Reforming Calvinism, pt. 9.2: Unconditional Election

In the first half of this entry on ‘unconditional election’ and Romans 8:28-30, I argued that the theo-logic underpinning Paul’s affirmations consists in the fact that Jesus Christ is the true imago Dei, the archetypal human in whose image all human beings were created, and therefore he is the One in whom God representatively elected all humanity. This, of course, immediately raises critical questions that I hope to address in this half of the post.

The first question that arises is this: does this view lead inevitably to universalism? As Paul would exclaim: “By no means!” Although I will not deal with this issue in greater detail until subsequent entries in this series, suffice it to say here that we must take care not to introduce notions of causality (such as those of Aristotle) into Paul’s argument such Unconditional-Election-AVATARthat we think it possible to determine the nature of causes and intents on the basis of what we observe as the effects. In other words, just because we cannot affirm on biblical grounds that all humanity will be saved, this does not mean that we cannot affirm the universal scope of God’s electing activity in Christ.

Some might say that this sounds strange, contradictory, or even irrational. Is not this passage the ‘golden chain’ of salvation, ensuring that all who are predestined will surely be glorified? Michael Horton, for example, objects for precisely this reason, arguing in relation to Barth’s view that “this presents a far more ominous threat of a breach between the hidden and revealed God. Barth holds that, despite one’s being chosen, redeemed, called, justified, and sanctified, it is at least possible that one may not at last be glorified but will be reprobate after all”[2]. In response, I would like to quote a section of N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans in which he argues:

[This], indeed, is the thrust of vv. 28–30, which otherwise can easily degenerate, as the history of interpretation shows, into an abstract theory of personal predestination and salvation. God’s purpose for those in Christ is precisely Christ-shaped. They are chosen and called in order to advance God’s purpose in and for the world. The five great verbs (foreknown, foreordained, called, justified, glorified), crashing chords at the end of the movement, are all to be understood as Christ-shaped. That which is true of the Messiah is true of his people…

The emphasis of vv. 29–30 falls clearly on conformity to Christ; this remains so throughout the dramatic closing words, focused on the four last aorists (pre-shaped, called, justified, glorified). All has been accomplished in Christ: the fore-shaping of Christ’s people to be his younger siblings; their call through the gospel that announces his lordship; their justification by faith in the God who raised him from the dead; their glorification, so that they are now already seated in the heavenly places in him (see Eph 2:6, and in the light of that, Eph 1:20–22; Col 3:1–4). There may even be a backward glance to the story of Jesus himself: his incarnation, his baptism, his resurrection, his ascension—though this remains speculative. In any case, the christological basis explains the final aorist, which is otherwise very puzzling, coming as it does after so many futures (8:9–11, 13, 17–18, 23). All these things, including “glorification,” have happened already to and in Jesus, the Messiah; and what is true of the Messiah is true of his people.[3]

What Wright highlights here, albeit in a slightly different way, is the Christ-comprehensiveness of election. As discussed in part 7 and part 8, election is located exclusively in Christ. Election is not primarily something that it occurs in us or to us but something that occurs in Christ himself. This is why, as Wright notes, we cannot read Romans 8:29-30 without seeing its primarily Christological shape. As Wright also points out, the Christological shape of this passage explains Paul’s use of the aorist for a sequence of events that, at least in reference to human beings, has not actually occurred yet, for it has occurred in relation to Christ. It is Christ himself who, according to Paul, is the one who was foreknown, predestined before the foundation of the world and then called, justified, and glorified in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension (Rom. 1:1-4; 4:24-25; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Tim. 1:9).

The problem, then, with Horton’s objection is that it fails to deal with the Christological shape of these verses. As Wright points out, the fundamental reference is to Christ himself and not to human beings. Being predestined, called, justified, and glorified does not, as Horton implies, signify first and foremost that which occurs in us. It refers supremely to Christ himself. The unbroken continuity of the ‘golden chain’ is ensured ultimately not by some mechanistic process or voluntaristic exertion of the divine will but rather by the concrete history of Jesus Christ that the gospel proclaims. The glorification of the predestined is in no greater jeopardy than the risk of Christ losing his exalted place in heaven at the right hand of the Father. It is imperative to note, however, that predestination, calling, justification, and glorification are only secondarily true of us insofar as we, as Paul explains in chapters 6-8, are united to Christ through faith by the Spirit. Thus, this interpretation of the universal extent of God’s predestinating love in Christ does not threaten the continuity of the ‘golden chain’, because it ultimately holds true for Christ himself and only derivatively for those who are united to him through faith by the Spirit.

