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…
22 thoughts on “Divine Election vs. God’s Love”
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Tim, I like the way that you’ve framed election in terms of God’s love. I think that’s a very helpful way of presenting the theme and much more faithful to the biblical texts. But, I do wonder if it succeeds in entirely escaping the concerns that are usually raised here. Even if we use a different language, do we not still have to deal with the reality that election means that “God sets his love upon a particular people,” as you say at the end of the post, and not on some other people. I appreciate the need to protect the biblical language/framework, but the question is still there.
Perfect set-up, Marc! I’ll draw this out some more in at least two more posts, but it’s important that from the standpoint of election, the two groups are those upon whom God sets his love to save, and those whom God is pursuing through the elect. Thinking of the elect unto salvation and the elect unto damnation makes good logical sense once we take election out of its biblical context and make it a tool for taking about who will be saved and who will be judged, but this just isn’t how the langauge is used in Scripture. More to come…
I am inclined toward your interpretation, and I love the analogy of wife and neighbor. What of the language of “vessels of wrath”elsewhere in the NT? Is this completely unrelated to election then? This, of course, is the party line for all the churches I went to for the first 35 years of my life.
I really like your blog!
In Romans 9 Paul does use this language. He’s talking about the problem for God of Israel’s unbelief. Has God’s word failed in that so many Jews have not believed the gospel? He first talks about how God has always worked among a remnant of Israel, not the nation as a whole (9:6-13). That is, just because a person was born a Jew does not give him or her the inside track with God for salvation. It comes by true faith, even under God’s economy with Israel. God always wanted Israel to receive salvation as gift.
Then in 9:14-18, Paul describes the two dynamics of God showing mercy and God’s hardening. These do not refer to two acts that God carries out in eternity past. They are performed differently. God shows mercy prior to any human decision, and he’s referring specificaly to Israel as God chose to save them, bring them up out of Egypt. But God’s hardening upon Pharaoh was God’s confirming him in his rejection of God and his decision to keep Israel enslaved. God’s hardening comes subsequent to Pharaoh’s hardening of his heart against God. And, as Paul notes in v. 17, God did this to Pharaoh with specific reference to God’s Abrahamic promise to redeem Israel to make them an agent of reclaiming the nations of the world. God is so committed to his program of reclaiming the nations that when someone stands in the way of that (Pharaoh), God will harden him in his already-decided-upon course of unbelief in order to accomplish his purposes. And his purposes, pointing ahead, involve electing a people to use them as agents of saving even more (the nations).
Then in vv. 22-23, Paul turns to consider unbelieving Israel and he says that God has refrained from judging them in order to demonstrate his mercy to his believing community made up of Jews and gentiles (the Roman church in this context).
But the expressions “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” in v. 22, and “vessels of mercy which he prepared beforehand for glory” again make my point.
The first expression is a horrible translation in the NIV and NASB. It should be “vessels of wrath who have fit themselves for destruction.” Again, on one side is human will and on the other side (salvation) is God’s prior mercy. There is no “pro-” prefix on the Greek participle that is often translated “prepared,” which takes it out of the realm of God’s prior act. Further, the participle is most likely middle voice (ask Christian about this!), which can indicate action performed with reference to oneself.
So, the vessels of wrath are Jews who have put themselves in the place of God’s wrath because of their rejection. And, because of the open call of the gospel–this point is made in Romans 10–even they can leave that place since “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The other expression is different, including the notion of God’s decision to show mercy from eternity past.
Just to make the point again–God’s electing love does not have a correspondent in electing unto damnation. Election only has reference to how God shows mercy in salvation. With reference to those who reject, it is on them.
All this is to say nothing of how little we ought to take Romans 9 out of its context and theologize contemporarily with it, but maybe we’ll save that for a subsequent post…
“All this is to say nothing of how little we ought to take Romans 9 out of its context and theologize contemporarily with it” All too often this is true. It helps immensely if we stick to the text and let it speak, rather than imposing our own presupposed theology on it. Of course the text is hugely relevant to our life today, but we should not read into the text for the sake of what we want it to say for us today.
