Election Is For Service Not Salvation
Part 2 of 3
Part 1 of this series focused on the many fallacies of Calvinism and there are many. Too many to enumerate in one post.
Calvinism raises so many questions that if you took each to its logical end, you would end up with a book, maybe a set, not just a post.
The previous post was intended to whet the appetite and set the stage for further investigation. The fallacies don’t explain Election or Predestination so the job isn’t done yet but they do reveal the questionable nature of Calvinism and that opens the door to a different approach.
So, what about Election.
First, a few preliminary thoughts.
More than any other word, Election has become the anchor for Calvinistic thought. Everything Calvinists teach about any subject in the Bible is tethered to the idea that God selected some for salvation and deselected everyone else.
Calvinists don’t like it when their ideas are framed in those terms and they’ve produced a litany of sophisticated-sounding prose to suggest that isn’t true but when you boil it all down, if any person is not saved and doesn’t get saved before they die, they were deselected.
As we go along, it will become clear why that is the logical inference of Calvinist teachings.
There are several key passages that need to be explained but before we get into those, a few foundational observations are needed first.
Election Is Too Common To Be Special
First of all, a word about the word Elecction.
The word Election is just one word. It isn’t a unique word. It wasn’t specially coined in the Old Testament or New Testament to carry a strange, weird, or unusual meaning.
The word was never intended to become a theological Shibboleth. It’s not even particularly spiritual.
The New Testament writers haven’t said enough in context to impregnate it sufficiently with the idea that God did something before we were born to divide humanity into two groups: the ins and the outs.
The word simply means chosen and it can apply to all kinds of things. Making choices (elections), is very common.
We choose what we wear and eat each day, what we watch on TV, what we read, think, and more.
We choose how punctual we are, how we act under pressure, who we marry, spend time with, vote for, and so on.
People choose careers, places to live, and methods for managing money.
But the choices we make are always qualified or should be. Careless people make random, unqualified choices and suffer badly as a result. Words like thoughtless, irresponsible, negligent, and imprudent describe the random-choice approach to life.
And that is exactly what Calvinists are suggesting about God.
Election Presents Opportunities
Sometimes we make good choices. Sometimes we make bad choices. The good news is after we make bad choices, we can still choose to learn from the experience. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t.
Choices shape our lives they don’t define us.
Making choices is so common that we should be alarmed that some theological circles have used the adjective form of the word (the elect) to designate a secret, specially favored, and fossilized society. Using the word in that way is limiting and misleading.
We do find the word in the Bible. Why wouldn’t we? Since choice is such a common feature in daily activity, it isn’t strange that we would find the word and the concept it represents in the Bible.
How could God talk about His relationship to humans and not mention choice? The reality is both humans and God make choices. Even animals make choices, although the range of choices humans make is far greater and more complex than the ones animals make.
That also isn’t strange since humans were made in the image of God.
No human is capable of saving him or herself but one choice every human can make is to be honest about their sin. I can admit I’m a sinner. You can make the same admission about yourself.
Another choice common to all of humanity is to trust Christ for salvation. These choices or elections have happened repeatedly since the beginning of time.
We have the ability to choose God and, the good news is, there is no question that He chooses us. All of us.
The important point here is that what the word means and how it applies can vary widely and can only be determined by careful consideration of the context in which it is found.
Elections Are Never Unqualified And Never Secure
Random should never describe the choices you make and it comes perilously close to heresy to suggest God does this.
Jesus helps us out on this point. He made a small but very significant statement in Matthew 20:16 and repeated it in 22:14:
Many are called but few are chosen.
The word Chosen translates the Greek word Eklektos, which is also translated Elect at least thirteen times in the New Testament. However you translate it, what is obvious in that statement is qualification.
The difference between those who were eventually chosen and those who were only called is qualification. Being called is easy. Being chosen depends on ones response.
You can’t read a special transitory process into the text. If you are called, you are required to respond appropriately (repent and believe for salvation, qualify for service). Otherwise, you won’t be chosen.
But even the word chosen doesn’t represent the end of the line. Nothing is settled because you are chosen.
Being chosen in the Christian sense is like filling an open position in a business or company. You’re not secure because you got the job. Accepting the position creates pressure. Your security is determined by how well you perform, not how favored you are.
Yes, I understand that salvation is secure. Human effort isn’t sufficient to earn it or keep it but what happens in this life, before you die, still counts. That’s the focus of Election.
Calvinism’s Simple Minded Approach
One passage that Calvinists often quote to suggest that God makes random choices is found in Romans 9. A closer look reveals that the passage does not support unqualified choice.
When Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, The older will serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated. (Romans 9:10-13)
A few observations.
- This passage has nothing to do with salvation.
As I mentioned before, the word Election has many applications and this passage is proof in point. It is not focused on personal salvation.
God was choosing the next head of the family, not someone to save. Jacob and Esau competed for the job, but only one was chosen, Jacob. It would be super presumptuous to think Esau couldn’t be saved because he wasn’t chosen to be the head of the family but that fallacious idea has twisted Christian thinking and preaching for the last few hundred years.
Even Paul’s comment about the children of the flesh not being the children of God has nothing to do with spiritual salvation (although, that’s how it is framed in every message I’ve ever heard on the passage).
Abraham had eight sons in all. All of them were children of the flesh. None of them were born again, not even Isaac – born again is an entirely New Testament concept. Only one, Isaac, was the child of promise.
The choice of Isaac signified neither his salvation nor the condemnation of his seven half-brothers.
This passage is focused on lineage building, not electing anyone for salvation.
If what Calvinists suggest is correct, then all seven of Abraham’s other sons were condemned to hell. I don’t have the ability to entertain that idea.
This passage more than any other proves that the word Election has many applications. It’s not just about salvation. It’s not even primarily about salvation.
- God made His choice before either son had done anything good or evil but not in spite of the good or evil they would do.
It is impossible for God to make blind choices.
God has all knowledge. He knows everything that happened in the past and everything that will happen in the future, not because He makes it happen but because He is God. He knows everything.
God made the choice before they did anything good or evil but He didn’t make the choice without knowing. It would be impossible for God to make choices uninfluenced by what He knew.
According to Calvinists, we are to assume God would have chosen Jacob even if Jacob was the worst of the two choices. If that is true, not only would God have chosen the worst of the two, He would also have to do more to transform Jacob into the person he needed to be.
He would have to do more to force the issue with Jacob than with Esau.
But that doesn’t apply. From our perspective we know Jacob was the better choice. What we now know, God knew beforehand and that influenced His choice.
God knew which of the two sons would willingly align with His purposes and He made His choice accordingly.
This was not an unqualified choice. God didn’t close His eyes and pin the tail on whichever donkey happened to be in the way.
This was an intelligent, informed, qualified choice.
- Why tell Rebekah?
The question we should ask, and it’s rare that anyone does, is why did God reveal this information to Rebekah? It is very rare that God makes revelations to parents about their kids and this situation is particularly unique.
God made the revelation to the mother, not the father. Rebekah no doubt shared the information with Isaac but he apparently couldn’t see it and wouldn’t hear it.
So, why did this happen?
The answer may be quite simple. Isaac wasn’t all that spiritual. Of all the three Patriarchs, he was the only one whose name wasn’t changed – an indication of spiritual milestones being achieved. He repeated all the sins of his father and did nothing to move the nation-building process forward other than have kids.
The one parent God knew He could trust to provide proper guidance was Rebekkah.
Isaac was mostly just a placeholder. He even gave the blessing to Jacob unknowingly. If he had his way, Esau would have received the blessing.
Maybe God knew He could depend on Rebekkah to follow through. Remember, God has foreknowledge. He knows what’s going to happen and it wouldn’t be strange to make choices accordingly.
God revealed His choice before these facts materialized but not in spite of them. His choice was qualified.
- Esau was hated.
The Bible does say that Esau was hated but there are a few things to point out here.
The first is the fact that God hated Esau’s attitude (he was profane, Hebrews 12:16) not Esau’s person. God is love, not hate.
Secondly, hate is not reserved only for non-believers. God hates the attitudes and actions of believers just as well as the attitudes and actions of non-believers.
I don’t know if Esau ever became a believer but I do know that God’s election of Jacob had no bearing on the issue. In fact, Jacob didn’t get saved till after his election so, again, election and salvation are two different issues.
Thirdly, remember that this passage is focused on building nations, not saving souls. According to E. W. Bullinger, the names Jacob and Esau were used in place of the nations that descended from these men, not the men personally. What God hated was the effect Esau’s attitude would have on the nations that descended from him.
I’ll say more just now but God deals with nations differently to the way He deals with individuals.
The point is there is nothing special about the word Election. It does not represent a secret biblical sauce. Calvinists have assigned far more meaning to this word than any one word can carry.
And that brings us to the next observation.
Election vs The Gospel.
In most discussions, Election is so closely associated with salvation, and therefore the Gospel, you get the idea the terms are interchangeable, that the word Gospel can be used in place of Election and vice versa. But Paul makes a very curious statement in Romans 11:28-29 that dispels that misunderstanding.
