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.