Tim Gombis: Divine Election

3 09 2011

“We pervert divine election when we take it out of the context of God’s love for his people and use it to speak of those outside of God’s love. Now we have the “elect” and the “nonelect.” We only end up with that latter category when we take election talk out of its biblical context as God’s love language for his people. But the “nonelect,”—or the “elect unto damnation”—isn’t a biblical category.”

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“The mission of God to reclaim creation begins with God’s call of Abram in Genesis 12. God promised to make Abram (later called Abraham) into a great nation so that he would be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (vv. 2-3). From the beginning, God’s election had a universal thrust. . . God’s election of Israel was not at the expense of the nations, but for the purpose of the redemption of the nations. God chose Israel to receive his love and to radiate his redemptive love beyond themselves to the nations. . . God has set himself on a mission to redeem creation and so chooses a particular people as agents of his saving love. If they become a people who do not purposefully extend God’s love beyond themselves, they cannot be called the people of God. Divine election always has this outward thrust. God chooses a particular people from eternity past to save them so that they will be agents of his redeeming love for the world. From the perspective of divine election, then, there are (1) the people upon whom God has set his love, and (2) those whom God is pursuing in love through his elect. When we regard the two groups from the standpoint of election differently, we take our place alongside those whom God called “not my people.””

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“The narrative shape of Scripture must discipline our theological speech so that we speak faithfully of God and God’s ways with his people. Our theologizing about any notion within Scripture must be constrained and shaped by the form of that notion within the narrative.

Divine election has its proper form and shape as God’s love language for his people. It shapes our identity and mission. We are the people who celebrate God’s love for us that stretches back to eternity past. And we are the people appointed to radiate God’s love to the world in hope that even more people will be swallowed up into God’s love.

If we take divine election out of its narrative form and put it into a doctrinal system, we have just deformed it. If we take it out of the narrative that shapes it properly, we have a misshapen doctrinal notion.

We will now have a deformed and misshapen view of God, one that creates serious theological tensions.

We must not put divine election to use in order to speak of unbelievers so that we have a theological category labeled “the unelect,” or “the elect unto damnation.” That isn’t a category in Scripture.”

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“They now have a new history that goes back to eternity past in the passionate love of God.

You read that rightly. God changes our pasts when he saves us.

Divine election, for Paul, is the gift of a new history. God plunges believers deeply into Christ by the Spirit at salvation and they become people whom God has been pursuing from eternity past to save.

This is counter-intuitive to Westerners. We think linearly. If we have information about what was going on at the earliest point in time, then we ought to start there.

That’s a mistake and it bears bad fruit when it comes to thinking about divine election.

Beginning in eternity past delivers to us a doctrine of election whereby God chose some for salvation and others for damnation. But that’s not how Scripture speaks of divine election. Election language is not in Scripture to answer the question, “What are some of the things God was doing in eternity past?”

I’ve already made the point that election language is God’s love language for his people. Election answers the question, “How does God regard his people?” He loves them so much that they’ve been on his mind and heart from eternity past. We made the further point that this does not exclude others, but rather demonstrates God’s universal love. God sets his love upon a particular people for the purpose of drawing even more people into his love.

Westerners are so steeped in linear thinking, however, that it becomes difficult to grasp the shape of election language in Scripture. We end up deforming election talk in the Bible and shaping it according to our thought forms.

This move distorts the God of Scripture. We now have a God who sits down before the mass of humanity in eternity past and chooses some for salvation and others for damnation.

We only get that depiction of God when we fail to start where Paul starts.”

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“In his earthly ministry, Jesus embodied the pattern of life to which God called his people. He did this by cultivating relationships with all the wrong people, at least according to Jewish prejudices.

In John 4, Jesus passes through the Samaritan town of Sychar and encounters a woman drawing water from the town well. As Lynn Cohick notes in Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, we must not over-read shameful connotations onto this woman’s character (pp. 122-128).

But Jesus’ behavior certainly offends Jewish prejudices at a number of points. He’s in Samaria, speaking with a Samaritan who is a woman. Later in the episode, the townspeople ask Jesus to stay with them, and he obliges by staying for two days (v. 40). This would positively shock a Jewish audience.

The narrative highlights the offensive character of this encounter by describing his disciples’ return in v. 27: “Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”

The Jews of Jesus’ day were not merely not interested in developing redemptive relationships with outsiders; they were actually offended by the notion.