Concerning the GOSPEL they (Israel) are enemies for your sake, but concerning the ELECTION they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:28-29)
The juxtaposition of the words Gospel and Election illustrates an extreme contrast. Not only are they different, the difference is striking. In Paul’s thinking, there’s no direct correlation between Gospel (Salvation) and Election (a calling to service).
In relation to the Gospel (salvation), the institution of Israel is an enemy. In relation to Election, they are beloved.
With that brief statement, Paul dismantled volumes of material promoting the idea that anyone is ever elected for salvation in eternity past, possibly against their will, and suggested that Election can be focused on something entirely different to salvation.
If the idea that salvation is an outcome of Election is wrong, how wrong can it be? Or to borrow from the words of Jesus (Matthew 6:23), if you’re confused, how muddled is your confusion, how myopic is your discernment, how great is your darkness?
Election Is Both Individual And National
Most of our ideas about Election are influenced by Paul’s discussions in Romans 9-11 but the perspective in these chapters is quite different from the previous chapters in the book. Up to the end of Romans 8, Paul had been focused on individuals but that theme doesn’t carry over to Romans 9-11 which everyone agrees are parenthetic.
The focus in these chapters is national, especially chapters 9 and 11. Every choice God made in these chapters affected the development of nations, not individuals.
Isaac was chosen to be the head of a nation, his seven half-brothers were not. Only one was needed so only one was chosen. Being the son of promise made Isaac the natural choice.
The same is true with Jacob. He was chosen to be the head of the nation instead of his twin brother, Esau, but the choice in both cases had nothing to do with salvation. We have a good idea of when Jacob got saved (Genesis 28) and it happened after he was designated the family head.
No one can really say if Esau got saved later or not. Anything you might suggest is purely speculation.
Yes, the Bible says he was a profane person but believers can be profane. In fact, the context in which Easu was said to be profane was essentially written to encourage believers to avoid being profane (Hebrews 12), to not be like Esau.
How Does God Deal With Nations
The point is everything in Romans 9 was focused on national issues, not individual salvation.
And God deals with heads of state and national entities differently to the way He deals with individuals. You can’t extend the scope of these ideas to individuals.
For example, the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction (Romans 9:22) were nations, not individuals, and the destruction of a nation doesn’t require the destruction of every individual in the nation. Egypt was destroyed in the Exodus, not every Egyptian.
And that destruction doesn’t preclude the possibility that some of the destroyed Egyptians may have been believers.
Germany, the nation, was destroyed in World War II and then rebuilt into a different nation with the individual Germans who didn’t die in the war. I’m sure there were believers among the survivors and the casualties.
When Paul said the Israelites were enemies concerning the Gospel, he wasn’t implicating every individual Israelite. He was focused on corporate Israel, the national body, not individuals.
Keeping the national emphasis at the forefront of your thinking process is important to staying on track.
Elections Were More Temporal Than Eternal
Another set of perspectives that we mix and match without restraint are eternal and temporal issues, especially when discussing the particulars of Romans 9 through 11.
The reality is what happens in this life does not necessarily carry over to the next. A person may be destroyed in this life, possibly due to their own sin, and still go to heaven when they die.
I’ve known many ministers whose ministries crumbled because of their sin. The ill effects carried over to their families, friends, and church members also. It’s sad and we wish these things didn’t happen but the reality is, those faulty ministers will still go to heaven when they die.
There’s a lot wrong with Nazism but we don’t have enough evidence to suggest every individual Nazi was lost. There is a lot right about Catholicism but you can’t say every Catholic is saved.
Many rich will go to hell and many poor will go to heaven. Why? Because your experiences in this life (temporal) have no direct bearing on salvation in the next, even if you are destroyed and the destruction is at the hand of God.
God elected Pharaoh, and the national entity he represented, for destruction in this life, not hell in the next.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting Pharaoh was a believer. I’m saying that his destruction was a national issue that occurred in the here and now and does not relate to personal salvation for anyone.
Election And The Outline of Romans
Another issue to consider is the outline of Romans. Does it support Calvinism?
Romans is important because it more than any other book is referenced in support of Calvinistic thought and the most frequently referenced chapters are 9 through 11.
The question we need to ask is do the organization and technical nature of the book argue for or against Calvinism?
Of all the books Paul wrote, Romans is one of the longest and most topically complete. He covers a broad range of subjects: sin, law, salvation, justification, grace, sanctification, predestination, and election are all mentioned.
