Election: Before We Called God Answered (SBD 6)

[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]

God elects us in Christ through faith and we know our election in Christ through faith.

As of Genesis 11 the human condition was filled with violence, power (Empire), and immorality. The seeming hopelessness of Genesis 11—though grace is present in scattering humanity rather than destroying it at the Tower of Babel—leaves us wondering whether humanity can ever escape the degenerative spiral of their own sinfulness.

But God’s intent is redemptive. The divine purpose in creation will not be frustrated. God pursues humanity in grace in order to dwell among a people who love and trust God. Grace initiates this pursuit, empowers faith and will complete the divine purpose. Before we called God answered (Isaiah 65:24). That is the doctrine of election.

The Call of Abraham

God called Abraham into a covenantal relationship. God blessed Abraham that all the nations might be blessed. Abraham did not initiate this relationship, but God chose Abraham as the means by which God would bless humanity. God decided to redeem humanity through the seed of Abraham.

There was nothing in Abraham that demanded that God choose him. God chooses whom God desires to accomplish the divine purpose. Divine election is by God’s own pleasure and will. God chooses whom God desires. No one makes a claim on God. “Who has ever given to God that God should repay him?” (Romans 11:35 quoting Job 41:11).

Abraham believed the promise of God (Genesis 15:6) and through faith received the promise (Galatians 3:6-9; Hebrews 11:8-19). God enacted the covenant of circumcision as the seal for Abraham’s faith guaranteeing the promise which he received through faith (Romans 4:9-12).

God kept his promise to Abraham when God chose Israel as a treasured possession. God redeemed them from Egyptian bondage. God did not love them because they were a numerous people, a great people or a righteous nation since they were few, stubborn and wicked. Rather, God chose them because God loved them (Deuteronomy 7:6-10; 9:4-6).

The covenant relationship, initiated by God’s love, is experienced in Israel through faith. The just shall live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4). Branches are broken off Israel because of unbelief but others stand by faith (Romans 11:20). Israel will be saved by faith as they pursue righteousness by faith (Romans 9:30-32; 10:4, 10-12).

God has determined to choose the elect through faith and it is through faith that the chosen know their election. God may have mercy on whom God desires and God has decided to have mercy on humanity through faith.

Jesus, the Elect One

In fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, God has redeemed a people through Abraham’s seed. Jesus the Christ is the Elect One. The Father elects or chooses us in and through Christ. Consequently, Christ is the foundation of all election.

The doxology of Ephesians 1 teaches that the Father elects us in Christ through the power of the Spirit. The Father was moved by love (1:4), grace (1:6, 7), and God’s own good pleasure and will (1:5, 9). Divine action is highlighted: God blessed (1:3), chose (1:4, 11), predestined (1:5, 11), lavished grace (1:8), revealed (1:9), purposed (1:9), included (1:13) and marked (1:13) us. Divine purpose is stressed: to sanctify (1:4), to adopt (1:5), to redeem (1:7), to reorder (1:10), and to purpose toward the goal (1:11).

The Father’s movement, however, was Christocentric. The Father elects in and through Christ (1:3-5, 7, 9, 11-13) and toward the goal of reordering everything under the headship of Christ (1:10).

We are the object of this election. The Father elects those who are in Christ. Just as Christ is the first object of election, so those in Christ are the second object of election. We are elect through Christ’s own election and we are included when we hear and believe the gospel (1:13-14). The divinely appointed means of election is faith since by grace we are saved through faith (Ephesians 2:8).

God has determined to elect us in Christ Jesus and we know our election in Christ through faith.

Election: Arminianism vs. Calvinism?

Despite whatever differences exist between Arminianism and Calvinism—two historic ways of thinking about divine election (see the Serial Index for posts on these theological systems), they share some significant common ground on the doctrine of election.

