Chosen in Christ

If we want to think rightly about divine election, it is crucial to have the proper starting point. 

When Paul utilizes election language, he begins with believers being in Christ.  This reality is prior to Paul’s celebrating their identity as those upon whom God set his love from eternity past.  Theologically, being in Christ comes before election.

In Ephesians 1:4, Paul states that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world.”  Believers are plunged into Christ by the Spirit and all the blessings of salvation flow from that new reality.  Believers are now included in that group of people upon whom God set his love from eternity past.

Paul considers his readers’ past as one in which they were enslaved to Satan (Eph. 2:2), children of wrath (Eph. 2:3), far from God and without hope (Eph. 2:12).  That is, they were in a hopeless condition with both a past and future shaped by disobedience, spiritual death, and alienation from God.

But when they heard “the message of truth, the gospel of salvation,” they believed and were “sealed in [Christ] with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13).  God radically transformed their entire identity when they embraced the gospel, uniting them to Christ by his Spirit.

They now have a new history that goes back to eternity past in the passionate love of God.

You read that rightly.  God changes our pasts when he saves us.

Divine election, for Paul, is the gift of a new history.  God plunges believers deeply into Christ by the Spirit at salvation and they become people whom God has been pursuing from eternity past to save.

This is counter-intuitive to Westerners.  We think linearly.  If we have information about what was going on at the earliest point in time, then we ought to start there.

That’s a mistake and it bears bad fruit when it comes to thinking about divine election. 

Beginning in eternity past delivers to us a doctrine of election whereby God chose some for salvation and others for damnation.  But that’s not how Scripture speaks of divine election.  Election language is not in Scripture to answer the question, “What are some of the things God was doing in eternity past?”

I’ve already made the point that election language is God’s love language for his people.  Election answers the question, “How does God regard his people?”  He loves them so much that they’ve been on his mind and heart from eternity past.  We made the further point that this does not exclude others, but rather demonstrates God’s universal love.  God sets his love upon a particular people for the purpose of drawing even more people into his love.

Westerners are so steeped in linear thinking, however, that it becomes difficult to grasp the shape of election language in Scripture.  We end up deforming election talk in the Bible and shaping it according to our thought forms.

This move distorts the God of Scripture.  We now have a God who sits down before the mass of humanity in eternity past and chooses some for salvation and others for damnation.

We only get that depiction of God when we fail to start where Paul starts.  He begins with believers being in Christ and theologizes from there.

If that makes time an elastic category, so be it.  That’s not a problem for Paul, though it’s a challenge for Western readers of Paul.  We need to adjust our thinking to properly grasp Paul’s theologizing.  After all, in Romans 8:30, the future is in the past.  Paul states that God has already accomplished believers’ entire salvation, including its future aspects.  In the same way, when it comes to election, God changes our past.

When we theologize about divine election, then, we must follow Paul by starting with believers’ new reality in Christ.  We must not start by considering God’s actions in eternity past, nor do we start with election itself.  We begin with Christ.  Further, we remind ourselves of the function of election talk in Scripture.  It is God’s love language for his people.  Moreover, we remind ourselves that this does not marginalize unbelievers, but emphasizes God’s love for them.  God elects so that he might overwhelm them with his love.

The potential body of the elect, then, is huge.  Anyone and everyone who turns to Christ becomes part of the people upon whom God set his love from eternity past.

8 thoughts on “Chosen in Christ

  1. S Wu

    Thanks, Tim. I guess the key to understand your last (profound) statement is not to think time-linearly, but let the Spirit show us the sheer grace of God of having us participating in his salvation.

  2. Abraham

    Thank you for clarifying on the doctrine of election. However, part of the doctrine of election is the fact that, as Spurgeon wrote, “if God had not chosen me, I should never have chosen Him.” How do these two things come together? Is this an erroneous view of it as well or is this “another side of the coin”?

    1. timgombis

      I totally agree, Abraham, and Jesus says much the same to his disciples in John. “You did not choose me, but I have chosen you to go and bear fruit…” Note the purpose of election there! Not chosen because I like you and not others, but I want you to go and bear fruit. Election is also there in Scripture to remind us that we are not responsible for our salvation. We can’t be arrogant and presumptuous. God set his love on us from eternity past and sought us out to rescue and redeem us.

      Of course, this runs alongside our responsibilities to respond and walk in the truth. One of many mysterious tensions we must hold together in being people of the one true God.

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  4. Randy Boswell

    Dr Gombis, this is great stuff and especially so for me because I plan to focus my dissertation at least in part on the doctrine of election in Reformed theology. I have quiet a few deeper questions for sure because what you’ve presented here is at least partially commiserate with the way I’ve seen various Reformed theologians (such as Thomas Torrance, David Fergusson, and Colin Gunton) re-construe election following Karl Barth’s seminal paradigm shift in this area. Yet, you add some twists that will be helpful for my constructive project and its attempt to flesh out what they’ve only written about in nascent form.

    First, I’m curious as to what you’d say on the topic of “the election of Christ,” and how this undergirds all of the elect and which the theologians above have all utilized in their proposals. Do you see it fitting to speak of the election of Christ as having taken place in eternity past? Is this to de-historicize Christ’s work in some way or to simply follow the logic of Scripture? Or is election even a term you see applied to Christ at all?

    Second, do you have any recommended scholarly NT resources on the idea of election you’ve sketched above? I’m coming at this mostly from a systematic theology perspective and even then with an avowedly modern set of resources, but of course I need to undergird all of my thought with exegesis.

    1. timgombis

      Hi Randy, I honestly wish I could help you out on this, but I’m coming at it from a biblical studies perspective. I’m somewhat familiar with Barth’s discussions, and I do think he construes election along the lines of Scripture’s logic. But I attempted to understand how election was functioning in Ephesians 1, and it helped to see how election language functioned throughout the OT. The language of election is consistently used to shape the identity of the people of God and it seems to make good sense along that line in the NT, too. I haven’t seen any systematic treatments that draw this out — sounds like the perfect situation for a prospective dissertation!

  5. Pingback: Tim Gombis: Divine Election « Jeff Figearo's Blog

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