More importantly, he covers all of those topics in chronological order. Romans is philosophical, logical, and chronological. The book could be broadly outlined in several ways and in great detail but for this discussion, the following five-division breakdown is helpful:
- One: Before I was saved (1:1-3:20)
- Two: How I was saved (3:21-5:19)
- Three: Changes that happened when I was saved (6:1-8:39)
- Four: All Israel shall be saved (9:1-11:36) PARENTHETIC BREAK
- Five: Conduct of the saved (12:1-16:27)
The fourth section (the parenthetic break, 9-11) is the one Calvinists focus on most but it’s out of order for that conversation. Salvation, and associated ideas, are dealt with before chapter 9 so suggesting that choices God made in chapters 9 through 11 are connected to salvation is like circling back in a discussion that is chronologically based. It confuses the direction of the book. It rearranges ideas to the point of distortion.
The focus in chapter 9 is very different from the previous eight chapters. Chapters 9-11 would be outlined:
- Chapter 9 – Institutional Israel established and set aside.
- Chapter 10 – Individual Israelites can still be saved.
- Chapter 11 – Institutional Israel will eventually be restored (saved).
To be clear Paul mentions two kinds of salvation in these three chapters: Institutional and Individual. Two of these chapters, 9 and 11, (where God chooses people) focus on institutional Israel. Only chapter 10 features individual Israelites. Paul’s primary focus was on Israel the nation, not Israelite individuals.
All of that is to say the organization of the book does not support Calvinism’s interpretation of Romans 9-11.
Election And Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart.
Calvinists make far too much of this issue than should be allowed. Let me explain.
A person’s heart is hardened by three things: circumstance, personal choice, and God.
- Circumstance can be a factor and Pharaoh was often moved in this way.
- Personal choice is often a factor and Pharaoh chose to harden his heart several times (Exodus 7:22; 8:15, 19 & 32; 9:7 &34).
- God clearly told Moses three different times that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 14:4) and the Bible indicates He did that more than once (Exodus 7:13; 9:12; 10:1, 20 & 27; 11:10; 14:8). Paul alludes to this hardening in Romans 9:17-18.
Those are the bare facts of the matter and, yes, God did harden Pharaoh’s heart but before you get too excited, consider the following.
Pharaoh wasn’t just some random individual walking down the street that God decided to hassle. He was a Head of State – just like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before him – and he represented the most powerful nation of that day, Egypt.
The Bible says much about how God deals with national entities. Many of the Old Testament prophecies targeted the nations of that day.
To be clear, those prophecies were God’s messages to nations, not individuals.
The question is if God intends to direct the path of a nation, how will He do that? The answer is obvious. Through the leader! There were no democracies in ancient history. The head guy was the focal point. And, in fact, the Bible speaks to that issue directly:
The King’s heart is in the hand of the Lord and as the rivers of water, he turns it wherever He wishes. (Proverbs 21:1)
What God did with Pharaoh wasn’t personal or individual. It was national. God was dealing with a national entity and it involved the here-and-now, not eternity.
The point is what God did with Pharaoh doesn’t define how He deals with all individuals. Pharaoh’s hardening was a special event that served a specific purpose. It had nothing to do with anyone getting eternally saved and we can’t expand the idea to encompass all the so-called unchosen without doing excessive injustice to God’s truth.
Election And The Mechanics of Hardeing
As a side note, following are a few ideas on how that hardening might have worked.
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is referred to twenty times in the Book of Exodus. Ten times the hardening is attributed to Pharaoh and tens times it is attributed to God. The first two references are ascribed to God but only prophetically, i.e., it was going to happen but the hardening wasn’t happening when the prophecy was made (otherwise it wouldn’t have been prophetic).
In the next six references, Pharaoh is said to harden his own heart and it is somewhat back and forth after that.
The point? Pharaoh had opportunities to agree to God’s terms of deliverance and willfully chose to do otherwise. All things considered, the terms in every case, barring the last, were very generous. What Pharaoh finally got is what he deserved.
Hardening Involves A Figure Of Speech
A figure of speech known as “metonymy” is used in references attributing the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to God. This figure associates actions and outcomes more directly than they really are.
We use metonymy in everyday speech often.
In baseball, we say that pitchers:
- Strikeout batters, or
- Make them swing, or
- Make them hit into a double play and so on.
In actual fact, no pitcher has the power to do any of those things at will. They can play skillfully enough to achieve these outcomes on more occasions than not, and we reward them when they do but they don’t force batters to act against their will. They can only coerce them by throwing pitches of varying speeds, planes, and shapes.
In the end both pitcher and batter act in character and willfully.
