What to do about Election

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.

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5 Responses to What to do about Election

  1. amurph11 says:

    This was a really thoughtful article – I'm glad you wrote it! There are just two things I would take issue with: while in the Kmart scenario, the anonymous donor is simply saving people from paying off debt, in this case, what is at stake is not debt but burning for all eternity in the pit of hell. Punishing finite sins infinitely is a confusing concept to me, but it becomes doubly confusing when you add the doctrine of election to the mix. Secondly, I do believe there are people who want to be saved but can't manage it. Jack Boughton is a perfect example – he clearly wants to believe in the faith of his father, but he finds himself spiritually incapable of doing so. Which begs the question: who has made him spiritually incapable of doing so? Why is he the only one of his family that is unable to? It's a question I've struggled with quite a bit. As far as the last point – check your email. 🙂

  2. Brandon says:

    I think Jonathan Edwards has done some of the best work on this subject in his Freedom of the Will treatise. At the most basic level he equates will with desire. We can desire a whole host of things. Some we can accomplish (desires to eat) some we cannot (he uses the desire to fly like a bird). He puts salvation in the "unable to accomplish" category thus making faith the gift which must be given. That might create more opposition for some, but considering Ephesians "dead in trespasses and sins" and the valley of dry bones imagery in Ezekial I have come to agree with him, namely that although we may desire/will the idea of eternal bliss, it cannot be attained by any human effort and is completely dependent upon the the One who has mercy on whom He wills. I completely echo the "don't understand" it part and at times in my past it has been very offensive to me, but the more I feel my own depravity and mortality, the more sweet a salvation secured independent of me, solely anchored on the immutable character of God, becomes. (typed on iPhone – go easy on grammar, punctuation, etc).

  3. Murf says:

    Alison: You rightly pointed out the shortcoming of my analogy. It is only an analogy, since I am trying to connect material things with eternal things. I do agree that much more is at stake here. The problem, as I see it, is at the point we put God on the dock for something we do not understand (Punishing finite sins infinitely – something I do not understand either); aren't we at that point becoming God ourselves? This brings to mind Job 38.1ff: "Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me." I would, however, argue long and hard and with great fervency that if one wants to come to faith one can come to faith. And that, understand what God does or not, when he acts it IS morally good. Always. Or as C. S. Lewis captured so well in a conversation between Lucy and Mr. Tumnus (Lion, Witch, Warddrobe). Lucy: "He's (Aslan) not a tame lion. Mr. Tumnus: "No. But he is good."

  4. Murf says:

    Brandon: Funny. That is pretty much my EXACT same journey. From a hater of the doctrine, to a "geesh, you just can't escape it;" to one day thinking, "OK if salvation rests on your incredible ability to recognize your need of Christ, or on God reaching out and grabbing you, which would you choose?" THAT was a pretty easy choice.

  5. amurph11 says:

    Brandon – that's an excellent way of explaining it, but it's still just a doctrine I can't stomach. I've wrestled with it time and time again, and I can't make sense of it, and it's such a crucial point that to put profess faith without understanding it would feel empty. Uncle John, you make an interesting point about anyone who wants faith to be able to come to faith. I don't think we necessarily disagree; my point was that if God has created us, than how much responsibility does he bear for those of us who are inherently unable to understand the doctrine of faith, or feel spiritually unable to accept it?I have no interest in being God, but I can't blithely accept the fact that I am chosen and others are not for what seem completely arbitrary reasons. And while I don't require a god or a faith that I can understand wholly, I do have a problem pledging allegiance to a faith whose core doctrine I don't understand. Which is why I'm an agnostic, I suppose…

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