But Jesus is the Son of God, embodying the very identity and mission of the God of Israel. As such, he engages redemptively with outsiders.
And he isn’t there to preach or pass judgment. He asks for sustenance. Like many other encounters with sinners or shameful characters in the Gospels, Jesus encounters a marginalized character as an equal. Here, he makes a request for water. The narrative is striking in its casting of Jesus and the woman in a relationship of mutuality.”

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“Evangelicals need to learn to appreciate a breadth of ministry styles, mission strategies, and doctrinal formulations. Orthodoxy is far larger than some of our doctrinal watchdogs realize. . . Paul’s desire to see Peter redeemed is quite instructive. Is this the aim of our contemporary watchdogs? Are they truly out to do good to others and to the Christian church? Perhaps they feel that their rhetorical violence is redemptive. That is simply a failure to think as a Christian.

There’s a way of addressing others that doesn’t demonize them or put them in a place of condemnation. There’s a way of approaching issues that opens up pathways of redemption and doesn’t consign others to judgment.

All this is to say that we are not on good footing when we appeal to Paul’s supposed example in order to avoid obeying his clear words to treat others with grace and kindness.”

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“Evangelicalism has come to resemble the Corinthian church. They had broken into factions and were squabbling among themselves. Paul says this in 1 Cor. 1:10-13. . . They ought to celebrate their renewed identity in Christ rather than break up into factions oriented around the big “personalities” in the early church. Paul says that this is worldliness in 1 Cor. 2:1-4. . . They are to make use of all available teachers to grow in Christ, but their boast is to be in God alone who has snatched them out of darkness and united them to Christ.

This very same dynamic thrives among evangelicals today and it is a sign of evangelicalism’s worldliness. We identify ourselves as “fans” of our favorite authors and play them off against each other.

According to Paul, such practices are only found among immature, worldly, fleshly people who do not understand the mind of Christ.
There’s much more to say about tribalism, but in looking for a Pauline precedent, this dynamic can only be associated with the worldliness of the Corinthian church.”

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“Romans contains quite a long letter opening. Though it’s a bit artificial, we can say that the opening consists of 1:1-15, since Paul transitions abruptly into what appears to be the first major section of his letter in 1:16. It’s tempting to regard a letter opening as relatively less important than the letter itself, and this is especially the case with Romans. Some feel that this is just the fluffy stuff at the beginning—let’s move on and get to the meat, the theology of the letter! That’s a poor reading strategy, however, and misses quite a lot.

Paul writes to a church he has never visited, so his pastoral approach is diplomatic. He rhetorically establishes a relationship of mutuality with the Roman Christians. He is not an imperious apostle talking down to them, issuing commands and edicts. His carefully crafted rhetoric sets him alongside them, putting him in a position to bless them and be blessed by them. He creates this mutuality in at least two ways.”

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“Paul’s mission to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations is in direct continuity with God’s aim to redeem the nations since the call of Abraham.

God’s original intention according to Genesis 1-2 was for humanity to spread out and fill the entire creation. Humanity was to fill a role called “the image of God.” This meant that humans were to represent the life and character of the Creator God on earth. They were to subdue creation on God’s behalf, bringing about its flourishing and overseeing the spread of shalom throughout the whole earth.

And they were to relate to one another in imitation of God’s own intra-Trinitarian relations. Just as Father, Son, and Spirit form an eternal community of mutual delight, humans were to delight in one another and to enjoy being delighted in by one another.

God’s intentions are subverted as humanity becomes “in the image” of creation, doing the bidding of the serpent rather than subduing it in obedience to God’s command. The unfolding story of Genesis 3-11 is the pervasive spread of Sin and Death and the subsequent degradation of humanity.

God makes his initial move to begin reclaiming creation and humanity by calling Abraham. Abraham is chosen to be blessed by God and to be the agent whereby all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:3) . . .

Despite Israel’s failure, God is still committed to his mission—both to restore the nations and to restore Israel. God sends Jesus to call Israel to renewed faithfulness to its identity and mission to be a light to the nations.

The mission of God throughout Scripture shapes the identity and vocation of the church—God’s chosen people through whom God is seeking to restore the nations.

This mission also shapes Paul’s apostleship. He is an agent of God’s mission to reclaim the nations of the earth so that the worship of the one true God will be universal.”

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“One of the most damaging aspects of an evangelical vision of the Christian gospel is the bifurcation between faith and obedience. Paul saw these as nearly synonymous, but in the wake of the Reformation, they have been set in opposition, a move with disastrous consequences for Christian discipleship and for interpreting Paul.

