Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Eternal Election

Martin Luther
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience - among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2: 1-7).
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen (Romans 1:18-25)
No, I am not writing about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Thanks be to God, that election is not eternal, and Americans will decide on November 6 who will be the President of the United States for the next four years. This idea of Eternal Election is an important Biblical doctrine that should comfort Christians during difficult times and trials. Our salvation in Christ is so sure and certain that our relationship with God was known by Him before the foundation of the world (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht 2005). Unfortunately, trying to make sense of Eternal Election can sometimes be as frustrating and confusing as the Presidential election. I would like to examine Eternal Election, particularly in light of the two passages of Scripture presented above, as this has recently become the topic of conversation between me and one of my dearest friends.
John Calvin
Although there was no controversey among early Lutherans regarding what is commonly referred to as "God's Eternal Foreknowledge and Election", the doctrine was addressed in the Book of Concord in response to the ideas formulated and advanced by John Calvin and his followers. Calvin developed a doctrine known as double predestination. Briefly stated, this doctrine teaches four main points: 1) Christ died, not for all people, but only for the elect; 2) God created most people for eternal condemnation and is unwilling that they be converted and saved; 3) The elect and regenerate cannot lose faith and the Holy Spirit and be condemned, even though they commit great sins and crimes of every kind; 4) Those who are not elect must be condemned, and cannot attain salvation, even though they are baptized a thousand times, daily go to the Lord's Supper, and also live as holy and blameless as ever possible (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005).
This question of eternal election and predestination is one of the most difficult for us to resolve. And, by that I mean it is a question we will be unable to resolve. Simply put, the Bible teaches that 1) God desires all people to be saved and, 2) salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ, which is entirely and completely a gift from God, independent of any work we could ever do. In fact, because of concupiscence, our natural inclination since the Fall is to turn away from God, as you know. Not only does salvation come to us as God’s gift, it MUST be God’s work if it is to happen, because we are inclined toward sin and away from God. To the rational human mind these things are irreconcilable. If we work these things out by pure human reasoning, we must necessarily come to the place where Calvin went, and say that God chooses some to be saved, and some others to be condemned. That isn’t a place where I wish to go, as Scripture expressly says otherwise. The conclusion to which I have come after years of wrestling with this idea, is that we should merely state what God teaches in his word regarding these things, and leave it at that. So, let’s have at it…
God resolved before the foundation of the world that those whom he would save, he would save by his grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.[1] Faith is a gift of God[2], kindled in the hearts of men by the working of the Holy Spirit[3], through his means, which is God’s word.[4]
This includes all people of all times – New Testament believers in Christ who heard the Gospel and believed, and also Old Testament saints, such as Abraham, as well. The Old Testament faithful, who believed that God would send a redeemer, had faith in God’s promise just as New Testament believers, but from a different perspective.[5] Old Testament saints trusted God’s promise to send a Messiah, whose name they did not know, after hearing God’s word. They were looking forward to the fulfillment of the promise. New Testament saints had/have faith in God’s promised Messiah, whose name they know to be Jesus of Nazareth. They are looking back toward that same fulfillment.[6]
God wants all people to be saved.[7] Many people, however, reject the word and thereby resist they Holy Spirit who attempts to work in them.[8] God will harden those who persist in their resistance of the Holy Spirit’s work through the word.
Just as an ungrateful birthday boy may turn up his nose at a gift he does not appreciate or understand, man is able to reject God's gift of a Savior. The natural state of mankind since the fall is to turn away from God.[9] The Pharisees, who loved their position in life and praise from men more than God, rejected the gift. They hardened their hearts to God's Holy Spirit, as St. Stephen tells them. They, along with all those who do the same, will receive their wages for their labor. [10] The Holy Spirit, however, continues to work in men as long as the word is present with them. St. Peter calls us believers a chosen people[11]. This, I believe, means that we who have heard the Gospel and believe it are elect. That may sound like a simple cop-out, but it is what the Bible says. The Holy Spirit calls us all through the Gospel, which St. Paul says is the power of salvation to everyone who believes[12]. St. Paul writes in Ephesians chapter one:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will – to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves (Eph. 1:3-6).
