Is divine “election” biblical? - By Douglas Jacoby


Talking with one of my religious friends, I've just heard a new term called "election." Is this biblical?

Actually, election an old term, since it appears in the Bible several times. The question is, "What does the term mean?" In a moment we'll consider three relevant passages: Matthew 22:14, 2 Peter 1:10-11, and 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15. (Please look these up if you don't already know them.) But first let's back up a few centuries.

Especially since the 1500s, many Protestants have reasoned that, because God knows the future, including who will be saved and who will be lost, there's nothing we can do to change our status before God. We are either among the "elect" or among the damned, and that has been determined long before we were even born. These Bible readers also read verses containing words like predestination and election in a very narrow way.

Now divine foreknowledge occurs in a different frame of reference than our world of good and bad decisions, responses to the gospel message and perseverance. God knows the future because he is not limited by time. He knows how we will freely choose. He also knows that some will choose to follow him, then later go back on their confession. Yet God is no more responsible for their choice than the reader of a book is for the decisions of the characters to which he has access. (The reader can skip the the final chapters—and know how things turn out—because of his or her unique vantage point. Not because the reader caused the characters to behave in a certain manner.) Whatever choices are made—and even if we see-saw, going back and forth, wavering in our conviction—God knows what we finally do, because he is God. Not because things can only turn out one way.

Another example may be useful. I can record a World Cup soccer match and watch it at my leisure. From the news I may already know who won the match, and there is zero chance that it will end differently when I watch it on my television. The decisions and plays, errors and successes of the game take place all by themselves, not because of any influence on my part. (Of course this is just an analogy; God is involved in human lives, but he's always fair, not arbitrary. Nor does he overpower us or short-circuit our will.) In short, in many discussions of God's omnipotence, confusion on the philosophical level is widespread.

Another important consideration is that the church of the first few centuries was strongly opposed to such a view. Moreover, the New Testament doesn't support it. Now of course it must be comforting to believe that one is permanently and irrevocably saved—the doctrine of "eternal security," as it is commonly named among Calvinists (those who accept this doctrine). I wish that doctrine of election were true, for my own benefit (although I sense such would be deeply unfair). Yet it's not about feelings and intuition. Instead of quoting the early church, or arguing about what feels fair—not that there isn't an arbitrariness and unfairness to the common doctrine of election—let's go to the Scriptures.

In Matthew 22 Jesus tell us that many are called, but few are chosen (elected). Choice and election are synonyms. But being called be God is different. Being called doesn't necessarily mean you are elected—any more than a name on the ballot means the fellow will be elected to political office, or that all who respond to a call for job interviews will be hired.

The difference with God, of course, is that he doesn't save us because of our merits. But neither does he save those uninterested in a relationship with him. Call must be followed by response. If we respond—if we want that relationship—then the Lord calls us.

In 2 Peter 1 the apostle urges us to keep growing spiritually—to make our calling and election sure. Yet even if we respond to the call, and share in God's sovereign plan of salvation, we must still remain faithful. Election on its own does not mean we are automatically, unconditionally saved for all eternity. As in a marriage, it's a relationship. God will not force us to love him or make a charade of faith.

In 2 Thessalonians 2 (a fairly dense passage, we must admit), Paul too distinguishes between calling and election. We are called through the gospel. We're chosen when we respond to the call. God's call and God's choice—both issuing from his goodness and mercy—are not always directly connected. First, many who are called ignore the message. This week I have been reading the Proverbs. Wisdom calls aloud in the streets, as does folly (Proverbs 1; 8; 9). How we respond determines whether we benefit. Second, a good few who heed the call and persevere for a while walk away in the end. This danger is referred to many times in Scripture (e.g. 2 Pet 2:22; Heb 6:4; 10:26).

For these reasons (and many more) I do not believe the Calvinist doctrine of election is on the right track. While sincerely aiming to respect the sovereignty of God, and to make sense of the profound doctrines election and predestination, advocates of this teaching go too far.


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