Doctrine of Election (sermon)

be-grateful-for-the-doctrine-of-election

I haven’t studied the doctrine of election for some time now. It’s simply one of those doctrines that no one can agree on. It’s controversial. At the same time, election is a concept in the scriptures. The question is: what does it mean?

One of my students asked me to articulate the doctrine of election during a sermon series. What I decided to do was to lay out the options when it comes to election (commonly called unconditional election and conditional election) and let them decide. I’m not quite convinced I did a great job at it, but… alas, what can be done! ‘ll let you be the judge.

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Does Calvinism Limit Christian Love?

balthasar

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his controversial well-known work called, Dare we hope that all be saved?, espouses a certain type of “Christian hope” for the salvation of all men. In the first two chapters, he covers and rejects Origen’s and Barth’s absolutist universalism, saying that the certainty of all people’s salvation must be rejected. However, Balthasar does espouse a softer position, saying that a Christian can reasonably hope for all men’s salvation.

Now, why can we reasonably hope for this?

Essentially, what Balthasar says is that hope in and of itself demands that all men could be saved. In other words, if we hope for someone’s salvation, what we are saying is that it is at least possible. So then, universalism is at least reasonably possible. And while we can never truly know if all would be saved, we can be equally uncertain that any will be damned.

Balthasar explains,

If someone asks us, “Will all men be saved?” we answer in line with the Gospel: I do not know. I have no certainty whatsoever. That means just as well that I have no certainty whatsoever that all men will not be saved. The whole of Scripture is full of the proclamation of a salvation that binds all men by a Redeemer who gathers together and reconciles the whole universe. That is quite sufficient to enable us to hope for the salvation of all men without thereby coming into contradiction with the Word of God.

So Balthasar cannot definitively know that any will be damned or saved. And while this may seem like a sort of agnostic universalism, what Balthasar argues is that Christian hope cannot and must not limit itself. If we are to hope that anyone would be saved, what we are implicitly saying is that their salvation is at least possible. If God wills that all men be saved, it must be possible, right? For Balthasar, hope demands this possible end.

Citing Aquinas, Balthasar says,

On to the virtue of hope, [Aquinas] establishes that one “has to believe of whatever one hopes that it can be attained; this is what hope adds to mere desire. Man can, namely, also have desire for things that he does not believe he can attain; but hope cannot exist in such circumstances.”

In other words, what is hoped for must at least be possible. Hope “cannot exist” if what is hoped for cannot be attained. To Balthasar, this is simply logical. So then, Balthasar concludes that universalism, while not absolutely certain, is possible.

As a necessary corollary, Balthasar argues that the doctrine of unconditional election limits Christian hope and love. Covering Augustine’s doctrine of the “massa damnata” (mass of the damned = the non-elect), Balthasar says,

[I]f someone thus sees mankind as a massa damnata from the outset, how can he still adhere to the effective truth of Christ’s statement that, on the Cross, he will draw all men to himself? …

… If one believes in the twofold predestination advocated by Augustine and adheres, on the basis of that, to the certainty that a number of people will be damned, one might object that love would have to stop at this barrier.

Balthasar brings in two arguments here: The first is that unconditional election flattens the universal offer of the gospel. How can Christ “draw all men” to himself if he only draws some? How can the invitation of the gospel be liberal if only some are elected? I’ve heard this argument too many times to count.

However, Balthasar brings in a second argument that is novel to me. Balthasar says that if unconditional election is true, then “love would have to stop at this barrier”. Put another way, Christians are responsible to love only those who are elect. Why? Because that is who God has chosen to love. Should the Christian’s love be more liberal than God’s?

Next, Balthasar cites German theologian Verweyen, saying,

Hans-Jürgen Verweyen…puts forward the thesis: “Whoever reckons with the possibility of even only one person’s being eternally lost besides himself is unable to love unreservedly.” And he stresses here, above all, “the effect of this idea on my practical actions. It seems to me that just the slightest nagging thought of a final hell for others brings on moments in which human togetherness becomes especially difficult, as does leaving the other to himself. If there may, in fact, be people who are absolutely incorrigible, why, then, should not those who make my life on earth a hell perhaps also be of that sort?”

So then, election restricts liberal love. If we are certain that God has not chosen some, or, if we are certain that a mass of sinners will inhabit hell, then for what reason should we love them?

How should we Calvinists answer this question? At this point, it might be helpful to respond to and correct Balthasar’s first point: that election certainly cannot restrict the universal call of the gospel — rather, election limits response to the gospel. In other words, believers preach to every creature, and are sure the elect will say “yes”, but are not sure who they are! With this clarification in view, one should see how universal love plays a part. We love everyone regardless of their election; and pray for their salvation, regardless of their place in God’s salvific plan. Why? Because we don’t know who is who in God’s drama of salvation. We share the gospel, knowing that no one is beyond salvation, and knowing that God will irrevocably draw all whom he wills to himself. This is the part we play in God’s mystery plan of salvation.