Divine Initiative. Whatever the doctrine of election means, it at least insists that God took the initiative in the redemption. God made the first move. We love because God first loved. We believe because God first acted. This initiative involves not merely the first act (as if God acted first and then passively sits back to see how we respond) but that God continuously acts in unrelentingly pursuit of a people. God’s love pursues us, engages us and moves us. This excludes all boasting since election means that God has removed all grounds for human merit and has located the ground of salvation in his gracious and loving acts.

Christocentrism. Christ is the Elect One (Ephesians 1). Both Calvin and Arminius emphasized this point, and it has been powerfully renewed in the 20th century by Karl Barth. Election is Christocentric since Christ is God’s Elect One. We are elect because we are in Christ. Whatever else we may say about election, we should not lose sight of this foundational soteriological insight: God has chosen us in Christ because Christ has been chosen. We are only elect through Christ. His election is logically, ontologically and epistemologically prior to our own.

Economic Revelation. We only know that God has acted decisively in Jesus as the Elect One because God is revealed in history and God’s actions are interpreted in Scripture. We only know our election in Christ because God has revealed the Elect One (2 Timothy 1:8-11). Debates about the “secret” will of God are unprofitable exactly because that will is “secret.” We know our election through the revelation of God in Christ. God has revealed the divine election through Christ and we have no other access to it. Consequently, we ought to think about election within the salvation history (economy) of God’s story, that is, within the revealed history of God in Israel and Christ. Thinking about the election of God in terms of the “eternal” mind of God is speculative, but thinking about divine election in the light of Jesus Christ is rooted in God’s historical revelation. We perceive our own election only through the revelation of that election in Christ. When we step outside of or seek to go beyond this historic revelation, we enter worlds, which our minds have created rather than what God has revealed. Election and assurance are economically tied to Christ.

Means of Faith. Faith is the means of both justification and sanctification. When we make justification dependent upon sanctification, then we begin a never-ending journey since we will never be sure whether our sanctification is sufficient (in terms of its depth, amount, comprehensiveness and quality). When we sever the relationship between justification and sanctification, we become antinomian and discredit the role of sanctification as evidence of justification. The way to avoid legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other is to see faith as the principle that unites justification and sanctification. We are justified by faith and we are sanctified by faith. Faith is the means by which we are accounted righteous before God and faith is the means by which the Spirit transforms us. Faith is both the means of salvation and the means of assurance. We are elect, then, through faith in Christ. Faith functions as an instrument, not as a meritorious act. It is the means by which we come to know our own election.

So What?

Priority of God’s Act. God acted before we acted. Salvation, then, originates wholly out of grace and God’s movement toward us. The fundamental presupposition of election is God’s initiative. Confidence is rooted in this claim. It is not that we must win God’s favor or prove ourselves to him. Rather, God lovingly embraces us and seeks us. The picture of God is not the ogre or the tyrant, but the loving father.

Undeserved Salvation
. Election emphasizes that nothing in us moved God to act for our sakes in Christ. Rather, God acted when we were unworthy. God loved us even when we were yet sinners. No human act merits or deserves God’s electing grace. Boasting is excluded on all counts. It was God who decided to save and not we who put God in our debt through our virtue or holiness.

Focus on Christology. Karl Barth is correct to focus the doctrine of election in Jesus Christ. He is the Elect One, and it is through him that we find hope and assurance. The doctrine of election, then, should not be about some eternal order of decrees or speculation concerning the hidden will of God. Rather it is the exposition of God’s choice of Jesus to save the world and God’s movement toward us in him. Election is a Christological teaching.

Election and Assurance. While some Augustinians (Calvinists) in the history of theology have focused the question in terms of “Am I elect?,” most have recognized that this is not the proper question. No one can see into the hidden will of God to discover in the abstract whether they are elect of not. Calvin believed that whoever tries this “Am I elect?” question “plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness…Therefore, as we dread shipwreck, we must avoid this rock, which is fatal to everyone who strikes upon it” (Institutes 3.24.4). Assurance of election is rooted Christologically—I am elect when I trust in Christ as the Elect One. Election “from below” is mediated through faith in Christ. Here Augustinians and Arminians can agree. “If Pighius asks how I know I am elect, I answer that Christ is more than a thousand testimonies to me” (Institutes 3.24.4). It is only in Christ that we are elect and pleasing to God. He is the author of election and mediates election—the critical question is “do we trust Christ?” According to Calvin, Christ is the mirror of our election such that when we look in faith toward Jesus we see the reflection of our election in him.

