As our book club is going through Richard Mouw’s Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, I’m blogging some of my thoughts.
In this little Calvinism mini-series, I’ve talked about some of the things that make Calvinism hard for our modern ears, and I’ve begun articulating a broader view of these ideas, by first looking at the “T” (“Total Depravity) of the usual acronym of Calvinist beliefs: TULIP. Today we’ll look at the “U”: Unconditional Election.
Unconditional (Corporate, Vocational) Election
Traditionally, the “U” of TULIP stands for “Unconditional Election”, which simply means that when God chose us as his people, he made this choice on the basis of no condition outside of his own good pleasure. In short, God didn’t choose you because of anything you are or had done. This is true. And yet, it’s not the whole (or even the main) story.
In the Reformation’s move away from the Institutionalism of the medieval Catholic Church, and Scholasticism’s emphasis on the ability and intellect of the individual in society, much of the foundation of Calvinist doctrine was laid in very individualistic terms.
Think about it: each of the five ideas represented by the letters in TULIP are fundamentally about how individuals are reconnected and reconciled to God. I think this really distorts what the Gospel and Christianity (and Calvinism) are about.
Jesus, Elector & Elected
If we start with Jesus as the focal point of theology, our perspective changes. When it comes to election, we must remember that the first “election” the Godhead ever did was electing Jesus to be the representative human. (Here’s a surprisingly great Wikipedia article on all this.)
And what exactly was Jesus “elected” for? A role, a purpose, a function, a vocation. Starting from the first human election in Abraham, we see that when God chooses people, his primary purpose is not to bestow on them privileges, but to give them responsibilities.
In other words, Election isn’t about salvation, it’s about vocation. We are elected for something, not from Hell. Election is about mission here and now less than it is about salvation afterwards. We are elected to bring salvation to the world, to be the people through whom God brings his Kingdom.
Election is “in Christ” (Eph 1.4). This means our election is a corporate election, not an individual one. Christians are not a bunch of little “elect” individuals running around the world. They are those that have been joined to the “Elect One”, Jesus. We are elected as a people, and not as individual persons.
We can only call ourselves “Elect”, then, in so much that we are joined with and commune with the life of Jesus by his Spirit in the Community and Family of Faith.
The Church, Human & Divine
The Church is the Elect–the sphere in which salvation is found and experienced in the world. And individuals join that Family of the Elect, so that “Christian” becomes their spiritual family name, and mission becomes the purpose of their election. Twentieth-Century British theologian Lesslie Newbigin also offers some profound thoughts on this:
Israel’s [and therefore the Church’s] election means that it is called to be servant and witness of the Lord for all the nations, not to be ruler of the nations. To be the elect is a fearful responsibility. [We are] bearers – not exclusive beneficiaries. There lay the constant temptation. Again and again it has to be said that election is for responsibility, not for privilege.
Unconditional Election means that election does not happen outside of Jesus–not in our works, our doctrine, our church attendance, or beliefs. And this Election is a call not to a special privilege of salvation or status over and above others, but a call to mission and work to bring blessing and salvation to the rest of the world.
A Cosmic Calvinism
This offers a great corrective to Calvinism. Calvinism has always said that God chooses on the basis of nothing outside his good pleasure, but this view says that God chooses on the basis of himself in Christ as the God-Man. There is some aspect of human beauty, dignity, and worth that actually works into the intimate equation of election. My favorite theologian Karl Barth says this beautifully:
“For it is God’s free grace that in Him He elects to be man and to have dealings with man and to join Himself to man. He, Jesus Christ, is the free grace of God [thus] free grace is the only basis and meaning of all God’s ways and works… Jesus Christ is Himself the divine election of grace. For this reason He is God’s Word, God’s decree and God’s beginning. He is so all-inclusively, comprehending absolutely within Himself all things and everything, enclosing within Himself the autonomy of all other words, decrees and beginnings.”
The good news here that is so often lost in Calvinism: God doesn’t just love us, he also likes us! God has elected Himself to be fundamentally “for” humanity’s greatest good. In Christ the Incarnate God, the well-being of humans is now intimately tied together with God’s good pleasure and delight in Himself! And it didn’t have to be this way. God graciously joined Himself to us. Barth goes on:
That He is, in fact, such a God is grace, something which is not merited by man but can only be given to him. That God is gracious, that in assuming [human nature] He gives Himself to the man who has not merited it, is His election, His free decree. It is the divine election of grace. In a free act of determination God has ordained concerning Himself; He has determined Himself. Without any obligation, God has put Himself under an obligation to man, willing that that should be so… It is grace that it is so, and it is grace that God willed it to be so.