The key words there are “in Him” and “through Jesus Christ”. The elect are elect, not because God picked his favorites and wrote them down on a “saved” list, and decided to damn all the rest. He chose his elect “in Him” – those who believe/did believe/would believe in Christ would constitute the elect.
This is how God worked in Pharaoh through Moses.[13] The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration uses this example:
“God did harden Pharaoh’s heart. In other words, Pharaoh always sinned again and again and became more hardened the more he was warned. That was a punishment of his earlier sin and horrible tyranny that in many and various ways he acted inhumanly toward the children of Israel against his heart’s accusations. God caused his Word to be preached and His will to be proclaimed to Pharaoh. Nevertheless, Pharaoh willfully stood up immediately against all rebukes and warnings. Therefore, God withdrew His hand from him, Pharaoh’s heart became hardened and stubborn, and God executed His judgment on him” (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005).[14]

God, standing outside of linear time, knows all things before they happen (foreknowledge).[15] Therefore, he has known since before the beginning of time who would, after being called by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, believe in Christ.[16]
That is not to say that God only called certain individuals because of his foreknowledge.[17] He, being God, and therefore not being bound by time and space as we humans are, simply knows all things before they happen.
In this way, believers in Christ, the promised Messiah are – and have always been – elect from all eternity.[18] This is true in both the broad and narrow sense. Broad, because God elected that all believers would be saved in Christ Jesus from eternity; Narrow, in that God, as a result of his foreknowledge, knows each individual who has been or will be a believer in Christ. Therefore, each individual believer has also been elect from eternity. The key is that the Elect are elect in Christ. That is, the reason the elect are the Elect is because they are elect in Christ.
From the human perspective, people can come to faith, and they can fall from grace. From God’s perspective outside of time, since he had determined the method by which he would redeem mankind, and since he knows the outcome of all things, to God all things have been determined since before the beginning of time.
As for what St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians “Dead” does most certainly, I believe, mean dead, but in terms of our spiritual state before we are “given the paddles”, so to speak, and are shocked to life by the Almighty Paramedic. Luther used the analogy of a corpse. A corpse can do nothing to resurrect itself and come back to life, and we, likewise, have zero power to effect in ourselves a spiritual resurrection (Luther, 1991). The Lutheran Confessions, in the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration explain this Scriptural teaching by saying, “The Scriptures teach that a sinful person is not only weak and sick, but also finished and entirely dead” (FC SD II 10). To summarize it all, we are truly dead in our transgressions, which is to say that we stand outside of God’s forgiveness and salvation because of sin, and there’s nothing we can do to change that situation, just like that corpse is powerless to change – or even be aware of – its situation (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). That is why St. Paul also writes:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching (Romans 10:14)?
Paul’s questions are designed to teach that by God’s design, faith is created only through the Word proclaimed (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). The process used by the Holy Spirit to effect that change is not explained, and is, frankly, none of our business.
The fact that we are, spiritually speaking, a smelly rotting corpse, describes the unregenerate state we are in before God converts us. This is the very thing St. Paul is describing in Romans chapter 1. Because of this, our spiritual state, we act as St. Paul describes. In our unregenerate state, left to our own devices, we are unrighteous and therefore turn away from and suppress the truth. Always. We can’t help it. The remedy to this is faith, which comes through hearing, and hearing comes through the word of Christ[19]. The forgiveness of sins is secured for us by Christ’s work on the cross, but it cannot come to us any other way than through the Word[20]. I don’t know how the Holy Spirit uses this tool of the Word to create faith in people who believe, I just know that that’s the tool he uses. The Lutheran reformers liked to point out that the Holy Spirit works, “when and where he will.” That is why it is important for all people to hear the Gospel – the Word.
Go back to the analogy of the birthday boy and his present for a moment. His natural inclination is to not accept the present. If the Giver just set the present in front of him, he would cross his arms and turn away from it all day long. This in spite of the fact that he sees the birthday cake and decorations and, therefore, knows it is his birthday, and that he should bow to social convention and accept the gift. The Giver, therefore, must order him to take the present and open it. “You take that present right this instant,” the Giver might say. “Now, open it. Open it and use it; it’s for your own good.” So, the little punk takes the gift and opens it, but it certainly isn’t of his own free will that he does so. He did not cooperate in receiving the gift. If he did a “verb” at all, the one we would have to conjugate would be “to submit”. And, after opening the gift, his whole attitude is changed. That might seem like a cooperation of sorts, or a good work, but I don’t think that it is.