18 Responses to “Election: Before We Called God Answered (SBD 6)”

  1.   Jr Says:

    This is well put; a very comprehensive presentation. Though Calvinists and Arminians have a differing view on what the secret will of God is; we can relate in the Christ-contentedness of it all.

    Two questions:

    1) You wrote: “When we make justification dependent upon sanctification, then we begin a never-ending journey since we will never be sure whether our sanctification is sufficient”
    How does one take this view when assessing the New Perspective on Paul (i.e. NT Wright). From my understanding after reading some Wright material on this, the NPP takes a justification-by-works approach in regards to final judgment.

    2) You wrote: “No human act merits or deserves God’s electing grace. Boasting is excluded on all counts.”
    Here is where I think we get an argument from the question: “Does belief and faith count as a work?” I think the reformed view says that belief and faith are both gifts of grace while the Arminian angle would not consider belief and faith as gifts and say they are not “works;” though I find it hard not to separate inclination and belief – inclination being a work.

    Grace to you –

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:


      I think there is a way of thinking about the “New Perspective” that is consistent with Reformation emphases. I won’t take the time to do that here, but perhaps down the road. I suspect that N. T. Wright’s new book on Justification (due out next month) might be helpful along that line. Perhaps in another post or two I will take up that topic.

      At bottom, it seems to me that sanctification (works) is an evidence and a means of enjoying faith (and thus justification) so that without works (sanctification) there is neither joy nor assurance since faith will inevitably give evidence of itself.

      I do not think faith counts as a work. I believe it is a gift of God, but not in the same precise sense that Calvinists do. I do not think the gift is irresistible. God acts in such a way that he permits humans to resist his Spirit.

      But I know that would be a major disagreement between us. Consequently, I would rather concentrate on faith as a means of election rather than disputing human assessment of how God gives the gift of faith. I am certain that we both think we have “Scripture” to support our ideas, but there is a unity that transcends that disagreement–I believe.

      Blessings, John Mark

  2.   Jr Says:

    Sorry, I meant to say “I find it hard to separate inclination and belief – inclination being a work.” in my last sentence.

  3.   randall Says:

    Oh thank you, oh thank you, oh thank you. What a great, great post!!! May it be widely read and well considered, especially by our sisters and brothers raised in the CofC.

    Faith is a gift, not a meritorious act. You did use the word “instrument” rather than gift – is there significance to the choice of words from the Calvinist Arminian perspective? I do believe it is an instrument, but also a gift. And my take on Eph. 2:8-10 is that the by grace through faith salvation package is the gift, and not just the grace or the faith.

    You mentioned:
    “We perceive our own election only through the revelation of that election in Christ. When we step outside of or seek to go beyond this historic revelation, we enter worlds, which our minds have created rather than what God has revealed.”
    This is true enough, but I doubt that speculating about the mind of God and the logical sequence of things is the worst thing I could do. I am awestruck in recognizing that the harder I try to understand the mind of God the more I realize his mind is too far above mine. I will happily grant that speculating may not be edifying to all and downright confusing to some.

    In the Declaration and Address (proposition 6) T. Campbell (TC) wrote:
    “That although inferences and deductions from Scripture premises, when fairly inferred, may be truly called the doctrine of God’s holy word, yet are they not formally binding upon the consciences of Christians farther than they perceive the connection, and evidently see that they are so; …”
    I can easily imagine TC having in mind such documents as the Westminster Confession of Faith when he penned those words.

    I don’t agree with everything Calvin wrote in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, but this principle might be applied even to lengthy works such as a systematic theology.

