ELECTION, CALVINISM, AND THE BIBLE, PART ONE
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 3:58pm
QUESTION: The New Testament speaks of God as “choosing” or “electing” us, and Christians are called “the chosen ones” or “the elect.” This sounds like determinism, or Calvinism. How can such language be reconciled with free will?
ANSWER: The main verb for “choose” is eklegomai; the adjective (as in “chosen ones”) is eklektos; the noun (‘the chosen”) is eklogē. The words “elect,” “chosen,” and “predestined” carry similar connotations. A main point is that this language is used in different contexts with different applications. It does not always have to do with salvation, i.e., “chosen for salvation.” I will explain these different applications.
First of all, Jesus as the incarnate Son of God is called “My Son, My Chosen One” by the Father (Luke 9:35; see Isa. 42:1; Matt. 12:18; 1 Peter 2:4,6). His redemptive work was both predestined and foreknown (Acts 2:23; 4:28; 1 Peter 1:20). Obviously the second person of the Trinity was chosen not for salvation but for service, nor was he chosen against his own will.
Second, as with Jesus, when used of human beings sometimes the language of election refers to being chosen for service, not for salvation. God decides to use certain individuals to play specific roles in his program of redemption. To create the nation of Israel God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Neh. 9:7; Rom. 9:7-13). He chose Moses (Ps. 106:23) and David (Ps. 78:70; 139:16) among others. He even chose certain Gentile rulers to help carry out his purpose for Israel, e.g., Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17) and Cyrus (Isa. 45:1).
Calvinists and determinists in general usually have completely misunderstood Paul’s point about election in Romans 9. They see God’s election of the individuals named here, and of the nation of Israel as such (see below) as referring to unconditional election to salvation. This is totally wrong. The point is election to service, as I show in my commentary on Romans.
Calvinists make a similar mistake regarding election language when used of the Apostles. E.g., Jesus says of the Apostles, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 15:16). Calvinists continually cite this as proof for their doctrine of unconditional election to salvation, when Jesus is actually referring to his choice of these men, even Judas the betrayer, for key roles of service, not for salvation. See Luke 6:13; John 6:70; 13:18; 15:19; Gal. 1:15-16.
Third, the language of election is sometimes used in the Bible not for individuals as such but for groups, usually the nation of Israel. In this case, again, the election in view is to service and not to salvation. See Deut. 7:6; 14:2; 1 Chron. 16:13; Acts 13:17. This nation was chosen specifically to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. This corporate election for service had no necessary connection with the salvation of any particular Israelite. This is Paul’s main point in Romans 9—a point which is usually missed completely by Calvinists. In this section of Romans Paul is defending God’s sovereign right to unconditionally choose either individuals (such as Pharaoh) or groups (such as Israel) for roles of service without being bound to guarantee their salvation.
In a similar way the language of election is also used of God’s new elect body, the new Israel, the church. While not strictly parallel to OT Israel, in this age the church as a body is now God’s chosen people (1 Peter 2:9); and this election is in part an election to service. When Peter here describes the church as a “chosen race,” he adds this purpose for the choosing: “that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Thus in terms of service, whereas Israel was elected for preparation, the church is elected for proclamation.
Fourth, the language of election is sometimes applied to groups in the sense of election to salvation, but in a very special way. Here the Bible speaks of a group as being chosen or predestined for salvation, not in the sense that every individual in the group will be saved, but in the sense that the group is chosen as the category of individuals to whom God is pleased to offer his gift of salvation. This is the key to understanding Paul’s treatment of predestination in Ephesians 1:1-14. His main point is not the predestination of individuals to salvation, but the predestination of all the Jews as a nation, and then the predestination of all the Gentiles also, to be a part of his chosen people. However, he is not here speaking of every individual Jew nor of every individual Gentile as the object of predestination to salvation, but of God’s choice to make salvation available to both groups and to unite both groups into one body, the church (see Eph. 2:11-16; 3:1-10).
A key to this understanding is how Paul’s use of “we” and “you” in Ephesians 1 refers to “we Jews” and “you Gentiles.” In this passage Paul identifies himself with the Jews, whom he calls “the first to hope in Christ” (v. 12). In the first part of the chapter he dwells on God’s purpose for the Jews as a nation: how God chose them (“us”) before the foundation of the world, how he predestined them to adoption as sons, how he offered them the gospel of grace first (see Rom. 1:16). It should be noted that the references to predestination in Ephesians 1 are strictly speaking of the predestination of the nation of Israel, not of individual believers. Paul’s main emphasis up through v. 12 is on God’s purpose for the Jews (“us”). But then in the next verses he begins speaking in the second person, “you,” i.e., you Gentiles. In v. 12 he says that “we who were the first to hope in Christ” were used to the praise of his glory, but now “you also” have been brought into the sphere of salvation “to the praise of His glory.” This is the theme he continues to develop, then, in chapters two and three especially.
The use of election language in this sense is also seen in some passages allegedly referring to repentance and faith as “gifts of God.” E.g., Acts 5:31 speaks of Christ as the one who grants repentance to Israel, while Acts 11:18 says God has granted repentance to the Gentiles. The point is not that God grants actual faith and repentance to every member of the nation of Israel nor to every Gentile. The point is simply that God has made the opportunity to believe and repent available to both groups. This is the way in which God is said to have chosen both groups for salvation, i.e., he has made salvation available to individuals within the groups. (TO BE CONTINUED)