The same is true with God and Pharaoh. God was forcing the issue knowing exactly how Pharaoh would respond and it didn’t require that much foreknowledge to figure it out. Pharaoh’s obstinate nature and abusive, murderous intentions toward Israel were well known. His psychological bent was solidly formed. God didn’t make Pharaoh assume an attitude he didn’t already have but He did bring it to a head.
God’s actions were merciful not capricious. Everyone was better off, even the Egyptians, though it cost them dearly in the end.
There’s an application here, especially for democratic nations. Pick the wrong leader and God’s response to that leader may cause damage to everyone. Germans can verify that.
The Language Of Hardening Is Idiomatically Understood
Apart from Romans 9 where Pharaoh is mentioned, there’s another passage that, on the surface, implies God hardens the hearts of the general population. It’s found in Romans 11.
What then? What Israel was seeking, it failed to obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened. As it is written: God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see, and ears that could not hear, to this very day. (Romans 11:7-8)
The words, “The others were hardened” seem to imply that God hardened the hearts of certain individuals, spiritually, in an unseen manner, but it isn’t quite that simple. The wording is idiomatic and therefore can’t be taken literally according to E. W. Bullinger’s book Figures of Speech Used in the Bible.
In his book, Bullinger isolates 217 different figures of speech used in the Bible and provides many references where the figures are used along with explanations.
Romans 11:8 is referenced five different times in his book and the references involve more than one figure of speech.
One figure is Idiom (or idioma in the Greek). Idioms are sayings that can’t be taken literally such as Break a leg, raining cats and dogs, keeping tabs on someone, cutting someone some slack, etc.
Every language has idioms peculiar to that particular language.
Bullinger points out that the phrase, “God has given them the spirit of slumber…” accurately means He had suffered or allowed them to fall asleep. He offers the following explanation for this particular idiomatic usage:
Actve verbs were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do.
This understanding is clearly allowed for since Israelites had been seeking God but had refused what God had offered. Their slumber was the outcome of repeated refusals of God’s grace. Meaning, of course, that the choices we make are a primary factor in the hardening process.
And, God, rather than instigating the outcomes, allows personal choice to be the determining factor. He didn’t get in the way. What a person wants is what a person gets.
Balaam is a good example. He was greedy and repeatedly refused God’s directions. You can read his story in Numbers 22-24. Numbers 31 records his eventual destruction.
He literally got what he asked for.
Figures Of Speech Emphasize Human Response
Bullinger also refers to Matthew 13:13 where Jesus says:
I speak to them in parables because seeing they see not and hearing they hear not.
This figure of speech is called Plyptoton and is a repetition of the same word in its noun and verb forms (hearing-hear, seeing-see) to emphasize the truth being taught.
According to Bullinger, even though they can hear and see the truth (in other words, it registers intellectually) they are determined not to hear and see it fully. There’s no acceptance.
The ability to hear-see the truth implies responsibility. If you can understand it, you are responsible to believe it. If you reject it, you’ll lose the ability to understand it.
Hardening Is Self Induced As Much Psychologically As It Is Spiritually
According to Merriam-Webster, Denialism is the practice of denying the existence, truth, or validity of something despite proof or strong evidence that is it real, true, or valid.
The Hoofnagle brothers, one a lawyer and the other a physiologist, defined denialism as:
The employment of rhetorical arguments to give the appearance of legitimate debate where there is none.
Denialism is the foundation of most conspiracy theories. The earth is flat, smoking doesn’t cause cancer, and the holocaust didn’t happen are a few examples.
One more theory you can add to that list is Calvinism.
The question is what drives denialism and even more, what is the end effect?
Denialism is largely psychological. We become attached to fallacious ideas and the longer we hold them, especially in the face of significant evidence to the contrary, the more obstinate and resistant we are to a different viewpoint.
In fact, the longer we carry on in this state the less able we are to even see the evidence and the more reactive we become when hearing ideas that counter our holy cows. That’s why Jesus talked about eyes that can’t see and ears that can’t hear.
I can see what you’re saying but I don’t like it and won’t hear it.
But the most important point is the fact that this effect is gradual. Children adopt the conventions of their social surroundings gradually, over time. It’s what they see every day and, therefore, what they assume is right. Once ingrained, those ideas aren’t easily supplanted.
To use biblical language, this psychological conditioning is hardening. The more accustomed we become to one idea, the more conditioned we become against opposing ideas. Learning things that aren’t true hardens us to things that are true.
Forgetting Induces Hardening
Even the disciples struggled with hardening. In Mark 8 Jesus told the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod and they assumed they were in trouble because they had only brought one loaf of bread with them.