I appreciate very much setting “election” within the category of God’s love for his people, and I can’t remember a time where I’ve not seen/heard that done. But, do you think you have emptied the word to some degree of its meaning? Of course we should realize that God making this choice is an act of profound love. And, I also think you’ve made a helpful point recognizing that when the Bible speaks of “the others,” the authors utilize different categories. However, I’ve got some questions about your comments on Rom. 9:22 above. Specifically, you note that the participle in question might be middle voice rather than passive. You even state that the translation of the NIV and NASB that takes it as a passive is a “horrible translation.” Does this reveal a bit of your bias? Based on the form of the word alone, it could be taken either as a middle or a passive; nothing in the word itself tips in favor of one or the other. To decide, we must consider context carefully. Wouldn’t you say that are at least some very reasonable contextual factors that lead those of us who take the participle as a passive? For myself, Paul is still working with the “potter-clay” imagery; thus the “vessels” being considered are vessels of pottery. So, if Paul’s still working in the metaphorical field he just introduced, it is very difficult for me to imagine that a piece of pottery can “fit itself” for anything. So, naturally, I would default to a passive rendering that acknowledges the work of the potter. Moreover, the middle voice does not necessarily imply a reflexive idea; it may, but that is not the only option. Also, to say that, because there is no “pro-” prefix on the participle of v. 22, Paul is not considering God’s “prior actions” is perhaps saying too much. Don’t you think the most we can say from what’s given to us in the passage is that Paul is not commenting specifically on the timing of this action, be it God’s action or the people’s action? Indeed, that it’s a perfect tense participle probably presses the emphasis on simply the state of affairs currently in view; although, it also probably implies a “prior action” that brought about that state of affairs, and that “prior action” may be set prior to God’s “enduring” of these vessels, but that’s not entirely clear since “enduring” is an aorist verb.
Thanks for raising this topic and challenging us to consider it from a fresh perspective!
Have I emptied election of its meaning? I hope not! I’m trying to discover the Scriptural context that informs its meaning. If I’ve taken it out of a context within which some have previously (and inappropriately) understood it, that may be an uncomfortable situation, but hopefully we’re all about conforming our thoughts to Scripture.
Again, is my bias driving me to regard the participle katērtismena as being in the middle voice? I do hope not. I hope I’m being fair to the text.
I think 9:22 is a bad translation because the participle katērtismena stands in contrast to the aorist verb proētoimasen in v. 23. My only point is that whereas “prepared” is a good translation of the verb, “prepared” is a bad translation of the participle. “Prepared” indicates something done in advance, pushing the meaning of the participle beyond its intent.
Further, it is indeed God acting upon the vessels of wrath, but what exactly is God doing in v. 22? He’s enduring with much patience the vessels of wrath. He is indeed acting upon them, but only in that way. The participle functions adjectivally to describe the sort of vessels they are; through their rejection of the gospel, they are in a condition headed for destruction. The participle does not refer to the action God has taken upon them. I indicated that it could be reflexive, not that it must be. But I do think it indicates the present condition of the vessels with reference to their own putting themselves in that condition.
Another factor that rules out God’s predestining of these vessels for destruction is the nature of God’s action in the wider context. Paul refers to God’s “hardening” of Pharaoh and this leads into his discussion of Israel’s rejection. God has hardened them in their rejection in order that he might bring salvation to the nations in fulfillment of his promises to Abraham.
The character of God’s hardening, with reference to Pharaoh and Israel, has to do with God confirming people in decisions of rejection that they’ve already made. So, on one side is God’s mercy and on the other, God’s hardening. These two actions are not done in the same way. Mercy is shown prior to human decisions. The hardening happens after rejection to those who are standing in the way of God’s saving purposes.
All of this becomes a warning, then, to the gentiles in Rom. 11:17-24, that if they become arrogant, they, too, may experience God’s severity by being hardened. No one can become arrogant or complacent about seeking to extend God’s saving purposes to the ends of the earth. This exhortation loses its force if it’s something God does prior to human decisions.
So, I do think it’s a middle participle, and I do think the translation of katērtismena as “prepared” is bad, and I don’t think the contextual factors supporting it as passive are too strong, and I don’t think Romans 9 has anything to do with double-predestination. If it does, Paul’s argument loses all its force.
Great questions, Justin!