At this point, the discerning reader may spot a problem. On the one hand, it seems that I am saying that God has in Christ elected all humanity. On the other hand, it seems that I am also saying that the elect are only those who are united to Christ through faith by the Spirit. So which is it? Have I trapped myself between two irreconcilable statements?

In response, I would begin by stressing once again the exclusivity of the ‘in-Christness’ of election. I would suggest that election is, in many ways, similar to how Reformed theology has usually understood justification. The righteousness by which we are justified is not something that we inherently possess, nor is it something that is ‘infused’ into us. Rather, our righteousness is an ‘alien’ righteousness; it resides extra nos – outside of us – because it is the righteousness of Christ himself. Thus, we are justified insofar as we are united to Christ whose righteousness ‘counts’ as ours by virtue of our union with him. The important dynamic to note here, especially for what concerns election, is that since this justifying righteousness is properly limited to and located in Christ alone (solus Christus), it has universally validity; it is “for all who believe” without “distinction” (Rom. 3:22). As even traditional Reformed theologians would say, the fact that all do not believe does not diminish the universal sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness to justify any and all. Hypothetically, if all believed, then all would be justified. Therefore, the fact that justifying righteousness is limited to and located in Christ alone means that it has a universal scope in principle [de jure] even if it is not universally appropriated by all through faith by the Spirit [de facto].

I would like to propose that a similar dynamic obtains with regard to election. Our election does not take place primarily in us or with reference to us. It is, like the righteousness by which we are justified, an ‘alien’ election, an election that occurs extra nos – in Christ himself – and it becomes ours insofar as we are united with Christ. If, as with justifying righteousness, election is, properly speaking, limited to Christ alone, then, also like justifying righteousness, it has a universal scope. As Christ was vicariously righteous so that all could be justified in him, so also he was vicariously elected so that all might be elect in him. If we view Christ’s obedience unto death as vicarious for all, does it not make sense also to view his election (which is the eternal basis of his obedience unto death) as vicarious for all? Could we not, along with a doctrine of Christ’s vicarious obedience and death, espouse a doctrine of his vicarious election?

If so, I suggest that we should discern, following Karl Barth, two complementary levels or senses in which Paul speaks of election in these verses: election de jure [the vicarious election of Christ that in principle includes all] and election de facto [the subjective realization of that election on the part of individuals through faith by the Spirit]. By distinguishing (though not separating) these two senses of election, it is possible to say that all human beings are elect de jure insofar as they are represented from all eternity in the election of Christ, yet not all human beings will necessarily ‘realize’ their election de facto in union with Christ through faith by the Spirit. Thus, in Romans 8:28-30, we could say that while it is election de facto that lies on the surface of the text, it is election de jure that serves as its ground and presupposition.

Bryan Burton further explains this dynamic when he comments regarding Barth’s view:

In a major excursus within his doctrine of reconciliation (IV/2:511ff), Barth divides humanity into those who are in Christ de jure and those who are in Christ de facto. By this Barth seems to articulate that while Jesus Christ as the electing God and the elected man on behalf of all humanity has elected, reconciled, justified, sanctified, and redeemed all humanity de jure in his first coming, the election, reconciliation, justificationsanctification, and redemption of all humanity in Christ has yet to be realized de facto. This will only take place in his second coming as an eschatological reality and possibility. In the meantime, humanity is divided between those who are in Christ de facto and those who are in Christ de jure; the task of those who are in Christ de facto is to bear faithful witness to the electing and reconciling work of Jesus Christ in order that all may recognize in fact (de facto) who they already are de jure.[4]

This, I would argue, is how a robust doctrine of election/predestination with reference to Romans 8:28-30 should be construed. Rather than viewing the universal and particular aspects of election as mutually exclusive, we should understand them both as eternally grounded in Christ and then dynamically revealed and worked out through history. In a de jure sense, we can affirm that all human beings are predestined, called, justified, and glorified insofar as they are vicariously represented in Christ, not only as the Word incarnate in time (Logos incarnatus) but also as the Word-to-be-incarnate before time (Logos incarnandus). On the other hand,  in a de facto sense, we must affirm that not all human beings appear, in the present, to be actually united with Christ through faith by the Spirit and thus do not benefit from what is theirs by right as human beings created in the image of God. Thus, instead of the more traditional ‘static’ understanding that sees all humanity divided prior to creation into two distinct and unchangeable groups of ‘elect’ and ‘reprobate’, this view results in a dynamic understanding of election in terms of an ever-widening circle, beginning with Jesus Christ himself before creation, that expands throughout history to include more and more individuals through the witness of incorporation into his elect community (i.e. those ‘called according to his purpose’ in Rom. 8:28). As Michael O’Neil explains:

Thus, Jesus Christ is the proper and primary focus of election. However, in this election he is not alone, but is with a people whom he represents as king and head. Because of the manner in which Barth has developed his understanding of Jesus as the elect person in whom all humanity are also elect, and as the one who has taken all rejection upon himself, it is expected that the people represented by him would include the entire race. This, however, is not the case. Barth finds the traditional focus of the doctrine on the ordering of the individual’s relation with God to be problematic and thus seeks to address this by positing a ‘mediate and mediating’ election of the community, between the election of Jesus Christ and that of the individual. Barth employs the image of the circle to present this understanding of election. Those called and gathered around Jesus Christ, the one community in the two-fold form of Israel and the Church, constitute an ‘inner’ circle of the election which has taken place in and with the election of Jesus Christ. Beyond this there exists a wider circle which includes the rest of humanity, and which is labeled by Barth as ‘the outer circle of the election which has taken place (and takes place) in Jesus Christ.’ For Barth, then, all the election that takes place in Jesus Christ is ‘mediated, conditioned and bounded by the election of the community.’

Barth’s move is pregnant with significance. When Barth speaks, therefore, of the elect individual he asserts that they are elect only in and with the community, ‘elect through its mediacy and elect to its membership…an election to participation in the ministry of the community.’ This inner circle is a circle of proclamation and faith, and those outside of it live lives that are ‘lost’, bearing the rejection of those who are apart from Jesus Christ. Yet this circle is not so closed or predetermined that it cannot expand, for an enlargement of the circle of election occurs as the Church faithfully pursues its calling of witness and proclamation in the world. Barth argues that ‘the election of each individual involves, and his calling completes, an opening up and enlargement of the (in itself) closed circle…. The existence of each elect means a hidden but real crossing of frontiers, to the gain of the Kingdom of God.’ The Church, therefore, must not regard the world as rejected for they are those to whom God has graciously turned in the election of Jesus Christ. The elect are called to proclaim the message of the triumphant grace of God, and to summon the world to faith in him. At every point on the frontier between the inner circle of the community and the outer one of the rest of humanity the gospel is to be proclaimed.[5]

Here we see double predestination concentrated in Christ himself. He is the Elect who has freely chosen to become Reprobate in the place of all humanity. For this reason, all are de jure predestined, called, justified, and glorified. Yet this de jure reality must become realized de facto among those who in their own hearts and minds are still dead in sin and at enmity with God, and thus Paul’s emphasis in Romans 8:28-30 falls on the dynamic outworking of what has taken place in Christ in the lives of said human beings vis-à-vis his elect community, “those called according to his purpose” (vs.28).

While Paul merely alludes to this divine purpose in chapter 8, he goes on elaborate it in much greater detail in chapters 9-11. As we continue on into these chapters, we may be surprised to discover that Paul maintains that not only the believing Church but also Israel according to the flesh, although largely unbelieving, is also the elect people that God foreknew and called according to his purpose (e.g. 11:2, 11-12). Although calling them enemies of the gospel in 11:28-29, Paul nevertheless insists that unbelieving Israel is beloved on account of God’s irrevocable election and calling. Within a traditional Reformed view accustomed to define election and calling simply and strictly in terms of those who believe unto salvation, this could be a bit jarring. In what sense can unbelieving Israel be both elected and called yet also rejected?

When we take into consideration Paul’s argument as a whole throughout these chapters, we learn that, according to Paul, Israel’s rejection of Christ actually serves God’s purpose in two ways: first by vividly witnessing to the rejection that Christ vicariously suffered on the cross (i.e. the vessels of wrath that make known the riches of God’s mercy: 9:22-23) and second, by making it possible for the blessing promised to Abraham to be bestowed upon all the peoples of the earth (the natural branches cut off so that the wild branches could be grafted in: 11:17-24). In this way, even unbelieving Israel, like Pharaoh during the time of the Exodus (9:17), has been called according to God’s fundamentally loving and gracious purpose revealed in Christ. Whereas prior to Christ’s coming, Israel was ‘elect’ and the Gentiles were ‘rejected’, so now after the coming of Christ, Israel finds itself ‘rejected’ so that the Gentiles might become ‘elect’ in Christ. As N.T. Wright points out in Paul and the Faithfulness of Christ, even Israel’s rejection bears a Christological shape, for it is precisely the cruciform pattern of Christ’s own rejection for the salvation of the world that Israel now embodies, albeit unwillingly and unknowingly.

