and unfaithful will stumble and go down to judgment. That is, the inevitable result of the way God works is that those who are disobedient and unfaithful will be scandalized and will stumble. It’s not that they were appointed to disbelieve, but their disobedience inevitably leads to fatal stumbling—and that by God’s design.

      This is a consistent theme throughout Scripture. Those who are arrogant will miss what God is doing and only those who are humbly faithful will truly “get it.”

      Lots more to say about all that, but regarding 1 Peter 2, it seems that the emphasis in the passage is on the privileges (including the identity of being elect) for those who believe and the inevitable results for those who disbelieve and are disobedient.

    • greekUnorthodox

      “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you…”

      It’s really important to pay attention to the “that you may declare” part of this passage. They were “chosen” to declare. They were elected to a “royal priesthood” – an occupation that serves others. This is election rather than selection. It speaks of being “hired” in essence, not rewarded…although being hired does come with rewards…

      • timgombis

        Exactly–the sense of it is “given privileges and a task” rather than “being selected as the winner.”

      • greekUnorthodox

        Also, to address a question further down…I won’t be winning the Presidential election this Fall, but I also won’t be categorized as the one who wasn’t elected. Just because one candidate is elected doesn’t mean that everybody else isn’t elected…I mean, yes, it’s true that the rest of humanity won’t be the next President of the U.S., but it’s really a nonsequitor. Election refers to those who are appointed to carry out a task. We turn it into something different when that election becomes selection – something that terminates at the point of being chosen.

    • Scott William Bryant

      Tim … Could you take a moment to walk us through this section of 1 Peter 2:7-9? Thanks.

      “… for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do …”

      To me, that seems like election language centered on those that do not believe. Would you agree?

      • timgombis

        I commented on that elsewhere, Scott. Forgive the reproduction of my comments here, but I’ll paste them as a response:

        The “election” language is used in 1 Peter 2 to speak of “those who believe,” and election language is set aside when speaking of those in vv. 7b-9.

        Second, the two groups in the context are “those who believe” and “those who disbelieve” (v. 7), or “those who are faithful” and “those who are unfaithful,” but not “those who are elect” and “those who are unelect.” So the emphasis is on the human response to the gospel, specifically to the way God has done his work in Christ, which is an offense to human wisdom, pride, and self-sufficiency.

        Third, in v. 8 (“being disobedient they stumbled at the word, unto which they were also appointed”), it seems that what is appointed is that those who are disobedient and unfaithful will stumble and go down to judgment. That is, the inevitable result of the way God works is that those who are disobedient and unfaithful will be scandalized and will stumble. It’s not that they were appointed to disbelieve, but their disobedience inevitably leads to fatal stumbling—and that by God’s design.

        This is a consistent theme throughout Scripture. Those who are arrogant will miss what God is doing and only those who are humbly faithful will truly “get it.”

        Lots more to say about all that, but regarding 1 Peter 2, it seems that the emphasis in the passage is on the privileges (including the identity of being elect) for those who believe and the inevitable results for those who disbelieve and are disobedient.

  • James Miller

    Interesting post. Certain questions flow from what you you’ve said however.

    First, on what basis does God decide who are his people on whom electing love is “set”?

    Second, can those to whom the elect are sent “that they might be swallowed up into God’s love” therefore become elect?

    Third, how is it possible to have the elect without having the non-elect unless all are elect? Is it really possible to say “this house is where I live” without the implication alongside that “I don’t live in all the other houses in town”?

    • timgombis

      Good questions, James. Just quickly:

      First, completely and only on the basis of God’s grace and kindness–the OT and NT texts all stress that.

      Second, yes, those who are baptized into Christ become “elect.” I’ll get to that later, but the way Paul theologizes viz. election is that all those in Christ are elect, so when we are baptized into Christ, we become elect.

      Third, I think the problems with election begin when we take the language and move it into the “this or that” realm of the saved and unsaved. But that isn’t where it is used in Scripture. Understood within the missional framework of God’s pursuit of humanity, “the elect” are agents of God’s redemption of others. It isn’t static language used to denote one of two groups. Just to say, I recognize what you’re asking, and it does make a kind of sense, but reasoning along that line leads to conclusions that Scripture doesn’t draw, and leads to using election language in ways that Scripture doesn’t.

  • joey

    This is really good, Tim. I like your point about biblical language used (and not used) for the two different “groups.” It’s an obvious point that I had not specifically noticed before.
    Something that helps me here is to think not in terms of individuals. Rather, I read these texts as speaking of the Body. There are no NT texts to individuals (an overstatement, but not by much).