Divine action and human action are not set over-against each other in Scripture nor in Paul’s thought-world. Paul imagines the contrast differently. On one hand, he conceives of holistic human action that makes room for God to act. This is faith and it is also obedience.

On the other, there is holistic human action that marginalizes divine action, or seeks to manipulate God in some way. This is unfaithfulness and it is also disobedience.

Alternatively, we can put the contrast in these terms: there are actions and patterns of conduct that draw upon and radiate God’s presence and power (faith/obedience). On the other hand, there are kinds of actions and patterns of conduct that marginalize God’s presence and power (unfaithfulness/disobedience).

There is human action that invites and allows God to act and for God to be seen to be working (faith/obedience), and there is human action that manipulates results, seeks to force God’s hand, exercises exploitative power over others, and ends up not allowing God to act and to be seen (unfaithfulness/disobedience).

Paul is not nearly as allergic to human action as are many evangelicals, shaped as we are by our Reformation heritage—or perhaps by gnosticized or pietistic (per)versions of it. Paul does not upbraid Israel for acting, but for acting wrongly, for failing to be faithful to their vocation as a light to the nations. And Paul does not find that the Mosaic Law is deficient because it endorses human action whereas the gospel calls for passive reception. This is a misreading of a number of passages in Paul, not least Galatians 3:11-12.

The “works” / “faith” distinction in Paul’s letters is not one between human action and human passivity, and Paul envisions no dichotomy at all between faith and obedience. These wrong distinctions skew Paul’s discussions when it comes to the robust human activity involved in faith.”

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“Paul is not here referring to what many of us imagine when we think of “the gospel.” When Paul says that he wants to obtain “some fruit” among the Romans he isn’t saying that when he’s there he hopes to go street preaching. And by “preaching the gospel” to them, he does not mean that many of them are unconverted and that he plans to hold some evangelistic services during his visit. He is not thinking of the “Romans Road,” four spiritual laws, or giving his testimony with a seamless transition to an invitation at the end.

Paul’s conception of the gospel is larger, grander, more comprehensive, and more robust than that. It is not merely the tidy and simple message that gets one into the Christian faith.

According to Paul’s gospel conception, God is at work to restore creation. The powers of Sin, Death, and the Flesh have hijacked God’s good world and are at work corrupting and perverting everything. But God has acted decisively and in power to break the enslaving and oppressive grip of the powers of evil over his world and has begun to reclaim and renew everything.

In Christ and by his Spirit, God is transforming creation, redeeming humans, and healing relationships. God is at work to restore all of creation to flourishing for the glory of his name through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit.

If he were to travel to Rome, Paul would not necessarily want to “preach the gospel” to them. By εὐαγγελίσασθαι in v. 15 Paul signals that he wants to “gospelize” them during his visit. He wants to see the gospel at work among them, which will involve God’s transforming power working to unite them more fruitfully and effectively for their shared joy to the glory of God (cf. Rom. 15:5-7).

When Paul thinks of “the gospel,” he has this larger reality in view—the resurrection power of God invading and transforming creation in Christ and by God’s Spirit. It involves healing human hearts, mending relationships, renewing communities—whatever is involved in restoring creation to its flourishing for the glory of God.

Gospel ministry, therefore, has many contours and takes many shapes, just as the gospel speaks many voices and meets and transforms any and every situation.”

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Rom. 2:6-13, by the way, has given fits to interpreters in the Reformed tradition because Paul puts final judgment in terms of human action and states plainly that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (v. 13). James, of course, wouldn’t lift an eyebrow, nor would those who rightly understand Paul. Many, however, do everything they can to avoid reading Paul’s words plainly. As I’ve said previously, Paul is not reflecting timelessly or abstractly on a theology of justification. He’s writing a pastoral letter to a multi-ethnic church in Rome that is facing communal breakdown because of racial tension.

God does not have favorites among the Roman Christians. Both groups—the Jews and non-Jews—are accountable to God and will be judged if they are disobedient. God’s future judgment is on the basis of obedience to Jesus and one’s ethnicity will be irrelevant on that day. This is Paul’s point in Rom. 1:18-3:20. Reading Romans a pastoral letter rather than as a theological treatise makes this plain.

I might also add that when read this way, Rom. 1:18-3:20 becomes immensely practical for churches dealing with internal tensions, conflict, or any other communal breakdown. Romans, rightly read, is a rich resource for conflict-resolution.

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