I appreciate very much setting “election” within the category of God’s love for his people, and I can’t remember a time where I’ve not seen/heard that done. But, do you think you have emptied the word to some degree of its meaning? Of course we should realize that God making this choice is an act of profound love. And, I also think you’ve made a helpful point recognizing that when the Bible speaks of “the others,” the authors utilize different categories. However, I’ve got some questions about your comments on Rom. 9:22 above. Specifically, you note that the participle in question might be middle voice rather than passive. You even state that the translation of the NIV and NASB that takes it as a passive is a “horrible translation.” Does this reveal a bit of your bias? Based on the form of the word alone, it could be taken either as a middle or a passive; nothing in the word itself tips in favor of one or the other. To decide, we must consider context carefully. Wouldn’t you say that are at least some very reasonable contextual factors that lead those of us who take the participle as a passive? For myself, Paul is still working with the “potter-clay” imagery; thus the “vessels” being considered are vessels of pottery. So, if Paul’s still working in the metaphorical field he just introduced, it is very difficult for me to imagine that a piece of pottery can “fit itself” for anything. Moreover, the middle voice does not necessarily imply a reflexive idea; it may, but that is not the only option.
Thanks for the thorough response! Well contextualized, indeed! I still think the idea that a “vessel” has “fit itself” steps beyond the metaphorical field Paul is working with, but I see more clearly how your decision on the participle makes good sense. And, while I’m not convinced that the participle does not imply God’s actions, I do not necessarily think that when viewed that way it must be referring to “reprobation,” as dogmatically construed. As you’re arguing, we should hold tightly to the connection Paul makes with the hardening of Pharaoh. Perhaps Paul is simply referring to this action of God on the vessels of wrath within the metaphorical field of “pottery,” while he does not have in view the possibility (probability) that this “fitting” was indeed in response to their own prior rejection of God. This would perhaps be similar to Paul’s argument in Rom. 1 that God has handed people over to further sin, in an appropriately wrathful response to their exchanging the true God for idols.
Thanks, again, for your thorough clarifications! Certainly, your broader contextual argument has quite a lot to commend it, and it’s driving me to take another look at a passage that I think we’ll all admit is very difficult.
Well said, Tim. It is indeed important to stick with the biblical language, because by doing so we come to a better understanding of who God is and what he does.
What a great way to explain a very frustrating doctrine! I can’t tell you how many times this one has made me wrestle over the nature of God. In the end, I had chosen to abandon the idea of election because it had seemed to conflict with the freedom necessary for Love to take place. Although that freedom also conflicted with God’s sovereign rule. There was really no easy way to deal with it other than by opting for some sort of limited freedom and voluntarily chosen limited reign.
While I still hold these all in tension, I’m glad I can avoid ignoring a portion of the Bible whose occurrence is clearly evident.
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It is interesting to see how quickly it is assumed that elect is a relative term to non-elect. What your post brings out is that the correlate is wrong. “Elect” is a term used to denote a relation to God (which you express in terms of love), not a relation to other people. Take what Aristotle says in his Categories 7a22:
“All relatives, then, are spoken of in relation to correlatives that reciprocate, provided they are properly given. For, of course, if a relative is given as related to some chance thing and not to just that thing in relation to which it is spoken of, there is not reciprocation. I mean that even with relatives that are admittedly spoken of in relation to correlatives that reciprocate and for which names exist, none reciprocates if a relative is given as related to something accidental and not to just that thing in relation to which it is spoken. For example, if a slave is given as of–not a master, but– a man or a biped or anything else like that, there is not reciprocation; for it has not been given properly.” (Aristotle, Categories and De Interpretatione, tr. J. L. Ackrill [Oxford: OUP, 2002], 19-20).
This, I think, supports your argument. The correlate to “elect” is “one who elects”, not “non-elect”. It doesn’t determine whether there is such a thing as “non-elect” (which must be done exegetically), but it does show that you are right in criticizing the idea that “elect” necessitates a “non-elect”.
Thanks for this, Ryan. So, even when one is theologizing from within the rules of a given system, “non-elect” isn’t necessary.
The question, then, is why anyone even wants this category.
On a common sense level, it seems to make sense. If two candidates are running for president and one gets elected, then doesn’t that necessarily mean that the other is “non-elect”? A non-elect group appears to be an unavoidable logical consequence, but as I tried to show, this is to misunderstand the nature of the term elect.
I totally agree, Ryan, and I appreciate you mentioning that.
This is really interesting, and I’m looking forward to part 2.
I think it’s important to try and view election, as you say, through the lens of God’s love. Regardless of what people might say in response to your thoughts here, I think it’s undeniable that as Western Xians, we’ve had a tendency to let this word/thought be something we use to proscribe judgment onto people, and to prove that some are, in a way, “unloved” by God, mostly as a way of inflating ourselves. This seems like an inappropriate type of boasting in Christ. Our boast should be in the positive, not the negative.
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Nice work Dr. Gombis. This is great stuff to ponder and talk over with Mrs. Rucinski. 🙂
Hope all is well!
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