Reforming Calvinism, pt. 7: Unconditional Election

This is the seventh entry in my series on revising the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) in a more evangelical way. If you have not done so already, I would recommend that before proceeding you catch up on previous entries here: Reforming Calvinism. Following my last Unconditional-Election-AVATARpost in which I provided a critique of the classic construal of TULIP’s second point, usually called ‘Unconditional election’, I would like to propose a constructive revision of this point that seeks to avoid the flaws that I identified.

I want to preface what follows with a comment on how I will proceed. Since this is a blog post, it is not the place to develop a comprehensive and fully-orbed doctrine of election. I can only provide certain indications and lines of thought that outline what I understand as a more biblical position. To do this, I will consider three significant passages of Scripture that are of prime relevance to this discussion and then draw out their implications for reconstructing the doctrine of election on a systematic level. The space required to do this is more than what a single blog post affords, so I will do this over the course of two more posts.

In this entry, I would like consider a passage that is not often immediately associated with election but that is nevertheless extremely important: Galatians 3. This is a difficult and dense text, so there is no way that I can provide a detailed interpretation. Broadly speaking, however, it is possible to summarize Paul’s argument in terms of his contention against the so-called ‘Judaizers’ who were attempting to impose the observance of the Jewish law on the Gentile Christians in the Galatian churches. At the end of chapter 2 and throughout chapter 3, Paul emphatically argues that we are not justified before God and made partakers of the salvific blessings that God promised to Abraham and his children by our faithfulness in keeping the commandments of the law but rather by depending on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ in whom alone we stand as righteous before God and as fellow heirs with Abraham. This of course raises the question of the law. What was its purpose? Was not the law established precisely for the sake of delineating and identifying those who are righteous before God and heirs of Abraham’s blessing? In 3:19ff, Paul explains that the true purpose of the law was to serve as a guardian until the time when the fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham were realized with the coming of Christ. The section of this chapter relevant to election, however, is that which is found in 3:15-18:

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

To grasp what Paul is arguing here, it is important to understand that in the Old Testament, election was not primarily understood in the individual sense that it often is today (even though there are examples of individual election such as Jeremiah). When, for example, God spoke of his choice of Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6-8, he was clearly referring to his choice of Israel as a nation for the unfolding of his redemptive purposes within history. As N.T. Wright helpfully demonstrates in his massive work Paul and the Faithfulness of God, election in the Old Testament was primarily a mark of identity by which Israel demarcated itself to be the covenant people of God throughout history. It is within this context that Paul formulates his argument in Galatians 3. In essence, he contends that the law that was annexed to the covenant that God established with Israel at Sinai did not annul or modify the covenant that God had previously made with Abraham, as though the original promise that was based on faith could then, 430 years later, be changed so that its fulfilment came to depend on observance of the law.

The key point that Paul makes here is that the promise to Abraham was not made to his “offsprings”, as though to many, but to his singular “offspring”, that is Christ. This is massively important. Paul is saying, in effect, that God’s election of Abraham in Genesis 12 to be the means by which all of the families of the earth would be blessed did not ultimately terminate in the election of a large group of people (i.e. every individual of physical descent from Abraham) but rather in a single individual who alone was Abraham’s true heir and offspring. Paul is, as N.T. Wright would say, redefining the concept of election around Jesus Christ himself. Christ is not one of many elect offspring, he is the elect offspring in whom all the families of the earth are now blessed.

It is for this reason that Paul concludes Galatians 3 by saying that “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (vs. 27). If we correctly understand the context, then we see that this is an unequivocal statement about election. Christ is not one of the elect (i.e. one of Abraham’s offspring), rather he is the Elect (the offspring of Abraham), and thus anyone who is of Christ is therefore elect, a descendent of Abraham and an heir of the promised blessing.  Election, in this sense, is not a matter of simply being chosen by God. It is rather a matter of identification with Christ who, in the ultimate sense, is the only Elect one. As we are righteous only in Christ who is the Righteous One, as we are sons of God only in Christ who is the Son of God, so also we are elect only in Christ who is the Elect One.

The other element necessary to note in Galatians 3 is the fact that as the Elect, Jesus Christ came to suffer on behalf of those who were under the curse of the law. After stressing that “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” because none have kept all of the law’s commandments (vs. 10), Paul affirms that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” This is the glorious truth that has often been called ‘the great exchange’. Christ, who was the Elect and the true offspring of Abraham (and thus the heir of the blessing according to the promise), became, in his death on the cross, a curse on behalf of all those who themselves were under the curse of the law. The purpose of this was to redeem those who were under the curse so that the blessing of Abraham, rightly belonging to Christ himself, might be given to all, even those who were not previously offspring of Abraham, namely the Gentiles! This is truly good news: the Elect of God became Reprobate, suffering the curse for those who were truly the reprobates, in order that they might become elect of God, redeemed, blessed, and heirs of the promise.

This, I think, is the biblical insight that led Karl Barth to write these words about the meaning of election:

The man Jesus is the elect of God. Those whom God elects He elects “in Him,” not merely “like Him,” but in His person, by His will, and by His election. Those whom God elects, the One blessed of God elects also. What can this election be, then, but more grace, a participation in the grace of the One who elects, a participation in His creatureliness (which is already grace), and a participation in His sonship (which is eminently grace)? From its very source the election derives from the man Jesus. And as election by Him it is indirectly identical with that beginning willed and posited by the condescension and self-suffering of God. It is “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But the elected man Jesus was foreordained to suffer and to die…In this one man Jesus, God puts at the head and in the place of all other men the One who has the same power as Himself to reject Satan and to maintain and not surrender the goodness of man’s divine creation and destiny; the One who according to Mt. 4 actually does this, and does it for all who are elected in Him, for man in himself and as such who does not and cannot do it of himself. The rejection which all men incurred, the wrath of God under which all men lie, the death which all men must die, God in His love for men transfers from all eternity to Him in whom He loves and elects them, and whom He elects at their head and in their place. God from all eternity ordains this obedient One in order that He might bear the suffering which the disobedient have deserved and which for the sake of God’s righteousness must necessarily be borne…

For this reason, He is the Lamb slain, and the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. For this reason, the crucified Jesus is the “image of the invisible God.” If, then, there is an election of others on the basis of the election of this man Jesus, we can see that that election is to be understood only as free grace, and we can also see why this is so. The ones who “in Him,” i.e., through Him, are elected and made partakers of His grace are those who could see in themselves only lost sinners “oppressed of the devil” (Ac. 10:38). If He did not stand at their head, if they were not elected “in Him,” without Him and outside Him they would be for ever rejected. They have nothing which they can call their own except their transgression. Yet these transgressors are the ones on whose behalf the eternal love of God for Jesus Christ is willed and extended. They knew nothing of this love. They did not even desire it. But for His part the Elect who stands at the head of the rejected elects only the rejected.

The Gospel tells us unequivocally in this connexion that “the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which is lost” (Lk. 19:10), that the sick have need of Him and not the whole (Mk. 2:17), and that in heaven there is more joy over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons which have no need of repentance (Lk. 15:7). Who is the Elect? He is always the one who “was dead and is alive again,” who “was lost and is found” (Lk. 15:24). That the elected man Jesus had to suffer and die means no more and no less than that in becoming man God makes Himself responsible for man who became His enemy, and that He takes upon Himself all the consequences of man’s action—his rejection and his death. This is what is involved in the self-giving of God. This is the radicalness of His grace…[1]

This is all that needs to be said. This is truly radical grace. This is truly ‘unconditional election’!

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[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics II/2: The doctrine of God. London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.121-125

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