Sunday, March 24, 2024

Thoughts on the Doctrine of Election

As a Confessional Lutheran living in what some in the Lutheran blogosphere have called the "desert of American Evangelicalism," one gets accustomed to being ignored. No one quite knows what to do with Confessional Lutherans. Consequently, we usually get left out of the debates, and our doctrine is not well-known. We look like Roman Catholics, most of the time. We talk about baptism a LOT, and how salvation comes only by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Most American Evangelicals don't know what to do with us, if we're even on their radar at all.

Mostly, we are not.

This is evident when the discussion turns to something like the doctrine of Election. You've got your Calvinists, and you've got your Arminians; your predestination people and your free will guys. Either God has predestined everybody for where they're going or we all have to make a decision for Jesus and pray the sinners prayer.

Then there are the Lutherans. We don't fit into either of those categories.

We acknowledge that man has free will, but only in matters that do not pertain to salvation. Where conversion is concerned, we acknowledge that scripture teaches we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1ff.).

We also understand that God has predestined the elect to salvation in Christ before the foundation of the world. However, - and here's where we lose the Calvinists - we acknowledge that scripture teaches that a believer can fall away.

Calvin wrote that salvation is not preached to all people equally. The reason why, he says, is a mystery. Calvin defines predestination as the doctrine that some people are chosen by God to be saved, and others are chosen by God to be damned. This is quite different from how the doctrine of election is understood from Holy Scripture by the Lutheran reformers. Calvin admits that this teaching might sound scary and confusing at first, but it is, in fact, "useful and pleasant." (Calvin, 1526) Calvin writes that the doctrine of election shows man that salvation is truly monergistic. To him, the fact that God gives salvation to some and withholds it from others, Calvin says, simultaneously glorifies God and humbles man. (Calvin, 1526)

Calvin and the Lutheran Confessions both agree that the doctrine of election is, in Calvin's words, "useful and pleasant"; that it is intended to be a comfort, and to showcase the glory of God. But Christianity does not teach fatalism. Fatalism is the idea that nothing you do makes any difference because everything is pre-ordained. Christian faith is knowing God works all things, even the ones we think are bad, for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose in Christ. And here we come to the first and greatest difference between a Reformed and a Confessional Lutheran understanding of election: it can only be understood in Christ.

Calvin says that God reveals His will to men, and that we must not seek that which God has kept hidden. Calvin says that we find the revealed will of God in God's word. This is true, and the Lutheran Confessions agree. Calvin, however, seems to go beyond what Scripture says when he teaches that God has created some men specifically for damnation.

To Calvin, God is the cause of salvation to those who are saved; God is also the cause of damnation to those who are damned. This is what Calvin means when he writes that all are not "created on equal terms." (Calvin, 1536) In other words, Calvin teaches that God created some people specifically to be saved, and other specifically to be damned. Those so created have no chance either to fall if they are the elect, or to be saved if they are the reprobate.

Calvin cites Deuteronomy 32:8-9 to show that God does not reveal the reason He saves certain people and damns others. As God declared to the Israelites through Moses, Calvin says, God chose the Israelites because He wanted to; it was not because of anything God saw in them, or that they merited God's favor. Calvin says that here God keeps the reason the elect are chosen a secret, but this isn't entirely true. God does indeed reveal how and why the elect are saved: they are saved by God's grace through faith in Christ alone.

Moreover, scripture also declares that the lost are damned because of their lack of faith, not because God predestined them to be lost and condemned.

When discussing eternal election, the Lutheran reformers make a distinction between God's eternal election and God's eternal foreknowledge. God's foreknowledge means simply that God sees and knows all things before they happen. Foreknowledge applies to all creatures. Election does not apply to all creatures. Election only applies to those people who are in Christ. (McCain, 2005)

God's eternal election simply means those whom God has predestined to salvation in Christ from before the foundation of the world. Election, therefore, does not include the wicked. On the contrary, it only includes the godly, i.e. those people who have faith in Christ. Those who are predestined to salvation are those who are in Christ.