And, if we want to carry the scenario even farther, let’s say he opens the gift, takes one look at it and heaves it on the floor. This would be analogous, I think, to those described in Romans 1 who, having seen what God has shown them, rejected His gift anyway. That would certainly be in keeping with the birthday boy’s nature. The Giver will offer the gift again and again through repeated exhortations to accept it but, at a certain point – we don’t know when – he will give the birthday boy over to his nature if he continues to be a jerk and will take the gift away. This is pure conjecture, though, and perhaps this whole exercise is a cheap word game. I haven’t decided for certain yet. The analogy is obviously flawed, but I think it goes a long way to make my point. Unfortunately, in this sinful, fallen world, we are forced to use verbs – action words! – to describe this process throughout which we are passive, if we intend to discuss it in human language.
These are wonderfully mind-bending things to think about and discuss. I would be remiss, however, if I did not point out that the whole of our entire discussion, after all is said and done, must be focused through the lens of (at least) three passages of Scripture:
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?...Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!...Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it (Romans 9:20-21; 11:33; Luke 18:17).
The God whose Christ died only for the elect and not for all people is not the God who has made himself known to us in Holy Scripture. Neither is the God who created most people for eternal condemnation, and is unwilling that those people be converted and saved as Calvinism teaches. Calvin, in order to get to the place where the above statement is truth, had to ignore Scripture and rely on his own rational mind for guidance in working these things out to their logical conclusions. If we do that, we will embark upon a pathway that leads to another destination at which I have no desire to arrive. In the end, we must necessarily wind up back where we began – God’s Word. This is not a thing we are going to understand while still on this earth. We must agree with Luther (of course!) when he says, “Even as I now believe in Christ my Savior, I also know that I have been chosen to eternal life out of pure grace in Christ without any merit of my own and that no one can pluck me out of His hand (Luther, 1991).” There again, as before, the key phrase is “in Christ”. It is always “in Christ” that we find our answer.
Works Cited
Engelbrecht, E. A., Deterding, P. E., Ehlke, R. C., Joersz, J. C., Love, M. W., Mueller, S. P., et al. (Eds.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.
Luther, M. (1991). Kleine Katechismus, English. (C. P. House, Trans.) Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.
McCain, P. T., Baker, R. C., Veith, G. E., & Engelbrecht, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. (W. H. Dau, & G. F. Bente, Trans.) St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Matthew 13:34-35; Ephesians 1: 4-6
[2] Ephesians 2: 8-9
[3] 1 Corinthians 6:11; 12:3
[4] Romans 1:16; 10:17; 2 Thessalonians 2:14
[5] 1 Peter 1: 10-12
[6] Hebrews 11
[7] Ezekiel 33:11; Matthew 11:28 Luke 24:47; John 1:29; 3:16; 6:40; 6:51; Romans 10:12; 11:32; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9 1 John 2:2;
[8] Matthew 22: 1-10; 23:37; Luke 14: 16-24; Acts 7:51
[9] Psalm 51:5; Romans 3: 9-18
[10] Romans 6:23
[11] 1 Peter 2:9
[12] Romans 1:16; 2 Thess. 2:14
[13] Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 7: 13-14; 7:22; 8:15; 8:19; 8:32; 9:7; 9:12; 9: 34-35; 10:1; 10:20; 10:27; 11:10; 14:4; 14:8; 14:17
[14] Paul T. McCain, Robert C. Baker, gene E. Veith, Edward A. Engelbrecht eds., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House), 2005.
[15] Psalm 139:16; Isaiah 37:28; Matthew 10:29
[16] Romans 3:22
[17] i.e., that God knew that certain people would not resist the Holy Spirit, so he called them, and left the other people without hope of redemption.
[18] 2 Timothy 2:10
[19] Romans 10:17
[20] LC V 3