    Thanks again for this series. There is so much here that blesses us, and any differences we have are not so great in consequence.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Thanks, Randall, for your enthusiasm. 🙂

      You are correct. I did not use the word “gift” because of its polemical overtones. I wanted to concentrate on what united the two systems rather than on where they differed. As I said to Jr above, I do believe faith is a gift but in a different sense that Calvinists usually do (though I don’t think Ephesians 2:8-9 support the case for faith as a gift–but that is another story).

      With you, I don’t think it is necessarily harmful to think inferentially. We all do that alot. It becomes a problem when we use our inferences to divide believers and demand that other believers agree with our inferences. So, my problem with the speculation is its potential divisiveness, but I don’t think inferential thinking should be excluded from theological reflection. That would exclude much too much. 🙂

      Blessings, John Mark

      •   Randall Says:

        Please excuse my excessive enthusiasm. My experience in the CofC with systematic theology has been that it is ridiculed. This has been true in both more traditional churches and more progressive congregations. So I am thrilled to see you put some theological ideas out there in a forum where they will be read by CofC folks. I have even heard people express their thoughts that doctrine is a bad word b/c of the way we have abused doctrine. So you can see that at times we use the same words but to one it is a good word and to another it is a bad one.

        I am trying to understand the difference in our thinking regarding trhe Calvin – Arminius distinction. It seems to me that we both believe God works continuously in the lives of people and that some eventually respond in faith and others do not. Apparently you believe that this work of God can ultimately be resisted and I believe he will not be frustrated by any woman or man in his effort. I suppose we may understand the concept of regeneration a little differently.

        Like you I acknowledge God may have mercy on whom he desires, but I also believe he may harden whom he desires. It is my hunch that you might not agree with me on that regard.
        Thanks again fro your efforts in this series. I do not doubt that many will be blessed by it.

  4.   Royce Says:

    Brilliant! This is the most fair treatment of a difficult topic I have seen in a long time. I especially appreciate your statement, “Faith is the means of both justification and sanctification. When we make justification dependent upon sanctification, then we begin a never-ending journey since we will never be sure whether our sanctification is sufficient (in terms of its depth, amount, comprehensiveness and quality)”. It is my view that most of our dear people are on that journey of frustration and defeat. Thanks for a wonderful post.

    Jr. N.T. Wright is flat wrong. God declares sinners right “righteous” wholly upon the worth and work of Jesus and not upon our doing or knowing.


    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I agree that many are frustrated because they are trying so hard to keep themselves saved by meeting the minimum standards of sanctificaiton (as they conceive them) or else they are so self-righteous that they think that they have kept themselves pure enough and right enough to “make it to heaven.” It is a sad state for many people, and the real tragedy is talking with the frustrated in the last stages of their life or on their death bed. It has been my privilege to talk about grace to the dying. Their peace is my joy.

      Blessings, John Mark

    •   Jr Says:

      Royce: I agree with you on Wright and I think Piper’s response to him was good enough. What worries me about the great moralist Wright at this time is who he has recommending his newest book on Justification: the likes of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren; who aren’t exactly the first people we would think of as voices of reason or intellect on the topic of justification.

      Plug your nose and read these blurbs:

      R.Scott Clark also has some good info from both sides on the discussion of reformed theology and the NPP.

  5.   Howard Holmes Says:

    The works discussion boils down to this: One must first decide if he views God as saving everyone or if the world will be divided into the saved and the unsaved. If the latter, one must take a position on how it is so divided. It is so divided either at the whim of God and totally at his pleasure, or it is divided based on something done, said, believed, intented, thought, worked….by man. If it is divided based on the latter then man must do, say, believe, intend, think or work to be saved. If we admit this, our only way to trick our minds into believing it is not based on works is to claim that the works are not enough to merit the salvation. This is solely a mind trick since it is not possible for ANY work to MERIT salvation. An infinity of hedonism cannot be earned in a 100 years no matter how much you do.