But this is not the last word for Israel, because Paul insists that God has not rejected the people that he foreknew (11:2). Rather, he reminds his Gentile readers that Israel’s hardening and stumbling in unbelief is not intended for their ultimate destruction (11:7-11), for when their unbelief has fulfilled the divine purpose of bringing salvation to the nations, so also will they be saved (11:25-26). Indeed, as Paul marvels, if their rejection means reconciliation for the world, then their inclusion will mean resurrection from the dead (11:15)! Finally, just before the climax of the entire section, Paul summarizes all the twists and turns of the redemptive history that he has just recounted by declaring that “God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (11:32). To paraphrase: throughout the complex course of human history, God has at various times rejected all humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, so that in Christ alone he might universally show his electing love in a way that demonstrates that no one can presume on his grace. Although beyond our comprehension, this is the wisdom of God in realizing the de jure election of all in Christ by means the de facto election of his covenant community.

There are two important implications of this. First, Romans 11:32, standing as the climax of Paul’s entire argument in Romans 1-11, should make it clear beyond all doubt that there is no one beyond the scope of the electing love and mercy of God in Christ. Even as Paul refused to despair of his Jewish brothers and sisters who were hardened to the gospel and seemed to be among the rejected, so also should we not consider the apparent rejection of those around us as evidence of their ultimate reprobation, because even they have, in ways that perhaps are not yet fully manifest in the present, been called according to the eternal counsel of God that he purposed for all in Jesus Christ. As exemplified in Israel, present rejection does not necessarily mean ultimate reprobation. Those called according to God’s purpose in history, both the believing ‘elect’ and the unbelieving ‘rejected’, have a part to play in testifying to all people their de jure election in Christ. This does not mean that all will be saved, for according to Scripture many will resist their de jure election in Christ until the very end and so will be lost. Nevertheless, hope always remains.

Second, the view according to which Christ is the only truly Elect (and Reprobate) One in whom all are vicariously elected does not translate into a flat or forced interpretation of various biblical texts that seem to limit election to a specific group of people (e.g. 1 Thess. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:1). As Paul indicates in Romans 9-11, there is a place for distinguishing between the ‘elect’ and the ‘rejected’ in the unfolding of God’s plan throughout history. What this should not entail, however, is the hardening of these categories into static, eternal divisions according to metaphysical or logico-causal commitments foreign to the text. Paul’s argumentation in Romans 9-11, anticipated in 8:28-30, pertains strictly to the outworking of God’s elective purposes in history, and this history is not necessarily indicative of eternal destiny. As we have seen, the Gentiles who were once ‘rejected’ have now become ‘elect’ (because they are in Christ!) whereas ‘elect’ Israel has now become ‘rejected’ but will one day be grafted back in to the root of their election. Inasmuch as the ‘rejected’ attest to Christ’s rejection on the cross and the ‘elect’ attest to his justification at the resurrection, both groups have their own unique role to play in testifying to the person and work of Christ in whom God purposed before creation to show his electing love and mercy to all (11:32). At the end of the day, we can confidently affirm that despite the often incomprehensibility of God’s ways (11:33), Jesus Christ is the elected man in whose humanity is revealed the electing God who has turned to all humanity in grace and love.

This is truly unconditional election.


[2] Horton, M., 2011 The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p.322

[3] Wright, N.T., 1994–2004. The Letter of the Romans. In L. E. Keck, ed. New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, pp. 602-603.

[4] Burton, B., 2013. ‘Universalism’ in The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp.217-218.

[5] O’Neil, M., 2004. ‘Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election’ in The Evangelical Quarterly, 76(4), pp.316-318.

This entry was posted in Apostle Paul, Biblical interpretation, Christology, Classic Calvinism, Election, Eschatology, Evangelical Calvinism, Five points of Calvinism, Image of God, Karl Barth, Love of God, N.T. Wright, Predestination, Reformed theology, Reforming Calvinism, Soteriology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reforming Calvinism, pt. 9.2: Unconditional Election

  1. Bobby Grow says:

    A long one! Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

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