Jesus’ response associated forgetting with hardening and clearly indicated the condition was an outcome of their responses, not God’s intervention. His remarks were accusing. Hardening was self-induced.
Why are you debating about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Do you have such hard hearts? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?
When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of broken pieces did you collect? Twelve, they answered.
Jesus had fed thousands miraculously on two different occasions and the disciples not only witnessed it, but they also participated, and still, they had forgotten. The reality of the event had faded and they reverted to their old usual selves.
Jesus referred to that as hardening. And it was self-induced. God didn’t do it to them.
Grace Eliminates Works But Allows For Choice
Romans 11:5 makes a curious reference to a remnant chosen or elected by grace and in context, this is one of the rare occasions where the word “elected” is definitely referring to getting saved. Not to the Saved but to the actual experience of salvation.
Calvinists love this reference and use it as a proof text. It is anything but.
The text says:
At the present time there is a remnant chosen (elected) by grace. And if it is by grace, then it is no longer by works. Otherwise, grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:5-6)
It is important to note that the election here mentioned was by Grace, not random selections in eternity past. Grace and random selection are two very different things.
It is by Grace that God offers the opportunity to receive Christ and once accepted salvation is secured.
As the Gospel of John says:
He came unto His own and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name. (John 1:11-12)
And, of course, there is the very famous verse that spells it out plainly.
For by grace are you saved through and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Grace is the offer, faith is the response (not works), and the gift is salvation.
Grace eliminates works (personal effort), not personal choice.
A Word About Mercy
Mercy is another issue used by Calvinists to suggest God selects individuals randomly for favorable treatment. Let’s have a look.
Mercy is either general or specific. It’s never random or unqualified.
In the general sense, Jesus taught that God is merciful to everyone universally in some ways. He causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall on every person (Matthew 5:45). Both the good guys and the bad guys benefit from this expression of mercy. When the rain falls and the sun shines, every pedophile, serial murderer, bully, and thief benefits equally. God doesn’t discriminate.
The context in which that verse is found mentions mercy or merciful attitudes several times and teaches us that mercy should characterize the followers of Jesus. Christians are supposed to find ways to show mercy to everyone.
Any rational person has to admit that that is a difficult thing to understand if Calvinism is true. Why be merciful and loving to people in this life if those people will be eternally inflicted with pain and suffering in the next life? The idea smacks of sadism.
Focused Expressions Of Mercy
But back to mercy. There are times when mercy is shown to one person or group specifically instead of everyone universally. There are sides involved and when one side receives mercy, the other side takes it as a slap in the face. Mercy to one is hate to another.
How can you show mercy to the bullied without mashing the bully?
Specific acts of mercy are rarely seen as fair. When defendants are shown mercy, plaintiffs feel like justice has been cheated.
Everyone applauds Jesus for showing mercy to the woman caught in adultery (John 8) but only because we weren’t there. We conveniently forget that somewhere in the background there were people who’d been hurt by her indiscretions (her husband or the wife of her adulterous partner) and hoped for some kind of penalty. Children may have been affected. I’m sure the offended parties didn’t walk away warmed and consoled because Jesus showed her mercy.
The same thing is true for Pharaoh. God couldn’t mercifully deliver Israel from slavery and oppression, and pat Pharaoh on the back at the same time. You might be naive enough to think a peaceful settlement could have been reached but how often does that work out in real life. The best you can hope for sometimes is a tense standoff and in this situation that wouldn’t work.
There’s no doubt Pharaoh would have continued to badger and bully Israel as long as he held the upper hand. Israel had very limited resources to defend herself without God’s help, especially against Egypt’s well-trained and mechanized army, and it would be a long time before they would develop the strength, skill, and experience to mount a defense against a country like Egypt.
All of that points to the fact that God wasn’t indiscriminately choosing to be mean to Pharaoh. Israel was the focus and Pharaoh happened to be in the way. Mercy in this situation required a judgment and Pharaoh was on the wrong side of the issue.
With those preliminary ideas in mind, let’s look at what the Bible actually says about Election.
Election: The Brief Definition
For Calvinists, Election is simple. Everything was settled before you were born. End of story. No more discussion needed.
I’ll get into some of the details as we go but for now, the definition (the correct one).
In brief, Election has more to do with service than salvation. Yes, the Bible does refer to the saved corporately as The Elect on a few occasions but the dynamic is different to what Calvinists want you to think.
Christian individuals are Elect because they got saved, not saved because they were Elected.