    There might be some out there, but I have never met a Christian who did not believe that 1) only a few will be saved 2)he is on that short list and 3) one must do, say, believe, intend, work to get there.

  6.   karen Says:

    Mr. Hicks, I have contemplated the first line of text in your original “election” posting. Because the first line of text forces the reader into an emotional rather than thinking state, the paragraphs following denigrate the information. I will comment on those in separate posts. The posts are wordy; leaving the reader behind in the dust of arrogant spouting. get to the point. most religious piety tend to enjoy themselves rather than their flock.

    The divine community enjoys communion with the created community as God rejoices over and rests within the creation that reveals the glory God.
    divine (mental manifestation) and created (physical attribute) dichotomously exist and therefore agitate rather than “enjoy” each other based upon the differentiation of personal perspective of divine. The fallible description of god “rejoicing over” and “resting within” anchors the incapable ability of humans to view any situation or thing from any perspective other than human. The statement only validates the human fallibility of justifying lack of knowledge through magic, fantasy, fallacy, farce, or omnipotence. You are human; and therefore, only utilize human perspective to determine that god must “value” rejoicing and require rest just as humans do. The very labeling “god” negates god’s existence as well as his/her/its abilty to be all powerful as “all” is an absolute and therefore eradicates the very existence as well as humanistic need to “have” and “abuse” power.

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Karen, I think you mean my post on creation which is where you can find the statement you quote. I appreciate your giving some time to think about it. I personally don’t see it as emotive vs. rational, but as both.

    It seems you think that we cannot speak of God at all. There is certainly an intellecutal position that advocates such. It is little wonder that reading my posts are disturbing for you. We do come from two very different angles and frames of reference.

    My point is that God does enjoy the creation and rests within it–not because God requires rest but that resting is a metaphor for being-in-relation. That all my descriptions of God are fallible and feeble I freely admit and my dialogue in these posts is intentionally with those who share a common perspective with me, that is, seeking to live in the narrative of Christian identity with grace and peace toward all.

    Peace to you, Karen.

    John Mark

  8.   karen Says:

    mr. hicks, in my experience the human “need” to justify rational thought/action with emotion just proves the insurmountable nature of irrationality with which humans exist. the impossible combination only divides and minimalizes; reducing the original idea to its nonexistent form. your recognition of fallibility heightens the patronizing nature to position me into a circle outside of your “common perspective.” this judgment solidifies the exclusivity with which you view god and the fear with which you approach faith- an approach only a human can take. for neither you nor i have faith. you prove as such with your “seeking to live in the narrative of christian identity.” a person with faith actions so. a person without, seeks.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Karen, I did not intend to patronize. I apologize. I only wanted to admit fallibility which, I assume, you would as well. This gives us some common ground rather than approaching the topic with exclusivity.

      Emotive and rational, in my experience and perspective, are not mutually exclusive but actually engage the whole human psyche. It does not, it seems to me, minimize and divide but enhances as the whole human person is involved in the discussion. The two mutually support each other and open us up to richer experiences as human beings.

      I’m not sure what you mean in claiming that neither of us have faith. Perhaps this arises out of a conviction that there is no such thing as faith since it is only fanciful emotivism–which, I understand, is a position some take in intellecutal discussions of faith. I don’t share that perspective. Faith, in my experience, is both rational and emotive.

      Peace to you, Karen.

      •   karen Says:

        mr. hicks, in meaning “neither of us have faith” i propose that faith means belief. if i believe, i need do NO thing. if i don’t believe, i MUST do SOME thing. but i don’t know what that is because i’m a human and god is….? i’m doing something because i don’t believe, just like you. again, humans are only capable of human-ness. anything we come up with is only human and can’t even get to the outskirts of answering what, who, where, when, why, and how about god. pretending or attempting is only arrogance in action. by espousing that you have faith and i don’t only tells me that your fallibility came to life the second you opened your mouth. welcome to humanity.