  • Michael Thomson

    Eminently sane. Election language is relational not systematic, wooing not Calvinistic nor Armenian. I believe you’re certainly barking up the right tree. In the Petrine passage above I believe your point still holds…its a recognition that you are God’s beloved, those “destined” to disobey his word are not “predestined unto damnation” so much as this is the fate of all of us outside of Christ. Indeed, it finds echoes in Paul that sees the law itself apart from Christ as a means to underscore our disobedience and hopelessness. I think this is a theme you could develop into a book…I’m quite serious. “Election as divine pillow talk” …

  • Dan Jr.

    Tim,
    Great way to frame election. I think it’s hard for western readers to not read into election talk our own logic and definitions into the biblical language. As a Westerner, election has connotations that mean “who got picked for the kickball team and who didn’t.” So when you’re trying to convince someone a word doesn’t mean what they think it means in “plain-reading” it gets very difficult. This is just my experience in trying to help people with the word election.

    In our community we’ve attempted to recover the word by infusing the proper symbolism into it. But honestly it’s been extremely difficult because people still import western meaning into that word. Sometimes I wonder if we should pitch the word all together.

    • timgombis

      That’s a tough one, Dan. It seems that it can get pretty clumsy using all sorts of circumlocutions to hit the thrust of election–”appoint and loved in order to be agents,” etc.

  • NathanM

    I agree with the thrust of your argument, Tim. I think you are offering a much needed corrective to a faulty and pastorally damaging way of approaching election. However, I have a hunch you may be prone to a certain…. illocutionary reductionism, to use vanhoozerian speech-act language. The only illocution you seem to allow is that of offering comfort, reassurance and expression of love through the language of election. But the language may also inform concerning the act of election and can be investigated theologically in ways that need not necessarily lead to a theology of pre-temporal decrees and double predestination. Acknowledgement of the assertive (the what? of election language, however that may be parsed out theologically) need not eclipse the other illocutions which you rightly underline.

  • Alex Ross

    Tim,

    Question from a beginner Bible student here. Growing up in the CRC I was always troubled by the doctrine of election, but I found it very difficult to argue against it in a way that was faithful to the text. This post is very helpful and enlightening, so thank you.
    However I’m wondering what your thoughts are on Romans 9, especially verses 14-24. I wrote a paper on it last semester, and it seems difficult to avoid both the positive and the negative election language (although the word “election” itself is not used). I’m thinking especially of Verse 18: “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”
    I know this passage comes in the context of Paul’s angst over the fact that not all of ethnic Israel has accepted Christ, and is his response to possible objections to God’s justice in extending grace beyond Israel. But while it does not use the word “election” the passage does provide solid ground for the concept that God chooses some for “destruction” and others for “glory.” It also seems to deny our right to question God’s justice in making this decision based on his sovereign right (vs. 20-21).
    So does this passage justify the idea that “got picked for the kickball team” and some were not?
    Looking forward to your next few posts!

  • T.C. Ham

    Great post, Tim. I had a student just ask me about election. I’ll have to recommend to her that she read this blog post.
    As you well know, in the OT, the language of covenant, knowledge, love, and choice all seem to relate to what you call “lover” language (e.g., Deut 7:6-8). Thanks for that. I now have a cool way of speaking about covenantal language. – TC

  • S Wu

    Thank you, Tim, for this excellent post. I am encouraged by the fact that mostly this discussion has been warm and there is a generous spirit even when one disagrees. I am really glad that we are seeking to be faithful to the Scripture, rather than some presupposed doctrine.

    Two put my two cents worth, I’d like to add Romans 8:28-30 to the discussion. The language of foreknowledge and predestination is loaded in this text. But the context is the groaning of creation and the children of God, as well as hope of glory in suffering (8:18-30). It seems to me that 8:28-30 speaks of God’s predetermined purpose for God’s children (God’s elect) to be conformed to the image of the Son (8:29) in our sufferings – as we await the final renewal of all things. This, I think, has little to do with “who’s in VS who’s out”. Instead, it is about God’s project of restoring humanity and renewing creation. We, as God’s children, are called to participate in Christ’s suffering (8:17), and in this process we (as believing Christ-community) are being transformed to be more Christ-like. To put it in another way, we are in a process of transformation of becoming the image-bearers of God that he intends us to be.