And once they are considered Elect, they are then expected to expand and develop and serve in various ways and held accountable for their actions if they don’t.
That understanding fits well with how life works.
When a person wins a Presidential election, they are referred to as President-Elect until their inauguration. Once inaugurated, they are expected to perform their duties well and held accountable for everything they do. Being elected makes them accountable, not secure.
Being referred to as Elect doesn’t mean I was singled out for salvation in eternity past. Rather, it means because I got saved, the opportunity to grow and learn and become and do is opened up. The doorway to growth and service is now open.
When the Bible refers to a person as Elect, it is pointing out their readiness to serve and God’s willingness to use them in service. It’s forward-looking. They haven’t arrived. Salvation is settled but in every other way they’re just getting started.
In short, if you’re saved, you’re elected to serve.
Election In Romans 9
Most discussions about Election begin with Issac and Jacob in Romans 9-11, as it should, and most think this passage is absolute proof that God elects some to salvation and others are condemned forever by God’s choice.
Just the opposite is true. This passage more than any other proves that Calvinistic ideas are misleading in the extreme. When you take into consideration the organized chronological structure of Romans, you realize that salvation could not be the focus in chapters 9-11, but service is.
Isaac and Jacob were chosen to serve God’s purpose. Their Election had nothing to do with salvation.
Election Describes A Working Relationship
Election happens all the time in human experience and it’s fairly standard in the Bible.
Outside of creation, God never works alone. He works on people by working with people. He nudges us into projects and areas of service and uses the experience to mold us. Our individual elective purposes become clear as needs and opportunities arise.
It’s a principle that was established as early as creation itself.
At the end of creation week, God brought all the animals to Adam and allowed him to name each one. That was no small task. It probably took a considerable measure of time and mental energy but the point is God didn’t give Adam a list of names, He gave him an opportunity to be involved and by that, established the principle of human participation.
That’s how things got started and it was the precursor of things to come.
God doesn’t do everything for us. He works with us and does things we cannot do, like maintain the law of gravity, but otherwise employs the efforts of people to accomplish His purposes in this world.
A working relationship is the point of Election, not salvation. Salvation transitions us to an elected state, a place where service begins. Election doesn’t transition us to a saved state.
Election Makes You Responsible And Accountable
Being the elect is like being assigned an area of responsibility for which you will be held accountable.
Two other words associated with Election are Called and Chosen. In fact, Chosen translates the same Greek word as Elect: Eklektos.
Each word represents a separate link in the process God uses to develop and employ His servants and together they emphasize accountability.
God, first of all, elects someone to do some specific job, e.g., Abraham was elected to be the father of faith and to found a new nation.
God then calls the elected person to the task. Abraham was called to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and go to the place to which God would lead him (Genesis 12:1-3, Acts 7:2-4).
It is then up to us to do the necessary work to comply with God’s call by qualifying to do the work.
Abraham obeyed haltingly because he was working somewhat in the blind. He knew God called him to be a new nation but he had no children and the place to which he was called, Cannan, was uninviting and dangerous. He didn’t even know where he was headed when he started his journey (Hebrews 11:8). There were many unanswered questions.
Abraham eventually verified his calling and qualified to be chosen, not because he never failed but because he bounced back after his failures. He learned and grew.
That’s the part Calvinist’s leave out. Being elected to serve is God’s part. Hearing God’s call and responding agreeably is our part. Qualifying to serve the purpose of that call is our responsibility.
That last part is where many fail. If you don’t do the hard work of becoming the person you need to be, you won’t be able to do the thing you’re called to do. Ratification won’t occur.
The order is important. Election first, calling second and chosen third. The gap between election and chosen must be filled with appropriate action.
Election Guarantees Nothing
The rub is being elected puts you in the hot spot. You now must qualify to do the job and then actually do the job.
A person called to be a preacher or missionary or doctor or lawyer has a lot of work to do before they qualify. It can all come crashing down at any stage.
Being elected is a privilege and an honor but it isn’t a guarantee. Like individuals elected to public office, you must do the job, or you are out.
- Noah was elected to build an ark.
- Abraham was elected to travel to Canaan and become the head of a new nation.
- Isaac and Jacob were both called to move the nation-building process forward.
They succeeded but only because they believed and obeyed. If any one of them had said no, another individual would have been given the same opportunity.
It’s interesting that Moses is notable for both his great success and his terrible failure. He reluctantly led Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land but in the final lead up to the land, disobeyed a very clear command from God and missed the opportunity to enter the Promised Land.
He got to heaven just fine but he missed out on some special blessings at the end of his life.
