What does “election” mean – and how have the Calvinist/Reformed folk got it wrong?
How I have often pined for some ancient manuscript to be unearthed that, written by one of the apostles, would serve as a lexicon defining all (at least) New Testament terms clearly and succinctly. But alas….
So – in view of the fact that no such authoritative source is forthcoming – we are left to “theologize”: a secondary, human and very fallible endeavor – which we both do prayerfully, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
So, how can we even begin to move toward a Biblical understanding of election? Well, we at least try to “interpret scripture with scripture” – certainly a first principle of hermeneutics (but, alas, not always a solution that resolves all meaning as clearly as we might like).
I propose we move toward a good understanding through realizing that the NT idea and concept comes from the OT. In other words the larger “context” of New Testament “election” is situated in the framework of the Old.
So let me get to the point:
In the OT – why was Israel elected by God?
I think you will have to agree: Israel was elected by God to be a channel of blessing to the NON-elect (nations). (Genesis 12:3)
Now – there are other nuances and shades of meaning we could consider – but let’s stick with that one for now… How then might that understanding inform the meaning of election we see in the New Testament?
For one, we can see that in Jesus’s choice of his disciples. Might it not just be the case that in reference to a larger sense of “the elect” that they, too, are chosen not simply to be “saved” as opposed to the non-elect – but instead to bring the Gospel of Jesus to all others?
Now, mind you, I do not at all believe that this is a “universal solvent” that will dissolve all issues and questions that might arise from particular texts – but I would argue we are right to always have something of it in mind when we ponder texts about “election”…
Another classic example of election as understood by “Reformed” folk is Romans 9. When I was young and in college I remember being amazed when I first encountered these chapters in a serious way, yet explained to me by my new Calvinist friends. I was so impressed that they would speak for the “truth” of what Romans 9 plainly says – even if it offended the whole world (and most of the Church!).
But then – many years later I was even more shocked to “see” something that was right there “on the page” that I had still missed: In these passages Paul is talking about his concern for the Jews – his unbelieving “brethren”. I really began to “see” this when I went beyond Romans 9 – and included (properly, in “context”) Romans 9 through 11!
To the point : what I had failed to see was that the very people he was talking about being “hardened” were not just anybody – but specifically the hardening of Jews. BUT – not to worry, even among Israel there was a “remnant” – the “elect”! So within Israel there are a few that are “elect” – but most are not – and the (non-remnant, non-elect) are hardened.
“What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened,” – 11:7
BUT – what is to come of the “non-elect” Jews? Paul (and I hear him saying this in hushed tones as he reveals a secret long hidden, a deep mystery…):
“Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved.
As it is written:
“The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
27 And this is f my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”
This completely blew me away – and I understood for the first time that election is NOT for exclusion – but for service: for the salvation of the non-elect! AND I understood that, in context, Paul’s concern is not to teach about election and reprobation (to salvation and damnation) in general – but specifically as it applies to Israel… then we can (with care) apply it to the rest….
The main thing that I want to stress here is that (regarding Israel in our context) – God does not only desire and intend to save the “elect” to exclusion of the non-elect: God’s intention is to save ALL (Israel in this case – elect and non-elect [hardened]).
THIS is what blew away my Calvinist (mis)understanding of “election”!