I’ve been up pondering the doctrine of election since 3 am thanks to my favorite niece’s book review of Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson (Who is a true genius. The woman can put more meaning into one sentence than most writers do in an entire chapter). And as long as we are on the topic of writing, my niece has a knack for writing in general and book reviews in particular. Her review is excellent. Compare her reviews with some of the others and you’ll see what I mean. I think it’s the Irish in her.
My niece: “An explanation: the doctrine of election refers to the Calvinist idea that God has pre-selected his followers. The idea is that we do not choose God, he chooses us, that in fact he chose us before we were born, and that – this is the sticking point – he only chose some of us.”
I could quibble with some of the wording and the general framework, but essentially this is a correct statement of what the Bible seems to teach about election. So from the start, one cannot hide; the Bible does teach election and if one studies it for oneself, every time that “choose” or “elect” is used in the framework of salvation, without exception it is God who is doing the choosing and electing (I know, I’ve checked).
Let’s begin with this: I do not fully understand the doctrine of election. I cannot explain the depths of it. It is, in some sense, mystery layered on top of mystery, which God has chosen to reveal, but not fully and completely reveal. I wish he would have fully explained it, but he did not ask my opinon. So what does one do with this doctrine that presents such apparent problems?
A question. Were you upset that last Christmas your layaway account at Kmart was not paid off like an anonymous donor did with some (but not all) layaway accounts? How about the guy who was handing out cash to random people like he does every year in New York (was it)? Did it seem unjust to you that some people received the cash, but not everyone? Did you see any editorials in the paper pointing out the injustice of paying off some Kmart layway accounts, but not all accounts; or an editorial pointing out how wrong it was to hand out cash to only some people? I’m guessing you did not, because literally no one sees this as injustice. Some person chose to pay off some people’s layaway accounts with his own money. Good for him. He owned the money. He did with it what he wanted. People see this as a moral good, not an evil. Perhaps when one comes to the doctrine of election one should at least have the same standard for God that one has for people. If he gives away what is his, that is unjust?
Of course the question naturally follows, “but what about the people God passes by?” Good question. I’m glad you asked it. Have you ever heard anyone complain that they want to be saved, but they cannot be saved because God did not elect them? Neither have I. I say with no hesitation at all that everyone (everyone!) who wants to come to faith can come to faith. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved,” Paul told the Philippian jailer. No investigation of election, just “come and receive,” and that is always the framework of the Bible. If you want salvation, come and receive it. The problem with people is that they don’t want any part of it. They do not want to come; they do not want to receive, not because God has prevented them from coming but because that is their own choice. They are doing as they wish, which God allows them to do. There is no one who wants to come to faith who cannot because God hasn’t chosen them. No one.
Ultimately, when one has difficulties with election, it is not the doctrine of election with which one has an argument; at that point one is really arguing with God himself. As if to say, “God you are unjust when you elect some (but not all) people (even when they don’t want to be elected) .” At this point, one can only go three ways. First, one can wrestle with God as he has revealed himself in the Scriptures (more shortly). Second, one can construct God according to one’s understanding of how God should act (the faultiness of this thinking is fully revealed in the book of Job – God is not constrained by how we think he ought to act, as Job discovered). Third, one can say, there can be no such God.
Position two is debunked in the book of Job. One is left with the first choice or the third choice. If one chooses to say that there is no God, then all that comes with God also goes with him. If there is no God, then there can be no transcendent meaning to life, nor any absolute standard of morality, in which case stop acting as if there is an absolute standard of morality. We are all left doing whatever we think is good or evil, and no one can say anything about it, except, “well, I don’t like that, although I can’t call it morally wrong in an absolute sense” (which is funny because none of us can actually live that way. That person who cut the line in front of you? That was wrong of them, wasn’t it?). No God; no meaning; no transcendent purpose in life.
I would rather wrestle with understanding a God whom I do not fully understand, then live in a world with no ultimate purpose or meaning or hope. When it comes to the doctrine of election, those are our choices.