    Of course, the language of the love of God is all over the next passage (8:31-39).

  • James Miller

    I’m really looking forward to reading more posts from you on this.

  • Around the Blogosphere (06.01.2012)! « Near Emmaus

    [...] Gombis, Election According to Scripture (Pt. 1); Election According to Scripture (Pt. 2) ; Election According to Scripture (Pt. [...]

  • Andrew

    (Speaking as a Christian) The problem with Christian discussion about the ‘election’ is that our theology is completely detached from the bible, and completely ignores the election itself as outlined in the bible.

    For example here are some citations:

    The election itself, each time spoken to the same audience:
    [Lev 26:12][Exo 6:7][Jer 30:22]

    The exclusivity of the election:
    [Psa 147:20]

    The terms (conditions) of the election:
    [Deut 7:6][Deut 14:2][Deut 26:18]

    The same people were even recognized as ‘elect’ in the NT.

    Paul wrote [Rom 9:4-5] (and before someone presents [Rom 9:6] as a counter argument – understand the verse! Edomites had been converted to Judaism under John Hyrcanus, and known as Jews, were “NOT OF ISRAEL”. Not all “Jews were Israelites”. See also [Rev 2:9] and [Rev 3:9]. Not all Jews were Israelites, and not all Israelites were Jews ([Hosea 1:10; 2:23])

    Peter wrote [1 Peter 2:9] quoting [Exo 19:6][Deut 10:15] and [Hos 1:10] all addressed to ‘Israel’.

    Even though the ‘elect’ stumbled, we know that God did not revoke the election [Jer 31:35-37].

    The election the bible outlines given the verses above, is very different from the one argued between Calvinism and Arminianism, and the one you blog about. We have a problem with it precisely because we cannot see how God’s election of Israel it true today. We embrace false ideas such as replacement theology (that God indeed changed his mind) instead of considering the possibility that our modern recognition of ‘Israel’ might be defective.

    But that would require us prove historically that Israel today is Israel of the Bible, or wonder if perhaps the ‘church’ is Israel – and these are all very uncomfortable questions.

    It’s much easier, and more comfortable, to construct false notions of the election and pretend they are biblical while ignoring the one actually documented.

    • timgombis

      Andrew, you note well that election language is initially used of Israel and used of them throughout the NT, too. But this language is also used of the New Covenant people of God which includes non-Jews along with Jews in the new people of God in Jesus Christ.

      That does not necessitate replacement theology at all and I don’t think I was implying that and certainly not arguing for it.

      Just to affirm that one of the ways that NT writers theologize based on Israel’s Scriptures is to use ‘election’ language of the church without denying Israel’s unique status as God’s elect within God’s ultimate aims in salvation.

  • Andrew

    timgombis – I agree it was – but who was the New Covenant forged with? Let’s look at the very verse that predicted it:

    [Jer 31:31-34] … “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I shall make a new covenant with the HOUSE OF ISRAEL and the HOUSE OF JUDAH, not like the covenant that I made with THEIR FATHERS on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I shall make with the HOUSE OF ISRAEL after those days, declares the LORD: I shall put my law within THEM, and I shall write it on THEIR hearts.

    Incidentally this same verse directing the New Covenant towards the House of Israel and the House of Judah is found quoted in [Heb 8:8-10].

    The New Covenant is the marriage of the lamb BUT this New Marriage is NOT with a new wife, but with the same bride that was previously divorced. That’s what Hosea says about the New Covenant at least [Hos 1:9-10] (see [Hos 1:6-7] and [Hos 2:23]).

    Christianity is simply assuming God has found Himself a new bride and completely ignores that all of the references to the New Covenant are to the same bride previously sent to the wilderness. The (Christian) theology that makes us ‘Christ’s bride’ simply ‘borrows’ prophecy, and promise belonging to another. If we read the text we misappropriate, we actually see it is Israel’s.

    Jesus said that he who comes in not by the gate is a thief, and applying the New Covenant to us when it belongs to another makes us a thief [Matt 15:24][Matt 10:6].

    Our problem is that we think we understand, but we do not!

    • timgombis

      I don’t disagree with that, and you’re right that much of the Christian tradition has marginalized Israel. But NT writers certainly do pick up narrative threads and theological notions from Israel’s Scriptures and apply them to the church, made up of all who believe in Jesus, both Jews and non-Jews. And NT writers do this without marginalizing Israel. They keep in view God’s commitment to his people and his aims to redeem them ultimately.

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