        i upkeep, maintain, and fear because i believe i am not upkeeping, maintaining, or submitting out of fear – enough. for example, all of us continue to age. we lose our elasticity (in skin and mind), memory (of past and future), and senses. as a result of fearing death, we ATTEMPT to upkeep and maintain our skin, mind, memory, and senses because we don’t believe that god will take care of us. we upkeep by: eating “right”, maintain by exercising, praying, working, careering, procreating, and keep the fear alive by staving off the inertia that preceeds the inevitable thought “if i don’t do it, NO ONE will.” i have to feed, shower, sleep, poop, and pee my body because i believe no one else will. just like you. you do not believe you are ever going to be saved so you continue to pray in the hopes of getting something unattainable. but if you believed you were saved, loved, and cared for by god you would do nothing. more often than not, we satiate this fear by gaining acceptance from others in the form of adulation (through pastorship), worship (from a pulpit or from being right), or agreement of a forced idea (submission out of fear because the other doesn’t know any better). in any of these cases, we recognize the inabilitiy to truly believe, so we look to others to gain the confidence we think we can use as fuel to GET faith. but you can’t get faith from others and that includes god.

        on the other hand, perhaps the complicatedness with which humans have created life on this planet deems the need for a magical being to “save” us from ourselves.

        if that were the case, then if god is all powerful, omnipotent, and loving, why in the world would he NEED our adulation on top of that? goodness, talk about greedy. secondly, why is he stalking me all the time? haven’t all his desires been satiated? third, why is god a “he”? when did gender become a stipulation in faith?

        if people had faith they would stop doing and start believing. because they won’t, they don’t.

        thanks for keeping up this dialogue. truly enjoyable.

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        Karen, while I am uncertain what you mean by your distinction between that faith means I do nothing but not believing means I must do something, I don’t think you understand what faith is in my perspective.

        For example, I never said that God needs adulation or that God is male. I would not characterize God’s desire for us as stalking–though I can understand why someone might use that language. His desire for us is to experience the freedom of experiencing him just as a one lover yearns for another.

        I understand that you believe is a psychological projection of infantile human needs, but I respectfully disagree. It may very well be that the human need we feel is a deep hole in the mystery of the human psyche that only God can fill with his love and acceptance. But I’m sure we will disagree about that.

        Peace to you, Karen.

        Further Note: Karen pointed out to me in an email that in the above post I used the pronoun “he” to refer to God. This was an oversight. Bad habits are hard to break. I have attempted to intentionally exclude the use of masculine-specific pronouns in reference to God in this series but failed to catch a few in this piece. I have since corrected that–though I may have missed some. So, Karen’s point is understandable and I appreciate her alerting me to my unintended inconsistency of practice. Thanks, Karen.

  9.   rich constant Says:

    if you come to believe the word of reconciliation
    you here about how god planed Christ before the foundation for the redemption of god”s good… Satan messed with gods good work he and his buddies were going to get it by gods fair judgement OF LOVE his intrinsic character (it just not about us) as eph says about the warfare…as the holy spirit explains about weakness being … Paul,s prayer and and answered grace being sufficient

    when you come to believe in god you find love of god
    ROM 5.18 one righteous act of faith..that overcame Stan death and the power of sin the law…
    this loving act is accomplishing gods will knowing full well the consequences of that act… separation from his eternal loving partners for us the faithful elect, god “s good work
    was god faithful to his intent and words you bet , Satan has a crushed head for that righteous act of love…
    faith and work ….. kinda a carnal way of looking at what the the trinity is trying to teach….

    faith just might be reciprocating the love and doing that by becoming like or growing into as a newborn babe …. the son of his father”s love integrating the intrinsic character of the son…through reciprocating the love to the measure of grace realized by each of us…. the thoughts and the intent of our harts exercise in realiship with god

    not a lot of time
    god contenue to bless us all
    rich constant

  10.   rich constant Says:

    thought, and intent
    god purposed
    and brought about creation
    did he count the cost
    does it fall at that tower
    think about that




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