Elijah was replaced by Elisha because he couldn’t hold up under pressure.
Jonah had great success but his poor attitude prevented him from enjoying the moment and he was never heard from again afterward.
Saul, the first king of Israel, failed so badly he was rejected before the end of his reign.
David, Saul’s successor achieved a good degree of success and we have to believe it was because his heart was attuned to God (Acts 13:22 & 1 Samual 13:14).
Solomon, David’s son, managed to succeed on many levels but also failed badly. Israel was divided in the generation that followed Solomon and remained in a state of turmoil afterward.
Mistakes aren’t the problem. Each of these people made mistakes. Some rebounded, some didn’t. Some succeeded in spite of their mistakes and some failed badly. All of that is to say Election guarantees nothing.
Election Defines Your Purpose In This Life
The exact time Abraham became a believer, we can’t say but whenever it was, it only took a split second. Once he believed, his eternal destiny was settled forever.
His elective purpose, however, wasn’t so quickly executed. It took a very long journey and a large part of his life to fulfill his calling.
Abrahams’ salvation put him in heaven when he died. His Election provided a legacy for the believers who followed in this life.
Salvation is a free gift based on a split second of faith and is settled forever. You can’t earn it and you can’t lose it.
Election is a calling that makes you responsible and accountable for work you’re called to do in this life and requires appropriate and continuing action to uphold. It has no bearing on where you go when you die.
The one thing that is true for both salvation and election is that neither can be earned. You can’t earn salvation, you can only believe.
You can’t deserve election (a calling) you can only acknowledge, accept, and qualify.
Where they differ is salvation is unconditional. Election is not.
Salvation pertains to my eternal life. Election pertains to my life in this world.
Salvation is what God does for me. Election allows me to do something for God.
Salvation is secure forever. It can never be lost.
God’s elective purposes must be qualified for and then sustained through right living and acting.
Salvation is the same for everyone. Whosoever hears my words and believes on Him that sent me has everlasting life. That applies to every person and the outcome for everyone who believes is the same – eternal salvation.
Election is not the same for anyone. One person is elected to do one thing and another person is elected to do a different thing. The calling in both cases is not secure. Noah was called to build an ark, no one else was. If he failed to build the ark, he would have been replaced by someone else – an obedient person.
If you read Romans 9-11 with this understanding, it changes everything.
Election Is Motivating
Because Election isn’t salvation and guarantees nothing, there’s pressure to perform. It’s motivating.
Being elected to serve is an honor that must be acted on. Failure is a possibility.
Peter, the disciple who made some of the biggest Apostolic mistakes, is the one to make this point. After mentioning several necessary qualities that every would-be servant needs to develop he makes the following charge:
Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. (2 Peter 1:10)
Wait a minute. Did he really say that? He’s telling us we must confirm our election? We must be diligent not to fall?
Salvation is secure. Just believe. Election, however, is for service and you must qualify for that.
Elective Purposes Are Exclusively Awarded
The most important point, a point that is clearly laid out in Romans, is that election, unlike salvation, occurs when there are more candidates than there are positions to fill.
Isaac was chosen to be Israel’s head of state, not Ishmael or any of his other brothers.
Jacob succeeded Isaac, not Esau.
Salvation is open to everyone but God only needed one person to do what Noah did. Two can’t have the same job.
The problem is, some callings are considered desirable and the more attractive a calling is, the more likely people are to compete for it. It isn’t uncommon for people to vie for a limited number of positions.
Jacob and Esau are examples. They both wanted to be the head of the family. Only one could be elected. Jacob got the job and Esau hated it so badly that he initially wanted to murder Jacob. They managed to achieve a certain degree of peace later but the two families were plagued by bitter hatred in future years.
Three Types Of Election
There are two types of Election involving people. One is individual and the other is institutional.
The first type, individual, focuses on people who are called to preach or to missions or to teaching or to some other area of service.
Many individuals in the Old Testament were called to be Prophets: Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and more.
Some were called to be Kings: Saul, David, and Solomon were the first three kings of Israel. They represent the full range from success to failure.
The second type of election, institutional, focuses on institutions or specific well-defined groups of people.
Abraham was called to be the father of a new nation as were Isaac and Jacob. All three had the same calling. All three made big mistakes.
Israel was called to be God’s special people and an example of God’s truth to the world. They have a long history of spiritual ups and downs.
The Levites were called to be the Priests of Israel.
Judah was called to be the Tribe from whom Jesus would eventually descend.
You get the picture.
The next post talks about the third application for the word Election. It isn’t personal. It affects individuals but is more about plans than people.