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 I sought 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 God.
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. He 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. Now we 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 utilizing a different set of language. “Lover” talk is nowhere on the horizon 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 on a course 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.
More to come on the purpose of election…