Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Theological Journey Pt. 4: Chosen

When covering topics like the ones in this series, the starting point is very important. Each point in each blog post is meant to flow from the last. So again, if you have not read the posts leading up to this one, I suggest you do, so that you are not taken off guard by the material that will be covered.

Strap in, this will likely be the most lengthy post in the series.

What have we covered so far? First, we have talked about the nature of the God who has called all things into existence and therefore has decreed all that comes to pass. It is in this context that we talked about how humanity has fallen into sin in such a way that we are held accountable for our sins, yet none of God's purposes are thwarted. God's ultimate purpose is to bring about a demonstration of his grace. Therefore, the dark backdrop of sin that exists in the world will ultimately serve to show the light of that grace.

The question now remains, how has God chosen to show his grace? To answer this, we have to understand just how the biblical writers used the term “grace.” One of the most prevalent examples in the Bible of someone who gloried in the grace of God was the Apostle Paul. We will mainly be focusing on his writing.

After one of the most thorough explanations of how the gospel functions in the life of the believer in Romans 1-7, Paul begins exulting in how God has accomplished his plan of salvation in the midst of chapter 8. After giving a crystal clear picture of our hope in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, Paul gives a snapshot of our future hope by digging even deeper into God's eternal plan. He writes,

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:28-30).

What are the five elements of our salvation that Paul brings out in this passage? Foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. I hope to briefly touch on each of these.

What could Paul be saying when he writes that the people of God were foreknown by God? We will likely spend the most time on this word. Some speculate and say that God foreknew that we would do great things for God. Some say that God foreknew our faith in Christ. Some say God foreknew our good choices. Yet, is this true to the wording that Paul uses?

The text does not say that God foreknew choices, faith, or works (though he certainly did). It says that God foreknew people. What does scripture mean when it says that God knows or foreknows an individual or a group of individuals? The concept of foreknowledge appears one other time in Romans when Paul writes of God's people in the Old Testament saying, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:2). This verse of course refers to Israel. In the midst of a strong rebuke of his people in the Old Testament, God uses similar language saying, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). What is God saying when he uses words like this?

This language is not uncommon in the Old Testament. In fact, God's dealings with his people began this way. When speaking of Abraham, God said,

For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:19).

What is hidden by this translation is the Hebrew word behind “chosen.” In the original language, God says that he “knew” Abraham, that he may command his children. That is not to say that the translation is bad, but what it does show is the close connection in the original language between the concept of “choosing” and the concept of “knowing.” This is clear even in human relationships throughout scripture. At times, it is even applied to the most intimate aspects of the marriage relationship like when Adam “knew” his wife. It can communicate such things as “love,” “choice,” “relationship,” and “intimacy.”

This should shock us. In spite of the evil that existed and still exists among all peoples of the world, God chose a people no more righteous, numerous, or faithful than any other, and he decided to set his covenant love on them. Therefore, since this is likely the concept that was in the Jewish mind of Paul, a good interpretation of the word “foreknew” might be something like, “to lovingly choose beforehand.” Another word Paul uses for this concept is the word “elect.” He uses it only a few verses later when he says, “Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33).

What this word shows is that God's love for his covenant people preceded any work or choice on their part. God foreknew what he himself would do and bring about, not what we would accomplish. Paul emphasizes this point even more strongly when he moves to the next point saying, “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (v. 29). While God certainly “foreknew” all that would take place in our lives, he did not predestine or elect us on the basis of it, but in order to bring it about!

The concept of predestination is far more clear. The meaning is right on the surface of the word. When God predestines, he destines something to occur long before it happens. In this verse, Paul tells us that God determined to conform us to Christ before it ever came to be. In Ephesians, Paul tells us that God not only predestined us to be conformed to Christ, but to be adopted into Christ, all of this before creation itself,

even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4-5)

On the basis of this predestination, Paul tells us that God calls his people. What kind of call is Paul speaking of? This is obviously a call far more specific and powerful than a mere gospel presentation because, according to this verse, all who are called, are then justified. This is a call that creates the faith by which God's people are justified.

This is likely what many theologians describe an an effectual call as opposed to a general call. It is made even clearer in 1 Corinthians when Paul writes and includes, in a single passage, both the concept of the gospel presentation as well as the call of God that accomplishes the salvation preached,

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

It is the call of God that turns the foolishness of the gospel into wisdom and power.

Then, on the basis of this justification, Paul speaks of God glorifying his people. Strangely, he does so in the past tense. What has yet to be accomplished, when those who are in Christ enter the presence of the Lord, is a settled fact in the mind of Paul. The work that God began in election and predestination, he will finish with glorification. The group being spoken of from foreknowledge to glorification does not change at any point in Paul's thinking. No believer is left behind. No one drops out. God's purpose is sure.

This of course raises many questions. Questions that will be tackled in later posts. But to touch on one, if salvation is all of grace, if God brings about salvation from beginning to end, and if his plan is settled and sure, what are we to do with the fact that so many are not in Christ? Is it right for God to be a “choosing” or “electing” God?

Paul was not ignorant of this question. In fact, he tackled it in the very next chapter. In Romans 9 he speaks of God working in this way from the beginning of his dealings with Israel. Not all Israel truly had relationship with God. Paul reminds us that before they were born, Esau was destined to serve Jacob. While they were both fallen in Adam, God still chose to unconditionally place his love on Jacob, a man who turned out to be as deceptive as his brother was weak. Paul summarizes this point quoting God's words, “As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated'” (Romans 9:13).

Paul then anticipates our objection by pointing to even more of the Old Testament saying,

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:14-18).

This runs so contrary to what so many of us have been taught. So many questions and doubts and other biblical texts immediately jump into our minds as we read it. Yet this must have been the case in Paul's day too, because he continues to answer objections saying,

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Romans 9:19-24)

From before the creation of the world, God chose a people for himself from among Jews and Gentiles for whom he would show his mercy and grace. He chose to do so by revealing it against the backdrop of his just wrath toward those whom he has passed over and allowed to remain in their hardened state. He did not need to inject a foreign evil into their hearts that they did not already possess. He simply had to command all to repent (Acts 17:30). Those that he leaves in rebellion will always grow harder. Those that he chooses to give a new heart will always bow in repentance.

Again. I'm sure that question after question has now been raised. While I wish to allow Paul's answers to stand for themselves, there are a few other questions. For example, what are we to do with verses that seem to communicate God's universal desire for salvation, or where does evangelism and prayer fit in?

I hope to tackle these questions in the coming posts, but I hope that, when all is said and done, I've given more hope and reason to glory in God's grace than I've given reason to fear. We are not to become introspective and wonder if God has chosen us. We are to look to Christ and place our faith in him. If we have faith, then we can be sure that God has given us that faith, a gift given to those he has chosen before the foundation of the world. And if it is a gift from him, it is a perfect one. A gift that will bring us to glory. These things are in scripture for a reason. They are there to help us worship and serve God for who he truly is and to give him glory for all he has done and is doing.

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