It was on my 6 hour drive home from my Pentecostal Bible College of which I had recently graduated, that I got serious about being a calvinist.
I was listening to a series of lectures on TULIP, and by the time I arrived home, I walked up to my dad and said, “I think I’m a calvinist.” That was in 2010.
Today, I reject the teachings I embraced many years ago. Here’s some of that story.
(By the way, the basic idea behind TULIP is that we are so totally depraved that we can’t choose God, he must choose us. Fine, but this is where it gets sticky. When God does choose us, he “doesn’t miss”; his choosing is “irresistible” – when God chooses you for salvation, you can’t resist him. And since it’s irresistible and God is efficient, Jesus only dies for those God already chose. “Election” therefore, is the idea that since nobody can choose God, nor resist God, God “elected” or “chose” them before the foundations of the world to be “saved.” He chooses by grace, not by merit, I should add.)
I started to engage with the biblical idea of election in my late teen years.
I read and re-read Romans 9-11, Ephesians 1, and other similar sections wondering what it all meant and if I could believe in a God who “chose” some for heaven and some for hell. When I went to college I dabbled in calvinist theology and was eventually on staff at a church where the calvinist understanding of election was taught as orthodoxy. For a little while, I reluctantly embraced calvinist doctrine as most faithful to Scripture.
Over recent years, my stance has changed. What I’ve found is that most understandings of election are read through a thin eschatology of a disembodied heaven as God’s ultimate goal for the world, and a thin soteriology in which salvation has everything to do with arriving at this disembodied destination. In simple terms: being christian is all about securing your place in “heaven” after you die – a place far away from this world.
Things started to really shift when I read Karl Barth.
Barth was an important 20th century theologian who considered himself Calvinist, but in a unique way. He provided me with a new way of thinking about election. For Barth, Jesus is both the Elect one and the Reprobate (or condemned) one. Barth uses Calvinist categories but re-shapes them in a creative way. Jesus is the one that is both “accepted” (or elected) and “rejected.”
That got me thinking.
Barth’s rendition opened new doors for me to think more deeply about the biblical meaning of election.
An important shift in my thinking came when I started to consider the meaning of election in the Old Testament.
I learned that if you misread the story of Israel, you will misread a lot of important theological ideas like election or salvation, or even the so-called “end times.” Most of our contemporary ideas of what the bible says about election, salvation and the end of the world would be vastly foreign to what Abraham, David, and Jesus thought.
Foundational to election in the Old Testament is the calling of Abraham as the bearer of a new tribe, one that would exist for the sake of blessing other tribes.
This story comes to us at the climax of evil in the early stories of Genesis. The extent of humanity’s brokenness is both relational and societal. It’s revealed in the violence of the first two brothers and comes to a climax in the story of a babel: a story of societal domination.
If chapter 1 of the Israel story is about a good God creating a good creation, chapter 2 is about how things went wrong. And chapter 3 is about about God’s desire to bring things back to the way they’re supposed to be: good.
How? Election. God elects a people: Israel.
Abraham’s family becomes those through whom God would use to heal the world and bring it back to its intended goal. That goal illustrated by God’s calling to Adam and Eve to be stewards of creation, making it flourish, and taking it from “good” to “very good.”
Abraham wasn’t promised a spot in heaven.
Indeed heaven wasn’t on his mind at all–not in the way we westerners typically think of it. Just go through the psalms of David–he beleives that he will be in the place of the dead when he dies (“sheol”).
Abraham’s concern was the present world. And how God was using his tribe to make it good.
Christian “salvation” has a lot to do with getting us back on track on this mission. Getting us back to being faithful co-creators with God–the very thing he created Adam and Eve for. Abraham, and Israel is “chosen” or “elect” for this very mission, which is later handed to the ekklesia – those who gather to worship and follow Jesus.
So salvation and election has a lot to do with doing something than it does with getting somewhere. Let me illustrate:
When we think about election today, we know that election always has to do with performing a task. The President is not elected to merely relocate to the white house—that’s an added perk. Instead, he is elected for a task—i.e. to lead the country for it to flourish. He may do so successfully or not.
When people use language of election to mean that God “chose” individuals to “go to heaven” they miss a large part of the Bible’s story. Not only is heaven not the ultimate goal (a renewed creation is), but the elect are chosen (by God, I will grant) for a special task to be the signposts of this goal through the life they live.
But just like in the Old Testament, the chosen or the elect can fail miserably. Yet God, in his grace, continues to invite all people to join him in his mission. Everyone’s invited. And everyone can choose to say yes or no (which is an idea so prevalent throughout Jesus’ teaching).
In comes Paul.
In the New Testament, Paul loves using the concept of election. He knows the story of Israel and of Abraham and talks about it at length here.
When Paul uses the language of election, he is thinking about Israel’s calling to be a blessing to the world. He is thinking about how God “chooses” ordinary people (including himself) to get the world back on track. To bring healing, wholeness, shalom, to a world tainted by the darkness of lies, injustice and dysfunction.
Now, for Paul, all those who put their faith in Jesus are the “elect” because it’s through trusting Jesus that the world could be “put to right” (N.T. Wright’s favourite phrase). It’s through trusting in Jesus that Adam and Eve’s task to be stewards of creation could be restored.
So much more can be said.
But here’s the big take away:
Election has little to do with where you go when you die. Election is a task–a task that is of course initiated by God himself in which we are invited to join. In Paul’s new idea of election, the church becomes the place of the elect – the place where those who trust in Jesus are formed in a new way of life. The church is not marked out by race anymore, but by trust (or faith) in Jesus. When you trust Jesus you become part of a new mission – you become “grafted” into the One who is Chosen (thanks Barth). And you are invited to be part of a way of life that bring healing and restoration to all parts of creation.
That’s good news.