With that said, Balthasar’s complaint should be heard. And I’ve seen and known many Calvinists, who seem to struggle to love beyond God’s sovereign choice, which is unacceptable. It assumes a vantage point that is not our own, but only God’s. On the same note, I’ve known many Arminians who feel much of the same, even without the election bit.

Perhaps, ending on this warning by Balthasar (which I agree with) will help in humility for people on either side:

How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this? But: if I hope for you, for others, for everyone, then in the end I am also allowed to include myself. (Not the reverse: I hope for me; but I do not know with certainty whether you are among the chosen.)

[W]oe is me if, looking back, I see how others, who were not so lucky as I, are sinking beneath the waves; if, that is, I objectify hell and turn it into a theological-scientific “object” and begin to ponder on how many perish in this hell and how many escape it. For at that moment everything is transformed: hell is no longer something that is ever mine but rather something that befalls “the others”, while I, praise God, have escaped it…

…And at once the prayer is on [my] lips: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Lk 18:11). Then one goes on to populate hell, according to one’s own taste, with all sorts of monsters: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin the Horrible, Hitler the Madman and all his cronies, which certainly results, as well, in an imposing company that one would prefer not to encounter in heaven. It can be taken as a motif running through the history of theology that, whenever one fills hell with a massa damnata of sinners, one also, through some kind of conscious or unconscious trick (perhaps cautiously, and yet reassuredly), places oneself on the other side.

We might ask the great Augustine, the teacher of grace and love who has the greater portion of mankind destined to eternal hell, whether—with his hand on his heart—he ever worried, after his conversion, about his eternal salvation.

What “Unconditional Election” does not mean

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There are many misunderstandings of the doctrine commonly called “unconditional election”. This doctrine, as defined by the Westminster Confession, says that God, out of the “good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace”. In other words, before we “had done nothing either good or bad” (Rom 9:11) to deserve salvation, before the foundation of the world, God set out to save some. And he did this to the “praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:4), so that salvation would “depend not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16).

What this means, is that the why of our salvation is not ultimately rooted in our great faith or intellect or good works, but rather in God’s gracious choice to save. We are all lost in sin, unable and unwilling to love God, and God, out of his mercy, chose to call some to himself in Christ. The point of election is that grace would be undiluted grace, from beginning to end.

However, there are many who would object to this doctrine, because they would say that if God has elected some to salvation, and they will be saved no matter what, then there is no point to evangelism or prayer. Why share the gospel is the elect will be saved in any case? Why pray if God has already decided? Why do anything, if it’s all been determined? Why not just wait for the elect to be saved?

But this is a misunderstanding of this doctrine. It’s important to understand that unconditional election does not mean that personal responsibility is pointless. It may perhaps seem that way, but biblically, this is not how election is portrayed. God’s sovereignty in salvation, and man’s responsibility in believing, go together in the scriptures.

What is missing in these objections is the logical connection between God’s election to save, and his outworking of that election. In other words, just because God elects some to salvation before the foundation of the world, they aren’t actually saved before the foundation of the world. That is just when God decided to save sinners. What this means, is that God’s election must be accomplished within time, and by certain means. Prayer and evangelism are two of those means. God foreknows our prayers for someone’s salvation, and decides beforehand to answer them. God also decides to use our evangelism as the means to get the gospel to lost sinners.

In other words, while God’s election determines that someone will be saved, the outworking of that salvation happens through a myriad of means. What this means, is that we are called to preach the gospel, and pray, and labor for sinners, and trust that God is using our labor to accomplish the salvation of his elect. We don’t know who will be saved, or who will positively respond to the gospel, but we do know that if someone does respond with faith, that the faith they have is a gift of God (Eph 2:8-9), and is a result of God’s election (and of course, it is all at the same their faith as well).

Paul himself says this in 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. Paul does not say, “God has chosen you, and so we didn’t preach the gospel, because what’s the point?” He says “we know God has chosen you, because of the fact that you responded to the gospel we labored to preach“. In other words, God accomplishes his election through our preaching of the gospel.

Thomas Schreiner expounds on this principle, saying

What must be noted here… is that God’s election of some does not invalidate the call the believe. When the gospel is proclaimed, those who preach do not summon the hearers to consider whether they are elect or chosen by God. Rather, they consistently call upon their hearers to repent and believe. One could object that the summons to believe is completely unnecessary, for God has promised to save only the elect… But the Calvinist responds that the preaching of the gospel is the means God uses to bring his own to faith. On a Calvinist scheme, the need to believe in order to be saved is no minimized in the least even though God has chosen who will believe from the foundation of the world. Belief is a condition to be saved, but God through his grace has promised to fulfill that condition in the lives of the elect. Still, such a promise does not eliminate the urgency of believing when the gospel is proclaimed. Those who hear must believe and repent to be saved, and they are summoned to respond with the utmost urgency.

So, election does not mean that personal responsibility is irrelevant, or that evangelism is pointless. Rather, God uses those things to accomplish what he set out to do before the foundations of the world. To be sure, there is mystery is this. And while we may not completely understand this doctrine, it is a doctrine rooted in God’s sovereign love, for our good and his glory.