So yesterday I was teaching at our weekly School of Theology and the topic came up of whether God “elects” His people to receive His saving grace, or whether or not people have a choice in the matter. I frankly, did not handle this question well. Why, you might ask?
1. For starters, it was a question that wasn’t on topic with anything else we were discussing last night. Four years of seminary does not mean that you don’t need prep and processing time, and even the most able of pastors and theologians have their moments where they don’t shine as bright as others.
2. Next, I had just spent the previous day knocked out in my bed with some kind of virus. Needless to say, I wasn’t up for slow-pitch softball let alone Major League Play Off games.
3. Lastly, I didn’t love our people. And that’s the short and truest answer for why I didn’t handle it well. If I had, I wouldn’t have been as dismissive of the view points from the room that were not seeing how a loving God could also be an “electing” God – electing some to eternal life, and by default, not electing others to that same life.
Let me briefly recall how I responded, and then I would like to offer a follow up post from some resources that have helped me understand this, particularly the book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God by D.A. Carson (Crossway 2000).
I went the route of acknowledging what for me is a fundamental, and biblically philosophical framework of thinking: God is God, and I am not. That is to say, that since I am a creature, dependent on God for everything, including revelation, I am limited in my ability to understand fully the ways of God.
This is true biblically. Genesis 1:1 starts off with “In the beginning, God…”, and then acknowledges that because of God’s independent activity, everything else came into existence, “…created the heavens and the earth.” This goes a long way for me and this question, because it acknowledges that what I do know to be true, is finite. Its limited. In other words, it should provoke me to hold my own epistemological grasp of things with a loose sense of certainty, but a tremendous amount of confidence.
So while I may not be able to completely reconcile emotionally and intellectually that the God of the Bible can be both loving towards the world and yet still have an electing love for some within that world, it does not necessarily mean that it isn’t plausible. I can hold those two things in tension – the way Scripture tends to hold them – because it may not be a matter than my finite capacity can completely reconcile. It is, to coin what might be labeled a cop-out by some, a mystery. And the Bible is frankly quite OK with mystery.
I also acknowledged that while the Bible does speak to the idea of election, it never once dictates nor encourages us to isolate and determine who those elect are. In other words, it is a theological and biblical certainty that is known only to and only by God alone. We are never called to make or determine judgments based on who is “elect” or “non-elect”. I read one of Mark Driscoll’s tweets a couple of weeks back and it was something that helped sum it up nicely: “The visible church is the imperfect church as man sees it; the invisible church is the perfect church as God sees it.” Again, a sense of mystery.
But this also does not preclude the reality that there may be a whole lot more “elect” than we think. Sure we can guess around the issue by looking at how people respond to God (faith and repentance), but the reality is that none of us will ever know fully who is “elect” and who is not until the coming day of Christ that we all await. It is true that in our theological discussion on this topic, we may tend, as Calvinists, to make the number smaller than it might actually be, as if there are only 120 seats on God’s “elected” bus. But whose to say that its not in the Billions?
The fact of the matter is we don’t know. Not with certainty, anyway. But we can still have confidence that the picture of God that the Bible paints is one of love towards His whole creation, and yet still, one that has sovereignly and graciously intruded into the lives of a select number to receive and respond to His grace.
And that was a decent answer. Until I started to get the following questions, which I completely dismissed (and hope in some small part to make up for through these brief posts)
Coming up next….But what do you do with passages like John 3:16 – “For God so Loved the World that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”?