Here we enter the territory of another fundamental difference between Reformed and Confessional Lutheran theology: paradox. Confessional Lutheran theologians do not feel the need to resolve paradox when it is found it Holy Scripture. Reformed theologians make the rational argument that if God chose one group of men to be saved, then that means he chose the remaining group of men to be damned by default. That is not, however, what the Bible says. In short, Scripture teaches the following paradox: 1) God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth; 2) God is completely responsible for working repentance and faith in men by the means of His word; 3) Some men reject God's gracious gift and are not saved; 4) Those men who are lost are responsible for their own damnation, not God.

Part of the problem is that Calvin does not seem to recognize that the lost are lost because of their own sin; because of their own failure to believe in Christ, and not because God decreed them to be reprobate. Consider the fact that Non-Israelites could become a part of the nation of Israel. People like Rahab the prostitute were accepted as part of God's chosen people, not because of their bloodline, but because of their faith. Again, consider Saul. He was the annointed king of Israel, yet he was rejected by God  because he was unfaithful.

Calvin sees the choosing of Israel by God as a sort of general election. The explanation he gives for why most of Israel fell away even though they were part of the elect nation and only a remnant remained is troubling. Calvin explains that, while God did elect the entire body of Jacob's descendants, He did not immediately give all of them the Holy Spirit. According to Calvin, this withholding of the Spirit is why most of elect Israel fell away and only a remnant was caused to persevere. (Calvin, 1536) 

Where Calvin found such a horrifying notion is anyone's guess. It does not come from Scripture.

But Calvin continues, asserting that God is not unjust to choose some men to reprobation. Indeed, He would not be unjust if that were the case. All men are, after all, in a fallen state. God would have been justified in destroying the entire fallen creation, and starting over again. But Calvin also ascribes man's corrupt and fallen state to God's will. (Calvin, 1536)

Scripture tells us that isn't the case. God is not the source of evil, nor is God the cause of sin. Rather, Adam's will and the will of the devil are the cause of mankinds fall, and the introduction of sin and death into creation.

God may not be the cause of man's fall into sin as Calvin says. God did, however, allow the Fall to happen. And, along with everything else, God works those things to the good of those elect in Christ.

Calvin says that God issues His call to faith by the preaching of the Gospel. According to Calvin, however, though the Gospel goes out to the elect and to the reprobate alike, God only makes it effectual in those whom He has elected. Those who are reprobate, therefore, do not have the opportunity or the ability to believe; God, according to His will, has rendered the power of the Gospel ineffective in them. (Calvin, 1536)

Predestination is not a trick. God does not say outwardly that salvation is for all people, but secretly not mean it. This would mean that God had two contradictory wills, which cannot be because Scripture tells us so. (McCain, 2005) God punishes such duplicity. He does not reward it.

God would indeed be a liar and a hypocrate if His invitation was extended to all people through His word, but secretly in His heart He knew there were some people He would damn anyway, no matter what. God condemns this type of wickedness (Psalm 5:9; 12:2-4). Man is, on the contrary, responsible for his own damnation by resisting and rejecting the Holy Spirit as He works through God's word.

God reveals His will by His call to preach the Gospel to all people. He works through that word to enlighten, convert, and save. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation; God wants men to receive, believe, and obey His word. Christ merited the redemption of the entire human race on the cross. Through word and sacrament Christ gives us the benefits of what He has merited. That is to say that the Holy Spirit working through those means works conversion; works repentance and faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins in us. Moreover, the Spirit will justify, sanctify, and protect those in whom He has done such work if we do not abandon Christ and His Word. (McCain, 2005)

He will save eternally at the Resurrection on the Last Day those who persevere. ###


Works Cited

Calvin, John. 1536. "Institutes of the Christian Religion." Chapters 21-24. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

McCain, Paul T., et. al., eds. 2005. "Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord." First Edition. Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration XI. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

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